Today, I am pondering the surreal quality of discovering that you have been engaged in a “parallel relationship.” A parallel relationship, for those of you fortunate enough to not have encountered this particular brand of pain, is when the two people in a relationship are having completely different relationships. The easiest example of this is the girl who thinks her boyfriend is totally committed and in love, while he’s telling his homeboys that she’s nice enough and the sex is okay. These two people are not having the same relationship experience. They might both be enjoying the relationship in their own ways, but they are definitely not on the same page. That example might be the clearest, but I actually don’t think it’s the most common. At least not at my age.
I think the most common version of the parallel relationship at my age has to do with the person who is simply looking for someone to pass the time with. In the post-divorce, middle-aged world, companionship and sex are valuable commodities. The once-married are used to having those things, and miss them when they’re gone. So they seek out someone to fill the role, usually temporarily, to meet those limited and specific needs. It’s kind of like a friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation. You spend quite a bit of time together, have sex, maybe even meet each other’s friends, but there is no expectation or desire of it going any deeper. It’s a great system, when you’re on the same page. When you’re not, frequently a parallel relationship will emerge: one party is going along, happily thinking that this FWB thing is great and lots of fun; the other party is also going along happily, feeling good about things but unaware that the relationship isn’t really a relationship at all. It’s more of a friendship. With sex. It has a short shelf-life and absolutely no future. Minimal investment will be made in the relationship — usually just enough to keep it alive. Certainly not enough to take it anywhere further.
The dangerous thing about the parallel relationship is that you may not even know you’re in one. When you first start dating, things are always casual. You gradually spend more time together, learn more about each other, have more fun. You might start to rely on each other a little bit more, maybe get more comfortable with each other, talk every day, spend time hanging out without having sex. But here’s the catch: you still aren’t in a relationship. This could just as easily be a long-term FWB situation. And you might not know it until some little action or word clearly spells it out for you.
Which is what happened to me today.
I have been, against what should have been my better judgment, allowing myself to get close to a man who will never truly care about me. It’s probably not his fault, to be fair. We can’t control our feelings. Whatever “that thing” is, he just doesn’t feel it for me, and if I’m being honest, I’ve known it all along. He has never exactly lied to me. He has never “led me on.” But I liked him and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some real potential there. I thought this despite ample evidence to the contrary. I refused to see the obvious and instead applied my own standards for behavior and engaging to him. I was thinking that we were seriously interested in each other and exploring what might (or might not) exist between us, but I think now that he was simply having fun with me, enjoying his time with me, all the while knowing that it would never really be anything. We were having parallel relationships.
So now I am in that awful place of having to sort through the reality of what is, versus the dashed hopes of what might have been. The reality feels heavy and empty and cheap. The dashed hopes feel like sharp shards of glass that slice me each time I touch them. But touch them I will. I will pick up each and every piece and place them in the prettily-wrapped box in which they came. Then I will take out my metaphorical Sharpie and mark the box, in clear, firm letters, “Nothing.”
And then I will carefully, deliberately make my own way once again, a little less sure of myself, a little less trusting, and a little less open.