I have a friend who teaches boys how to kiss. Not as a job, you understand – but if she’s dating a guy and doesn’t like the way he kisses, she will tactfully put him right. I’m not sure of her exact methods (it would be weird if I’d witnessed this, let’s be honest) but when I learnt this over drinks a few months back, I was momentarily awestruck. The idea that you could just say what you wanted without stopping to think first about how the other person might react – might be hurt, might retreat, might be angry – properly baffled me. How? No, really, how?
When journalist Rachel Thompson asked this question on Twitter, I jumped into her DMs immediately. Not that I’ve ever had to be told to ‘play it cool’ – you can’t help but learn it as a young girl, and it is soon as automatic as breathing. So it’s only now I’m getting proper time alone, going to therapy regularly, and witnessing a painfully slow but nevertheless heartening shift in the politics of gender and relationships, that I’m realising: this is madness.
Women who date: do you feel a pressure to be the “cool girl” in the early stages of dating? To be aloof and to affect disinterest when texting someone you’re newly dating? Have your friends told you to play it cool? If so, I want to talk to you. #journorequest
— Rachel Thompson (@RVT9) May 23, 2019
Since my long-term relationship ended and I’ve been dating more casually, I’ve caught myself thinking, “I don’t want much from this guy, I really don’t” over and over. As if it’s a quality to be celebrated, a point in my favour, that I don’t expect much. A new friend and I were discussing this a few weeks ago, and she told me about a time a guy said to her, “you’re great – you’re so low-maintenance!” Only a couple of years ago, I would have smiled and nodded, agreeing with this man-phantom that yeah, being told you’re low-maintenance is the ultimate compliment. This time though, several gins down, I sort of clutched the table-edge in horror, finally feeling the reams of terms, conditions and get-out clauses buried deep within those words. And then our conversation turned to When Harry Met Sally, because of that quote: “You’re the worst kind [of woman]. You’re high-maintenance but you think you’re low-maintenance.”
It is normal, I think, to ‘play it cool’ in the early days of seeing someone, especially if you are a woman dating men. It does have its roots in wisdom, up to a point. It’s often not wise to go all-in too soon. But I don’t think straight men are worried about the maintenance levels they require – and hi, guys, some of you really should be. ‘High-maintenance’ – like ‘feisty’, ‘bossy’ and ‘badass’ – is one of those phrases that is mostly used to describe women. And so we’re taught to fear being seen as high-maintenance – to hold back what we’re feeling, lest we seem ‘needy’ or ‘clingy’. To step into the role of the quiet, passive woman: I’m just here for what you need, when you need it. I don’t need anything myself except what you want to give. Let slip a strong emotion, a desire for clarity or direction, and risk being labelled as crazy or irrational.
But at times, forget ‘low-maintenance’, I have been ‘no-maintenance’, and honestly, I don’t think anyone has benefited from it, least of all me. After a few months of being accommodating and undemanding and pliable as fucking Plasticine, you find yourself wailing at your bedroom wall, “I asked the bare minimum of him and he still didn’t want me, what the fuck?!” I’m aware that I’ve written a lot of this kind of thing over the last few months. But seriously, how are we still doing this? How are we still so accepting – no, encouraging – of the idea that a good woman has no needs or desires? At what point did ‘being low-maintenance’ become a woman’s definitive selling point? At what point did having real, strong feelings become inextricable from burning shame? But the idea of breaking the habit – in this cool climate, where everything is casual, and being earnest and sincere in your dating life feels as mad and dangerous as walking around naked – is too terrifying to contemplate.
Some days, I harbour a tiny desire to return to the junior school way of doing things, when your friend would tell your crush “my mate fancies you” and you had the option of saying, “what? No, I don’t, that’s gross!” Once you start noticing how uncomfortable you are voicing your true feelings, you can’t stop seeing it. The anguished text you waited until you were drunk to send because owning up to your feelings sober would have been unthinkable. The endless scripting of conversations, the constant imagining of outcomes, the non-stop adjusting and calibrating.
But, as my friend pointed out, the killer thing about that scene in When Harry Met Sally is that ultimately Harry loves Sally because she’s ‘high-maintenance’ – or rather, knows herself and isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants and needs. I don’t know how we break the habit, but I know we need to. Because the woman who takes an hour and a half to order a sandwich does in fact get her sandwich – and a relationship with someone who loves her for exactly who she is.
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