I knew my tumultuous long-distance relationship with Evan, a sexy copywriter with almost supernaturally searing green eyes, was over when he hit on a friend through Twitter. "I may look hot in a suit and tie, but you'd look even hotter with my tie around your wrists," he unabashedly tweeted to her out of the blue one day. They'd never communicated before, but he knew who she was. My heart hit my stomach when I read the tweet. After months of escalating melodrama—professions of his ardor, served alongside constant pleas for "space"—this felt like the ultimate slap in the face and was just the latest in a string of manipulative ploys meant to upset me.
So I finally cut off contact with him and swore off men for a few months. Then I realized that Evan—super-hot, emotionally remote—was just the most recent player in a pattern that had long dimmed my romantic prospects. For as long as I could remember, I'd gone for a guy's hotness quotient above all else: over intelligence, kindness, humor, personality, everything. (I gravitate toward tall, lean, sharp-jawed guys who'd look right at home in a 1994-era Blur video.) A penchant for physically-dazzling-yet-obtuse men had been my norm for an embarrassingly long time. Sure, there had been the rare simultaneously-sexy-and- sweet stray, but those matches always seemed to fizzle straightaway.
The pattern began when I was 15. Matt was a blue-eyed skateboarder with a cute tangle of curls whom I'd salivated over for three straight months at camp. He made googly eyes at me all summer, sneaking the occasional covert kiss (my first!) and promising we'd be exclusive by September. When I got home, I was devastated to discover he'd been saying and doing the exact same things to two of my closest girlfriends. In college, it was Andrew, a doe-eyed Jamie Dornan look-alike who rode a scooter, worked in a candy store, and boasted about his impressive collection of art books. We dated for months while he incessantly debated, out loud, whether he really, truly liked me "in that way."
In my 20s, I valiantly attempted to turn a vacation fling into a legit relationship. Rob had buttery olive skin, a gym-honed body, and a fringe of impossibly long eyelashes, but he was also dull and prone to impulsive snaps of anger—things I turned a blind eye toward, choosing instead to attempt to "make things work" for seven arduous months because I liked the way he looked. Or, rather, the way his looks made me feel about myself. When I was out with him, I couldn't help but notice the impressed expressions that washed over women's faces as they glanced back and forth between us, somewhere between "You bitch" and "Go, girl." Their furtive scope-outs were almost addictive, a straight-up shot of Ego Boost. Still gripped by the held-over high school neurosis of caring way, way too much what people thought of me, I believed that being able to call myself the girlfriend of some chiseled hottie would magically make me irresistible by osmosis.
I was 35 when I realized, thanks to Evan, that my long- held habit was getting me nowhere. It was that one pointed little tweet that conclusively hammered home the idea that I needed more—much more. If I ever truly wanted to find love, I'd need to look past my usual ideal. So I decided to put myself on a sort of man diet. Both online and off, I began looking for a completely different kind of guy: someone who
wasn't my normal physical type. As long as he seemed to possess some of the fundamental qualities I needed (humor, passion, sensitivity), I went out with him, often more than once. And although I haven't found a life partner yet, I have learned a lot about myself, not to mention love and dating. Like:
I needed to be much more present on dates.
Without that instant flash of attraction, I had to pay more attention to how I really felt in a man's presence: how he spoke, how he carried himself, the small things he did (or didn't do), and what those actions said about his partner potential. The number of times a guy mentioned his family, whether he read actual books, and whether he offered to pay for my $4 latte were all seemingly minor blips that divulged a lot during dates. Like that time a clearly loaded Google tech bro asked, when the check came, "Hey, could you grab this? I'm hurting for cash right now."
Being less-than-gorgeous doesn't make a guy more noble or deserving.
At the start of my "diet," I said yes to a few too many maybes. I intended to be open to great guys in different packages—but I encountered a few creeps, too. Like Ben, a nerdy redhead I met on OkCupid. The conversation rolled effortlessly, we laughed a lot, and I was intrigued by his career as a NASA engineer. Although we kept seeing each other, little red flags piled up. Ben was MIA between dates and seemed unapologetic when he had to flake on plans—which happened multiple times.
Still, I liked him enough to invite him upstairs one night, and the sex was surprisingly, well, sexy. So I was taken aback when he didn't call or text the next day or the next week. Though I hadn't envisioned Ben walking me down the aisle or anything similarly profound, I also couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so...disposable. We didn't speak again.
Attraction can, truly, grow over time.
Nick, a man with a goth-lite black goatee and stout build whom I met at a dive bar, wasn't my initial idea of dreamy. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself growing increasingly charmed, even smitten, by him over the course of a single night. Before this, I'd never really understood that chemistry can intensify as you get to know someone. Some part of me had always subscribed to that rom-com cultural myth that when it's right, it's right instantly. So I held out for that—and perhaps dismissed guys who might otherwise have made fantastic partners. A few months later, when Nick and I went our separate ways, I went on multiple dates with people I started off feeling "meh" about but grew increasingly excited to see.
And finally: love is an enigma.
My trial reconfirmed what I already knew: Love is mysterious, and that's part of what makes it so worth it. We can't predict who we'll fall for, but I know now what type of person I'm looking for. I want someone kind and wry, who would never scheme to make me jealous. Now, thanks to my diet, I have more faith that I'll be able to spot him when I see him, regard- less of the external package he shows up in. After all this time, I got it: Attraction counts, sure, but it isn't everything—and using someone to help me transcend my adolescent insecurities isn't fair.
I'm 99 percent certain that the man I end up spending my life—or even the next few years—with won't look like Ryan Gosling. And I'm 100 percent OK with that, because real life looks nothing like The Notebook. It's a whole lot more interesting.
This article appears in the August issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.