Modern Love Podcast: Beyond Girlfriend-Boyfriend

anna martin

I had my first boyfriend in sixth grade. I remember he wore skate shoes, these really puffy skate shoes, and he had hair that was so long it was impossible to see his eyes. We met up at the flagpole after school. And I distinctly remember he gave me a fist bump, and then that was it. We were girlfriend-boyfriend.

By the way, you had to say it like that, “girlfriend-boyfriend,” really fast as if it was one word, because we were now one entity. We were girlfriend-boyfriend. But I remember feeling nervous that we weren’t living up to whatever it meant to be girlfriend-boyfriend. And the pressure got to be too much. We broke up a few weeks later. Which, I mean, it was middle school.

[music]

From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin, and this is the Modern Love podcast. This week’s essay is not about middle school, but it is about the pressure of that girlfriend-boyfriend entity. It’s called “My Choice Isn’t Marriage or Loneliness.” It’s written by Haili Blassingame and read by Shana Small.

shana small

I broke up with my boyfriend of five years during quarantine. I sent him an email with the subject line “My Terms,” and proceeded to outline why I wanted to be single. In an effort to impose order on my decision, I included subheadings, like “Why I Need This,” “What This Change Means for You” and “What We’ll Say To the Outside World,” followed by a trail of bullet points. Under the subheading “What this doesn’t mean,” I wrote “that I don’t love you anymore.”

We were three months into the pandemic, and most of us couldn’t fathom the devastation to come. By then, though, we could begin to see our loneliness stretching into the future with no endpoint. And here I was alone, and equally desperate for connection, breaking up with my boyfriend of five years even though nothing between us had broken. For months afterward, I struggled to understand why. I had to look back on flashpoints throughout the relationship to see that my singleness was inevitable. I was simply finding the words to explain it to myself.

I had met Malcolm my freshman year of college at a luncheon for honor students. He was wearing a blue plaid button-down, and his voice was a startling baritone. Everyone compared him to Barack Obama. He was similarly warm, what some might call magnetic. He seemed like a reasonable person to trust with your life, or your love.

My friend and I had been talking idly about starting a dating service on campus. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted to be our first client. He laughed. “OK, sure.” I pulled out my phone. “First, I have to take your picture so girls can know what you look like.” The picture came out awkward and blurry. Still, I sent it to my mother, giddy about the cute guy with the deep voice who looked like Obama.

After the luncheon, he and I circled each other for two years, until one night I called to see if he wanted to hang out. What followed was a relationship plucked from romantic folklore. He sent me flowers with handwritten letters and arranged from my favorite ice cream to be delivered to my hotel room while I was at a conference in New York. After four months, he followed me to France, where I was studying abroad my junior year. That’s where our relationship became official.

“I guess we should get together or something,” I said.

He said, “We’re kind of already together, aren’t we?”

“I know, but I should probably be your girlfriend, right?”

“OK.”

Our exchange felt like a conversation between two third graders on the playground. I understood that I was supposed to care about this milestone. He was my first boyfriend. Yet when I grasped for the significance of it, I came up empty.

[music]

When he left France several weeks before I did, I was surprised to feel relieved. I longed not to be alone, not to be without love, but for freedom and autonomy.

Since we had gotten together, I had felt our identities weaving into a beautiful quilt, and I didn’t see how to disentangle myself without alienating the man I loved.

I was somebody without him. I knew this. But others didn’t seem to. Even when I was by myself, people always asked me about him, dropping me into a future of marriage, children and muted desires that I had not signed up for. I wanted my identity back. I wanted to unravel.

As soon as I got back, I suggested an open relationship, something I had wanted from the beginning. I saw it as a step toward establishing myself as a romantic and sexual entity outside of my relationship. When Malcolm and I first told friends and family about our open relationship, we were met with verbal lashings and gross generalizations, including that “this was not something Black people did.” Much later, I realized they viewed our arrangement as a personal attack on an institution they wanted to believe in.

The following year, after leaving college in Atlanta, we moved 2,000 miles apart — Malcolm home to California, me home to D.C. — with no plans of either of us moving to be with the other anytime soon. We saw each other several times a year. By the time the pandemic hit, we had been long distance for three years, and I saw no problem with it.

Many times, I thought I had a classic fear of commitment, but I knew it was more complicated. I was resisting something greater than our individual relationship. And my resistance was political.

A day before I sent Malcolm the email saying I wanted to break up, I came across a term online: solo polyamory. It described a person who was romantically involved with many people, but is not necessarily seeking a committed relationship with anyone. What makes this different from casual dating is that they’re not looking for a partner, and the relationship isn’t expected to escalate to long-term commitments, like marriage or children. The relationship isn’t seen as wasted time or lacking significance because it doesn’t lead to marriage.

For once, in the vast literature on love, I felt seen. I liked how solo polyamory cherished and prioritized autonomy and the preservation of self, and I found its rejection of traditional models of romantic love freeing. I wasn’t comfortable identifying as polyamorous then, but it spoke to my desire for something non-traditional.

In some ways, this was the rebellion I had been seeking. My entire girlhood had been consumed by fantasies that were force fed to me. Love and relationships were presented as binary. And in this binary, the woman must get married or be lonely (or, in classic novels, die). Or in classic novels, die. The path to freedom and happiness was narrower still for Black women. Even in our extremely loving relationship, I had felt confined.

I knew my mother would be devastated by the breakup. A divorcee of 20-plus years, she often warned against ending up like her, a woman untethered to a man. I waited nearly six months to tell her. When I did, she said, what if he finds someone else? “He could have found someone else when we were together,” I said, puzzled. But relationships do give the illusion that we exist in a bubble with another person, insulated from the rest of the world. That’s part of what makes them feel so intimate.

After I sent Malcolm my breakup email, he and I spoke on the phone. “I have to be honest,” he said, “I was a little sad when I read it.” “Why?” I asked.

“It just seemed more final in an email.”

“You know, we can change the terms whenever we want,” I said.

“I know.”

“You’re still my best friend,” I said.

He made a joke about being friend zoned, then said, “Yeah. you’re my best friend too.”

I recently went to an online discussion about polyamory. All the faces in the chat were Black. “You have to own your choice,” one guy said. “You have to remember, you choose this for a reason.” I thought of my choice to be single and not looking, but still very much loving.

Shedding the identity of girlfriend has allowed me to experience the expansiveness of love. It has challenged me to stretch the limits of my relationships to see what they can be when relieved of social pressure. As humans, we’re always going to reach for certainty, using the few tools we have. And sometimes that tool will be a label like “girlfriend.” But in a year of crippling loss, canceled trips and delayed milestones, I have found strange consolation in knowing that nothing in our lives has ever been certain. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I am just here to enjoy this, whatever this is, for however long it lasts.

anna martin

Hey, Haili.

haili blassingame

Hi, Anna.

anna martin

Well, I’m really excited to talk to you. There’s a ton to dig into in your story. But let’s start here. In your essay, you say that you felt uncomfortable with the term “girlfriend.” And I want to know, how did that play out for you when you were in a relationship with Malcolm?

haili blassingame

Oh. I mean, labels and definitions and titles, part of their function is to show people and tell people how to treat you and how to relate to you. And so I would just get annoyed when we would go out and suddenly some of the dynamics would shift because it was revealed that I was his girlfriend. And I remember there was one incident where something happened, and another guy came up and was like, let your man handle it. And I was just like, OK. See, this is the stuff that makes me feel like I don’t want any association with it.

And people are going to do things like that. And I don’t necessarily mean that you have to distance yourself entirely from a system. But I guess for me, that particular piece of it was just so annoying that I wanted to do away with it. I didn’t want to deal with it.

anna martin

Was that moment when the person said, “Let your man handle it,” was that a moment of decision for you? Where you were like, you know what, that’s it, I am done with this label? Or was it more of a slow burn to realizing you were done?

haili blassingame

This was, I think, my senior year of college. And that year was pivotal just in terms of my relationship to feminism. And I think the deeper I got into non-monogamy, the more it made me examine monogamy.

First of all, I think monogamy speaks to very valid and legitimate boundaries that people have in their relationships. But for me, it was about questioning those boundaries, like, what are they trying to keep in, what are they trying to keep out, and whether that made sense for the types of relationships I was trying to have.

anna martin

Sure. You and Malcolm, are you still in touch? What’s the dynamic between you two today?

haili blassingame

Yeah, we’re still in touch. We still talk on the phone very often. We’re, I would say, best friends. I just think that we got together when we were 19, and so we grew up together, in a sense. And that’s something hard to disentangle yourself from entirely.

anna martin

What conversations have you had with either of your parents since coming into this non-monogamous lifestyle? How have you articulated this choice to your parents?

haili blassingame

So. [LAUGHS] My family doesn’t get any of this. And this is funny. Literally last week, my dad was like, so, where’s your boyfriend? So that’s where he is. He has no idea what’s going on.

anna martin

And you were like, Dad, come on, I’ve explained non-monogamy to you.

haili blassingame

I’m like, what are you talking about? And then I explained to him that me and Malcolm were just friends. And he was like, that’s a bunch of junk. So that’s where he stands. And my mom [LAUGHS] My mom and I are very close, and we talk every day.

And so, even though she doesn’t get it on a personal level, she’s definitely grown a lot in acceptance. And my mom understands that this is me being a young woman trying to define and be true to her desires. And this has been my journey into that. But she has had her own journey into that as a young woman. So I think that’s sort of where she is.

anna martin

Haili, thank you so much for talking to me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

haili blassingame

Thank you so much, Anna.

[music]
anna martin

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow, with help from Tally Abecassis. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Elisheba Ittoop. Dan Powell created our Modern Love theme music.

Digital production by Mahima Chablani and a special thanks to Ryan Wegner at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Dan Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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