As a blogger, I’m always on high alert for real life stories or tidbits that relate to sex and relationships. One of my favorite things to do is ask married couples how they met and got together. People are generally happy to share their history, often allowing me to pry, asking what they first thought when they saw one another, who made the first move, etc.
Recently I’ve been struck by the timelines of some of these relationships. Many don’t follow a straight line from introduction to relationship to lifelong commitment. There are fits and starts, relationships that end and then loop back into being, and all sorts of tales involving misperceptions and miscommunication. I usually wind up feeling amazed that things worked out in the end, a testament of sorts to the human spirit.
Most recent relationship wisdom is of the He’s Just Not That Into You variety. This can generally be summed up as:
Men like to get what they want. If he likes you, he’ll pursue you.
This metric falls short in a number of ways. First, the most aggressive guys, the ones who pursue most enthusiastically, often have a short-term agenda. Men who actually enjoy chasing women down wouldn’t like it so much unless they had a very high success rate, so an appetite for the hunt is usually a red flag.
More importantly, though, there are a lot of things that have to fall into place for a relationship to work. The most critical issue is timing.
Are both parties available – not dating or “being complicated” with someone else?
Are both parties emotionally available – free and clear of feelings for someone else?
Do both parties have time to pursue a relationship?
Do both people plan to live in the same place over the next couple of years?
Do both want a relationship at this point in time?
A lot of the “why didn’t he call” mysteries may be solved with these questions. HJNTIY would say he hasn’t called because he already found someone he likes better, only got your number for an ego boost, or took it to avoid rejecting you publicly. Of course, any of those explanations is possible, but they’re also very negative. There are lots of reasons why relationships don’t take off right away. I think this has created a set of expectations around timing that is very stressful for both men and women.
How many days will it take him to call?
What does it mean if I was the last one to text?
We kissed last weekend, so if I don’t hear from him this weekend, I’ll know he’s not interested.
We had a great time, but he didn’t immediately suggest going out again. What does that mean?
It’s either got to happen right away, or awkwardness sets in and eyes are averted. Guys are wary of being LJBF’d and girls are wary of being put into some kind of soft harem rotation without their knowledge. Not jumping on the opportunity right away has become a clear signal of disinterest, when it may actually reflect caution, ambivalence or just bad timing.
This week, my Aunt Kate and Uncle Bill are visiting from LA. Uncle Bill is my godfather and has always been my favorite. Though only a year younger than my father, I recall him as a bachelor, bringing Kate around for the first time when I was about eight. In all these years, I’ve never heard the story of their relationship, so this morning over coffee I asked them to tell their story. Though they met in the Mad Men era, their relationship sounds more like a contemporary tale – no dating!
Kate and Bill are both enrolled in Advanced Theology. Bill is a senior and Kate a sophomore. Kate finds most of the discussion over her head, but can’t help but notice that Bill often approaches the professor after class, animatedly continuing the discussion as they walk out of the hall together. Bill doesn’t appear aware of Kate’s existence, and Kate is smitten by his intensity and his intellect.
Sometimes Kate sees Bill around campus, always serious, always striding purposefully. She finds him intimidating.
A group of college friends makes plans to go to the theater one night. Bill has left NYC and gone on to graduate school in Washington DC, but joins the group on a weekend visit home. Kate and Bill are introduced, and she feels that they hit it off, but she has to admit that Bill isn’t showing her any special attention. In fact, Kate notices that Bill and her best friend Ginny spend quite a bit of time talking and chatting animatedly. She feels miffed with Ginny, but Ginny denies any interest in Bill.
Kate has a summer birthday party, and invites the extended social group, including Bill, whom she still barely knows. During the party, Kate’s mother takes offense when Bill expresses his radical political views, and quarrels with him. Kate, who shares Bill’s views, has the sense that Bill is speaking for her, though he doesn’t know it, and she feels grateful. Standing up to her fearful mother makes him even more attractive in her eyes. Meanwhile, Bill leaves the party abruptly, telling his friend Jim, “Well, that didn’t go very well. I guess I’m done with these people.”
Kate is researching a paper on Yeats at the New York Public Library and runs into Bill, who is now back in NY getting his doctorate in literature. He points her to several essential resources on Yeats, helps her check them out, and asks if she’d like to grab a cup of coffee. They get talking about art, and he spontaneously offers to show her his favorite hidden gems – famous artworks in churches rather than museums. They spend the rest of the day together and Kate is on Cloud 9. She feels certain that she and Bill are finally going to date, but he says a cheerful goodbye and she never hears from him.
Kate’s friend Ginny has a party one Friday night and invites a large crew. Bill is there, and corners Kate, drunkenly asking her what she thinks love is and sharing a poem by Rumi. Kate feels that this must be it, finally – an attempt at seduction. But Bill wanders away after a while to get another drink. As the party winds down, Ginny goes missing, and Kate is really concerned. She enlists Bill’s help, asking him to stay until they can locate her. Even in her panic she views this as an opportunity to collude in some way. Finally, with only a handful of guests left, they find her passed out under the remaining few coats. It’s light out by now – 5 in the morning. Bill says, “I’m glad Ginny’s fine, I’ll go now.” Kate is disappointed – what is his problem?
Kate decides to do something that feels very aggressive. She has never initiated contact with a man before. Heart pounding, on Sunday she calls Bill to thank him for helping out with Ginny. She mentions that after the weekend bender, she’s desperate for some fresh air, and plans to go for an afternoon drive. He asks if she wants some company, and even offers to do the driving. This is fortuitous, as Kate has never learned how to drive and doesn’t have a license.
Bill and Kate meander around, finally stopping for martinis and talking well into the night. Bill kisses Kate good night.
Monday comes and goes without a word, but on Tuesday Bill comes over to see Kate and to tell her this is it. They never spend another day without seeing one another, and marry the following year.
Hearing this story, I was curious to know whether Bill was clueless, a brooding loner, just not very attracted to Kate, or what. I grilled him, demanding an explanation for these weak moves.
First, Bill never even noticed Kate in Advanced Theology. He was completely focused on his studies. As a working class kid paying his way through college, he had little time for girls and partying.
Second, Bill enjoyed meeting Kate at the theater, but did not think in terms of starting a relationship with her. He was away at school in DC and not looking for any kind of obligation at home.
Third, while Bill was surprised and pleased to be invited to Kate’s party, he was mortified when her mother yelled at him. He was especially disappointed by these events because he had just told a friend that Kate was his idea of “the perfect woman, a Renaissance ideal, both physically and intellectually.”
Fourth, Bill enjoyed grabbing coffee with Kate and spending the afternoon together in ’61, but at that time was nursing a broken heart, thanks to Brigid O’Connor.
Life is complicated. People are complicated. Things don’t always go according to plan. I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason” in a fatalistic sense, but I recognize that it often takes some aligning of the stars for people to get together and for things to work out. It took Bill and Kate nine years of casual friendship to get together. They were madly in love when I was a kid, and they still are after 48 years of marriage.
Moral of the story:
Keep an open mind.
Let go of your expectations around timing.
If you want someone, take a risk and show interest.
If it doesn’t work out right away, be a friend. Everything changes. You will be surprised.