How A Non-Romantic Friendship Opened Me Up To Finding Love
This piece is Katie Klabusich’s fourth dispatch from the front lines of her romantic life for the #ItsTotallyMe dating series, which follows Establishment writers Klabusich and Wagatwe Wanjuki as they utilize professional matchmakers and the insights of various experts to get to the bottom of their perpetual singledom. You can read the series’ introductory post here, as well as Klabusich’s first solo dispatch here, second solo dispatch here, and third dispatch here.
Life is indifferent to those of us living it — a hard lesson I’ve learned over the years. Things don’t simply work out because we’re good people or to balance the karmic scales. What happens to us and what we accomplish are the result of a messy mix of luck, skill, willingness to take risks, and what we’re suited for thanks to nature and nurture.
My challenge for this series has been facing 20 years of frustration to try and determine what the contributing factor pie chart looks like: How much of my inability to find a romantic partner (or partners) is straight up luck, and how much is something I can control?
In the year since Wagatwe and I started this project, I’ve recognized an important truth: It is the non-romantic relationships in my life that have actually opened me up to the possibility of falling in love. Thanks to recent hardships (economic, family, health), the unsupportive and destructive people in my life have mostly opted out on their own, leaving me space to truly connect with the amazing people I’m lucky enough to know already, and to seek out new extraordinary people.
It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, then, that my first healthy, supportive, loving dating relationship is with someone who is quite a bit like my most healthy, supportive, and loving friend.
As adults, we’re pretty much stuck with the people circumstances have put around us — family, co-workers, some former classmates, significant others’ families, neighbors, etc. Sure, social media has made it possible to connect with those beyond our immediate reach, but most people are still one or two degrees removed from those we know in a day-to-day environment. We complain about how hard it is to meet potential romantic partners, but it’s just as hard (sometimes harder) to meet people who turn into real friends. And we don’t really have good apps for that.
I’m not sure how I originally connected with Wagatwe on Facebook — probably Zuckerberg suggested we might want to be friends. However it happened, it only took one extra ticket to a show and a missed train back to Jersey, stranding her with me in the city, to turn us into more than just “see ya around” friends. Fittingly, it was a conversation about our shit dating histories over a drink while she waited for the next train that seemed to cement us as future confidants. A year and a half later, she was my emergency contact, my ride home, and my nurse for an outpatient surgical procedure.
We have a lot of similarities, but also a lot of differences in communication styles. After developing trust and having a couple of minor friend fights, we had a conversation where we acknowledged each other’s best intentions and agreed to always say something when we were upset or had a need. I had never before experienced this level of openness in any relationship — friend, family, or romantic.
Since this breakthrough, my therapist, Doc, has noticed a significant difference in my ability to name my emotions and a reduction in my defensiveness when she asks me about them. And I’ve tried to carry what I’ve learned with Wagatwe over to my other important relationships with friends, family, and — most recently — a significant other.
But being able to communicate effectively is only part of it; learning to say how I feel and having those feelings returned has made it possible for me to trust and care romantically about someone.
My first date with my future romantic partner involved sizable margaritas, an impromptu drag cabaret show with an ABBA montage, and comfortable banter. I went on to date this man for six months before it faded because of miscommunication and life bullshit and our both being new at the polyamory thing (he had a live-in/primary partner — a fiancee, it turned out). In the meantime, Wagatwe and I pitched a series on being undateable to a new feminist outlet, solicited help from a professional matchmaker, and embarked on a collaborative attempt to figure out why we were each 90% tumble weeds in our dating history. The timing was perfect.
Over the next few months, he got married and I found myself exhausted from continued bad luck, striking out even with a professional scouting matches on both coasts. Then, out of the blue, I got a text asking from him asking how I was, and would I want to catch up over a drink? We got together with no expectations.
We seemed to be better suited to each other than when we dated before; connecting was almost effortless. Both of us had definitely made some significant life changes and unloaded some distracting stress, but it was more than that. I felt more heard; he was more open. We both felt more comfortable being vulnerable — and in large part, for me, this was because of my rewarding experience of being vulnerable with Wagatwe.
Developing a best friendship that felt like home — where I’m calmer just hearing from or being around that person — had raised the bar for the comfort level I was seeking, while simultaneously making it easier to attain because, for the first time, I knew it was possible.
In an encouraging conversation with author, sex educator, feminist pornographer, and activist Tristan Taormino for this series about how seeking polyamory could improve my love life, I ended by asking myself, as I said in the last installment:
“How at home could I feel? — in my own skin, in a relationship, in pursuing community with other poly people I’m not dating, with my metamours (my partners’ other partners)?”
It turns out, while I was asking myself those questions, I’d been moving into a home without realizing it.
During a week of unusually intense deadlines, I was pulling my second all-nighter in a row. The man I was now calling my boyfriend was asleep next to me as I wrote. (We aren’t particularly hierarchical in our relationship language, but we aren’t relationship anarchists either; we use the words and descriptors that feel right and boy/girlfriend had begun to feel right.) He’d come over with food to make sure I ate and took a break.
When he fell asleep toward the end of the movie, I got my laptop back out. I felt him move and glanced over at him to make sure my typing wasn’t bothering him. Nope. As I smiled and shrugged off my jealousy about his ability to sleep, a wave of adoration washed over me. I adored this man and suddenly realized I couldn’t imagine my life without him.
CUE THE PANIC.
I was immediately flushed and my heart plunged into my toes. I didn’t know how to need somebody yet. I’d just a few months earlier realized the same thing about my best friend and was still grappling with the anxiety of having part of my heart out in the world walking around where I couldn’t control it. Now I was doubling that?
One of the challenges of dating someone with my shitty history is having to learn that panic and anxiety isn’t necessarily about your relationship or you individually; it really is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” He handled it was unprecedented grace and calm.
A couple of weeks later, we were out at our favorite neighborhood bar relaxing and laughing, playing pool and pumping money into the jukebox trying to outdo each other with throwbacks and guilty pleasures. We sat down and ordered another round. As I reached down to grab my purse I heard him say “I love you.” I couldn’t breath — but in the best way. I stared at him for a minute with my mouth open.
“I do. I love you.” I grabbed his face and kissed him.
I couldn’t say it, but that didn’t make me feel bad. I had learned with my best friend that someone telling me they cared about me or complimenting me could be a genuine expression and not a manipulation. I simply believed him when he said it and we both knew I felt it, but needed some time to make the words happen. It didn’t take me very long.
He told me he was a bit relieved I hadn’t automatically spit out an “I love you too.” Not just because he could see in my eyes how I felt (he’s almost empath-level intuitive about other people’s feelings), but because he too wanted to be sure the words were genuine. When I told him I loved him we both knew I meant it.
Things have been pretty blissful between us the past six months. We’ve found each other to be a refuge for dealing with life stress. I find most situations with other people to be stressful, particularly where they can choose to walk away. With him, though, I’ve watched in awe as my anxiety and fears have dissipated. If he’s in reach, his effect on me is almost better than my anxiety meds; he seems to be able to cure everything from car sickness to panic attacks.
No relationship between human beings is without its moments of conflict. Our moments rather rapidly became productive arguing, or more often just expressing how a certain situation or phrase makes one of us feel and working out a way around that bad feeling. The learning curve was accelerated for me because he and Wagatwe are a lot alike, and because I now trust that there is renewed or increased closeness following conflict. I am more receptive to his honest reactions — able to see when they are and aren’t about me. We’ve even developed language for how to communicate when we think the other person may be projecting or bringing emotional baggage from another current or past relationship to a conversation. Being welcomed into my best friend’s heart and mind allowed me to watch someone else process stress and emotion while I was doing the same. As a result, I have an easier time reading more than just my boyfriend’s feelings; I can glimpse past them to what’s underneath — a very important skill in polyamory because we’re often both juggling intense emotions outside of our relationship with each other.
Recently, I got the chance to see if he and I had became as good at conflict resolution as I thought. I was unintentionally short because of a trauma trigger just a couple weeks ago and realized it pretty quickly, but he’d already gone to bed. So, I sent an apology with a longish explanation via text in the morning — the kind of revelation that would be too heavy for most people at 6 am, but that I knew would make him feel better. We had a four or five minute text exchange where he made sure I felt heard and accepted my apology. And, as usual, he said he wanted to know more if I wanted to tell him and asked if there was anything we needed to do or not do to work through this newly discovered trigger.
He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known and he loves me. At 36, I have the kind of fulfillment and support I watched others find for 20 years, wondering what was wrong with me.
And in truth, Wagatwe is a large part of that.
No relationship exists in a vacuum, and having someone who understands my dating history, has only my best interest at heart, and will love me no matter what happens is an almost indescribable feeling. To have found two people who care about me unconditionally after 30 long years is extraordinary. I am valued in a way I had thought was impossible: They don’t love me in spite of myself, but rather because of who I am — quirks and all.
With a supportive best friend and a new, successful romantic relationship in my life, I could finally ask myself: Was it totally me? I’ll answer that in my next and final installment!
Lead image: the author (left) with Wagatwe