A few nights ago, I had a dream in which I laughed with my old therapist, L. I laughed with him about my messy situationships with men and the mediocre dates I’ve went on since we last saw each other back in 2017. When I woke up, I reached over and wrote about the dream on the piece of paper I keep atop my bedside drawer. I felt gratitude and nostalgia both for L and for my current therapist, who I may stop seeing if I move in 2022 for the final year of my PhD program.
This dream made sense because L acted as one of the first people I ever talked to about more seriously dating men. Though I identified my gayness in high school, back then I felt more focused on academics and escaping my home life. I analyzed boys with my best friends, but few guys had openly come out as queer at that time. In 2015, as I started working through more of my PTSD with L, I also began to wonder what it would feel like to actually form a relationship with another man.
I went to undergrad in the southern United States at a medium-sized liberal arts college, so I did not have many dating options. When I talked about romance with L, our conversations mostly consisted of me making inappropriate comments about cute Asian men and simultaneously roasting the emotionally unavailable men I did manage to meet. I felt safe sharing my feelings about dudes with L. We laughed a lot.
When I accepted an offer to attend a PhD program in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, L and I both agreed that though I would probably meet more queer men, most of them would fail to meet my standards (i.e., more men means more trash men). Though I felt frustrated about men’s lack of self-awareness and relational intelligence even back then, L and I still found ways to joke about the topic. When I visited L several months after I graduated, he told me that he shared one of my commentaries about men with a different client of his – the notion I often raised with him that because most men reek of mediocrity (imagine one hand lying flat on an imaginary surface), men who can do the bare minimum (e.g., texting back, asking questions to keep the conversation going) seem amazing (imagine my other hand just slightly above the first one). In other words, it does not take much effort to clear low bars.
In some ways, it feels odd that L has no clue about the many men I have interacted with in an at least somewhat romantic context since we stopped seeing each other. Though my attraction to men has felt painful at times over the past few years, this week, I have felt a new, profound, and empowering sense of peace about my attraction to men. In my mind, I conceptualize my journey with this issue in eras, starting with my pre-college and early-college era, my mid-to-late college era, my early-to-middle of grad school era, and now, my ending of grad school and beyond era. Before I describe this new era, I want to share some lessons I have learned from this most recent era, what I would share with a younger version of myself to save themselves from some unnecessary angst:
1. Healthy relational behaviors are healthy relational behaviors. Full stop. Just because a man reads Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and some books about mental health does not mean he knows how to treat me well. Do not make assumptions about men’s ability to engage in healthy relationships based on their jobs in social justice work or where they went to school. I know now to examine men’s tangible actions toward me and to ask: does he practice active listening? Does he know how to handle immediacy in everyday relationships, regulate his emotions, and take accountability for his actions? A man can work in community organizing, use all the right leftist buzz words, and still not show up for me when it matters – and I deserve more than that.
2. Do not worry so much about settling for a mediocre man. On one hand, this worry serves me well because it helps me keep my standards high in a society that always tells me to reward the bare minimum from men. Furthermore, I have seen some acquaintances and friends prioritize male romantic partners over their friendships, self-growth, hobbies, and other areas of life. However, I always prioritize my relationships with my friends and myself, I put consistent work into my self-growth, and I spend lots of time on my hobbies. In my early 20’s, I felt so concerned that I might end up dating a mediocre man or that dating a man would entail sacrificing other areas of my life based on other relationships I observed. Now I know that I can and will chart my own course regardless of societal norms surrounding prioritizing romance.
3. Let go of trying to control your attraction to men or if you will meet a man worth dating. As anyone who reads this blog knows I tend to prefer situations in which I can exert some level of control. However, I have now accepted that maybe I will meet a worthwhile man and maybe I will not. Though the lack of control in this area sucks, I can still take values-aligned action to try to create a more compassionate and socially just world.
I label this time in my life as the new era because I feel the most relaxed about my attraction to men that I have felt in a long time. I think I feel this way because I have made an effort to sit with myself and internalize the above lessons. At times I wish that I had known all of this earlier, that I had known better from the start. But then I remind myself that I am a queer Asian American navigating a complex patriarchal and amatonormative society, so I practice self-compassion instead. I already feel complete as a person and know what I want to accomplish. Throughout all the eras of my life, my relationships have never centered men, rather, they have centered my friends, a select few family members, my mentors and mentees, my therapists and clients and students, and myself. Though men have caused me pain, they have also provided me with a lot of content to laugh about, with the people in my life who matter the most.
What lessons did you learn in your early 20’s or in the most recent era or segment of your life? How do you practice self-kindness or self-compassion in the face of choices that may not have been wise? General reactions to this post? Hope everyone is well and until next time!