The sprawling new-age dating landscape is littered with land mines: awkward first dates, unreturned text-messages, photoshopped Tinder profiles, sexually repressed closet-cases, and mysteriously broken condoms — just to name a select few.
We instinctually attempt to avoid them; tip-toeing carefully from one clear patch of land to the next, trying to make it to the other side unscathed. We feel ashamed when a love interest hurts us. We feel embarrassed when we voluntarily hand an abject asshole the key to our heart, along with the power to break it. We blame ourselves for missing the clues, for not treading a little more carefully.
We read (or, in my case, write) articles and self-help books on finding the perfect partner. We compose and devour listicle after listicle on love, relationships, and dating — determined to emotionally equip ourselves, determined to dodge the bullets so readily copped by others. Simply put, we do our research on how to sift through the dirt and strike romantic gold.
Still, I think there remains a strong case for dating assholes.
I know what you’re thinking: no moderately decent, college-educated, self-respecting human being would ever consciously subject themselves to demoralization or emotional abuse in a relationship. To do so would be nothing short of sacrilegious.
And perhaps you’re right. But then again, perhaps you’re not.
You see, I think it’s often hard to know what you deserve, until you’ve experienced firsthand what you don’t. Let’s acknowledge for a moment that our heart is a muscle: a hollow, blood-pumping muscle. Much like our biceps, triceps, or calves, if our hearts are to grow, expand, and reach their full potential, they must first experience repeated exhaustion and pain. Naturally, this isn’t the kind of pain found through scheduled exercise at the local gym — but in the all-too familiar shape of our fellow man (or woman).
More specifically, those who appear hellbent on hurting us.
Now, I challenge you to find a happily monogamous friend who doesn’t nurse their fair share of dating battle scars. It’s a romantic war zone out there, and we’re only able to settle down once we’ve lost a few figurative limbs.
When I reflect on my own crooked dating timeline, I’m fronted with scattered tear-stains, broken wine bottles, and more than a few brownish smears on otherwise clean-pressed linen. I’m just going to say it: surviving to 23 hasn’t been easy. It’s been filled with waves of self-loathing, crippling social anxiety, mortifying sexual mishaps, low self-esteem, and unrequited love.
First there was the guy who broke up with me during sex, left my house, and returned only moments later to ask for a cigarette lighter. Then there was the guy who decided that he’d just been curious, and didn’t fancy boys after all. And the one who broke up with me over the phone. And the one who forgot my birthday, despite being reminded — by me — the night before.
Actually, scrap it “not being easy” — it’s been hard. It’s been really fucking hard.
But maybe that’s the whole point.
You see, just as our physical immune systems are only able to fight illness through exposure to bacteria, a healthy relationship isn’t able to exist until we’ve first suffered and overcome the contagion of toxic love.
It makes sense, really. To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents (abusive traits) from viruses (the heartbreakers), and be able to distinguish them from the organism’s own healthy tissue (our emotional wellbeing).
It’s this adaptive immunity that prevents us from catching the same illness twice — or loving the same losers over and over again. In that sense, it’s vital that we get hurt, by different people in different ways, and allow ourselves the chance to develop a similar immunological memory in our romantic relationships. So perhaps you should date someone who makes you feel ugly. Perhaps you should look in the mirror and run your hand across that stubborn crease in your stomach; fold it, press it together, and give it a mocking voice. Perhaps you should date someone who leaves you in a constant state of waiting — whether it’s for a call, a text message, or just a small sign they care. Perhaps you need to date someone who manipulates your emotions, offering up just enough affection to keep you holding on, making you feel clinically insane for each and every insecurity you’re brave enough to voice.
To actively avoid this pain would be to deny ourselves the ability to counteract it in the future. After all, any person raised in complete sterile solitude would, upon exposure, likely be killed by a common flu. We can’t afford our love lives to go the same way.
So protect yourself. Date an asshole first. Hell, date a few. Date them all. Learn what it feels like to be treated badly and, in turn, how you deserve to be treated in the future. Make all the mistakes there are to make. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed or guilty about it. It’s normal, it’s healthy — it’s a right of passage.
Let the painful experiences grow and accumulate. Let them build a new resilience.
Date an asshole now, so you don’t end up with one later.
Check out Sam’s latest book Love or Something Like It here.