Coupling: It’s not me, it’s you

“I’M ONLY TELLING YOU this because you are a horrible person and you’ll understand,” said my friend Rose. She had just returned from Thanksgiving with her boyfriend and his parents, who live in Reading. She was laden with shopping bags from the outlets there and, more significantly, with guilt.

“Oooh, you went to Calvin Klein!” I said. Then, seeing she was wearing a serious expression, reprioritized. What had happened was this: Rose had been dating John for a few months. He was cute and fun, and he and Rose shared a love of the same kind of mopey rock music. Of course, John worked a dead-end job at a record store, had an unframed Terminator poster on his wall, and occasionally drank himself to the point where he had to be lifted off the bar floor. But we are in our 20s, and these flaws are not particularly alarming. What was alarming was John’s family. It wasn’t that they weren’t nice. They were nice. They went to church. They had a nice display, in a glass case, of Hummel figurines. And to a city-raised Ivy League graduate like Rose, they were a nightmare. “I mean, we watched TV the entire time. They were so … Middle America,” she whispered. She knew immediately it was over between her and John. “It was so weird — all weekend, I couldn’t stand him. I kept picturing him old and bloated, in front of the TV with a can of, like, Schlitz.” She collected what she could from the outlets, knowing she would never be back.

“I feel so shallow,” she said, slumping onto my couch.

She was right: I am a horrible person. I did understand.

Rose may sound superficial (so much that I didn’t use her, or anyone’s, real name), but I assure you, she’s actually very kind, and she does believe in love without prejudice — once, I caught her tearing up during the “If You Leave” scene in Pretty in Pink.

With John, she was just having a classic case of Sudden Revulsion Syndrome (SRS).

Discovered in the mid-’90s by a girl (okay, me) who once snuck out of a man’s home at 5 a.m. because he smelled like an Italian hoagie, SRS is a relationship degenerative disease. It’s frequently triggered by a small, seemingly insignificant thing — a behavior, a physical characteristic, a genetic disposition toward Hummels — that immediately and irrevocably renders your mate unattractive. It is, in most cases, terminal. Side effects include angst about being shallow, and the bone-chilling fear one is too picky and will die alone.

SRS FLOURISHES DURING THE HOLIDAY season, fraught as it is with expectations, and before the New Year I had heard several more cases of love turned to loathing (and self-loathing). There was Karen, who started hating her boyfriend after he developed an Irish accent during their four-day vacation in Dublin and was feeling too guilty about it to break up with him; and Kevin, who became completely turned off when a guy he was seeing sent him flowers at work. “It was the card,” Kevin said, sheepishly. “It said, ‘Flowers smell nice,’ which would be cute if he was, like, 12.”

And then there was Claire, who broke up with a man she had told us was “extremely intelligent, funny and kind.” It seemed she had developed an obsession with his nose: “I would lie in bed with him and think, If only it were a little straighter,” she told me, after. “I would imagine straightening it out at the bridge, where it was ever so slightly crooked from one too many childhood scraps, shave some cartilage off the slope to make it a direct trajectory in profile, and then I would nip just a tidgy bit off the underside of the tip to give it more of that cute upturned look.

“There must be something wrong with me,” she finished glumly.

There might be something wrong with all of us. Take a look at TV, as good a cultural barometer as anything: Ever since “man hands” on Seinfeld, sitcom rejections occur almost always because of minutiae. The promos for ABC’s new show Emily’s Reasons Why Not feature the title character sneering about a would-be suitor, “He subscribes to Martha Stewart Living.” Cue the laugh track.

On dating shows, which ostensibly approximate real life, contestants don’t even pretend, like on MTV’s Next, in which five would-be dates wait their turn with a bachelor or bachelorette who will “next” them the moment he or she feels like the date isn’t going to work out. The show is 22 minutes long, and more often than not, they’ll go through all five candidates. “Sorry, Janelle,” the Jersey greaseball will say, backing away after two minutes. “But I’m going to have to say … Next!” Later he explains to the camera: “Did you see those nails? I like a natural woman.”

When it comes to relationships, it seems we’re all getting more shallow.

AND YET. Though it’s antithetical to all of the things we want to believe about ourselves, and relating to other people, and loving what’s on the inside, nexting sounds tempting, especially to those of us who have had experiences that, in retrospect, might have been averted.

Such as Paul, a book editor with fastidious habits who discovered that a sweet, sensitive woman he had been dating for several months was a thumb-sucker. He was grossed out, but he would just discreetly wash his pillowcase of drool every time she stayed over, he decided. It didn’t bother him at all, he said to himself. Until it became apparent her thumb-sucking was indicative of deeper emotional issues. After a while, Paul said, it seemed like whenever his girlfriend took her thumb out of her mouth, it was to cry and scream at him. “In retrospect,” he says now, “Duh.”

Jenny, a second-grade teacher, told me that when a guy she’d been seeing brought a plush Snoopy the first time he stayed at her house, she had a weird feeling but decided not to react. Not even in the morning, when he told her, “Snoopy wants to stay at your house for a couple of days.” Every night for a week, she looked at her grown-up bed with the giant red flag that was Snoopy in it and talked herself out of nexting Carl. And when she dressed Snoopy up in a tube top and earrings, thinking it would be funny, and Carl cried, she told herself he was just sensitive. It took several months for her to realize Carl was more than sensitive. He wanted a mommy — not a girlfriend.

I knew where she was coming from. For three years, I dated a man in his 30s who collected plastic figurines of characters from The Simpsons. You’d think I would have guessed Bartman — as we’ll call him here, since the string of expletives I ordinarily bestow on him isn’t appropriate for a family magazine — would turn out to be emotionally stunted and immature. I wish I had nexted Bartman, way back when he first mentioned he was awaiting delivery on a 25-piece Springfield plastic playset, but I didn’t, partly because I wanted to be in a relationship, and partly because I didn’t want to judge his hobbies. So like Paul and Jenny, I put on blinders. For three years, I basically ignored his Simpsons habit. Bartman, in turn, felt free to belittle my interests. It was not so great.

WHICH IS WHY, as Rose sat glumly on my couch, wondering if she was being Andrew McCarthy to John’s Molly Ringwald, I started to wonder: Is being shallow really so bad?

Because here’s the thing about John and Rose: Familial backgrounds aside, they were very different. She liked to read, and he liked to watch action movies. Loudly. While she was reading. She was a moderate drinker, and scraping him off the floor annoyed her. They didn’t have a ton to talk about, besides music. They were not destined to marry and have babies, and meeting his parents was a step too far. The visit to Hummeland just brought it all, well, home.

Similarly, Karen realized, after much self-loathing, that her boyfriend’s fake Irish accent was just a symptom of something else that bothered her: He was totally pretentious.

After Kevin ended things with Flower Guy, an acquaintance who subsequently dated him was overheard dishing about how Flower Guy liked baby talk, which pointed to issues Kevin was vastly pleased not to have to deal with.

As for Claire’s preoccupation with her boyfriend’s nose … well, let’s just say it was symbolic. “It may have been a small thing,” she says now of his, er, nose. “But it was a large problem.”

Maybe when we get SRS, we’re not being shallow, but some part of us is sensing these larger problems — and SRS is a warning sign. Maybe humans are evolving, growing a sixth sense that will tell us early on whether or not someone is going to work out, and our preoccupation with scents and aesthetics is actually a sign of development, and the people on Next are just, like, super-evolved. Maybe 5,000 years from now, we’ll be able to sniff out “the one” with our heightened senses, like bears. Or we’ll have grown relationship gills.

Until then, it’s probably best just to follow our instincts, even when they seem kind of shallow. After Rose hated herself for a month and John called her several variations on the term “horrible person,” they actually became friends. A romantic relationship between them would have devolved into resentment on both sides. This way, both probably know a little bit more about what they don’t want in a partner — and a little more about what they do want. And when they go to see bands together, at the end of the night, it’s not her job to scrape him off the floor.