The Myth of 20-Something Naivety

My “dating” life began just this year, only a few months after I turned 22. And I’m still not convinced that everyone’s doing it.

The whole thing is really quite tedious, if you ask me. Getting to know someone (if shallow questions about their favorite movies count), hoping for or against another date, and then wondering where you stand after that is really just an exercise in commitment. I’ve found it to be sort of a multi-step interview process, and I’d really just like to skip to the part where you can kick back and get comfortable. I want the dating equivalent of wearing sweatshirts and shift dresses to work because everyone knows you get it done.

Anyway, in my dating series, in which I’ve convinced myself that each session is an episode in itself, I’ve learned that, like a multi-step interview, I prefer partners with more experience. To simplify, I mean older men. My dates have gotten older and older this year and I’ve stayed the same. But I didn’t feel that I met my match until the man across the table from me was *dramatic* pause: 30. It worked out.

About a month in, we woke up on a hot morning, and he proclaimed, “This probably won’t work. You’re too young. You’ll change.” I challenged him, but couldn’t disagree. “I will change. But you will, too.” My 70-year-old grandmother might change if she wills it. He shrugged. The matter was dismissed, or it seemed that way, anyway.

Another month in, I began shrinking into myself, thinking of how I could be better. The, I sought to minimize the very things that seemed important or heart-wrenching only months earlier. I was becoming a sort of papier-mâché version of myself. But in the shower listening to Roddy Doyle read Lorrie Moore’s “Community Life” on the New Yorker podcast, the feelings made sense. They were lucid in a scary way because it wasn’t my story. In the couple of weeks since Mr. Perfect had brought a very human, thus undebatable, truth to my attention, I had grown more comfortable and lonelier, simultaneously. It started to feel like he’d do everything to invalidate my responses to what I’d detected in his behavior, or anything, as plain wrong, no matter the age. But we’d gotten here together.

I’d heard everything from calm down, to relax, and there was far too much commentary on how emotional or irrational I was. I’d never been told that or known that to be true, but feigned stoicism anyway, starting a gradual decline and self-reevaluation that gnawed at my esteem unlike anything since baby fat. He played the victim and it seemed like I was always angry for no reason.

But it wasn’t the same for me. When he panicked, I made sure it was quelled, comforting him even if I didn’t think it was worth the worry. But he chalked all of my frustrations up to my 22-ness and a “lack of experience.” I followed his guidance after he’d mentioned erring (permanently in some ways) in his 20’s. But they were his 20s, not mine. And for all the flaws in the 10-year “phase,” it was worth so little. It seemed that he was no better for it. In some ways I was more mature than he was. I tried not to argue the ‘women are smarter than men’ point. This was a matter of standing my ground and I brought it to his attention.

Unconsciously, I’d permitted him to tell me that certain things were inconsequential because of my understanding of his superficial age and maturity. I allowed myself to believe that my 20s were my fuck-up years and denied my own ability to be consistent, which I know I am if nothing else. It was a shitshow. I couldn’t guarantee that I’d like him for the next week so I didn’t dispute that I would change. And I still can’t promise that, but it’s not age, really, is it? It’s a combination of willingness, readiness, and circumstances, the same for anyone at any age.

I’m not at all leaning toward toxicity as a label here. I think it’s been trending lately to label everything as such. This wasn’t that. Tons of people invalidate the feelings of their loved ones. Great mothers and fathers do it to their children all the time, and we believe in their wisdom, even though we know that self-determinism is only partly propelled by that special, parental push. Hell, I think i know more about my brother’s life than he does. Of course we should all learn to identify manipulation in situations like this but it can’t stem from a secret pact to inflict pain that few of us are in on.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about what is characteristic of the 20s: it’s malleability. We’re learning behaviors and unlearning them all the same. Right now, we’re beginning to lock it in. And it seems that no lover, friend, foe, or family member can really give instructions here. Nonetheless, we have as much a right as the 30-and-ups to decide what we care for and what we don’t, to decide what’s sad and what isn’t. That’s subjectivity, baby. Besides, isn’t kind of ridiculous for an entire 10 years of your life to be solely experimental?