I’ve been seeing a dude for about three months. We met online, during an intensive dating-people-online phase of mine prompted by the end of a six-month relationship prior. When we met, I had pretty much given up—not in a resigned, self-pitying way; my attitude was that online dating was wasting too much of my time and energy, with unsatisfactory results, so I was going to keep myself open to romantic possibility, but not actively pursue finding someone.
Then I met this dude—we went for coffee, and I was surprised at the ease of our conversation, and we kept seeing each other and it kept being really nice. About a month later, we had a vague relationship talk (he asked something along the lines of whether I considered him my boyfriend) and thereafter considered ourselves exclusive.
He is not the type of dude I usually go for, and this is a refreshing change. Throughout most of my 20s (for 8 and a half years), I was in (what I now have come to acknowledge as) an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship with a man-child artistic type. This new dude is very independent, has travelled the world, has strong family values, loves his job, and is equal parts nerd and jock. (Relevant information? His longest relationship was three months.) While New Dude and I do have good conversations and a similar sense of humor, we do not share the same depth of intellectual connection as did my ex and I—this intellectual connection was one of the major initial factors in us hooking up. I was also spoiled by the Ex (a three-year remove has allowed me to acknowledge some of the positives of our failed relationship) in that he was extremely articulate and communicative. He sent me daily, multi-paragraph emails full of cute details and in-jokes. On the down side, he also expected several phone calls a day and needed to know where I was all the time—I fully realize that a lot of what I thought was sweet and thoughtful at the time was pretty damn toxic. But I think I’ve subconsciously conflated “caring” with “tons of communication” in a relationship, and this is something that is not happening with New Dude. He doesn’t communicate very frequently—lately, because he did at the very beginning. Is this a settling-into-the-relationship thing? Is three months too soon for this behavior to start? My friends have told me I need to talk to him about this, but my issue (one of my issues) is that I don’t feel that the timing is right to have a chat like this, and that he should be aware of it and shouldn’t need to be told to send a “hey, how’s it going” text every coupla days, and what if the lack of that communication is just indicative of the bigger issue that’s troubling me, i.e. what if our levels of emotional investment are not matched? And what can I do about that—make him like me as much as I like him? I guess that’s what keeps me from wanting to sit down and chat about what’s bothering me—maybe he doesn’t even really care. All I have to go on is the fact that whenever we hang out (twice a week at least, although it’s mostly me initiating / making plans) we have a great time; but the lag in between spending time together fills me with doubts and anxieties, and frankly I don’t wanna be That Girl.
I realize this sounds very trite and trivial. What is my question? Okay, here it is: How can I know if I should fully invest in this relationship?
I realize any new relationship is fraught with scary uncertainties, but I guess I’m just not ready to invest more if it’s not reciprocal (although, who does, right?). Should I sit him and down and talk it out? See if things change? Make myself mellow out and realize New Dude is different than The Ex, has a different style and adjust to that?
(I should add that when we exchanged Christmas cards, he signed his “Your Pal.” I signed mine “Love.” Telling, no? I should also add, though, that we do call each other “dude,” “chief,” etc.—very casual jovial terms. Am I letting this argot unintentionally set the tone for our emotional interactions?)
Or is my question: do I even like this guy that much, or am I settling? Should I hold out for the absolute best, someone who matches me in all the ways that count, or is he that guy and more time will uncover that truth? It’s so hard to know yourself, right? What if I’m just terrible at self-assessment and can easily talk myself in and out of things?
Any input you have would be much appreciated.
Anxious About Reciprocity
I want you to think about Lorde for a second. Not Lorde the actual teenager—I don’t know much about her, and if you do, scrape that information out of your head. I mean Lorde the brand, the performer, the girl in the dark purple lipstick who gets up on stage at the Grammys and does this.
Pop, sure. Teenager, sure. But undeniably bad ass. And even if the real Lorde turns out to be obsessed with aristocracy and genuinely would LOVE to be a royal, the branded, polished, performing Lorde, the imaginary bad ass, is basically saying, “We reject your horse shit universe of bling, you shallow, worthless fucks you.” Lorde the brand works because Lorde the brand stands for something very clear and concrete. Lorde the brand stands for living the life you have right now, and savoring it, and saying NO to all of the shit that doesn’t jibe with your ideals and passions.
Now let me ask you this: Would Lorde put up with whatever from this dude you’re dating, or would Lorde snort derisively at his card signed “Your Pal” and then toss it into an enormous incinerator and stomp away in her glitter-encrusted hobnail boots?
If you were happy floating along with this, if you didn’t mind NOT having an intense intellectual connection, if you were cool with seeing him twice a week, if you didn’t get a strange feeling when you read the words “Your Pal” on that flinchy piece of shit Christmas card, that would be one thing. But you don’t like the way things are going right now. You don’t like it one bit.
And this is not about demanding a lifelong commitment immediately. This is about you. You know what you want. You don’t necessarily want someone who texts you fifteen times a day. But you DO want to be in love. You want to be loved by someone who wants to talk a lot, who wants to share himself completely, who WANTS to fall in love and thinks you’re extra super special and more than a fucking pal.
So be honest about your true desires here. The single best thing you can do, as a single person and as someone who’s just started to date someone new, is be very, very clear about what you want, and what you don’t want.
When you don’t communicate what you want, because doing so somehow makes you THAT GIRL—unattractive because she has the audacity to ask for exactly what she wants from men (which isn’t actually unattractive, ahem)—guess what happens? You are treated as a pal and you are expected to go with the flow. When you sell a guy a fictional story about how cool and easy-going you are, how well you can hang, how low-maintenance you are about everything, all you’re doing is torturing yourself and delaying the inevitable moment when he realizes that you can’t deliver the low-key gal you promised from the start. Why play along with “Your Pal” and “dude” and “Hey, let’s hang out occasionally and ignore each other the rest of the time” when that’s not the life you want?
And what’s so fucking attractive about that easy-going, no-problem girl anyway? Does she have a single fucking thing in common with Lorde, or is she inadvertently aspiring to be a muted, high-fiving fuck doll? Do you want to be a person, or do you want to be an emotional Hooters waitress, serving up cuddles and hot wings and laughing it off when your ass gets pinched for the 15th million time?
You’re not even sure that you’re crazy about this guy. You’re just trying to WIN HIM, like a big ugly cheap toy at the state fair. You won’t know if you really do like him a ton until HE’S IN IT COMPLETELY. If you keep playing along with his “pal” routine, you might trick yourself into thinking that you’re in love with him, simply because he’s half-assed and therefore slightly mysterious. The last thing you want in your life is to get hung up on someone simply because he’s apathetic towards you. What’s nuts is that it’s sometimes easier to feel feelings for a guy who’s WRONG for you and essentially uninterested and unavailable than it is to fall for someone who’s totally and completely in your life, present, willing, interested, invested, etc. Cardboard cutouts make great love objects, particularly if you spent too much of your childhood watching The Little Mermaid on repeat, thinking that giving up your excellent tail and your soulful singing voice would be just fine, if it meant spending eternity with that big, bland, macho-zero-nothing Prince Eric.
Why play make-believe just to keep Prince Pal in your life, anyway? You don’t NEED a guy—ANY GUY!—in your life, do you? You aren’t risking anything by telling a guy who’s not really delivering much value to your life EXACTLY what you want, are you? But you ARE risking a lot when you DON’T tell a guy exactly what you want. You’re risking wasting a lot of time and emotional energy on someone who’s not remotely prepared to share himself with you. DON’T DO IT.
I had a boyfriend who didn’t tell me he loved me for a year. It became kind of a joke between us, and I was very patient, because it was obvious that he loved me. But you know what? He was too immature for me. Same thing with the boyfriend who didn’t want to talk about the future, didn’t want to get a job or put down the bong, but also didn’t want to break up or move out. He wanted to maintain the status quo, because that was easier than changing things, showing up, growing up, moving on, or doing anything at all.
When I met my husband, I was 34 years old and had been in several 2-year-long relationships. I was very clear with him about what I would and wouldn’t settle for. My husband is not a pushover. But my self-respect and clarity set the tone for our relationship, and allowed us to expect a lot from each other, behavior-wise, instead of allowing lots of room for mutual sloppiness and disrespect. We talked a lot about what it means to accept another person for who they are. We talked about honesty and maintaining a spirit of generosity—which, by the way, if you do it from the very start, really pays off. Instead of saying “You owe me this!” you end up saying “I think I should give you more on this front” or “Why don’t you take a break and let me handle this part?”
I’m not saying there aren’t snags or fights along the way. But look, if what you REALLY WANT is a strong, healthy, resilient relationship, you don’t get it by playing it cool forever. In fact, when you wait too long to say exactly what you want, it comes out all resentful and needy and weak. I’m not saying you have to lay out a plan for your upcoming wedding. I’m just saying you have to make it clear that you’d like to see him regularly, that you want to be honest and open with him about your feelings and have him do the same, and that you don’t see the two of you as “pals” and can’t really proceed in a relationship that masquerades as a friendship with benefits. Without these things, you don’t feel that you’ll get to know him any better, and therefore you’ll be frustrated AND you’ll be wasting your time, time that could be spent getting to know some OTHER GUY who’s looking for the same kind of honest, intellectually stimulating, emotionally rich relationship that you are. YOU ARE NOT THE KIND OF WOMAN WHO WANTS TO WASTE HER TIME BULLSHITTING AROUND WITH SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T GIVE A FUCK. If that makes you “That Girl,” so be it.
And beware waiting too long. Because if you put off this conversation until you’ve already bit your tongue and been disappointed a bunch of times, until you’re already a little angry about how things have gone, what fucking good is that? You’ll end up sounding like someone who’s been faking it for too long, who’s a little passive aggressive and nuts, who can’t be trusted to tell the truth about anything, or who’s TOO INSECURE to tell the truth about anything. You assume that leveling with him now will seem needy and insecure, but in fact it’ll make you look like a woman who knows what she wants and is confident enough to ask for it. You’ll look like a woman who doesn’t mind losing a dude who’s not all that into her.
BEFORE he disappoints you (again), tell him what you want from him. If he can’t give you what you want, that’s ok. Move on. Better to figure that out now. Yes, you’ll think, “Why did I have to open my fucking mouth?” when things fall apart. But what is the goal here? To stay in a shitty half-assed thing at all costs?
Because I’m telling you, if you don’t say a word, this picture doesn’t improve. You just get more and more anxious, and then the relationship ends just the same.
AND there’s a smallish chance that he’ll say, “Yeah, I can do that. I want to be with you.” When you stand up for what you want, and you aren’t afraid to say it out loud, you’d be amazed how well the world responds to that.
But, let’s be honest, lots of guys don’t like it. You know what kinds of guys don’t like it? The guys who are hiding from themselves, the guys who don’t want to be seen, the guys who don’t want to show up. AND THEY ARE FUCKING EVERYWHERE, dude. But you don’t want someone like that. You want one of the good ones, the ones who can look you in the eye and say, “YES. What you want is not unreasonable. I want to be intellectually met, too. I want to be emotionally open, too. I want to be with YOU.”
Acting casual and nonchalant is fine for a while. You don’t want to get too intense and over the top straight out of the gate. Who does? But three months into a relationship? It’s not only ok to ask for what you need, it’s healthy to do so.
I played along with anything and everything for so many years, and it never did anything for me. It just made me feel like a crazy, needy person once the truth came out, that I didn’t want to just hang around and act like a guy for the rest of my life. I settled for whatever, time and again, without bringing the full force of who I was into the picture. Eventually, I found myself, through music and writing and through a few strong, committed friendships. And once I understood my own ideas and beliefs about love, and I felt confident enough to express them, I could finally stand up for what I really wanted. I had courage in my convictions. I didn’t have to roll along with ways of living that I knew would never serve me or create a happy, fulfilling relationship.
And look, once you make a very clear distinction (This is what I want from a relationship. This is what I DON’T want.) you can actually HAVE FAITH THAT YOU WILL NOT SUFFER THROUGH BULLSHIT AGAIN. You can trust yourself to walk away from bad situations. You can trust that you won’t sell yourself short. You can trust yourself to give voice to your desires, and to honor the deepest, truest parts of your soul.
HOW FUCKING GREAT IS THAT? To trust yourself to take care of yourself and honor your soul. When you hit the point where you’re not going to sell your fucking soul up the river for a pretty face? That’s the turning point into adulthood. That’s the beginning of true happiness.
You probably aren’t that anxious to sit down and make demands of this guy. But I want you to see this as your big moment of truth. You aren’t making demands of anyone. You are simply stating what is real and true for you. He can understand and appreciate it, or he can resist it and move on. Either way, you give him your blessing and your love and there are no hard feelings. You simply know what you want.
Do some writing about what you really, really want from love. Make a list. Then list the things that make you feel disappointed and sad. Talk it all through with a few friends. Revise your list. Spend some time alone and really feel your way through this. You shouldn’t be talking yourself into or out of anything. You should be looking deep inside and asking yourself what you want, how you want to live. You should be reaching for the very best possible love and life for yourself. You should be thinking of your favorite bad ass. Don’t you deserve to treat yourself with as much adoration and love as Lorde does? And if not WHY THE FUCK NOT? Why don’t you cherish yourself and who you are like THAT? What damns you to half-assed fucking men, exactly?
So anyway, tell him. Don’t do it when you’re angry or disappointed in him. Do it when you feel good about everything. But don’t wait too long. Don’t wait until you’re upset. Do it soon. Tell him what you want. Not “I want marriage and kids right now.” But: “I want an intellectually stimulating relationship between equals, where two people share their ideas and feelings.” Be specific. And be kind. Let him off the hook. He hasn’t promised you anything. Try to accept that this may not be true love. Try to allow him room to want different things.
It’s ok if he doesn’t want what you want, and he’s willing to say it. That’s a good outcome, actually. He will be doing you a huge favor if he is honest and tells you that now. The harder thing is the guy who PRETENDS he wants it, kind of, but mostly just doesn’t want to move his fear-changing ass off your couch.
Listen to me closely now: The people who dare to ask for an expansive, life-altering love, who will be alone rather than settle for less, are the ones who find it. People who accept less, who figure they don’t deserve any better, who figure that it’s too much of a risk to tell the truth and scare men off, are the ones who live with a constant feeling of disappointment and neglect. When you neglect yourself and your feelings, you get neglected by others, too.
Stand up for yourself. Stand up for what you want. Does that make you That Girl?
Then BE. THAT. GIRL.
Because That Girl is a shining beacon to the rest of us. That Girl doesn’t play along and call herself whatever some dude is calling her, whether it’s “pal” or “that chick I’m sleeping with” or “her, over there.” That Girl doesn’t sit through drifty, disconnected conversations with men who can’t show up. That Girl doesn’t care if you think she’s attractive or appropriate or easy to be around or not. She’s not caught up in some dude’s love affair—with himself, with his stuff, with his fantasy of how easy and sexy and mysterious True Love will be when he finally finds it, just like a porn flick starring him with a soundtrack by The Shins. That Girl is willing to risk his disapproval for the sake of her own happiness.
Fuck the critics. Fuck the onlookers. Fuck this cold, disapproving world, that doesn’t like That Girl or really any fucking girl at all, when it boils right down to it. BE THAT GIRL.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by ArtFamily from Shutterstock.