Hello, my name is Emma and I use men for their stories


What girl doesn’t want a Ted Hughes to play against her Sylvia Plath?

Some years ago I saw Frances McDormand and Joel Coen in the Crate & Barrel on New York’s Houston Street. She was trying to engage him in upholstery swatches, he was ignoring her, and she was chastising him in that exact way that reminds men of their mothers – and makes them leave their wives.

In other words, this cool, famous, successful pair was just like any other couple: totally miserable.

I’ve always had a thing for glamorous men, and the few big loves in my life all had their own thing going. Of course, successful men are always attractive to women, but in my case part of the allure was the fantasy of what — not who — we would be together. What can I say? I’m a writer. I love a good story – especially when it involves me.

In my early 20s I was involved for a few years with a very handsome and brilliant Bulgarian guy whose English was so good he sometimes substituted for the anchor at CNN International where he worked as a producer. When his Fullbright visa ran out, I followed him to Sofia where he got a job at the local network and I developed a fantasy that we would be this international journalism duo, reporting on all the breaking news around the globe and name our first daughter Sophia. Isn’t that a fantastic story? Turns out he had his own fantastic story — without me. He left me for his co-anchor and is now the lead personality on Bulgaria’s top evening news broadcast.

The story of my ex-husband and me was a good one from the start: He was a news photographer at a local TV station in Phoenix where I was a newspaper reporter. We were both stationed in Northern Arizona to cover a forest fire, and he offered me one of the extra – and scarce – hotel rooms his employer had booked (I would forever tease him that he didn’t even try to make good use of that room). He was exceptionally talented and skilled and when we moved to New York, we both hustled up good jobs (him, coincidentally, also at CNN) and a big apartment where we held dinner parties for our many new media friends when my husband wasn’t working in war zones or hurricanes. We were fully living out my power-couple fantasy. Until, of course, it all ended in a rather remarkable story of its own.

My last boyfriend and I had a good story – mainly that he was nearly 20 years older than me and was also a writer. We were so tickled with ourselves as two writers in a torrid May-December love affair and would spend many workday hours texting and IMing what we thought was the cleverest, wittiest banter. Our output was indeed remarkable in its volume and quality – so much so that we launched a project in which we literally co-wrote an actual story exploring the realities of romances in which he is significantly older than she. That was abandoned when those same realities broke us up, and the pieces of that story are now sitting in disjointed fragments on each of our laptops.

Needless to say none of these relationships went the distance. I happen to be of the mentality that they were not failures – just  chapters of my long life in which I love and cry and learn and write my own story. There’s another commonality in these tales. It’s been painfully clear to me lately that each of these stories were ended by the other party. And in each instance, I was so relieved. None of them were joyful enough to make me happy beyond the time that they lasted. So why didn’t I have the courage to see that – and leave myself? I’m certainly loyal, and afraid of making hasty decisions – I am not one to take love and good people for granted. But maybe, just maybe, I was too smitten with the fantasy of my life with each of these men to really dig down and explore what makes me genuinely happy.

I recently dated a successful crime novelist. He was sexy and smart and an absolute sweetheart. He was also remarkably humble, despite the fact that one of his books had been optioned by the production company of an A-list actress, and one of his titles was being adapted for a TV series by an A-list novelist. But even as he met me at subway to escort me to his apartment for what would be our last date – casually holding an umbrella over my head – I just couldn’t get over the fact that I didn’t feel that easy connection, that spark of chemistry that I crave. There was not one single thing I could find wrong with him – and a whole lot I found right, including my fantasy story about how we could create a blended family with our respective kids who would be surrounded by brilliantly successful writers and all their literary friends. Nevermind the fact that I don’t really have any literary friends and would probably be intimidated by his. It killed me to call if off, but by then I’d recognized my history of fairy-land living and felt I owed it to everyone involved to keep things real.

Funny how a little dose of self-awareness changes everything. Last weekend I was at an apartment party where I met a health care consultant. Nothing particularly compelling about that, except everything was compelling about that – most especially all the witty banter and the immediate sexual charge that penetrated our conversation. There wasn’t much fodder for a fantasy story at all, except that it was incredibly fun to hang out with this guy. I’m not sure there is a better story than that.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

4 thoughts on “Hello, my name is Emma and I use men for their stories

  1. I had a dream last night that I married a man who I wasn’t madly in love with, but I thought it was a decent story and it looked good on paper and in fantasy. For the THIRD time. Then I had to run around trying to get a quick annulment because I didn’t want to be the woman with THREE divorces.

  2. i always loved nerds. They’re awesome. Theyr usually momma’s boys, so they’re very devoted. Also, they lack the social confidence to cheat on you. All the men in my life were basically nerds, including my brothers with whom I’m very close. So when my widowed cousin started dating again, I gave her my best advice “Find a nice nerd.” She dated several guys, and then met this nerd. She called me to tell me! Not only is he a nice nerd, but he’s also recently widowed. He’d nursed his sick wife until her death, in the same way my cousin did with her hub. They both have two college-age daughters. He’s a successful (but very shy and modest) commodities trader. When she called me two years later to announce their engagement she just said “thanks for the advice! Nerds Rock!!!”

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