I will never forget the first time I had “The Talk.” Well, it wasn’t technically the first time, but it was the first time it really mattered to me.
I was a junior in college and had been dating a guy for about two months. It was one of those relationships that got off to a racing start. We met at a bar one night, and then all of a sudden we were spending every minute of our time together.
Then came the dreaded night when everything went awry. It all started out fine. He and his friends would be going out with me and some of my friends (the first time he would be meeting my friends).
One of my “friends,” we’ll call her Ashley, was one of those girls who could never truly be genuinely happy for someone else. She was newly single and bitter about it and I should have known better than to expect any support from her.
Granted, my relationship with him got off to a rocky start (he was just coming out of a relationship and his ex wasn’t fully out of the picture the first week we started dating, but we worked through it and things were going really well), but he could have been Prince Charming incarnate and she still wouldn’t have been happy for me and would have found a way to undermine the relationship and the guy.
So we all head over to his place, my friends meet his friends, we have some drinks and head out to a fun bar. The vibe was pretty positive, everyone was having fun… but “Ashley” couldn’t let that happen. She pulled me aside at some point that night and told me something like, “I’m only saying this because I really care about you and don’t want you to get hurt, but it’s like really obvious that this guy isn’t on the same page as you. I mean, he just got out of a relationship and he just doesn’t seem as into you as you are to him.”
“What do you mean?” I naively counter. “We spend almost every day together, we’ve had deep and serious talks, he treats me better than any guy I’ve ever been with. ”
“I really wish I could believe you, ” she said condescendingly. “But I just don’t. I mean, you aren’t even his girlfriend yet. How do you know you’re not just a rebound?”
“Because I’m in the relationship and that’s not how it is.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you. If he cared about you, you would be his girlfriend. You don’t spend every day with someone and not call them your girlfriend. That means he’s using you. And he’s not even as great as you made him out to be.”
One thing I should mention is that if this girl had one talent in this world it was speaking with conviction. If she were to tell you the sun was blue and the sky was yellow you’d believe her. I kind of knew this already, but it didn’t matter, her words hit me hard and I suddenly felt like I’d been sucker-punched. What if he is using me? What if he’s hooking up with other girls? Why hasn’t he called me his girlfriend yet? That is kind of weird.
The night wore on and I tried to quell my anxiety with lots of tequila and beer but nothing could quiet the feelings of panic and dread pulsing in my gut.
My guy and I decided to leave before the rest of the group and I tried with all my might to not say the only thing I wanted to say. We ended up getting some pizza to go and as we were opening the door to his apartment it just came out.
“So like, what are we doing here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked bewildered. “We’re going to my apartment to eat pizza and then go to sleep.”
“No, I mean us, like it’s really embarrassing for me that you’re not even my boyfriend. All my friends were making comments about it.” (Yes, it was only one friend, but I needed to exaggerate for emphasis).
“Woah, where is this coming from?”
“I mean, we spend so much time together and it’s weird that I can’t even introduce you as my boyfriend.”
We’re now inside sitting on his bed with a box of pizza and palpable tension between us.
“Look,” he started slowly. “I just got out of a serious relationship, you know that. I really like you and I care about you, but I’m not ready to label it just yet.”
“So does that mean you’re hooking up with other girls?”
“No it doesn’t and I’m not … but I mean, I don’t want to have the pressure of being in an exclusive relationship. I really can’t handle that right now.”
“Well you’re not hooking up with anyone else right now, but if we’re not official then how do I know you won’t?”
“How does anyone know anything? We can’t. We just enjoy what we have and see where it goes?”
Then it started … the drunk tears. I tried to fight it but there’s no stopping that tsunami.
“Well, that’s really unfair for you to put me at risk like that and say you’re gonna do what you want. I need to know what’s going on and if you’re sleeping with other people because I don’t want to end up with an STD and you’re acting like I’m being unreasonable but I’m just trying to be smart!” I say between sobs as tears fall into the slice of pizza in my hand.
“I’m not sleeping with anyone else and I don’t plan to.”
“So then why aren’t we official?!” I demand.
“Like I said, I like you and I want you around, but if you can’t handle things the way they are then there’s nothing I can do about it. You were fine with things before, what changed?”
“Well Ashley seems to think you’re using me and I’m just a rebound.”
“Who cares what she thinks? She’s a bitch, you know she is!”
We went back and forth like this, I cried a lot more until we eventually fell asleep. The next day it was business as usual and we pretended nothing happened (which I was grateful for, given my shameful behavior).
But it did happen and it changed the dynamic of our relationship. Now that I knew he didn’t want a relationship with me, I craved the title so fiercely it was as if I was dying of thirst and he was the sole water-bearer left on earth.
There would be weeks when things were great when we’d spend time together and really connect and enjoy each other’s company, but then it was always in the back of my mind, and every so often the topic would come up again. I would beg and plead to understand his reasoning and he would give me variations of what he said on the dreaded pizza night.
And of course, my trusted friend Ashley wouldn’t let up and would express her disapproval over the situation at every chance.
Every time I would bring it up I’d be in an emotional, desperate frame of mind. He was understanding to an extent, but the whole thing took a toll on the relationship, not to mention, on my self-esteem. I felt unworthy and compensated by trying to be the best “girlfriend” I could be in the hopes that he would realize how amazing I was and would finally make it official.
It didn’t happen that way and after many months, it all came crashing down and we were over. Ironically, the first time he told me he loved me was when he was breaking up with me. Hearing him say those words was both thrilling and crushing given the unfortunate time he chose to say them and I found it almost unfathomable that even though he loved me and we had been together for seven months, I was never his actual girlfriend.
Years later, long after the dust settled on our relationship, I asked him why he never made it official. He admitted that the real reason was that I needed the title it too badly. He said had I not brought it up so often and been so hysterical about it, he definitely would have called me his girlfriend. What I did, however, was turn it into a battle of wills and the title was no longer about him, it was about me feeling validated.
The reason I shared this pretty embarrassing story is to illustrate how not to have the talk. I mean, I couldn’t have played it more wrong if I tried! But without the mistakes you never learn the lessons … and without all the lessons learned, what would I write about?
You might recognize yourself in this story and maybe experienced cringe-inducing flashbacks from times when The Talk went awry for you, or maybe you just cringed at the ridiculousness of my behavior and laughed at the irony of the fact that that naïve girl grew up to be a relationship writer (sometimes even I can’t believe it!).
So what should you do instead?
Try to just relax and let things unfold organically. Just be present in the relationship. It may sound simple enough but no one actually does it! We get so caught up in our fears and worries and doubts and that’s what sucks up our energy when really, that energy should go toward building a connection and a meaningful relationship.
When you need the title, it’s no longer about him. It’s about you. And when it becomes about validation, then you can’t see the situation clearly and you end up selling yourself short. You end up staying with a guy you have no business being with (which was the case for me because that relationship was actually pretty awful and toxic), and you give him full control over you and your emotional state.
You also can’t see clearly, you can’t see the fact that you deserve better because you idealize him and think you’re unworthy. You just keep clawing away hoping he will give you something to make you feel a little more whole but he can’t.
Even if you get the title it won’t ever be enough.
When a guy really likes you and you like him and the timing is right, it all kind of unfolds naturally. You don’t even have to ask, it’s just so obvious. And if you do bring it up, it doesn’t become a battle of wills. It’s more like, “Of course we’re a couple, duh!”
If you’re seeing a guy and it’s a healthy relationship but you still don’t know where he stands, then bring it up, but it a calm, gentle way. No blame or hysterics or theatrics. Something along the lines of, “I really like you and enjoy spending time with you. I feel like you’re acting like my boyfriend, is that fair to assume?” And just leave it at that.
Before you do anything, get clear on what it is you want and don’t want. If you want a committed relationship, then don’t settle for a guy who says he doesn’t want that or can’t give you that. When a guy says he doesn’t want to be in a relationship, believe him.
And don’t act like his girlfriend until you are his girlfriend. Putting too much pressure on a situation will never get you anywhere.
Don’t put your self-esteem on the line because then you have something significant to lose if the conversation doesn’t go the way you want. Just know your worth, know you deserve to have the kind of relationship you want and be OK with walking away if he’s not the guy to give it to you.
It’s not really so much about what you say but rather, the way you say it that causes problems. And what influences the way we say things is our mindset and the meaning we attach to certain things, so that’s where to put your focus.