(Part one in a summer series of basically the most important life skills I learned or started to learn while in college. It’ll go on as long as…well, as long as I can think of important things I learned while in college.)
Easily the most annoying interactions I had at college were talking to or overhearing girls who described the attractiveness of guys around them, and the comparative unworthiness of the girls those guys were currently dating. (Which was occasionally followed by complaints that guys objectify girls. And as much as I love irony, when it’s mixed with equal parts hypocrisy and cluelessness, it’s a little much.)
If you ever find yourself about to start in on one of those conversations, let me say one thing really loudly and with all of the emphasis I can possibly muster:
HE’S NOT YOURS.
Right now, I kind of want to launch into a rant about how, if you can’t stop yourself from daydreaming about someone in a relationship, you plan on stopping yourself later when that person is married. And how, contrary to popular (read: Hollywood) belief, you actually are in control of your own emotions.
But then I realized that’s not even the point (and that I could say it a lot shorter just by summarizing it in one paragraph). Because even if you are dating someone, he or she is not yours.
Let me explain.
Brief Grammar Digression That Actually Has a Point, I Promise!
The English language’s possessives are extremely super very vague. You could use the word “my” to mean ownership, like “That’s my shoe. Give it back.” It can also signal a relational attachment, like, “That’s my little sister. Don’t you mess with her.” (Possessives can do other things too, but we’re getting confusing enough anyway. So let’s just stick with these.)
The problem comes when we blur the line between possessives that mean relationship and possessives that mean ownership. You might be “my friend,” but not in the same sense that this is “my computer.” I don’t have a right to be angry if you aren’t always with me. I can’t make decisions for you. I shouldn’t feel like you need to follow all of my personal preferences. I can’t put you in my backpack and take you out only when I need you.
Of course, the analogy breaks down in a few places. (What, you thought it just broke down with the sentence in the last paragraph? Silly reader.) For example, I can still be angry if someone punches you, to an even greater degree than I would be if someone punched my computer, but because I care about you, not because I own you and need to assess damages.
You are a person, not personal property.
Terms like “my boyfriend” and “my girlfriend” are fine as long as you’re talking about someone that you have a close relationship with and want to associate yourself with. I talk about “my family,” “my small group leader,” even “my jr. highers,” who, even though they are not actually related to me in any way, are important to me because I’m invested in their lives. That kind of “mine” means you care about the person involved.
The problem comes when “my boyfriend” and “my girlfriend” become titles of ownership, like labels stuck on airline luggage. “This person belongs to me. Stay away.” Or, “Yeah, this person is mine. Aren’t I cool?” That kind of “mine” shifts the emphasis back to yourself instantly.
So, really, this is all I want to say.
She is a person. She doesn’t need to ask you for permission to cut her hair, or be constantly afraid that even though you said it was okay, she did something to lose your approval.
He is a person. He doesn’t have to be with you every Friday night, especially when his friends have been wondering where he disappeared to ever since he started dating you.
Let’s expand this just a little bit, okay?
He is a person, not just a cute tennis player with an impossibly perfect smile. She is a person, not just a waitress who knew exactly what she was doing by wearing a skirt that short.
Please treat them like people. Please talk about them like people.
And let’s be realistic here: it’s easy to treat people as objects in other ways than romantic interests. A lot of times, I don’t pay any attention to “minor characters” in my life (notice if the store clerk is having a bad day, take time to actually ask an acquaintance how she’s doing and listen, etc.). When I forget to do that, I’m basically just ranking everyone’s value by how much they contribute to my life at that particular moment. Which is the same problem, just more generalized.
So, even if you’ve gotten over the boy- or girl-crazy phase of your life that began in middle school, there are other ways to apply the you-do-not-own-that-person mentality. The Golden Rule is about treating others as you want to be treated. And one of the most important things I learned in college is that “others” applies to everyone, not just the people I want to treat well.
I guess, weirdly, that means that what I learned in college was how not to fall in love with everyone, and, instead, how to love everyone. The difference is in the possessives.