We don’t get into relationships anymore. We get into whateverships. That’s where we are as a (dating) culture. And the last one I had was positively ruined by his need for premature classification.

He had been a peripheral friend for a few months, when we attacked each other after a party. It was the inevitable conclusion to the one tangible thing I had with that boy that can be sworn upon in court if need be: glorious, beautiful, raw chemistry. But it was also the inevitable beginning to the complexity of all that happens next in Loverland, whether it lasts years, hours, or in this case, precisely two weeks.

Post-coital, he confessed that he was still in love with his childhood sweetheart, and I thought that was completely adorable. It totally endeared him to me. So we talked about it and decided that we’d keep it casual for the moment and see where we ended up.

A few days later, after the second time we had (hyper-glorious) sex, he told me, “I can’t handle this.” He was looking for something more meaningful, said he. This threw me off entirely, and I realized when we said we’d keep it casual, we’d each meant different things. I had meant to sign us up for the safe zone of any new relationship, whereby both partners acknowledge an open-ended possibility to be explored in order to answer the big question(s). He had interpreted our “contract” as casual sex–perhaps because, to him, it was the same thing, or the straight bottom-line amid all that tangled complexity. I had been trying to explain that the only way to find out who you are together, is to exist together in an honest all’s-fair neutral zone, in which both people take the same risks.

I tried to heal the semantic rift, and told him that getting to know each other is where everything starts out, like it or not, and that of course, anyone’s going to want it to go deeper, and want to know what to label it. Everybody wants to fall in love, even the most cynical, wizened, embittered lovers, but you can’t force it. The conversation was unsatisfying. Three days later, he texted to say he was outside my apartment, and we attacked each other again. But afterward, as had become his style to ruin the afterglow with a desire to publicly classify what just happened, he stated that not only was he still in love with his first love, but that he was still going to date other women, because he was fairly certain that I wasn’t what he wanted long-term. And so, “We shouldn’t do this too often so that neither of us gets confused.” Yes, he said those things; he said them hours after he voluntarily showed up at my place.

At that point, being constantly filed away after sex was so annoying, I was beginning to value peace of mind 51 percent more than that smoldering chemistry. So I said goodbye.

And that was that. We still see each other in mixed company from time to time, and nature taunts us with the same phenomenal pheromones. But he can’t enjoy it for what it is, while keeping a window open to possibility and treating me respectfully afterward (in lieu of lovingly). And I can’t call it mere open-and-close-case casual sex every time we have it, just to make him comfortable with his evidently bewildering desire for me that deigns to go against his five-year plan. So we ignore nature, chemistry, chance. We nod hey, and move on.

After the first, second, or third time you start having sex with someone, one of the pair is likely to ruin things by asking that it be defined for the alleged benefit of both parties. “We need to decide what this is” he or she may offer. “We need to label this,” or “I need to know what to feel,” etc. This expression is an understandable impulse and I’m sure it makes you feel very adult and in control for the fleeting moment it passes from brain to lips, but that’s about all it accomplishes. It doesn’t keep you from dating players (if you are trying to avoid them) for they are probably good enough to know what you want to hear, pat you on the head, and otherwise placate your fears so that they remain totally in control. It doesn’t keep you from getting your heart broken, or from breaking someone else’s heart. It actually makes heartbreak more likely all around, because defining things lends itself to expectation. It makes people feel like something has been made real or official, that by all accounts probably yet isn’t. Commitment in the body isn’t a placeholder until the heart catches up. The heart is fast enough, has its own plans, and needn’t be rushed. We are blessed to live in a time and place where premarital sex is the norm, so that we can get to know someone well prior to committing too much to the wrong person. And no, in my opinion, you can’t get to know someone ultra-romantically without having sex with them first. Sex unleashes so much about a person psychologically that they themselves might not even know about, or can’t face. We are Victorians with Facebook pages, guarding and constructing images of ourselves that we can maintain for years, unchecked. Sex is the forced intimacy that makes most facades impossible to maintain (but not all). Sex has taught me which guys love my body, whether I am 70 percent happy with it or 90 percent happy with it, versus which are constantly looking for ways to improve me. It has taught me which guys have a healthy idea of sex, and which do not. It has taught me so much more.

But we still can’t quite figure out how to go about the process successfully. We’ve invented subdivisions and stages for relationships to explain to our friends where ‘we as a couple’ are at this or that point in the quest for genuine intimacy.  Every day the narrowly defined ‘open relationship’ becomes more of a social norm, which can probably be explained by our cultural need to address this very issue–to bypass the stage of the relationship that is, by nature, the unknown. The only authentic route, in my view, is NOT to define the damn thing at all until you know the person, as well as your reaction to them, well enough to do so.

Advice: When you start sleeping with someone, don’t ask questions designed to define relationships for a solid three months, for the genuine benefit of both parties. In other words, dating is getting to know someone romantically, and you can’t accomplish it honestly if you’ve rushed into a relationship in order to give yourself, or the other person, permission to feel safe. Pretending won’t actually make either of you safer.

Give it three months, and enjoy the tenuous connection for what it is. Don’t dissect the sapling–it’s guaranteed to not grow that way. At the end of the three months, you’ll probably both know the answer, even if they’re two different answers.

In closing, nobody knows what dating is anymore. Especially those doing it the most. If you’re beginning something fun, coast with it a few months. Get to know the other person before you prematurely commit to them, or before you shut off all possibility of commitment by calling your connection something less than what it may be in the future (possibly making the other person feel like crap in the process). Neither of you knows what it is! That’s okay. The only thing you should know is that this is the early fun part. The next time some new guy breathlessly asks me to define we just did, I will say, “Eros incognita,” then I will ask him to ask me again in a couple months, and then I’ll stop his mouth with a kiss before either of us ruins it.

5 replies on “Are You in a Whatevership?”

  1. I’m glad to be an old (40-something) married lady when I read about the dating world of today — it’s a bit too sophisticated for my blood! But no doubt exciting, and potentially very rewarding, for the bold and brave of heart!

  2. Hello TEX,

    The idea of “waiting for the heart first” suggests that the heart knows better than three entities working as a unit. (heart + body + brain) You can not leave one behind while the other two go exploring. This isn’t a novel, nor is it a video game or other simulation. The idea that we treat the body as the oft-shameful container that we must put up with while we’re on this earth, watching it slowly lose its power, is fairly strong in Western Culture, and in my opinion, one of the reasons for depression and unhappiness in this country. I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about the fundamental flaws in the mentality of our school systems; He makes the joke that academics look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads. At the time he was discussing a child who couldn’t seem to sit still and focus at school. After meeting with the child, he concluded that she take dance classes, and it worked. Our society takes something like the natural energy of being a child, and stifles that glorious resource, asking it to sit still in a classroom.

    Sex is the only real thing that separates friendships from romantic relationships. People who marry without it start dating on their wedding night, and the force of the contract keeps them together through the rough patches that might otherwise break up an unmarried couple. If your goal is simply to not break up, this might, therefore, be a good route. If your goal is to find the right person, it would be like buying a lottery ticket with which you intend to pay your rent. Ultimately it is a very personal choice, but I would consider it a greater honor to be married for who I am, warts and all, than risk having a man ask me to marry him because it’s the passage to sex, or because he has some idealized, romantic notion of who I am. Besides, I personally don’t date for the purpose of getting married some day. I date to explore myself, to explore romantic love, and to explore humanity. I have sex because it is a healthy, normal human function for a body that is as sacred to its owner as is the equal nourishment of heart and mind. The body is the avatar through which we gain immense knowledge and wisdom. Without the grounding reality of that body, hearts and minds are easily misled.

  3. Sara, you are brilliant. Wise as ancient sages. I will be checking into this column, and sending my friends, family, and well, maybe even a lover this way when the time comes! The part about why you date, and our bodies as avatar rings so true with me, I just couldn’t articulate it as well. Thanks for sharing your gifts.

  4. In fact your idea on the body in balance with heart and mind is key to health in every department, not just the sexually. Our bodies can be used as barometers to measure our internal pressure/reaction to our outer world experience. Perhaps tension rises when our internal and external worlds are not in harmony.

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