What It’s Really Like to Be a Secret Girlfriend—and Why I’ll Never, Ever Be One Again
Lindy West's new comedy series starring Aidy Bryant recently premiered on Hulu, and though it’s called Shrill, it very easily could have gone by Holy Eff, This is Pretty Much My Entire Life Playing Out Onscreen. The series—based on feminist writer West’s best-selling memoir of the same name—chronicles the ups and downs of Annie (played by Bryant), a Portland-based writer who is going through it. Among many other things, she has to deal with a difficult boss, body-image issues, and judgmental parents. And while I lost count of everything I could relate to within, like, the first 10 minutes of the pilot, one plot line in particular hit me like a truck.
When we meet Annie, she is immersed in a, uh, “relationship” (if you wanna call it that) with a man-child named Ryan, played by Luka Jones. Ryan lives like a slob, works on a corny podcast with two other equally childish schlubs, and throws parties that a college freshman might find cool—and yet Annie, despite being objectively better than him in every conceivable way, is stuck in hookup hell.
Annie wears all the hats a dream girlfriend might (offers emotional support, rocks his world in the bedroom, seems genuinely happy to be with him whenever), but Ryan wants to keep their rendezvous as casual and quiet as possible. In fact, after being intimate, Ryan makes Annie sneak out the back door, just so he can avoid introducing her to his roommates. It's certainly not wrong to have a reaction along the lines of, “WTF, girl? You should dump his ass right on the spot, and then march out the front door.” But for me, sadly, the scene brought about a reaction of cheek-reddening embarrassment and familiarity.
For the bulk of my twenties, I was involved with an emotionally and mentally unkind man who, beyond keeping his options open, made damn sure I was never seen or heard by anyone else in his life. In fact, when he lived with roomies, he would make me let myself in to his house and make my way up to his room on the second floor.
Looking back, I realize this was not only totally degrading, but also just pretty nuts. And yet, I complied with this charade for years. What’s worse is that once I finally ended things and got over being a secret, non-girlfriend, I did it again in my early thirties with a charming, albeit incredibly manipulative guy within my circle of friends. We had to keep our “relationship” a secret so as to not upset the others. (Read: he didn't want to call me his girlfriend because he didn't want anyone to know.) And when it all fell apart, I was the one who paid the price of our mutual friends.
I believed that being with a cute yet ultimately crappy guy who doesn’t treat me very well is better than no guy at all. I also (wrongly) believed that as a fat woman, no man would love me for me, and I should take what’s available.
Like Annie, I believed that being with a cute yet ultimately crappy guy who doesn’t treat me very well is better than no guy at all. I also (wrongly) believed that as a fat woman, no man would love me for me, and I should take what’s available.
Of course, I’m hardly the only woman to find herself in this sort of situation—and to feel totally devastated by it. “Most women who act as a ‘secret’ partner know that there is something very wrong in the dynamic, but there is typically a lot of confusion involved,” Chicago-based therapist Emily Bhandari, LCSW, tells me.
That's because when you're alone together, the withholding partner may offer enough kernels of sincerity to suggest that a real-deal relationship is actually within the realm of possibility. Bingo! In both of my secret relationships, the men said sweet, albeit mostly damaging things to me behind closed doors—anything from “You’re so beautiful” to “I can’t imagine not having you in my life.” So, while a lot of the time women do want to exit these situations, their manipulated feelings keep their feet (and heart and time) firmly planted. “Mixed messages keep them waiting for the relationship to legitimize,” Bhandari says.
Once I feel ready to date again, it’s only going to be with guys who want to call me their girlfriend, loudly and proudly.
And of course, that waiting is all for naught. When I was playing secret girlfriend, I was constantly checking my phone, distracted and unhappy, and it spilled over into other aspects of my life. I knew, deep down, these men weren’t going to choose me (if they wanted to be with me, they’d just be with me), but I was still attached to the alluring notion that if they liked me enough to sleep with me and spend all this time with me, eventually they would commit. Still, I felt I had to leave this decision—one regarding a situation where I was absolutely an invested party—completely to them since I assumed if I brought it up, they’d simply leave and forget I ever existed in the first place. According to Bhandari, this internal struggle alone should have been enough to help me cut the cords of my expectations. “Needing to have this conversation in the first place is a bad sign," she says "Most healthy relationships begin with two people being enthusiastic about each other.”
I learned this lesson the hard way, twice, and I’m never in a million years going to unlearn it. I’m currently single, and once I feel ready to date again, it’s only going to be with guys who want to call me their girlfriend, loudly and proudly. I deserve that, and so does Annie on Shrill, and so do you. So does everyone.
Ready to hit the dating scene? Here's a list of the best dating apps (and tips for how to decide which is best for you). Plus, here's one that matches singles based on refrigerator photos—seriously.
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