I’ve been dating a person for almost 3 months, and he is terrific and lovely. Sexy stuff is also ding ding ding jackpot!!!. I’m at the point where I would like to have a low-stress check-in about how we’re both feeling regarding exclusivity and commitment. I know we’re both currently not seeing anyone else. My general impression is that he’s interested in a relationship, but ‘impressions’ are not hard evidence and I just want to address it explicitly without my inner FEELINGS-VORTEX getting in the way.
I’m really struggling to find the right words to initiate this conversation, because everything that pops into my head has strong overtones of “PLEASE LOVE ME FOREVER” and “I’m putting all my hopes and dreams on you despite only having known you for 10 weeks or so”… and those are NOT the kinds of conversations I want to have. They’re definitely not representative of how I actually feel – it’s just that my anxious-attachment mechanism kicks into overdrive at the very thought of addressing it and everything starts to feel like much higher stakes than it really is.
I did some googling on “How to have a DTR conversation” or similar, and Captain, there is a universe of terrible advice out there. Of course, much of it is geared towards straight women, and either implies or outright says things like “Don’t be too pushy. Men don’t like to be rushed. Let him do the chasing.” DON’T STARTLE THE WILD MALE HUMAN. There’s a heck of a lot of cultural messaging to the effect that [in a heterosexual relationship] it is a woman’s role to push for commitment and that men dread this conversation, which makes me both extra nervous about it and also kind of resentful. I would like to be able to leave those feelings at the door when I bring it up, but I’m so lost for the right words to use that I just end up getting even more anxious, and then I don’t bring it up at all because I want to be coming from a place of curiosity and confidence, not from a place of fear.
I’m sure about this guy. He’s kind and responsible and we laugh together a lot and we are hella attracted to each other. I’ve felt a whole bunch of YES about him since we first met, and know that I know him a little better I feel totally sure that I want a committed relationship with him. It’s frustrating and embarrassing for me that I feel so lost as to how to bring this up. I know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but do you have any good scripts for having this kind of conversation? I think you’d be doing the world a great service by putting out a few (non-gendered) ways to check in with someone you’re dating about your hopes and feelings about the relationship.
Many thanks for all you do,
Looking For Words
Dear Looking for Words,
Thanks for your letter. “DON’T STARTLE THE WILD MALE HUMAN” is such a great descriptor of that brand of advice that assumes that all straight women are trying to pin down a committed relationship and all straight men are trying to keep their options open. If you’re this imagined woman, only through pretending that such things are not important to you, silent & stoic waiting plus a continued performance of good sex and home cooking (Glamour magazine’s “Engagement Chicken” recipe at the link), and being MAXIMALLY CHILL AT ALL TIMES can one “lock down” the elusive “Committed Boyfriend” of one’s dreams! With the potential of a bonus “surprise” proposal someday when he, independently of any discussion or input from you, whips a very expensive piece of jewelry out of his pocket and places it on your finger where you will have to wear it…
Watch Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window sometime for a classic version of this tale. It’s a murder mystery and also a romance where L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) wants to keep being a rugged photojournalist and his girlfriend Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) wants to come with him on his adventures and build a life together. He’s all “You’ll only slow me down” (No, bro. Bro, no.) and also “You can’t take your awesome wardrobe on the road with me!” (he has a point about that) and part of the film is about her becoming “Action Lisa, Who Solves Crime” to impress him. There’s a visual story in Edith Head’s costume design where Lisa goes from twirling in a gorgeous dress with a black bodice and a giant poofy white skirt when you first meet her (that is not at all suggestive of a wedding dress, oh no, why would you say that?):
…through a series of less glamorous, less feminine looks until she ends up here: (Image description: Grace Kelly wearing a sporty red shirt and jeans, reading a book about the Himalayas in one frame and secretly reading Harper’s Bazaar in the next).
By the end of the movie, Lisa’s successfully changed herself into a woman unthreatening enough that he can see himself settling down with (while wittily keeping her secret fashion superhero identity intact). He has not changed himself at all to impress her. Not incidentally, it’s her knowledge of fashion and girly stuff that cracks the case.
Critics and scholars have made much of Lisa’s green suit from the middle of the film (left image) that echoes the green dress (right image) worn by the sad “Miss Lonelyhearts” character that Jeffries peeps on through his window. Is Lisa feeling like Miss Lonelyhearts in her pursuit of Jeffries, or is it a “there but for the grace of A MALE HUMAN WHO MIGHT MARRY HER IF SHE WORKS AT IT HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT APPEARING TO WORK AT IT goes Lisa!” commentary by Hitchcock and Head, who never did a single thing by accident?
This is a very common theme of 1950s films, by the way. Rugged (white) adventurers who had done epic Manly deeds among (white) Men during the war had returned to settle down
into relative peacetime and prosperity to become the “(white) man in the grey flannel suit,” ruled once again by the petticoat law. One of the things I dig about the beginning of the Outlander TV adaptation is that they show a woman in that same place, trying to return to “domestic bliss” after the adrenaline of being a wartime nurse, and finding it ill-suited to her. The Bletchley Circle also does the whole “we did the most important work ever but now we’re supposed only worry our pretty little heads about getting dinner on the table?” thing well. I think we need more of those stories about that time.
This story, where the best, most worthy women who deserve love and commitment are available and cool and accommodating and above all patient and never “needy” or “desperate” or “clingy” is deeply embedded in our culture. And if you’re involved with a man, bringing him catered dinners from “21” and packing your “to-go” lingerie in its special folding case and waiting for him to do the right thing and commit you up, if he decides not to it’s probably because you spooked him – you said the wrong thing, you looked less than perfect, you had morning breath or farted in your sleep or had real human skin and real human emotions where he could see them. Faux pas!
This is exhausting. It is also bullshit.
While I believe deeply that you can’t convince or persuade someone to love you if they don’t, I also believe that people who like you and want to be with you will be just fine…and dare I say happy?…that you told them about your feelings and desires. If you say “I really like you and I want to date only you, are you on the same page?” and the other person bolts, it’s not because you said it wrong or because you spoke up. “Screwing up” the delivery of those feelings or not using the exact right secret formula of magic words cannot undo a romance that actually exists. A dude who is enthusiastically dating and sexing you who can be “startled away” by an expression of affection or hope for the future from you is not the right dude for you.
You asked for scripts and not an essay on visual subtext in 1950s romance narratives, so, here is one:
“I’m really enjoying being with you. I want us to keep doing this, and I’ve decided that I don’t want to date anyone else while we see where this could go. What do you think about that?”
I’m not going to tell you that it’s not risky to put that out there or that your anxiety is wrong or misplaced. Sometimes we have anxiety because our brains are being assholes, sometimes we have anxiety because we can feel the whole trajectory of our life starting to bend around another person and we need to be sure that it’s okay to let that happen. If your Gentleman Caller is not on the same page, asking the question brings all of that out in the open and it will be almost impossible to go back to the fun you were having if you know he doesn’t see your relationship the same way. It’s so tempting to sit back and wait for the other person to say something first. “Then I’ll know for sure that it’s real,” you think.
Your question is taking me back to meeting Mr. Awkward. We met online, had a great first date, an awesome talk on the phone, and then had an epic second date involving Cuban food & beers, staying up all night talking, revealing important mental health stuff, [CENSORED], and me making breakfast while he demonstrated 1970s disco line dances in my kitchen. I vaguetweeted out “Texas: Messed with” after he left the house. That’s me: Subtle.
He called me a night or two later and we stayed up all night talking on the phone again. I was the first person to delete my OKCupid profile. I broke off a long-term friend-with-benefits relationship pretty much immediately. I wrote this poem down in my LiveJournal: The Great Tsunami by Michelle Wolf. The first time I went to his place I surreptitiously photographed his giant cookbook collection and texted it to my friends. I was the first person to say “I’m not seeing anyone else and I’d like to see where this goes.” He was enthusiastic but also a little vague – as I had done with my friend-with-benefits, he was winding some casual dating stuff down behind the scenes so he could come correct. I tried not to freak out, and he kept showing up awesomely and enthusiastically in my life. He never made me feel like I was “chasing” him or overthinking it.
A few weeks later he cooked me a roast chicken (coincidence?) said “I want you to be my girlfriend, is that okay with you? Because at work I’ve been referring to you as my girlfriend, and my friends said ‘Wait, you have a girlfriend?’ and I said ‘I think so, but I should probably run that by her.'” We’d waited to introduce each other to friends and family, but I remember going to a birthday party at a bar and meeting all his people and hearing this sweet little note of pride in his voice when he said “This is my girlfriend, Jennifer.” I got him into the Vorkosigan books. He brought me an excellent kitchen knife that fit perfectly into my hands. I took him to my secret magic monthly karaoke party. He wore blue suede shoes and murdered (in a good way) an Elvis song.
I still remember the first “I love you.” He came to the Take One film festival at school to watch my first-year students’ films with me, and then we went home where he’d made dinner for us. We stayed up late singing songs from musicals as if they were country songs (try it with Les Miserables, it’s amazing) and the next day he sent me a video of him singing Stars in his best Texas twang. I watched it about 4 times and then called him up and blurted out “Uh, I’m pretty sure I love you!” and he laughed and told me he loved me, too. I took this selfie right after that conversation and I made that face for the rest of the year. My coworkers kept asking “Is everything all right? You just seem really…well, uh…happy? It’s weird.”
I could have played it all cooler, I could have waited, I could have kept my options open, I could have let him be the first to suggest that we be exclusive, or to say “I love you” and it probably would have worked out the same in the end, but I’m glad I didn’t. In love, I am an enthusiastic and demonstrative person, I am terrible at “playing it cool,” I am terrible at surprises or waiting (Me: “I got you a present for Christmas, Christmas that is six weeks away – do you want to open it now?“) and what this love gives me is freedom to be my awkward, enthusiastic, demonstrative self.
My lovely Letter Writer, that’s what I want for you. I want for you to be able to say “I really like being with you and I’m starting to think this has a real future” and for him to say, “Great, me too!” or a clear “Oops, sorry, no.” I don’t want you to have to “leave your feelings at the door” before having this conversation, I want your feelings right there in the room, being all messy and honest: “I’m falling in love with you but I’ve been nervous that nailing ‘our relationship’ down will somehow break the spell. I don’t know how to even have this talk, but I feel like it’s time to have it.What do you think?” Also, there is no “right time” to have this talk that is separate from your need to have it in order to be safe, happy, and comfortable in moving forward.
I want your love settings to be “Fuck yes!” or “No thanks!” (don’t mess with Mr. In-Between), and I want any dude you date to not only “not be startled” by your affection and enthusiasm, I want him to see that and get that and love that about you.
I say: Hold these days like honey in your mouth. Believe in the happiness you feel and the actions you observe with him. Trust the bond, and don’t be afraid to test it by asking the questions you need to ask. However the words come out they will be the right words, because they will be your words and they will be true words. If he gets all vague and weird like some fashion magazine advice column dude, it wasn’t because you did something wrong. If it all crashes down because you asked a question, soothe yourself with this poem by Louis McKee: What Cowboys Know About Love.