Questions?

Let’s talk about questions.

Well, first, let’s talk about Bumble. I downloaded Bumble again the other day, and then went on a swiping-binge for like, over an hour. At which point I had like, twenty matches waiting for me to message them (what’s great about Bumble is that women have to message men first. What’s not great about Bumble is that it works on a gender binary which ugh).

Anyway I had a bunch of matches, and I sent them all the same opener (b/c time constraints and b/c you get zero to go on re: profiles, so might as well). I asked them how their holiday is going and what the last movie they saw was and what they thought of it. Their ability to respond to what seems like a simple question will tell me a lot about them right away.

I copy and pasted this message into each Bumble chat box, and waited. As of today, I’ve been chatting with a few people. Some of which started well, but all of which fizzled out pretty fucking fast. And you want to know why they fizzled out so fast? Because the men I was chatting with stopped asking me questions.

You might think it’s that these men lost interest, but I actually don’t think so, or at least, not necessarily. Instead, I think it’s because of a social failing of our culture, one in which men are afraid to ask too many questions. Or just don’t realize that they should be asking questions. I have heard from men, over and over again, that they feel like questions are ‘intrusive’. I take it this is because questions do have the ability to be aggressive, violent, even.

Except, when you are having a conversation with someone, especially someone you are trying to get to know, not asking questions is a big problem. Because, for starters, I don’t want to just give some big monologue about myself. And I certainly don’t want to ask HIM a million questions (hello I’ve been on too many of those dates and justzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz).

Sorry. Dozed off there. Where was I?

Questions can be aggressive, violent even in the right context. When things are one-sided like an interview or an interrogation, questions become pointed, they magnify, they are sometimes designed to make the recipient of the questions uncomfortable.

I love the movie Magnolia in part because it’s about question-asking, and the aggressive ways that fits into human relationships. There are lots of scenes in which we see this kind of questioning play out: a Jeopordy-style gameshow in which a child is being made to ‘perform’ his intelligence on national television, much to his anxiety and discomfort. Tom Cruise plays an egomaniacal pundit who submits to an interview to aggrandize himself and finds himself the vulnerable target of extremely personal questions that he wasn’t expecting. A police officer enters the home of a drug addict to respond to noise-complaints, in which she dances around his questions to avoid him discovering her stash.

But when it comes to conversation, questions can also invite. They can create openings, and connections. They can tell you about the question-asker, what that person wants to know about you, what about you interests them, and what they want to hear about. I have found it really upsetting when boyfriends *haven’t* asked questions, precisely because it subverts intimacy.

I once told the Ex that he didn’t ask me enough questions, and to ask me more questions. His response: “Oh. Ok. Um…… (long pause). So… have you ever been hang-gliding?”

Sigh.

What annoyed me about this question, well, one of the many things that annoys me still about that question was its deliberate subversion of intimacy. This question wasn’t about anything he already knew about me, it wasn’t based on his desire to get to know more intimate things about me, or sparked by something he wanted to have a conversation about. It was simply a question. It was any question.

When I got upset about this bald lack of curiosity about me (on a number of occasions), his reply was that of course he was interested in getting to know me, but that he wanted it to happen ‘organically.’

Right. Well, sorry for asking, but how the hell will you ever get to know someone ‘organically’ unless you ask them some goddamned questions once in a while?

Questions, in this context, are not intrusive, they show me that you care. They show me that you want to hear what I have to say, which is pretty damn important as a woman searching for a man, let me tell you. It shows me that you find me interesting, that you want to make a connection, that you are going to hold up your end of the conversation and not make me do all of the emotional and intellectual labour of pushing it forward. Of moving, ultimately, the relationship itself forward.

And so those Bumble conversations sit there, and I keep looking at them, unmoved.

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Letter to an Ex; or, why love is not a feeling.

Prologue: Below is a letter addressed to a recent ex of mine. This relationship is one that has taken me the longest to get over of all of my breakups. I think part of that is that I was telling myself some fictions for a long time about this particular relationship. A few months ago, I was at dinner with a couple of friends of mine I hadn’t seen since the breakup, and they asked what happened. I was slightly caught off guard, and I suddenly found myself telling a very different, but very emotionally accurate, version of events. The letter that follows is something I wrote as a result of that conversation.

I don’t ever plan on sending this letter; I wrote it for myself. It’s the first in my line up of posts about emotional labour. It is also very personal, and very raw. It has been anonymized as much as possible, because the point of it is not to publicly call out this specific person, but rather to share what was a very personal revelation about this particular relationship, and the structural patterns in it that were present in bits and pieces in other relationships of mine, and also a structure that I see far too often happening in other relationships.

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To The Once Dear Man I No Longer Know How to Address,

Last time we talked, you said you hoped that I was doing well. I sometimes wonder if you noticed how I ignored your comment the first time, and how I bristled the second time you said it. I wonder if you noticed that it made me angry.

You probably didn’t.

Well, I am angry. You saying to me that you hope I’m well does make me angry. Even though I know you mean it sincerely. Even though I know that you have the same ‘good intentions’ you’ve always had. It sort of surprised me, actually, how angry it made me. It seems like an odd thing to be angry about, on the surface. So I have been thinking a lot about why. And I think I finally have the beginnings of an answer.

You have caused me so much goddamned frustration and anxiety and hurt over the past two and a half years, and what really kills me about all of that is that you don’t even really understand it. You don’t understand because you can feel your good intentions. You know you care about me. But feelings are not enough.

You say you hope I’m doing well and want me to be happy, but most of the time during our relationship when I really needed you, when I needed you to step up, to be in my corner, to support me or care for me, instead you cowered and faltered and complained. You never willingly helped me unless it was WELL within your comfort zone or unless I got angry and explained, painfully and in detail, why you should. And let me tell you, all of that made me feel like crap. Like I’m hard to love. Like the things I need are too much to ask for.

And here I am again, explaining painfully and in detail why you are still hurting me. And maybe you’ll read this, maybe you won’t. Mostly I am writing this because the dynamic that was so central in our relationship is not a coincidence: it is a pervasive dynamic and not just a personal one. I want other people to recognize this dynamic for what it is. I want them to feel validated. I want them to refuse to be treated this way.

You saying that you wish me well makes me angry because while you have good intentions, while you have loving feelings, they were rarely reflected in your actions when you were so damn reluctant to respond to my needs. Or you just remained oblivious to my needs entirely, like when you asked me to the wedding and then got shamelessly and irresponsibly drunk and high and abandoned me for a couple of hours with friends of yours I still didn’t know that well, returning only to make inappropriate moves on me in front of them, and then embarrassing me by not being able to take care of yourself by the end of the night so I had to do it for you.

Or, and this is even difficult for me to write even now I am still so saddened by it, the night that my Dad died, when I knew he would die at some point around that time and was in high anxiety mode and we were at the bar where you didn’t bother introducing me to people I didn’t know, or make sure I was comfortable, and when it was getting late and you started pouring yourself yet another pint I leaned over and asked if we could leave soon, you looked startled, because you wanted to get shitfaced that night and had no idea how fucking inappropriate that was, or how I felt like your fucking mother by asking you not to, and then you pouted and then the fight we had when we left the bar was so upsetting for me and so hurtful and so goddamned EXHAUSTING.

Or the weekend after my dad died you became suddenly unavailable because you ‘needed alone time’ because we’d already been spending ‘so much time together’ and how ‘exhausting’ that was for you and were perplexed when I was upset and I had to explain to you why I wanted you around.

Shortly after that, when my Mum almost wasn’t able to help me move out of my apartment at the last minute and when I asked you if you’d be able to come and help me your very first impulse was to get quiet and when I asked why, you whined about being afraid of flying.

Or the January that you just decided to take two weeks off our relationship without telling me what was going on because you felt ‘introverted.’ Despite the fact that you were already doing almost no emotional labour in our relationship, you decided that you weren’t going to do any, that you were going to just take time away without explaining any of this to me. You abandoned me to my anxiety about what was even happening with us, and our relationship, and still expected me to deal with it and it took me storming away from you that night after dinner for you to even address the problem.

Or how it took you eight months and a fight and me yelling at you to get the one item I’d been telling you I needed you to get for me in your new apartment, and how yet again our fight was about how angry I am at you all the time instead of being a conversation about how completely incapable you are of doing really basic stuff to make sure that I feel comfortable and taken care of and loved.

Or when I had the worst anxiety attack I’ve had in years and was convulsing for two hours unable to get up without nearly fainting, and I called and asked you to come and help me get home and stay the night, you got quiet and seemed confused and said you didn’t know where my friend lived. As though that is an appropriate fucking thing to say in that moment. As though you cannot be an adult and FIGURE IT OUT FOR YOURSELF without making me solve that problem for you when I couldn’t even get off the floor. You finally arrived like an obedient puppy, and you came in and sat beside me but you didn’t ask me how I was, you didn’t say much to my friend or ask what I needed or what you could do for me. You very obviously didn’t even want to be there, making me do the awkward social work of directing the conversation. And then in the cab on the way home you moaned quietly about your work and you knew I wanted you to stay the night but was it okay if you didn’t because WORK and because you were so tired and because because BECAUSE. And so instead of stepping up and taking care of me, instead of even allowing me to take care of myself, you forced me instead to explain to you why it is I needed you and why it was important and by the time we got back to my place I didn’t even want you around anymore because you were way more work for me in that moment than my own fucking anxiety disorder.

And you know, I always hear about hypothetical men who are so excited for their girlfriends to confide vulnerable and private details about their sexual needs and desires but I sometimes wonder if men just like telling that story about themselves because I never seem to date any of them. Your primary reaction to my confiding in you was resentment, as though now everything was all of a sudden about me, as though the kind of sex we’d been having up until that point hadn’t been almost entirely on YOUR terms, but no you didn’t think about that because you never bothered to really investigate my needs and desires or make sure that I felt safe enough to tell you these things which believe me after that I did NOT.

Or when you started making unilateral decisions about your future which made me realize that you were really, really not on my team nor did you think of us even as a team but instead you conceived of yourself as a single person in our relationship in which I compromised most of the time. And when you did compromise, which admittedly you did, grudgingly, you felt extremely self-righteous and resentful about it every single fucking time as though you were doing me a huge favour instead of the very fucking minimum of what is involved in being in a relationship.

I once told you that being in a relationship with you was like dragging you in a burlap bag up a hill and you laughed and laughed and said yes that is exactly what it must be like and how grateful you were to me for doing all this work and how much better your ‘future relationships’ would be because of it. And then you were surprised when I started crying.

And how you acted as though I was ‘work’, because I got upset so much, because I was ‘so demanding,’ when I now really fully see that the reason I was upset so much is because you were doing so little emotional labour.

It enrages me that you caused the problem over and over and over again, and then criticized me for having a perfectly reasonable reaction to it.

And then, AND THEN, after we broke up, you not only almost immediately slept with someone I had to see every single fucking week, but you told me about it after I’d spent over an hour making us dinner and after I gave you the fucking Christmas gift that my mother had left for you. (A gift that you never bothered to thank her for, even after I told you to.)

I yelled at you that night, I yelled at you like I’ve never yelled at anyone before, probably for a full ten minutes, and I every time I think about it I feel so. damn. satisfied. I was yelling at you for all of it, for every time you’d let me down, for our entire fucking relationship, even though I couldn’t quite articulate that for myself at the time.

And what gets me, what really makes me angry, is that if you are reading this, you are probably feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why I still don’t see how much you ‘tried’ and why I’m still angry about things that happened over two years ago, and let me tell you I am still angry but that it’s not irrational but completely fucking justified. I am angry that I had a partner who flung so much bullshit my way and that I fucking stood for it. I am angry that you still think of yourself as a ‘good person’ because you have good intentions, as though that could ever be enough to make you a good partner. It isn’t.

I am angry at you, I am angry at myself, I am angry at the whole fucking situation. I am angry that our monogamy actually MEANT something to me, that it took me so fucking long to even be attracted to another person after we broke up, that I was doing it because I really really wanted to and that for you it’s obviously something you do because you are, unsurprisingly, scared of doing anything else. You are scared of yourself, you are scared of your abilities and you are scared of your weaknesses. You are getting in your own fucking way all the time and the victim of this isn’t just you. I am part of that collateral damage as I stand here facing down the years of my declining fertility wondering why I ever thought I could marry someone like you. And while I feel grateful for having dodged a bullet (since how could I have had children with you, also a child?) I am also resentful that I was deceived for so long that I was being too demanding, that I expected too much from you.

Because it is not enough to ‘wish people well’. You have to act like it, or else you don’t get to call that ‘love.’ You don’t. So it’s all very NICE that you have FEELINGS. But also? Fuck you. Because if I am well, it is no thanks to you. I spent the last ten months bootstrapping myself up into a better place, still dragged down by my anger at you, by my self-loathing about our relationship and struggling to figure out all of my feelings about it and about you and about us and about myself and what, after all that, our relationship even meant. And let me tell you, I am exhausted.

I did not expect too much from you. I did not expect enough. YOU do not expect enough from yourself. I can only hope that somehow you learn how to fucking grow up and get out of your own fucking way, and take responsibility for figuring out how to live in a world where sometimes things are scary and people need to depend on each other a lot of the fucking time.

Do better. Act better. BE better. Then, and only then, will your future relationships be better.

In other words, I also wish you well.

Emotional Labour

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional labour, what it is, what it looks like, and what it means.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, here is a great post about it: Brute Reason on Emotional Labour

In brief, emotional labour is the kind of work we do to take care of our own feelings, our own state of mind, but also that of others, whether that be in romantic relationships, friendships, familial relationships, and even more broadly in social situations, online, etc. It involves both having a sense of how others might be affected by actions, situations, words. It means putting thought into your words and actions beyond your own perspective: it means imagining how they will be received by others, both concrete and abstract.

Emotional labour is everywhere, basically all of the time. It means checking in with your partner so that they don’t always have to bring something up when they are bothered by something you do. It means thinking ahead about social events you are organizing to make sure that such events are accessible to everyone invited, and if not, what you might to do make it accessible. It means taking turns with inviting friends out to events, sharing housework so that it doesn’t automatically default to the women in relationships, it means speaking up when you have needs so that the other person doesn’t have to guess about what’s going on in your mind.

And so, so much more.

It strikes me that the distribution of emotional labour is gendered, and in a way that is very very difficult to combat. Women are raised to do it, we are raised to feel *responsible* for it, and so in a sense it is invisible to us how much we do. Men are not raised to do it, and so in a sense it is invisible to them in that a) they don’t know what it is or how to do it and b) other people have done it for them their entire lives.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this summer, and I’ve been having some revelations that my past relationships have largely broken up over exactly this. It’s an unsettling revelation and one that has raised a lot of feelings but I hope that in part I can start some conversations about what it is, how it affects dating and relationships, and what kinds of things we can do to make it more equally distributed. There will be many posts about this in the next few months.

Dating and Rejection, Part Two

About a month ago, I went on a date with a guy from Tinder. I increasingly appreciate OKcupid for helping out my intuition about who is and is not going to be a good date. I just don’t have enough info on Tinder and more and more I’m wary of it as a dating medium. For me at least.

Anyway we met up, and it was okay. He’s an attractive guy, but a bit awkward. I mean, I try to be generous about people’s awkwardness since it’s something that makes a lot of people nervous. I realize that’s just going to influence people’s behaviours, so I try not to let it guide my sense of someone too much. But between the fact that I wasn’t getting a spark/vibe/whatever about him, and the anxiety attack that I spent half our date trying to breathe and smile through, after about an hour and a half I was ready to get out of there.

Amongst other characteristics, this man wasn’t the best at picking up on my signals, and after I got back from the washroom he had his camera out, as though we were going to go on a fun photography excursion? Or maybe just to show off his camera? I mentioned that I needed to get home to do work (which was sort of true) and he said ‘awww I was hoping we could enjoy some of this weather’. (Uh a first date does not usually involve that much of a burden on someone’s time, dude.) I was a bit nervous as we were leaving, but his awkwardness also translated into being kind of slow to speak so when we got outside I turned and said, ‘okay well it was good to meet you! Have a good day!’ and turned on my heel and walked away. I was super relieved that I got out of there so easily, though felt a bit bad that I’d made it pretty clear I wasn’t interested in a second date.

Or, so I’d thought.

A few days later I got a text, saying: “So, how’s your week been going? … I am curious to hear how you felt about our meeting. I thought it ended a bit abruptly, but I was grateful for the outing. And you?”

I wrote back: “Heya. My week has been good! I don’t think it’s going to a second meeting for me. Good luck with all your projects, they sound really interesting!”

But, that wasn’t the end of it. Next I get:

“What put you off?”

Which like, omg. So, on the one hand, ON THE ONE HAND I do get this question. When dating doesn’t go well it’s frustrating, and he’s looking for feedback.

HOWEVER.

There is just absolutely no good way to answer this question. There just isn’t. And here’s why: there is never (or like, at least, only very rarely) an objective answer to this. Any answer I give will be personal to me, because I’m not looking for ‘the best one’ or whatever, I’m looking for a match. A match for ME.

I replied saying just that: “that’s a hard question to answer, to be honest. In cases like this there isn’t usually something that ‘happened’. Dating is about figuring out who feels like a match and who doesn’t. this just wasn’t a match for me.”

To which I got: “I get that a lot, and it’s really depressing. There’s nothing I can do with it to better myself. I feel completely disempowered by this sort of response. Do you expect to be swept off your feet?”

So, I was feeling compassion for this guy, sort of, up until the last line.

I mean, yeah. Dating feels personal, rejection feels personal. And, in some sense it is – this person isn’t into YOU.

Like I’ve said before, dating isn’t about being objectively ‘good’. It’s not a competition. It’s about finding a match. So with that in mind, what does it mean to ‘better oneself’? It might mean figuring out if you’re doing something wrong consistently, which might be the case for some people. But it’s not as though he was doing something I could point to, like talking over me all the time. (This happened once, and when the guy noticed that I was visibly frustrated, he asked what was wrong and I told him.) That would be a concrete thing that is fixable.

But what worries me is the bit about being swept off my feet. Like, what does that even mean? Like the guy is supposed to swoop in and be impressive and then I, the lady, am impressed and amazed and entranced into a second date? And somehow he’s annoyed because a) I think this and b) that he failed to do it, and please can I just tell him how to do it better?

I just worry that is the wrong way to think about bettering yourself, as a means to an end, to ‘get’ a lady, whose affection will deem you worthy of value?

I am seriously reminded here of Fred from Middlemarch by George Eliot. Fred is from a ‘good’ family, but is kind of self-absorbed and lazy. He is also head over heels in love with Mary, who is deeply unimpressed by his inability to get his shit together. When Fred sends his friend to vouch for his potential (yet again) she gets visibly frustrated:

‘I think Fred ought not to need telling again what I have already said to him,’ Mary answered, with a slight resentment in her manner. ‘I mean that he ought not to put such questions until he has done something worthy, instead of saying that he could do it.’

This is like, one of my favourite lines from literature, ever.

What I love is how Mary is calling bullshit on Fred’s inability to take responsibility for himself. That somehow Fred can think himself worthy of improvement if Mary is his prize for that, and I love how right here she totally eschews the responsibility for that, and throws it back to him.

Like, if you think you need to improve things, IMPROVE THEM. If not, that is also fine. But women are not prizes. I find that attitude somewhere between manipulative and lacking self-possession. Don’t expect a woman to give you a ‘reason’ to improve yourself. Just take some responsibility for yourself and do it.

If, on the other hand, there’s nothing you feel like you should improve, and you are just feeling compelled to because you aren’t finding a match, then it seems like the opposite of what you should be doing? Like, changing yourself to fit what others might want or expect from you is the fastest way to find someone who will like you for who you are not. And that just seems like a bad route to go.

But yeah. I feel sort of bad, like I’m being too hard on this guy? Because I get frustrated and annoyed too, sometimes. And it’s really easy to let that resentment bubble over at people, but it’s also really important to resist. Because no one owes you anything, and people are not prizes for getting your shit together.

And the thing is, dating is frustrating and invalidating a lot of the time. And as I get older I try to combat this the best I can by taking care of myself, and not overdoing the dating thing, and focusing on myself and my projects and self-care, not as a means to an end but because that stuff is just really important for its own sake.

Sorry, what was that?

When I first started online dating, I was interested in how my intuition about the person from their profile would match up with what they were like in real life.

One unexpectedly hot Sunday in November, I found myself nervously walking towards the Cake Shop on the Lower East Side. I was overdressed, since I had expected it to be cooler, and dehydrated, and hungover. I was heading to meet Matt, a nice but slightly boring-seeming guy I’d been chatting with online. Our online chat hadn’t been scintillating, but he asked me out and back then I had just moved to NYC and I had a lot of time on my hands, so I figured why not.

I got there, and ordered the only thing I could consider imbibing, which was a ginger tea. Matt arrived, and we sat down at a table.

Me: So, Matt, what is it that you do?

Matt: *mumbles incoherently*

Me: Sorry?

Matt: (almost inaudible) I work as a paralegal at a law firm on Wall Street.

Me: Ah.

I felt like I was on an episode of Seinfeld with Matt, The Low Talker. He didn’t speak much, and when he did, I could barely hear him. My heart sunk into my stomach, and I just thought, how the hell am I going to get through this?

So I did what only seemed sensible: I performed a one hour long, improvised, one-woman show for this man. Anything he said that reminded me of ANYTHING I’d use that as a jumping off point and I told stories, made jokes, gave him my take on being in graduate school and living in NYC and online dating, and really just ANYTHING ELSE THAT CAME TO MIND.

At the end of what seemed like hours (it was only one) I said: okay well, I have some errands to run now, so I should head out! He replied that he’d had a really great time, and could we do it again? (Uh, of course YOU had a good time, dude.) I said I’d be in touch, and got out of there as fast as I could.

I was drained and angry and frustrated, but I also took something significant away from that experience. I had, I realized, essentially just gone on a date with myself. I had just gone on a date with someone who gave me next to nothing to work with, and I made it work. I could do almost anything. I could go on a date with anyone. No more need to be nervous about dates, I thought. I got this.