Why is it so hard to date in the city?

Not everyone has to be the main character.

The reason it’s so hard to date in New York, or LA, or San Francisco, is because these cities are overflowing with main characters.

Main characters are people who see themselves as the epic protagonist of their own story. They have hopes, dreams, and extraordinary ambitions. Everyone they encounter is either a supportive friend, a pesky villain, or a background extra—in the dramatic play that is their life.

So when you gather a million main characters in one spot, problems start to arise. Specifically, relationship problems.

When two main characters meet, and neither assumes the role of the supporting character, tensions build. You end up with two people battling over who’s story is more important. Who is the true main character? It’s a battle that no one wins.

Supporting character energy

I’ve been with my partner for almost 14 years now.

Just this week I was asked—yet again—what’s our secret? The answer from best that I can tell is—we’re both very clear on who the main character is, and who the supporting character is.

Within the past decade, I discovered that the greatest use of my time is to support those around me. This starts with my partner. I’ve found that not only is being the supporting character much more aligned with my personality, but I get significantly more gratification from helping others achieve, than achieving on my own.

What does it mean to be a supporting character? It means you’re a caretaker, a coach, a friend, or a co-founder. But what it really means is—you’re an anteambulo.

An anteambulo, which translates to “one who clears the path”, was an ancient Roman profession. As Ryan Holiday explains, “An anteambulo proceeded in front of their patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages and generally making their lives easier.” Most simply, an anteambulo did their utmost to make a main character’s life easier. 

This can manifest in small acts, like making breakfast so your partner can eat a great meal without having to frantically rush around in the morning. It can also manifest in enduring efforts, like pushing them to become more than they previously believed possible.

Main characters can’t do it alone

If you believe you’re a main character, ask yourself—who’s my supporting character? If you don’t have one, you have a problem. The greatest heroes are a byproduct of great support.

Frodo and Sam

Harry and Ron

Sherlock and Watson

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Michelle and Barack

Ben and Jerry

Mom and Dad

Want to be a main character? Remember one thing—you can’t climb this mountain alone. The journey of life is not a solitary endeavor.

Determine the roles, determine the goals

If you’re raising a child, and your goal is to make sure they’re loved, well socialized, and find fulfillment—then that is your main objective. Once that objective is squared away, it’s up to you to decide who’s going to be the hero of that story. Equally important is deciding who’s going to support the hero on their quest.

Traditionally, the hero of that story has been the mother. She spends all of her time making sure the child is raised well, in a loving home. The father—fulfilling his role as the supporting character—spends most of his time gathering resources, and clearing the path for Mom to perform at her utmost.

Rarely is this division talked about in this way. That might be because—at least in the United States—raising a child well, in a loving home, isn’t always the ultimate goal. Rather, the ultimate goal for many is to climb the career hierarchy.

In that case, the wife is supporting her husband. The best way she can do that is by removing the irritation of childcare from his list of responsibilities. Only then can he single-mindedly focus on building a noteworthy career.

This is why clarity around your shared mission is so important. It determines who occupies which role.

Without a clearly articulated shared goal, the mother may believe that she is the main character, while the father may believe he is. Both are vying for a single spot, which is a disastrous position to be in.

Goals can change and roles can change

My partner and I have changed a lot over the past decade. Our expressions of freedom, exploration, play, certainty, and ambition have all waxed and waned.

We’ve went from working minimum wage jobs flipping burgers, to making over 6-figures studying cancer. We vowed to never own a home—living out of nothing more than a backpack for months at at time—to neurotically searching Zillow for a place to set down roots.

All that’s to say, people are dynamic.

The key to a healthy relationship, I believe, is moving together with these waves. Embracing the change when it comes. One day you might want to be the main character, but a year from now you might not.

And that’s okay.

Regardless of what you think of their politics, look at the relationship of Michelle and Barack Obama. They typify a changing main character and supporting character dynamic.

In their early careers, both Michelle and Barack were aspiring lawyers with Ivy league educations. Both were, by any estimation, main characters of their own stories.

But after their marriage in 1992, the dynamic shifted. Leaving a highly lucrative role in intellectual property law, Michelle took a huge pay cut to start engage in more meaningful community-focused work.

She had assumed the role of main character, and Barack acted accordingly. Like a well-choreographed dance, he fell into position. He picked up a second job to compensate for the lost income.

The pendulum swung back and forth for decades. Having children, running for office, winning the presidency, his book tour, her book tour, and finally retirement.

Now Michelle has assumed the role of main character again, and Barack has all but faded into the background. Often times he won’t even attend big commercial events like Michelle’s Netflix special with Oprah, simply to make sure the main character spotlight is squarely fixed on her.

When asked about the changing tides of their relationship, Michelle said “our marriage has never been perfectly 50-50. One of us is always needing more or giving more. We have to be willing to listen to each other, honestly and without defensiveness. Only then, can we evolve together.”

Finding that balance, as your shared goals and objectives change, is absolutely critical. Problems arise when there isn’t a clear articulation of who’s who.

What are you afraid of?

Everyone knows Frodo would have never been able to destroy the Ring without the help of Sam.

Everyone knows that Harry was a terrible wizard, and without Ron and Hermione, he would have been dead in the first book.

Everyone knows that Steve Jobs, for all of his brilliance, could have never build the Apple I from scratch. He needed Steve Wozniak for that.

And yet, as a supporting character we’re afraid that our contributions will be lost. That we won’t get the recognition that we deserve. That people will overlook us. This fear is driven entirely from ego, and a disconnection from our ultimate goal.

Do you really care about your friends teasing you for making $48,000 a year, while your wife and kid worship you for doing everything you can to support them?

Small town relationships

I grew up in a small town in Florida.

A town that—I just discovered—was 5 square miles, with a population of 15,000 people. It’s safe to say that this place was the opposite of New York, or LA or San Francisco.

Like many small towns, the majority of my friends stayed there, got married, bought a house, and started a family. Most of their relationships have lasted over a decade. By all appearances, they live simple and happy lives.

My more ambitious friends, however, jetted off to major metropolitan areas in search of professional treasures. Just about every one of them are still single, and quite vocal about their discontentment.

I can’t help but thinking—had these people simply stayed in their hometowns and sacrificed a modicum of professional success—they might have been able to find something even more satisfying.

It’s curious to note how many of my friends were able to find a perfectly fulfilling relationship in a town of 15,000 people, while others find it near impossible to have one fulfilling date in a city of 8,400,000. Main character energy is, I suspect, the culprit.

—Zac

PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider sharing this post with just one friend.

It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.

Join the conversation

or to participate.