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Civilian Casualties

The perils of dating an artist.

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I was riding home from a party in a cab with a narcissistic boyfriend when he said, “I’m a little bit upset with you.” I already knew why. The week before, we had rented Barfly, and as we were chatting with two friends at the party, I launched into my version of Mickey Rourke’s version of Charles Bukowski. They laughed, but NB’s face fell and we left soon after. In the cab he laid into me: “I can’t believe you did that imitation! I was doing it when we were watching the movie, and you knew how much I was looking forward to doing it for an audience.” Instead of bawling him out for being so goddamned self-centered, I apologized and begged him to forgive me. It took a year for the two of us to realize that two narcissists just didn’t work together, and we broke up.

Many narcissistic artists, similarly burned by competitive relationships, cope by hooking up with “civilians,” or nonartists, hoping for lower-drama relationships. The civilians often act as dutiful spouse, fan-club president, and personal psychiatrist all rolled into one. They have to suffer through gig after gig, stand-up routine after routine, faithfully cheering on their lovers as they try to crack the big time, all the while wondering whether someday they’ll get famous and leave. Overall, civilians say the trade-off is worth it—but only when both parties agree to let the artist get all the attention.

Rose, 38, a technology executive, had a one-year relationship with an interior designer named Paul. “The upside was that he was involved in the fashion world, so there were all these glamorous events to go to,” she says. “The downside was that I was expected to make him the center of my universe.” When they went to parties together, he insisted she carry his business cards for him; once, when she passed him a dog-eared card, he threw a fit. “This is only my career we’re talking about here!” he shouted in front of everyone, and tossed the cards angrily into the garbage.

Not surprisingly, Rose suspected he might be gay. “He had a lot of mother issues and was very metrosexual,” she says. But she was drawn to his joie de vivre and creativity. “When we first met, he told me, ‘I have an antique Porsche, I collect Ducatis, and I like shopping for vintage modernist furniture.’ I thought he was really intriguing. I work in financial services, so these were things I would never come across in my nine-to-five job.”

As much as she enjoyed his ability to help her pick out clothes, his tendency to throw tantrums in public made him a less-than-ideal shopping partner. “I was living with the hope of what could be, rather than paying attention to the reality of what was,” she says. “He needed to have someone so wowed by him that anything he could provide above that would be icing.”

Computer programmer Amos Elliston, 30, is the fiancé of comedian-actress Wendy Spero, 29, whom he met in 1997 when they were students at Wesleyan. She started doing stand-up five years ago at “bringer shows,” where each performer has to bring in six people. “I always had to be one of the six people,” he says, “and I had to sit through sixteen comics a night, who were mostly bad. I was the only one up front, and they would all make fun of me. I would rather go through medieval torture than experience that again.”

When they go out, she’s the more vivacious one, but she always was, and he doesn’t mind. “Two people competing for the spotlight would be hard, but when it’s just one it works. The only time I complain about her being self-centered is when I’m going through something difficult on my own.”

Terri, 34, is a journalist whose boyfriend of two years is a jazz and rock drummer. Thanks to his encouragement, she quit a nine-to-five editing job, and now works freelance. Though her romantic relationship is stable, there are still some surreal moments. “It’s like Oz,” she says, “because the rules of the known universe don’t apply. He was playing at a huge jazz festival, and after they finished this girl ran onto the stage and asked him to sign her boobs. He did and then he told me about it. That kind of thing would not happen if I were dating someone normal.”

Still, she doesn’t worry about his being tempted. “I used to freak out about it, but if that’s what he wanted to do, he would be sleeping with groupies every night and not choose to have a girlfriend. Besides, it’s hard to be threatened by jazz harlots. They’re a little bit out-there.”


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