A while back I shared the story of how Mike and I got together. As part of this story, I included that Mike "decided to keep pursuing me" even after I told him I didn't want to date anyone.
I want to dig into this a little bit more today because I've shared our story a few times recently, and I realized that this aspect of the story could easily be misinterpreted and perpetuate some incredibly problematic cultural views about relationships.
This concept was first brought to my attention by the fantastic book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, which I've mentioned in previous posts. Essentially, de Becker points out that movies and television shows tend to glorify "persistent" men -- those who, having been rejected by (almost always) a woman, go to great lengths to show their intense love for her. In these plot lines, the guy who is unwavering in his focus on a particular woman and committed to displaying his affection for her eventually ends up "winning over" the girl.
In real life, we call this stalking.
Or, in a less extreme case in which the two people are already friends when the declaration of love is made, this can manifest itself in what's sometimes called the "Nice Guy" syndrome (though there are definitely "Nice Girls" as well). This is the guy who, having invested a lot of time into being a good friend to the woman he's interested in, feels that she now owes it to him to date him regardless of her actual feelings for him, and may try to argue her into doing so if she tries to turn him down.
These are scary situations for a person to be in, since the other person has made it clear that they are unwilling to hear "no" and are willing to cross the boundaries of the person they're interested in to get what they want. And when persistence is not rewarded with reciprocal love the way the movies have promised, infatuation can turn to violence frighteningly quickly.
For these reasons, I worry about someone hearing my and Mike's story and getting from it reinforcement of the media message, "Persistence gets the girl." I want to break down why I feel like our story is different from those that are glorified in on-screen plot lines and dangerous and problematic in real life.
For one thing, when I told Mike I didn't want to date anyone, it wasn't in response to anything he'd specifically said to me. We had become friends and I started to have a vague notion that he might be interested in me, though he was attentive and kind to all the girls on my dorm floor, so I wasn't really sure. When I "casually" mentioned in an IM conversation that I didn't want to date ever again, it was intended more to head off any feelings he might develop for me than to actively refute an explicit interest in dating me. (Though I know now that he was already very interested in me at this point.)
When I told him this, he didn't try to argue with me about it, and he didn't make any sort of declaration of love and try to tell me to give him a chance because he wasn't like other guys. He asked me some questions about my decision, and then he left it at that.
In fact, he waited so long to say anything to me about his feelings that not only had I developed feelings of my own for him, but I was getting a bit impatient for him to make a move.
The main reason I didn't go ahead and "make the first move" myself was the same reason I had decided to stay single in the first place: I had spent most of high school pursuing, and getting rejected by, different guys, and I didn't want to go through that ever again. Even though Mike and I were, at that point, practically dating -- spending a lot of time one-on-one with each other, having late-night conversations every night, doing favors and making gifts for one another -- I still was not convinced that someone could genuinely be interested in me enough to want to date me.
When he finally did share his feelings for me, it was in the most low-pressure way imaginable. Far from being the Nice Guy who feels entitled to reciprocation, he was very adamant that he didn't want to pressure me into anything and that if we were going to be "more than friends" we could take it really slowly.
When I responded that I enjoyed spending time with him and would like to continue and see where things went, he did the exact opposite of what de Becker says overly persistent guys do. Those guys seize on the smallest hesitation to say no and interpret it as a "yes"; Mike took my hesitant "yes" and backed off, even signing my birthday card a couple weeks later "Your friend, Michael" as a way of showing that he wasn't trying to lay claim to a bigger role in my life than I was willing to grant him. (I then had to clarify that I did now think of him as more than a friend.)
Rather than stepping over my boundaries, he took them as law. I didn't want to kiss until my wedding day -- done. I didn't want to use the terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" because of past issues about the assumed entitlements that come with those terms -- done (until it became impractical not to use them).
I can see how some people could look at our story and say, "You said you didn't want to date anyone, and he ignored that and asked you to date him anyway." But it really wasn't like that, or at least it felt nothing like that. By the time he finally said something to me, it was less of a sudden declaration of love and more of a "defining the relationship" kind of conversation. And I believe that if I'd reiterated what I'd said before -- "I genuinely don't want to date anyone or get married, ever" -- he would have accepted that and either continued our friendship or, if it was too hard to get over me because of the close relationship we had, requested that we spend less time together.
Clearly, I'm happy things turned out the way they did, and that he didn't bail on our friendship the first time I said I didn't ever want to date again but instead stuck it out to develop into a beautiful and fulfilling relationship. But I want to make it clear that the "moral of the story" here is not that you should hang around and be friends with people you like in hopes they'll eventually date you.
Here are some better lessons to take away from this post:
- Don't pressure people into dating you.
- Respect people's boundaries and listen when they say "no."
- Friendships can turn into relationships, but you shouldn't expect them to.
- Defining the relationship is good when you're unsure what's going on. If your definition doesn't match the other person's, be cool about it.
- If another person is hesitant about something, it's better to assume they don't want to and be corrected than the other way around.
Please share your own thoughts, stories, lessons, etc. in comments!
This post contains an Amazon Affiliate link. If you click on a book title and make any purchase at Amazon, your purchase will be supporting Faith Permeating Life. Thanks!