Changing the language of rejection

I’m 31, and a lot of my friends are married. I moved abroad for seven years, and so when others were moving in with their partners from college or someone they met shortly after, I was roaming around Europe knowing I wasn’t able to settle down with anyone. Now that I’m back, and my eggs are approaching their ‘best-enjoyed-by’ expiration date, I’m trying to find someone I can settle down with. Maybe even with the aim to make a few DNA averages of both of us.

Ergo, I am dating. I’m out there. I’m hustlin’. I’m looking for a partner.

But what should I be looking for, really? Too many people just take what they can get, or they approach the dating market by trying to judge other people harshly in terms of if the other person is “good enough”. Potential partners are essentially turned into a consumable object, where the sum total of their looks, their earning potential, and their social networks are evaluated. This is to imply that overall the net worth of that person must equate to your investment in time in them. Whatever. Gross.

This angle of judgment, I think, is the source of a lot of stress, anguish, and long-term mistakes. If someone chooses a partner based on abstract criteria such as someone’s looks or their profession, this may lead to an unhappy relationship. Not knowing what they were meant to look for, they found something that they were ‘supposed to like’ and so decided to pretend that it would work for them. Meanwhile, their partners put their time into a relationship and end up being crushed.

Instead, I advocate a different selection criteria: whether two people are a match for one another. This has nothing to do with worth, and everything to do with how each person feels about themselves.

A ‘match’ is ideally someone who you feel comfortable being yourself around. It is someone who does not cause you constant frustration, nor who lowers your opinion of yourself. It is not someone that you always feel like you’re catching up to, or who makes you anxious when they do or do not call you. It is someone who you can build trust with over time, who likes your style and wants to do their best to mutually support you as an individual.

In addition to that chemistry, the surrounding situation also needs to be positive and workable. Ideally, you’re looking for someone with a schedule that allows you to spend time together, a distance between you that isn’t too far, some sexual compatibility, some financial viability within the relationship, and a communication style that can work for everyone. If any of the above issues are present and not being addressed, they will place stress on a relationship. But what your individual needs are may be more complex.

To give you some context, let me give you some examples of relationships I had that were not a match. These are three short relationships I was in where I did not know to look for warning signs, and stayed in for a time before things inevitably fell apart.

I was seeing someone earlier this year who I had brilliant chemistry with. From our very first date, we couldn’t stop hanging out with each other. We continued the date by going back to their place and cuddling all night, and hanging out the next day.

We saw each other regularly for a couple of months. We have a similar sense of humor and really like to talk to one another. Every weekend I was at their place, and we quickly fell into a routine. I thought I had found my next big relationship.

The problem was, the routine was not one that suited me. This partner was very fond of marijuana, and I personally don’t like the way that it affects me. They really like watching movies, but I generally prefer to take a walk or a bike ride. They like to sit around with their best friend or their roommates, and I like to go out and meet new people.

After a couples of months, I noticed that I started to criticize them. I wanted them to start to take more walks because I thought it would be healthier, and if they smoked less pot, I thought, maybe they’d be more in the mood for physical activity.

Before I knew it, a situation had developed where I was acting in a demeaning way around this person, and they started to feel insecure about themselves. We carried on like this for a few weeks, until we talked and realized it really wasn’t working. What seemed perfect at first wasn’t a developed picture of how we relate to each other. There were further factors of lifestyle and preferences that we hadn’t taken into account. If we had stuck with it for the sake of it, we would have been deeply unhappy.

I am very open and communicative. You might even say I have no filter. Even if I know that I am only temporarily frustrated about something not very consequential, everyone knows that I am cranky because I will announce this. Partially, it is an apology for those around me in case I am not operating at my best. Really though, I mostly intend this announcement to make people laugh and to give them permission to also be openly cranky if they want to.

For about six months, I dated someone who did not share how they were feeling. If they were upset, or if they had a minor injury that was bothering them, they did not share that information with people because they did not think it was important. To share such information, or to let people know you are unhappy, would be considered an undue burden on everyone around them.

Now, if you grow up in a family where people don’t talk about feelings, you grow up learning how to pick up on minor signals. You also intentionally steer clear of situations where anyone would have to share their feelings, because to burden someone with having to reveal their inner thoughts is deeply disruptive to the outward social balance.

Consequently, when some things did start to bother them in the relationship, my outward style did not match with their introverted communication. They were dropping hints that they were upset which they thought were obvious. I knew that something was up but couldn’t figure out why they were acting strangely, thinking whatever was happening must have been temporary or unrelated to our relationship. If they were upset, why didn’t they immediately say something? We both carried on like this until the relationship was in crisis. When it got to that point, it was past the point of recovery.

For a time, I felt very bad about myself for not reading between the lines and seeing that they were upset. Then I realized we just had different communication styles. What they needed was someone who spends more time reading that subtext, who came from a family who also communicates more subtly. That’s not me. Not a match. Sad it didn’t work out, but it wasn’t set up for success in the first place.

OK, last example. I have medium-to-very-low concern for using makeup or maintaining my appearance every day. I shave my legs when I remember, and I get a haircut when I can’t see anymore. I am not in a position to fulfill an image of feminine perfection.

I’ve been fortunate that most people that I’ve dated care very little about the minor details of my body and appearance. Others, however, have gotten frustrated with me for not playing by the rules of presentation. They would rather see someone who is much more meticulous with their looks, even if they themselves aren’t. This goes for both men and women, as even gay or queer partners sometimes carry these types of preferences.

I was dating someone who liked to date someone who is feminine. I remember I wasn’t doing anything with my pubic hair at the time — I was procuring a jungle and enjoying it. Me and this person were seeing each other long distance, and they came to visit after a long stretch of time. We were getting down to business and, when I was undressing, my voluptuous horse’s mane was sticking out of the sides of my underwear. My partner asked me why I hadn’t shaved, and I answered because I didn’t want to. They became frustrated and were turned off by this. It was, on the whole, a terrible experience.

You can call this hypocrisy, or misogyny (and I don’t doubt these things play a role sometimes), but for the most part, we simply weren’t a match for each other. They wanted someone with a certain appearance and behaviors, and I didn’t match that image. I felt bad about myself at the time for not living up to those standards, but later on I realized we were simply looking for different things, and that was OK. Someone else loves shaving their pubic hair, and I hope that they can find them. I should have gotten out of there as soon as I realized their expectations were different from mine, without dragging things on unhappily the way that we did.

Following those examples, there is something that I want to make clear about this perspective. Finding someone who is a match does NOT mean looking for someone who is the same as you. It’s important to meet and consider people who are different from you in order to learn about yourself. Finding a match isn’t finding a copy of yourself, it’s about finding someone who is complimentary and supportive of you being yourself.

If you’re not sure if someone that you’re seeing is a match for you, your friends can be a good sounding board. But you have to be honest with them in describing what you’re looking for. Ask them honestly if they think that the person that you’re seeing seems like a good match for you in terms of personality, lifestyle, values, schedule, and anything else you think might be important to you. Some type of balance and healthiness to the relationship should be apparent, and it’s often nice to have a sympathetic perspective from someone who knows you to let you know if a relationship is affecting you in a positive way.

If your friend does say something along the lines of “that person isn’t good enough for you”, what they really might be saying is that that person doesn’t seem like a healthy match. Our culture is embedded in the language of competition and self esteem, but whether anyone is “good enough” or not is irrelevant and a false construction. What you want to understand is how that person is affecting you. If your friend is simply being judgmental towards your partner, maybe question their perspective. However, if they say that they are concerned that you are not genuinely happy, listen to their advice like gospel. Your friends will often know you better than yourself.

And for the last important point: even if you find someone who you feel is a perfect match for you, remember that they also have to come to that conclusion for themselves. I have met people who I felt would have been very good for me, but it wasn’t the right time in their lives to get started in a relationship, or it turned out they just weren’t as excited. Have you ever heard of a couple that broke up because one person was done, but the other wasn’t? Well, it was a match for one but not the other. If one person needs to go, the whole thing is over and it’s important to accept this as swiftly and gracefully as possible. The sooner that you do, the less pain it will cause you in the long run. Breakups are very difficult for everyone, but moving on is undoubtedly the best solution.

That also means, for my own part, getting out of a situation as soon as I realize that it isn’t working. When I’m first considering meeting someone, if they send me a message online that I am not particularly fond of, if they make me feel uncomfortable or confused, if I know that I won’t like their habits or if I see other problems on the horizon, I try my best simply to steer clear of them as politely and respectfully as possible. Spending a lot of time with and becoming attached to someone who you know is not a match for you is simply not advisable. I have also found that, if it’s not working for you, that people would much rather get a swift and clear ‘no’ from you rather than being strung along and feeling like their time is being wasted.

Once I say, “I’m sorry, I think this isn’t working for me,” the most frequent response I’ve received is always, “Thank you for letting me know.” Even if you do receive pushback from them, remember that getting out early is definitely better than committing to a situation which could be damaging for you and/or your partner. If you’re resisting breaking up with someone because of a fear of failure, ask yourself if that is a strong enough reason to stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy. I hear people that had relationships that ended after five or ten years tell me that they had a “failed relationship.” What? Does everyone need to die in each others’ arms to be considered a success?

The way I see it, dating is a lot of trial and error. Most messages that you send on an app will never get a response. Most meetings end in first dates. Most people that you see a few times will not turn into a long relationship. And that’s the way it should be. For most people, finding a match will not be easy, and that’s OK.

I know it seems like some people woke up one day and bumped into their soulmate. I’m sure it’s happened, but have you heard of people that win the lottery? Pretty lucky, right? Unbelievably, some people win the lottery twice in their lives. What’s their secret? Well, in order to do that, they have to win the lottery, and then keep playing the lottery. The vast majority of lottery tickets don’t win you anything. Some people get lucky and find what they’re looking for faster, but the way to find someone you like is not really a secret. You simply have to keep trying. The good news is, lots of people also want to be in a relationship, so your odds are arguably much better than playing the Powerball.

In fact, the closer I come to meeting someone who I think is a match and it doesn’t work out, the more optimistic I feel that I can get close again. After all, if I found something good once, why can’t I find it again? If things don’t work out, that doesn’t mean that anything was wrong with you. It just means something else would be better for both of you right now.

Though it may not always feel that way, there truly are a lot of fish in the sea. You owe it to yourself to at least try to find someone that suits you.

I hope this advice helps you get out there and find someone who is a great fit for you. Thank you so much and happy matching, everyone!

Brookyn, NYC