Emily Articulated: Math, magic and Valentine’s Day

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

It began a few weeks ago — the aisles at grocery stores turning pink-and-red, the targeted ads on my devices shifting from running shoes and heavy knit sweaters to flowers and specialty chocolates, the posts from my peers donning heart-eye filters and Valentine’s-related hashtags, and all my favorite podcasts running love-themed episodes.

The Valentine’s Day craze is pervasive, an industry machine so powerful that I can’t help but indulge in at least pieces of it. This year, my indulgence came in the form of a This American Life episode, “Math or Magic,” in which the team asked the question: When it comes to finding love, do you believe in math or magic? 

The math approach to finding a partner is measured and conscious — a calculated effort at comparing potential suitors against your list of criteria and choosing from the best options available. The magic approach is waiting to be zapped in the face, jolted out of all that you thought you knew about love, and overcome with the instantaneous “spark” of your connection with another person the moment you meet them. 

Listening to the stories of people firmly rooted in one camp or the other, I realized my answer to the math-or-magic-love question wasn’t so straightforward as one or the other.

Emily Erickson.

Growing up, I had very few examples of healthy relationships. My parents modeled a volatile kind of love, the kind of relationship where the pull of safety, stability and joy were gradually replaced with the grip of anger, frustration and obligation. Beyond my parents, I witnessed the disenchanted marriages of community members in my small, Catholic town — the relationships in which a long ago “spark” had led to a lifelong commitment; a binding contract between people who, after so many years, only had their kids and shared resentment in common. 

Because these examples colored my view of long-term love, I never imagined it for myself. I couldn’t picture myself in a wedding or a family, and was leery of the kind of up-front “magic” that blinded people to the reality that they weren’t actually compatible; that they’d spend the majority of their lives trying to remember when they made each other happy.

Throughout most of my early dating years I chose partners and situations based on how easily I could leave them — always keeping one foot firmly “out of the door” so I could never get trapped anywhere or with anyone. I oscillated between the “right kind of guy at the wrong time” and “the wrong kind of guy, also at the wrong time,” learning with each relationship the qualities and characteristics of people and partnerships that made me happy, and those that didn’t. 

Upon moving to Sandpoint and beginning to fit together the pieces of the kind of life I wanted to live, it started to feel like “the right time” to consider adding someone to it. I resolved to ask, with all the clarity and calculation of someone who was leery of magic, “What kind of person would I want to share all this with?” And I made a mental list.

I knew I wanted a partner that was passionate about something, who had their own interests to which they dedicated time and energy, and who would support me in pursuing mine. I wanted someone who was curious about the world and wanted to experience more of it as insatiably as I did. I wanted a mental and physical connection, and to be relatively at the same stages of life so we could build upon each of ours together. 

I wanted someone secure and independent, and who didn’t think of relationships as finish lines or as forever obligations; but, rather, as things to grow inside and nurture for as long as they make both people happy — at least for the majority of the time. 

I resolved that if I found someone who checked my boxes, I’d give them a shot. If I didn’t, I was happy and content with my life alone.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the experience of finding someone that met my carefully calculated criteria, and how meeting him would feel an awful lot like magic. With near-instant clarity, I understood that the upside of having both feet “in the door” was how firmly I could stand in it; unshakable in knowing that this relationship was different and worthy of investing in.

Now my answer to the math-or-magic question isn’t one or the other. It isn’t just the calculation of qualities or the jolt of clarity when finding the exact right kind of person at a time in which you’re ready to give and receive love. It’s both. 

Happy belated Valentine’s Day to the cynics and the romantics, to the people who model healthy love, to the people who love to be alone and to the people who continually make each other believe a bit more in magic, just by being them.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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