When Lea Thau was 38, her fiancé broke up with her while she was pregnant with their child. She subsequently became single for the first time in her adult life.
"I went from being engaged to be married and pregnant and looking for houses every Sunday to being eight months pregnant, alone in an apartment, discarded and devastated," said Thau, in her astonishingly beautiful and raw podcast series Love Hurts.
Thau spent the next four years dating and was dismayed to discover how difficult it was to get into a relationship. And like so many of us, she wondered why -- why couldn't she find a partner?
She even took a year off from dating to work through the pain of her breakup: "Then I went back to dating thinking that now I had done the work and therefore deserved the relationship. But no one had informed the universe that I was now ready and deserving and no relationship came."
The producer of KCRW's Strangers, Thau then tried a more journalistic approach: She interviewed men who had rejected her and asked them to explain why they weren't interested.
If that isn't the gutsiest thing you've ever heard, consider this: At the time she did the interviews, she had just been jilted by a guy she'd been seeing for two months. He had said he'd lost touch because his father was dying. That struck Thau as a very good excuse, until she saw that his online dating profile was active.
Despite this intense vulnerability, Thau sat down with men who had rejected her and asked what when wrong. Was she projecting some kind of bad juju, some off-putting vibe of desperation or anxiety?
The men said absolutely not -- she had made no mistakes. Instead, their answers fell into one of two categories -- either the timing was bad, or they just didn't have romantic feelings toward her. One guy said:
I don't think there is a secret sauce to it. I really think it has to do with chemistry, and you just know when you meet that person whether you think there is potential or not, and I don't think there is anything you can do or huge mistakes not to do. Aside from the basic grooming things -- sure, take a shower...
It might sound awful to hear a former date say, "I'm just not that into you." But for Thau it wasn't, because the explanations she had made up in her head were so much worse:
Of course, they might not admit it if they found me gross or annoying, but I really didn't feel that was the issue. They just didn't feel that thing. And that isn't a problem. The problem is we add all kinds of interpretations. We jump to conclusions like 'If he doesn't want me, no one ever will.' And we blame ourselves like 'I'm too old,' 'I'm not enough' or 'I'm too much.
As she was working on the show, Thau also heard from the guy who blew her off after two months. He was still unattached and, as he had before, exhibiting behavior that was, well, flakey and weird. This, too, was liberating:
When someone dumps us, we're so quick to think there is something wrong with us. From actually communicating with the guys instead of making assumptions I realized that maybe that wasn't the point. Maybe it wasn't about me and my attributes or ones that I lacked. Sometimes people are dealing with their own [stuff] and they have their own reasons. And it's both too self-absorbed and too self-critical to think that it's about us. So I recommend this business of finding out what the other person has to say, even though it is so terrifying to ask. Because most of the time, they're good people and they don't think you're half bad.
So often, we turn rejection into a confirmation of the worst fears we have about ourselves, and we decide that the best way to deal with it is to hash over all our flaws so that we can fix ourselves and prevent it from happening again. But all this really does is make us feel awful.
We think that is the sober and realistic way to behave, but Thau's exercise shows that all those self-critical thoughts are often just fantasy. The real-world explanation was so much less painful than the ones she had made up in her head, and it showed her that she didn't need to change herself. She just needed to take a deep breath, try again and have faith that eventually, the timing and the chemistry would be right. By the end of this extraordinary five-part series, we get a hint that could be happening.
This post originally appeared on eHarmony.com.