A few months ago, I was on a date with a guy when he asked me the second-date question I hate the most: “When was your last serious relationship?” I took a gulp of wine and gave what I saw as the honest answer — a little over three years. “Wow,” he said with a chuckle. “That was a long time ago. What’s the deal?”
Instead of rolling my eyes at him and telling him how rude his response was (which he deserved), I proceeded to word-vomit all over him. “Well, I mean, I’ve been in not-serious relationships in that time,” I explained, almost frantically. “I’ve dated guys, you know? For like a few months here and there. But I wouldn’t call them my ‘boyfriend.’ But we still spent a lot of time together. So even though they weren’t, you know, serious, I still count them as relationships. Sort of. You know?” He looked at me like I had 16 heads.
I often get hung up on the word “serious” when I'm discussing my romantic past. From where I’m standing, I’ve been in three “serious” relationships: one in high school, one in college, and one a few years post-college. The amount of time I spent with these guys, when you add all the relationships together, only equals about two and a half years out of the decade I’ve been dating. So for the rest of that time, I’ve considered myself single.
But like I told the asshole with the Amstel Light, that doesn’t mean that I’ve been alone — not by a long shot. I’ve carried on a three-year, on-again-off-again sexual relationship with a guy named Will*. This past spring, I was exclusive without being serious with a guy named Jude*, who is now back with his ex-girlfriend (typical). And before I screamed at him in a bar, Rob* and I carried on for months. For a lot of people, that means that my identification of myself as “single” isn’t fully true. I’ve been in relationships — just not what I’d qualify as serious ones.
After our date, though, I went home, poured myself a glass of wine, and started comparing my so-called "serious" relationships to the ones I wouldn’t dare label as such. My high school boyfriend, Nathan*, was a sweet guy with a great smile who courted me via Facebook before finally asking me out. But aside from virginity loss, that relationship was about as meaningful as a high school relationship could be. Alex* in college was a total narcissist who wound up blaming me for our breakup, even though he was withholding and cold. He taught me that it’s important leave a relationship that’s tanking, especially if the partner in question is emotionally manipulative. And my most recent boyfriend, Reed*, was a guy I knew in high school, but didn’t date until I was 23. He taught me that just because a guy is seemingly nice, it doesn’t mean that you’re meant to be together.
The not-so-serious relationships are also the relationships that forced me to recognise that, even if I didn’t find love, I’d probably be okay.
All in all, these “serious” relationships taught me little lessons about what I was actually looking for. But I realised (after the second glass of contemplative wine) that when people asked me about past relationships, these weren’t the partners I thought of. I thought of Will, Jude, Rob, and the dozens of other men who have come through my life. There was the whiskey distiller who slept on an air mattress in a crawl space, the lawyer who picked me up on the subway, and the person who I was messaging on Bumble who wound up standing next to me in line at Whole Foods. Oh, and there was the guy my English professor set me up with out in San Francisco, with whom I had a passionate two-week love affair.
There are more not-serious relationships like these that have filled my time during this decade. And if I really think about it, these are the relationships that have held more weight in my life than the ones I’d label “serious.” These are the relationships that have forced me to confront truths about myself more than the ones with guys I’d considered boyfriends. They were like crash-course couplings, and given the sheer number of them, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned quite a few lessons.
But most importantly, the not-so-serious relationships are also the relationships that forced me to recognise that, even if I didn’t find love, I’d probably be okay. I stuck it out with the longer-term men because I thought I needed to be in a partnership. But guys like Rob and Will showed me that sometimes relationships that are purely sexual, totally fly-by-night couplings can be incredibly exciting and fun. The fact that I’ve had such a large number of casual flings has allowed me to appreciate the different kinds of partnerships that exist out there — and that’s invaluable to me.
So, sure, by a lot of people’s standards, I haven’t been in that many “serious” relationships. But I’ve had a lot of experiences with partnership that informed the rest of my life in ways that more “serious” situations might not have. Mr. Amstel Light himself taught me something, even though we only went on two dates: He inadvertently showed me that, for me, my lack of long-term boyfriends has nothing to do with who I am as a partner. And to me, that’s pretty serious.