am i the asshole bc i don't want my s/o to fix her teeth?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer Eliza Dumais pens an essay about love, ownership, and fear of change.
dear mixed feelings,
Five years ago, I saw the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in real life…I went from thinking “love at first sight” was something made up in the movies, to having it be a real, lived experience…
One of the main things that made me fall in love with her was her smile...I feel like the slight crookedness of her teeth makes her smile…beautiful and unique. Recently she has been going to a dentist and wants to straighten her teeth, but the thought of that makes my heart sink. She's mentioned it a couple of times before we eat and I completely lose my appetite and feel physically nauseated. I’ve been really sad and stressed out about this lately. When I tried to share my feelings about it, her reply was, "I wish you [could] just be supportive." I know that this is 100% her choice and I want to be supportive of her….
My problem is that I don't know how to deal with my feelings about it. I feel like I can't talk to her about it anymore without being unsupportive. What if it makes me not as attracted to her anymore after she straightens her teeth? I know it sounds shallow, but I'm not easily physically attracted to others, and I view her as perfect with her natural smile. I value her happiness over mine, so I want her to do what will make her happy...I just want to know how to deal with my feelings of sadness about this situation. She wants to get her wisdom teeth removed next month so she can start the straightening and I want to be there for her, but I don't think I can handle it in my current mental state. — TomatoMan, He/Him
Teeth make for excellent metaphors: We cut them, sink them, pull them, persist by the skin of them. They’re the second thing we’re inclined to assess after the eyes when examining a face, according to a pamphlet at my dentist’s office. At their most utilitarian, they’re calcium fragments designed to parcel food into ever-smaller, swallowable portions. And for your partner, in particular, they’re an insistent, grating reminder of her projected inadequacy; some glaring miscalculation in the greater alchemy of her beauty.
In my own case, thirteen was the age at which I first acclimated to smiling with my mouth closed. My teeth have always been inordinately small, all of them spaced out like subway cars. In photographs, my smile is checkered with gaps — and I’ve resented that fact since I was old enough to hinge my self-worth on comparative assessments of girls more genetically blessed than I. Even now, anytime I catch sight of myself — in a mirror, a window, a picture — having abandoned my commitment to closed-mouth emoting, my gaze will skate over all the important bits, the good bits, and linger, instead, on the gaps in my teeth.
Your partner surely gets stuck there, too, right around the mouth. And all the while, it means she’s missing out on the broader context: a mix of features so remarkable, they served to convert you to the church of “love at first sight.”
I don’t need to remind you that loving someone requires stamina — second, and third, and four-hundredth sights after that first one. And choosing to embed yourself in a life with another person is, in so many ways, a rubber-stamped assurance that you will love them in spite of the fact that appearance is far from a static condition. Loving someone is a promise that your affection won’t be diluted by gained weight, rogue haircuts, new tattoos, new friends, new hobbies, or new ways of moving through the world. And more broadly speaking, refusing to meet your partner’s mutability with grace denies you that same privilege. So here’s the kicker: If renovating her oral blueprint is enough to make you question the duration of your feelings for her, I’d encourage you to reassess what, exactly, it is you mean when you tout “love at first sight.”
the metamorphosis of love
I don’t mean to imply that attraction is a small or meaningless thing — just that it shape-shifts throughout the equally variable lifespan of a relationship. “The part of your brain that experiences initial attraction and sex drive is the same primitive part that triggers a fight-or-flight response — it’s not designed to last,” says Dawn Maslar, professor of biology, and two-time TEDx speaker on the subject of the science of attraction. “After that first hot and heavy phase, when attraction grows into love, that feeling moves into the prefrontal cortex, which is where we store sentiments like morals, ethics, and brotherly love.” According to Maslar, the most ravenous forms of attraction aren’t meant to endure. We’re not designed to live permanently in that phase of electric yearning. But that’s not to say the feeling disappears. It morphs, instead, into a different breed of affection — one with an altogether different texture.
“After about two years with a partner, you start to pick up on things you didn’t initially: Maybe they snore, or they eat their cereal funny, or they’re bad at folding clothes. That’s often the point when a couple’s intensity of attraction will begin to diminish,” Maslar explains. “But that next stage — the long-lasting prefrontal love, the companionship, the partnership — is also something we’re predisposed to crave. While attraction feels instinctual, it’s a choice to commit to that second phase, even when the intense, primal part fades.” As she sees it, that shift is no fault of your partnership, nor your commitment to one another. It’s a graduation into an equally romantic, if less physically-wrought commitment. In your case, the hyperbole of your attraction was, and is, remarkable. But soon enough, no matter the nature of your counterpart’s orthodontic pursuits, that chemical draw will take on a new flavor. If you’re in this for the long-haul, I suggest you make your peace with that.
Admittedly, aesthetic alteration is not synonymous with the slow-burn of aging. But in many ways, this is a question of ownership. Who gets to lord over decisions that, sure, apply to the both of you — but more wholly impact the architecture of your partner’s public make-up? “We see ‘mate guarding’ in almost every species on the planet,” says Maslar. “It comes from the innate instinct to protect your DNA, your offspring. A hunger for power or ownership that will keep your partner from leaving, and thus protect your bloodline.” Whether your instinct to wield power is about a fear of cheating, about your partner leaving of her own accord, about the possibility that you might want to leave her, it stands that exercising supremacy over her aesthetic decisions may very well be a form of mate guarding — a desire to preserve (or protect) your relationship exactly as it is at this very moment. But know this: The woman you love is about to commit herself, in expensive and uncomfortable ways, to revising a part of herself that dents her self esteem. Call it compersion, call it empathy, call it garden-variety love, but watching someone in your life protect their day-to-day joy ought to make you throw up your hands in support, no matter how reluctant you might be to give it. If I were to give you a succinct, clipped bit of advice here, I’d tell you: Let this be hers.
explore your resistance
It’s neither malicious nor grossly superficial to mourn, in some capacity, the loss of a particularly alluring trait in your partner — especially a so-called imperfection that lends itself to specificity; something that makes her look like her (to quote Maroon 5, “look for the girl with the broken smile/ask her if she wants to stay a while”). Admittedly, I’ve felt an adjacent thing, too: In the midst of Peak Indoor Quarantine, my roommate told me that she’d made an appointment to undergo plastic surgery on her nose. We’d been friends since we were little girls, and had long maintained the fierce sort of closeness that makes “friendship” feel far too small and shoddy a word. When it first came up, I found myself resisting. I’d known, loved, told secrets to, slept beside, marveled at this face, in its current configuration, and I didn’t want to give that up.
Of course, I, like you, understood that it wasn’t about me. That my sentiments were unwarranted, selfish, and unprecedentedly controlling. In any case, it was hardly a surprise. Emma had been self-conscious about her nose since before we’d entered 6th grade. After college, in our first New York apartment together, her dismay was no less front-of-mind. “Look at this picture,” she told me once, while we sat at the kitchen table, chewing over the nose job clause. She offered up a photograph I’d taken of her at mile seven, while running the New York Marathon — a feat for which she’d started training after losing her mother two years prior. “You look at this picture and you think, holy shit, Emma ran the marathon. I look at this picture and I think, fuck I hate my nose.”
That was what did it for me. The marathon was BIG. We’d both been setting up shop to watch runners clog the veins of New York every September since long before we were tall enough to see over the crowds. And now, she’d done it. She’d run the goddamn New York Marathon, 26.2 miles of personally-propelled momentum. She’d reconfigured her brain to account for the gnawing hole that was confronting motherlessness. She’d ushered me gently through break-ups, ill-advised bangs, lay-offs, proper grief. And each time she looked in the mirror, to her, all of those assorted miracles felt muddied by the surface area of her nose.
For the proceeding weeks post-surgery, I changed the bloody drip pads beneath her nostrils and spoon fed her mashed potatoes while two bruises bloomed like halos around her eyes. But once the cast had been removed, the symptomatic damage healed, I’ll tell you a secret: She still looked like Emma. It took me a moment to adjust; yes, indisputably, the scaffolding of her face had changed. But nonetheless, sure-as-planets, it was Emma.
Over the next six months, while quarantine restrictions slowly peeled away, I had the distinct pleasure of watching her operate new-nosedly at parties, or at dinners, in ways that could make my eyes go glassy from across the room. She was more at-home in her own body than I’d seen her since we were small, performing as the loudest, most slapstick, familiar version of herself. Who the hell was I, someone with her supposed best interest at heart, to have been anything other than an acolyte in getting her there? If I could do it over, I’d gladly break and reconfigure her nose myself.
Love like that is, I admit, not mired in romantic attraction. But the template still applies: Intimacy is a game of endurance. If you want it, you’ll need to relinquish agency over the ways your person articulates herself to the world — and in turn, to you. Partnership can be all kinds of things: primal, rational, pre-frontal, conditional, amplified by sexuality, muted by distance, nourished by children, buoyed by age, short-lived, eternal, and we both know that’s not the end of the list. So if you want it, you’d sure as hell want all of it, right down to the teeth. — Eliza Dumais