I’ve spent my twenties collecting bad boyfriend anecdotes for every occasion. The one who got engaged without my knowledge (to a girl not called me)? The one who went AWOL for weeks on end? The unapologetic asshole? The other one who went AWOL for weeks on end? The large number who wanted me to morph into a Jeannie D/ Bonang hybrid? Painful/ Hilarious.
In much the same way that youth is wasted on the young, dating in your twenties is wasted on the hot, fresh-faced, un-stretch-marked and unjaded. While pop culture tells us that this is the time to collect notches on the ol’ bedpost, the world of dating can be a place of high anxiety. In your twenties, you’re still discovering yourself and your place in the world. Dating is all about trial and error, testing boundaries, defining dealbreakers and spotting red flags.
Oh, and in retrospect, there are always red flags aplenty. Would rather not define this ‘thing’ you’re having? Red flag! Tells you, on Date One, that you shouldn’t even think of falling for him? Red flag! Belittles you – even subtly – by dropping little sarcastic jibes? Red Flag! Is downright rude to the waiters at the restaurant you’re eating at? Don’t date him! He ‘txts lyk dis’? Girl, stop.
I left university at 21 and went straight into a serious relationship, thinking I’d follow the conventional path to marriage and having kids before 30. But then I realised I wasn’t really ‘wifey material’ (whatever that means) and needed to Achieve Things before settling down in suburbia. Once I’d left the confines of monogamy, I took to dating like a woman on a mission.
Given my, at the time, Socialite status, dating became my sport. I knew that Mr Delivery was never going to bring Mr Right (or Mr Right Now) to my door with my half chicken and chips, so I took initiative, meeting guys everywhere from the petrol station to the party scene. I’ve asked guys out on dates, I’ve had friends hook me up with hotties and, yes, I’ve dated multiple guys at once. The last bit isn’t impossible; it just requires a firm knowledge of Microsoft Outlook and brutal honesty all around. If your ‘thing’ or ‘fling’ with someone is undefined, why spend otherwise free nights watching TV? Especially when there’s someone else willing and able to wine and dine you.
But, the more I dated, the more jaded I became. I started realizing that, although my dating pool was diverse, all these men were uncompromising in their pursuit of their ideal life and partner. Women (ie, you and I) were expected to conveniently slot in with their plans. On one (awkward) date, my companion filled me in on his timeline for kids, not taking into account that this was (a) a first date and (b) a subject that he may want to negotiate (not dictate) with his future wife.
It also dawned on me – after years of internalising various men’s preferences – that the problem was never me, but rather, us! The funny thing about dating is that, even though it’s all about Potential Love and Feelings, it’s not personal. We’re all hugely self-motivated and, if things don’t click with a guy, chances are that you’re just not his cup of tea. And that’s fine!
My most recent relationship disaster was an on-off epic that spanned two years, three cities and five jobs (between us). When I pined, he pushed, when I packed up and left, he pursued. Rinse. Repeat. And then, one day, it happened. I was tired of my dating drama and realised that people are not projects – no matter how hard I ‘worked’ at this, this relationship was never going to be what I needed. I could no longer play Captain Save an Emotionally Unavailable Man, so I hung up my cape and instituted a Man Ban.
When I stumbled across a quote in Sarah Silverman’s memoir ‘The Bedwetter’, something just clicked: ‘I find dating exhausting and uninteresting, and I really would like to skip over the hours of conversation that you need to get up to speed on each other’s lives, and the stories I’ve told a million times. I just want to get to the watching TV in bed. If you’re on a date with me, you can be certain that this is what I’m evaluating you for: how good is it going to be, cuddling with you in bed and watching Damages?’
So I set off to be completely relationship-free for as long as I needed. The rules were simple: I was allowed to go on casual dinner dates, but not get involved emotionally. I had to stop treating my life as a spectator sport, waiting for the right guy to come along. I needed to take control and live my life (save for a house, work like a demon and move cities – again) like I’d be single forever. I wanted to rediscover my earlier naïveté and re-fool myself into believing that rom-coms could become reality. So, for 18 months, I powered through attending events without a plus one and answered the ‘Why are you still single?’ FAQ with as much grace as I could muster. No more disrupting my life, space and routine for a man or stocking my fridge with artisanal micro-brewed beer or relinquishing control of the TV remote. And, suddenly, I felt completely free from having to put on a performance.
But, as cliché dictates, when I least expected it, I met someone and canned the Man Ban. Despite my commitment to dodging Cupid’s bow, this guy waited me out, winning me over with kindness and consistency. He called when he said he would and treated everyone with equal respect. Gone was the unpredictability and instability I misread for passion and excitement in my younger years. This year, I hung up my #singlegirlstatus next to the rail of wear-with-Spanx-only date dresses. And, frankly, as un-feminist as this might sound, I’m relieved. I’ve paid my dating dues and, if you’re looking for some great dating advice, I’m over here on my couch, watching TV with my Boo.
#SmugLife is a series of love- and dating-related musings by former single girl and now smugly coupled-up writer, editor, strategist and nice person, Janine Jellars. In the run up to Valentine’s Day, she thought she’d just amuse you. This column originally appeared in Women’s Health South Africa.