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Why are we setting our romantic bars so low? 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEXI LAPHOR

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

It’s time to start expecting more from the people we date.

How high do you set the bar for your bedfellows? Do your eyes only widen when the object of your affection is disappointing, ignoring, and infuriating you? For all the times I would falter before ever uttering these ominous six words to a boy, here they are: I think we need to talk. 

I am overwhelmingly fed up with the bars we instal and hang precariously in place to separate ourselves and our romantic pursuers. If the proverbial bar is set too low, anyone can clamber their way over the top. It’s a weak infrastructure.

This is how people bypass the bar (also known as your set of bespoke standards, needs and desires) and do a little shimmy around the side or slink their way under and into your heart. 

When someone we find sexy or stimulating or seriously hazardous approaches our bar, we subconsciously bring it down a few notches to let them in for a moment. When they’ve given things a cursory crack but still can’t quite hobble over, we lower it again. Suddenly, the bar is subterranean and we’re not sure how it got there.

But then when someone good-on-paper comes along and makes you realise how low your bar-setting has been in the past, it can feel startling, confusing and almost uncomfortable. They might not set your fight-or-flight senses alight or throw you into a dizzying tailspin of passion and drama when they show you kindness and entry-level respect. You’ve conditioned yourself to accept the bare minimum.

During lockdown, I’ve played Unofficial Dating HR Manager for a few girlfriends who have bravely weathered the isolation infatuation scene. It’s been fascinating and, more than anything, really underwhelming.

A month or so ago, a holy trinity of three brilliant friends all started pursuing males at the exact same juncture. At the same time, I was failing miserably at my situationship sabbatical and went back to someone who slowly eroded my own bar. 

Let’s imagine these girlfriends’ suitors starting on a track in three lanes, with a bunch of different hurdles set ahead for them, symbolic of each woman’s set of standards. I heard the play-by-play most evenings and post-initial date nights in beach car parks and over takeaway cocktails. But I think I also knew each pairing was doomed from the get go as the anxieties began to creep in around the second or third lap.

One got lazy with replies and gaslight-y, but he worked full-time and stuff. So that’s fine, yeah? (No). One just wanted a fling for freedom from house arrest. He was nice and amiable, so no reason not to give it a crack, right? (No). And one just “didn’t want anything serious right now”. But, what if it’s just some fun? (No). We make excuses so instinctively, without realising we’re doing it. 

During this particular race to ravish my friends, the only running trend I could really see was how obviously insufficient their suitors’ behaviours were. I think the hardest part of bar setting is that it’s all about personal groundwork. When you’re ‘in’ something, it’s near-impossible to remove yourself objectively and assess the flaws and flags that begin to unfurl as your bar gets tested and fiddled with. 

If you have a wide enough network, you can shift gears and allot issues or anecdotes to different friends each day to keep your unhinged ideas about this new person alive. But whether you’re aware of it or not, I think you’ll always know if it’s fatally flawed. This is why our bars need to be firmly secured and fixed in place before we start playing the field. 

When I went back to something that was bad for me this year, I actually did believe it was progressing and growing stronger. Deep down, I thought there was a profound magnetism that neither parties would step away from without a fight.

My bar was unwaveringly low and his shitty behaviours were irrevocably in motion. I thought the routine we’d forged (all on his terms) was romantic. I had seriously convinced myself that once this year ended and we limped towards freedom this summer, things would change. 

I dismissed vulgar, misogynistic throwaway comments, racist remarks, deeply conflicting political views, disrespect and selfishness to the most impossible degree, because there was no big blow-up or reason to end anything.

And I felt like my heart was swollen with these grandiose feelings of infantile love for him. I built some sort of hideaway inside this person who was so intrinsically wrong for me.

My friends could see it, my mother could see it, my subconscious could see it. But I was blindly fiddling with my bar when nobody was looking. The biggest shame of all is, although I’m sitting here sermonising my past-self, I’d probably still let that person weasel their way back in again with minimal effort. 

When someone says they care or they insinuate date nights or suggest nebulous future milestones or constantly leave you feeling just slightly exasperated, they’re blatantly giving you the bare minimum. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s that you can delude yourself to astonishing lengths and convince yourself of anything when you want something badly enough.

The mainstays in our lives (romantic or otherwise) must not just meet but spectacularly exceed our minimum requirements. I started to get jealous and irritable when I heard about normal, nice date nights and romantic situations progressing around me.

I was fiercely defending something I knew made me feel guilty and uncertain and like a weird mini babushka doll version of myself. My standards peeled back layer by layer until I was vulnerable and fragile enough to accept anything. 

The shock came when things ended and I realised how much time I had spent lowering my standards of what I’d accept and what I deserved. Indignant and incredulous, I went on a walking date last week with a stranger. Being brutally honest, it was purely for distraction’s sake. But what happened couldn’t have been better timed or planned if the stars wrote it themselves. 

I was flabbergasted by the fundamental human decency and basic manners demonstrated by this wildcard date in such a short timeframe. Narrow footpaths were met by a “You first” and 10 minutes after departing a “That was really lovely” text flashed up on my phone screen. Then, a follow up vino was instigated and a check-in to see if I’d made it home okay was deployed.

The wildcard even thanked me for making the short pilgrimage to his side of town. I was in shock and so incredibly impressed, yet this is really the minimum we should be accepting anyway. These things are not actually hard or remarkable, they’re just going into extinction. 

Who you pursue and the fun you have with them shouldn’t inflict an anxiety tax. It should be easy and enjoyable. It might not be fireworks and intoxicating mindfuckery and fanfare in the beginning, but I guarantee you as you refix and level up that bar, you will stop accepting noncommittal tendencies and when-it-suits-them attention. 

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all bar setting for everyone to set their standards to, or a rulebook for how to avoid heartbreak. The only sentiment I can part with is this: try as you might, you can’t make a person change. What you can change are the parameters, standards and emotional infrastructures you put in place for yourself, and that way, you can decide who’s really worth letting in.

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