I am not a relationship expert, but I now know what a real relationship looks like. Before you call me smug, know that before I met my current partner I spent years in unhealthy relationships, asserting that I would never find anyone who "got me," and have had enough therapy to uncover my own faults and relationship flaws to overuse psychological terms in my day-to-day vernacular. ["He's just projecting his insecurities onto you!"]
Also, did I mention I happen to be surrounded by women?
Although I attended a few different colleges, I graduated from an all-girls university (so quiche) and I also work with primarily women. My friends are women, so as a card-carrying feminist (even the word sounds funny to me because it’s just common sense) the last thing I’d want to do is go back to a time when women had to wait at home for a man to call. When there were “rules” and a much stricter set of societal expectations for how we had to lead our lives in relationships and elsewhere. But it seems that the way we date today has set women who want real companionship and romance back at least fifty years. It's a pattern I've noticed by listening to the same complaints and stories almost daily, from women who bemoan that there are no good men left and begin to question their own sanity and self-worth as a result. This phenomenon has roots in two different places: 1) our society and 2) our resulting inability and unwillingness to speak up for what we really want. Let me explain.
Remember when the New York Times decided to try and be quaint by painting an elaborate picture of the Minneapolis dating scene? Did it make anyone else want to throw up out of how disgustingly accurate it was? Within the first sentence, some wannabe lothario (who I picture looking like a hipster Bobby Bottleservice when I read it aloud) plainly states: “Nobody’s exclusive. That’s what dating is.”
Well, yes. But it didn’t used to be. Dating used to mean courting, giving someone your full attention in order to get to know them better, and if they didn’t float your boat, politely going your separate ways. Nowadays, people entangle themselves with multiple mini-relationships that won’t go anywhere, and draw them out for months at a time. The problem is, usually half of this “couple” doesn’t seem to know this, assuming that boyfriend-esque behavior equates to being in a committed, loving relationship. This is not the case.
So many of the women I talk to have been dating someone consistently for an extended amount of time and are perpetually caught in a spiral of confusion and self-doubt because the men they’re with are displaying relationship-like behavior—taking them on dates, spending a substantial amount of quality time with them, sleeping with them, and seeming genuinely interested in their lives—without wanting to put the label that requires actual commitment on it. They’ve moved past the courting phase but are unwilling or emotionally unable to enter into a real relationship, which involves deciding to be with someone exclusively. We've forgotten this is a beautiful thing, to commit ourselves to the person we love.
Increasingly large amounts of men do not want to make this decision because they feel they don’t have to—because there are plenty of women willing to make themselves available to them and a new kind of misleading, blurred-line behavior. Do you notice a pattern here? It’s not men's fault. The "blame," if you want to use that word, should be placed on both willing participants in a situation that is not equal or honest.
The thing is, I know that not all women want relationships. But those that do, and allow this behavior to go on are falling into the trap that society has already set. I’ve witnessed too many women succumb to a dumbing down of expectations simply because they feel unworthy of the kind of relationship they actually want: an honest, loving, committed one. I have listened to women talk themselves in circles about when it's okay to have the "what are we" discussion, worrying that wanting to put a label on something is simply passé these days. What we have forgotten in 2014 is that real relationships need a healthy set of standards and boundaries to survive. They require a matching of expectations and open communication. They may take work like anything else, but they do not cause us to doubt ourselves and our feelings. They do not make us feel hurt, confused, or used as a means to an end. They require us to ask for what we really want, and to stop playing games with other people and ourselves. So women, can I ask you: Can we agree to stop settling for sex if what we really want is love? It’s as inauthentic as some men pretending they want love to get sex.
It’s not our fault. (Though if you read He’s Just Not That Into You one too many times you might start to think so.) Today’s culture has left women too accustomed to bad behavior to think there are any other options or good men left. It becomes easier for us to start emotional multitasking, which distracts us from what we really want. Because when you’re willing and able to separate a relationship into times you feel like a friend, to times you’re treated like a girlfriend, to other times when you’re just a sex partner, you’re doing a great job of being an emotional ninja but a shitty job of achieving a fulfilling relationship. You become adept at handling multiple roles and ultimately lose sight of yourself. And as cliché as it sounds, you can’t be everything to everyone; you have to be something substantial to yourself first. You deserve to be with someone who appreciates you as a whole woman and you should not settle for less.
I believe in love. I also know it’s hard to find. But anything sacred or special is. So if you actually want it, here’s the secret: embrace it. Don’t be afraid and don’t feel ashamed. Understand that’s what you really want, and if you want it with someone in particular, realize you’re going to have to talk about it. (And if you’re scared to talk to him about it, consider this: in a real relationship you will have to talk about everything.) If his ideas don’t match up with your own, move on to greener pastures. Don’t try and negotiate with yourself that you can change his mind, because at that point, you’re just playing yourself. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the moment, be secure enough to choose being by yourself for a while instead of game-playing. It's not always easy to spend time with yourself, but it's a lot better than wasting it with someone who doesn't really want to know you anyway. The more time you spend as a means to an end or with someone who causes you to feel hurt, confused, or used, the less energy you have to be fully, authentically yourself.
And being 100% open and authentic is what will lead you to meet your match. I never understood what it meant to truly love someone and have a real partner until I met AO. Because no matter what you try to tell yourself about relationships, if you can’t be your whole self with someone and just have FUN, you’re doing it wrong. Real love isn’t a clusterfuck, it just is. And if we want it, we have to say so.