I Want a Sober Courtship
Old-fashioned ideas for a feminist romance.
Earlier this year I met a man who I liked a lot and instantly thought I was the bee’s knees. He was age-appropriate, whip smart, and had the dark, good looks I favor. Great news, sort of. It immediately turned intense and serious as is wont to happen when two people recognize timing and chemistry are aligned. I enjoyed the attention, great conversation, and our new, shared direction.
It was flattering to be called every day and complimented extensively but the romance triggered my anxiety. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hot pursuit had little to do with how great I was and a lot to do with how this man pursued women. Go in hard and fast, get disillusioned with reality, struggle to keep up the momentum, withdraw, leave her bewildered.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Anxiety is a personal struggle of mine but sometimes it’s useful, an early warning system. It wasn’t long before the discomfort overwhelmed the pleasure and I knew it was time to change course.
What is instantaneous is ephemeral.
Over the last seven years of dating I had allowed myself to get yanked around enough to know what was to come. So, I tried something new. I called him and asked if we could slow the whole thing down. I could see there was potential, but we were going to screw it up by acting like lovesick teenagers.
We both had full, demanding lives that needed attention so no matter what this level of togetherness wasn’t sustainable. I explained that I didn’t want to squander this opportunity, could we have a reasonable pace that could build? Not a frenzy that needs dialing back and generally leaves one or both parties questioning the relationship (when it was more likely how courtship was handled).
I read The Rules years ago and recognized that at its core it was a pacing device. The problem (among many) is that it places the responsibility for controling the flow of the courtship entirely with the woman. The man’s desire must flourish unimpeded and stoked to a near-frenzy while she holds him at bay by ignoring texts and turning down dates. She holds the self-control for both parties. Sounds exhausting.
It’s already a lot of effort just making good decisions for myself, let alone being solely responsible for not allowing a new relationship to become suffocating. I don’t want to pretend not to see texts or lie about my availability to kick a man’s primal brain into gear. I may reveal myself as a pollyanna, but I was sincerely hoping to find a man who valued me as he got to know me. Not in the made-up scarcity of my time, nor in the perception that my value is directly related to how many other men currently want to bed me.
A system that tasks the woman with understanding a man’s emotions, seeing a few steps ahead, and devising a plan for the both of them (and unbeknownst to him) is guaranteed to create a relationship where she has to do the same. In the feminist romance of my dreams, both parties figure out a courtship that makes sense and communicates that. Perfection isn’t expected, doubts are expressed and discussed as they arise. There is also plenty of time for rich conversation, walks and making-out (lest anyone think I took all the fun out of it).
I’ve come to wonder if the hot pursuit is what both men and women use as the trigger for desire and closeness. Men pursue to establish value in the ‘catch’ and quash the doubts and fears they may have about entering a relationship. All the focus is on attaining the goal. Women use it as a validation of their desirability, needing to feel that pursuit to experience ‘chemistry’. The subtext is that men need to earn their affections to be worthy.
This kind of courtship assuages (temporarily) insecurities about desirability but it does little to establish compatibility. Issues are bound to surface but in the face of extreme togetherness it can be impossible to see them more clearly. The romance becomes bigger than the participants.
In the aftermath of another failed relationship people wonder how they could have ended up with someone so wrong for them. The all or nothing way we begin may have a lot to do with that.
There can be other triggers if we choose to build a romance based on shared interests and an appreciation for qualities that only reveal over time. Likely, qualities that have far more to do with a happy life than the immediate validation of a whirlwind courtship.
We crave not admiration, but to be properly known and yet still liked and forgiven.
Alain De Botton
Treating courtship like a friendship where both parties have to show investment and restraint seems a more humane process and one likely to produce an egalitarian relationship. Which is the only kind that interests me. I am not willing to take on the task of interpreting a man’s emotional life and thinking ahead to manipulate him into what I want. The only sort of commitment I want is an intentional one. Clear eyes, full hearts.
What happened with my new friend? I laid out my idea of a sober courtship and he responded favorably. It sounded good to him and he respected I was trying to think ahead to a better outcome. Two days later he called me to break it off. He wasn’t ready, and needed to go back into therapy.
I got the self-awareness I was asking for, if not the outcome. That’s okay. I didn’t allow myself to be pulled into a relationship that was likely to leave me bruised. I was forced to clarify what I wanted and communicate it.
I’m interested in starting small and building. A relationship where we understand each other gradually and leave room for the other person to conduct lives already in progress.
Wish me luck.