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Alex Smyth

Swipe left: Why I’m no longer sacrificing myself for crumbs of love

When Shanice realised she was doing the most for her ex-boyfriend, she had to stop and ask why.

09 Aug

Welcome back to gal-dem’s monthly dating column ‘Swipe Left’, bringing you Shanice Dover’s latest musings on love, sex and relationships.

“Can you help me make a Business Instagram?” 

I was 20 minutes into catching up with Jay via text, an ex-boyfriend I hadn’t spoken to for over a year, and he was already asking me for something. I stared at the screen, trying to figure out which part was more shocking – that he’d barely even let our conversation begin before requesting a favour, or that I was still surprised at that this point.  

Jay and I had dated briefly, followed by years of a strange, sporadic ‘friendship’ propped up by overtly lingering feelings from before. A characteristic of our relationship, and the ‘friendship’ that followed after, was the endless favours he’d ask of me – “Can you lend me some money?” “Can you design me a logo?” “Can you help me with a uni essay?” Jay would vanish for months at a time, and reemerge wanting something else without showing any interest in how I was, revealing that he didn’t want to be my friend at all – he was just using me. 

For a while, I’d agreed and did what I could to help him. I sent the money he asked for, gave him detailed notes on how to improve his CV and put in countless hours of emotional labour listening to him and giving him advice or encouragement. These are things I’d do for any of my friends and I know they’d do for me, but with Jay, they were never reciprocated. 

“I sent the money he asked for, gave him detailed notes on how to improve his CV and put in countless hours of emotional labour listening to him”

We’d met years before on the  dating app Plenty of Fish (the worst of the worst) and rapidly fell into one of those intense online relationships that you only see on Catfish. I’m embarrassed to say that ‘I love yous’ were exchanged within a week, and soon after, I made the five hour journey to go and meet him in person. 

I didn’t admit it to myself back then, but the visit was a mess. We stayed in his house for the whole time. He got high and left me downstairs while he slept for the best part of one of the three days I was visiting, and made me nothing but struggle-food. The fact that I was the one putting in all of the effort, and the coin, to spend time with him, probably should’ve been an indication of how much I’d be giving when it came to dealing with Jay, but I was too young and oblivious. I was 20 and he was the first guy I’d ever felt this intensely about. He was also the first guy to express strong feelings towards me, so I naively believed that it was normal to want to do anything for a partner.

I’ve been sacrificing myself for romantic interests since my school days. At age 11, I was obsessed with one of the most popular boys in our year (weren’t we all?). Certain that he’d never like me back, I vowed to never tell him my feelings or act on them in any way, and settled for being a close friend instead. Somehow, this wound up with me setting him up with one of my best friends. 

“Despite what the films and love songs say, martyrdom isn’t a requisite for love”

It was a lengthy process of being the middleman and every second of it forced me to push my own feelings to the back of my mind in order to centre theirs. At first, it was painful, but I convinced myself that if this is what would make the person I cared about happy, then it was important that I do it. Looking back, low self-esteem was definitely a factor. I had resigned myself to the idea that the feelings I had could never be reciprocated, so the fact that he liked another girl – a girl who fit the pretty and popular high school girl mould to a T – made more sense than any alternative. I never felt worthy of having my romantic feelings fulfilled, so I was quick to dismiss them. 

I found myself in a near-identical situation with Jay when he dumped me during a phone call and immediately proceeded to ask for advice on how to win his ex back. Once again, I quickly settled into the friendship role and kept the tears out of my voice as I helped him pick out flowers for his ex. I was devastated but listened on as he spoke about how much he liked her and wanted to be with her again. In hindsight, I wish that his complete disregard for my feelings in that moment would’ve highlighted the drastic imbalance in our relationship, but instead I chose to occupy another space in his life as a means to sustain any form of relationship with him that I could.

Maybe it’s lazy to blame media depictions of love and relationships, but they’re literally full of cis-hetero tales positioning sacrifice as a measure of love. Look at Sandy in Grease – the classic girl next door who gave up her whole identity to ride off into the sunset with the guy. Even our good sis Beyoncé was out here dancing in the desert, singing verse after verse in Cater 2 U about how she’d prove her adoration to her man, alongside Kelly and Michelle. Whatever the medium, the consistent messaging seemed to be that love is worth surrendering everything for and if you’re not, it’s less legitimate. 

“He dumped me during a phone call and immediately proceeded to ask for advice on how to win his ex back”

When Jay asked me to make a Business Instagram for him, a ludicrous request I still can’t comprehend to this day, I realised I had enough of self-sacrifice. If our friendship was so important, why did it only exist when he needed something? And why couldn’t he just use Google?

“No,” I messaged back. This wasn’t the first time I’d said it, or even the first time I’d confronted him about his endless requests, but I knew that this time I was truly over it. His response was dismissive and I got no apology or acknowledgement about the way he was treating me.

Considering the hold he’d had over me for all of those years, standing up for myself felt strangely anti-climatic. But the ease of his indifference is what sent a wave of sadness through me, regretful that I didn’t have the foresight to do it years before. I wish I could have saved myself a lot of frustration over the years, and developed a better understanding of how I deserved to be treated a lot faster. 

I also wish a younger Shanice knew that despite what the films and love songs say, martyrdom isn’t a requisite for love and anyone taking advantage of your willingness to give, simply doesn’t love you – at least not in a way that’s healthy and worth having. Although I wasted a lot of time running around like Jay’s PA, now, the distinction between self-sacrifice and healthy compromise has never been clearer.