[Note: I originally wrote this essay as an answer on Quora.]

We swim, every day, in an environment made up of a toxic stew of unhealthy relationship ideas, many gifted to us from an age when women were literal property, seen as unfit for anything besides baby factories for male heirs. Social attitudes toward relationships teach us us so many, many things that are not only counterproductive, but actively destructive. And many of these toxic ideas serve no function except to make us miserable.

Image: Danilo Alvesd

Much as I’d love to list them all, I doubt there’s space here for that. I mean, where to start? How much time you got?

If I were to hit the highlights, they might include:

Mate-guarding behavior. This takes a lot of forms, but it’s always, always rooted in paralyzing insecurity. The headwaters from which mate-guarding flow look like “I am worthless. I am garbage. As soon as my partner wakes up and figures out what a dungheap of a person I am, they’ll leave. The only way I can keep my partner is to keep them away from anyone who might be better than me, because as soon as someone better comes along I’m history.”

So people make up all kinds of incredibly toxic rules, like “you’re not allowed to have opposite-sex friends” or “you’re not allowed to talk to your exes.”

Protip: Controlling another person’s social circle is a defining element of abuse. You might not think of yourself as an abuser when you do this; most abusers don’t. But you are.

Protip: You don’t keep your partner by making sure your lover never has a chance to leave. You keep your partner by building an awesome relationship they don’t want to leave.

Pretending your partner sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Dear God, so many people do this, and it just screams ‘insecurity on parade.’

Demanding your partner delete all photos of an ex. Demanding your partner never mention having exes. Being reduced to tears whenever you’re reminded that your partner had a life before you met.

Or my personal favorite, “retroactive jealousy,” the incredibly poisonous jealousy over relationships that happened before the two of you even knew each other. Retroactive jealousy leads to the completely batshit bonkers idea of “retroactive cheating,” the notion that—and yes, people actually believe this—you “cheated” on your current partner by having sex with a previous partner before you met.

Hoh-lee shit.

Your partner had a past. Your partner didn’t emerge from a pod the day you met. If you can’t handle that, you aren’t ready for adult relationships yet.

Protip: Your partner’s past made them the person you love today. They wouldn’t be here with you if not for the course they took through life to reach this point.

Warsan Shire has an exquisite poem about this:

every mouth you’ve ever kissed
was just practice
all the bodies you’ve ever undressed
and ploughed into
were preparing you for me.
i don’t mind tasting them in the
memory of your mouth
they were a long hallway
a door half open
a single suitcase still on the conveyor belt
was it a long journey?
did it take you long to find me?
you’re here now,
welcome home.

This is what a mature, confident attitude looks like.

Living in paralyzing fear. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen folks right here on Quora say things like “How do I subtly bring up sex? I can’t ask directly for what I want, I just can’t. What if he thinks I’m weird? What if she thinks it’s not normal? Am I normal? Is it normal to want this? Is it normal to want that? Am I normal? Normal normal normal normal normal?”

This paralyzing fear of asking for what you want, which usually springs from a paralyzing fear of not being “normal,” wrecks so many lives.

In fact, I absolutely 100% believe that the quickest way to spot someone who’s just really bad at sex is they say “am I normal?”

There is no such thing as “normal.” No matter how ‘weird’ you think you are, I guarantee there are folks you know who do things betwixt the sheets that are undream’d of in your philosophy.

Are you harming others? Are you forcing yourself on others without their consent? No? Then you’re fine. Stop being scared.

Not choosing compatible partners. People who give relationship advice say some pretty dumb shit. “Don’t talk about sex or politics or religion early in dating. Don’t discuss controversial topics. Keep it safe.”

Bzzzt. Wrong.

The purpose of a date is not to try to get the other person to like you. The purpose of a date is to find out whether or not you’re compatible. Get alllll the stuff that’s important to you out soon. On the first date at the latest, preferably before the first date.

“But what if I scare my date off?”

Wonderful! That’s the idea! That’s the whole point! If your date is scared off by the truth about you, You. Are. Not. Compatible.

So many people, so very many people, end up with someon they’re totally incompatible with, then wake up five or ten or fifteen years later and realize “hey, this person I’m sleeping next to doesn’t really know me, and wow, this relationship isn’t giving me what I need.”

Well, duh. You’re with an incompatible person, what did you expect would happen?

Be who you are from the very first date, without fear or shame. If that scares the other person off, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Trying to make a suitable partner instead of dating a suitable partner from the beginning. This is a toxic brew of “not choosing compatible partners” and “living in paralyzing fear.”

Ever notice how many Quora relationship questions start with “How do I get my partner to”? How do I get my partner to be more assertive. How do I get my partner to have a threesome. How do I get my partner to do oral. How do I get my partner to do anal.

You don’t.



You don’t “get” your partner to do things. You ask. If the answer is no, you accept that no.

So how, then, do you have anal or threesomes or whatever it is you want?

You don’t date someone who doesn’t want those things and then find a way to get them to do those things. You date someone who wants the same things you want.

How do you do that?

You talk openly about what you like in sex, without fear or shame. You talk about sex on your first date, and you don’t date people who are not sexually compatible with you.

Trying to understand men as a group or women as a group instead of recognizing that people are individuals. This one blows my mind, because we all understand this on a basic level. We all know this…

…as long as the topic is anything but sex.

When it comes to sex, it’s like people get, I don’t know, a frontal lobotomy or something. Suddenly everything they know about dealing with human beings goes right out the window.

You never hear people ask “do women like mustard on their ham sandwiches?” We all know that some women do, some women don’t, and in a plot twist that surprises nobody, some women don’t like ham sandwiches at all. In fact, some women don’t eat meat.

You never hear people ask “do men like blue jeans or black jeans?” We all know that some men prefer blue jeans, some men prefer black jeans, and—surprise!—some men don’t wear jeans.

We all know these things. You know them. I know them. Everyone over the age of three knows them.

But when it comes to sex, suddenly it’s like “Do women like facials? Do men like intelligent women? Do women like pegging? Do men like short women? Do women like men who shave down there? Do men like dominant women?”

You already know the answer. Some women do, some women don’t, some women don’t like men at all. Some men do, some men don’t, some men don’t like women at all.

People who say “women are confusing” or “men are impossible” or “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” are basically socially illiterate. They say these things because they try to understand men as a group or women as a group. And then whatever they think they’ve figured out, they find an exception, so they throw up their hands and say “it’s so confusing!”

Like a man who says “well, I’ve talked to a couple of women, and women don’t like facials.” Then they go on a date with a woman who’s like “I love facials.” And the man thinks that either she’s lying for some inscrutable reason or all those other women were lying to him, so he throws up his hands and says “No man can ever understand women! Women are so complicated and mysterious!”

Nah bruh, you don’t get it because you’re expecting every woman to be the same, like a bunch of androids running the same firmware, and your world gets shook when you try to process women as, you know, people.

Don’t worry about what “men like” or what “women like.” If you’re asking that question, you’re probably not ready to be dating yet. Only worry about what the specific individual person you are with likes.

You already know this. You just have to remember that the same thing that applies to food…also applies to sex. It’s not hard.

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