Too often, women who date men, including those who are straight, bisexual or queer, enter relationships with male partners and then dim the lights in the other places they’ve found love — whether that be in their own warmth or in that of their friends and family.
From childhood, we are taught to prioritize romance above other types of loving relationships. Everywhere we turn, the message is clear: true happiness comes in the form of being loved by a man. And so we constantly look for ways to be more desirable and less rowdy — the kind of women that men want to love gently and hang up in their homes like expensive art. We learn to be softer, prettier and to take up less space. Our society, after all, grants us more social currency for having a male partner than for being women who refuse to compromise.
But when so much of our self-affirmation is tangled with the idea of having a romantic partner, other relationships become placeholders — the kind of love that keeps us company in the meantime. Friendships and familial ties become temporary distractions, performances that keep us entertained until the final reveal.
We find romantic love and then become deserters in our platonic relationships. Slowly, we loosen the grip on our foundations and lose our sense of self in the process. But our friends and family provide us with a kind of love that romantic partners could never supplant. These relationships are sources of clarity and direction; they hold up mirrors for us and remind us of who we want to be and what our values are. Most importantly, they check us when we’re compromising those values. They’re homes that were carefully built and nurtured. And in order to sustain, they must be tended to. When those homes collapse, we move toward seeking validation exclusively in our romantic relationships. Like hungry children begging to be sated, we become increasingly willing to compromise our values so long as our need for companionship is satisfied. We become women whose unconditional love doesn’t demand very much in return.
Women who date men know that, more often than not, our relationships require that we perform an exhausting amount of labor. For Latina women, the search for this truth does not take us very far. Its presence is palpable in our everyday lives. At the same time that the women in our families pressure us to find a husband and bear children, their dissatisfaction with the men in our families is glaringly apparent. Their performance of happiness is but a gossamer veil over the physical and emotional labor that maintaining their marriage requires.
The Latina women in my family carry the weight of romantic love on their backs. Their own needs are whispered so that they can better listen to the needs of their partners. Emotionally, economically and sexually, they’re pushed to the margins of their relationship. The women in my family work the double shift. They labor at their jobs and then they labor at home, something their husbands rarely do. They are the primary caregivers to their children. They forgive more often. They comfort more often. And they please more often. They’re women who’ve spent their entire lives swimming in the depths of the ocean, always moving toward an invisible shore — givers in relationships marked primarily by a lack of reciprocity and selflessness on their behalf.
Given this, the question of why we continue to pour so much of ourselves into the idea of romantic love then becomes a matter of survival. Our path to liberation must necessarily include an analysis of the ways that our ideas about romantic love inform the way that we live our lives. We must question why women continue to prioritize romantic love, even when we know that it is far less likely than the platonic kind to provide us the abiding reciprocity and connection that we crave. We cling to the taxing idea that we cannot live satisfying, fulfilled lives if we do not find a lasting romance because we cannot bear the thought of being alone.
It is a transgressive decision for women who date men to continue nurturing all types of loving relationships when we enter romantic ones. Even if we find a loving and caring partner, we must be deliberate in continuing to invest time and energy in all of the people we love, including ourselves. This means reserving time exclusively for things that both make us happy and that do not involve our partners. While it is inevitable that our partners enter the world we’ve built with friends and family, these worlds must also exist independently of each other. Continuing to nurture our platonic relationships cannot be reductively shaped as a matter of convenience — a “well, what if you break up” or “who will comfort you when it comes to an end?” This is the only way that we can shift the paradigm and move toward a conception of love that does not rest on a toxic foundation.
In the tradition of women who’ve dared to reimagine the shapes that our existence in this world could take, we must find the courage to rethink a society where “ending up alone” is not the worst of all possible scenarios. Where the quality of our existence is not diluted by the absence of a male partner. Where entering a romantic relationship doesn’t translate into the absence of everything else. Where women past an arbitrary stage in life don’t carry scarlet letters that classify them as undesirables. Where self-love isn’t designated to second-class status.