How Much Are We Responsible For Our Own Bad Dating History?
This piece is Katie’s Klabusich’s fifth and final 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 and Klabusich’s solo dispatches here, here, here, and here.
It’s been a full 14 months since I began intentionally investigating my dating history. Or, more accurately, since beginning to explore and record why my 19 years of dating as an adult have largely been comprised of a sad assortment of tumbleweeds, interrupted by a few non-ethically non-monogamy situations and one abusive relationship.
At the beginning of the journey, I asked in all sincerity about my co-writer and myself:
“Supposedly, we’re both sporting highly desirable qualities: intelligence, confidence, attractiveness, creativity, independence. So why has nothing worked? Are we just painfully unlucky? Have we not recognized opportunity when it struck? Are we, perhaps, botching some basic tenet of dating, unwittingly sabotaging our efforts?”
In short, I honestly — and finally — wanted to know: Was it me?
After six months of agonizing and time-consuming conversations with a respected matchmaker, interviews with experts, a handful of dates, and still more introspective time over-analyzing everything about myself, I’ve got an answer:
Absolutely and not at all.
Dating — as anyone who has tried it will attest — is weird.
Even with all the professional assistance, dating apps, networking events, blind dates, social occasions, and supposed truisms about “the game,” there really is an element of luck. Life, as I’ve written here before, is indifferent to us. At no point are you simply due to have things work out for you. We hunt for “the one” or “a one” or “someone” and there’s never a guarantee that the time we’re investing will pay off.
My move to San Diego wasn’t in my plan; it was simply my only option after lots of bad luck. That I happened to be here when my now-boyfriend and his fiancé (now wife) decided to open their relationship and put some dating profiles online was the first bit of good dating luck I’d had; he messaged me and we hit it off right away. But life threw some challenges at us that made us temporarily incompatible — which is to say, once again, bad luck had reared its head.
And then, out of the blue, after months without contact, he texted me to grab a drink. It was a premeditated act on his part, of course, but it felt like another stroke of good luck on my end. Ten months later, I can’t imagine my life without him; I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
My boyfriend is one of the best people I know, and we’re uniquely compatible in a way I’d never previously let myself dream about. This was in part because I was well-aware of the challenges in attempting to build a real partnership as a solo poly woman. I don’t want a live-in partner (hence the “solo”) and even before discovering polyamory, I didn’t really want to see anyone more than once or twice a week — friends included; I’m just really independent.
But that didn’t — and doesn’t — mean I don’t want real companionship with someone who knows and cares about me, where we count on each other and talk about the future. So finding someone who already has the live-in anchor partner (the poly phrase for the spouse or someone who occupies the spouse role), who wanted to cultivate a loving relationship with me, knowing that I’d never want to be in a spouse role, is incredibly rare. It’s so rare, in fact, that it’s likely the most common thing I hear other solo poly people agonize over trying to find. But not only does my boyfriend understand my independence and desire for space, he actually relishes being my closest relationship, even though the prospect of essentially being the primary partner to two people would overwhelm most.
Hence feeling like I pulled a winning lottery ticket.
I absolutely finally got lucky.
In addition to encountering a bit of good luck, I also did a lot of work on myself. Much of this work I did in tandem with an amazing best friend, who taught me how to feel things and better communicate. She taught me how to have a disagreement without freaking out, because eventually we’d work through it. Because of her, a fight no longer means The End; now I can trust people not to leave just because we hit a speed bump. Because of her and the support network I’ve culled and cultivated in the last few years, I can now love with less fear. (There’s no way to get rid of the fear altogether.)
So how much of my dating life has been dictated by luck — and how much was me? After much contemplation, I’ve decided that separating the two isn’t just an impossible undertaking, it’s also counterproductive. The culture in which we live absolutely influences how we see and understand ourselves and each other. Why else did I spend 15 years frustratedly trying to squeeze myself into a mono-normative box, unsuited to me in every way? Largely it was because I didn’t know there were options besides the typical nuclear family set up; I had to hear the word “polyamory” to know what it was and that it might be how I relate to the world, how it may better encapsulate the notions I have of myself. I’ve forgiven myself, however, for not knowing who I was until I was well into my thirties; where were the alternative examples? (It’s why I freaked out when House of Cards aced polyamory representation last season.)
Sex educator Tristan Taormino nailed it in my interview with her for this series:
“[N]o matter how long you have been practicing polyamory, no matter how invested you are in it, no matter how practiced you are — we’re living in a monogamous world where all of these rules and structures and timelines and scripts are operating all around us in all media in our families at all times. So . . . to think that that’s not going to affect you because you’re polyamorous is absolutely not true.”
Even the newly widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage hasn’t really changed the relationship landscape. We made an important equality step, but it doesn’t challenge the standard set-up of two people together forever raising children; we’ve simply allowed everyone the chance to officially opt-in to that All-American Life To-Do List item. I was excited for my gay friends as the equality movement became more visible, but didn’t analyze the ultimate To-Do list. I assumed until I was 30 that of course I would get married and have kids — that’s what people do!
Realizing my life not only didn’t have to conform to a script, but that there was a script I’d been following almost against my will (and certainly without my permission, at the very least), was a revelation that has brought me to where I am now: in my first healthy, loving romantic relationship.
And it’s just made me hungry for more revelation.
The more I’ve grown in my polyamory, the more I’ve challenged other parts of the To-Do list. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that as I’ve re-examined everything about our culture, I’ve also begun re-examining assumptions about myself that I simply hadn’t realized I’d made.
A few months after we started seeing each other again, my boyfriend and I had gotten so comfortable together that we started talking about dating as a couple. Making that a reality doesn’t happen overnight (see: dating is weird no matter what and requires luck), but we’ve met some people and I’ve also explored dating couples solo.
It’s been remarkable watching my interests expand the longer I’m in a healthy, supportive, exciting romantic relationship. Relationships always looked so constraining to me, even when portrayed as desirable in feel-good movies and television. We tend to define relationships by what you’re not allowed to do when you’re in one. Or equally constraining — what you have to do. The idea that you have to be together forever and can’t have feelings for other people, for example, illustrates how the “you can’ts” and the “you musts” typically come in pairs that reinforce the supposed security of traditional relationships.
Well, I haven’t found traditional relationships to be very secure or very satisfying. And now that I’ve forsaken that as the ideal, I feel free and loved and hungry for new experiences. My fantasy life — both alone and with my boyfriend — has grown richer, and I’m learning that very little is truly off the table for me. In essence, answering this one, all-consuming question — Is it totally me? — has opened so many doors, I have more questions than when I began. The difference, now, is that I’m not as daunted or singularly focused.
Instead, I’m very much looking forward to exploring the answers to all the new questions and finding out what else luck and life have in store.
Lead image: flickr/Jeroen Bennink