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‘I Can’t Do Casual’

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Dear Polly,

If one more guy asks me for “something casual,” I’m going to throw something. It’s gone beyond just being exhausting. I’m angry.

I have been on nearly 40 first dates in the past couple of years since I’ve been single. At first, casual dating was exactly what I needed. I tried casual relationships a handful of times with guys I had chemistry with, but I realized that they just made me feel bad about myself. I was always so painfully aware of the fact that the only reason these guys were talking to me was because I was letting them sleep with me. It wasn’t like we were friends. It wasn’t like they liked me as a person, or thought I was interesting, or gave a single shit what I did or what I said. I felt like a sex doll. That might have been improved if the sex had been good, but it was mediocre at best. I tried to ignore the feelings and spice up the sex, but nothing worked.

I realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I immediately disqualified any man who wasn’t looking for something serious. That strategy failed miserably, as I found out that I was disqualifying everyone. I feel like when guys hear “serious,” they think that I am asking to marry them on the spot. What I want to know is that if the first couple of months goes well, that I could expect eventually to have a boyfriend. I just want to know what’s on the table.

Recently, I met a guy. We went on a couple of dates, and I immediately had a crush on him. It wasn’t just that he ticked all my boxes of “nice” and “cute” and “doesn’t live in his mom’s basement.” It’s been years since I’ve been on a date with someone I had so much in common with, who made me feel interesting and listened to. Of course, I soon found out he only wants something casual. Instead of immediately cutting him out like I usually would, we had a very adult conversation about it. I told him why I hate casual relationships. He said that he wants to keep it casual for now but said that relationships were always the goal and that he would be open to it eventually.

I feel like I’m falling into a trap of chasing the relationship carrot that I’ll never get. I know I’ll probably get hurt, but I haven’t called it off yet because I know that I can’t do better. I want to enjoy having a crush on someone again and live in the moment and hope for the best, but I also resent him for putting me in this position in the first place.

It feels like my only options are to be alone, or to just have a rotating cast of guys to fuck while I hope that one of them might eventually deign to invite me to have an emotional connection. If I go that route, they get everything they want out of me, and I get nothing that I want. It makes me feel powerless and disposable, like they have all the power, and I hate it.

I don’t want to do that anymore, but I would also like to not give up on ever falling in love again. Is there another option? How do I not become resentful of every guy who is unwilling to consider anything other than casual sex?

Seriously Angry

Dear Seriously Angry,

You don’t get exactly what you want until you’re brave enough to ask for it.

You don’t become brave enough to ask for it until you know, for certain, that you deserve it.

You don’t know that you deserve it until you live your life by GIVING YOURSELF EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT.

Right now, you aren’t giving yourself exactly what you want. You don’t want to be with a guy who wants only casual sex, casually, with whoever is casual about it. Even though this guy you’re dating is listening and showing up, even though he’s enjoyable and fun, he is hurting you with his listening and his showing up and his fun. His good qualities might as well be weapons, because what they say to you is, “You can’t really have this; you shouldn’t even try to feel this; you aren’t really here; your needs don’t matter.” When you spend time with him, you’ll hear the same words in your head: “You aren’t good enough to get what you want. You’re doomed.”

I can tell that his weapons are working, because you write, “I know I’ll probably get hurt, but I haven’t called it off yet because I know that I can’t do better.” Your current belief that you’re doomed no matter what is a direct manifestation of how damaging it can be to spend time with someone who won’t let you show up and be brave and be big and be whole without always padding the room with disclaimers: WE AREN’T IN LOVE, THOUGH. THIS ISN’T REAL, THOUGH. PLEASE DON’T DEPEND ON ME, THOUGH.

How the fuck did we land in this world where all of the chickenshits get to have their cake and eat it, too, and all of the brave and the open-hearted have to shut up and grab ankle? Now I’m angry on your behalf. What is wrong with our broken culture, with our broken universe, that deeply flinchy, jittery, escapist beasts are somehow viewed as the fittest survivors, able to roam free and state their demands? Meanwhile, those strong and courageous enough to believe in love and show their hearts are punished repeatedly?

I’m not saying that there aren’t many, many weak animals out there who hide in love and demand loyalty before it’s warranted and punish those who just want to experiment and live a free-range life. I’m not saying that needy, moody, pushy, punitive, confused individuals aren’t out there giving commitment a bad name. And I’m also not saying that there aren’t brave, idealistic, free-ranging animals out there who’ve interrogated their beliefs and concluded that our culture’s headlong rush toward lifelong commitment is unhealthy and unrealistic and often ends in disappointment, divorce, and even financial ruin.

But love — like art, like having children, like taking big risks, like breathing in the air and believing in this day on this late date in the Earth’s history — is irrational. Deeply irrational. That’s part of what’s so great about it. Falling in love is like nothing else under the sun. Abandoning yourself and also believing in yourself enough to stay present in the face of potential abandonment, showing your full self and also trying to look a teensy bit more whole than maybe you feel inside? It’s so good. And that’s not to mention the fear, the raw fear of love, the deep fear that you are unlovable, the fear that builds suspense, the fear that makes your skin tingle. It’s the best thing. And when you preemptively proclaim that everything is casual, always, no matter what, no matter where the road turns, no matter how the weather changes, no matter how you suddenly find yourself entranced, enchanted, short of breath, on fire? That’s like waking up in the morning and putting a blindfold over your eyes. That’s like ripping the last chapter out of a book before you start reading it. That’s like sealing yourself in plastic and burying yourself underground just so you won’t feel something unexpected, something that makes you excited or enraged or sad or vulnerable.

Love is a choice to be present. “I only want casual things” is a choice to be honest, which I respect, and also safe, which I have less respect for.

Demanding only casual things puts you both in a tight little chicken yard at the exact moment when the whole world could be yours. I get that refusing to commit can be a way of staying free and not rushing anything. But when you’re face-to-face with another person, telling that person “I don’t want that much, and I might not want anything at all” is just as absurd as telling that person “I want every goddamn thing, sign this contract right now, pledge your whole life to me immediately.” When you face a stranger, you need to live inside a question mark at first. You can still say, “I don’t know exactly what I want and I might not want much, but I might want more than a little.” You can still say, “I am afraid of love but I believe in love but I’m not sure I can commit or even that I believe in commitment.” I have more respect for “I have been in love and I’m trying to be open, but my life is complicated and I’m unsure of what I want at the moment.” I even have respect for “I want you but I’m secretly hoping you turn out to be disappointing so I don’t have to show up or change anything in my life just because I start to need you.”

But we don’t need to sift through the things that other people say about being hesitant or scared or cagey, Seriously Angry. There are just so many different explanations for not wanting to get serious. I don’t want to be disrespectful and categorize them all as chickenshitted. Live and let live. But for our purposes? All of the reasons for being afraid or hesitant or realistic or complicated or half-in fall into the same category: NO THANK YOU. Even though I know that good people are honest about what they can and can’t do in the world of love, even though your current guy sounds like a good, honest person, I don’t want to think too hard about him or understand him all that well. Because then we have to slow way down and listen to someone who, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all. He is great, I’m sure. But once you truly start believing in the fact that YOU DESERVE TO BE DEEPLY LOVED, he will be nothing to you, a fly on the wall, a speck of lint in the butter, some small obstacle that is easily moved out of your way and then forgotten.

And as long as you’re in this thing with this casual man, you are hurting yourself. As long as you’re fucking him, you’re saying, “I will never be worth slowing down for, I will never be a person you show up for, I will never matter more than this. I will never make you wonder if your philosophy is right or wrong. Because I am someone who takes whatever is given to her, even when she doesn’t want it. I am someone who you will hurt eventually. I KNOW I CAN’T DO BETTER THAN THIS.”

This is what I want you to say instead: I AM BIGGER THAN THIS.

I am bigger than this. Say it out loud now. I believe in love and I deserve nothing less than love. If you’re afraid to get serious, if you’re afraid to fall in love, if you prefer to put on a blindfold before you face the day, if you prefer to turn out the lights before you have sex, if you prefer to blunt your senses before you taste your dinner, if you prefer to spout disclaimers and draw up contracts before you take a big leap, then you are not the one for me. I want someone who is courageous and thoughtful, like I am. I want someone who knows how broken this world is, like I do. I want someone who recognizes how twisted and confused our culture is, and who dares to live outside of the bad trends and deeply idiotic reigning dictates of that culture. I want someone who can see me clearly, because I know myself. I am wild and brave and brilliant and I will not settle for less than someone who knows their own raw power and potential the way I do. I am scared and sad and broken and I will not settle for less than someone who can stand to recognize how scared and sad and broken they are.

We are just animals and we don’t have a lot of time here. We are just animals clinging to our short lives on this sad, doomed planet. You know that and I know that, Seriously Angry. We need to be honest and clear and true and loyal to the other people who know that. God bless the rest of these doomed animals who don’t know that, who can’t see that clearly, who can’t feel it deep inside their bones. God bless them. Let them live however they want to live. We want to live among the urgent and the courageous. We want to be deeply loved by those who believe in love. We will not settle for less because settling for less would mean feeling less. We want to feel everything.

I know that’s a bit much, Seriously Angry. Once you start asking for exactly what you want, you will be a bit much, too. But it’s a very efficient sorting process. It keeps the wrong people out of your way. They start to look like a fly on the wall, a bit of lint in the butter. And guess what? You get exactly what you want. You might not be ready for true love, though. Consider that. You might be too afraid. You might dismiss it. You might have to learn how to accept someone who actually loves you. Be prepared to be challenged by that problem soon, though. Because brilliant things fly into your arms when you open your arms wide.

And until they arrive? Know in your heart that you will not get hurt and you CAN do better. Never, ever stop believing that you will fall in love again. I don’t care if you’re 99 years old: Believe. Because believing in love is a good way to live as the clock ticks down. It’s a good way to taste the air, and feel the press of the sky, to fill up space on this glorious, doomed day. This is how it feels to be electric, buzzing, enchanted, alert, delirious, a true believer. This is joy. Alone or with company, now or later, it’s the only way.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Can’t Do Casual’