It’s hard to define what “dating” is, because it means something different to almost every person. Here, I’ll be talking about it in the sense of being in a romantic relationship—whether that’s as someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, main hang, et cetera. (And if you aren’t in a relationship like that now, or don’t ever want to be, that’s totally OK.)
A question you may have asked yourself, whether you’re in a romantic relationship or not, is: How am I supposed to BE when I’m dating someone?
For years, I didn’t think about this at all. I based my idea of “being a girlfriend,” which was my particular role in relationships, on what I gleaned from movies and TV. And sadly, many of the characters I saw were relegated to hanging on to someone’s every word and existing only to make the other person’s life better. I didn’t realize that the laziness of screenwriters shouldn’t translate to my own romantic life.
Romantic relationships are different than most relationships in that they’re a little like all relationships, all at once. There are aspects of friendship, because you’re hanging out with a person you like, and who shares at least some of your interests. It’s also like having a crush, in that you often want to cram as much of a person, physically and/or emotionally, into yourself as possible. Then there’s a weird hurt that can come with being in a romantic relationship, because you have to make yourself vulnerable to another person, which means they have access to the tenderest parts of who you are. So how do you juggle all that?
The first, most important step is to be an advocate for yourself. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean that you stop caring for your own needs, and only care for the other person’s. You are in charge of taking care of you, physically and emotionally—the other person should not have that job. Don’t push yourself further, or be pushed further, than you want to go. Give your body what it needs to feel healthy.
Make regular, quality time for friends you can rely on for fun and venting and hugs. This is really important. Your romantic partner should be an addition to your life, not the centerpiece, and you shouldn’t be the centerpiece of their life, either. You are the centerpiece of your own life. You don’t want to put all your emotional eggs in one basket, no matter how romantic it seems.
New couples often get into a nesting phase, when they’re very happy to ignore the rest of the world. After a short grace period—maybe two, three weeks tops—make sure your relationship can be incorporated into your life, and not the other way around. If someone wants to break things off because you want to hang out with your friends, they weren’t worth being with in the first place.
When you’re taking care of yourself in all these ways, you can really get to know another person, and let them get to know you. That means considering the other person’s needs and wants (but doesn’t mean you always put them first). It means listening and asking questions. It means taking note of things they like, and trying to do those things. It means compromising sometimes. It means revealing information about yourself, in a way that deepens your bond and makes you feel safe. It means letting the other person earn your trust, rather than giving it away or keeping it for yourself.
You also have to remember that the person you’re snugged up with is not perfect. Not out to trick you. Not your future spouse (sure, maybe, but most likely not). They’re someone who makes mistakes and smells bad sometimes and has feelings and says sweet things to you. Being with them doesn’t make them always right or always wrong—you are just two people navigating holding each other’s hands and hearts.
Being close to someone in this way also means having physical and emotional boundaries, and allowing those boundaries to gently evolve. Not to be pushed, not to be broken in the name of love, but to evolve. Allow yourself to test your own boundaries and see what feels comfortable and fun for you. Sex doesn’t make a relationship romantic, and romance doesn’t have to involve sex. Saying, “I love you,” doesn’t have to be a part of the equation, either. You can care about someone very much and never have things go to lovetown. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful or fulfilling.
You and your partner may have in-jokes, talk to each other in an embarrassing secret language, or have silly nicknames for each other. It’s totally OK for that stuff to stay within the boundaries of your relationship. Your friends don’t have to know about it, and that doesn’t make you any less true to yourself. At the same time, you and your pals may share those exact same things, and without those things ever entering your dating sphere. Learning how to be yourself, with some thought-out boundaries, and within different relationships, is part of the process of becoming you. ♦