The Danger of Dating While Feminist
Lately, I have been thinking that maybe I should come right out on the first date and give the guy a heads up: “Just so you know, I’m kind of a feminist. No, not kind of. I’m definitely a feminist.” That way, there is no confusion. He’s not going to realize three weeks in, or whenever it is, that I have a brain and that I think about social and internal pressures that affect my relationships, and that these things concern me.
The danger of Dating While Feminist (DWF) is that you SEE things. You see things that other people don’t see. And on top of that, you care. It matters to you. And this can be an emotional drain, leaving you with not as much left for the relationship that you are trying to conduct. Well, it is a drain when your partner does not care and is not sympathetic, that is for sure.
I can see why many people don’t want to “bother” with being feminist, whether they are women or men. Caring does take a lot of energy. It requires concentration, and effort, and self-inquiry to disrupt the status quo, whether that is your own, or society’s in general. Everyone has a limited amount of energy, so I guess from an efficiency standpoint, most people would prefer to put that energy into getting laid, or maintaining their relationship, or just living life, rather than to really think about what they are doing, or what they are experiencing.
I am not most people.
I am also not the only one. And recent — ahem — political events have emboldened a lot of people to “come out” as feminist. Feminism has changed with the times — as well it should. But what’s clear is that the need for it has not disappeared. So we can’t just sleep on it. We can’t just close our eyes and be “efficient” when that ignorance is hurting us. And the more people that speak up for it, the better.
I had a wake-up call recently. I had been “talking to” my ex. We’ve been broken up for as long as we were together — about four months. And recently, it seemed that we had had some pretty good exchanges. He was still clearly attracted to me. And I to him. I remembered all of the reasons that we broke up. But I remembered why I liked him, too. And what can I say? Liking him is sort of intoxicating.
Which is I guess what love can do to us, sometimes. Love and lust can get us to override all of our better decision-making, because whatever is happening just *feels* so darn good in the moment.
But I noticed, too, that sometimes I did not feel so good. Sometimes our witty banter by text would upset me, and I would tell him, and then my upset would be compounded by his lack of understanding about what it was that was making me feel upset. This despite the fact that I took great pains to communicate clearly and in a “non-attacky” way — that is, to not focus on his actions, but to talk more about how I felt, so as not to hurt his male ego, because that is obviously the most important thing.
I have read lots of dating blogs and listened to dozens of podcasts from dating coaches. They all tend to say a version the same thing: NEVER criticize a man. Like, literally never. So basically, as a woman (let’s assume a heterosexual relationship, for right now) in a relationship with a guy, you have to be very careful to craft everything you say or do so that not only will you not be criticizing him, you will not even *appear* to be critical of him.
Perhaps for some women, this comes very naturally. To me, it does not, in that I place a high value on honesty. My own, and that of others. I expect and want people to be honest with me about how they feel. Even if it might hurt me to hear it, ultimately I know that I will benefit more from the information than if I don’t hear it.
I see honesty as a service. It’s a service I appreciate, and which I sometimes perform for others. And yes, at times, it does not go over well. This can be with girlfriends as much as with a guy that I am dating. But sometimes, I do not want to hold back. Sometimes, if something is bothering me, I don’t want to keep that information inside, because it will breed little baby feelings that mature into resentment, and from where I am sitting, that is always more harmful to the relationship than outspoken honesty.
My wake-up call came when I read this article on Ironic Sexism that a friend posted to Facebook. And when I read it, I realized that, while I still loved my ex, and thought he was super funny, and part of me wished we could get back together, in fact what I had was a softboy on my hands. The “little brother” of the Male Sentimental, the Softboy “is Nice yet complicated; this isn’t just a hookup. It’s a series of such.” Sounds about right.
“If the Fuckboy is an unrepentant asshole, these guys are somewhat repentant, though not enough to change their behaviour. They wear women down by requiring a frankly invoiceable amount of emotional labour, with limited reciprocity or commitment, fostering insecurity and remaining inhospitable to being called out for anything.”
And right there, a woman who lives in Australia had described about 90% of my interactions with my ex.
I would agree that he was a “repentant” asshole. He would do or say things that hurt me, and whether he knew it or not, he would act oblivious to how he was affecting me. Then when I expressed my feelings to him, he would make a point of apologizing, as if the apology would dismiss the action and we could all move forward, which is really what he wanted. And even though I did desire an apology, I never felt quite satisfied with his — as if they were functional more than they were sincere. He interpreted that I wanted him to feel sorry, and so he said it as a way to “manage” my emotions, because in truth, he did not want to deal with them.
He interpreted that I wanted him to feel sorry, and so he said it as a way to “manage” my emotions, because in truth, he did not want to deal with them.
And not only that, I knew from past experience that his self-absolution through apology was him paving the way for a similar action in the future. And after hurting me then, he would apologize again, and look like a saint for doing so. Whereas, if I did not “let it go” after he apologized — even if I did not feel satisfied — then I was the one who looked bad.
In our relationship, I was carrying the weight of anything emotional, even though his emotions were frequently front and center. And I realized, in one moment of clarity, that I had taken this task on willingly. That, to a certain extent, I even enjoyed the feeling of being the one who could “handle” all of the emotions. But I also had the residual sense that he was exploiting my fortitude. That he knew I could “handle” it, so he made me do so — even though he was perfectly capable of pulling his own emotional weight. He “let” me do it as a way to maintain power, because it kept me busy. And I let him do that, because, I don’t know, I felt bad for him, or something.
I recently took a “dating personality” quiz, offered by one of said relationship/dating/love coaches. I find these things to be fun for informational purposes, although I mostly stick to the free offerings. My quiz told me that I have a “Dreamer” dating personality, or “pattern,” as they called it. “Being The Dreamer means you want to see the best in everyone, which is generally a wonderful thing…you may have tended to attract men that have issues that you don’t pick up on at first. Sometimes huge issues. Deal-breakers. You ‘see the best’ in them, but miss the not-so-great stuff that’s there, too.” Yup. Basically.
I’ve always been kind of sentimental. I like the misshapen Cheerios in the box. My favorite family cat that we had growing up was a kitten that was a runt of a litter and born with one eye. I thought I was “special” for loving her so much. She probably did not care. She was a cat. And she’d only ever had one eye, so probably she was fine. But it made *me* feel good to give her special attention.
I like boyfriends that are a little bit different, too. Is he nerdy? Great. Maybe he has some kind of physical disability? Sure. Emotional issues? Why not? I can handle it. I like rescue boyfriends.
And this ex-bf of mine was not all that different. A physically-able, 30-year-old guy, he is someone that stands out a little bit in Northeast America. He has brown skin and an obvious expression of his religious background. Was it my religious background? No, but like I said, I like it when people are a little bit different. So all of this was attractive to me, and maybe I just didn’t want to look much further past that attraction to see what he was really doing or saying or how it was affecting me, even though I knew.
So, like I said, we broke up. This was back in the fall. And then, just over a week ago, I invited him to drop by my house after work. I had wanted to talk. To my surprise, he accepted, and showed up about an hour later. When he was thinking of leaving, around 10 p.m., he said, “Is it a good idea if we see each other?” “I’m not sure,” I replied. “Maybe it’s not.” What followed from there was a fairly intense make-out session that definitely could have ended in sex, but did not, largely because I put to the brakes on, and — to give him some credit — he didn’t push it.
But there we were, holding hands, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, when he said, “Stay.” Just one word: “Stay.”
“What, you want to stay here?” I was a little confused. He shook his head. “You want *me* to stay here? I live here. This is my house. I’m not going anywhere.” He did not offer any clarification, and I let it pass, but it felt odd. Before he left my house, he said, “I love you.” And then he was gone, close to midnight, and my brain was churning so hard, it had trouble sleeping.
In the morning, when I woke up from the few hours of sleep I able to get, it occurred to me — “stay.” That’s the kind of thing you say to a dog. Stay, girl. Sit, girl. Goooood girl. You get a treat!
Which kind of does feel like how he approached me and our relationship, whether that was while we were together, or seeing each other after the fact. He was continually offering me the carrot of commitment, while simultaneously withholding the same carrot, as if there was something that I could do to inspire him to give it to me, yet not really having any intention to give it to me. He didn’t intend not to. He was always just “not sure.” Which meant that he had a perfectly good reason not to commit. But also I knew that he didn’t really have a good reason, because I am a perfectly good person, quite worthy of him committing to me, and yet, he didn’t or couldn’t, which was a big part of me breaking up with him in the first place.
Yet still, there he was, saying the “L” word, and holding out that promise that some day, maybe, if he felt like it, he might just turn around and give me that carrot after all, if I just played my cards right. If I was patient. If I “trusted” him. If I rolled over and played dead. Because I guess he surmised that offering commitment to someone like me (i.e. a monogamous, mostly heterosexual female) was like holding up a strip of bacon to a dog. And I am honestly not sure that he saw me as any better than that. Even though, if you ask him, he will tell you that he likes me, loves me, respects me. Well, to be fair, I am not sure what he would tell you. I don’t know how he talks about me to his friends. And being that he has either lied or dissembled to me on several verifiable occasions, I am not sure that I can trust anything that he has said to me. Some things I trust. Some things I don’t.
In the end, reading this article, I realized I was able to fit his personality into these non-feminist archetypes in various ways. I perceived his misogyny, and had for some time, yet saw that it was couched in an air of benevolence and sensitivity. I spoke up about it once, and of course he became offended.
Thinking about it, I noticed how I was molding myself to fit HIS reality, even though what I really wanted was for him to just ease into my life — which I wanted much more than commitment, and I was clear about this, but he just wasn’t doing it. And I was tired of it. I was tired of holding uncomfortable yogic mental poses to accommodate his emotional needs when mine were not being supported, and in fact were being systematically ignored and swept aside.
There was also this pattern that he had, wherein he would offer to do a loving thing, like, say, meet me to help me do something. Then, at the last minute, he would flake, or something would come up that he just *had* to do that would require him to be two hours late, and throw off my schedule. Maybe he said he would meet me at 2 p.m., but he wants to go to a barbecue with his friend, even though he had promised me his time first. If I say no, I am the “bad one” who won’t let him have any fun. If I say yes, then I end up waiting and feeling disappointed. So I negotiate with him to go only for part of the time, and I end up waiting two hours for him anyway, yet feel like it is somehow my fault.
Sometimes he would promise to be honest with me, to tell me his feelings, but then he just wouldn’t. And in all of these cases, he would draw the responsibility back to me. It was because of something I said, something I did, something I had texted to him, or just the way that I am. HIS decisions were because of ME. Which implied that, if I were simply better, then he would be better, and would be treating me better, more lovingly.
This is the verbal/emotional equivalent of a man beating his wife or girlfriend, and telling her that is her fault. She may end up questioning herself, and he gets to look like a “great guy” because he cares, and he has left no bruises. Yet it leaves her feeling disgusting and powerless, even though he seems to be giving her power over his actions. Too much power. Power you should not have, and which does not belong to you. By abdicating his responsibility, he makes everything you dislike to be something you supposedly have control over, when in reality he is making arbitrary decisions based on his whims, and you know that you have no control over him. You just waste a lot of time trying to tell him that it is up to him to make better decisions. He knows that. He just doesn’t care.
And I noticed, with some amount of chagrin but trying not to judge myself, that I was making excuses for him. I saw that, even after an interaction that felt bad, after some time on my own, I would begin to feel love and attraction for him again — sometimes more. Maybe it’s a form of Stockholm syndrome, or a similar mechanism. But I would say it comes from my “Dreamer” type personality. I did not equate his actions with HIM, and I didn’t want to. I saw him as a good person who was “trapped” by years of conditioning and unaware of his actions or how they were affecting me, and that, somewhere in all of that mess was a man who could love me — nay, who did love me. He didn’t just didn’t know how to express it. It was up to me to tell him about it! To wake him up! To make him see!
Because even if those things were true, it still was not my job to take up the slack and make anything different that he did not want to change.
That’s the emotional labor that I took on. And as I rode the subway to work one morning — a week after he had said that he loved me, yet had made no follow up plans, or requested to see me, or really done anything except send me cute text messages — I realized that I was wearing that emotional labor like a heavy backpack full of stuff that didn’t belong to me. It wasn’t my stuff. It wasn’t my work. It was his, and I was doing it for him, but also it was having zero effect on him whatsoever.
He was not “seeing” anything. He was just getting more and more comfortable with me, which meant that he was treating me less well, not better. He was taking me for granted, that I would be there when he decided to “come around.” IF he decided to come around. Maybe he thought — and maybe I let him think — that I was so in love with him that I would just “stay” and wait for him to figure it all out, like a dog waiting for its “master” to come home. And I would look cute just for him, and he could do or say what he wanted, and I would still be there.
The “danger” of Dating While Feminist (DWF) is that sometimes, you end up single.
The “danger” of DWF is that sometimes, you end up single. Many people act like this is a worst case scenario. But if you are a feminist — or anyone with high standards, it is not. A worse scenario is to be in a BAD relationship.
Our cultural mythology holds that people who are in relationships are better people overall, and this is how we treat them. But it is not strictly true. Many great people are single, and many terrible people are married. Being in a relationship is not evidence that you are a great person, or even a good person. But it’s easy to fall into this belief. At the same time, I do fully believe the research that says that those in happy long-term relationships, are physically and mentally healthier, and live longer lives. I don’t doubt that for a second. But remember the qualifier — the relationship must be happy and fulfilling for this to be the case. Harmful relationships do more damage than good, and this, too, is supported by research.
Don’t get me wrong. I love love. I have high hopes for it, and my Dreamer personality is never going to give up the dream of having a great relationship that feeds my soul and charges me up every day. But that dream is big, and not everyone can fill it, and I have to live with that. I would say — I would even hope — that feminists are not “angry.” They just have higher standards for love and relationships. They expect more. They expect better. They don’t think The Best should be a pipe dream. And isn’t this what we try to teach our young girls? Don’t we try to tell them to “value themselves” so that they DON’T get into bad relationships that hurt them? And if that is what we tell them, should we not be examples of this in our own life?
I hope to have a daughter some day, if I am so lucky. I hope to be able to tell her that her mother made good choices for herself, and maybe suffered a little for it, but did not twist her personality into a pretzel to fit what a man was expecting of her. That she told the truth, even if it meant holding a man accountable to himself in a way that might look like “criticizing” him, so that she could be sure that what she had in her life was real love, and not merely the semblance of it.
I hope I get to tell her that.