The epiphany struck at about 12:30 am while on highway 2 on our way back from Wenatchee. Jeff was at the wheel while Nick and I were having one of those conversations that come up when it's late and you're buzzed on creative adrenaline and a bit of whiskey. We were talking relationships when, for whatever reason with sudden blinding clarity it occurred to me just how much I had been mislead about men for my whole life. Specifically, there I was in a car with two very romantic, very relationship oriented men; something 16 year old me didn't believe actually existed.
I went to high school in the kind of small-ish town where traditional gender roles are held up as the standard. Add to this some compounded insecurity stemming from being a perpetual outsider, and you have me at 19-26. A woman who treated dating like some holy quest to prove to "them" that wild-ish, outspoken, ambitious women like myself were love-able; which really means I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't completely crazy. That I was ok. That I wasn't going to be punished for being me. I was so fixated on being lovable that I was (rather ironically) kind of a trash partner.
I spent way too much of my twenties bouncing between trying my damnedest to be authentic, getting frustrated or rejected when I didn't get the result I was going for, and then trying to conform. I was blocking any real intimacy from happening while desperately seeking it. I wasn't so much dating as conducting a (failing) behavioral experiment. What if I do this? Will I get love now? No? What if I try this? Considering my merit badge mentality, it's no wonder I was susceptible to the dating advice columns and rule books with their seemingly cut and dry advice.
Love isn't a computer program where you can just press the right series of buttons and a relationship starts booting, but when you live in a society that constantly promotes controlling and devaluing feelings it is no surprise that something as complex and terrifying as love starts to get dumbed down to a series of rules. They outline a world in which men only want sex and women only want marriage, completely ignoring the reality that life and people are never as simple as all that.
What bums me the hell out about all of this is that I missed out on actually getting to know men I cared about because I was too fixated on trying to get them to perform their "boyfriend" operative. I wish I had been a little more curious, a little better at listening, a better friend. I wish I could have just enjoyed having such fascinating and creative people in my life withing trying to hook my worth on the outcomes.
We follow these formulas because they make us feel in control when we're at our most vulnerable, but they only keep us trapped in a cycle that denies real intimacy and nuance. They turn break ups into personal failures, they put insane amounts of pressure on us and our partners, and they base success on relationship length instead of quality. Most importantly, though, they keep us from appreciating what is right in front of us right now by distracting us with worries of the future.
Life isn't about collecting the right photos on Instagram, or checking off the expected boxes on Facebook. There is no cosmic school marm to give you an A. There is only this moment, shared by a bunch of messy hearts all trying to untangle themselves into something beautiful.