I’ve had three long-term boyfriends fart in front of me and then within 24 hours tell me they love me. It’s as if they know a barrier has been abolished, and the only way to move on together is forward: into a nest of love, where bodily functions have no secrets. So a few years ago when a new guy I was seeing cuddled up next to me after a Sunday in bed accompanied by takeout and announced that he had been holding in a fart for hours, I knew what our future held. But of course, in its own witty way, the universe was out to surprise me.
Freshly single, I had decided a dating hiatus was in order. It was my time to go inward, to heal. But as these things go, I had met a very handsome stranger (the aforementioned), with a heart-melting smile. We started getting to know one another. While I quickly realized that many things about him didn’t match up with my list — you know, the list of attributes that that spiritually enlightened millennial guru on Instagram tells you to make when “calling in the one.” Plus, there was the fact that I wasn’t ready. And he really wasn’t ready. However, we couldn’t deny that there was something there.
We talked for hours like old friends, bickered humorously and mostly harmlessly like siblings, and shared a physical attraction that rivaled a firework show. We came from starkly different backgrounds: racially, culturally, our nurturing had been doled out in polarities. We couldn’t have experienced life more differently. But, we fell into step with each other, in a sort of non-committal semi-romance. It lasted a year.
In short, we found ourselves in a pretty successful friends with benefits set up. I didn’t care if he saw other people — in fact, I reveled in our meetups where we would sit on the couch and he would spill the tea of his dating experiences. I would laugh about how truly dark it was out there from the comfort of my couch, wine in hand. We talked about virtually everything, and soon we could see the bounties of cracking each other open to new topics of discussion. If he ever said or did anything that felt less than respectful to me or overlooked my boundaries, I was able to use my voice in a way I had been timid to in the past, out of fear of seeming difficult or high-maintenance.
“This man’s place in my life gave way to an epiphany about love that transmuted into a tool.”
We could both tell we would never love each other in the way it takes to really make it work. He would always be agonized by the way my feet were constantly sooty from running around shoeless, making art. And I would always wish he cared more for activism and literature. Maybe at the end of the day, these things don’t matter — most likely in the long run they don’t. But from where we were standing, they kept us at a safe distance.
However, it allowed us to care for each other and cheerlead one another’s growth without really having anything on the line. When it came time to put on my duvet cover fresh out of the dryer, he would come by after work, takeout in hand. On one occasion, when a date went terribly wrong and the guy proceeded to yell at me on my front lawn after I told him I wasn’t interested in pursuing things, he was there to hang until I felt safe. The day I found out my ex had moved on and was already in a new relationship, he invited me over for burgers to vent.
As pragmatic as our setup felt, it began to show cracks in its foundation. It was good, but it wasn’t sustainable. I realized I had become ready again to seek the partnership I wanted. While I never loved him the way I had loved the person that came before (wholeheartedly and without a doubt), or even how I’ve felt about someone since, this man’s place in my life gave way to an epiphany about love that transmuted into a tool. I tucked it safely into my back pocket and carried it with me, to use when new intimacy came.
I learned to love him unconditionally. I had no expectations for how he was meant to interact with my life, or I with his. Because he wasn’t my guy, I didn’t have that ego-induced-nagging feeling when he didn’t text me on a Friday night, or jealousy when he went out with someone else. You know, those all too familiar feelings we often have in a relationship the minute our egos hear our hearts sing, and we begin to see the other person in the context of relating to us as they move through the world. Further, I realized these lists we create in our minds (or on the Notes of our phones) are limiting. They limit us from caring for people that may not fit in neatly, but are important all the same.
What this dynamic taught me was how to remove myself from the life of another. Now, I’m not saying you should renounce your needs for a friends with benefits setup if what you truly want is a partnership. However, I do believe in the power of taking a stab at loving someone as they are. And I don’t mean you should overlook actions that are harmful or disrespectful. However, to love someone unconditionally — to truly care for them as they are, even when it’s not benefiting you — is a freeing feeling I think we all would relish in return.