I should’ve noticed the red flags from his very first date idea. Gregory*, the activist I matched with on OKCupid around Halloween 2015, during my first semester of graduate school, suggested we attend a political event together. I don’t remember if he suggested a rally or a fundraiser, but it didn’t seem, well, romantic in any way. I didn't know much about him, other than that he was politically involved and passionate about Bernie Sanders, but it was 2016. Who wasn't politically passionate during the election? I didn't think much of it, but suggested we get dinner at a restaurant in the local mall instead.
Even though our date didn’t include a cliché “love at first sight” spark, we did spend it getting to know each other. We shared our backgrounds, education, and hobbies nervously between bites of sushi. I had a good feeling about him, until he started talking about just how deep his passion for politics, and Sanders in particular, ran. As an activist, he was extremely invested in politics, which completely contradicted his initial soft-spoken, introverted demeanor. He was kind, and actively listened about my interests and work in fashion, beauty, race, and identity, including the intersection of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the fashion industry. But we struggled to find a natural rhythm, and at the end of the date, as we hugged and parted ways in the crisp air, I worried about whether I’d be a good match for him. I was engulfed in school, and knew I couldn’t devote the same amount of energy to politics that he could. And while I admired his passion and how much he #FeltTheBern, I didn't know if our own romantic flame would ever "bern" as strongly. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it work.
Our relationship grew slowly over the course of the 2016 Democratic primaries. After spending more and more time together, what intrigued me the most about him was that, despite being introverted, he was very vocal about what was happening on the local and national level, politically. He spent his time working with organizations, writing for publications, and leading rallies. He even served as a delegate for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. It was truly inspiring to see him shift from a shy, soft-spoken introvert into someone who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in in front of hundreds of people. While I personally preferred Hillary Clinton as a candidate, his passion for Sanders wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. I liked his political drive and ambition, and spending time with him was a nice way to disconnect from the bubble of graduate school and learn more about the local community.
However, the more we continued to date, the more I realized that even though an online dating algorithm pairing us together, our common interests weren’t aligned at all. The movies I picked didn’t seem good enough for him. His desire to read poetry together wasn’t fun for me. And since I was a busy student without a car in a college town, it was difficult to find unique things to do beyond campus. We both enjoyed nature, going for long romantic walks near the lake, and trying out local restaurants, which gave us time to talk and learn more about each other. But over time, it became monotonous.
I realize all I really wanted was to be able to say I was "in a relationship,” even if we weren’t totally compatible.
Despite all these red flags, I continued dating Gregory. As someone who hadn’t been in a ton of serious relationships, I was excited to spend my time with someone I felt a mutual attraction to, even though it wasn’t “perfect.” I tried to stay positive, ignoring things that might have been dealbreakers for me in favor of focusing on the good. But looking back, I realize all I really wanted was to be able to say I was “in a relationship,” even if we weren’t totally compatible.
A few months into dating, he invited me to join him at a small pop-up shop led by a local political organization, where he introduced me to his friends and the people he worked with on social projects. As we walked around and I watched him in conversation with his peers about all the initiatives they were working on, I realized how left out I felt. The same doubt I had on our first date creeped back into my mind, as I realized that our conversations were never that lively. Truth be told, I lacked the institutional, political knowledge that his peers had, so I mostly just stood there, smiling, nodding, and listening. I even felt guilty for not sharing the same level of enthusiasm and involvement.
Soon after, our dates started to feel way too politically charged. They’d turn into long discussions about Sanders and his policies. They honestly felt more like monologues, since I would just sit there, listen, and sigh as I picked through my food and tried to think of a way to shift the conversation to a less contentious topic. Despite the fact that I disagreed with him on some elements of Sanders’ platforms, I also didn’t want to start debating and cause more of a rift between us.
Despite our differences, I still had hope that we just needed to find common ground on our interests in order to succeed as a couple. When political activities brought him joy, I supported him to make the budding relationship work. But when I tried to involve him in my passions, it seemed like too much work for him. On several occasions, I tried to get him to come to the movies with me. As a documentary filmmaker, movies are my passion. But despite the lack of activities in the college town where we lived, Gregory often refused to accompany me. He seemed incapable of showing any interest in what brought me joy. Slowly but surely, I began to feel like a third wheel to my boyfriend, and dare I say it, Bernie Sanders.
Even when Gregory and I weren’t physically together, it was hard to escape the Sanders-mania. Pictures of Sanders were plastered all over social media and on TV. I couldn’t escape him in my personal or professional life, which made it challenging to develop my own opinion of him as a candidate. If the world of politics was the new Hollywood, Sanders was the new leading man, with a thriving fanbase I couldn’t escape. I just felt like I was the only one who hadn’t watched the movie yet. I tensed up whenever my friends brought him and the election up in casual conversations because it reminded me of my own struggling relationship.
As Sanders’ popularity strengthened, my relationship with Gregory weakened. One frigid winter day, he led a Sanders march that wound through the quaint downtown streets. To be honest, the main reason I went was because it was the only way I could potentially hang out with him afterward. Carrying a megaphone, I saw him moving through the crowd, exuding an energy I’d never before seen in his introverted demeanor. I honestly wondered, “Could I ever bring him as much joy as Bernie Sanders?” I already knew the answer.
After graduation, I moved to New York City for a summer internship. I tried to keep my relationship with Gregory going, but during a routine phone call, he helped me realize the painful truth: At this point, we were only together out of necessity. I didn’t know anyone in NYC, and I was only holding onto him because I missed the familiarity that so often goes away when you first move somewhere new. Even though that last phone call confirmed he’d reached the end of the line, I still held on to a sliver of hope that maybe we could rekindle our relationship.
A few months later, when Clinton was announced as the Democratic nominee, Gregory was disappointed. He posted a selfie on Instagram from the Democratic National Convention, with a melancholic expression on his face as red, white, and blue balloons fell around his face, with everyone around him in celebration. After the DNC and with Sanders out of the picture, I hoped things would get better between us. I hoped he’d want to try again. But unsurprisingly, Gregory shifted his energy from the Sanders campaign toward other political initiatives, such as union laws and tenant protections. At this point, I knew the drill. After putting so much of his passion into his political initiatives, there would barely be any reserved for us. With Sanders out of the running, I could no longer pretend to be the perfect political partner. So by the end of the primaries, and less than a year after matching online, I finally gave up on Gregory.
These days, he and I have both moved on with other people. Although our relationship wasn’t ideal, I have to admit, I learned a lot from our time together. Sure, maybe some politically charged relationships do work when both parties are equally as passionate about it, like Gregory was. But I didn’t realize that’s what I initially signed up for, and ultimately, I couldn’t change myself and my beliefs to make myself a compatible match for him, nor should I have had to. I should’ve paid more attention to my initial gut feeling early on. He had every right to feel passionate about Sanders and politics. In this political climate, I fully support those who are willing to put it all out there and fight against the current administration. But when it came to our romantic relationship, I knew I’d always be second best to Sanders in Gregory’s eyes. Now, I know that I deserve to be the first in my own, which means prioritizing my own needs and being authentic to who I am moving forward.
*Name has been changed.