I fell in love earlier this year.
My time with this person was short – 2 months once you filter out the “pre-dating” period of like 2 weeks and the “oh shit this is ending” period of 2 weeks at the other end, and the choice to end it was his. He’s the first person I’ve ever loved, in “that” way, but that isn’t to say I haven’t fallen for people before. I’ve definitely romanticized dates and people in the past. And after these episodes?relationships?vague-undefined-friendships? have ended, or changed in sometimes irreparably cruel ways, I’ve been left with this overwhelming and awful feeling of shame and this fear that I am romantically unlovable.
I think a lot of people experience the intensity of these feelings, but I do think our culture dismisses women’s experiences and feelings far more often and far more viciously than it does men’s for a few reasons.
1) Women’s emotions of love and of shame are dismissed as being “too much”. Though romance is seen as something *essential* to women’s nature and needs, it’s still men who are seen as cultural approvers of romance as ‘real’ or not. “But did he say he loves you?” “But did he say ‘I love you’ first?” “But did he reach out to you?” “But did he tell you why? if he didn’t it was you. if he did, it was still you. No, don’t message him first.”
2) In a culture that prioritises and demands that men chase, and women passively accept or reject, a woman expressing her desires for romantic love are immediately written off as needy, “too much” or clingy or “chasing”. Women are prevented from expressing interest, which sucks for a woman like me, because I would enjoy the process of being attracted to men, I think, if men weren’t so insecure about being liked by a woman. “no guy likes to be chased” – but the truth is, no one likes to be chased. Two things are happening: a) a woman expressing interest is shamed for her emotions or feelings, and is written off as too much b) women are expected to passively accept being chased because it’s “just what men do”, and “men are being romantic”.
And you know, I’ve also tried dating people for a while who I wasn’t really into – just to see if that spark could develop, and that just didn’t feel like a natural way to approach dating for me. I guess for me, by a couple of dates, I know if I’m feeling butterflies or not – enough to see if I can pursue something and then figure out if the person matches me in a more long-term way. But basically, without those butterflies, I’m just not into dating that person. Many people – usually good friends – have challenged me about this – “But why don’t you just see where it goes?” – but I don’t see many men dating people they’re not that into, and I don’t really see why I should either. Without those butterflies, I can see potential for a friendship maybe, but dating goes out the window. And those butterflies aren’t a guarantee for love, or falling for someone either – sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I like butterflies. I am not willing to compromise on butterflies – in particular if it’s just because some man has butterflies for me. (I might compromise for women though, out of sheer empathy.)
But anyway: this isn’t a post on my dating style.
This is a post about the fear of being romantically unlovable – which is a fear that is inculcated into women from a young age.
3) Building on these previous points, romance being seen as something essential to women’s nature and our needs, and our romantic worth as repeatedly only approved of by men, constructs our social position in romance as one of dependency and helplessness: we are not allowed to exist as romantically lovable, unless a man tells us we are. This even applies to the social construction of lesbianism – indeed, it’s precisely this form of sexism that allows our culture to write off lesbian love as “not real”, or indeed, any romantic or social love between any women, as socially inferior to being loved by a man. This is also why when straight men are approached by gay men, they feel threatened: in our ridiculous society, a man’s presence or lack of desire with respect to you has the potential of making your sexuality valid or not valid, and if a gay man likes you, maybe you’re gay too! This is also partly why a woman’s interest in a man is not seen as defining a straight man’s sexuality – he is allowed to be sexual, she is not. Her interest becomes a passive channel through which he expresses his agency. (Of course this is ultimately fulfilling for no one, but this is what people feel is the social script of dating. And this is why it’s a problem.) Indeed, it’s considered shameful to be single if you’re an older woman but not if you’re an older man. There is this idea that men are self sufficient, or can be, but that women have a primordial lack that only men can fill.
I’ve seen a lot of posts that challenge this by saying “No! We are romantically lovable! ” or “No! I don’t need a man to tell me I’m romantically lovable! I am and I will find someone eventually who sees that!”
This is not one of those posts.
This is a post about being romantically unlovable – and being ok with it. This is about addressing the visceral shame of being rejected cruelly, dumped unceremoniously without explanation, apology, or communication.
This is about recognizing that while these are bad feelings, there are way more intense feelings out there that are way more connected to my sense of self. My job is important to me. My academic successes or failures matter. My writing. My goals. My dreams for myself. These all matter to me much more than how little men I have fallen for or loved think of me.
So I propose something radical that has been helping me a lot in addressing the shame and fear I feel in being romantically unlovable. Instead of running away from those feelings, and trying to drown them out with “I will meet someone eventually”, I decided to have a talk with my personal demons. This dialogue is possible, in my mind anyway, because incidentally, my personal demons often take the form of men I’ve loved or fallen for, in their most handsomest states (- the men are much more flawed in real life, obviously-) saying the meanest thing they’ve ever said to me (-and the men are much kinder in real life, obviously, because they are human too).
But my demons exist the way they do because of how much our society has taught me, and other women, to value what men say to us about us. And clearly, my demons have been wanting a conversation for some time now.
So what have been my strategies in the past to deal with with these demons?
a) Cowering until they leave.
b) Telling myself I have other relationships that matter – but secretly knowing and feeling that it’s not the same as being romantically loved and that being romantically loved is the be all and end all and oh god why has no one ever loved meeee.
c) Denying that I’m romantically unloveable and trying to yell back that I am! I will be! Someday!
d) Wandering the treacherous paths of self pity and shame. yesssssss I am unlovable, the worst the worst there must be something terribly wrong with me oh gooooooooddddddd
I think these methods are highly common and also highly ineffective – for me at least.
More recently, I wanted to know if I could think about the reality of never having been romantically loved, and of viewing myself as romantically unlovable, without feeling ashamed for it.
What happens, I asked myself, when I say yes, I am romantically unlovable, and accept that reality as I would accept any other reality in my life: this keyboard, this laptop, that chair, my relationships with friends that are strong and platonically loving, and my romantic life that has been mostly a nightmare, my goals, my successes, my ambitions, my dreams, and why should any of these things outweigh the other?
I admit, this was a strange process – because the next time the demons came around, I just said “yes.” I didn’t scream it, and I didn’t turn it into a point of false pride or ego – this wasn’t about proving anything to anyone. This was about my reality. There was a flash of pain on admitting that ok, I haven’t been wanted in these ways, specifically by men. There was a moment then of intense shame, and I just said “yes” to that too to accept that shame is a part of my vulnerabilities – and that shame exists as much as my reality of having been unloved.
And then there was silence. I tried again, to converse with my fears, with a little bit of a laugh and I was careful to keep cynicism, ego, and self inflated importance out of the way: “Hey, I know, I haven’t been romantically loved in my life.”
“I guess, is that all you wanted to tell me?”
Those are hard to say yes to, and might lead me down a really terrifying path of anxiety, low self esteem, and worthlessness, but…”I get the general feeling that you’re calling me romantically unlovable, is that…what you’re trying to say?”
It’s very odd trying to have a sincere conversation with your shadows. It’s odder still when you couldn’t have had those conversations with the people who actually said those things.
But for once, I wasn’t interested in showing my demons what’s what. I wasn’t interested in trying to wrestle them back into the shadows and exhaust myself. I also wasn’t interested in trying to lie there and take an emotional beating and follow endless spirals of hopelessness, telling myself yes I am the worst, the most terrible thing. (And, I get that that’s not always a choice. I’m in a place with my mental health now where it is a choice, to a certain extent, but there are still bad days when I cannot converse with my feelings, and they take over.) But on this day, I was, actually, for once, interested in what they had to show me about myself and maybe my world.
And something happens when we approach the world – and ourselves – from a place of kind curiosity. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for fear, somehow.
“You’re right,” I said, careful to say it gently to my demons (which is to say, I said it carefully to myself).
“I’m not romantically lovable” – there was, instantly, more shame, but somehow, the way I said it came from a place of such kindness that it let my shame exist in my room without suffocating me. (this taught me something super important by the way – that genuine kindness is incredibly important to sustaining interpersonal relationships and that validating people’s truths about themselves isn’t just nodding your head to whatever they say.)
There was room for shame, suddenly.
There was room for unlovability.
It makes people – usually, again, well meaning and well loved friends – uncomfortable when I say this out loud now: that “I am romantically unlovable”. I’ve heard all combinations of “but you see! you working on yourself is what makes you attractive!” or “but i don’t think you should incorporate a worldview where you’re unloveable… that feels negative”
But it’s not negative.
I am allowed to exist and be romantically unlovable. I am allowed to exist and survive and thrive and focus on little joys that make my life better. I focus on little joys because they are accessible to me, and I have had many of them, and I would like to value them more. If I valued them more, I would perhaps not feel so empty – because that’s what society teaches us, you know: that being unlovable is something to be ashamed of. Or something that empties us. But I am not empty. And while shame and unlovabilty exist, they do so without being the centre of my lived experiences, pushed to the periphery by little joys. Small conversations with people I love. Meeting my personal goals for myself. Working on self growth.
I am allowed to understand that the kind of romantic validation that society tells me to seek from men is fundamentally flawed, toxic, and contributes heavily to oppressing women’s humanity. And I am allowed to reject this kind of romantic validation in my life. Through writing this, believe this, I reject romance as validation of my self worth. And I am also aware that some hetero couples have amazing relationships and I am happy for them! But I’m starting to see many more that don’t.
And so there’s something powerful about acknowledging and respecting my romantic unlovability – it’s made, hilariously, my dating life better and easier. It’s allowed me to put less importance on what men think of me, and it’s allowed me to meet people where they are at without feeling self conscious. It’s made me value my dating interactions with women a lot more, and there is no social script for romance between women, so I get to make that up as I go along – and it’s a lot less threatening and a lot more comfortable. I also feel, in general, less desire to be romantically invested with men, but when desire strikes, I meet them honestly and openly as I meet myself – without ego and with pride and respect for his fundamental humanity and my own.
And then I pay attention to their answers.
I pay attention to their answers because even though I’m meeting them from a place of truth and honesty doesn’t mean they’re going to provide me with the same courtesy: I’m likely more aware than any man I date about the fact that we’re both living in a world that caters to his demands, to his wishes, to his idea of what or who I should be. He likely doesn’t even consciously realize that, but that won’t prevent him from acting on it.
And I think this is the most valuable part of conversing with your demons:
You learn about your fears, and, if you listen and dialogue, you learn to face them.
I was scared for a long time of being unworthy of romantic love – and now, it’s no longer a question of worth. It’s not a question of how terrible a human being I am, because I’m not.
My romantic unlovability is just a reality. On a good day, it’s a neutral reality that doesn’t affect my life much – or even a happy reality. On a bad day, it’s a shameful reality that threatens a lot of tears. But I’m having more good days than bad ones.
In this society, I am constructed as romantically unlovable. I participate in this construction by being a woman and who contradicts normative notions of what a woman should be by expressing her desires, attraction, and needs. It doesn’t matter that I do this in kind and responsible ways, because fundamentally, me taking the initiative or the lead in relationships is off putting to men in a culture that values feminine deference. Men participate in this construction of my unlovability in multiple ways too – white men, for example, have a hard time seeing me as lovable, or as worthy of respect, even if they want to or later feel guilty for not having treated me well. Part of this is because racialized women are not seen as valuable as partners as white women – indeed, we’re not seen as partners, usually, but as conquests. But this is not just limited to interracial relationships. Men in general though, have a hard time with the contradictions of desiring me on some level, but not desiring the way I date. And their frustration with my actions make me romantically unlovable: when they dump me or cruelly reject me or just “ghost”, I am no longer surprised or too hurt.
“But then, what if you do find a genuinely romantic loving relationship some day?”
Then that, simply put, is fine.
There are plenty of single people yearning to love and be loved and who consider themselves lovable who will never find romantic love, and I hope no one questions their understanding of themselves, because they have every right to envision what romantic lovability could look like for themselves.
It’s also ok for me to recognize, in a non-resentful and non-bitter way, how participating in a culture of romantic lovability hurts me, and choosing not to think of myself that way. If I’m ok with with being romantically unlovable, I’ll be happy for moments of joy if I’m ever in a genuine romantic loving relationship – but that doesn’t mean I will necessarily consider myself to be romantically lovable. I would of course, acknowledge that my partner loved me, if I felt they did – I’ve had a partner tell me they loved me when they didn’t, and that experience taught me that I don’t need to change my personal orientation to romantic love just because of a partner. But who knows – maybe it will affect me, if it ever happens? And if it does, let it? I want my politics to resonate with my reality, whatever that reality is. And if that reality changes, maybe my philosophy on this will also change.
“But then aren’t you just saying your lovability is determined by other people?!”
Actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying : to a huge extent, love is culturally produced. When desirability, attraction, respect are culturally mediated and produced, why wouldn’t love be? I wouldn’t deny my race any more than I would deny my standpoint as romantically unlovable. And just as I am ok with my race and even happy, I am ok and happy in acknowledging and coming to terms with romantic unlovability.
Essentially, I’m engaging in my personal project in rejecting the construct of romantic lovability, and I’m choosing to replace it with just other joys (instead of any reimagined notion of romantic lovability).
I am ok with hearing, believing, feeling, and being romantically unlovable, because ultimately, there is much much more to my life than being loved.
***Author’s Retrospective, May 10th, 2018: Reading this piece now is an interesting experience. This piece was one of the first times I fully owned my feelings in a piece of writing – and tried to take responsibility for them without guilt, blame, or shame. I no longer identify as “romantically unloveable” – romance has just become increasingly decentered in my life. What has been centered instead? The fullest expression of me: writing, poetry, working -my longer term goals of research and work and studies.
Recently in Toronto, a man who identified as “incel” (involuntary celibate), mowed down over 20 people on a busy sidewalk in a van. What an awful externalization of this feeling of loneliness, this feeling of lack of self worth. I wondered briefly if my identifying as “romantically unloveable” was similar to this man’s feeling that he was an incel. I think the difference though is that I sat with my feelings, explored the scope of my emotions, understood what it was that I felt, and decided, consciously, even in this piece to value other things in my life in order to survive and learn about myself, love myself, and take care of myself. This is not what the man in Toronto did. The man in Toronto decided that if he was unhappy, others had to be unhappy too.
This piece was the first time I realized that I didn’t need romantic love to be happy. Eventually the feeling of “I am romantically unloveable” gave way to “romance is a part of life like anything is a part of life – no better and no worse. Every other part of my life deserves equal attention and merits as much care.”
These days, whenever I get a ping on this piece, I feel a startling response in myself to say: “Oh. Oh dear, this piece resonates with you – yes, i see why. I’m glad it does. It’s going to get worse before it has a chance to get better. But I hope you will get to where I am today – where romance isn’t…that important to me anymore to merit long ruminations.” I still believe the final line of this piece: There is much much more to my life than being loved.***