Practice makes partnership

Look Back At It

Zoe Kleinfeld_online

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Last weekend, I attended a Women’s Power Circle in honor of my friend’s 21st birthday. Power Circle participants were instructed to offer my friend some tidbits of knowledge relevant to a budding 20-something.

How “Steel Magnolias,” I thought when I entered her backyard and saw a group of middle-aged women standing around a small fire pit.

My mother, a scientist, spoke about the fluidity of bacterium and the naturality of flitting around before reaching a final destination. A lawyer constructed a loose metaphor between open-mindedness and tort law. My friend’s and my preschool teacher spoke of the importance of being a strong, resolute woman.

Each woman talked generally about making mistakes. Each woman talked about love. And each woman, by the end of the night, suggested that the two are inextricably related.

In the eighth grade, I AOL instant-messaged a boy from my prealgebra class that I liked him. He said that he knew, but that he liked someone else: a tall, blonde model who had just transferred to our school. The next fall I went to homecoming with a nice Canadian because, like me, he was a germophobe who refused to share his water bottle with friends. It happened that he had asked me on a lunchtime dare; the romance did not last long. Two more years of covert crushes and innocent flirtation. And then on Valentine’s Day of my junior year of high school, a boy asked me to our winter formal and I said yes and we began to date.

Our relationship was a muddied series of episodes that primarily revolved around sitting in his dusty grey VW Jetta and making out to the XX and Vampire Weekend and all those bands that make one feel intensely 17 — young and in love and on the cusp of blindly running into the world, ready to make 3 million mistakes. A boy liked me and I liked the boy. I had achieved my life goal, and I was 17 years old.

Then one year later we broke up, and I was quickly devastated and decided to stay away from romantic trappings to avoid another teenage heartbreak.

When I was at the Power Circle, my preschool teacher shared a Russian saying in which a man is asked if he can play the piano. “Of course I can play the piano,” he replies. “I just need to learn how.” Turns out, she said, this is a lot like love: Anybody can do it with just a bit of practice.

Part of the point of dating another person is to understand how to communicate the things that you feel. It seems, moreover, that figuring this stuff out is something that comes with experience and maturation and more experience. I theoretically understand that emotional vulnerability is part of the relationship equation. But while I watch my friends fall hard for the people they date, I am cautious about presenting paramours with anything other than a carefully curated, likeable persona. When detached dating apps catalyze modern romance, when the instability of a breakup seems a formidable opponent to singledom, when college is already swarmed with uncertainties — the women’s advice seemed, to me, entirely retrospective. Being in love sounds great; flubbing does not.    

When I said this to my mother after the Circle, she rolled her eyes.

“You know,” she said, “most of my collegiate romantic life was wasted on dating a boy out of convenience. Sometimes, it’s better to just mess up. Sometimes, safety is overrated.”

The same type of advice often leaves my mouth when I talk to friends who are in the throes of romantic uncertainty. So I get the idea. We’re supposed to experiment and stumble when we’re young. You don’t know what you like until you know what you don’t like. The youth are resilient creatures and won’t learn without trial and error. But after one unsuccessful serious romance, I was quick to equate independence with singledom. I am not alone: Young adults are increasingly delaying commitment. My current reticence, however, does not mean that I don’t want to be in a relationship. I just don’t want to be in a relationship that will impede on my independence, and I have difficulty figuring out how to separate the two.

I flagged down one of my friends when I got home after the Circle. She’s a good listener who has sustained a serious relationship in college, and I unloaded my predicament.

“I don’t want to be one of those 70-year-old women with nice hair and cool earrings who never got married because she was too busy worrying that if she didn’t have nice hair and cool earrings, then nobody would love her,” I said. “I also don’t want to invest in the wrong person.”

“I think you’re crazy,” she said. “I also think you need to date.”

So I downloaded the Bumble dating app. It took a few hours to connect with anyone — mostly because my picture was cropped to only show my elbow, and also because I didn’t realize that the onus was on me — the girl — to initiate the conversation. But then I did. For the practice.

Zoe Kleinfeld writes the Wednesday blog on kids these days. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zkleinfeld.