“We Met When I Was At My Worst…”

Folk wisdom says that you’ll find love when you’re not expecting it — gray roots and sweats included! Here, we’ll explain why meeting at your worst can lead to the best kind of relationship.

By Jane Ganahl

ost of us have experienced this scenario firsthand: You’re recovering from a bad breakup (or perhaps a layoff), and your self-esteem is at an all-time low. You pull it together enough to go to the market on Saturday, if for no other reason than to replenish your supply of Krispy Kremes. And suddenly, there — in the bakery section — is someone who catches your eye. You connect, perhaps smile at each other. And even as you’re smiling, you’re thinking: What on Earth does this person see in me right now?

Meeting someone when you’re at your worst initially might seem like a terrible idea, but there are actually just as many positives as negatives to
What on Earth does this person see in me right now…
finding yourself in such a situation. The most obvious good news about beginning a relationship with someone when you’re hitting your personal “rock bottom” is that things have nowhere to go but up. And if you’re really lucky, meeting someone during a dip in your life can help you rebuild and regain your self-esteem.

Keep your heart open to love — even when you’re not expecting it
The challenge is being open to Cupid’s arrow — even in the darkest times, when singles are inclined to cling to the couch, wear sloppy sweats and feel unworthy of love. Who can forget the great line from the movie Erin Brockovich, when Julia Roberts’ character lashed back at her handsome neighbor after asking for her phone number: “How about this for a number? Six — that’s how old my other daughter is, eight is the age of my son, two is how many times I’ve been married — and divorced; 16 is the number of dollars I have in my bank account. 850-3943 — that’s my phone number, and with all the numbers I gave you, I’m guessing zero is the number of times you’re gonna call it.”

Ms. Brockovich soon learned that this was a classic example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face and succumbed to the charms of that neighbor, who ended up being tremendously supportive of her. We all deserve love — even during (and sometimes, especially because of) the most difficult times in our lives.

Taking things slowly can make all the difference
This was a lesson well-learned by Terri, 50, of New Hampshire. Eight years ago, her husband died in a car accident, making her a widowed mother of seven children. After a few years on her own, she was still struggling mightily to regroup but wanted to try and get back in the dating game. So she posted an online dating profile, and that’s when she got the fateful call: “Rick had heard that I was on and found my number through mutual friends,” she says. “He remembered me fondly from high school, where he was captain of every [sports] team and drop-dead gorgeous. I was shocked to get that phone call.” Terri had the Erin Brockovich speech prepared for him: “I was brutally honest about the fact that I was a widow and had seven children, but he wanted to see me anyway,” she says. “I just had my car repossessed, I had gained weight, I had gray roots showing, hated my job and my foot was in a boot because of an injury. I looked horrible.”

Their first date was comically bad; Terri ended up needing a ride to have her stitches removed, so Rick drove her. And yet, their first few dates together
I think it makes a relationship richer to start at a low point.
were so magical that Terri initially swooned with joy — and then shrank away from Rick out of fear. “I wrote him a ‘Dear John’ letter and told him I felt like I would not be a good partner for him, because I could tell I would have feelings for him. But he would not take no for an answer; he said, ‘Let’s not worry about a relationship. Let’s be friends and see what develops.’” Terri now says that, while their love did not start with “that head-in-clouds feeling,” it grew enormously thanks to Rick’s generosity of spirit. “To start a relationship that way — hearing all the worst things right off the bat — it’s amazing that he wasn’t scared away,” she laughs. “I think it makes a relationship richer to start at a low point and build from there.”

Why meeting at your worst can help get you back to your best self
Terri’s feelings are echoed by Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill Ed.S., a psychotherapist, marriage and family counselor and the author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage: The Essentials for Long-Lasting Togethernesswho practices in Mount Kisco, NY. “Meeting at a low point in one’s life can yield some rich rewards — if the couple is willing to take it slow and grow together,” O’Neill says. “Being in a positive relationship can encourage couples to start eating better, getting more exercise and generally be their best selves.” On a superficial level, she notes, it can also lead to some pretty instant highs. “Imagine meeting someone you fancy in the grocery store while in your sweats. Won’t he or she be dazzled when you show up for your first real date dressed up and looking 100 percent better? There’s some fun to be had in setting the bar on the low side.”

But, O’Neill cautions, that set-up can also be a trap if you’re not careful. “When people are at a low point in their lives, they are like dry sponges and they fall harder,” she says. “That is one of the hazards. Of course, it would depend on the self-esteem of the person, but there could be the potential to fall in love in a fantasy way. I try to help clients in this situation realize that they do have to be careful and keep their perspective.” She also advises her single clients to “beware of the makeover artist — the person who takes you at your dumpiest and runs you like a drill sergeant, chooses your wardrobe and so on. You are also vulnerable to that kind of relationship, because you’re looking for structure in your life.” In other words, take things slowly: “Don’t even think about getting married or making it legal for a long time.”

Happily, none of the potentially disastrous scenarios O’Neill mentions proved true for Terri and Rick, who were married in November of 2008. “Yesterday I was back at the same hospital where we had our first ‘date’ and he was there, supporting me again just like he had that first day. I love him more than he will ever understand,” Terri says. And her life has also blossomed: Terri now has a job that she loves and is feeling better than she ever has in her life. “I’m just thrilled to have found someone who has helped me become the best I can be — who can help me discover who I really am.”

Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival.
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