I can pinpoint the exact moment I became obsessed with the idea of a relationship.
I’m seven years old, sitting on a soft, tearing couch in my friend Christina’s house the day before Thanksgiving. Christina somehow already has the newest Disney Channel movie in her possession — High School Musical — and as she begins to set up the DVD player, I could not have been less prepared for the movie that shaped my own laundry list of expectations for what young love “should” be.
The biggest emotion I feel before watching the movie is a sense of rebellion; High School Musical wasn’t on my parents’ list of approved movies, which included, among others, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof (but only the first half), and The Wizard of Oz. HSM was something different; it’s a movie that, unlike a great majority of movies that I’d already been exposed to in my young life, dealt primarily with the romance between two people, two people whose ages I was more or less nearing.
Sitting comfortably squished on the couch after Christina figured out the DVD player, I was completely hooked, definitely more enthralled than I should have been by Troy and Gabriella’s seemingly fateful relationship. As one may recall, our 21st century Romeo and Juliet meet serendipitously at a ski resort, end up going to the same high school, then, even though he’s a basketball player and she’s a mathlete, end up, in no time, becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. As a girl already as nerdy at seven as Gabriella appeared to be on screen at 16, I took copious notes. If she could find love, then so could I.
The formula seemed simple enough. Step one was to find an available male, and at Palm Beach Gardens Elementary School, there were plenty. I set my sights on Daniel, a Russian blonde who always wore knock-off Converse and a shirt that said “Class Clown”, both of which at the time, I found very alluring. For our inaugural date, we went to a nearby park with our mothers watching close by, which, according to my diary, was “sooo embarrassing.” Because of this, spending time with Daniel soon began to be limited to the classroom, where my mother could not come in the way of our growing feelings for each other.
Our relationship began to falter when I realized that although I liked Daniel, he did have a fatal flaw: he was a Jehovah’s Witness. This meant that he couldn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, the day I’d hoped he would confess his true love for me after I gave him a tri-colored highlighter as a token of my own love. I wasn’t prepared to leave Daniel, but like Gabriella, I had to “go my own way.”
As I made it through middle school and finally reached high school, I was in my own kind of HSM fantasy, attending a magnet arts program in my district. To my dismay, my first and only “boyfriend” and I did not meet on New Years’ Eve while singing karaoke, and the next guy I liked had an attribute that High School Musical leaves out about art school boys: they’re usually gay.
When high school ended, and I still had not been in a “real relationship”, I questioned my self-worth, as an 18-year-old usually does on the daily. Why was it that people who I deemed to be “less worthy” of a relationship were able to experience all that I hadn’t? Why wasn’t I good enough? What was wrong with me?
Answers to these questions do not lie in my own personal issues, but the generation in which I grew up in. I know myself now: I’m a complete romantic. I want a Troy Bolton to support my nerdy aspirations and get excited to talk to me on the phone. And I’ve had that, but for very short snippets of time. The reason as to why this is just as much society’s fault as it is mine: more than ever before, the hunt to find someone special has become a much wider playing field.
With this in mind, I read Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. I expected to find it humorous, as a great majority of his work is, but instead, I found truth, wisdom, and a sense of sincerity about what my generation has begun to experience in the increasingly complicated world of sex and dating. Even my mother picked up my copy, read it cover to cover, and walked into my room the next morning and confirmed my suspicions, saying that I’d “probably never be in the relationship I want to be in.”
This is due to one of the major issues that Ansari found in his book: this somewhat new concept of extreme searching, constantly trying to find the “best” thing, has become hyperactive in the past few years. We have more options to see what is out there in terms of finding “our person” than ever before, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
When my grandparents met and fell in love in the 1950s, they felt as if they were right for each other, and because they really didn’t know where else to look, after a couple of months, that was good enough to get married, and stay married, for almost 60 years. Additionally, my grandma and grandpa lived very close together. According to research done by Ansari, proximity was a huge factor in terms of being with someone for an extended period of time. If you lived nearby to your secret crush, and quite literally was the “girl” or “guy next door”, chances were much higher that you’d be together for much longer than if he or she lived even a couple towns over.
Today, with platforms like Tinder, Christian Mingle, JDate, Grindr, and more, we have so many options. If one lives in Florida, you can find someone that is hypothetically perfect for you in Brazil, for example. Ansari believes this increased opportunity to find someone absolutely anywhere tips the scale as more negative than positive. In Modern Romance, he states, “…no matter how many options we seem to have on our screens, we should be careful not to lose track of the human beings behind them. We’re better off spending quality time getting to know actual people than spending hours with our devices, seeing who else is out there.”
The way that we have begun to view romance feels so very Black Mirror, a show which takes certain aspects of what we perceive as normal in the 21st century and blows it out of proportion with a sense of realism, showing that we can mess up our lives with one small hitch if we let ourselves. An episode of the show in one of its later seasons depicts a world in which those who go on dates are already aware of how much time they will have in their “relationship,” and thus proceed accordingly. This gives way to the idea that there is this “best” person out there for us, and if we keep searching, we will eventually find him or her. Though in theory, it seems logical to want this “best” and “greatest” person, Ansari believes this mentality is toxic.
“That’s the thing about the Internet,” he wrote in Modern Romance, “It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is the best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn, there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose.”
So with all that, where do we as a society go from here? Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel believes that we have incredibly high expectations for what a potential partner should be. In her book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, she states that today, it seems we have an increased need for someone that has “a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling.”
And this is true: we want our significant other to be everything for us, and that can be exhausting to the point of breakage; it’s so much to ask from just one person. To realize that someone cannot be the absolute manic pixie dream we want them to be is the first step in recovering from this so-called syndrome of perfectionism. Maybe I won’t meet a Troy Bolton who checks off of all of my boxes, but will anyone? No one is going to have every quality we want them to, and that’s okay. Whether I meet the love of my life singing karaoke or on JDate, I won’t write someone off so quickly because of just one quality.