Arts » Feature A&E

Unlucky in Love?

Missoula’s relationship expert gives tips on dating, sex and making love last

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I’m doing much better now, thank you. Much better. I can eat entire meals just like I used to, slow and sloppy and savorful. I can sleep the entire night through and dream the canny, childlike dreams I always did, about old high school sweethearts and creatures of the forest and cinematic action scenes in which I play an international freelance superspy. And I can still, I believe, pitch myself headlong into a relationship—but not quite like I used to. And that’s a good thing. I’ve done it before and I’ve done it wrong, and I’ve paid the price. You see, a few months ago, I suffered an acute and at times fearfully untreatable case of heartache.

It’s kind of embarrassing, to be honest. But the fact is, at the time, I quite possibly qualified as the earth’s biggest-ever loser at love. I was really a pro. I inscribed the most dizzying spiral of self-defeat that any luckless lover had ever dared dream. I felt like unwanted stock in the romantic marketplace. I was a splintered crate of damaged goods left on the metaphorical pier. All my hopes were left stacked and abandoned in the charnel house of the heart. Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. I was from Uranus.

Exactly what course the arc of my romantic misfortune took is difficult to describe. Buy me a beer and I’ll give you the whole story. But what’s most important about the tragic trajectory of my personal life is where it put me at the end: Specifically, it got me to thinking.

How does love work? What draws us to one person rather than another? And once we get drawn in, what the hell do we do? Why have some of us been such laggards at love, while others marry their childhood sweethearts and spend the rest of their lives in unending bliss? They’re difficult questions, all of them, and don’t tell me you haven’t asked yourself the same things.

But where can you go for the answers? I have tried—and failed—to read the rubric of the human heart. I have sampled all of the tired bromides that tea-leaf readers, newspaper columnists and the Internet have to offer. I’ve even asked my mother. I’m out of ideas. So maybe it’s time I got some professional help. Fortunately, in Missoula, help for the lovelorn is just around the corner.

Dr. Charlotte Kasl is one of the most prolific and popular advisors in the relationship business. For nearly a quarter-century, she has been counseling romantic hard-luck cases and crafting handbooks on the rough spots of relationships, the tricks of intimacy, and the confusing rituals of dating. Last year, she hit it big with her spiritual guide to finding a mate, If the Buddha Dated, published by Penguin, and she’s already at work on a follow-up, The Buddhist Marriage, due out next Valentine’s Day. If anyone—at least within driving distance—holds the key to the human heart, it’s got to be her. But can she really field the confounding questions that stand in the way of love? There is, I figure, only one way to find out.

Of Love and Drunkenness

In a mysterious clearing among the wooded stretches between Missoula and Lolo, there’s an eight-sided house clutching the side of a hill, where Charlotte Kasl lives. It’s ice-covered and wood-sided and secret-hideout-looking. On the front door up a few wooden stairs, there is a polite magic-markered note asking me to take off my shoes. I go inside, remove my boots and call out. Soon, Charlotte appears around a corner. We shake hands. She’s wearing an elaborate embroidered purple sweater and round purple-rimmed glasses. She has a face that is kind and wizened and bird-like.

“You’re just in time,” she says. “I need a man.”

I put down my bag, and she explains that she is just now rid of her Christmas tree and needs someone to move her rubber plant back to where it was. She asks if I would be so kind.

As I crab sideways across the cavernous living room with the four-foot tree hefted up in my arms and plasticky leaves twitching in my face, I think of that Frank Sinatra song about the ant trying to move a rubber tree plant. Already, I feel puny. I suspect this is going to be a humbling journey.

But as if to put me at ease, as she drops tea bags into a pot in the kitchen, Charlotte remarks that she is no guru. There will be no esoteric wisdom imparted today, only general lessons learned, from her own life and from years of hearing the stories of others. “I’m just good at interviewing and listening to people,” she says. “It doesn’t mean I have all the answers.”

She picks up the teapot and leads me through a labyrinth of dogleg hallways and trapezoidal rooms until we finally come to her office, filled with natural light and mismatched furniture. There are Midwestern colors and vaguely Asian-looking pieces, lots of diplomas and gewgaws and books. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and it seems fitting given the background Charlotte sketches out for me as we take our seats.

“Very rich tapestry,” she says, as she ticks off all the aspects that make up who she is. A Ph.D. A Quaker. A feminist. A student of Buddhism. A bisexual. In a world in which so many philosophies have gone bankrupt, Kasl boasts a broad compass of perspectives on the world. And she’s quick to explain that her approach to relationship counseling is equally unique.

“A lot of psychology forgets to take perception into account,” she says, sipping her tea. “In other words, they’ll say you were abused, so you must have this problem. Or someone has a sexual problem, and they’ll say you must’ve had abuse. Not necessarily. It’s perception. Perception plays a huge role in how we respond to what happens to us.”

Simple-sounding stuff, perhaps, but how we look at people, she says, is one of the most important things to be aware of when you dive into the dating pool—most important, because it’s the one thing that most of us forget to do. Why do we all make that same mistake? In effect, she says, what those sad songs on the jukebox have been telling us all this time is true: Getting in love is like getting drunk.

“People start getting into a relationship, and instead of really seeing the person clearly, we go off in a trance, basically, about how we’d like the person to be and not how they really are.” She splays her fingers out, lays her hand on her head and then pulls up, as if yanking out her own brains. “Literally,” she says, “we fall out of our neocortex. Falling in love is like falling out of our mind.” She laughs.

Way ahead of you, I say in so many words, when it comes to that. Love has impaired my judgment more than whiskey, puberty and bad country music put together.

But, Charlotte says, it’s not enough just to know that love makes you stupid. You’ve got to keep a close eye on how it affects you, how it skews your view of your would-be mate, especially during those crucial first dates, marathon talks and languorous evenings of heroic sex. It’s the first of many “red flags” Kasl says to look out for.

“Look at your behavior,” she says. “If you’re seeing the person as the all-perfect, wise-one, savior, and you think, ‘This is it. I met the perfect person. They just totally adore me,’ watch out. You’re really not seeing clearly.”

In the end, she explains, you’re setting a standard that your mate will never live up to. But it’s only natural. Inside each of us, she goes on, there’s a little kid that wants to idolize the people we fall for, but you have to put that kid to bed.

“We all tend to idealize a little bit in the beginning, but ease up,” she says. “This is a very Buddhist concept. Buddhists call it ‘an unconditional relationship with reality.’”

Yeesh. It’s hard enough to have a decent relationship with a human being, I’m thinking. Now I have to go on a get-to-know-you date with all of reality? I feel drowsy at the prospect. Maybe it’s the herbal tea.

But that’s just what the doctor orders in this case, and it can be even harder than it sounds. Because you not only have to look at your date as a real person, you have to take a long, hard look in the mirror, too. The key to this is—you’re going to hate me for saying this—getting in touch with your inner child. Of course, Kasl puts it a lot better.

“It’s really important to look at what age of you is actually being attracted to someone in a relationship,” she observes. “We have all different ages inside of us. There’s still the baby, the one that wants security, someone to take care of you, watch over you. But if that’s what you want, how old is that developmentally? It’s a kid. Certainly not an adult. And if you get really desperate in relationships, like you’ll do anything to keep them, that’s getting even younger.”

When you think about it, it does make sense. Conceivably, everything we do when we meet, get to know, and fall in love with someone can be looked upon as a kind of end-game—the almost unavoidable by-product of every other relationship we’ve ever had—from suckling at the breast as an infant, to our first kiss as a kid, to that time we discovered the redolent pleasures that could be had in the bucket seat of a 1976 Camaro. For each stage of your life, there are different needs, whether it’s sex, security, or just feeling loved. The trick, then, is knowing where you’re coming from and how to nudge yourself out of that past.

“So often the inner dialogue is like ‘OK, am I doing it right?’ ‘Am I pleasing them?’ Or ‘They’re just telling me what to do and bossing me around,’” she says. “It’s all this age-regression stuff. If you look at your behavior, you can pretty much tell what age it’s coming from.”

Once you get a knack for tucking in that inner kid, Kasl notes, you can begin looking at relationships in a new, hopefully clearer, light. And as a big fat bonus, you’ll get to know yourself a lot better in the long run. While the drunken effects of love will inevitably continue to have their way, she says, it might pay to take a more sober look at yourself, as well as your mate.

Of course, the art of love is not entirely as cerebral as all this. There are, needless to say, more sensuous angles to take on the dating game. Which brings me to my next question.

Sex, Lies and Duct Tape

When I went through that involutary angioplasty that was my most recent heartbreak, there were a lot of things I missed about the relationship after it was over. But sex wasn’t one of them. With my ex, the act was less like coitus than it was like an insurance-policy physical. Please move your leg. Thank you. Now this. Again. Three, four and five is your change. Thank you and come again. It’s been a business doing pleasure with you.

Which makes me wonder: What the hell was I thinking? Looking back, I probably hoped in the vainest way that things would somehow just get better on their own. Or, even more vainly, that I might remedy the situation with what the authors of old bodice-rippers used to describe as “masculine wiles.” I feel my Adam’s apple move in my throat and I explain this to Dr. Kasl. It’s a mistake that’s “really typical,” she says.

“I know plenty of stories with men, they get in a relationship with a woman who sexually cannot be there, it’s not working or whatever, and they keep hoping it’ll get better, keep hoping it’ll happen or improve, and they don’t get that this is a major problem.”

Bad sex a problem?, you’re probably thinking. Well knock me over with a feather. But the fact is, since the last embers of the conflagration that was the Sexual Revolution finally extinguished, say, somewhere around 1986, couples have begun once again to settle for life without desire. Consider this your second “red flag.”

“There are lots of things that are a window into the whole picture, and sex is certainly one of them,” she notes. “If people aren’t getting along sexually, that’s a bad sign.”

That’s why Kasl emphasizes that a couple absolutely must be able to, um, rub each other the right way in order for a relationship to succeed. Despite having been cheapened by underwear ads, talk-radio headshinkers and crappy Hollywood movies, sex is still vital to an adhesive relationship. But it’s got to be real sex. The kind that has depth and intimacy. Preferably, the kind you’re thinking about the next day when you’re sitting in a meeting, absently clicking your ball-point pen when your boss it talking to you. Of course, it won’t be like that forever, Kasl warns, but there’s got to be that bond from the start. Sex is the sticky duct tape that every couple needs to help hold together that ramshackle thing we call a relationship.

“Imagine a scale from one to 10, with 10 being ‘Can’t keep your hands off each other,’ five being ‘Take it or leave it’ and zero being ‘Repulsion,’” Charlotte says. “You’ve got to really be at eight, nine, 10 for things to really work. You probably don’t want to marry someone unless that’s working at the time—really well.”

The problem, of course, is that a lust for The Deed can be sticky in another way. By way of illustration, Kasl relates what life was like when she first fully awoke to the power of sex, after her own traumatic divorce.

“In the late ’60s, early ‘70s, sex was just so different than it ever was before or has been since, I think. And the only thing you learn from that is that sex isn’t the answer. It can be like a drug, too. Back then, you might go off with a friend for a weekend and just make love. I mean, that is what people did. And I think what everybody learned is that you gotta go deep to really have something that lasts emotionally. Because sex just burns out.”

I look down and see my teacup is empty.

Making it Last

So then how can you make it last? I ask. The relationship, I’m thinking, not the sex. According to Kasl, it all goes back to looking closely at yourself and the person you love, and seeing each of you as separate people who have one big thing in common—the relationship.

“What keeps stuff alive in relationships is a level of differentiation, the ability to hang onto yourself, stay with your own values, in close relationships with another person. People talk about individuation, but it’s not that. It’s differentiation. Individuation is the Marlboro Man, you know. Relationships are really based on that ability to know who you are and hang onto it.”

It’s an idea that gets heavily ensconced with psycho-lingo. But the concept is based on a simple notion—that each lover has their own life, career, direction. There’s no grasping, no needling, no desperate neediness. Instead, there’s a bond that’s never taken for granted. Kasl has a better name for this mutual sort of groove.

“They’re able to be on two separate journeys, and also they have this ‘us place,’” she says. “In these good relationships, people grow together. I’ll ask them what do they learn from each other. Instead of being afraid of differences, they’re really open to learning from each other. One said, ‘I learned to be more relaxed around friends.’ Another said, ‘I learned to be more social.’ These people pick up more of the better traits from their mates.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that “healthy couples,” as Kasl calls them, don’t have the same problems the rest of us have. All’s fair, after all, in both love and war.

“They’ve been through hard times, no doubt about it, but they’ve endured and they’ve hung on and there was getting through conflict. That’s another bottom line. The most important thing is that they can get through conflict.”

And how exactly do they do that? I ask, practically as a dare. The answer, it turns out, is digestible enough. Start small.

“It can be little stuff,” she says. “How do we decide what movie we’re going to see or how we’re going to spend time, or spending money. That’s always an issue—who pays for what. How do you negotiate that? Pay attention to the process of negotiating. Can you do that when everyone is trying to problem-solve, as opposed to us both getting our boxing gloves on? How can we—in this ‘us place’—work it out? That’s a good sign.”

But what’s the path that an average love-seeker can take to find this kind of romantic nirvana? For that, you’ll have to pay by the hour. But in a nutshell, the first step is to learn from your mistakes. I take the pen out of my shirt pocket and begin taking notes.

“I know it sounds sort of callous,” Kasl says, “but what I recommend people do is go back over the past relationships that didn’t work and make a Bottom Line List. You know: getting stood up, cheating on me, physical violence, bad-mouthing me. It’s your Zero Tolerance Line. Make a list of all the red flags you’ve overlooked in the past, and promise yourself to pay attention. Stick it on your fridge and give a couple of copies to a friend or two. Some people need that.”

The mere prospect makes me dizzy. Looking back, I think my last relationship had more red flags than a May Day parade in Moscow. Probably the smartest move I’ve made was just to track down Kasl and come to this eight-sided house to find my way out of this maze. There’s just one more question I have to ask. I take off my glasses and cap my pen.

“So, is there hope for people like me?”

“Of course,” she says. “We’re all growing in this thing. You know?”

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