(If you're reading this, I promise this post is not about you. Well it is, but only in the sense that you are part of my life, and your existence is filtered through my experience and distilled into this post.)
Relationships are not a performance. That's probably obvious to you. It's not obvious to me. I can't blame TV and books for this one, because I think there's plenty of media that could have taught me this lesson, I just didn't watch or read any of it. In the stuff I watched, relationships were about rapport. They were about that one friend in your group of friends that you could yes-and forever and by the grace of your synchronicity get the whole group laughing. I got used to thinking of relationships in terms of how they would play out on screen. What would it look like to the viewer if that cute girl who laughs at my jokes agreed to middle-school-date me?
I remember in college grabbing lunch with my roommate's friend and her boyfriend. And they did bits. "How long have you been together?" "Four months," "three months." "See, she starts counting from our first kiss. But I start counting from-" and then she jokingly got mad at him. They were fully committed to their sitcom couple schtick. But even to inexperienced little me it seemed weirdly rehearsed. It wasn't fake, exactly, it was just a weird on-the-nose cliche. Like they acted that way in public because they knew it would play well, and they sort of thought that's what couples were supposed to be like.
But I shouldn't have to care how my relationship with someone will play on screen, I should be able to just say, "I like spending time with you. You wanna make out some more even though it's gross?" I don't want to have to think about what's sensible. I don't care what it looks like. I want to be defiant. Because the truth is that real relationships are more about what happens offscreen, in strangely intimate private walks in hallways and when waiting for food to arrive.
I am guilty of picturing my life from the third person. Wondering what will be written in my Wikipedia article. What things that I'm doing will matter and what won't even get a footnote? What names from my life will link to other Wikipedia pages? How will critics divide up the periods of my life? And I am guilty of prioritizing those onscreen moments over the offscreen ones. Guilty of posing for photos. It's true. I get distracted when there's a new person in the group for me to impress. I get in my head about when they're going to find out that I'm funny, and how they're going to find out that I'm a musician. I even get in my head about how to not make it seem like I'm trying to show off that I'm a funny musician. And I am guilty of worrying about how my relationships portray me. I'm guilty of developing crushes on people because we perform well together. I'm guilty of not dating people who make me happy because I don't think they're impressive enough to show off.
Showmanship mandates that you do certain things on stage. You meet your performing partner's jokes halfway. You look at them like you're the proudest you've ever been. You talk about them like their your best friend. But that doesn't mean you have a good relationship with them. It just means you have showmanship. And though this has never stopped me, seeing who you have onscreen chemistry with might not be the best way to decide who you want to date in real life. Your relationship is supposed to be yours. You're not supposed to have to worry about how other people are going to see it. So she's tall and you're short. So he's younger and you're older. So what? You're not the royal goddamn family, and your relationship doesn't belong to the people.