I had a long conversation with a dear friend while we were at the beach a few days ago.
As usual, we were discussing relationships and wondering why they can be so tricky sometimes.
We were considering timing and how it can make or break a relationship. She suggested that sometimes a situation (relationship) can feel really good now, but can have long term, negative side effects.
Using the trite and obvious example, we joked about dating a “bad boy,” or someone who makes us feel alive with tons of passion. But then, over a period of time, this relationship wears on you and your needs change. Maybe you want someone who can commit or speak with clarity about the situation you’re in, but he notoriously flies by the seat of his pants and doesn’t like to make definite plans with you.
We’ve all been there, and logically we know it’s wrong for us, but we stay in it anyway, even way past what would have been a reasonable expiration date.
It starts out so great: it’s romantic and there’s so much lust, so much love, so much sex, so much passion. You connect and stay up till 5 talking. Just talking. You get each other. You drink more than you would have normally. You are bleary-eyed at work for a few weeks because you both insist on seeing each other everyday. You rush home from the gym to do fun activities at night, or skip it all together. Then, you crash and need to simply sleep. But the fun keeps going. You miss each other when you don’t see each other for a few days, and the banter picks up right where it left off, this time sprinkled with hilarious inside jokes and innuendo.
But then, in your limited down time, you remember what you have been working on while you’ve been single.
You’ve been working on valuing yourself. Loving yourself. Not settling. Getting most of your needs met in the next relationship. And you skim your checklist, and so far, so good.
Oh, except for that one thing. The thing you’ve strategically avoided asking aloud: are we on the same page? You think so. You’re pretty sure he wants a girlfriend. After all, you spend all this time together and have started meeting each other’s friends. He even invited you to a work event six weeks from now, to which you’ve said yes and added it to your calendar.
Accidently “Saying What You Want” Versus Keeping Quiet for Now
Sometime in the first six weeks to two months, you mistakenly slip up and say what you want. You’ve been having small panic episodes while on your way to work. When your best friend calls you from Maryland to ask how it’s going with him, you fold. You tell her how much you like him, that you might even be falling in love with him, but you’re scared because you don’t know if you’re on the same page. Your voice cracks and your eyes well up with tears. She mostly listens while her toddler naps and before her own husband comes home from work and suggests asking your man.
She tells you that you really should ask where he is in this relationship. Relationship? Do you dare say relationship? This question and conversation gives you a stomach ache. You roll it over in your mind, then survey a few other friends who have met him and are closer to the situation. Unanimously, they all say to ask him what he wants, and before you go any further. Again, you feel nauseous even thinking about this conversation and the possibility that whatever you have with him could end. But you consider their advice.
It occurs to you that the advice is sound, but not for this situation, not yet anyway. You have to play it cool and get the timing right. You’ve been playing the role as coolest version of yourself. Everything rolls off your back and nothing makes you mad. Even though you normally maintain a tight calendar and love making plans, with him, you’re adapting and learning how to be more flexible with your time.
You’re afraid that speaking up will lead to a dreadful heartbreak and embarrassment. You’re bashful because you’ve finally been bringing someone around who appears normal, and is awesome with you. But, and here’s the kicker, he’s just gotten out of a long relationship and you’re afraid to know if he’s ready. Not that he wants to date a lot of other people, but he’s been in a real relationship with someone for so long, and he probably doesn’t even remember what it’s like to be single and only have to consider himself. So all of this is coursing through your brain. You already know the answer — but you’re scared to hear it. Your true friends love and care about you and think asking this question will give you more information so you can decide to stay or leave.
Clearly, obviously, you don’t want to date anyone who doesn’t know by now.
Aside from your age (you’re not getting any younger, your mom reminds you), the amount of time you’ve been investing in each other is significant.
You’re sweet, caring, and fun, and he’ll never meet anyone else like you.
Your friends validate and boost you up, meanwhile you have this nagging feeling of not wanting to discuss the inevitable.
You worry that asking him where he is in this thing (you can’t call it a relationship) will really be the knife on the chopping block. They remind you that you can’t be with someone who doesn’t want the same things. You deserve the real thing.
You’ve already put up with so much. There are lots of great guys in town who would want to date you.
All of this is true. You know you should say something. But you drag your feet and don’t say anything.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Why do we do this to ourselves? We get so enamored with the idea of a relationship and when something feels, smells, looks, tastes, or sounds even remotely like what we’ve been vision boarding, we jump all in. We are not wrong to desire love, especially when we’ve met someone who has the pinnings of possibility. I have done it.
Oh boy, have I ever.
I’ve definitely fallen in love with someone or better yet, the idea of someone way before I should have. I fell and was not caught. I had a bad habit of going after aloof guys, or guys who were not ready (and still are not ready). These men-children suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome and never grow up. This is super attractive when I don’t know someone well—a light and airy quality of being able to move freely and not have much responsibility… until I’m six months in and I realized just how untethered to the world he is.
Lucky for him, he decided to go to Australia on a whim with no return ticket, just a vague sense that he might be back in three or five weeks.
Why, instead of asking where he is, do we not simply say where we are?
The fear of rejection and judgment overtakes us. It’s awful. That feeling of worry silences us from addressing our own needs aloud to the very people who matter most.
When It Stops Being Good for You
You’ve just met someone and you’ve been the coolest version of yourself: very laid-back and easy-going. It’s been fun and you’ve nearly fallen in love. Maybe it’s been fast and furious, something you’d normally not fall for. But this situation is different.
Now, you’re debating asking him if he’s dating anyone else, if he’s ready for a relationship with you, if he is open to commitment. You’ve also considered speaking up about your needs and where you are… But you’re scared because he might not be in the same place.
That Fateful Day Beyond “It’s Fun Again”
And then, one day, you and he have just had an amazing morning getting smoothies, walking by the beach and visiting the farmer’s market.
You sprawl out in your living room because your roommate is out of town for the weekend. It’s so cozy, so quiet and comfortable. You put on some tunes and doze off together. When you wake up, it feels so dreamy, so couple-y. You forget to hold your ground and not ask—and as the words fall out of your mouth, you know it’s not what you want to say.
And you start beating yourself up right then, mid-conversation.
You tell him you’re falling for him, that you’ve never felt this way, that you’ve never met anyone like him or had this much fun and felt so safe before.
Then there’s a shift in his posture. He sits up. He clears his throat and looks around. He walks to the kitchen for a glass of water. Your eyes take in the situation and it’s burned into your memory. He comes back to the couch and sits at the other end. He says he’s been wanting to talk to you about this.
He reveals what you’ve thought all along: he’s not ready. He thinks you’re beautiful, amazing, unique, special and so sexy. He loves spending time with you. He’s just not ready to commit right now. You feel sick. He leaves and there’s a gap forming between the two of you. You’re not sure if you should reach out during the week, so you don’t. He doesn’t either. He tweets strange, cryptic memes and one liners, which you should ignore. By Thursday, you’d expected him to say hi, and you’re ready to gauge your stomach with your stapler at work. He writes to you in the late afternoon and says he misses you, can you get together this weekend? Too quickly, you reply, again beating yourself up. You try to maintain a boundary, but you say you have some time.
You meet up and it’s not the same. He’s awkward. You’re solicitous and agreeable. After drinking more than intended, it’s fun again. This is what it’s come to, you realize. The best (only?) way to tolerate this is with cocktails and too-small plates of tapas that leave you hungry.
You continue along this fun path, forgetting everything that came up for you. You figure, “why not? It’s just fun for now. I definitely won’t develop strong(er) feelings for him. He’s much better than all the other fools out there, so I might as well spend my time here rather than dating randoms.” For another few months, you both somehow dismiss that you want a boyfriend and he can’t be a boyfriend.
The Next Part—and the Return
But again, a need of yours pops up. This need for a discussion. This need for clarity because you’re still falling for him. Wait, you think: “I don’t need to have a talk. I need action. The action isn’t sex, it’s commitment.”
One day, you’re driving to work and you see an elderly couple walking together and latching arms. It’s very tender and sweet. It gets you thinking. And like that, you decide it’s over. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re vague and distant over text. You’re busy.
You question why it happened this way, you ponder your connection. You realize he’s not for you because the right person will be with you, for you. You wish it could have been another way, but then you’re transported back to reality and remember that wishing it could have been is counterproductive. You have to think about how it is.
And you return to your strong self by getting back to the gym and paying more attention at work. You remember that these guys are the ones you always fall for. The aloof, handsome, fun, whirlwind guys. You vow to stop with him. You call your best friends and beg them to prod you after a month if your next guy is like this. You’re serious about attracting the right one. The one who will be good for you long term, even if in the moment it’s tough and tricky. You decide you’re done with the guys who are aloof and non-committal. You make a list of the signs, so you can easily remember who to avoid.
You’re doing well and you nearly go down this road again, but you catch yourself after a couple of weeks.
The sting is barely felt.
You’re proud of yourself.
So why do we fall for aloof (or flaky) people?
Why do we often go for people who aren’t good for us?
Speaking from personal experience, I was intrigued by these people who were mysterious. I’m pretty open so meeting someone who was more reserved seemed interesting. These types are ephemeral, unique. They showed me a different side of myself. They were special and attractive–until they were trite and predictable.
When the intrigue stopped, I was relieved. I started valuing myself more and realizing that attention from an aloof man was counter-productive.
It’s challenging to even write about this period in my life because it was so vague.
I’ve noticed that so many of my clients, friends, and my old self have had tendencies to date the wrong people. I believe it’s part of the growing process.
We need these people in our lives to show us the way to the better partners.
Some things are good for us now but not in the long or medium-term future, while other things might feel uncomfortable now but are good for us in the long term.
Read Nina Rubin every week here on The Good Men Project!