My last relationship was not perfect. I was eighteen when it began, and admittedly naive. It was the first ‘adult’ relationship I had been in, although that label seems humorous now, given our maturity levels at the time.
Let’s apply it nonetheless, for the sake of distinction from the high school relationships prior to it. It was one of those cases where I stayed in it long enough to end up getting serious about the person, though that had never been the intention at the outset. It ended badly, a spectacular drama fit for a screenplay.
I did not feel like there was anything wrong with our dynamic during the months we were together, but the clarity of hindsight helped me realise that wasn’t exactly the case.
Speaking to my friends has shown me just how many young women relate to the eventual ‘realisation’ that the incidents from their previous romantic relationships were problematic. The array of experiences range from being made uncomfortable in sexual situations to having been spoken badly to.
I was confused when I first began this process. It felt absurd to me that I had not fully recognised the long-term implications his behaviour had on my own mental well being and insecurities. Small things (I’m still working on reminding myself that these things aren’t small) like him expressing disgust at women’s body hair, affected me deeply.
I was not aware of this impact until many months later, when I found myself feeling conscious of raising my arms in public without my underarms shaved.
When it came to my projects or ambitions, he was at best disinterested and at worst, discouraging. It only occurred to me how absurd this was when my current partner pointed out that I didn’t share any work-related news with him. The jury’s still out on whether this arose from a place of misogyny or carelessness.
I’m not placing the onus on my ex-partner for my internalisation of social norms. I am trying to highlight how deeper this internalisation can run when furthered in a personal space like a romantic relationship.
While my ex-partner had clearly internalised these norms himself, I wasn’t able to see his biases for what they were and continued to be impacted by them.
To make matters significantly worse, in our friend groups and larger social circles, he was known to be misogynistic, one of those guys who thinks being politically correct is a fate worse than death. The relationship became something I had to defend to female friends, who would send me things he had posted or said, expecting an explanation from me.
The simple, imperfect truth was that I had no idea about this persona of his during the beginning of our relationship. In retrospect, he probably actively acted differently around me, aware that I was a feminist and his takes would’ve left me unimpressed – not the first time someone has done this.
However, I still definitely blame myself for not looking into it closely before choosing to be with him. The slow realisation of what I had gotten myself into came a little too late. By then, I was invested in the person, and did my best to push the rest of it to the back of my mind.
Writing this today, it feels incredibly difficult to admit the extent to which I looked past his opinions and behavior. The manner in which I made excuses for him was wildly incongruent with my conviction that women deserve to be with partners who respect and uplift them. I let myself down and was unable to get rid of the needling feeling under my skin all the while that I was compromising on my own beliefs.
While the manner in which the relationship ended hurt me, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a hint of relief. At least I was no longer a traitor to my cause!
If the relationship itself had been challenging, what came after was beyond anything I could have conjured. I’m not sure what exactly I expected, dating the college misogynist. My voice as a feminist had been undermined.
My writing on the topic was met with ‘how can she expect anyone to take her seriously after dating him?’ Jokes about the hysterical irony of a ‘self-declared’ feminist dating such a misogynist were commonplace. While now it’s easy for me to point out the sexism of the blame being placed on me for a man’s actions, even as he gets away scot-free, at that time I wasn’t able to escape the criticism.
In time, I began to criticise myself before anyone else could, essentially shutting myself up. The guilt I felt during the relationship built up, and I believed everyone who said I didn’t have the credibility to be a feminist. He continued to expound his thoughts freely across platforms, and I was petrified of posting feminist art on my Instagram stories, fearing someone calling me a hypocrite.
Fortunately, with time, this changed. My thoughts on the relationship are still evolving, and perhaps when I come back to this in a few years I’ll feel differently. However, the time since the relationship ended has allowed me a lot of room to reflect on my experiences as a partner and a feminist.
Does dating someone imply that you fully endorse their beliefs? While I felt that the pressure on me to be answerable for him was unfair at the time, I’m now able to see that a lot of what I let slide did condone his beliefs. I certainly did nothing to stop him.
However, it still makes me angry when I hear more about how astonishing it was to find me in that relationship than the insensitivity of his behavior. The emphasis is always on my participation, my silence, and while that is worth critiquing, why do his actual actions escape this scrutiny? The imbalance is glaring.
I tried to embrace the criticism of my culpability, but in trying not to upset anyone I put myself second. I forgot what drew me to feminism in the first place- the opportunity for the world to improve.
The pressure on young people today to operate flawlessly in complex personal and political spaces is overwhelming. Reminding myself that I’m allowed to make mistakes and learn from them helped. There was a lot in that relationship I was only recently able to unpack.
In addition to his views in public, their manifestation in private was personally difficult for me. I’m proud of myself for getting better at understanding my boundaries and needs from a partner, ones that align with my expectations as a feminist.