Love is a Cancer


The three most significant relationships in my life thus far all involved men with birthdays in early July. Now, I’m not one to buy into the idea of astrological fatalism, but my horoscope says my energetic Scorpio mind is drawn to research, so I had no choice but to investigate.

Cancer #1 arrived in my life when we were both 18. We met in Washington D.C. as part of a national program celebrating nerdy teenagers, and despite having nothing in common other than over-achievement and home states that started with “New” (Hampshire for me, Mexico for him), we immediately determined that we were soul mates. Apparently, this was inevitable, since Cancers and Scorpios are both emotional water signs, and our positioning 120 degrees apart from each other on the Zodiac wheel makes us ideally compatible. Sharing an element (water, air, fire…) but not a sign gives two people enough similarities for deep understanding but sufficient differences to keep it interesting, which increases the chance for a strong bond and – hello – unlimited passion and compassion. How could Cancer #1 and I not have fallen for each other instantly? I blame my mother, for not forcing me out of the womb on my original due date (which would have made me a Libra).

When we met, my astrological Mr. Right and I were about to embark on the college adventure, so we were destined to be apart for at least the next four years. This made our short week together that much more intense; it was just like Romeo and Juliet, only without the warring families or any of the dying. As it turned out, we would remain in separate schools, states, or countries for the next seven years, but through it all we remained devoted pen pals and idealized romantic fantasies for each other. Had I known then that the powerful initial attraction between our sun signs also brings great emotional pain at separation, would I have thought twice about the romantic fantasy? Probably not, because teenagers are stupid no matter their birth dates. In our first seven years, he and I spent a grand total of 14 days together over four visits, and his immense pain at our separations must be the reason he, with religious devotion, began a relationship with someone else immediately after each one. Twice with someone else named Kate.

Finally, at the age of 25, both of our life paths led us (for different reasons) to Los Angeles. Two star-sign-crossed lovers coming together at last.  I raced to his new apartment, reveling in the idea of us actually sharing the same longitude and latitude, and he joyously introduced me to the woman who is now his wife.

The basic personality profile of the male Cancer states that they are highly emotional creatures who protect themselves with an outer image of care-free confidence. It’s why their symbol is the crab – all soft and squishy inside, with a hard candy shell. Scorpios are interested in all things deep and mysterious, which makes us not only obsessively attracted to masked personalities like Cancers, but also good at puzzles. Clearly, I had some work to do in solving human puzzles, as I had managed to miss every red flag in my first Cancer relationship. My favorite is this: during our last romantic tryst – a five-day adventure in London a few months before we both moved to LA – he repeatedly played the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. I love Ben Folds (not a Cancer), but if a guy thinks of that song as the theme to your relationship, it is not going to end well.

Cancer #2 and I were doomed from the start, really. He was seven years my junior, just a year out of college, but I didn’t care because he had all of those wonderful Cancer qualities: quiet self confidence, a sharp intellect, a strong sense of humor, and the classic easy-going personality. In other words, he was The Dude. Astrology posits that when Cancers become successful, it is almost entirely due to a natural charm rather than any particular skill or work ethic. My Cancers were all smart, but Cancer #1 was a proudly apathetic genius who majored in four subjects over ten years and only dated girls who made the first move, while Cancer #2 described our ideal relationship as one where I would be around whenever he wanted but didn’t require any effort on his part to plan ahead or even think about me the rest of the time. His commitment to detachment was aspirational.

As it turns out, dreaming big is a quality shared by both Cancers and Scorpios, but Cancer #2 was way better at it than I was. I am an optimist who goes all in when in love, and I have faith in the power of that love to overcome many relationship obstacles, like an age gap, or religious differences, or chest hair. But this guy put me to shame; his idea of love was beyond utopian. About a year in, it came out in conversation that I was, in fact, in love with him – a surprising moment, but not unexpected. We’d both said “I love you” very quickly, actually, as we’d been good friends for a year before dating, so I figured we’d probably been in love for a while and this was just the first time it was getting articulated. Apparently not. Exactly 24 hours later, he informed me that he’d thought about it, and he figured he must not be in love with me. Why? Because, “Sometimes, you annoy me.” For Cancer #2, being in love meant never having to say, “You bug me.” I imagine he is off somewhere still searching for his impossibly friction-less someone, and I wish him the best of luck.

We Scorpios tend to be melodramatic, and true to form I remained single for four years after Cancer #2. According to my research, one of the reasons Cancer-Scorpio relationships are so successful (clearly) is because “the Cancer man will allow the Scorpio woman to care and trust others again.” Sure enough, it was Cancer #3 who got me over the relationship hump at the end of those four years. The third time appeared to be the charm, as this Cancer possessed to the greatest degree yet my favorite of the Cancer character traits: “a streaking sophistication”. I have no idea what that is actually supposed to mean, but to me it beautifully captures the dichotomy of Cancer #3 emulating the rat pack and old-school British movie stars while also storing his underwear in random piles on his bedroom floor. At age 40.

Cancer men tend to seek out a stable emotional home base (i.e. this sucker) to use as an anchor for their wandering spirits. Cancer #3 was a quintessential explorer, trying on new hobbies, seeking out quirky corners of the city, and traveling around the world for fun and adventure; I loved it. He was the perfect complement to my dark-dwelling scorpion soul. We were the definitive Cancer/Scorpio match made in heaven – for about six months. The dark side to the adventurous Cancer is that he is often too restless to create a permanent home, and unwilling to compromise. Combine this with the Cancer’s desire to avoid confrontation at all costs, and our relationship soon became a game of passive-aggressive cat and obsequious mouse. One night, I suggested we watch a movie that I had recently seen and knew he would find hilarious. Instead of simply saying he wasn’t in the mood, this grown man spent the next fifteen minutes suggesting every movie he owned in his library until I finally gave in and picked one. Soon, every aspect of our relationship operated this way, including his ultimate decision to behave increasingly aloof until I finally threw in the towel – break up by technical knockout.

Has my exploration of the zodiac taught me anything? Yes. For one, astrology is bullshit. For every instance of my Cancers being emotional, easy-going, imaginative, and sensitive, I can cite just as many times when they were cold-hearted, stubborn, devoid of any sense of wonder, and even cruel. In all my research, the description of Cancer that comes closest to capturing the magic of our relationships is the one I found in the dictionary: “something malignant that spreads destructively.”

But that in itself is enlightening. Much like in fighting a real cancer, I came out alive by cutting the negative out of my life, stripping down most of my defenses, and rebuilding myself from the bottom up. And I have come out wiser for it. My Cancers taught me that you will have more success if you are sometimes willing to make the first move; that people who are in their twenties will think like people in their twenties, no matter how mature they may seem; and that sometimes people in their forties also think and act like people in their twenties. Most of all, my three bouts with Cancer have taught me that, no matter how much you believe in the perfect pairing of zodiac signs, Patty Smyth and Don Henley were still right: sometimes, love just ain’t enough. Which is why I have started researching love potions.