On Risk, Relationships and GD Patriarchy. A Polemic.

I am a risk-taker in relationships. In addition to being a risk-taker, I’m doggedly committed and don’t give up on a teetering romance until I’m well and truly and certainly done with it. As a result, my friends, family – and, I’m sure, more than one potential suitor – sigh and shudder and worry and are not-so-secretly convinced that I put myself on the line because I’m lonely, fat, a single mom and therefore should be lacking in self-esteem due to my apparent unfuckability (oh, if only y’all knew) and desperation for the security of a relationship.

They would be wrong. I’ve always been a risk taker: fat, skinny, younger, older, before and after kids, always. I take risks because I know I can handle it. I’m resilient. I have faith in myself. Even if I get my heart broken, even if I’m stung by love’s yellow jackets and swell up and take to bed for three days to nurse my hives, cracked heart, fractured ego and assorted existential wounds, I’ll come out of it okay. I usually learn something, too. I stretch. I grow. I expand my emotional range. I go wide and deep. I love.

This, I submit, is the opposite of low self-esteem and desperation.

But, I admit, I’m breaking the rules. It is not always comfortable. It is not always easy. And so far, I don’t have the happy ending to point at, chant “see, nya, nya, I told you so”, and then legitimately launch polemics against tepid dating and soulless relationships and the patriarchy.

So I break the rules. I own myself and my feelings and act on them. I try to connect and I call when I feel the need to do that, which can be a lot. I think that is as it should be. When you like someone, you want to talk to him. I don’t wait around or corral myself into a good girl box of chocolates hoping a man will choose me. When I like a man, he knows it. When I love him, he’s lucky. That sounds like empowerment, and it is, and sometimes I say things that feel honest and powerful to me but which are interpreted vastly differently by the people who live outside my head. Things like this: I need a man. I am lonely. Arguably, being honest about those things does not makes me pathetic or weak. In fact, I think the opposite narrative, the one that says “I don’t need a man, I want one” is ridiculously boring and weak. I get it, but it is not compelling. It goes like this: you can pay your bills. You’re doing fine. You have hobbies and friends and a cat and if you died tomorrow, you’d be satisfied that you lived a good life.

Those things are sort of true for me, too, except that I don’t have a cat. I like my upholstered goods on the unshredded side. And even with the ability to take care of myself quite competently for the rest of my life without male assistance, I still need a man, and the fact that I am marginally solvent and reasonably capable in most adult matters means that I can be shameless about expressing my needs. Admitting to needs – requiring companionship and savouring love and partnership – does not diminish me. So there, nya nya, I told you so (again. Am I undermining my credibility as an adult?).

I need a romantic, significant, long-lasting relationship. I think most people do. Relationships – friendly, romantic, platonic, passionate, familial – are the juice and the juju that a growing life demands. Being one half of a passionate partnership presents challenges and struggles and magic and love and I need that. I need to give that and exchange that and grow in that. And I’ll risk the lectures about how I should be an independent woman (I am! and it is not all self-sufficient sunshine and egalitarian roses!) to say so. Because the risk is worth the reward.

So fuck risk-managing potential relationships. I’m frustrated with that and this is the core of my exasperation with dating and the our boring cultural discourses about dating: one of the axis that it turns on is a glib, therapized, risk-managing approach to relationships. And yes, my darling reader, you ARE so prescient. I do have thoughts on the matter and I would love to share them:

  1. I highly doubt that everyone out there who is dating has gone to therapy and explored the issues and done the work. Actually, I don’t DOUBT it, I know it. Most of us speak therapy but we haven’t really been therapized.
  2. All the risk management and red-flagging paradoxically creates risk. Every step is a mine-field of meaning. Codes are being signalled and transgressed. Everything becomes a Big Freaking Deal. Relationships halt based on a poorly timed phone call. As proof, I offer you my recent, deep, and time-consuming research on the after-sex call. This is what I did: I googled ‘after sex call‘ and the results cracked my lid and my brain made a brief, panicked, screaming run around the living room. There are more than 80 million pages advising you when to call, when not to call, what it means when he calls on Sunday (you’re girlfriend material), Monday (he’d like to sleep with you again but you’re not relationship material), or Friday (you’re a booty call). Let me repeat it: EIGHTY MILLION pages of results on this issue.

  3. The patriarchy. Oh, the patriarchy. The sexism. The double-standards. The give-a-cookie, get-a-ring theory of dating.
  4. The dating rules. OMG, The Rules.
  5. #3 and #4 are in fact the same thing and my brain is now making crop-circles in the dining room. Which is tough to do because despite what you’ve heard about Vancouverites, BC and our main agricultural export, not all of us grow grass in the dining room.

Let’s talk about The Rules, which is not just a way of talking about the stupid rules of dating but an actual book that articulates them in 35 (!!!) easy-to-remember points (!!!!) by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider.Or let’s not. I’m sure you know them and all their evil, anti-feminist clones like He’s Just Not That Into You, Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (which uses cookies as a metaphor for sex and advises women to dole them out sparingly, and not at all in the first three months) and, most recently, Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World by Jordan Christy. All of them essentially advise the same thing: don’t put out, don’t call, don’t require much, and maybe, if you’re lucky and you wait around quietly looking pretty, he’ll marry you. In short, don’t be you.

So that is what is supposed to guarantee me the Happy Ending. The Wedding (which incidentally, I don’t even want. Marriage: yes. Wedding: no). The Husband.

But what kind of husband would I land with those rules? What kind of relationship and marriage would that be?

The answer to this not-so-rhetorical question is this: not the kind I want.

In Canada, you can marry anyone you want, as long as you’re only marrying one adult person at a time. This, in the world according to Kelly, is as it should be. So I have no issues with marriage. If gay and lesbian and straight people and everyone who identifies themselves in between or outside of those categories can marry, then I too can marry in good conscience because I’m not accessing a privilege allowed only to those who accidentally, luckily, have sexualities deemed socially acceptable. So, yay, Canada. Yay, marriage.

If I am to marry – and I hope that I do – I would want to marry a man who thinks like that, too. And I highly motherfucking doubt that a man who thinks like that would

  • be ‘caught’ by The Rules;
  • require a woman to play by The Rules;
  • get off on the chase;
  • like it when a woman doles out sex like the forbidden cookie, to be earned with virtuous, chivalrous behaviour and a mainly no-sex diet;
  • think I’m an unmarriageable slut for expressing my sexuality and acting on my desires;
  • interpret my ability to be real and raw and vulnerable as desperate and unappealing;
  • be reeled in through a prescribed course of intense manipulation;
  • need to be manipulated to feel valued; and
  • insist that I contain my needs for connection and companionship with him.

Because that would mean that he’s wired like a wannabe patriarch. And this is would be a problem for me because how I feel about fucking the patriarchy (pro) is wildly different than my feelings about fucking the patriarch (con).

So, sadly, dating is still a gender-trap. And, paradoxically, even as dating is a dangerous trap, it is so gd safe. We talk about dysfunction and reflexively screen out anyone lacking a career or a physique that will pass muster with friends and family and who doesn’t call by Wednesday. We’re risk-managing ourselves out of hypothetical heartbreak but into one-bedroom apartments and solo-Christmases.

Recently, someone said to me “…but I never enjoyed dating the way you do.” And I was stunned. I embrace the risks that relationships entail but I hate dating. I like people, I adore men, I like meeting people and connecting and getting excited about seeing the world (and even myself) through their eyes, but dating and me – well we are not in love and never will be. It is too coded. Too mined with gendered expectations and signals and social assumptions. Too uncertain. So, yes, with one side of my mouth I bemoan the rules of engagement while with the other I freely kiss and confess that I adore being wooed. It is a very, very good thing when someone showers me with attention and affection and never makes me wonder: Do I call? Do I not call? Is he just not that into me if he doesn’t call? What does it mean if I call? To me? To him?

And that’s it. That’s the dichotomous, insane space we live in. As women, we’re supposed to be empowered and beyond The Rules. As naked, vulnerable, brave and needy people, we need to connect and be adored (or at least I do). And the dating manuals that make me crazy live in precisely that crazy-making space: they directly address the need to be feel adored by prescribing formulas for discerning adoration while in the same breath and with lipstick-slicked, barbed kisses they re-inscribe a pointed, confining, prescriptive cultural narrative about gender roles and heterosexual relationships.

About women, that narrative says this: Women should wait. Women should let men take the lead. Women should not be demanding or difficult or insist on getting their needs met by their male partners. Women should contain their sexuality. Women should be tricksters. Women should not expect anything other than the social outlines of a contractual relationship. Women who do all of these things will be rewarded with a ring. Being single is a prison you can earn your way out of with good behaviour and yes, your man is your Warden.

About men, that narrative says this: Men are hunters. Men do not have emotional needs or require friendship from their partners and if they do, they should never admit it and definitely not call before three days have elapsed because that is just unattractive. Showing you like a woman will scare her off. Don’t care for her, conquer her, because, after all, men have an inherent need to conquer women and the world. Men don’t like themselves so they cannot like women who show them that they like them. A man should marry the woman who likes him the least. A man values a woman who restrains her desires with him, because that means she’ll restrain her desires with other men, too. Men don’t know themselves so have to be tricked into getting what is good for them. Men can be tricked. Men should be tricked. Men are dumb.

How is that for seductive? After you get past the pre-marital, tedious process of risk-management and encoding gendered, patriarchal assumptions, the two of you will ideally end up in a soulless, mostly sexless marriage of convenience where the man takes out the garbage and mows the lawn and the woman flutters around doing sexy domestic things like cleaning the toilet and keeps her mouth shut except when she’s yelling at the kids. Excellent. Fantastic. I’m in.

Confession: Until this year, year thirty-sex, I never really dated. Every significant relationship I have ever had evolved out of ‘hanging out’: out of spending time together, having wide-ranging, unconstrained, passionate hours-long conversations in which we solved the political and social dilemmas of the day, doing things together, with other people, and together, until we were just, organically, a couple or some sort of watershed sexual/romantic/conversational moment occurred that articulated our ecstatic commitment to couple-y-ness.

I suspect that this dynamic is a function of youth and university. I suspect that this is even what universities are for: campuses are covert, middle-class marriage markets. Mostly middle-class families offload their kids there and after four or five years and those kids emerge as qualified adults ready to earn, baby, earn and are likely, hopefully involved with now-degreed, pedigreed, marriageable partners who also have reasonable career prospects and are probably from other middle-class families. Who needs a matchmaker or an arranged marriage if you can send your kids to college?

During the university years, young adults are installed in crappy, overpopulated apartments on a campus with several thousand mostly-single people in the same age bracket, and all of them have lots of free time and (temporarily) very little money. It is a recipe for social interaction that is based on conversation and connection and ideas, and if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by uberliberal, progressive, smart, thinking people, then the very structures of relationships get talked about, questioned and negotiated. Then, if you’re really lucky, you end up in a Relationship with a man who thinks about these things too, and is willing to go there with you and wonder about The Rules, and fuck the Rules, and just be, and figure out how to be, together. Yessssssssss.

I spent most of my twenties in University. Naturally, I ended up in a Relationship – bizarrely, with a very socially conventional (and very good) man – and spent most of my thirties having babies. Then we split. Now I have a job, kids, a rigid and unbending schedule that requires me to see the inside of 5am every weekday, a cosmic void where babysitters should be, and no classmates or (adult) house-mates with single friends with whom to hang out and eventually fall in love. So now I have to date, marshal time to date, organize an infrastructure that allows for dating, search out appropriate people to date, all of which I do, sometimes ecstatically, sometimes begrudgingly. To me, the logistics and the safe, gendered discourses of dating are the antithesis of sexy. I miss my flophouse university days. I miss organic relationships.

Relationships are conversations. Relationships are messages sent and received and returned. Relationships are primal, biological, electric, evolutionary, revolutionary. Relationships are generative. Relationships are transcendent and divine. Relationships are magic. Relationships are worth the risk.

Too bad that as a grown-ass adult you have to date to find one.


note: I originally posted this piece in September 2009 but I was missing it, lots, so I called it back. It loves me, too.

About the author

Kelly Diels I'm Kelly Diels. I'm a writer. I've written for Salon, Jezebel, XO Jane, Problogger, Write to Done and more. I'm currently working on a book about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. Interested? Please subscribe to my newsletter and I'll share more thoughts and chapters with you as I write them. You can also find me on Facebook and yes please, please do.