As of this writing, I have been on three dates with a man I have every intention of seeing again. He, too, seems intent on seeing me; he texts just often enough that I feel sure of his interest but not put off by a potential early stage obsession, and he responds in a reasonable time frame when I text him, sometimes with pictures of his pets. It’s simple, but it’s the late-20s, pre-relationship dream.
Naturally, a vague sense of dread has overtaken me.
I’m 29 years old and have been (with one or two minor exceptions spanning less than a year) single but actively dating since college. I’ve had a handful of dry spells that lasted two to three months, but in general, I tend to keep a man or two around in varying degrees of casualness. For most of my adult life, I’ve been in no rush to get to anything but the weekend.
In that time, I’ve learned a million things for which I’m appreciative. I’ve become light years more direct because I now understand that, in most situations, there’s not much to lose. I’ve learned not only to trust my instincts, but also (and maybe more importantly) to read them. I’ve learned that the things I want in exchange for the things I provide in an interpersonal relationship are fair, and that no one should gaslight me into feeling bad about my desire to be treated like a person. I’ve lost my chill, but I generally hold onto my composure.
Unfortunately, I’ve also learned to beat back the thrill of liking someone new and being liked back, which, for some people, seems to return well into adulthood like a phantom limb of teenage romantic joy. To have been dating so consistently for a decade means that I’ve also ended up disappointed, repeatedly and sometimes brutally, too many times to count, and often in situations that left me ashamed of feeling disappointed at all, ashamed to admit I wanted something from a man that he didn’t want to give me, ashamed that I wanted to feel something and just felt cold. Women of my generation have internalized plenty of narratives about not needing a man, but how do we navigate the point in our lives when we find ourselves wanting one?
Dating is death by a thousand cuts. It’s the law of diminishing returns. It’s climbing a ladder when you know that, by far, the most likely outcome of reaching the top is falling off. That any of us keep doing it is objectively crazy; we could be using the time we spend dating to develop some sort of profitable skill. At the very least, I could maybe learn to knit and sell some scarves on Etsy. Instead, we wrench ourselves open, often in the company of relative strangers, on the off chance that someone will take a look at our guts and like what they see. That years of dating has left me largely unexcited about the process of dating seems perfectly rational, even if it feels like a self-defeating rationality. Even if I want to feel the butterflies.
It would be wrong, though, or maybe just too simplistic, to characterize this as an entirely negative turn of emotional events, or to assume that easy access to extreme emotion is always good. Patience and empathy are essential in adult relationships, and they require the ability to view your own feelings not just as an end unto themselves, but as something that happens in context. I’ve got that part down, so I try not to beat myself up too much. When I tell myself that I’m doing my best, I usually believe it.
None of that does me a whole lot of good, though, when I’m sitting in front of a man, eating oysters at Extra Fancy, smiling and laughing and wondering which one of us will get sick of the other first and how long it will ultimately take. Just like a fear of your own eventual death can make it impossible to enjoy the parts of life you’re most terrified of losing, vague anxiety about an eventual breakup can strangle the life out of a relationship before it even begins, especially when that anxiety reads as lack of investment.
I can’t fix all this right now, but I can start admitting I’ve met someone I genuinely like when friends inquire. I can start reciprocating when he says something nice about me. I can go on that fourth date and let him pull me into his chest after we have sex. I can take the ladder one rung at a time.