Despite my… let’s call them varied experiences with dating, I have never had a conversation with my exes like the one I had with my girlfriend last night. At the beginning of said conversation, Xo (my boo) very pragmatically said to me, “I’m not impressed.”
Ironically, a few days ago my mother texted me, “Not everybody is going to be honest with you, but you can count on me!” after I sent her a selfie to convince her that everybody liked my hair but her.
The Universe must be trying to keep me humble.
Xo and I talked for hours about the importance of being honest with each other about our intentions and desires within our relationship—about observing (and ending) our own patterns of compromising our needs on behalf of the people we love.
In my past relationships, we only had conversations about the relationship itself when there was tension.
We talked about what it means to “do the work” a successful relationship requires and how much energy we’re willing to commit to that work. We talked about navigating each other’s learning curves without sacrificing our own journey. (Spoiler alert: I’m the one with the learning curve.) Needless to say, this conversation wasn’t easy. Despite how uncomfortable it was for me (read: my ego) to hear all the ways that I had failed the person I love, doing so felt radical.
I realized that in all of my past relationships, we only had conversations about the relationship itself when there was tension. We only gave each other critical feedback when we were unhappy. We never talked about “us” unless “we” had a problem.
Don’t get me wrong, my exes and I talked about our futures together to the extent that human beings follow the impulse to indulge the theater of our lives, but weren’t having intentional, thoughtful, critical, transparent, difficult conversations unless there was an obvious reason to do so.
Xo made it clear that she wasn’t bringing these things up as reasons to end our relationship, but because she sees our relationship like a house — an ongoing project that requires our constant and sometimes tedious attention.
She said there are certain things we can do to keep our house clean — to reduce mess, clutter, and chaos. There are things we can do, like repairs and renovations, to help the house appreciate in value over time. There are things we can do to adorn our house — burn incense, put up artwork, grow plants — to make it beautiful. Things we can do to make our shared space more joyful to occupy.
You know when you look back on all your failed relationships — on however many months or years of your life spent you spent with your ex — and ask yourself, “What was I thinking?” This conversation with Xo made me ask that very question, and then shortly thereafter realize the truth: I wasn’t.
She sees our relationship like a house — an ongoing project that requires our constant and sometimes tedious attention.
My past relationships didn’t appear dysfunctional when I was in them because I wasn’t thinking about them. I don’t mean to say that I never considered the status and nature of my relationships, but that I wasn’t thinking critically about them as as creative, collaborative projects with a shared vision whose likelihood of success (and/or failure) depended largely on intentional, mutual, and critical analysis between me and my partner.
As a person who prides myself on , it is particularly painful to accept that I have a very consistent pattern of exiting my consciousness within intimate relationships.
How had I allowed myself to become so complacent?
When had I gotten so content to sit back and let my relationships happen?
Where had this pattern begun?
The Problem With #RelationshipGoals
Growing up, I had very few models of successful real relationships. My idea of #RelationshipGoals came from Disney movies and TV sitcoms. It was hard — dare I say impossible —not to buy into the cultural myth that a woman’s greatest accomplishment in life was getting a man to love her.
I understand it is dangerous to make sweeping statements about gender, and as a cisgendered woman I certainly don’t wish to erase the reality of gender as a vast and complex spectrum, but it occurs to me that so much of what I have learned about how to be in a relationship is a reflection of what I have learned about how to be a woman.
Girls, femmes, and women are taught from a young age to accommodate the male ego. We are taught to avoid anything that might not allow a “man” to feel like a man. “Let your man be the man,” we’re advised. “Boys will be boys,” they say.
We are taught not to be too critical of men, lest we embarrass them, or worse, make them look incapable. We are raised to believe that one of the greatest crimes we can commit is to emasculate a man. We are taught not to pursue men, but to allow ourselves to be pursued. We are told not to be “too picky,” told to be grateful when a man is generous enough to put up with us, told we should do whatever it takes to keep him by our side.
The toxic and oppressive lessons that I had internalized about how to exist within heteronormative relationships had crept into my relationship with Xo without me even realizing it.
I had become content with being a passenger on my own journey, even when I knew the car was going the wrong way.
I had become content to ride quietly in the back seat of my relationships because it never occurred to me that I could be the driver. I had become content with being a passenger on my own journey, even when I knew the car was going the wrong way. I didn’t think about where my relationships were going until they had gone past the place I wanted to go. I didn’t think about my relationships until I felt like I had no other choice but to exit them quickly.
In hindsight, it’s clear to me that in a subconscious effort to maintain my autonomy, I kept my relationships at arms length — peripheral (at worst) and parallel (at best) to my own life. They became isolated entities — floating islands right off the coast of the rest of my lived experience. I had allowed myself to be passive within them. I wasn’t consciously looking at them as endeavors whose outcomes were within my control.
I rarely gave myself permission to name my wants and needs within these relationships. Instead, I allowed my desires to become fantasies — visions that I was content to simply play over and over in my mind and never actually pursue.
In other words: I tried to make my relationships work by pretending that nothing was wrong with them.
Putting in the Work
Being honest when you aren’t satisfied with someone you love might be a hard pill for both of you to swallow, but it’s good and necessary medicine. It might seem romanceless to schedule sit-downs with your lover to point out all the varied ways that you “aren’t impressed” with each other, but that’s the work.
Successful relationships (platonic, romantic, hetero, queer, or otherwise) are all partnerships — people working together on a project called us. They require you to identify the things you want and need, to listen to what the other person wants and needs, to see where there’s overlap, be honest about when there’s not, and then adjust accordingly.
They require conversations that demand you pull up two chairs to the table, one for yourself, and one for your ego. Saying the difficult things might not always be pleasant, but it will always be worth it. Your house will either appreciate in value or you’ll know (sooner than later) that you need to move out.
And who knows. You might be able to make a home you can live in forever. You might be able to build yourself a mansion.
This post originally appeared on and was republished with the author’s permission. Follow Jamila on , , and .