*post migrated from medium*

Last year I decided to jump into the online dating pool. I can’t swim very well in real life so I don’t know why I thought this would be any different. The pool secretly was an ocean but despite that I did okay. I managed to dodge sparkly nets made of weak material and strange hands that were plunging haphazardly into water to see what could be caught and ate and after a while, I came across a net made out of well-crafted words and fun and thought, why not? I swam into it.

In open air he seemed to be everything that I thought I wanted. Self-aware, compassionate, a Christian, creative, but also very practical — there were a lot of green flags on deck but there were also a couple of red ones. I asked him about them and within context they turned yellow. We got close, emotionally. We talked about music, about what our life visions were, what our generational patterns were, the black experience, our dreams, theories, favourite foods, how we might add to each other’s lives and then all of a sudden, speaking everyday went to not speaking at all and I found myself back in the water without understanding how I got there.

Once in the water, I realised I was wounded. I didn’t know how that had happened either. On inspection, I saw that the shape of the wound spelt out ‘investment’ and ‘expectations’ and I realised that as much as I had tried to avoid it, my expectations had gotten the best of me and I realised that I hadn’t been engaging in this new relationship as mindfully as I thought I had been. I had shared things with him that I didn’t usually share with people. He had shared things with me too, and unknowing to myself, I thought that this all indicated a sense of commitment. I began making space for him in my life, expecting that in some capacity, he would be around for a long time, either as a platonic friend or romantic partner, just because of how much we connected. It hurt then, when he was not around at all.

I took myself out of the dating ocean for a while to process all of this and at some point, found myself reclining near the water reading an article about concept of the ‘fluffer’. The ‘fluffer’ is essentially the girl that invests a lot into a man while getting minimal investment in return, only for the man to leave and end up investing in another woman. The ‘fluffer’ is the woman who makes the man better for the next woman. She’s the in-between woman. The woman who gives all but is never enough. Naturally, I thought about myself, whether I was the fluffer in that relationship — was I?

I invested a lot emotionally, I encouraged him, I listened to him — I am a natural listener and encourager, but I felt that I gave a lot of myself in a way that I hadn’t before and I was hurt that I had invested and shown myself only for him to essentially disappear. The hard lesson however, was that just because I gave myself does not mean that he had to give himself in return, and just because he helped me in some ways, doesn’t mean that he would stay around (which was another expectation I didn’t realise I had).

He didn’t ask me to share myself in the ways I did, I just did, in those times I was encouraging him, was it because I wanted him to be his best self or because I personally wanted to reap the benefits of his best self? We all deserve reciprocity, but the best relationships I have are the ones where I know myself and the other person have given the best of what we are able to give freely. Not by force. Not out of debt. Not because we’re just trying to please the other.

I later found out that he couldn’t invest fully because of where he was emotionally — and that’s important too, because it’s important to recognise how other people’s emotional challenges affect their relationships with you, but regardless, I am not entitled to anyone’s investment, and neither is anyone entitled to mine. I can’t blame somebody for taking what I have given without giving it back, when I chose to give in the first place. Nobody else can waste my time. Only I can do that. It’s my time.

This is not to absolve him of any responsibility however, I wholeheartedly believe that he should have communicated better, should have been more accountable, that a greater level of integrity was needed on his part, which he also recognised. But there is also room for me to take responsibility.

Now in new relationships I am asking myself ‘if this person never spoke to me again, would I be okay with how much I am giving right now?’ and it has been helping me maintain boundaries and a sense of agency. If someone invites me to watch a movie for example, I now ask myself ‘Do I genuinely want to do this or do I feel like I have to?’, ‘If this person never speaks to me again, would I be okay with how I’ve spent this time? ‘Am I willing to do this for free?’ If I can answer yes, I will do it. If the answer is no, then I won’t — or, I will try to communicate my expectation and go from there.

It doesn’t mean that if I developed a relationship with someone and they again decided connecting with me wasn’t for them or that they couldn’t give what I needed, that I wouldn’t grieve the loss of them. I would, but I would at least grieve without feeling like I’ve betrayed myself or feeling like they have betrayed me. People are struggling with so many different things right now and genuinely might be not be able to give me the same energy I give them and vice versa. I am the one who decides if I’m okay with that and my new friendships and dating connections feel much freer because of it. I’m navigating new waters these days with peace.

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