Establish Your Dating Terms of Service

7 years ago

From my ex-husband to a summer fling -- anyone who's been involved with me is familiar with the discussion of what I affectionately call the Terms of Service. Online, we're used to agreeing to conditions before going forward and investing time on any platform. These conditions matter: they help us see whether we want to use a service, define what we are there to do, and establish boundaries for what we can and cannot do. Why not apply the same to our relationships?

My ex-husband and I met through work. We'd had a few exchanges privately, mostly over chat, but we were never outright flirtatious with one another -- mostly because in a corporate environment I prefer to remain fairly sterile. One day, after a meeting, we went to grab a quick bite to eat. We were both really hopped up on details from the meeting and this excitement catalyzed the existing attraction between us.

I looked at him behind the wheel, completely focused with the exception of the ridiculous grin on his face, and I said, "we're going to fuck, you realize, yes?"

After he recovered from almost crashing the vehicle, he looked over at me, with a look of disbelief, then turned back to the road.

"We need to talk about what this means," I said.

I laid out the risks of getting involved in dating and working together and how any perceived relationship might affect colleagues and our respective companies, suggesting we should employ the utmost discretion in our interactions. Then I told him what I wanted (a relationship), and the expectations I had of it.

"Now you – what do you want?"

He elaborated on what he wanted. Over that late lunch, we cross-examined one another, feeling each other out for possible incongruous elements. There were none. We wanted the same things. We worked well together. And we wanted each other.

It was a green light to proceed. And we hadn't even kissed yet.

You can say that this is too analytical and that it rejects the most wondrous components of relationships: emotion and spontaneous passion. The truth is that we tend to rein in emotion and passion more often because we fear where we're going. If you know what everyone wants and expects, you don't have to hold back. You can fall at your leisure, as fast and as hard as you want.

That's not to say that terms are written in stone. They can change – and because we're not static as human beings and are always changing, terms must change. The thing about being up-front about them from the beginning is that you set the precedent for that kind of conversation.

Yes, I know it's scary to be open about what you want. It means you have to know what that is and it exposes you to the risk of being told someone you like doesn't want that with you. But let me ask you something: would you rather hear about this sooner or later?

Elijah, the first man I dated after my divorce, refused to specify his terms with me. He continuously brought up how I had done this with my husband and how my marriage had failed, suggesting that specifying one's wants and needs doesn't help foster a union because it doesn't consider the "us," only the "me."

This is true in the preliminary stages, where I think it is essential to consider the "me" before running off to the fairytale existence of the "us." My marriage failed, but it wasn't because we told each other what we wanted and expected. It was because our wants changed and became irreconcilable.

Elijah didn't tell me his needs or expectations, but that didn't mean he had none. During the course of our brief entanglement, he would sporadically phone me or instant message me to tell me he felt unhappy or uncomfortable with some minor or completely nebulous thing. We'd go in circles for hours.

"What is the real issue here and what do I do to correct it?" I'd demand, tired of hearing his update on the state of his emotional well-being.

"I don't know. I feel like you're putting this all on me."

"I am putting this all on you. You have the issue, so you tell me what my options are to rectify it and we can go from there."

"I don't think that's fair, Anaiis. We should do this together."

"I don't think that's fair! I have deadlines! I don't have the time to sit here, sift through your catalog of emotional data, figure out what's really bothering you and then brainstorm solutions. You should come to this discussion prepared. If you don't really know what's wrong, we can't address it. I don't think I need to be involved in you figuring yourself out. That's entirely your deal."

He wouldn't do that either, and not too long thereafter, I ended things with the same precision that I apply to defining my wants. Later, Elijah would tell me that he'd been afraid to tell me what he wanted (a serious relationship) because he feared that I didn't want one and would use this as a reason to end things with him.

The truth is that by refusing to tell me what he expected of me and then becoming distraught at every turn when I continued to behave guided by my own needs, he became so high-maintenance that the relationship quickly went from fulfilling to completely unbearable.

We're friends now, and he still jokes about what an unyielding bitch I am, which is fine by me -- if I'm with someone and we fit and make sense together, I'm more than willing to compromise. What I will not compromise is my need to fathom what I'm getting into with someone I'm seeing.

"No expectations, no limitations," goes the saying and all I have to say about that is yeah, right. We all have expectations and it's time we stopped treating these like they're somehow dangerous, corrosive things. We want things! We expect things! It's perfectly natural! Instead of treating expectations like they somehow make us inferior, let's put them right on the table. Who knows, it may just lead us to find someone who is actually well-suited for us.

Whatever you do, if for some reason you can't -- or won't -- put your expectations out there, don't hold it against someone when they do not meet them. Whose fault is it, after all, if these are never made clear to another person to begin with?

Allow me to provide a recent example of behavior that gives expectations a bad rap.

Charles and I enjoyed a wonderful relationship for over a year. The terms were clear: we didn't want a conventional relationship. We work too much, travel too much and operate out of different coasts. But we have fun, our industries overlap so we enjoy a lot of common ground, and we share a lot of neuroses.

Sometimes, months would go by between us without communication – and this was fine. No news was understood as good news. Whenever we traveled, we would exchange quick texts with our airport codes and by virtue of being in similar industries, our trips would frequently overlap. Despite living on opposite coasts, we managed to spend a lot of time together and have a fantastic time.

Then I fell in love with someone else and told Charles I could no longer see him. After that relationship was over, Charles and I reconnected, as friends, mostly chatting about our lives online.

And then he sent me a message on Twitter: "While I was away, I realized I am actually in love with you."

"We need to talk about this."

I had a trip planned the weekend he was flying to Los Angeles, but I rescheduled it because it was evident we needed to have a conversation about our terms again. Too much had changed; it was ridiculous to imagine we could pick up where we left off.

That night at dinner, he told me we should be dating. There it was, his want. I asked him what it meant and he said he didn't know. Earlier, he'd mentioned a dream of falling off the grid, liquidating his assets, getting off the web and disappearing. I ran with it. What if we ran off, left everything? Threw our phones into the ocean? Would that be enough? Would we be enough for one another for the rest of our lives?

Invitation on a Slip of Paper

He said I would never be able to do such a thing, so I challenged him to a duel. I challenged him to go Facebook official with me.

He didn't. I'd called his bluff.

We hardly spoke after that weekend, though he messaged at some point saying he was planning to return to Los Angeles in May.

"Will be in LA for an entire week in mid-May," he said. "Just giving you time to plan to not be there."

I'd laughed at the time. For all the serendipitous synchronization we enjoyed in 2009, this year had proved impossible in terms of coordination. We'd both jumped through hoops to make it to that one dinner together. I responded and we messaged back and forth and then I fell into work launching a new blog, which has, for all intents and purposes, taken over my life.

I assumed he would message me upon touchdown, as was customary between us. Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from him over the weekend that said the following:

"Guess I kinda expected that you would have shown up at my party tonight. Expectations suck."

Knowing what we know about my position on clearly expressing our expectations, it isn't difficult to imagine how livid the message made me. I responded in kind:

If you want someone to go somewhere, invite them. I had no idea you were even here.

I'm furious. You guilt trip me over something I don't even know about? No greeting, no text to say you're here, no DM? Then it's MY fault for somehow not meeting your expectations?

Call me when you pull your head out of your ass.

It's not that expectations suck. It's that often, we fail to communicate them and this lack of communication makes us behave in ways that are simply not conducive to building or maintaining a relationship. While it is wonderful that someone would want me to spend time with him, it is ludicrous to hold me to something to which I have not agreed -- or even know about.

Instead of making me feel wanted, which was probably his intent, however immature, his message resulted in me becoming so irate that I insulted him, which led him to insult me, which led me to leave the last message he sent me unanswered.

I feel sour and I can't get the bad taste out of my mouth. That's a shame, because he and I once enjoyed a great interaction and I'm going to miss that.

But this? Nah uh.

It's simple: tell me what you want and I will tell you if I can. Then I'll tell you what I want and you'll tell me if you can. And if it fits, and if we can keep up that level of communication, we'll be able to spend a long time walking through life side by side.

If we don't fit, we'll part ways, saddened, but secure know that it's for the better -- at least for the time being. It's possible paths will cross again after needs change and bring a new possibility.

But if we don't communicate what we want and need, if we don't voice what we expect, the only thing that will result is resentment, disappointment, and -- if these things are mismanaged -- misunderstandings that may cripple a relationship forever.

Find, analyze, and embrace your expectations. They're part of who you are. The person you share yourself with, if they're right for you, will not disappoint you.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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