A look at one-way amorousness and non-relationships on Grey’s Anatomy, in Hollywood, and in life.

The latest show that I’ve been consuming through my earpiece (as well as watching when I have a spare eye) is Grey’s Anatomy. So far I’m enjoying it. One of the more interesting aspects is the non-romance between lead Meredith Grey and her rejected suitor George O’Malley. In some ways it’s the classic case of a chick rejecting the sincere beta in search for her alpha. The alpha, in this case, being the unhappily married Derek (“Dr. McDreamy”) Shepherd. But it’s clear from the outset that Dr. Shepherd is not the only obstacle in George’s way. The primary obstacle is the fact that Meredith doesn’t even notice that he’s interested (or acts as though she doesn’t). This is problematic not just because it means that O’Malley has to do the heavy lifting to make anything happen, but in my experience if you’re hot for someone chances are good they either know it or the way that they see you is completely devoid of any sexual attraction.

O’Malley stands by in utter frustration as Meredith gets her heart broken repeatedly by the conflicted Dr. McDreamy while he knows that he would love her and never hurt her if he just got the chance. O’Malley gets some disingenuous advice from their mutual friends to go for it. I guess it’s something that people are expected to say, but it’s pretty bum advice when it’s equally obvious to everybody that it’s going to end badly.

And, of course, it does. As O’Malley is about to make his move, he catches Meredith having sex with somebody that she absolutely, positively should not be having sex with. He flies off the deep-end. Things tumble for Meredith until she is feeling beyond miserable about herself. In a moment of weakness, she receives O’Malley’s sexual advances. Long story short, the whole incident ends in a way beyond humiliating for O’Malley and he moves out (the two of them were living together with someone else), everyone takes his side, and Meredith is left feeling lower than dirt. Which, in his mind, is what she deserves after the awful way that she humiliated him. And most of her friends are willing to give her no quarter (their mutual roommate says flat-out that if it comes down to it, she’s siding with him). She apologized again and again, but he would have none of it.

As I watch and listen the whole situation unfold, it’s hard for me to experience too much sympathy for O’Malley. Of course, I can completely and entirely relate to the guy that loves the girl that doesn’t love him back. His hurt was understandable, as was a fit of rage after the humiliation, but a little perspective casts a pretty different light on things. He circled around her like a vulture. At her greatest moment of vulnerability (some of which caused by him), he made his move. Things didn’t work out like he’d known all along they wouldn’t until he saw his moment to strike, and he is indignant. None of this is to suggest that Meredith is free of blame. Though her reactions were the product of her own torment (much of it self-inflicted), self-destructive behavior becomes less tragic and more unforgivable when it has a radius beyond the self-destructive individual. And to be honest, O’Malley’s actions themselves were also the product of his own hurt. The main difference, in my mind, is that she has apologized repeatedly and neither he nor anybody else acknowledges the role he played in his own destruction.

This makes me think of the plight of a lot of beta males. The source of his pain was not entirely his own doing. It’s not like there was something that he could have done in order to win her over the “right” way. He had no chance. And to some extent, you can’t help who you are attracted to. But what you can help is (a) how much you cultivate that attraction and (b) how you respond to it. O’Malley followed the path that a lot of us do. He at once acknowledged that she was out of his league and so didn’t make his move but then did not acknowledge that the next move was his… the move away. Moving out of the apartment or trying to tackle his futile emotions. The romantic in all of us says that love is not something that can be contained, but to say that of O’Malley is also to say that of Meredith. The main difference being that she at least had a shot at her dream at one point.

There is supposed to be a romantic tragedy behind the love of the unattainable. I think that popular entertainment presents us with it so often (and make it love actualized sometimes) because we can all relate to it. But I view it as a truly destructive force. The inability to get someone out of your mind or to let a former lover go is one of the greatest sources of self-inflicted misery I’ve seen in those around me in my somewhat privileged life. It’s human and to some extent unavoidable, but I find Hollywood’s exaltation of this impulse to be problematic. I’ve complained before about how Hollywood misleads men by making them thing that persistence counts. But it misleads women into thinking that men will come around, too. And it misleads all of us into thinking that there is something beautiful about unrequited love and dreaming the impossible (Mc)Dream(y).

There isn’t.

And it isn’t just that it makes people unhappy. It’s a contagious sort of unhappiness. It leads to O’Malley the Vulture and Meredith the Succubus. It leads us to overlook the options that we do have. It makes us less pleasant for our friends to be around. Unless you’re a tortured artist, there isn’t much positive that can come from it. I think that we search endlessly for the bright side so we invent one. And though it never makes the pain stop, it makes us endure abuse and neglect and it makes us deal it out to people that are not the ones abusing and neglecting us. And, for that matter, exactly to the one abusing and neglecting us for the same reason that we are doing the same. Of course, that assumes that you’re in a position to deal the pain you’re experiencing. These people can be the most insufferable because they think that a dearth of available victims makes them benign.

Update: As if to make a fool out of me, O’Malley apologized in the episode I listened to today, outlining a significant portion of what I said above. He has regained his status as my favorite character. Most excellent.


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24 Responses to The Vulture & The Succubus

  1. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    As with all halfway-good fiction, a real-life lesson is there to be learned. O’Malley’s story is (fictional) proof of the potential success of the Beta Strategy For Sex, as well as its downfalls. So is this parable from the ever-wry XKCD. The real-life problem is that the Beta does not just want sex, he wants love, too. It’s easier to persuade one’s intended to give sex than have her fall in love with you, and easy for the lonely, desparate Beta to confuse the two.

    At some point, one has to realize that romantic stories of unrequited love notwithstanding, to love and not be loved back really sucks and the solution is to search for a new person capable of reciprocating. As you wrote, the right move is to move away from the unhappy situation. Not easy to do while still in the grip of strong emotions, of course, but necessary all the same.

    The trick, I guess, is to recognize the difference between the beta-going-after-woman-going-after-an-alpha situation (the Grey’s Anatomy scenario you descrbe of O’Malley pursuing Gray while she is pursing McDreamy) versus a situation in which there is genuine romantic chemistry from the get-go which stands a good chance of coming to fruition if the third party is removed from the picture (e.g., Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in The Wedding Singer). The distinguishing factor is recognizing when the romantic attraction is reciprocated quickly, even if one party restrains himself or herself due to the pending relationship — and accepting when it is not so as to avoid making that investment of emotion and time. I don’t watch the show but I’m willing to bet that even within the idealized and stylized world of fiction, an honest look of O’Malley and Gray’s early interactions were described by a lack of romantic chemistry between the two.

  2. PeterW says:

    “in my experience if you’re hot for someone chances are good they either know it or the way that they see you is completely devoid of any sexual attraction.”

    I don’t know; I’m sure I’m not the only one that has looked back in his life and said “Oh wait, so-and-so was quite possibly into me.” That said it probably is the rule once both people reach social/romantic competence.

  3. Linus says:

    I like your use of the phrase “move away”. I think it’s important to back off, both in his interactions with her and in his thoughts about her, but I don’t necessarily think it’s his job to completely give up on her either. This fits neatly with my experience – I crushed on my future wife from the time we first met, but she wasn’t interested at first. I hung in there as a long-distance friend for three years until we finally had some face-to-face time as somewhat more mature people and sparks finally flew. I didn’t give up on her altogether, but I also didn’t spend all of my time thinking about how to make her mine. And, lucky me, it worked.

  4. trumwill says:

    TL,

    The reason why you’re rejected is indeed pretty important. If there is a third party involved, that doesn’t preclude anything happening in the further. However, I would advise in the strongest language not to wait around under the belief that they will go straight from them to you. Maybe they will, but even in cases where that is their intention when people get out of a relationship and come out the other end… things are subject to change. Infuriating, unfair change.

  5. trumwill says:

    PeterW,

    Yeah, that happens sometimes. But I think it’s something that guys do a lot more frequently. I think that we’re more prone to overlook people that don’t grab our attention first. I think women more actively look for signs that they are about to be asked out and encourage/discourage accordingly. Men don’t have that protocol, so unless it’s someone we’re interested in we’re less likely to notice.

  6. trumwill says:

    Linus,

    Well, there’s giving up and there’s giving up. I think that it’s pretty important to give up at least for a while and to get on with your life. If there was that initial chemistry that TL is talking about, there’s reason to believe that things might change as circumstances do. But… circumstances have to change. They won’t change (or they won’t change in a favorable way) when a guy is standing around waiting for them to.

    I have at least a couple instances in my history where I did the wrong thing twice. I hung around long after it was apparent that nothing was going to happen… and then, after having put myself through hell, I indignantly walked off swearing never to let myself want her again. And in both cases, she came around without my having to do anything except having becoming something other than the guy trying to catch her interest. And when that day came… I had a lot of difficulty moving forward because I had built up so much resentment.

    A better approach would have been to distance myself immediately after it became apparent where I stood in her standings and then be open-minded if that ever changed. It, among other things, would have required a lot less distance put between me and them if I’d addressed the issue early. That all becomes most impossible when you let things cultivate. By moving away early, chances are oddly increased that something might happen. Although, I should add, that if you’re doing it expressly for that purpose it’s self-defeating… and chances that go up from 0% to 5% may be improving, but absolutely nothing to bet so much a dime of your time on.

  7. Peter says:

    He at once acknowledged that she was out of his league

    Not a line that would make much sense if the genders were reversed. Most men acknowledge, even if they won’t admit it to others, that certain women are out of their league. If you’re an ordinary guy, maybe a bit on the nerdy side, you know full well that you’re not going to get the time of day from a 9 or 10. Perhaps you might try approaching one as a super long shot, but if you’re at all realistic you know that your chances are very slim.

    It’s long been my impression that women don’t follow the “out of my league” concept to anywhere near the same extent. A woman of ordinary looks, a 5 or a 6, perhaps one even lower on the scale, may honestly believe she can attract an Alpha. It usually takes years of disappointment before she realizes this just isn’t the case. It’s strange, because in most other aspects of life women are no less realistic than men, yet it exists here. I just don’t know why.

  8. trumwill says:

    I don’t think what you’re saying is all that true, Peter. I don’t know how demonstrable it is even if true. I mean, I guess women are more likely to have a secret dream of being asked out by the prom king simply because it could happen whereas the guy knows that to date the prom queen he would have to ask her out and he knows that’s not going to happen.

    But there are a whole lot of unrealistic men out there. Men who get irate that they can’t find an opening to ask out girls that are clearly out of their league. That a girl isn’t out of his league because she has just a few extra pounds (nevermind his 50 extra pounds, which she would have to be sooo shallow to care about). That believes that as long as he’s not asking out the head cheerleader, he’s being reasonable.

    And I think that a lot of men assume that a lot of women are holding out for a 9 or 10 when they’re really just holding out for somebody that is not him. I can remember more than a few cases where I asked someone out, was rejected, felt that she wasn’t going to do much better than me, then turned out to be wrong when her next boyfriend was higher than me on the totem pole.

  9. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    My comment to you was kind of dismissive. My apologies for that. I’ll elaborate in a future post.

  10. Kirk says:

    “A woman of ordinary looks, a 5 or a 6, perhaps one even lower on the scale, may honestly believe she can attract an Alpha.”

    Am I the only one who has never heard the term “Alpha” used, in this way, in real life? Though I suppose it stands to reason that women might divide men into Alphas and Betas, I’ve never seen it happen.

    Outside of blogdom, the terms Alphas and Betas don’t seem to exist. This is why I’m a bit skeptical whenever they’re mentioned.

  11. Peter says:

    Am I the only one who has never heard the term “Alpha” used, in this way, in real life? Though I suppose it stands to reason that women might divide men into Alphas and Betas, I’ve never seen it happen.

    People may not use the terms in face-to-face conversation, but they at least subconsciously accept the concept.

  12. ? says:

    Sorry I’m late to my favorite subject.

    That a girl isn’t out of his league because she has just a few extra pounds (nevermind his 50 extra pounds, which she would have to be sooo shallow to care about).

    Who are these guys? Perhaps I betray my class myopia, but I strain to think of a single male acquaintance under 30 years old that was 50 lbs overweight. (I can think of women this describes.) I can think of some men that I would describe as “round” or even “beefy”, but I never correlated this with lack of romantic success; on the contrary, they had steady girlfriends when I didn’t. Conversely, when I think of the hardcore singles I knew in my 20s, many of them were scrawny.

    And no, scrawny isn’t necessarily attractive either. But my point is that, in my experience with singles, both the men and the women came in all shapes and sizes, and I failed to see the men carrying more than their share of the extra pounds — the reverse was true, if anything. Your vignette of +50 lbs men trying to court +5 lbs women bears little relationship to the reality that I observed.

    I think we should look elsewhere for an explanation.

  13. ? says:

    I can remember more than a few cases where I asked someone out, was rejected, felt that she wasn’t going to do much better than me, then turned out to be wrong when her next boyfriend was higher than me on the totem pole.

    But on the upside, at least the relative rankings appeared to make sense to you. So you had the satisfaction of seeing the cosmic order preserved. Would it not have been worse to be beaten out for no apparent reason? For the wrong reason?

    It’s kind of like not getting in to MIT because your SATs weren’t high enough versus being rejected for being a white male. The reason for the rejection drives its apparent justice, and thus our attitude about it.

  14. trumwill says:

    Phi,

    In my experience, weight corresponded very strongly with the ability to find a girlfriend. I’ve known some scrawny skinny guys, too, but I very much notice the correlation that you’re not. As a guy that has been both fat and thin, I’ve noticed it myself.

    And I have myself asked out girls less overweight than I was under the idea that both of us being in the overweight category might put us in the same category. Didn’t work out that way and in retrospect, some of them weren’t even overweight so much as inelegantly constructed.

    Anyway, if weight doesn’t work for you pick another example. A guy that thinks that his intelligence should should put him in the same league as a hot girl without said intelligence.

    Simply said, I quite dispute the notion that girls are remarkably less observant of or realistic in terms of the pecking orders.

  15. trumwill says:

    But on the upside, at least the relative rankings appeared to make sense to you. So you had the satisfaction of seeing the cosmic order preserved. Would it not have been worse to be beaten out for no apparent reason? For the wrong reason?

    You would think, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve actually commented on this before but am too lazy to look it up. For instance, when I met the guy that Evangeline left me for, I was thrilled that he was shorter, pudgier, and more awkward than I was. I would have felt much worse if he was a stud. The conclusion I was able to draw was that her judgment was flawed.

    Similarly, it’s objectively better to be left for another man because being left for someone is better than being left for no one. Almost nobody sees it that way when they’re being left, though.

  16. trumwill says:

    Kirk,

    The terminology of alpha/beta is irreconcilably flawed (not the least of which because they are subjective judgments that claim to be objective descriptions). I use it mostly because it’s what a lot of people around these parts understand.

    I’ve always used my Four Stations, but nobody except readers of HC know what they are.

  17. Peter says:

    In my experience, weight corresponded very strongly with the ability to find a girlfriend. I’ve known some scrawny skinny guys, too, but I very much notice the correlation that you’re not. As a guy that has been both fat and thin, I’ve noticed it myself.

    Indeed, the General Social Survey has shown that fat men are the most sexually deprived of all.

  18. ? says:

    Regarding the GSS results, two problems. First, the data is self-reported, which means that what it’s likely measuring is satisfaction with one’s own body weight. And yes, absolutely, any man suffering from low self-esteem for reasons of body weight or any other reason will be handicapped in the dating marketplace. (Self-esteem is supposedly inversely correlated with number of sex partners among women, which may partially explain the female data.)

    Second, number of sex partners may be a poor proxy for relationship success overall, depending on definitions. If the goal is maximizing notch count, then sure, having the body of a male model probably helps. I’m not sure that’s a universally held metric. I imagine that a lot of guys’ definition of relationship success is keeping around a quality woman for an LTR.

  19. ? says:

    But my primary point wasn’t to challenge the relationship between being overweight and not getting dates. My point was to say that most of the heavy men I have known have been late-30s or older, long settled into marriage and kids. It does not describe the single men who were lamenting their dating prospects in their mid-twenties.

    Now, obviously, I suffer from perceptual bias here, because I can’t say that I know many men who have reached their mid-thirties without having ever been married. But then I haven’t really been making any inferences about that group of people.

  20. ? says:

    You would think, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

    Trumwill, your point is well taken. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of “being left”, which is going to suck in all sorts of ways. I was rather thinking of the case where after we strive mightily to become the kind of men that well-meaning adults told us women would want to be with, we find ourselves outcompeted by a wholly different kind of men.

  21. Peter says:

    Regarding the GSS results, two problems. First, the data is self-reported, which means that what it’s likely measuring is satisfaction with one’s own body weight. And yes, absolutely, any man suffering from low self-esteem for reasons of body weight or any other reason will be handicapped in the dating marketplace.

    Almost all GSS interviews are conducted face-to-face rather than over the telephone or online. Interviewers decide whether the subjects are underweight, normal or overweight, based on their best judgment.

    My point was to say that most of the heavy men I have known have been late-30s or older, long settled into marriage and kids.

    It is very, very common for men who used to be reasonably fit and trim to pork up something wicked once they’re in their 30’s. It could be that many of these men you’ve known were not fat when they got married. Most women aren’t going to dump their husbands when the husbands get fat.

  22. trumwill says:

    My point was to say that most of the heavy men I have known have been late-30s or older, long settled into marriage and kids.

    I’m not talking about those men, though. In fact, the existence of men that gained significant amounts of weight in their thirties after getting married is part of the problem. Young bucks think “If they can have a reasonably attractive wife despite their age, why can’t I?” — one of the answers to which being “Because he didn’t look like that when he won her over.”

    You may not have known a whole lot of overweight guys, and perhaps when you were coming through there weren’t as many as when I came through (where there were considerably fewer than I think are going through now)… but I was overweight and far from the most overweight guy around. At times I was even 50lb overweight and I wasn’t the most heavy guy around, though I may have been the most heavy with designs on actually dating girls. Inept though I was.

    On a sidenote, while self-perception covers some of the disparity between heavy guys and their ability to get girlfriends, it only covers part. There was about a two year gap between my having lost weight and my self-perception changing to my new shape. It was only after the realization that I had the PeterW realization “Oh my gawd, she was flirting with me.” And it was true… despite the fact that I still saw myself as the fat guy, girls saw me as what I was.

    There were a lot of factors at play and it is true that self-perception matters a great deal, but a substantially overweight guy that thinks he’s big-boned or that it’s all muscle hasn’t negated the weight issue by a long shot.

  23. ? says:

    Peter: I stand corrected about the GSS. I really thought it was exclusively survey data.

    Trumwill: I am vexed to hear that 20-something men are getting heavier. Most unfortunate for them, since women are now free to put a higher premium on physicality. Or perhaps the causality runs the other way: women are increasingly choosing physicality over other qualities, leaving behind a larger percentage of the heavy guys?

    Both of you are certainly correct that judging one’s own prospects by comparison to long-married men is a mistake.

  24. trumwill says:

    Phi,

    Not just 20-something men. Teens as well. And not just boys. So heavier guys do have heavier girls to pair off with… but both angle for guys that are less overweight or, preferably, not overweight at all. This is very much the case in high school, though I think that expectations become more realistic for most people during one’s twenties. I remember in high school where it seemed like 75% of the student population would only date the most attractive 25% of the opposite sex. But that really does get better. Unfortunately, for a lot of guys, they lack the social interactions with women that would help them take advantage of their new, somewhat better, environments.

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