"What I learned when I broke up with my wife and started dating men"

Kate Willett
·6-min read
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

When I woke up to people cheering in the street that morning, my partner, Molly*, was already awake working at her desk on the other side of the room. “Gavin Newsom is marrying same sex couples at City Hall,” she informed me, without turning around. I had imagined this moment would include hugging and crying and kissing with the full gravitas of every moment in queer liberation since the Stonewall Riots - instead, I spent the day wondering whether I wanted to take on Molly’s student loan debt while the relationship was going so poorly.

We’d already had a domestic partnership two years before, so it made sense to get legally married. But how could we combine ourselves further and more permanently when we couldn’t make it through two days without fighting, and we split the cost of pizzas so ungenerously as to charge each other per slice? As the relationship had fallen apart, it had been convenient to say, “I’d love to marry you, but it’s illegal, babe.” I wasn’t a commitment-phobe, I was a law abiding citizen.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

When Molly moved out a few months later, I was utterly heartbroken and 25, so I did what there was to do: get trashed. Without thinking too much about it, I called my roommate’s friend Joe*, a recently divorced guy who lived around the corner and was in the getting trashed phase of his breakup as well. As we drank margaritas at a dive bar, I felt weirdly relaxed by the template for what we were supposed to do together. He was supposed to try to kiss me, I was supposed to turn him down a few times and then eventually give in. He was supposed to be horny, and I was supposed to be too, just without admitting it.

Photo credit: Mindy/Shark Party Media
Photo credit: Mindy/Shark Party Media

These patterns are toxic but they are relaxing, and I found a little comfort in knowing that despite being out of practice, all the cultural messaging was in there somewhere. I could unleash the template at a moment like this, and ride the muscle-memory of hetero-normativity all the way to break up sex. Which we had in the back of his truck in his garage, because going inside his house would mean I wasn’t a lesbian anymore.

Over the next few weeks, the realisation that I wanted to date men upended my world. During college, I had imagined my adult life would involve only hanging out with women, maybe even in a wooded commune, where we’d all make paintings about menstruation and cook chickpeas while we held secret meetings deciding what to do about the Patriarchy (besides not interact with it). Now I was dating men, was I going to have to start shaving my armpits? Did I have to laugh at jokes I did not think were funny? Would I have to hide my intelligence, my fire, and my feminism? To give myself a little distance, I decided to approach it like a research project, making notes as I went.

When, I met Eric*, my first post-Joe crush, I flirted with him by teasing him because that’s what works in rom-coms. It turns out, real human men don’t usually get a boner from being insulted. We made out outside a bar on a foggy night. It was a flood of relief to finally kiss him. Our rom-com had reached a climax. Then he explained to me calmly he couldn’t see us in a relationship. He usually got along with women who were "a little gentler". That stung. I heard in his words that he wanted someone subservient, meek, feminine.

See, this was the thing I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to have to give up my full feminist self to be loved or wanted. That was the cost of dating men, I thought. I couldn’t be me anymore. I had such a great plan to avoid this forever, but what is horniness if not a way to ruin your smartest plans for yourself? At least when I started stand-up comedy, I had a place to put my observations - onstage. At least I got to make people laugh with sicks burns about the people I was twisting myself into a pretzel for.

Photo credit: Shark Party Media/Audible
Photo credit: Shark Party Media/Audible

Eric and I continued to hang around in the same social circle. A few years later he asked me out on a date. “I don’t know if I can date you,” I told him. “I really liked you and you weren’t interested and it’s been so long that I don’t know if I have the same feelings.”

“Sure, that completely makes sense,” he said, “I’m sorry if I didn’t handle the situation well at that time.” “No you were fine,” I said. “What makes it different now though? Why did you change your mind?” I was imagining he was going to lie to me. I was imagining the real reason had something to do with my having lost weight, or being a more successful comedian, or maybe just because he was lonelier now.

“Well,” he said, “I think we’ve both grown as people enough to where I trust you with what I was too afraid to tell you at that time, because I didn’t think you’d react well. It’s sensitive and I need someone to be empathetic about it. I have herpes.”

After spending so long trying to figure out what men liked, it started to dawn on me, that maybe, I didn’t have to twist myself into anything. I just had to be as kind as I wanted other people to be to me. Damn, that was obvious and damn, does all the baggage of socially defined gender roles obscure the basic truth that, at the end of the day, we’re just trying to be friends.

Eric and I never ended up dating, but eventually, I got to put all my research to good use. My years of jokes, writing, and comedic research on men and masculinity, became the Audible Original audiobook Dirtbag Anthropology. In this audiobook, I got to interview people in my life, like my friends, my dad, and a guy I had an internet beef with. I grew so much in the process and with the input of men I love, made something I’m really proud of. And in the spirit of the kindness and empathy I’m now trying to embrace, I should let you know - of course - Eric’s real name is not Eric.

*Names have been changed

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