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!
13 responses to “The New Era”
No fringe, how exciting! A symbol of change. I love the self-compassion in this. In my 20s I learned how to be alone – too alone, really, so I’ve swung back into balance now. I also met my best friend then – still my best friend now and I’ve had her longer than any man in my life. Still, have to love my husband because he did the supermarket shop which I was going to do, before going to visit his parents because I’d volunteered at parkrun and was washing and hoovering all the floors while he was out – justice and balance start at home!
I so agree with what you said on learning to be alone, Liz. Over time I learnt to be comfortable with myself and in turn learned what I really wanted. And once I did that, I began to attract people who are lovely and to this day I am still really good friends with.
Yayyyy look at us from all over the world learning how to be alone and enjoying that in a society that often conditions women and femme folks to feel like they must have a romantic partner, especially a male romantic partner, to be happy. Appreciate this solidarity and sharing. (:
This was another reflective post from you, Thomas. Once again I enjoyed reading it and it is very inspiring to hear how far you’ve come in terms of your relationship with others and yourself. Like you, when I was younger I also learned to prioritised my relationships with my friends, my passions, hobbies and really just taking care of myself. As Liz said, I learnt how to be alone and listen to myself and what I actually wanted. It is such a good feeling when you work on yourself and even more of a good feeling when you actually feel comfortable with yourself when you are around others.
Attraction towards others can be a tricky thing. Sometimes it can be a genuine attraction and other times perhaps it’s just lust or a feeling experiencing something new that will wear off after time. I think the more comfortable with who we are, then the more we will know what we want in another person.
Hope you are doing well 😊
Omg yes yayyy for both of us prioritizing relationships with friends, our passions, our hobbies and taking care of ourselves! Learning how to be alone is wonderful and can definitely contribute to more healthful relationships overall. Totally agree about an attraction toward others and the importance of knowing ourselves to more fully understand our desires.
I love your first numbered remark; it seems as though people want to compartmentalize behaviours that are appropriate in this or that kind of relationship, but being a fair and honest and compassionate human being is part of every and any relationship, however intimate. Maybe if we all focussed more on that, the kindness we long to see in the world would be more prevalent. Rather than thinking “well, if this person meant ‘x’ to me, then I would behave in this certain way…but they are nobody and nothing.” (Kidding. Kind of.) I wish that I knew someone like you writing in your 20s when I was in my 20s, because I’m sure knowing that someone else was thinking this much and this attentively would have been very comforting, but I’m still glad to think of the 20something readers who can find your words and feelings and ideas here and feel less alone. Congrats on being in the long-enough-to-brush-back phase of bangs-grow-out. One less bed-head oriented concern! Take care and be well.
Yessss I appreciate this comment so much! I definitely wish we treated people with compassion across all levels of power and hierarchy (though ideally hierarchy wouldn’t exist). Not saying we should excuse racism or other forms of oppression but I definitely think only treating people with kindness when it benefits us is gross. Thank you for your kind words too, I have received some messages from people in their 20s (and people younger too) who say they find solace in my writing which means a lot to me. Your thoughtful comments are so wonderful to read and I hope you are well!
It sometimes feel like you’re leaving us an assignment… 😉
I do enjoy your posts and it makes me pause and reflect. I’m not sure I was mature enough in my 20s to learn to be a better man. I was mostly focused on my career and recovering from a very confusing / painful first relationship.
I think you’re going to write a book on what men should strive for.
Do take care and stay safe.
Awww thanks so much Matt for your kind words! I hope everyone who reads feels able to comment or respond in whatever way feels best for them. I appreciate you sharing how it felt for you to be in your 20s, and I’m glad it sounds like you may be in a different place now. I don’t really aspire to write a book however maybe we’ll see, at this point I am content with my blog and research and therapy work. (:
Your post makes me feel so warm and at peace. I’m so delighted that you’ve reached a new stage of maturity and growth in your life, Thomas!
I’ll keep rooting for you always
Awww I’m glad my post could elicit that feeling of warmth and peace, that’s how I feel in this new era and with all my self-growth. Your continued compassion and reading means a lot to me. I hope you’re well, Manaal.
This is such a great post, I also went on a similar journey and came to similar understandings as the ones you wrote about here (though I’m a heterosexual woman). You explained it so, so well. I love all of your writing that I’ve read (I found you through Goodreads). Thank you so much for all of your work!
Awww thanks so much for this warm response Gillian! Appreciate your solidarity in sharing that you went through a similar journey and it’s meaningful to me that you’ve read some of my writing. Grateful that you took the time to read and to comment and hope the rest of your day and week go well.