This is part two of a series beginning with What are you looking for?
Once I opened the wardrobe in the bedroom of a guy I was going out with, looking for towels, and I found a list: ‘What I am looking for in a partner’. He’d been reading that awful, stupid book, The Secret, which told him to tell the universe what he wanted and this would ‘call it’ into being. So he made a checklist of all the things he was looking for: tall, white, professionally employed, et cetera; and the horrifying thing is, I was a pretty close match. The relationship blew apart pretty soon after that, not because of my chagrin at being typecast, but because we were completely incompatible — sexually, emotionally and in our values around relationships.
Ever since then, if I even get a whiff of a ‘checklist’, I run a mile. Guys post their list on their Manhunt profiles, or in chat, they’ll ask “what are you looking for” in the expectation that we’ll swap lists and tick off all the items we have in common. It is desperately boring. It’s a mercantilist take on human relationships, like a buyer and a vendor meeting in a marketplace and negotiating over an exchange of goods. Guys who partner up on these terms often treat them as a contract, and cry foul when their partner turns out to have undisclosed interests or dimensions: “He didn’t tell me he wasn’t over his ex!”
Most importantly, they’re operating on what I have called a logic of sameness, which assumes the most important predictor of a good relationship is matching — either literal similarity between the partners (‘pets who look like their owners’ syndrome; partners who could be twins) or close fit between your partner and your checklist.
The former is called homophily and it’s an incredibly reliable pattern in studies of dating and relationships: people tend to partner up with people who are similar on salient characteristics like class and religion. The latter is an ego thing: it’s the belief that ‘I design my life, and I will design (ahead of time) the kind of partner I want, and I will choose a person who fits the bill, and we will have the kind of relationship that matters to me’. I meet these guys in their thirties, bewildered by never having had a relationship longer than a few weeks or months (if that), saying in their profile “looking for the one”, painting themselves as the Last True Romantic.
In those brief, abortive relationships they never manage to ‘get outside their heads’, to see the person in front of them, to perceive them as a stranger — to have an encounter with the Other. They can only see their checklist and keep measuring him up against it. If you ask the Last True Romantic to set aside the checklist and play it as it goes, he’ll bridle, refusing to ‘lower his standards’. And there’s the truth of it. His ‘standards’ are a shield, there to protect him from the radical uncertainty of trying (and often failing) to live in relationship with an other. He wants a Long Term Relationship instantly, skipping over the steady, day-to-day negotiation of differences. He can’t manage the day-to-day, he can only manage Forever.
It’s a powerful desire, fundamentally egocentric, and it’s the same desire that drives the demand for gay marriage. But that’s a topic for another post.