Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lessons learned or reinforced from the amicable end of a relationship

Had I had time to blog earlier this week, this post would have been about how I inadvertently broke up with someone on the platform at L'Enfant Plaza. I wasn't exactly sure what had happened--we parted awkwardly, but there were awkward circumstances: his running late, my being mindful of his running late, and our holding our respective pizza boxes. It was early days--a few months in--and I was enjoying seeing him but had various doubts about our long-term compatibility. I liked this guy--we had an intellectual and an emotional connection--and enjoyed spending time with him, but there were a few too many 'buts' that I couldn't shake. I was willing to keep going out while things were fun, healthy, and respectful. Which meant, in part, that he was taking initiative, being communicative, and treating me well. I'd started to notice slippage in the first two--one thing I really appreciated about him was that, unlike almost everyone else I'd ever dated, he never tried to fuck with my head. There was no passive-aggressiveness, emotional manipulation, blame, or other horseshit. But maturity, communication skills, and respect are prerequisites for a healthy relationship, not the only things you need for one. But I digress.

Earlier this week, I might have written about how I might have sent this guy signals that I wasn't interested, instead of correctly interpreting his. In spite of my most popular post ever on these pages, even I sometimes fall prey to the misconception that The Guy Is Just Too Intimidated and really, he's interested but just doesn't know how to show it. After the metro platform incident, I talked to a handful of friends about what had transpired, and two of them (one man and one woman) were inclined to think that the onus was on me to straighten things out or even try to get back together--or at least let him know that I was willing to. The truth is, I wasn't sure that I was willing to (and if I was, it was under circumstances that would have been undermined by my being the one to get in touch). The other three friends were with me--they didn't know what he was thinking, but on the off chance that he did want to start things up again, he would have to up his game.

Alas, I heard from him last night as I arrived in Boston for my dad's cataract surgery this morning. I had not misinterpreted him; he was conflicted (maybe not about me, but about a relationship). So that's lesson 1: if a dude is acting conflicted or uninterested, he is. See that post I linked to above. He's not intimidated; he's just not that into you. If he wants to get in touch with you, he will.

This guy magnanimously offered to keep dating if that's what I wanted, but that is emphatically not what I want. I unequivocally let him know that I have no interest in dating someone who's ambivalent about me. Now, dating is a process--specifically, a process of getting to know someone, or in the words of the late, great Nora Ephron via "Sleepless in Seattle," trying someone on and seeing how they fit. He didn't have to be sure about me; he didn't have to be committed to me. But dammit he had to want to see me again--I'd go as far as to say he'd had to not be able to wait to see me again. That's lesson 2: if a relationship needs life support, it's doomed. I was still trying this relationship on for size, too, but one of the things I loved about it was how enthusiastic and responsive he once was; with that gone, there was no point.

I experienced some mild breakup symptoms over a few days, but more so before I'd heard from him. Lesson 3: closure really does help, and I feel much more ready to leave things in the past. Closure gets a bad rap, or it's often dismissed as a mere ploy to get back in touch with someone in the hope of getting back together. There's this idea that you can make your own closure: if you've not heard from someone, you know where they stand. That's true--you know they've lost interest--but it's helpful, at least to me, to know exactly what happened. It's helpful to me to know that I'd correctly read his ambivalence and that whatever I might have done on the subway platform didn't single-handedly end the the relationship. True, I already knew that or figured it; but it was good to know for sure. And it was good to have an opportunity to articulate my response. Which brings me to lesson 4: sometimes it's best to break up over email. Sometimes. This guy and I are both creatures of the written word, and I think we both benefited from taking the time to articulate our thoughts and respond to one another's. The timing and the circumstances were right for an electronic acceptance of terms.

Here are some bonus lessons:

Lesson 5: It can be hard to separate the significant things from the insignificant ones--conversely, it can be easy to see indicators of incompatibility everywhere, or to gloss over things that really matter. On New Year's Day, I was chatting with a friend at a party who--quoting her brother--said it was important to ask, 'does he bug you?' Because the things that you can write off as quirky when the chemistry is high are going to drive you bat-shit crazy when it wears off. [For what it's worth, this guy did a number of things that bugged me--mostly minor, but enough that they added up.]

Lesson 6: Don't fall into the 'cool girl' or 'chill girl' trap (I didn't--at least not this time around--and my terms for reviving the relationship would have reflected that (and these were the opposite of the terms he offered, which I declined)). No one could reasonably describe me as high-maintenance, but I'm not no-maintenance. There's something to be said for being courted. I've seen so many of my friends suffer through prolonged relationship disasters because they've done the work and made it easy for the guy to just show up--but even if things work out, it's just... disappointing.

I don't ask for much. In fact, years ago, this guy I was dating had offered to take me to Restaurant Eve, and--it was not a matter of protesting too much--I wasn't feeling it. It was over the top for the relationship we were in at that point. It was too much money, for an experience that would have been largely lost on me. I communicated this to my Well-Meaning Friend (WMF), who is right at the frequency of a broken clock, which is still eight percent of the time. She said, "let him take you to Restaurant Eve; trust me, there will be a time for takeout from Thai Palace." And there was. I still don't need Restaurant Eve, but I need something--some kind of indicator that the man I'm dating values me and isn't just phoning it in. That indicator does not need to manifest itself in the form of spending money, but it needs to manifest itself in one way or another.

Lesson 7: the dynamics you set early, stick. The more you let someone get away with early on or the longer you wait to communicate that something's not working for you, the harder it is to address that issue as the relationship progresses. Even without the fallout of the awkward goodbye of the metro platform, I had planned to step back and not suggest any plans, and see what happened. If nothing happened, I had my answer. It was pure circumstance that I'd ended up making the last few sets of plans, but even then I didn't like it (the first rule of men-thermodynamics is that a man will default to the least amount of work he can get away with in a relationship, so be careful where you set that level). As I've said, if you make the plans and all the dude has to do is show up, show up he will. By the way, the second rule of men-thermodynamics is--some disclaimers coming--there are good reasons to make men whom you want to date, do at least a minimal level of work. The underlying principle here is that men will f* anything, and all things being equal, will try to f* everything--with the amount of work required serving as a key barrier. If that's not an issue for you at any given time--if you're cool with f*ing someone who's interest in f*ing you is the same as his interest in f*ing anything else that moves, there is nothing wrong with that and proceed as you will. But if you're looking to find out whether this man's interest in f*ing you is remotely narrowed, if not unique, to you, throw some work in the way.

Lesson 8: Be deliberate about where your relationship is (this is a corollary of lessons 7 and 8). Keeping in the tradition of mangling the laws of physics, as I did in the previous lesson: there is danger in momentum and in inertia. Don't stay together just because you're together. Check in about where you are, make sure you're in agreement about where you are, and own where you want to be. The other person doesn't have to want to be in the same place, but don't deny that you do.

Lesson 9: only a good relationship is better than no relationship. As easy as it is to think otherwise when yet another relationship collapses, there's nothing wrong with you. and, in Rebecca Traister's words, it's about more than a warm body

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