So, the other night I went out on my first-ever official date with a woman.

It was lovely.

It was lovely.

And it was different. In a very nice and refreshing way. It was much more relaxed and groovy than many of the dates I’d been on with men – no nervous back-of-the-mind commentary on a constant loop of “Oh my god what if he kisses me? What if he doesn’t? Am I pretty enough? Am I being too loud? Am I eating too much? Am I not eating enough? What does he expect tonight? Is he going to ask for sex right away? Will he stop seeing me if I say no?”

Get this: we talked. Like friends do. We got to know each other. Shared stories. Laughed, a lot.

It was awesome.

And because there were no scripts to follow, there was no fear of overstepping one’s imaginary bounds – of somehow ruining the evening by not living up to expectations. I didn’t have to worry about fitting myself into a role within the date: it was all about What Do We Want To Do Next? Where Do We Want To Go? OMG Did I Tell you About That One Time When I XYZ? It was like a night out on the town with a new best friend. Only difference being, I got to hold her hand now and then; and occasionally my brain would interrupt the conversation with a quiet Hey, Wouldn’t It Be Fun To Kiss That Girl? (Shut up, brain, I’m trying to listen. Take your fantasies and go play in the other room.)

How is it that I’m only learning what a good date is supposed to look like three years after getting married? Who is supposed to be teaching this stuff? Because seriously – someone is dropping the ball here. How much heartache would I have saved if I’d really figured out how to get to know a dude as a friend before jumping into boyfriend-girlfriend mode? Or even after that? Hell, I’ve moved in with at least one guy before figuring out whether or not we were actually friends. (He was manipulative and controlling, so short answer: no, we weren’t.) I’d had the “first comes love, then comes marriage” narrative drilled into my head so hard, I never really stopped to think rationally about how to approach relationships. I was just looking for someone, anyone, to love me. And with the cultural ruts worn so deeply into our gender identities, it’s really easy to trip and fall into a relationship almost by accident.

She and I get to create our very own, special kind of relationship from scratch. It’s sort of terrifying. After all, that means I am actually responsible for thinking through my actions and reactions; no knee-jerk gender roles to fall back on. For the first time, when I’m out with her, I am realizing what it means to be at least partly responsible for someone’s safety and well-being. Since there’s no social script for us, it means I have to do things like say, “Hey, I’d really like to kiss you goodnight, but I think it would be better if we waited. Is that cool with you?” and hope she doesn’t think I’m a total dork for asking. It means being conscious of my emotional baggage, and remembering that it’s mine to manage, not hers. It means asking ourselves questions like: Who takes the lead? Who makes the first move? What responsibilities do we have to each other? To the others in our lives? To ourselves?

But it’s freeing, too – for the first time ever, I don’t have this weight of expectation pressing down on me. I can trust she’s not just there to get laid. I can trust that she actually likes me for who I am. That I’m not just a pretty face, or another notch on the bedpost, or a trophy or an arm decoration. The fear is gone, in a way it never has been in the early stages of any of my other relationships. I’m allowed to just be myself – she likes me that way. And I get to delight in this kindred spirit I’ve found, to discover her and learn about her. We’ll get around to the physical stuff, I’m sure. There’s undeniably an attraction there – my heart gets all fizzy when I think of her and my brain has been sent on time-out for inappropriate interruptions on more than one occasion. But the impetus for sex-right-now-to-seal-the-deal just isn’t there. There’s no “This is what we’re supposed to do next, this is what we have to do next.” There’s no pressure.

We’re enjoying the experimentation, the newness of it. We’re reveling in the Choose Your Own Adventure style of romance. (If you kiss the girl, turn to page 4. If you announce your intention to kiss her at a later date, then run away in a whirl of giddy anticipation, turn to page 13.)

Taking it slow is awesome. Why have I never done it this way before?

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