I’m a girlfriend, and I basically always have been. It’s something I generally leave out of my writing. I think it puts me in a box and takes away from the messages I hope to convey. But when I zoom out and look at my life and the many roles I play, girlfriend is of the most important.
The intimate relationships in my life that have come and gone, plus some guest stars in between, feel like some rite of passage. The blips and missteps, the flings and flirtations, all with one mighty goal: being somebody’s girlfriend. It was a dream over one high school loser who never wanted to slap on the title. A victory with the Israeli soldier who never wanted to be anybody’s anything. And the perfect fit with my college love, when everything finally fell into place.
So much of my self-esteem and overall happiness has long been derived from the attention I do or don’t get from boys. The cornucopia of the girlfriend has been an ongoing goal - to become her in the best way possible. To be the cool girl, the dream girl, and finally, the real girl. How to be my best self at the expense of someone else’s satisfaction.
How lame is that?
Since falling in love with feminism, a chamber of my heart comes filled. My view and expectations in heteronormative relationships continue to be challenged, caught between wanting to feel liberated and liable. I love love, but I love me more. So how can I be in a relationship and share so much of myself, while keeping what makes romance… romantic? Essentially, how can I have it all?
I’ve been stuck on this for a long time. So who better to ask than women working through the same thing?
Women are unbelievable, my god is it a privilege to be one. I had the pleasure of speaking with twenty completely unique women regarding their thoughts on what it means to be a girlfriend in 2018. These women range in sexual preference, in status from single to divorced, across ages from sixteen to fifty-five. I asked, and they told.
Nearly every woman I spoke to began their stories with an ex-lover who redefined what it meant to be somebody’s somebody. Many of these women entered their first relationships with Hollywood expectations of sweep-her-off-her-feet gender roles that ended in crushing disappointment. The scorned woman is somewhere in all of us, seeking revenge on the exterior and filled with internal self-doubt.
One woman I spoke with called out Sandy from Grease, a leading lady long admired for good-girl gone bad appeal for the high school stud. “Danny makes fun of Sandy to the point of tears. Danny pushes for sex. Sandy changes her look, her values, everything for him,” she says. Everyone starts singing 'We Go Together' and as a viewer you can’t help but feel great that everything worked out for the couple. But looking back, intelligent, kind Sandy made compromises for hair gel and leather. “While it’s great to own your sexual power and identity,” she recalls, “what does changing everything about herself say about Sandy’s self-worth?”
Rejection, change, and break-ups for women largely leave us reflecting on ourselves and where we must have gone wrong. What version of ourselves did we reveal, or who did we become, that stopped being good enough? Many of the twenty women referenced a promise to themselves after a broken heart, a promise I have also shared in: I’m never putting up with this shit again.
The single ladies I spoke with were the most meditative and self-fulfilling. Some felt that their past relationships pushed them into a new realm of independence, seeking out what made them happy as individuals rather than accommodating another person’s needs. One woman realized the bonus that a romantic partner could now add to her life, after giving more time and energy to parts of herself that had previously taken a backseat.
Like all great things that we sprinkle with feminist fairy dust, being single is high on my list. Being alone does not have to mean you are lonely.
The affection of others can impact us deeply, but in the new age of relationships we must also learn how to best inspire ourselves. We deserve the space to develop a greater sense of identity. “Being single is the sweet spot time to learn to do things for yourself and find what makes you happy and satisfied with who you are,” says one woman. Some people thrive by leaning on others, and some people need to learn to lean on themselves - even when that time comes before you think you’re ready.
Pining and wanting has to be some version of natural. But today, we don’t have to settle. Part of being single can mean dating! Getting back to the drawing board and learning what works best for you romantically. “I choose to navigate the dating scene in 2018 from a place of self-worth,” says one woman, “Men who I choose to let into my life know my worth, respect my body, and do not want to change me.” Another woman adds, “Today, I feel more empowered to ask for what I want and say how I feel.”
Being single can mean not having found the right person to share yourself with, that you are self-satisfied, or that the relationship game isn’t one you want to play at all. It’s on your terms.
When you do find that right person, it’s easy to fall into patterns of dependency. And it’s really easy to like it. Craving an extraordinary connection with just one of the seven billion members of the planet is what makes us human. We need each other to survive. Throw that on top of someone who is impressed by you, touched by you, and just beyond language obsessed with you. If you feel that, you don’t want to let it go.
Love is always susceptible to dependency, and that’s okay. We just have to find some middle ground.
What we first recognize as partnership can evolve into pressures of trade-off, the if-then complex, that traps women and men into these neatly packaged boxes of shame. Suddenly, what was beautiful is blossomed dependence - the ongoing I need you because I cannot sustain this part of me alone.
But some women, I found, don’t feel that way at all. Some draw outside the lines of pop-culture’s rigid examples with what they see at home. A few interviewees discussed the lives they sought out as individuals from other influences.
One pointed to the success of her parents' relationship by what sets them apart instead of what brings them together. She looks for the same in her own relationship, finding a person that adds to her life rather than completes it. “We're all a product of our environment,” she explains, “I was never seeking a relationship where my boyfriend is my everything, or my person.”
Another discussed growing up with a single mother, learning the power of womanhood from an early age. “My mom never talked to me about how women can do anything - she didn’t have to,” she says. This woman’s romantic relationship benefits because of the path her mom paved, as her boyfriend admires her self-sufficiency and ongoing efforts for self-care. Similarly, a divorcee addressed the dominating career her husband had, pushing her to craft a life outside their relationship. Her independence is her asset, shining in her current relationship and setting an example of individuality for her children.
One woman opened up to me regarding her budding relationship with a trans man. She and her partner are both polyamorous, welcoming additional relationships outside their own. She finds that human beings are naturally dependent, needing others to survive and thrive in whatever way works best for the individual. Her dependent behavior has the opportunity to be met by different sources instead of tied up in one person, expressing her independence by being in touch with her own version of reliance.
For these women, putting themselves first has always been a source of strength and key to growth in relationships, shying away from conventional dependency that others can fall into.
A few women discussed their long-distance relationships and the choices they consequently face. When you find someone who satisfies what you need in a partner, sometimes distance is an inevitable factor. Time spent apart can become dominated by looking ahead and waiting, but that doesn’t have to mean missing out on the present.
“I really don’t need him to fix everything in my life right now,” says one woman, “but any future idea includes him.” When her boyfriend got a new speaker for his birthday, she knew that would be theirs to play music while they cook in their own kitchen one day. Another woman admitted otherwise: “Sometimes it scares me that I’m not as independent as I want to me, when everything I see around me is telling me to be selfish.” She and her boyfriend are both following their dreams and it’s led them to different parts of the country. It’s a compromise to stay in a relationship under unfavorable circumstances, and as a young adult, the timing of that bargain is huge.
The key to making it work, says another woman, is in seeing “eye-to-eye on a lot, and not just because we’re the same height.” Being on the same page is huge in any relationship, but asks even more of the partners when the majority of their time is spent apart. “Deciding to do long-distance is something I am incredibly grateful for,” she continues, “it taught me how to be independent while still in a relationship.”
These women emphasized their strength in communication and understanding, each growing as individuals in their perspective lives while building a bridge between state lines.
The women I spoke to who are in relationships agreed that their partners take up as much room in their lives as works for them. That being a girlfriend is only a thing of pride when your significant other is someone who admires you. Who lifts you up as you lift them up, who shares in your pain instead of takes it away, who loves you and teaches you to better love yourself. One woman said it so perfectly: “In good, healthy relationships, it means we found someone who values us the way we value ourselves.”
Some of the mutual respect that women now strive for in relationships can compromise what used to be playing hard to get. The 'he pulled my hair and chased me around the school yard' kind of flirtation that used to pipeline broken, and even abusive, relationships. It is so hard to dismantle old ideals of what it means to be wanted. Many of us have to reinvent what falling in love was supposed to look like.
Simply, things are changing.
One boyfriend went the extra mile for the justice of this girlfriend. This woman revealed a story from last Halloween where a group of firefighters catcalled her. Used to these kinds of shrew occurrences, she ignored them and blew it off. Her boyfriend, however, was not willing to let it go - contacting the station the next day to file a formal complaint. If this doesn’t redefine what it means to be a man in a relationship in 2018, I don’t know what does.
Now, the role of the boyfriend is an absolute privilege that is to be earned, not granted. That victorious feeling we experience in becoming the girlfriend is only so great because it is shared by the other half that makes it so. It’s an exchange in partnership, not a compromise of our individuality.
I was most excited to find how men are clearly evolving in sharing the responsibilities of a relationship, learning to balance feminist changes while maintaining what makes romance unlike friendship.
Every woman had their own version of what their partner does to make their relationships feel special. For some, it’s the traditional gesture of flowers. Because it’s really more than showing up, it’s doing a little bit extra. For others, it’s picking up the tab from time to time. Instead of a typical night out that evolved from spending all day together, inviting your partner and treating them shows initiative regardless of which gender makes the date.
Chivalry is only dead if we kill it, let’s reform it instead. We can pick and choose what parts of traditional relationships are meaningful and which others have been outplayed. That’s really the beauty of feminist relationships, the rules are meant to be rewritten.
The twenty women I spoke with are strong as hell, working to empower themselves by prioritizing what motivates them to grow into their best selves. They pursue relationships that only build them up.
The power of relationships today lies in what should have been there all along: balance. These golden levels look different by the individual who claims them. The scales have no guidelines, we weigh them ourselves now.
In 2018, even feminists fall in love. I am a girlfriend because my boyfriend makes me feel like my best self, and then some. Our love is mutual, uplifting, generous, and passionate. My relationship works because he respects the one that will always come first - the evolving relationship I have with myself.
x Dani Pinkus
Photo courtesy of Henry White