Creating Connections When Dating Fails

Relationship Column

I have a confession to make: Some of my closest friendships have risen from “failed” dating connections.

For a period of time, after I graduated from college, I moved to a state living with family while I contemplated what my next career moves would be. So by the time I made the decision to move back to New York City, I had to essentially rebuild my social connections. This led me to go on a lot of dates, posting to online dating sites with the hope of building connections. There are many dates with people who I never saw again, who were so mismatched with my own values and ethics that I knew ending things before they began was the best outcome for everyone. But there were others that were in a unique position; I knew that the possibility of romantic partnership wasn’t quite there, but we connected to each other in other so well that I wanted to continue getting to know them outside of the pressure to date.

I learned so much about myself in this time. It seemed like a skill that no one had told me but became an invaluable part of how I saw myself and built connections with others moving forward. Learning to make friends with people that I would never be romantically involved with (or had, and realized that our connection was stronger without the pressure to date) opened up a world of possibilities for me, and radically shifted my own ideas of what these interpersonal connections can look like.

For cis-heteronormative folks, the idea of disposing of anyone that is not your "True Love" continues to reign as the dominant narrative around dating.

It’s quite an accomplishment to get to this point, because like so many of us, I did not grow up this way. But it’s interesting to see how this has quickly shifted to be a cultural norm, and the ways that people are pushing back against the limits of picking a “friend” vs. “lover” label.

In the queer community, it’s more commonplace to be friends with your ex and to have a polycule of friends / lovers / housemates / everything in between. But for cis-heteronormative folks, the idea of disposing of anyone that is not your “True Love” continues to reign as the dominant narrative around dating. Growing up in a culture that almost never mentions queerness as an option for identification, I had specific images of what it meant to hold space for friendships and for love, and both roles stood at opposite ends of a strict spectrum.

I’m thinking specifically about how much cultural space has been devoted to promoting this idea that the title of “lover” and “friend” should never mix. Sex and the City, a show that’s still marked as a cultural milestone for depictions of sex and relationships for modern adults, devoted several episodes and more than one plot point to exploring this. And even when the lines blurred between characters — Miranda Hobbs and Steve Brady’s on-again, off-again, exes-to-coparents-to-married couple dynamic, Carrie Bradshaw’s decades-long friendship-slash-constant temptation to seek romantic partnership with the emotionally unavailable Big — all routes still led to romance and marriage being on the horizon. In fact, the only mixed-gender-platonic relationships depicted were between the lead characters and their gay male friends, namely Standford Blatch and Anthony Marentino.

Here are other cultural markers regarding romantic partnerships and friendships:

  • Men and women weren’t meant to be friends.
  • Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, so that’s why we’re never going to get along.
  • Once I’m done with them, I’m done with them.
  • My spouse is my best friend, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So really, these ideas remain deep-rooted in us, but also reflect the thinking of a particular time. Why are we still keeping these markers culturally relevant?

Examining and Shifting Away from Society’s Expectations

The pressure to find love comes at a price, but I don’t think many of us recognize what that looks like until we feel the void of what we see is missing from our lives. There’s an immense amount of pressure placed upon us to place people into neat categories. But for relationships to truly thrive, we can’t beholden them to fit neatly into expectations of what they need to look like. Why? Because this stunts the growth of what they could be.

Even the way that we vocalize these relationships is important. Are they really “failures” because they fell short of a positive romantic connection? Or are we using that title simply because we haven’t yet reached the language of what its potential looks like? Just because dating isn’t a possibility anymore doesn’t mean that the relationship itself is a failure.

At the same time, there needs to be a deep examination of what limiting beliefs we carry about the status of relationships. Why do we believe that we can only be friends or lovers with someone and that these arbitrary lines are taboo to cross?

For any of our relationships to succeed, we have to examine what messages we’re receiving about them and how we can work them in our favor. So instead of unconsciously assuming that a mismatch romantic connection means that this person isn’t a good fit for your life period, examining what makes a successful relationship for you can be a good starting point.

There’s also the importance of showing up for our friendships as we do for our romantic partners that becomes even more important as we experiment with letting the labels fall away.

There’s also the importance of showing up for our friendships as we do for our romantic partners that becomes even more important as we experiment with letting the labels fall away.

But something that I realized is that I learned more about myself from how I navigated these “failed” connections than I did when there was a match that worked out. Because how we navigate shifting expectations or even rejection of a specific idea says so much about ourselves.

So, how did we get here?
Of course, we can’t talk about any of this without examining the real-world consequences that can come from the removal of these labels altogether. For many folks, having these clearly defined boundaries of socially acceptable behaviors associated with romantic partners and platonic friends can be a protection against violence. This is especially true for people of marginalized genders and their interaction with men, and become even more present with the arousal of toxic masculinity patterns.

Toxic masculinity can especially thrive in this situation, as gaslighting, abuse, manipulation are all very real and can pop up for anyone that dates men. So in situations like this, preserving the boundaries of assumed roles for folks is part of how we navigate protections for ourselves.

For some people, removing the evidence of their exes is a genuine part of the moving on process.

There’s also the issue of desirability, rooted firmly at the basis of all of this. When people no longer fit our expectations or requirements to be our romantic partners, we are pushed to remove them from our lives completely. To move forward, we have to purge them from our social media accounts, our phone contacts, even old journal entries. They become these ghosts of our pasts, and we’re left with the voids of where they previously filled. And for some people, removing the evidence of their exes is a genuine part of the moving on process.

Disposability, ghosting, and its various other elements — these are all tactics to punish and move away from accountability. Because when we date, whether it ends with a mutual parting or in marriage or just a sexual partner for the night, we have the responsibility to treat other people with the respect and consideration that we would want to be bestowed upon ourselves.

But we don’t always receive that or want to dole that out to others. So we take the “easy” way out by leaving the other person on read or blocking them on social media. What does that say about our responsibility to be kind to each other? What does that say about the prioritization of connection — if it can’t come in the form of romance or friendship strictly, doesn’t that mean that the connection itself loses is value?

It’s the collective push to make anyone that is not our current partner renounced from our lives that I have an issue with. As I mentioned in the previous installment of this column, what individually works for us is more important than the unconscious expectation of what we should do. We must commit to doing the work, but with the intention of finding what works best for us, individually and encourage others by example to do the same.

These are the questions that we must ask ourselves. To evolve into a sexually liberated society, and one that wants to move away from the assumed roles that lovers and friends cannot be one and the same, this also requires us to do the hard, necessary work of unpacking toxic masculinity, disposability, and other oppressive systems that are fighting to keep these notions relevant.

Artboard Created with Sketch.