What I learned about Love from Tony Soprano


How one JDater used a DVD boxed set of “The Sopranos” to figure out what works and doesn’t work in relationships.

by Van Wallach

For smart romantic advice, I turn to Tony Soprano, the fictional center of “The Sopranos” on HBO. As I watched the series on DVD over the past year, mental notes piled up as Tony clashed with his mother Livia, therapist Jennifer Melfi, wife Carmela, and a string of lovers. Nothing ultimately satisfies him, as Tony is a man at war with himself. He has panic attacks, dreams about ducks, and has major emotional wounds. I found that a Jewish guy from Texas can learn a lot about love from an Italian guy from New Jersey.

My Sopranos marathons came while I struggled with my feelings toward Sandi, a woman I met on JDate. Animal attraction and possible emotional commitment surged in me when we first met at a suburban café. Smart and vulnerable and shtetl-lovely, Sandi cut straight to the reptilian precognitive boy-girl attraction node in my brain. She glided into my life like a swan and I adored her.

We stumbled through cycles of warmth and withdrawal, when she would stop contacting me. Then communications would begin again and I brimmed with hope—after all, she invited me to a seder and a Thanksgiving dinner, and introduced me to her friends and kids. And then there were our furtive erotic explorations in parks across Westchester County, which I’ll never forget.

Whatever hopes I nurtured for the swan, I was utterly, willfully, blindly wrong—as blind as Tony when he couldn’t believe Big Pussy was wearing a wire for the FBI. The latest cycle ended after I sent her a birthday card; Sandi called and said, “I have to be blunt. I’m dating somebody else.” She simply had no romantic feelings for me. The swan became a raptor, clawing my heart into strips of linguini a la Artie Bucco.

I needed help, and looked to Tony as my guide. Were we to grab drinks at his Bada Bing club, I imagine Tony would whack me upside my head and scream, “And I thought I was screwed up about women! Call Dr. Melfi and schedule a session, you idiot.” My DVD sessions with Tony taught me much. Some key lessons:

No. 1: Generosity counts

Tony knew the importance of gestures with women, signs of affection. In one episode, he returned home to Carmela after a separation and gave her a silk scarf. Bashfully, he said, “I got you something, you know, small… it’s an Hermes. It’s supposed to be the best.”

I thought about Tony when I treated Sandi to a sushi birthday dinner after five months of silence. I found the perfect gift and hid it in a shoulder bag. She had warned me that the issues that had interfered with us remained. I didn’t care. I had my Tony gesture to make and nothing Sandi said could forestall the moment when I gave her a silk scarf with a Japanese butterfly motif from the Metropolitan Museum. Tony would approve, I thought; I was trying to move back into Sandi’s life.

The takeaway: When Tony liked a woman, he never held back. That’s how I treated Sandi; she got everything I had, on every level. Even if another guy now enjoys seeing Sandi in that scarf, I treasure the moment I handed it to her, all $57.41 of it (being sentimental, I saved the receipt).

No. 2: Meet the mishpokhe

During their separation, Tony visited his home with Carmela when Carmela’s father celebrated a birthday with all his family and friends. That night Tony got Carmela into the pool for a romantic dip. I tried the family get-together with Sandi when my brother and nephew flew up from Texas for my son’s bar mitzvah. My brother had not come East since my wedding in 1989, so this was a very big deal. I invited Sandi to meet us on Saturday, the day after the bar mitzvah, for brunch in Westchester before my brother and I and our sons headed to New York to see “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Sandi met us at the very café where we had first collided. Our time was limited and awkward. Still, I hope she realized the significance of the brunch; Sandi is the only woman, other than my ex-wife, to ever meet my brother. For her to meet my son and nephew at the same time, well, that made the bar mitzvah weekend truly special. If only I could have pulled a Tony and Carmela, and gotten Sandi in a swimming pool for a late-night kiss-and-make-up dip…

No. 3: Facing the replacement

The Sandi cycle ended when she called me at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, the day we were to hear Brazilian music at a club. She said her life was too complex; she had to end our relationship.

“You’re a great catch for somebody,” she said.

“But you’ve already caught me,” I protested.

Later in the conversation she said, “I’m replaceable”—the saddest comment a woman has told me about herself. Eighteen months later I learned the truth was that I was replaceable, not her.

After the raptor bared her claws one last time, I wondered about my replacement. Sandi admitted she already knew him when she had me over for Thanksgiving. My mind spun wildly—was he tall, rich, worldly, maybe a Richie Aprile–style psycho with the edge and drama I lacked?

Tony’s replacement moment came after he discovered Irina, a discarded girlfriend, dating his politician friend, Ron. Enraged, Tony hunted them down and beat the tar out of Ron with his belt. In the Van version, thoughts of Sandi and the new guy boiled over in a Krav Maga Israeli martial arts class I take. I told my sparring partner I envisioned them together. He picked up on my anger and encouraged me to attack. “That’s it! Now you’re hitting!” he shouted as I pounded uppercuts into a padded shield he held.

When I calmed down, I asked myself—who was the real target? Another man who happened to appeal to Sandi more than I did, or my own foolish quest? I made my own choices here. I loved and lost, and I volunteered for every minute of the Sandi experience. I fell victim only to my own infatuation and wishful thinking. If I want to lash out, I should aim at the internal demons that make Sandis so emotionally appealing. Tony dreams of ducks, I long for wounded swans that vanish in the distance with never a glance back at me.

I really should call Dr. Melfi, just like Tony says. Maybe she’s Jewish.

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