"I Want A Relationship" Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
When I was in my early 20’s, my father told me that the best way to find what I was looking for was to write down all of the qualities I wanted in a partner. “That way, it makes it real,” he said. So I did just that. I ripped a page out of one of the many Moleskins I hoarded at the beginning of my journalism career and made two columns of qualities. I still remember a few, because they’re qualities I continue to look for — creative, gets along with their family, down to earth, ambitious, has a “career” and not just a “job” (a very important distinction for a career-oriented gal like myself). But there was one qualification that didn’t exist on my list until a couple of years ago: wants a relationship.
In the beginning, I didn’t even think that this was something that was necessary. If people were on dating apps, wasn’t it a given that they wanted a relationship? But the more I swiped, and the more jaded I became by the booty-callers of the world, the more I understood that those four words — “I want a relationship” — were incredibly important. Once I understood that, I thought I’d be rewarded with a boyfriend in no time.
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So when I’d first start dating a guy, I’d ask him what he was looking for somewhere around our third date. Sometimes, he’d ask me first — something I found thrilling. How cool and mature was it that we were talking about this? Wasn’t it great that we were starting this partnership out on such an honest note? When the man across from me would say those four magic words, that was it. I’d basically be planning our wedding in my head. He wants a relationship! Why wouldn’t we end up together?
But, of course, the same things that happened with every other man I’ve dated would happen with these men, too. We’d have a few dates, share a few text messages, and eventually the thing would fizzle out completely. “Are you telling them you want a relationship?” my mother would ask every time I told her about another guy who ghosted. I’d roll my eyes and screech into the phone that of course I’d told them I wanted a relationship, mother. (My parents are likely way too involved in my personal life, TBH.)
The fact that these men and I had been so open with one another, and had outwardly said that we both wanted relationships, would send me into a shame spiral. I’d convince myself that I had done something awful to make them not want a relationship with me. I blamed myself for the entire situation, and would go over our meetings in my mind for hours. What is wrong with me? That question would invade my thoughts and get stuck there — until the next guy came along and I was able to prove myself again.
Eventually, the sadness turned into cynicism, and I took myself off of online dating. I thought, If men aren’t going to be honest with me, if they’re going to lie about what they want, then I don’t need to participate. I was blissful for a few months — until two of my cousins’ impending weddings starting rearing their heads, and my anxiety about going to yet another family wedding alone beat out my cynicism over the men I’d been dating.

'I want a relationship' is a completely different sentence than 'I want a relationship with you.'

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So, I rejoined Bumble, started swiping, and matched with a guy named Jeremy*. On our first date, he was upfront: He wanted a relationship. And while I still had that cynical voice in my head, the larger part of me was incredibly stoked. On my first run out of the gate, I’d found a guy who wanted a relationship who also happened to be sweet and funny. Jackpot! But, after our second date, Jeremy flaked. His texting dwindled, and he eventually followed the many men before him into the void — never to be seen again, until one fateful day on the subway when I’d be bored and do an iPhone contacts purge.
This time, though, instead of getting sad about Jeremy’s disappearance, I tried to look at it objectively. Sure, he wanted a relationship, he got along well with his family, and he made me laugh. But did he check any of my other boxes? Not really. He bounced around from job to job, which is fine for a lot of people, but is a little too flakey for me. He moved cities a lot, which is tough for a girl who loves to travel, but never plans to live anywhere outside the tri-state area. Also, he seemed way too interested in just being a character in this column. (Which, well, is what he turned into — mission accomplished, dude.) In short, I didn’t want a relationship with this guy.
And that’s when I had my lightbulb moment. If I were using the logic I was forcing on the men who had flaked or ghosted, I should want a relationship with this guy because I wanted a relationship, period. But just because somebody wants a relationship doesn’t mean they’re going to shack up with the first human who also wants a relationship. We aren’t penguins. That’s not how it works.
I had finally learned a pivotal dating lesson: “I want a relationship” is a completely different sentence than “I want a relationship with you.” It’s like having someone say “I want cake,” and then you hand them over a coconut cake. Somebody out there will be stoked on that particular cake. But a lot of people won’t be, simply because they don’t like coconut cake. I was the coconut cake to the guys who had ghosted. Jeremy just so happened to be coconut cake to me. And I don’t like or want coconut cake. I want some double-chocolate fondant cake with a huge side of vanilla ice cream, s’il vous plaît.
But the most important realization was that there was nothing I could do to make me not appear as coconut cake to these guys. I didn’t do anything that made them ghost. We just didn’t vibe — the same way Jeremy and I didn’t vibe. I had to start thinking of “I want a relationship” as a quality on par with “I want kids.” When someone told me the latter, I didn’t immediately assume that we were going to have kids together. So why was I making assumptions based on someone’s declaration that they wanted a relationship? Those two things should be treated the same way — as important dealbreakers, but not necessarily indicators of what’s to come.
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This realization has made it so much easier for me to get to know men, because I’ve re-prioritized the other qualities on my list so they’re just important as wanting a relationship. And what do those look like? Must want kids. Must be creative. And must love double-chocolate fondant cake with a huge side of ice cream.
* 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.
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