This Is Us

I Want a Partner Who Expands My World, Not Fits Into It

But according to the men I know, the feeling’s not universal

Photo: Sophie Filippova/Getty Images

An ex of mine, who I’ll call Matt, recently admitted that if he were to meet someone with a life as established as his own — someone extremely committed to her job, who owned a house, and felt rooted in her community — it wouldn’t work, no matter how compatible they were. It would be too hard for them to merge lives, he explained. He preferred someone who fit into his; he just wanted someone “easy to hang out with.”

Though it felt like a million little knives piercing my skin to hear my otherwise-progressive ex admit that no matter how great a woman is, he isn’t willing to compromise to make it work — that in dating, being seen as equal is more of a barrier than an asset — it was also satisfying to hear something I’d always presumed validated so openly.

As my friends and I get older, I’ve noticed the ways in which the women I know are increasingly willing to adjust their lives for relationships that feel worthwhile, while the men I know tend to further cement their logistical criteria with age. I’m not talking about compromising our needs, as many of us (myself included) were wont to do when we were younger. I mean the opposite: women who have figured out what it is we want — in a partner, and in life — and finally have the confidence and agency to prioritize it. The ways I see women adjust vary: re-considering their stance on kids, experimenting with non-monogamy, rejiggering work schedules, moving cities. And it’s not a matter of desperation; the women I know could find a handful of acceptable partners if they wanted to. But for a certain, rare type of connection, we are willing to change things up.

Matt and I were discussing our relationship dynamics because of an experience I was navigating with another guy, who I’d been loosely entangled with for years. Let’s call him David, because I’m into this fake-name thing now and he, like a David, rejects the abbreviated version of his actual name (which, as someone who would basically pay you to call me “Em,” I’ve never understood). From the moment I met David, our conversation was quick and endless, that rare feeling of operating on the same frequency. Even more rare was our just-as-strong physical chemistry. But we lived on opposite sides of the country, and he couldn’t do long distance.

Though I’m nothing if not a romantic, ready to throw caution to the wind for even the smallest shot at love, I’m also a logical human who understands that it’s a reasonable stance to not want a relationship with someone who lives 3,000 miles away. But we continued to stay in touch, anyway, connecting just as easily when we saw each other in person. When, two years later, I decided to spend some time in David’s city — something I could do as often as I like, since I work for myself and was interested in that city anyway — I thought we could give it a shot. But my excitement was met with his hesitance.

We all project our past issues onto any relationship — I’m certainly no exception — but the question becomes how willing we are to work through it.

He refused to admit that his feelings were less than mine, insisting that distance, even if I were there for a while, was still the issue — it felt too pressurized and complicated. I knew he’d had bad experiences with long distance in the past and it couldn’t help but shape how he thought about us. I tried to make it clear that we could go slow, there was no rush. We all project our past issues onto any relationship — I’m certainly no exception—but the question becomes how willing we are to work through it. We were over an hour into one of the many talks we’d had on the topic when he admitted, “I just want to date someone who lives within three miles of me.”

The idea that women seek partners who expand their lives and men seek a partner who fits into theirs is, of course, a generalization. There are plenty of women who prefer a guy who easily fits into their established lives, and men who are drawn to women who challenge them to grow. It also isn’t an either/or; many men, including David, are compelled by women they respect and can learn from. It becomes a question of priorities. And I can’t help but notice, in my friends’ dating experiences and my own, that women are far more likely to stretch their lives for a connection as they get older, while ease becomes increasingly paramount for men.

The obvious rationale is that women are raised to accommodate. From a young age, we’re taught to be experts at pleasing. We grow up with the notion that something about us needs fixing, whether it’s our bodies, hair, or clothes. We are raised to be thirsty for guidance and growth, to seek approval on every front — especially from men. And men are generally made to feel as if they need to be the stabilizing force in a heterosexual relationship, that they should have their life in control and not ask for help. But what I’m talking about is not necessarily about accommodation or control, it’s about who prioritizes connection above all else. And why.

As a matter of necessity in our society, women spend much of their lives seeking the approval of men. Some part of us feels the need to be seen and accepted by a man to feel valid. As someone who works in tech especially, my whole professional life has hinged on this acceptance. But women are so rarely seen in the way we want to be — as full, complex people. Not to say women don’t get attention. We certainly will, if we’re wearing something particularly revealing or have made ourselves up to look nice. But there is so much we’re encouraged to hide — our ambition, our aggression, our pain. Our instinct is to apologize for our accomplishments, for our darkness — we are rarely celebrated for expressing it.

When messy, complicated, ambitious women, women who are hungry for big lives, meet someone who understands their layers, who sees them and hears them and appreciates each complicated detail, logistics are a mere afterthought. We spend our whole lives dealing with the messy logistics of womanhood, dating logistics can be dealt with — easily.

I can’t help but think that men’s tendency towards ease is related to the fact that they don’t need to feel seen by a woman in order to validate their existence. They can simply live their lives, be somewhat happy in that — or at least tortured in the glorified way male depressives and misanthropes so often are. Feeling attractive to a woman is confidence-boosting, for sure, and in a physical sense men do seek women’s approval. Validation from women may make a man feel more useful and masculine, reinforcing an existing role. But in a broader, intellectual sense — in terms of whose opinions are given weight, whose decisions shape our culture — they don’t need women’s approval to operate successfully in our society.

The mutual understanding some women seek can be the very thing that makes some men want to hide.

It makes sense, then, that aside from general attraction and ease, finding a partner who sees and understands all their parts, who they admire on a fundamental level, is not unimportant per se; it has an impact for sure, but less so when it comes to choosing a permanent partner. Their self-acceptance doesn’t hinge on whether there is a woman in their day-to-day who fundamentally gets them. In fact, if they are truly seen by a woman, they may have to confront weaknesses that society rarely requires them to consider. The mutual understanding some women seek can be the very thing that makes some men want to hide.

It’s not that men are unwilling to put effort into partnership. Matt, for example, spent years coaching me through an eating disorder; all of his girlfriends have benefited from the weight of his support. In an effort to be good partners, men are often eager to offer help. But when what’s needed most is self-interrogation, grappling with their own limitations and adjusting their behavior — a necessity for any egalitarian partnership built on understanding — it’s easier to say it’s not a fit.

Women seeking growth and men seeking fit hints at something more fundamental about our inability, as a society, to admire women. Attraction aside, sincere and public admiration for women scarcely exists. Men truly admiring women, in the sense that there are things about women they want to embody themselves — to see women, in a sense, as role models — is still notably rare. And so this element of growth via a partner is often less paramount for men at the onset. Not to say men aren’t drawn to women they respect, surely they are. What I’m talking about is the desire to explicitly learn from someone else’s way of life, to not just like them but want to be them. Inherent in the desire to be like someone else is the willingness to change oneself. It is a lot easier to imagine a young girl with an Obama poster on her wall, for example, than it is to picture a boy with a poster of Elizabeth Warren on his. Men are far less likely to read books by women, consume art by women, to have female heroes. And so it only makes sense that this type of attraction, too — one that hinges on self-interrogation — is less common.

When I think about what I want from a relationship, ease barely crosses my mind.

This is not to say men don’t learn from their partners, they surely do — over time. Studies show that men get more out of long-term partnership than women. Even Matt admits to growing from our relationship. But the growth inherent in the act of sharing a life (and benefiting from a woman’s emotional labor) isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is something more primal and upfront. A preliminary desire to learn from and expand, not the inevitable, unintentional happening of it.

When I think about what I want from a relationship, ease barely crosses my mind. I think about the ability to understand another person deeply and fully. I think about seeing someone and being seen by them in a way that most people are incapable of noticing, because we share such a similar lens — values, humor, a fundamental outlook on life — that cushions every interaction (including disagreements) with a layer of understanding. If I find even the seed of this shared lens, I will go to any length to see where that leads. Which may certainly be nowhere — but, to me, it’s always worth a shot.

Many men claim they would never want a woman to make sacrifices to fit into their lives, yet they continue to prioritize ease in a partner. In some ways, this is the worst combination of all. When men fear women giving up their power — so much so that they won’t enter a relationship with one if it means she might give some of it up — they end up stripping us of it. This often stems from a fear of being held responsible if something doesn’t work out. But in an effort to “protect” women, overly cautious men often fail to distinguish between blind compromise and a woman’s intentional choice, the latter of which implies a willingness to take responsibility for her own decisions. Rejecting women’s effort in this way allows men to signal concern, without ever evaluating the ways in which one’s own priorities contribute to the problem.

Taking all this into account, one could argue that, with age, there’s an increasing number of exceptional, adaptable women (largely because of the gender-related limitations they’ve had to navigate), and so the motivation for men to adapt is less. This is true — but still assumes ease is the priority. There is something deeply disappointing about men benefiting from a woman’s adaptability and self-work, while using it as an excuse to skirt their own. The change and growth intrinsic to a connection of equals is a benefit, not a risk.

I wish these men would be more flexible in their approach to love. They are missing out on the chance to learn and be shaped by extraordinary women. And extraordinary women are robbed of the chance to be seen and appreciated, to affect and be affected in the long-term, beyond those first few moments of ease. Even if it takes a little more work and a lot more compromise, even if it’s scary and little de-stabilizing, I have to think that the simplicity of logistical compatibility doesn’t hold a candle to the world of growth inherent in real admiration and understanding.

Writer and founder of Chorus, the matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends. More at getchorus.co (or emjsmith.com).

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