Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!
Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.
Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.
Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.
And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.
The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.
And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.
The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.
Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.
I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.
And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.
Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.
So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.
Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.
Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.
But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.
If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.
Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.
But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.