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How to center yourself in dating
And break free from the male gaze
Yesterday, a college journalism student in New York City interviewed me for a project she’s working on about dating. She had come across the sex and dating advice column I used to write for Time Out New York, Let Us Sex-plain, and thought I’d provide good insight for her research. Like I always said in the column, I’m no expert, but I’ve had sex and I’ve dated, and I’m always down to talk about it.
She asked me why dating can feel so confusing, and I said it’s because we are so often dishonest. We are so afraid of conflict we will do almost anything to avoid it. And lying is easy and saves us some discomfort.
That’s why at the end of a date Person One enjoyed but Person Two didn’t, when One says, “I had a great time. Would you like to go on a second date?” Two responds, “Yeah, sure!” even though they have no intention of doing so. So when One reaches out to plan another date and they get a no, or no response at all, that’s really confusing! In another example: One has slept with Two a few times, but then life things come up, so One just ghosts Two rather than taking the (minimal) time and energy to be honest about the situation—and Two is left dejected and wondering what the hell just happened. (Fear is why people ghost after yearslong relationships! It happens all the time!)
I am still practicing and learning integrity while dating. I do not ghost, but it can be hard to say to someone’s face, “I enjoyed my time with you, but I don’t see a romantic connection between us,” after you just spent two hours (or two months) getting to know them. (However, it really can be as easy as saying that one, clear sentence. Much easier than dragging it on in future, awkward text conversations.) And it can be much harder to have “I’m letting you down gently” conversations face-to-face or over the phone rather than by text, even though we know damn well that texts are cold and fraught with miscommunication.
We’re babies, we’re afraid, we hate tough conversations, we don’t like to own up to our own shit, we’d simply rather not. I think it’s true we are losing vital communication and conflict skills as a society, myself included. I’m reckoning with what’s been lost to our tech addictions, to choosing dates like menu items, and to the isolation of the pandemic, and how it’s possibly altered my life—especially my dating life—forever.
But even if we haven’t quite worked up the courage and kindness it takes to be honest with others, we can at least be honest with ourselves. That’s where centering yourself in dating comes in.
Most of my dating life, I wondered and worried about what the men I was interested in thought about me.
“Does he think I’m hot, smart, cool, funny? Does he like me? Does he want to see me again? Is he thinking about me? Will he call? Does he want to be my boyfriend?”
Their approval of me was all that mattered; nevermind if I was genuinely interested in them, or if they added value to my life. A lifetime of growing up as an American girl taught me to view myself through the exacting sightline of the male gaze. I gave all of my power over to the opinions of strangers I barely knew. My peace and happiness rested on their approval and desire of me, though few of them ever earned the right to that sort of respect and personal influence.
I don’t date like that anymore. I don’t live like that anymore, seeking validation from those outside of my inner circle. Whether or not a man wants to date me is much lower on my self-worth scale than it was when I was 16, or 25 (though it’s definitely still on the scale—I am but a mere heterosexual, mortal woman).
But I still constantly see people who approach dating with one central priority: “Do they like me?” So when I talked to that young reporter in New York City, I told her my ultimate piece of advice for single people:
Center yourself in dating.
What does that look like? It looks like putting your emotions, feelings, and desires first, not theirs—they’ve already got someone to put their needs first, after all. In the days after early dates, take time to get quiet and ask yourself:
Do I like them?
How did they make me feel?
How does my body feel when I spend time with them? Do they calm my nervous system, or the opposite?
Can I be myself around them? Or am I always performing for them?
Would I rather hang out with them, or be alone?
What do I like about them? What do I dislike about them?
Am I attracted to them?
Do they ask me questions that make me feel like they really want to get to know me? Do they listen to me?
Does the idea of another date with them excite me, or stress me out?
Is this someone I can see myself in a relationship with?
You are not dating to fit neatly into the faceless, woman-shaped hole in someone else’s life. Those dog days are over. Yes, healthy relationships require compromise, and you need to show up for your partner and calm their nervous system as well. And I trust that you will do so. So when you are getting to know someone and you find yourself in that familiar place of wondering when they’ll text, if they think you’re attractive, if they like you… STOP. Turn it around. Recenter yourself.
YOU ARE THE SUN, the center of your own extraordinary universe. My god, how you shine! So what if they’re interested in you or not? Are you interested in them?
Are they giving you the communication you need to feel secure in the relationship? Have they shown you they are a match for what you are looking for? Do you feel calm, safe, and satisfied?
We can’t always count on honesty from the people who enter our orbit. But can you count on you?
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