Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me stop you right there, Caleb! I have to interject: Would someone please lay me down on a dusty road and use my body as a dirt-bike jump so I can enter a relaxing comatose state and no longer have to hear the phrase, “If he wanted to, he would?”
This platitude has come to be a constant refrain on social media, as obnoxious and frequent as a car insurance commercial. It’s shorthand for, as this Reddit thread explains, “the idea that if a man is interested or wants to be with you, he’ll figure a way to make it happen or to show a woman. If he doesn’t, the woman should move on. Because if he wanted to, he would.”
The ostensible purpose here is to “help” women save time and energy in dating, which it does by way of making them feel both undesirable and stupid. It is very popular. TikTok videos with the hashtag “IfHeWantedToHeWould” have been viewed more than 155 million times. Reddit hosts dozens of discussions about the phrase. The country singer Kylie Morgan put out a song called “If He Wanted to He Would.” Lyrics include: “If he loved you, he would tell you. If he missed you, he would call.”
Is this tough love? Or just the slow, grinding messaging that being a woman who dates men is a lifetime of waiting to be picked for a middle school P.E. team? Some people who preach “If he wanted to he would” are genuinely trying to be helpful. They are often addressing women who are in relationships with men who treat them poorly, and the gracious explanation is that the advice is meant to alleviate the pain of an extended rejection or ghosting. We have all lived in the slow-moving horror movie where you watch, powerless, as a beloved woman loses years of her life to a man with the personality and communication skills of a loose pubic hair. We all want better for our friends.
But that’s not what comes across when we say, “If he wanted to, he would.” What comes across is: That man doesn’t want you. Get it through your head. If you keep trying to make something happen with him and he keeps treating you badly, that’s on you. Now you’re not only undesirable, you’re also stupid.
This phrase centers the power in heterosexual relationships firmly on men. “If he wanted to, he would”—stop caring so much about what straight men want! They care enough to make up for everyone else on earth. If your friend is in a relationship with a shitty guy, the last thing you should worry about is what he wants. What does she want? Does she want to be with a person who displays deep levels of caring and listening? An equal partner in all things?
One good phrase to substitute for “If he wanted to, he would” is, “Your boyfriend is an asshole.” Or if you’re worried about alienating your friend, try, “It sounds like you prioritize his needs, but he doesn’t do the same.” Or maybe, “I notice that he treats his dog better than you.” Women in shitty relationships do not need emotional bludgeoning by more fortunate women or smug lectures by strange men.
Often, “If he wanted to, he would” is applied to women who are in the early stages of talking or dating men and are still teetering between some form of commitment and total estrangement. It’s true that these unlabeled situationships can be infuriating and heartbreaking, where lack of communication or intentional manipulation on one person’s part can keep the other person hoping, fruitlessly, for more.
But I’m sorry—some of you have never dated an introvert before, and it shows! Some of you have never romanced a person with a beautiful heart and a debilitating anxiety disorder. If you live by this adage, you will never connect with anyone who is an overthinker, or a little bit socially awkward, or has a little bit too much humility. You may miss out on the rich and rewarding experience of being with someone who is neurotic! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but men with low self-esteem are people too.
Where would any character from TV, movies, or literature be if they believed in “If he wanted to, he would?” Harry and Sally wouldn’t even be Facebook friends. Oliver and Elio would never have progressed past each other’s fantasies. The whole premise of Pride and Prejudice is, “If he wanted to, he wouldn’t because his sisters and best friend are psychos.” Jane Austen didn’t write, “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark,” just for some vile clout chaser to seduce you with the self-hating doctrine of “If he wanted to, he would.”
This phrase is almost always directed at women who date men. It is “He’s just not that into you” updated for the 2020s. It’s so regressive that it sounds like it belongs in the 1950s, maybe in a commercial about the clean, healthy cigarette brand to leave out for your hardworking husband while you scurry along and finish cooking him a steak.
We have to stop letting people infected by misogyny write catchy phrases. “If he wanted to, he would” paints women as generally desperate, which is interesting because if we’re dealing in generalizations, straight men are the most desperate people in society. There are infinite reasons men might do (or not do) the things they do. Those reasons are mostly unknowable and uninteresting.
The question that you can best address is: What do you want?
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour