OH MY GOD, YOU’RE RAD: Relationship Advice From Michelle Tea
Michelle is smaller than I thought she would be—she seems so big on the pages of her feisty fiction, like Rent Girl and The Chelsea Whistle. We meet up for the first time in her natural habitat: a warm, dimly-lit coffeeshop where she’s about to take over the small stage to read from her book, Valencia. Michelle’s prose draws from her experiences growing up queer in Boston in the ‘80s and hanging out with a love-hate crowd of punks, poets, and troublemakers in San Francisco. Later, when we talk on the phone about her own relationships, she recommends knowing your limits, making out with cute people, and learning life skills from ex-alcoholics.
DON’T OVERTHINK THINGS.
You just know what you want, don’t you? It’s just about deciding to do something and doing it, not overthinking it.
I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in relationships that didn’t feel good. I over-intellectualized them and came up with all sorts of reasons why I needed to stick with it: either that I was crazy or that it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel good. Now I would never do that. If it doesn’t feel good, I get out of it.
I really know if I like somebody or not. Paying attention to how I feel is important because I can rationalize all kinds of things, but at the end of the day, it’s a quality of life issue. Am I happier because of this person? Am I more stressed out because of this person?
At some point, I just thought, “Oh, relationships just make me anxious and people just stress me out and I’ll always feel that in a relationship.” I feel like I know now if I’m hanging out with someone who brings me a lot of happiness versus if I’m hanging out with someone who brings me a lot of strife.
I recently decided to get pregnant. Having kids is something I’ve always felt really ambivalent about, so I needed to come to a resting place about how I felt about it. I thought, “If I had a partner, it’s definitely something I would do.” You can overthink having a kid more than you can overthink most things. There are lots of reasons to not have a kid, you can think a lot about those. But there are lots of great reasons to have kids, and I knew it was an experience I wanted to have. You just decide you’re going to do it and you do it.
Getting pregnant is kind of a big scary thing to do by yourself, both financially and spiritually. But holding out and waiting for someone to have a baby with, when you’re 40, you just actually don’t have the time for that. So I didn’t discuss it with anyone, I wanted to make the decision on my own. The only person I talked about it with was my sister a little bit, since she has a daughter who’s three years old. She was really supportive, which was really encouraging because she knows me better than anyone.
SOME PEOPLE ARE GREAT FOR MAKE OUTS, THAT’S ALL.
Basically, it’s just about what you want. What I was ultimately looking for when I started dating was sort of true love. I had this sort of ideal that I wanted, but I have this chronic openness to people. I like people, I’m curious about people, I find people adorable. So I was having to sort through all the people I was meeting—not everyone is marriage material. I had to come up with these sort of categories for people. There are people who are good for sleeping with, there are people who are good to casually date, and there are people who are good to have relationships with. And those are totally different people and it’s important not to confuse those people.
What are these people’s lives like? Are they in a crisis mode? How old are they?
As someone who ultimately wants a stable relationship that’s monogamous with someone I can build a world with, it’s important to know that people I date long term have to be somewhat stable in themselves. For that kind of relationship, age is important; they have to live in the same town as me.
Casual dating, the person doesn’t have to live in the same town as me, our ages can be a bit different, they don’t have to be totally pulled together.
Someone I sleep with, they basically just have to be hot.
It’s good for me to go into these interactions when I’m getting to know someone. Like, “Oh, this person’s cute. There’s something about them that seems super young. They don’t live in the same town as me. So maybe we should just have a little affair and that will be that.” Or, like, “This person seems really interesting, they kinda have their shit together, I’m going to date them and then see if they have the kind of character I’m looking for to build something more lasting. “
As it’s happens, things organically take their own shape. They either work or they don’t. I was dating someone who I was dating and then it got to the point where it was clear that it wasn’t going to go deeper, so I ended the relationship because it would have been unhealthy to stay in it. I had a thing that was just a fun sex thing but then I started seeing someone I really cared about, so I ended that.
Sometimes you just wind up falling for someone, but I have to ask myself, is this a safe person for me to fall for? If warning signs pop up, I’m going to end it. Because I’m not interested in casually dating for 40 years.
HAVE DEALBREAKERS—AND STICK TO THEM.
Not everything can be accommodated, nor should it need to be. My relationship history is as someone who’s accommodated a lot of bullshit and it’s taken me a long time to figure out that it’s really okay to have boundaries and get out of relationships that don’t feel good.
Dealbreakers for me are things like untreated depression or an active alcohol or drug addiction. It’s fine if people have depression or addictions and are actually dealing with it, but otherwise I have found that those people don’t make good partners. Other dealbreakers: Any time I feel bad around someone, it’s a deal breaker. If someone has a mean streak, it’s a dealbreaker. If I have a boundary and they cross it, that’s a deal breaker. If someone doesn’t support my sobriety, that’s a dealbreaker. A dealbreaker should be a big deal.
I had this dumb thing with this person I was dating this year where I had a boundary. I felt really proud of myself, I had a boundary where I said, “I don’t want you to talk to me about your ex-girlfriend and how much of a jerk she was.” That seems like an okay thing to ask of someone you’re dating, but she just thought that was unreasonable, that she should be able to talk about her ex-girlfriend all of the time. So I let my boundary lapse. That’s my pattern in relationships: To have a boundary, have it challenged, go “Okay, fine,” then having a meltdown. And so I could see this coming: My boundary was challenged, I was going to have a meltdown and I thought, “This is stupid. I should just break up with them instead.” So I did. And I was at peace.
DON’T DATE PEOPLE WHO BRING YOU DOWN.
I’m attracted to people with emotional depth and for a long time, I mistook depression for emotional depth. But now I can recognize that and I’m actually repelled, though not in a judgmental way.
What feels healthy is someone who’s dealt with their own shit. Whatever that is. Whatever crappy childhood or traumatic 20s in their background that’s made it hard for them, they’ve figured it out. They’re a person who really likes life, not someone who’s looking for another person to make them happy. And I’m looking for someone who’s into me. Who’s not threatened or critical, but is just like, “Oh my god, you’re rad!” Someone who is open to being loved. A lot of people can’t handle it, they can’t handle vulnerability—they find it terrifying.
What feels healthy to me is someone who knows how to communicate, who doesn’t get triggered or defensive. If I’m with someone who gets defensive, I’ll respond in-kind and get really defensive. I’ve been in a lot of relationships where my focus has been, “Okay, don’t get triggered just because they’re triggered.” When my focus maybe should have been, “Don’t date someone who gets fuckin’ triggered all the time!”
You can’t go into dating someone all suspicious, all negative, but at the same time, understand that people are on their best behavior and you don’t wholly understand who someone is if you’ve only known them for a little bit. If you’re a fast mover, like I am, that’s important because I tend to get to know people suddenly and powerfully. And that’s nice, but you can’t make plans based on that.
FIGURE OUT YOUR BAD PATTERNS.
It’s really easy to look back at your old relationships and say, “That person sucked.” But it’s really important to ask, “What was my part in it?” Maybe your part was just that you stayed in it. But that’s important to know—I have the tendency to stay in shitty relationships. So how do I know a relationship is shitty? Because I feel anxious, I feel bad.
Most people grew up in crazy homes and as a result don’t know how to be in a healthy relationship. And I’ve found ALANON is totally amazing, it’s been my number one helper for figuring out how to make the relationship that I want. It helps you figure out what your needs are. It’s taught me how to stand up for my needs, how to have boundaries, how to walk away from things that don’t work. It’s a lot of people just trying to figure out how to deal with people problems.
I’ve done a lot of making lists about what I’m looking for, writing about what went wrong in a relationship and what I did. That’s really important.
What are my patterns? What sort of negative things do I bring into a relationship? What sort of things do I do to sabotage my own happiness? What’s common about the people I date? It’s about really looking at yourself honestly. If I’m dating and not looking at my tendencies, I’m going to keep bringing in people who keep repeating those patterns. But when you’re able to see your own behavior more clearly, you just don’t have the stomach for it.
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