The not so subtle art of asking for what you want in a relationship

The not so subtle art of asking for what you want in a relationship

So Here's The Thing

Text: Teresa Hee

Teresa Hee learns the hard way that gaining your heart's desire is a process as simple as it is painful

I learned at a very young age, the difference between need and want.

By no means did I grow up in poverty, but I never experienced the luxury of reckless expense. Dad was, and still is, the most financially responsible man I know. He was ever practical — as the sole breadwinner of four, he had to be. Conversations about money occurred regularly enough for me to consider it a Hee clan weekend ritual. My parents rarely fought about it (for that I'm thankful) but as a child whose perceptiveness rivaled that of a teenager, I recognise it was strain I heard in the exchanges.

A mantra followed every time we stepped into the grocery store. "Only buy what we need," dad would say as we put a dollar into the trolley dispenser. Mum rarely strayed from the shopping list. When she did, she did for me and Hayden*. Whether my brother and I shared my sentiment is anyone's guess, but I know I always felt guilty whenever I put in a request for neapolitan ice-cream or a bag of Mister Potato chips. If I got the green light, I would push my little body far across the freezer to inspect the price list, allowing the difference of the dollar between Nestle and F&N Magnolia to determine my choice. Rebellion meant tip-toeing for the ice-cream cones as well. As the fresh produce, cereal, milk, cleaning agents and toilet paper formed a mountain in the cart — so did my sense of guilt.

This is a lot of stuff.
Can we afford them?
Maybe I should put the ice-cream back.

Guilt would turn to panic at the check-out stations. Now that I make my own money, I no longer punish myself with self-reproach, but at age 9, seeing the total rise with each scan and barcode entry was one of my worst nightmares. The same irrational guilt bled into the other areas of my childhood. Barbie was a particular problem — the Mattel star wasn't as cheap as they are now back in the pre-eBay '90s. Only on birthdays and Christmases was I gifted one, and you bet your ass my doll never had her dream house or roll up in a pink convertible. Because my pleading and begging was a prerequisite to Barbie having new outfits, they seemed lacklustre the moment I convinced my mother they were worth buying. Though I won the battle, some of the magic was lost along the way.

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Toys. Ice-cream. Piano lessons. Trips to McDonalds. Like every other kid, I wanted them. Since I was taught that I didn't need them, having them came at additional costs, often paid with the innocence of an 8-year-old.

So here's the thing: Almost 20 years later, I think I'm even now paying the price. This time, I'm the only one to blame.

You remember Brandon*. His is not a new name; if you've been a follower of my dating misadventures (and if you're on my side) you'd probably poetically refer to him as the commitment phobic f*ckboy with the nice hair, as described in my last attempt at open heart surgery.

One month ago, I was ready to write Brandon out of my life — and out of this dating column. I was ready two months ago and three months ago as well. In fact, so were 58% of you who voted for me to wave him the middle finger goodbye. Last you heard of him, we had dated for a few months when he pulled the rug from under me. Upon his contradictory "we're monogamous but you can sleep with other people while you're away" commandment and his gut-wrenching "I don't believe in love" declaration, I escaped for three weeks for work, glad to not be in the same city with the man who was trying to break my heart which I hadn't even begun to give.

"Though I won the battle, some of the magic was lost along the way"

Time was on my side in Paris; my schedule, which ensured that I would be so distracted I had no time to indulge in my overactive emotions, was a blessing. Knee-deep in my professional responsibilities, I reconstructed my vocabulary, swapping "couple" for "chiffon", replacing "romance" with "runway", opting for "fashion" over "feelings". Being on my own also reminded me the joys of independence — how much I've come to love it, how much I value it and the long, occasionally treacherous journey towards this sweet spot of self-love.

Brandon texted me sporadically, and my responses were as non-committal as you can imagine. At one point, my reply was literally a series of ellipsis. Did he who told me to get on with strangers deserve more than my flailing attention? I would be hard pressed to find any woman, or man, for that matter, who would give him the time of day, especially when you've the hot chocolate at Cafe de Flore in the morning and the symmetrical greens at Jardin du Palais Royal in the afternoon to keep you company. In my mind, Brandon and I were over. Finito. The permutations of my textual cordiality stemming from the remnants of my feelings for him, diminishing by the hour.

Eventually, we met when I returned... one day shy of a month after I came back, but who's counting. Hiding was not in style that season; neither was ghosting. But evasion was, apparently.

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It wasn't his fault entirely. I had a vacation lined up soon after work took me away and brought me back, and his mother was in town, which meant that we were both up to our necks socially. What didn't sit right with me, what still doesn't sit right with me, was the fact that he didn't bother to check in with me after finding out about our unfortunate schedules. He would drop me a couple of lines here and there, making jokes along with half-assed plans to try to see me. Once, he disappeared for all of two weeks. I know, I know. What rights do I have for complaining, having the intention to dismiss him earlier?

"I reconstructed my vocabulary, swapping 'couple' for 'chiffon', replacing 'romance' with 'runway, opting for 'fashion' over 'feelings'"

Here's my beef. At that point in time, to me, everything has changed. Brandon pushed me away. Brandon put baby in the corner. And I had no qualms about staying there while the romance withers away. To him though, nothing has changed. He continued sending me kiss emojis, calling me by the nickname he gave me when we started seeing each other... essentially sticking around and sort-of-but-not-really expecting me to reciprocate whatever scraps of affection he was able to afford. He had one foot out of the door, while the other tried to play footsie with me.

I was going to have none of it.

29 days later, we met for drinks. For what it's worth, Brandon seemed thrilled to see me — he picked me up in the middle of the crowd and almost crushed me with his arms. I would have thought it was cute, but I wasn't in the mood for cute. I wasn't even in the mood for sexy though he smelled divine. Something in me, or something between us, had died. As suspected, he remained equally touchy throughout the evening. He opted to sit beside me and not opposite me at dinner. He pulled my chair close to his. He positioned his body to face me, while I faced the bar, made minimal eye contact, ignored his flirtatious banter and pretty much everything else I could think of at the moment to friendzone the shit out of him. It would have taken a seriously clueless goat to not have taken a hint; I think he just ignored mine. The night ended with me declining his invitation to a sleepover at his place. To my "I didn't think we were doing this anymore", Brandon said nothing. Instead, he kissed me.

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Days later, he asked to see me again. I wasn't willing to give up the friendship just yet, so in order to reinforce the platonic vibes, I suggested we head to the gym together, hoping that the pool of testosterone I was tossing him in would be message enough. I'll be the first to admit that I was being bitchy to Brandon that Sunday. I was cold, snappy and as inviting as cactus. This, he picked up. My phone buzzed after we parted ways at the train station.

Him: Are you mad at me or something?
Me: I'm not mad. I think you're not used to me not being into you as more than friends.
Him: Maybe. I'm confused — you like me and I like you. I don't know why it has to change.
Me: As in, why can't we hook up?
Him: I understand why you don't want to hook up with me. But it doesn't mean I'd suddenly stopped liking you.
Me: You don't want a relationship and that's cool. But that also means I won't be the same with you, because I'm not trying to be with you anymore. It would be unfair to me, you getting the perks of a relationship without the commitment.
Him: I didn't think me being afraid of a relationship meant we won't be dating anymore.
Me: But that means we'll just date and never really get anywhere? I don't see how that would work, because at one point someone (in this situation, me) will want to have more.
Him: True. And what you want is something we've never discussed.
Me: Does it matter, when you don't believe in love? I want to be with someone who believes in love, like I do.
Him: Can we maybe discuss this over coffee sometime?

And discuss we did. For hours. Over two days. Try as I did, it was difficult not to accept Brandon's apologies, for they seem truthful and sincere. The source of his relationship phobia was understandable. I may have gotten over my cheating ex with no long term side effects; reality is that not everyone is so lucky. My good friend Nathan* talked some sense into me. "You can't date anyone over the age of 28 and expect them to not come with their own set of baggage."

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Brandon explained that pushing me away was a defense mechanism, for if I had got on with someone else, he wouldn't have to face his fears. He lied that my moving on wouldn't have an effect on him. Well that's stupid, I thought, but I can see the blueprint of his reasoning. Neither of us know how he'll get over his insecurities, but the takeaway was that he wanted to try, for me, and that was enough.

...Until the next week, when his sister and brother-in-law came to visit over the new year, and he disappeared on me — again. This time, I faced the issue head-on. Or so I thought. Hurt, I texted him the following line, "I don't think we should continue seeing each other", not expecting my ringer to go off immediately.

"Brandon pushed me away. Brandon put baby in the corner. And I had no qualms about staying there while the romance withers away"

I figured Brandon would sound exasperated. Instead, I was met with a voice of concern. When asked what the matter was, I hesitated. The writer was lost for words. Penning my feelings, I can do. Saying them out loud, admitting them to someone who has the power to hurt me, not my forte. Perhaps that makes me a coward, one who is able to exercise honesty only when there isn't a risk of an unfavourable reaction. After much cajoling, I spilled the beans.

I'm upset that you didn't text me, I said.
I was busy with my family which you were aware of, he said.
I don't like feeling like I'm not thought of, I said.
What makes you think you're not thought of, he said.
Because you didn't text me, I said.

His next response shook me to my core. Brandon responded without humour or sarcasm, "Babe, if you want me to text you more, why didn't you just say so?" It's hardly groundbreaking, asking for what you want in any relationship, but it was a concept as foreign as French to me. He wanted to know why I didn't say explicitly what I wanted from him. It took a few moments for me to formulate my thoughts. When I was eventually able to, I confessed that I'm not an easiest of people to get along with, and there'll be things that I want from him that I'm not willing to ask for, that I don't think he'll be willing to give, like more time and affection, to which he said: "If you don't ask, how do you know it to be true? That's speculation and it's not fair to you, nor is it fair to me."

Hey, I never thought I was one of those girls who expected their man to be a mind reader either, but here we are. Asking for what I want isn't second nature to me, yet I uphold Brandon to high standards in my head, setting him up for failure over and over again. Just a month ago, I was bummed he didn't think to bring me chicken soup when I was bedridden. His response, gentle and kind as it was, is exactly what you'd expect: He would have happily travelled across the island with chicken soup in hand, had I asked for it.

Emotionally shunning the guy I'm dating for not doing something he didn't know I wanted done is not the act of the rational person I know myself to be. Brandon is right — it is unfair. But that's just it. I don't want to be unfair to Brandon. I have needs, yes, but I also don't want this person to change for me in accordance to my whims and fancies. I don't need more airtime with him. But I want it anyway. Technically, I don't even need him — I've been fine long before he came around. I don't need a man in my life. But I want one anyway. And I want this one. So who am I to stop him for wanting to be the man I deserve?

"If you don't ask, how do you know it to be true? That's speculation and it's not fair to you, nor is it fair to me"

To his credit, he has. Since our "fight", Brandon has been racking up the frequent texter miles. Rarely would he engage in conversation between 10am to 6pm, which I appreciate, because I'm glued to my phone enough as it is thanks to the nature of my job. After hours is another story. Worried that he's stretching beyond his comfort zone, he assured me that he will always try to make me happy, and nobody can make him do something he doesn't want to do. And to relax. He's constantly telling me to relax.

It's silly isn't it? So against am I at the idea of moulding a man to fit my ways, I start packing my bags when they don't turn out to be the perfect Ken doll. That's the problem when you lump men together and think them all the same. When they're interchangeable, they're also replaceable — a convenient and selfish theory that rewards me for not sticking around.

"I don't want to give my heart to anyone. Not even on paper. Or HTML," I wrote to one of my closest girlfriends Chloe* just hours ago. Even I know in all of my guilt-ridden consciousness that it's fear talking, and it's no way to live. It's certainly no way to love. And maybe that's even more unfair to Brandon and me.

*Names have been changed.
Read more entries from our dating column, So Here's The Thing.