I got into the dating game relatively late. For as long as my peers have been making their rounds in love, I’ve had sound reasons to abdicate my right to do the same. In middle school I was surrounded exclusively by boys I had known since Second Grade; in high school I always seemed to be in love with boys too many years my senior; in college I was constantly preparing for tests, and regular STI screenings were not on any of my syllabi.
So now, as a young adult, I am beginning my foray into the world of casual dating, and I am big enough to admit that I am not very good at it. I have plenty of skills: my scrapbooking is the envy of housewives the world over, even the most recalcitrant dogs respect a leash I’m holding, and I make a hummus from scratch that should make Sabra worried. But for all my adroitness in outward activities, maintaining a functional level of sanity when exposed to romance does not factor into my skill set.
I’ve “dated” (a term I use loosely and begrudgingly, for the sake of ease), three boys. There was my first love, who existed amongst the milieu of late high school and early college; there was the old friend I fell for despite myself and whose hook-ups I gave too much credence; and there was the most recent fling, who couldn’t seem to understand why mentioning that his parents want grandchildren while I’m naked next to him would make me uncomfortable. Suffice to say, none of these three connections remain extant, for the best in each instance.
I have begun to notice a pattern. Each situation was different from the last, each guy bringing their own unique strengths and red flags, and the situations I was in with them felt fundamentally different than hook-ups with people to whom I had no attachment. The constant variable is me: every time I love someone, my being, my entire sense of self, becomes inverted. It’s as if hanging upside down. The world appears inexplicably different; objective reality has to be explained to me, and I can’t think clearly because there’s too much blood crowding my brain and cheeks.
The first time I easily accepted the flip. We were overgrown children attemping to navigate issues ranging from sex and texting ettiquite to religion and alcohol use. And it was first love – it’s supposed to turn you crazy, right? At least, that’s how I justified the intensity of my insecurity and the expectation I placed on a 17-year-old boy to help me shoulder it. Of course, our connection wasn’t perfect, but he did little to cause my emotional hang-ups. Rather, as my feelings for him magnified and strengthened, preexisting neuroses began to present themselves.
The second time was unexpected. I was a good deal older, and I thought I had matured out of the ruin that I had previously brought upon myself. He was someone that I didn’t see often, which meant his virtues were largely a result of my imagination. We didn’t have the world ending connection I had once experienced, or much connection beyond sexual chemistry. But I slowly found my sense of self shifting, towards that existence that was the total reversal of the stability I otherwise knew. I had stomach aches for days on end waiting for a text back, I hung on every word he offered about my appearance, as if he was the only person who could see me and my corporeality relied on his recognition. I lost myself to wanting more from him, and his many red flags were entirely non-threatening from my inverted state. In fact, they were more like five feet of red fabric that I willingly sewed into a smart Handmaid’s Tale outfit for myself.
The third time stands out as a wake-up call, the upside-downness coming suddenly and unexpectedly. There was someone standing before me who was emotionally intelligent and pursuant, rarely leaving me guessing about his intentions with me. So I created his lack of feelings. I informed myself that because there were women he had known before, there could be no goodness in me; I accepted the fact that because he wasn’t prone to spontaneous expressions of affection, there was nothing particularly attractive about me, he was just biding time. I became completely myopic, focusing only on what was good in him and becoming unable to remember who I am, defaulting to the core belief that there is something wrong with me.
While these insecurities were finding novel iterations, they stemmed from familiar places. A deeply set fear of not measuring up, easily triggered anxiety and perfectionistic thinking, a conviction that once I change and become some undefined Better, I would be worthy of the attention I was getting. So until then, I would demand it in a flurry and reject it with chagrin. I initially expressed my feelings of self-doubt, but refused to give them life beyond that. I didn’t want to come off as needy or fragile, characteristics I so reviled in my “past self”. I thought this was the right thing to do: deny my needs and certainly not ask someone else to meet them, and do all I could to be the person I thought he expected me to be. As one can imagine, this strategy was not sustainable.
Dating has made me realize the deep healing I need to undertake before I will feel secure or properly loved. That has to come from the inside out before it can come back again. I am getting to know my darkness and holding a candle to it. The pain I have experienced and continue to feel will always be. It was created, given life, and that essential energy cannot be taken out of existence. It can only be transformed. It is now my work to learn the alchemy of healing. Transforming the belief that rejection is the empirical evidence of my worthlessness into the power to reject treatment and situations that do not serve me; transforming the conception of my body as a vessel to be appraised and used by others into a conception of myself as an integrated whole joyously experiencing and purveying pleasure.
The process is long and mostly directed inward. But I believe that the more I introspect and piece together aspects of my past that have made me how I am, the more I will develop the ability to be gentle with myself and honest about what I need from a partner, not accepting or creating situations that leave me upended.
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