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On the Myth of “High Standards”

[TW misogyny]
Unless you are actually holding a checklist and ticking things off without getting to know the person at all, there’s no such thing as standards that are “too high.”*

I’ve been told an uncountable number of times by friends and family members and strangers, and even one of my Korean teachers, that I remain single because my standards are “too high.” If they’re feeling polite or especially sympathetic, they might just say “high,” but the “too” pops up unspoken anyway.

This, my friends, is some seriously bullshit. While it is true that most people have some conditions for an intimate partner, a look around the world will tell you that, when true attraction (whether mental or physical or emotional or spiritual or any combination thereof) is present, there’s a lot human beings will overlook, or even find charm in. In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams’s character remembers fondly the way his wife farted in her sleep, and I think this example, while fictional, is not so far from the truth. When we’re attracted to or in love with people, it’s not that we love every single thing about them and it’s not that we think they are inherently perfect – the things we don’t like or the things that aren’t our ideals aren’t obstacles to our attraction or love, and we may even become fond of our beloved’s foibles over time – because we love them, not because we’re suddenly attracted to sleep-farting.

The “too high” myth comes from the way that we talk about romance. When we’re single and complain about it, people always ask “well, what kind of person do you like?” – a question designed to elicit a list of conditions which someone might be able to use to suggest a potential partner. The list often contains a lot of things that are hard to quantify or qualify – how do you measure if someone is “smart?” I love smart people, but it’s not a requirement for an educational level or a certain IQ – technical smarts, street smarts, skill at a craft…all count as “smart” to me, and truthfully, I’ve loved a lot of not so smart folks as well. A lot of the things that are easy to detect are also negotiable. I have a preference for dark eyes, but I’ve had the hots for innumerable people with light eyes too. Lately, I’ve taken to answering that dumbass question with “someone I am interested in,” because there is no other real answer. I’m attracted to the people I’m attracted to, and if there is rhyme or reason to it, my subconscious has forgotten to tell me.

The whole idea behind the “your standards are too high” criticism is that you are turning away potential intimate partners by being “picky” – by prioritizing conditions that are hard to meet. But I can tell you for 98% sure that, out of all the people I’ve rejected in my life, even if they met all of the conditions I used to say I wanted when asked about my ideal partner – if they were feminist and farmer/philosophers who read a book a month and are slightly kinky and tall with dark eyes and love to travel – I still would not want to go out with them, because there was no chemistry, conversation was like pulling teeth, and I didn’t want to get to know them for reasons obscure and unknowable. The things we cite as things that we are not attracted to are also negotiable. While I find long, shiny, curved nails unappealing, if I like the person, I don’t really give a shit about hir nails. The nails are only a big deal with people I am not attracted to anyway.

What I hear, when people tell me my standards are too high, is: go out with people you aren’t attracted to. Date people you don’t like. String along someone you will never be able to bring yourself to sleep with, no matter how sexually frustrated you are.

Not every person I’ve fucked in my life has been someone I especially liked or wanted to date in the long term. Some of those liaisons were very bad ideas. But I was attracted to all of them. For me, ending up in bed with someone happens like this: we do something fun together, we kiss, all of a sudden I realize my shirt is on the floor, I decide I am okay with that. When I’m attracted and interested in sex, even when I’m nervous and shy and uncertain, even when I was a virgin, it might take me a few seconds to work up the courage to get naked, but I never debated with myself in my head about whether or not I was interested in doing so. When I’m not attracted to someone, even if they manage to get a kiss in and I decide not to fight them out of politeness, I spend the whole thing thinking to myself “this is boring, why am I doing this? How awkward would it be if I pushed you off? How long is long enough to be polite?”

If I am not attracted to you (as an intimate partner or a friend), I have zero interest in your company, which naturally translates to not going on dates, not spending time together, not having conversations, and most definitely not having sex. Yet my friends tell me that these people I am not attracted to in the slightest are people that I should be considering as potential intimate partners, despite lack the one thing that I would say is the only necessary precondition, without which there can be no consideration: attraction.

Look, maybe your friend is being unreasonable. Maybe zie likes someone but is talking hirself out it, talking hirself out of asking them out or going on that date for whatever reason. I wouldn’t necessarily leap to the conclusion that this is because hir standards are too high, but regardless, they should go for it – the worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work out. But “high standards” are most often trotted out when people are venting about a lack of intimate partners and bemoaning their romantic or sexual frustrations – do you really think that someone complaining about that shit is turning down people they like just to wallow in masochistic self-pity? Maybe, but not likely. It is far more likely that this person is, for whatever reason, not meeting anyone who sparks their interest or attraction – the solution would be to meet more people, not to go out with people they have no interest in.

I don’t know where this idea came from, that we can love or be attracted to most people if we just try really hard, but it’s total bullshit. I’m not saying there’s no possibility that my feelings about someone would change over time after getting to know them, but what I am saying is that I am unwilling to spend large amounts of time, go on dates, or have sex with someone I do not care about in order to get there. I don’t owe anyone my time or my body, and my attraction is not under my conscious control. So don’t tell me my standards are too high. Tell me to get off my ass and meet more people. Tell me to ask out that person I kind of like but am too shy to approach. Set me up on a date with someone I’ve never met before. But don’t fucking tell me that I would find love if only I would date people who bore me.

ETA: On further reflection, I realized I had forgotten to tease out some of the more kyriarchical implications of this, though they should be clear. First, both men and women hear the “high standards” chatter, though as I have heard it, men more typically hear the “out of your league” type discourse that tends to focus much more on hotness. Discourse that I have personally heard (feel free to enlighten me, men) directed at men about women presumes a hierarchical ranking of women, and ideal is for a man to go for a lady at “his level” – in his league. In my observations, physical form determines about 90% of a woman’s rank, and any other features she may have can move her slightly up or slightly down the scale. This is, truly, fucked up, not just for women, but for men too, because everything I have said above applies equally to men – no one should be told that the solution to their loneliness is to fuck people they don’t like. The way fucking is discursively constructed for men as “scoring,” and the implication that men should fuck without regard for any intellectual or emotional connection, impacts men’s abilities to listen to their own desires about who and when and how they would like to have sex or relationships.

In contrast, the “high standards” discourse more directed at women doesn’t presume a hierarchical ranking of men (although Nice GuyTM discourse around “alpha males” does) but rather a checklist of diverse criteria which, in practice, are presumed to be many, diverse, and even in conflict with one another. While the “league” discourse directed at men deals primarily with male sexuality (and erases male emotion) by ranking primarily according to physical appearance, the “standards” discourse erases female sexuality and attraction by presuming that the lady would fuck anyone who met her (non-existant) checklist and reject anyone who did not – a calculation, not a feeling, since ladies, of course, do not experience intense physical urges. *eyeroll*

Basically, people who say that you “should be” attracted to someone you’re not attracted to for ANY reason are pulling the classic Nice GuyTM routine that totally rejects your agency and individuality in being attracted to other humans by trying to convince you to be into someone because they think you have some kind of list that can be swayed by logic1. While our “standards” make great face-saving excuses (when people ask me why I’m not attracted to someone, my standard joking reply is “zie’s not tall enough!”), they’re not the real reason.

At this accusation’s most benign, you might be calling someone out on trying to talk hirself out of liking someone (I currently have a crush on a Mongolian Buddhist monk who is allowed to marry, but I want a fling, so I am talking to my heart/brain by saying “he’s too short,” “we don’t speak each other’s native languages,” “he pays more attention to the girly girls, they’re probably his type,” to try and restrain my Golden Retriever of Love), but more often, it happens that you are telling someone that hir attraction and enthusiasm for a relationship of whatever nature isn’t important, and if zie would just get over that annoying need to enjoy romantic/sexual relationships, zie could have one! Which, while probably true, is a Bad Idea, capital b capital i.

*If you’re doing that, though, it would probably be worth it to take a step back and assess why these characteristics are more important to you than interpersonal interaction. Although I can conceive circumstances under which this kind of calculation makes complete sense, most of the time I think we’d find a whole lot of kyriarchy skulking around, making us feel compelled to measure up the people we like against external standards, instead of seeing where our relationships could go.

1For more on “you can’t convince people to like you,” see Captain Awkward here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “On the Myth of “High Standards”

  1. this, this was exactly what I needed to read tonight, having ended yet another (brief, ie a few dates) ‘relationship’ with a guy, with whom there was a lot of potential, but no real spark. I am bracing myself for another round of friends telling me, ‘you’re too fussy’ ‘if you’re looking for Mr. Perfect, he doesn’t exist’ or worse…’So what kind of guy are you looking for then..? ‘ me: ‘intelligent, preferably tall, someone who gives as much as he gets’ them ‘ you’re asking for too much, you haven’t a hope’

    I needed to read that I am not ‘too fussy’…I can’t talk myself into liking someone..wanting to fuck them, or even spend time with them, just because on paper there is potential

    thanks
    X

    Posted by astartef | August 4, 2013, 15:24
  2. Yes. This. So much this.
    There was a time in my life when I yearned to find someone to settle down with and I tried getting into a relationship with someone who I didn’t feel strongly attracted to … who I didn’t, as my friend puts it, “fancy the pants off”. Her rule is that if you don’t fancy the pants off someone when you first get involved, you probably never will. I put it to the test and it proved accurate. Being with that person made me cringe at all times and the relationship was a disaster. So I never forget the “fancy the pants” rule.
    This is not to say that I have to be strongly attracted to someone the first time I meet them. The attraction can and often does develop as I get to know someone better, but if I’m going to get sexually involved the spark has to be unmistakeably there.
    I once (briefly) signed up for a dating website with a “psychological questionnaire” and one of the questions was “Why haven’t you found the right partner yet?” If you checked that you hadn’t had time you were bounced back and told that most people say that but it’s not really true — and one of the other options was “I have been too picky”. I forget the others but strongly believe that if someone has met the right person it’s dumb luck.
    This not to say I can’t increase the probabilities by meeting more people and I’m looking forward to starting to do that.

    Posted by Alicija Lopez | March 5, 2015, 07:02
  3. Absolutely fantastic post! I strongly agree with everything you said here, and it’s great to see it articulated this way. Off the top of my head, it occurs to me that the “standards discourse” (as you so aptly put it) that typically gets directed at women is most likely a carry-over from the pre-modern marriage customs of the noble classes, in which love and romance–or, at least, the woman’s participation therein–were of minimal importance if they figured at all, and it really was simply a matter of making a judgment call about whether to “cash in” (ugh) on a particular suitor, or roll the dice and hold out for one who might provide a buy-in to a more prestigious family. If you think about it, the standards discourse as currently practiced would have made so much sense then as to be positively banal, and it’s hard to imagine that it persists today as a result of anything but sheer inertia (as further buttressed, of course, by all of the usual sexist baggage, which may sadly sustain the longevity of this way of thinking for quite some time to come). Anyway, thanks again for writing this.

    Posted by Justin | September 6, 2015, 19:59
    • This line of analysis is even more interesting when you consider that the actual people making that judgement call were usually not the people potentially going to be wedded, but rather their families – high standards has always been primarily a discourse happening around and about the single people, rather than of and by the single people themselves.

      Posted by startledoctopus | September 6, 2015, 21:03
  4. I hadn’t thought of that, but of course you’re absolutely right. One could also branch off from there toward any number of other related considerations–for example, male privilege has allowed men to more or less escape from those archaic boundaries into some reasonable semblance of allowance for self-determination in the dating world, while the inertia of pre-modern custom has clung much more heavily to the roles and expectations surrounding women in that area. Isn’t it interesting how that mirrors, say, the observation that progress in class struggle tends to lift poor whites out of poverty at dramatically more impressive rates than it lifts poor blacks out of poverty? With endless intersectional angles to consider, perhaps there’s some sort of fundamental theory to be divined somewhere in there. Or perhaps someone has already divined it, and my ignorance of the recent literature is showing! 😉

    Posted by Justin | September 6, 2015, 21:36

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