How Not "Defining The Relationship" Got Me Exactly What I Wanted

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.

There are certain things in life I meander through: cooking dinner, long walks through Central Park, and paying my rent. But, for the most part, I rush everything. I consistently blitz through mopping my studio apartment, so my floors are never 100% clean. I barrel through food shopping, so I always get home and realize I forgot the milk a-fucking-gain. And, most damningly, I surge through relationships. For most of my adult life, I’ve dated at a middle school clip. We meet, we have one date, we have another, and by date three, I’m on Airbnb researching cabins for weekend trips upstate and wondering whether or not he’s told his mother about me. (He hasn’t.)

This pace served me well with my three serious boyfriends: one of which was in high school, so it made sense; one who I was friends with for years, so we skipped over the “getting to know you” part; and one who was a lazy, cerebral ass hat who contributed the bare minimum to our relationship, so I made all the decisions. But once I bid adieu to these three guys and set off into the “real” world of dating — which was filled with terms like “seeing each other” and “not looking for anything serious” — I realized very quickly that defining the relationship didn’t always follow my breakneck speed. In fact, DTR barely happened at all.

Being someone prone to extreme behavior, I went in the complete opposite direction. I tried my hardest to be cool and not worry about defining the relationship. But I’m actually someone who prefers boundaries and labels — and there’s nothing wrong with that. So that whole attitude failed gloriously, culminating in a drunken showdown with a guy who I allowed to string me along for the better part of a year. I accepted the fact that I was looking for a real, lasting connection, and made sure to let the guys who I started dating know.

This new state of mind wasn’t very fruitful for me until mid-February, when I met Jude* on Bumble. We hit it off, moving swiftly to text message, which is where he asked the question I always look forward to in a new dating situation: “What are you looking for?” I told him that I wasn’t one to rush into things (practice makes perfect, guys), but that I wanted to find someone to build a relationship with. He told me he was too, but that he’d just gotten out of a relationship, so he wanted to take things “slow.” I agreed, and we started to see each other.

We both tried to keep the pace sluggish. Truly, we did. But when you like someone, and your schedules align, and you’re in that beginning flush of a new relationship, and you’re stoked as fuck, then it’s easy to get carried away. Jude and I were spending the night at one another’s places every time we hung out, we texted or G-chatted all day, I was cooking him dinner on certain days of the week when we worked late, and he’d met my friends over fried chicken while I met his over veggie phó. When we started sleeping together, I gave him my rule: If you fuck someone else, I need to know about it, because I don’t sleep with men who are sleeping with other people. He agreed.

You can probably figure out where this wound up.

I can see that my need to slap the label of BF across the forehead of any man I kinda-sorta liked stemmed from a raging case of insecurity.

On the one hand, I felt like one half of a couple. But on the other hand, I was getting to know things about him that I really didn’t like — he was a bit macho, he was stubborn, he seemed hung up on his ex, and he once looked at me square in the eyes and told me that he respected Steve Bannon for his intelligence. (I know.) And it had me question whether or not it was a situation I wanted to be in. I was itching to define the relationship, but he didn’t want to, and I wasn’t even sure if I actually wanted this guy to be my boyfriend, which was a weird situation to be in.

Looking back at my dating life through more mature eyes, I can see that my need to slap the label of BF across the forehead of any man I kinda-sorta liked stemmed from a raging case of insecurity. In the past, I’d rush the boyfriend tag, because it made me feel like he wasn’t going to leave me — and, back then, I needed someone to be with. But with Jude, I knew what I wanted. And since I didn’t need him, or any relationship, I was able to step back, slow down, consider what I actually wanted, and whether or not he fit into that — even while, on the outside, it seemed like we were chugging along at a clip. And at one point, after getting fed up over something he did, I texted my friend Sarah and said “I don’t think I even want to date him anymore.” She texted me back, “Then that’s your answer.”

So when he told me through tears one Friday that he’d slept with someone else instead of calling me, I broke it off. I cried in the cab on the way home, while the driver passed me tissues through the change slot in the plexiglass that separated us. I took the next morning to wallow. But by mid-afternoon, I realized that I had learned an important lesson in the act of DTR.

Rushing the labels in my relationships allowed me to overlook a lot of the red flags that would typically keep me from moving forward with a person. I knew the cerebral ass hat was a cerebral ass hat deep down, but since I was high on the feeling of having a real-life “boyfriend,” I squashed those feelings and focused on the few positives in our relationship. Slowing down helps keep things in focus. Now, this isn’t to say that there won’t be issues in future relationships I have. No one is ever going to be perfect. But it’s important to figure out if your shit jives with their shit before you lock ‘em down, because it’s harder to confront the bigger issues with a person when you’re deep in the love trap.

With Jude, I saw the red flags, and realized he wasn’t a person I wanted to move forward with. And even though I wasn’t the one to end things, that realization was golden to me. Getting to know someone you see a potential romantic future with is a marathon, not a sprint. For me, it’s important to keep my boundaries up until I feel like I’ve gotten to know the person well. My “don’t-sleep-with-anyone-else-while-you’re-sleeping-with-me” rule is one of those boundaries, because I’ve learned I fall hard for men after we’ve been intimate, and I don’t like sharing. After Jude, I won’t have regular sleepovers with a dude until he’s earned my trust and the privilege of spending all that time in my space.

So while my floors continue to suffer thanks to my rushed mop jobs, I’ve decided to treat the beginning parts of my next relationship like I treat cooking dinner: one step at a time, relishing in the feelings it gives me, and drinking plenty of wine in the process.

* Name has been changed.

After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at maria.delrusso@refinery29.com.