A few coffee dates, a couple of yoga classes, two dinners, and one and a half make-out sessions into my current relationship, I told J that if we continued seeing each other, which I hoped we would, I couldn’t sleep with him if he was sleeping with other people; I’d tried it, and it just didn’t work for me.
We were still super early in our courtship, both a little nervous and extra polite, and I was sure he’d cringe at my request. I prepared myself for the standard response: You’re great, but I’m seeing other people; I’m really not interested in a relationship right now.
Instead, he didn’t skip a beat. “I’m down with that,” he said. “I don’t really dig the casual sex thing, either.”
Wait, really? Feeling emboldened, I took a breath and slid in my second condition.
“So, if we do do this and you know, like, sleep together, I’m, uh, gonna want to sleep with you again, I hope, and, like, see you regularly.” (I know. Smooth.)
I didn’t want to walk away from that conversation with a Boyfriend or a Relationship, just the assurance that we could keep seeing each other and start having sex—the point in a romance where I usually lose myself in a chemical furor—in the safety of a few well-defined parameters. Hard lessons learned from doing it every other way.
Monogamy and commitment: Those were my conditions. For him, it was total honesty about the bouts of depression and euphoria he self-navigates, and being upfront about not wanting to get married. Ever.
“How have some of your past relationships ended?” I asked him one night, nuzzled into his chest in a cozy, post-sex cuddle.
“Well,” he said, sounding decidedly unsentimental. “Eventually it gets to a point where the girl I’m with demands a longterm commitment or it’s over.”
“So then?” I probed.
Not exactly dulcet pillow talk, but I appreciated the honesty.
So, here I am. In a committed, monogamous relationship that’s not heading toward marriage with a complicated, generous man who likes to push my buttons.
In the beginning, if I didn’t hear from him for a few days, I would fold in on myself like a disappearing origami bird, sure that it was over and that our next encounter, if there even was one, would be our last.
I’m pretty sure my friends don’t like him.
This is mostly my doing.
Before settling in L.A. and meeting J, I’d been single for almost five years, cruising through short-term affairs and location-specific romances with men who were often much younger than I or totally unsure of their next steps, as in: Should I go to Nepal next week or check out Bali?
Most of my friends are either in longterm relationships or actively confronting their lack of a partner; it felt like both camps, for their own reasons, were rooting for me to meet my guy.
I wanted to meet my guy, too, but in the half-decade since my last long relationship, I’ve thought a lot about partnership and have dismissed the idea of a “my guy,” at all. If wanting a partner but rejecting the need for one sounds complicated and contradictory, it is. Desire and societal constructs are complicated and contradictory, too.
After a long time being solo, this relationship is where I get to explore all those complications and contradictions. It feels a little bit like a chemistry experiment: Here is where I can alchemize the wisdom I gained from being single into new matter, something reactive and unpredictable, in a beaker where half of the chemicals don’t belong to me.
I can’t blame my friends for their wariness. Cautious of jumping in too fast and bruising my heart (See: hard lessons learned), I’ve kept my excitement at bay from the start and rarely, if ever, gush.
“Yeah, things are good,” I’ll say non-commitedly. “I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, but he’s working a lot. It’s cool.”
Or, more candidly:
“Meh. I don’t know. Relationships are fucking hard. He can be a total pain in the ass sometimes.”
I’m not exactly speaking in sonnets.
Now when my friends ask about him, they bring him up gingerly, like they’re picking up a broken plate stuck together with Scotch Tape that I’ve said I’d like to eat off of. This one? Are you sure? I appreciate the sentiment. As excited as they are for me to have met someone, they’re more concerned that I’m with someone who treats me well. They’re leaving the door open for me to tell them it’s over.
Their unspoken concerns are, of course, my own. I’m projecting my own doubts onto them.
What are you doing with him?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m learning a lot, mostly about myself. The buttons he pushes are tender spots still achy from past relationships and old hurts. In the beginning, if I didn’t hear from him for a few days, I would fold in on myself like a disappearing origami bird, sure that it was over and that our next encounter, if there even was one, would be our last.
Now, instead of spinning into doubt, I pick up the phone and call him when I feel the urge to fold up my wings. That fear of sudden, unexpected rejection is still there—I imagine it always will be—but I’ve gotten to know it well enough to say, Not right now, thank you, I’d rather hang out with my boyfriend.
What I do know is that when I hear him open my front gate, its creaky hinge announcing his arrival, I still get a little tingly.
I know that his commitment to total candor, while a little harsh at times, means I always know where he stands.
I know that I’m in the relationship I need, even if it look different from what I thought I wanted. Resolved to speak up more and leave nothing unsaid or assumed, I find myself with a man who listens but loves to interrogate; J does not nod gently as I fumble my way through uncomfortable sentences or thank me for being so vulnerable. Sometimes, after getting something off my chest that feels huge, he narrows his eyes and looks at me like an alien. That’s what you were so worried about? It’s not the warm, fuzzy space I imagined practicing my new communication skills, but more like a spiky obstacle course that requires me to always be on my game. Exhausting? Yes. Am I getting better at saying what I need to say? Yes again.
I know that he needs his own space, a lot of it, as much as I need mine. And I know that with someone else, someone less fixed and more available, I might have lost my edges and gotten lazy about loving myself unconditionally and worried more about being loved.
It’s not perfect, and it’s not forever, but what relationship is?
I’m tired of the idea that relationships are like carousels, pretty rides that spin around and around with predictable ups and downs that make for cute photos. In my experience, relationships are like the Gravitron. They slam you against a wall, knock the floor out from underneath you, and often make you feel like you’re going to throw up.
So when people ask about my relationship, I try not to give them carousel.
What are J and I doing together? I can’t speak for him, and I wouldn’t want to. But for me, right now, I’m on the ride and I’m not throwing up. I know where the exit is and I’m being careful with my heart. But when the light is right and the mood is sweet, I pull him in for a selfie because I love having his face next to mine. Even the Gravitron can make for a good picture.