Recently, I had to give some advice I hated. A friend of mine has been seeing this guy (who we’ll call Kellen Heller) who either isn’t that into texting, texting my friend or just isn’t into my friend. We can’t tell the difference. This is because my friend (who we’ll call Uncanny Sullivan) will send Kellen one, two, three or four text messages and hear almost nothing back, except for maybe a passing “LOL” or “interesting,” which is a text euphemism for “IDGAF.” And when they are together, Kellen’s behavior matches his stoic communication skills. He’s also not that into cuddling, conversation, touching my friend, or even initiating sex. When Uncanny will try to fool around or start something, Kellen says he’s not in the mood, has a headache or is too tired — like the bored, sexually unfulfilled spouse on every sitcom. No one wants to be Patricia Heaton, not even Patricia Heaton.
But the problem is they’ve only been seeing each other two months. Uncanny is one of my best friends, and they haven’t even dated long enough for me to memorize Kellen’s name. (I call him “The Dude” when I can’t remember.) And despite this short span of time, my friend spends most of their time obsessing about this relationship, about what they are doing wrong or why that person isn’t more interested. Kellen says that he just isn’t that good at initiating sex and needs someone who is more aggressive and forceful (who is willing to be “The Top,” to borrow from gay lingo) but rebuffs almost all of my friend’s attempts to “top him.” After a scant 60 days, my friend is killing themselves to inject passion into the relationship and try to spice things up, even though my friend is 23 and not buying a timeshare in Ft. Lauderdale with their spouse of 38 years. They shouldn’t be resorting to a Hope Springs intervention just yet.
Uncanny is one of those people who puts a lot into a relationship, who really throws their heart and their soul into it, someone any other Kellen, Robert or Taylor on our block would kill to text back and smother with a million messages, in a number of communication forms. They might even bring back carrier pigeons. And rather than dating one of these other guys, I asked the friend why they are so intent on making it work with this guy who either doesn’t give a crap about them or can’t be bothered to show it. This is a problem I recently ran into. I dated a guy who couldn’t text to save his life and also couldn’t call, Skype, email, letter, tweet or Dixie Cup. Sure, things were great when we were actually together, but what’s the point if you aren’t together that often? Rather than obsessing about why he isn’t calling me or what I’ve done to make him NOT LOVE ME ANYMORE, I decided to stop caring so much. I let that carrier pigeon go and started seeing other people. What was the point in putting so much effort and emotional energy into something I wouldn’t get it back from? Life is too short to spend it furiously checking your phone while crying on the couch and eating every pint of ice cream Ben and Jerry sell — not that I would know anything about that.
So, when the friend asked what they should do about their guy, I told them from experience: You can either let him go or just learn how to let go. Don’t text him so much. Blow him off every once in awhile. Let HIM miss you. I know that was the right advice to give (almost every dating book I’ve ever read confirms that this “playing hard to get” bullshit works), but I wanted to stab those words as they were coming out of my mouth like after-birthday-party balloons. I went through my friend’s text messages to examine their conversation, and I saw how sweet my friend was being, how much they really cared about this guy, more than any guy in a while. Uncanny just got out of a major relationship, and it was touching and inspiring to see them putting themselves out there again; to get loved or to get hurt; and to get their heart broken by the beauty and terror of dating. I hated to unintentionally shame that. I hated advising Uncanny to be anything other than their beautiful, loving self. I hated to tell them hold back the things I adore most about them. It was a very sad, Charlie Brown moment.
The worst part was: my advice worked. After I advised my friend to minimize their text ratio and learn to be more aloof, the guy started paying more attention and apologized for his behavior. He’s been texting more, calling more and being the one who making plans with my friend, only because my friend learned to “give less of a fuck.” Although it makes me glad to see my friend happier and less anxious about their love life, as someone who analyzes these dating patterns, it makes me profoundly sad to see that this is more desirable than giving our full hearts to something. Such has probably always been the case, as James Dean and Marlon Brando’s entire sex appeals were predicated on being mysterious, dark, brooding, and kind of aloof. Even a recent Thought Catalog article professed a love for “selfish men,” the Christian Greys of our world, the guys who take and take and don’t quite give back. But I think the problem is that these guys (and girls, who aren’t exempt from being selfish) teach us not to care too much or keep a distance from people that you like. We save it for our girlfriends, our vibrators or the recent episode of Breaking Bad or Community, which (judging from the A.V. Club message boards) many people care a whole lot about.
Why can’t we just show the same kind of devotion to our dates that we do Walter White and Abed? Why do we have to wait three days to call, watch how much we text, date other people to make them jealous, blow them off to keep them at a distance, purposefully show up a little late, not answer the phone right away, play games, not get too attached and treat our dating lives as if they were the power dynamics in an Aaron Sorkin script? Part of this I like, because people should be independent and have other things in their life than a relationship, but training ourselves to be too cool to care about those around us isn’t helping anyone, whether it’s inside of a relationship or beyond it. Think about how easily people (myself included) break plans these days, as another option and someone else’s evening is always just a “Raincheck?” text away, and tell me we all don’t have a caring problem. When I brought our caring deficit up to one of my peers, they responded that this was a good thing. We should be all jaded ironists who are all too busy trying not to get hurt to put ourselves out there. Sounds like fun!
On the subject, poet W.H. Auden once wrote the following: “How should we like it if stars were to burn/ With a passion for us we could not return?/ If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. Although this poem can be interpreted as just being about relationships, I think Auden sends a more far-reaching message to our era, the folks who are too busy and important to care about others: Don’t be afraid to put too much of yourself into something and get hurt. Don’t be afraid to be the one who cares more. Don’t be afraid to be your loving, thin-skinned self. I recently heard an adage that advised people always to be the “crazy” one in a relationship, which I disagreed with because it’s weird and able-ist. Instead, I think if we want to find love, fulfillment and happiness, we need to stop caring what people think and care about being true to ourselves and validating our real emotions. Because if someone doesn’t like you for that, what’s the point? If you think you can’t do that, remember there was a time when people said landing on the moon was impossible, and now we’re roving Mars. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it allows us to explore a universe infinitely bigger than anything even our poets could have dreamed.
So we can spend so much of our lives worried if we’re reaching for the stars, whether we will get that job, if people think our writing is good, if that person at the bar will be as interested in us as we are in them or whether or not that guy will text us back. We can hide from the impending rejection that living in the world entails. Or we can choose to live in the world, enjoy all of the beauty and terror it has in store for us and cherish our limitless ability to care, no matter how much it hurts sometimes. Instead of focusing on our pain and rejection, we can love it for what it teaches us and think about how good it will feel when our earnest devotion and kindness is reciprocated, when someone embraces the gift of our whole heart for the beautiful bleeding organ it is. You’ll never know what’s inside it unless you find people willing to explore that another universe, just waiting to be discovered. As Arthur Russell once sang, this is how we walk on the moon.