There’s nothing I like more than observing the people around me in the early few days of love. A friend I once used to be closer to than I am now—we’ve gone from getting coffee twice a week to occasionally seeing each other at industry parties—recently started dating someone new, and I’ve been obsessively cyberstalking their blooming courtship.
My favourite glimpses of their relationship are the private Instagram stories my friend posts, haphazardly documenting sticky-sweet moments of mutual adoration. In one of them, the new boyfriend is seen labelling my friend’s water bottle with his own name. It’s a simple gesture. Blink and you’ll miss its underlying message—this water bottle is now mine, and with it, so is its owner.
In his last relationship, this same friend of mine was devastatingly breadcrumbed. If you don’t know what that means, ‘breadcrumbing’ is one of the many startlingly quaint terms that have made it into our modern dating vernacular and somehow lead up to the same general meaning: whomever you’re trying to date is just not that into you.
‘Breadcrumbing’, in particular, refers to the unsavoury practice of stringing someone along by dropping just the right number of flirtatious texts to keep them on the hook, but never quite giving them the attention or respect you would want to be shown yourself. In short, it’s bad behaviour. Giving it a quirky little name which conjures an image of feeding birds in a park doesn’t change that, but it may help someone on the receiving end of the act rationalise it.
Is that a good thing? The process of even informally naming something gives it a sense of cultural inevitability. Should we let ourselves be breadcrumbed by the people that we are interested in, since it seems like a ubiquitous part of the modern dating process? The answer seems to be a lot clearer if I rephrase the question: do you want to date someone who treats you like a second option? Is it ok to lead people on, on a whim?
Another friend of mine recently mentioned that she wasn’t looking for exclusivity but she did want to date someone who was emotionally available. She hadn’t gotten that from any of the men she had been on dates with over the last year, and understandably, was disappointed. What she was asking for seemed fairly reasonable, especially when laid out in therapy speak. ‘Emotional availability’, after all, does sound like something anyone should be able to offer, no matter how non-committal the relationship.
‘Emotional availability’ may now have become a layman term, but it originated in psychological research. In its native usage, it is seen as a measure of the ability of two human beings to share an emotional relationship. This could pertain to a romantic relationship, of course, but also friendships, parent-child relationships, and more.
What strikes me as most interesting about this definition is that the idea of emotional availability is not solely tied to any one party. There seems to be an understanding that in any relationship, emotional availability is a shared experience. Being emotionally available for your partner means that not only are you receptive to emotional connection, you are receptive to it with them specifically.
What we so often chalk up to character, personality or a rebellious phase of life is much more about us than we would like it to be. That boyfriend who didn’t seem to want to connect with you on an intimate level was, unfortunately, more than likely capable of it with someone else. In strictly non-therapeutic terms, he just wasn’t that into you.
My advice to my friend searching for emotional availability was one I was nervous to share, but out of the love and respect I have for her, I laid it out plainly. When you start a relationship on the terms of non-exclusivity, what you are explicitly telling the other person is that you do not find them worthy of your whole attention, even for a month, a week or a single day. You may enjoy the time you spend with them on a superficial level, but you have no intention of investing time in deepening the bond and seeing where it goes. In fact, you are already looking for other options. To then expect the other person to be freely emotionally vulnerable with you would be, frankly, unrealistic.
Look, I get it. How intense would it be to tell someone that you’re really into them and not interested in simultaneously pursuing other options? To safeguard our own hearts, we hedge our bets on multiple partners and couch this all under terms like ‘non-exclusivity’—which, while socially-acceptable, are so often antithetical for what we really want in our love lives.
Just to be clear, this is not a rallying war cry in favour of monogamy, and neither is it a dismissal of polyamory. In fact, it has nothing to do with either of the two concepts. No matter in which form, human connection is at its core an intense, emotional and deeply-revealing experience. In the realm of romance where our deepest insecurities tend to reside, all of these feelings heighten to a crescendo. Instead of tucking ourselves under the safe blanket of therapy-speak to rationalise counterproductive behaviour, let’s do one better for ourselves and the people we date—and call a spade a spade.