Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Ask Polly: I'm 33 And Single. What Am I Doing Wrong?

Hi Polly.

I’m not really sure why I’m writing you. Actually I am. I need to feel ok with being single at 33 while still maintaining hope that I can find a solid, real, lasting relationship. Every time I read one of your columns on this subject, I feel empowered. I apologize for being unoriginal but this stuff is hard and I am at a loss!

I embrace being single. I appreciate being on my own and dictating my own schedule, I do a ton of yoga and look great (might sound conceited but it's true), I own my own successful business, I own my condo, I save money, I travel and pursue things that are interesting. I have an adorable, silly cat, dammit. I believe strongly that I can’t and won’t settle until it’s RIGHT.

I’m admittedly scared that that conviction will keep me from being in a happy relationship because I’m asking for too much or won’t know “right” when I see it. At the same time, I seem to keep getting hurt. There’s a pattern—I date a guy for a month or two. In the beginning, it’s always him pursuing me hard. And then I let my guard down and start to like him, start to think about a future with him, and then, like clockwork, he backs out. I really don’t understand. I know that you have said over and over that we shouldn’t try to draw some sort of conclusion about rejection, but I am struggling here!

Most recently, I was seeing this guy that I was very interested in. True to form, he worked hard to date me while I was not so sure at first. After about a month and a half, I thought things were going great. I had to go out of town for 10 days, for work and to take care of my mom who’d had major surgery. We texted or called each other every day when I was gone. When I got back, rather than making plans to hang out for an evening, he wanted to stop by for sex on the way to a party that he “had to make an appearance” at. I suggested hanging out another time when we could actually spend time together rather than be rushed. He said he understood but basically I never heard from him again.

Maybe I hurt his feelings? I made it clear that I wanted to see him, just was not really ok with those circumstances. I love sex but I felt like a “layover” (ha, ha) on the way to his obligation or good time. I knew he’d been busy at work but in his shoes, I would have made time, invited him to the party, not gone, something else. Logically I know that this guy did not treat me right, or at least was not “into me” enough to work with me and honor my feelings. Even though he put a lot of time in in the beginning—hanging out every day, calling and texting all the time, telling me how much he liked me, etc., etc. The worst part is that I still really like him! I can’t shake the idea that I was too demanding or inconsiderate.

Am I trying too hard? Not trying hard enough? Do I need to lighten up? Be more blunt? Do I get attached too quickly or not quickly enough? I’m really trying to just be myself and see where it takes me, but these little episodes where I date guys who disappear is messing with me. They make me question how great my single lifestyle really is, question my approach to dating, get my hopes up and let them down. On the other hand, I know I need to be open to risk in order to get what I ultimately want, which is long lasting love. How do I reconcile those two conflicting feelings? I also have this weird idea that if I just get past the first few months, I can make things RIGHT if I like the guy enough. I feel like a failure that I can't even get to that stage! That has got to be completely wrong but I don't know how to change that thought process.

Maybe Doing Something Wrong

Dear MDSW,

One of the major pitfalls of being single is trying to apply all of the principles that work in other parts of our lives to the problem of love. It's natural, of course, that you'd think that the same hard work that you've done to start your own business, buy property, and stay fit and healthy would somehow translate to finding the right person. And I don't even mean that you're doing that, exactly. I mean that you have some notion of agency and control over how things will go with any given guy. You write, "I have this weird idea that if I just get past the first few months, I can make things RIGHT if I like the guy enough."

You have to lose the idea that your big challenge is to "get past the first few months." Like somehow you'll never MAKE ANYTHING WORK if you can't CLOSE THE DEAL or at least PREVENT the deal from being prematurely closed during the first few months.

Studying past failures or analyzing the point at which things fell apart, repeatedly, in the past will NOT necessarily tell you anything about what you're doing wrong. You simply haven't lucked into finding the right guy yet. That's all. We can't overhaul your management style on this and secure more success. You simply have to stay open and play it as it lays.

Personally, I was always great at getting past the first few months. I liked hanging out, shooting the shit, letting the day unfold however, watching football, ordering pizza. All of the lazy things I would never allow myself to do when I was alone, I would do around a boyfriend. I compartmentalized my feelings well enough that a dude would see a very easygoing, witty, anything-goes personality for a long time. A bad bout of PMS might threaten to rock the boat, but then I'd essentially apologize and pretend I didn't expect to be met emotionally and go back to hang out mode fast enough that I'd cover my tracks.

Eventually, though, I'd start to put on some pressure, plus my façade would break down and I'd start getting intense or weepy or weird at the drop of a hat. Boyfriends would wonder if this was the new normal. I'd wonder whether we were really a good match or not for the first time, but I'd still keep trying to MAKE THINGS RIGHT. I was really good at making a mess and then making things right, basically maintaining the status quo while I got more and more depressed over the dead-end nature of each relationship.

By a year into it, I'd feel pretty dependent. I wouldn't be putting the same energy into friendships or my career or anything else. I would set everything aside to hang out. Without the dude, I knew I would feel lost and lonely. But the dude was usually looking less and less like my one true love to me by then.

Do you see how much time I used to waste with the wrong guys? You aren't doing that. Do you know how many times I would've been ok with that layover offer? I might've made it obvious that I was the perfect person to take along to that party afterwards, but all that means is that I had a bulletproof social pitch at the time, one carefully crafted to appeal to your typical breezy, Mr. Flinchy nowhere man. You have a life, a job, a condo, a cat, friends, travel. You aren't going to serve up drive-thru sex to a guy who's on the way somewhere else. The idea that having principles like this, and living your principles, could EVER be construed as demanding or inconsiderate is totally laughable.

It's also a testament to just how hard it is to be a single woman in your 30s. You have collected data. And as a smart, hard-working woman, you are naturally going to use that data to determine WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

You liked this guy. He wasn't right. He wasn't right because he missed you and then he wanted to stop in for sex instead of taking you out for a quick bite first, then going by the party, knowing that you'd both be in the mood after. To put it on the table like that, to say "I want to fuck and then leave to do this other thing." Or even "I want to fuck and then we'll go to this thing after." No. Shit, he could've said "I need to see you right now!" and come over and things would've happened and then he could've invited you to the other thing, or you could've had dinner or whatever. I'm not saying he should've been more coy, but let's face it, there were plenty of ways he could've gotten exactly what he wanted AND not blasted the impression that he might just be in love with you clean out of the water once and for all. Did he care about the impression he was making? Clearly he did not. That's all the information you need, and it has nothing to do with what YOU did after that.

His disappearance is a moot point. You merely indicated that you weren't a fuck buddy, and he scrammed. This is how it was going to end. He's attracted to you, that's all.

My guess is that lots of guys are attracted to you, so you're going to have to meet a greater volume of guys just to find a few who are legitimately interested in who you are. It's not HOW YOU SIFT THROUGH THEM that determines whether this or that dude is truly interested or uninterested. Sadly, you don't have that much say in the matter. But it's actually freeing to realize that. You are sifting by staying strong, by not compromising the things that are important to you, and by not being afraid to say "No, thanks" when you get an offer that you ABSOLUTELY CAN AND SHOULD REFUSE. I know it feels like you "messed up" because you really liked this guy. I know that feeling well. But you didn't change the outcome. If it were me, I would've invested two years and thousands of dollars in couples therapy and THEN I would've figured out that I was with the wrong guy. God, it makes me tired just thinking about it.

So here's the bad news: You just have to stay open and know that you'll find the right guy eventually. You really will. And it won't be hard to tell if it's right or not. If it's super hard to tell? It's not right.

The taxing thing is that every time we meet someone who's fucking great, we say, "Is this right? Where should I compromise? What should I say to this? Am I doing that old bad thing I do where I ask for what I want and ruin everything again?" The stakes shouldn't be raised just because someone seems really smart and funny and nice to look at, and you decide you really are interested, and they work really hard to date you. But they do. In theory, you should be able to say, "I'll know if this is right if he keeps asking me to dinner and listening and treating me like someone he might really love." You should be able to remain a little detached, until it's clear that a guy really does care and doesn't view you as a conquest. But who can do that? It's stupid to even expect that of yourself, honestly.

You say guys pursue you really hard at first. Are you clear with them about who you are at that point? I don't mean "Hey, I want to get married soon" but "This is who I am. You might not be the kind of person who wants someone like that." Even that sounds strange, I know, but there are these opportunities when you're dating, to either appear lovely and demure and sweet and to encourage the continued pursuit at all costs, or to be frank about who you are. This is just a stab in the dark, but it's possible that if you flashed a few flaws a little sooner, you might get a sense what the guy in question is ACTUALLY after: a real human being, or a very attractive woman who WILL SLEEP WITH HIM EVENTUALLY, DAMN IT! I know I sound like a crazy person, suggesting you show your flaws at the very outset. And certainly when you start repelling dudes straight out of the gate, that's not going to convince you that you've got the moves like Jagger.

BUT I have to tell you, there's some really good swaggery carpe diem feeling that comes from asserting who you are, for better or for worse. You should maybe experiment with it. Hanging back and watching how hard he'll work to get you can be a crafty maneuver that leads to short-term success, but it's also a little bit traditional and (somewhat paradoxically) it appeals to a more predatory macho style of dude. It gets all of his CHASE THAT BUNNY RABBIT juices flowing. Useful, I guess, if that's what you like. But given your smarts and your overall empowered, I Know What I Want deal, the bunny chaser is maybe not your target demographic. You maybe are looking for a sensitive guy who really loves real human women, not bunnies.

I do think, also, that—oh god, now this is really the stuff of shitty women's magazines and heteronormative nightmare trend pieces—but I think that having it all can be a stumbling block for men, but it's a stumbling block for the kinds of men you absolutely don't want in your life. Your general togetherness and attractiveness, when paired with a cautiousness and quietness upfront, is really fluffy bunny ass for a traditional man. When you show your sharp bunny claws, though, this kind of man is going to turn cold and turn tail and run. The magazines will tell you to fluff up your tail and play down your giant brain. I'm going to give you the opposite advice. If I were you, I would try flashing the bunny claws earlier, to see what you're dealing with. Is this a bunny chaser, or a guy who likes real assertive happy human women? Mutter a few ribald remarks, make your opinion crystal clear, then look the guy frankly in the eye as if to say, "That's me, buddy. Like it or lump it." Many, many men with an eye for a princess will get gone real quick-like after that.

And I know, I know, I know that plenty will read this and picture a kind of gauntlet-throwing hot-tempered wretchedness being inserted into a perfectly nice mix. But that's not what we're talking about here. I mean, I'm a personal fan of gauntlet-throwing hot-tempered wretchedness, sure, but that's neither here nor there. MDSW, I think you understand what I mean by borderline bold statements and some advertising of flaws and open eye contact and clear boundaries, paired with interest and kindness. I think you might just figure out that you maybe are a little controlled and stiff around how present yourself at the outset. And I think you might just see that what you want is NOT to make it past the first few months. What you actually want is to fuck things up BEFORE then, so you can move on to the guys who aren't just engaged in an elaborate chase to get some high-end tail.

So that's the only thing I'd ask: Are you making it clear from the start that, not only that you are NOT remotely perfect, but you're not for everyone? You are who you are—assertive, frivolous, angry, effusive, messy, exacting, hopeful—and you want something real. It's funny because most smart women are ALL of these things. And sometimes just saying so will scare away the guys who want someone who prefers to pretend and stoke the mystery, and will attract the guys who find honestly and flaws and vulnerability and toughness mixed together incredibly romantic. It won't change who you're dealing with, it won't turn Mr. Wrong into Prince Charming. It will simply save you time by clearing out the escapists and macho chasers who aren't into egalitarian relationships and female complexity and real life.

God bless the bunny chasers. And if you're a bunny, god bless you, too. I know people who really love that whole picture, for sure. I don't personally know how to navigate it, so I can't offer much advice to those who prefer it.

But I don't think that's what you want. So I think you should stop focusing on what you're doing to fuck things up so early, and focus on fucking things up earlier, thereby sorting out the clunkers before you've invested your emotions too much.

Other than that? You have to be optimistic, be patient, write down everything you're grateful for every night, and remember that you will look back on this time as one of the most important times of your life. You'll look back and feel really proud of how you conducted yourself, how strong you stayed in the face of your loneliness, and how much you appreciated what you had. It's true that you could be in this place for 2 years or 12 years, and even so, you will look back and feel good about it if you play your cards right. It's amazing to have your own business and your own place and your own cat. You are living the good life, for sure, and while it's great that you're open to finding love (which takes its own kind of effort) nothing that happens on that front should undermine how satisfying and hard-won your happiness is right now. You have to believe in your life and romanticize it as much as you can. Remind yourself to feel proud of what you've built, and what you've overcome, every single day. And feel proud of your flaws and your loneliness and your big heart, too. It's ok to feel vulnerable about wanting love and not finding it. That vulnerability will lead you to good places, even when it feels like it'll topple your apple cart. You don't have to be perfect. Let yourself be a little weird, a little uncertain, a little brash. Let yourself get a little messier. Let your seams show. Be proud of your broken pieces. They're the best part of you.

Don't speed through these days to get to the good part. This IS the good part. Savor it.


Are you trying to savor the good parts, but you can't do it, thanks to fucking Candy Crush Saga? Write to Polly and spill it.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Rick and Brenda Beehorst.

59 Comments / Post A Comment

kate_d (#264,967)

I needed that.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

Two or three weeks into dating my now husband, I found out I had an HPV infection. I was incredibly embarrassed, since it was the legacy of condom-less one night stand that I had had two months earlier, before meeting him. I was sure this would ruin everything: I needed to tell this wonderful new boyfriend that we should wait to have sex until the infection cleared. He was uncomfortable when I told him, but he didn't run. He told me that he was, in fact, a mid-twenties virgin, and was therefore, OK with waiting a couple more weeks to have sex. He had been super embarrassed about his inexperience, I had been super embarrassed about my previous sex life. I then also explained, by way of explaining why I was the kind of person that had condom-less one night stands, that I had been in therapy for anxiety and low self esteem. So within a month of dating, it was all out there: I had an STD, I was seeing a shrink, he was a virgin and insecure about sex in general. It should have been a recipe for disaster, but we really, really liked each other. The vulnerability, honesty, and uncomfortable talks we had in the first couple months of dating helped us to have genuine intimacy later on. Our flaws were not incompatibilities, they were just us being imperfect humans. Like you (and Polly) I probably would have tried to keep playing the put-together chill-lady super-woman card for as long as possible, but maybe its a good thing that my hand was forced.

skyslang (#11,283)

@garlicmustardweed That was a lovely story and I think a really important story for the LW and anyone else struggling with these issues to read. Thanks!

alicesherman (#237,158)

@garlicmustardweed So, not that I missed the point here, but HPV is contracted easily with or without a condom and there is no way to test for it in men. The time between contraction and realization is also iffy. Just wanted to let you and everyone else know that you can get it from a very committed relationship you had 2 years ago, or a one night stand you had two months ago.

The more you know.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@alicesherman Very True! There is a lot of misinformation about HPV out there, and I don't mean to contribute to it. Yes, you can still get HPV if you are very safe and careful and in a long-term relationship. But wear condoms anyway! And get those vaccines! I should also add that I don't mean this post to shame people who have one night stands. They can be great if they fill you with joy and excitement. In my case, it was just a mask for problems, though

Shara (#266,895)

Go read 'It's Not You' by Sara Eckel. She offers the most validating, reassuring perspective I've ever seen. It's a must-read for smart single people of any age, but especially for otherwise together ladies in their mid-30s who are wondering wtf is going wrong.

calamity (#264,836)

@Shara I read that book a few months ago after going through a breakup very similar to what the LW is describing. I do recommend it, it was a great read, but sometimes it is really hard to stomach the narrative she presents: that it's not you, it's just that you haven't been lucky to meet the(/a) right guy yet. And there is nothing you can do to change that, or find him. Because while it is sort of liberating to reaffirm that there is not some sort of cheat sheet that's been given to EVERYONE ELSE out there who have managed to navigate the relationship game better than I have … depending on your priorities in life (ie: babies), you don't necessarily have 12 years to spend waiting around to finally roll doubles.

Sara Eckel gave up kids and ended up finding her right guy and she seems very happy now, which is great. As one of those unfortunate people who is more certain that anything else in life that kids are something I Need To Have in order to be happy with my life, her story honestly made me feel worse. I mean, kids are enough of a priority for me that if it comes down to the wire I'll just bite the bullet and do it on my own, but I hate feeling like finding the right guy before my eggs start to rot might be asking too much of the universe.

(I hate how "wahhh but babies" this sounds and TRUST ME if I had any say in the matter I'd turn off whatever "must reproduce!!!" switch inside me is on hyperdrive because this shit is fucking exhausting, but what can you do …)

bananalise (#13,738)

@calamity I. Am. You. That book is my bible in some ways, but the kids thing is the gaping void that keeps me from buying in 100%.

Shara (#266,895)

@bananalise Yeah I admit that it probably resonates with me because I'm actually divorced, with one kid and no desire for more. My focus is only on finding the right partner and I do have that allowance to sift through the no and maybe options to wait for the one that feels 100% right. Especially post-divorce, I'm holding out for the best. It's very comforting for me to read, as I struggle through all those two month non-relationships and lackluster first dates, that I'm not the only one in this boat and that I'm not inherently flawed.

km1312 (#45,006)

@calamity @bananalise Yup, same here. The thing I struggle with these days is: I'm giving myself another 5 years to meet The Dude, and if I don't, I'll go make a kid all by myself (and a sperm donor). Being a single mom might suck, but I'm confidant that I can hack it. But I need sex and romance and intimacy in my life, even if it's from a series of just-okay dudes, rather than The Dude, and the prospect of dating/getting laid as a single parent sounds damn near impossible.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

46 y.o single mother here, you can date and get laid for sure just find good sitters. You might fibd that with limited time and energy, just ok dudes no longer make the cut and that they are more fulfilling things in life than fake romance.

Xenu01 (#244,135)

Oh, MAN. Responses like this is why I excitedly anticipate Wednesdays. Polly is spot on and cuts right through our own bullshit as usual. <3

The amazing thing about being ok with being human (you know, NOT being a Cool Girl [this terminology is Polly too, I think] but being like, "Yeah I'm a bitchy harpy with feelings who wants you to have conversations with her sometimes,") is that you start being amazingly ok with your partners being human beings, too.

I used to have this crazy resentment thing going on, like, I'm suppressing my feelings and I have to shave my legs every time you come over and you're not fulfilling my feelings and how dare you have feelings and flaws because I'm not allowed to? And then I kind of had no choice but to be really really real, really fast, with my now-husband.

I guess when it comes down to it, that's really what good old schmaltzy "be yourself" is all about. Not "be a supreme jerk," and not "be the shiniest glitteriest version of yourself with no flaws ever," but "be a human who is kind to other humans and also farts sometimes."

skyslang (#11,283)

@Xenu01 Good point about accepting other people's flaws, too!

hockeymom (#143)

YES. This is great advice…say who you are from the start.

Here's my story….dated a lot in my 20s. Wasn't looking for anything long-term because I was focussed on my career (strangely, it seemed at the time guys were the ones who wanted to get serious).

Then, got involved with a guy I thought might be "the one". Because I thought it was time to find "the one". Spent a LOT of time trying to make it perfect, be perfect, plan the perfect future. Never talked about my job, my life outside of him, any of that stuff (He never asked and that stuff was all going great). Had several years of this BS and in the meantime, started feeling crappy about myself. Eventually, found my spine, dumped him and married his roommate. Which was awesome because that guy had already seen every flaw and loved me anyway. And if I hadn't been wasting my time trying to make life with his roommate "perfect", I probably would have seen that.

I guess my advice is, make sure to look at the roommates.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@hockeymom Just chiming in to admire your stubborn usage of the New Yorker spelling of "focused."

missedconnections (#266,911)

I'm 33 and Single. What Am I Doing Wrong?

Girl, have you seen the men out there lately? More like What Are You Doing RIGHT.

@missedconnections PREACH

spicytuna (#266,909)

I can't believe how nonchalant LW is being about how utterly disrespectful this guy was to her. There is nothing more insulting than being tacitly told that you are worth nothing more than a lay on a way over to a friend's house. If some guy I was dating ever made a similar proposal towards me, I would've let him have a piece of my mind. "Let me come and screw you on my way to my buddy's house". Are you kidding me? Is this girl's self esteem so low that she actually feels GUILTY about not letting him come over and use her as a cum rag?

She did the right thing by saying NO, however she should've been way sterner about it too. He totally insulted her. Obviously he could care less about what she thinks; so why was she so worried about whether she hurt his feelings? He obviously never cared about hers. I feel that we as women are often way, wayyyyyy too nice when it comes to men, especially ones who are so blatant in their lack of caring.

sox (#652)

I would guess yes, her self esteem was probably that low. I was in this space from about 29 to 35 and my self esteem dipped much lower that this, unfortunately.
Once while i was slumped in a fit of sobs on my therapist's couch, she told me she was 43 when she met someone who fit the bill for her and I basically said I literally couldn't stay alive that long being so lonely- that I'd surely die by then (still feel like a giant asshole for saying that). Like the LW, I'm successful, independent, accomplished, and couldn't use logic to solve this bc logic doesn't apply here. And all of it can fuck with your head hard enough to kill any self esteem you had.

Best of luck, LW. And yes – in the future, tell that guy to fuck off!

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@spicytuna I don't know if it's NYC or what, but for me and a lot of my friends this behavior is so common that we're way less nonchalant when a guy treats us with basic respect. "He CALLED on the phone and answers all my texts right away and didn't disappear the second I displayed a feeling! UNICORN!" I am getting much better at kicking them all to the curb till I find the real thing, though.

TheTardis (#266,926)

LW please there is absolutely nothing wrong with you! Trust me I'm one of those women who would have let the guy come over and wasted a bunch of time and energy on a f*ck boy. You're dodging a real bullets by having these guy bail early. Trust me being in a relationship with that kind of guy is 10x worse and you can also feel just as lonely in that relationship just as easily as being single.

What I'm trying to say is you need to follow Polly's advice and keep doing what you're doing.

carpetblogger (#306)

Don't worry. This will all be a lot simpler when you're single in your 40s.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

yes, it does get simpler

HelloTitty (#830)

@carpetblogger Even easier in your 50s.

desk_hack (#976)

@carpetblogger Does it? Because kids are off the table? I *just* turned 40.

I rarely disagree with Polly, but I do with this one, at least a little.

Polly says, "It's ok to feel vulnerable about wanting love and not finding it." Maybe "vulnerable" is how the letter writer feels, but I doubt that's how she seems. I think she seems invulnerable. And I suspect that, to a lot of worthy guys, she's Just Too Busy.

Let's flip the sexes around: A man writes to Polly and says that he spends tons of time in the gym and looks freakin' awesome, and he owns his own business and likes to travel and so on. I can see a lot of women rolling their eyes at that.

I genuinely think that there's a difference between Wanting To Have It All and making yourself too busy and too pretty and too skinny and too hard-shelled to attract men who are compatible and are looking to fall in love.

On the other hand, and I realize that I'm contradicting myself, I met my wife when, like the letter writer, she was 33 (I was 30), and she had a job that was extremely demanding during some parts of the year. And I met her during one of those busy times. We went out a few times, but often, when I asked her out, she said she was busy. One time she turned me down and for me, that was the last time. I wasn't going to call her anymore. And then I got a postcard, asking me in a funny, sweet way to have patience. So I was patient, she eventually had time for me, and love bloomed. (Then she went to grad school out of town and … oh, man, I don't know how we stayed together.)

But if her schedule had remained as busy as it was when I first met her, I would have skated away. And I truly wonder whether the letter writer is coming off this way — as too busy for anyone other than a short-term bunny-chaser.

Also, does the letter writer date guys who are a few years younger? If not, maybe she could 30- and 31-year-olds, broaden her dating pool.

sony_b (#234,961)

@Holden Lewis@facebook I agree with your vulnerable/invulnerable assessment, and also about possibly including younger men in the dating pool.

My story – I was single for 15 out of 17 years from 20 to 37. I spent a good chunk of the last few years dating online and was super busy with working full time and going to school part or full time (did a masters in computer science in my 30s). I am also very fat (build like Melissa McCarthy). The first few years I did the typically varnished "put your best foot forward" kind of ads. I had plenty of dates but most of them I actively didn't like. At some point I changed my headline to "Fat Bitch with Cats" and wrote a funny, vulnerable ad to go with it. The number of responses I got went through the roof, and so did the quality of the guys. I never ended up going on more than three dates with any of them, but most of them were guys who I would be perfectly happy to set up a friend with – they just weren't the guy for me, or if I was into it but they weren't it was OK too. I learned a lot about receiving and giving rejection gracefully in those years. Yeah, it still hurt when somebody I thought was into me disappeared, but only for a day or two and then I moved on. It really helped my attitude on all fronts and I think any whiff of desperation I might have put off in the past disappeared entirely.

When I was 37 I met a cute guy a decade younger than me at a tech conference. He lived across the country and we had what I thought was a totally fun week-long drunk hookup with a graceful goodbye at the airport. He called from his layover in TX and moved across the country to be with me a year later. We've been together for five years next month and celebrate our first wedding anniversary in June.

Without those years of coffee at the bookstore dates I never would have had the balls to put it out there that I was interested in a hookup with my husband when we met, but all the What-if-he-thinks-I'm-too-fat/smart/dumb/busy/bitchy/whatever stuff left my brain and made it easy.

So the shorter version of my advice to the LW (and everyone else who otherwise has their life shit together, basically) – date as much as you can and learn how to handle rejection from both sides of the equation. The internet makes that really easy to do now and I think it's worth it.

charlsiekate (#231,720)

@sony_b I love this comment! It's like what Polly said a few weeks ago – Rejection is not personal. I always try to remember that the way people treat me is more of a reflection on them than it is on me.

cup_0f_jo (#266,932)

I was in a LTR until the age of 31 and realized that sometime between 26 and 31 I really got to know myself pretty well. So when I started dating someone kinda seriously, I felt like I had to share everything I knew about myself so that I wouldn't waste 5 more years with the wrong person–including my flaws. He didn't run away, and I'm really sure that he knows and accepts/appreciates all the parts of who I am. This also helped me assess his willingness to communicate about things like the future. Polly, your advice is spot-on IMHO.

Opes (#266,939)

I registered on theawl just now solely so I could comment that this letter was really beautiful, especially the last paragraph. Truer words have never been spoken. Thank you for carrying the torch for being true to ourselves. We all need reminders like this, sometimes.

rhodan (#2,774)

oh gosh. logged in for the first time in so long because this is me, too. i am 32. this also happens to me way too much. i never thought i'd be one of the last of my friends to find a partner. i can't help but wonder if it's some flaw of mine, but in truth my life is in order (and to the person who queries if knowing this might be detrimental to one's romantic success — i say this not because i am proud and too busy but because i wish i knew what was wrong with me! i would fix it! but i think it's unidentifiable.)

most recently after a long period of not meeting anyone, i met someone who was more generous and kind and affectionate to me than any man has been in years, to the point where in the first week he was talking about the future and me meeting his family and wanting to see me daily and etc etc. and because of his openness i explicitly expressed my caution, to which he said 'i'm not going anywhere'. so i dared to dream that he was for real. and then 24 hours after 'i'm not going anywhere' he told me he wasn't ready for a relationship.

i got extremely upset, EXTREMELY (i recently lost my dad…something that i made clear to this man, that this was why i was particularly not up for being hurt right now) and he told me i was crazy because after two weeks i was crying when he called it off. so there is a part of me that thinks i did something wrong: should i played it cooler? should i not have slept with him? should i have pretended this was ok and agreed to be just friends in the hopes that he would realize he'd made a terrible mistake?

polly, you reminded me: no. i did not fuck this up. i was just myself. and i met a bad one.

spicytuna (#266,909)

@rhodan Unfortunately, guys who are loopy like that tend to be rather common. When another woman I know (in her early 40's with a daughter) went out on what she thought was one really great date with a guy, he suddenly went cold. When she texted him a few days after the date to see what happened, he responded to say "I can't marry you".

Yet neither of them had even brought up the topic of marriage whatsoever on the date. For some reason guys who seem normal at first let their true colors show when it gets dark and take off for their own weird reasons.

rhodan (#2,774)

@spicytuna loopy. quite!

mystique (#240,961)

@rhodan I've met a couple of the loopy ones! Yours sounds like the one in the Ask Polly column about the girl who was dumped over Skype by some guy in his boxer shorts on her mom's deathday. I always find it hard to have empathy for such guys, but I try & see it as them wanting to be vulnerable, but being too scared to try in the long term, or too desperate for breezy, short term community/friendship/connection to ever dedicate themselves to the self-reflection and thus self-awareness needed to get close to people.

Although I would be surprised if that guy didn't loop back into your life! They always tend to come back.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@rhodan UGH THOSE GUYS. I have learned slowly and painfully that a guy who talks about wanting you to meet his family in the first week is probably going to dump you on your ass a week later, no matter how reassuring he is– a guy who is actually serious will be in touch with his emotions and rational enough to know it's irresponsible to say things like that before you actually know someone well. I have yet to meet a guy like that, but I hear that's what they're like. Sigh.

doraleigh (#239,253)

@paddlepickle @rhodan — Every single guy who swept me off my feet eventually (and usually quite quickly) dumped me on my head. Agree with paddlepickle: the stable (read: normal, sane) ones will be more of a slow-and-steady kind of thing.

JaceyMac (#267,240)

@rhodan I've found that guys who are super quick to talk about big serious things like meeting families and The Future are the ones to be most wary of. As @paddlepickle and @doraleigh have pointed out, people with emotional maturity know that it's irresponsible to say those kinds of things before you've really had the chance to get to know someone, so the guys who throw out that super romantic stuff really quickly are often just deluded themselves or are using it as a form of manipulation. It's a huge red flag in my mind and certainly nothing you did wrong. The fact that he called you crazy after engaging in behavior that was misleading and emotionally confusing – basically doing stuff to make you feel crazy – just shows that he's an ass you're well rid of. It still sucks to experience, but hopefully, it will help to remember that you got rid of a bad one quickly, which leaves you more available for the good ones still out there.

bureaucrab (#247,615)

@JaceyMac @doraleigh @paddlepickle HEAR, HEAR. One of life's major lessons for me is that it's wholly valid to *feel* all swept away by a new person, but it's something else entirely to go around talking about it or planning your collective future (whether that's two months or twenty years from now). I've found that the men who do that (and probably women too) are basically saying "Hi, I don't think about consequences." (I also think people like that tend to get overexcited about new things – the last one I met told me all about how he was interested in X sub-specialty in his career, then he learned about Y and thought he'd do that, then it was Z….) They're now on my list, along with Charming Dudes and Guys Who Want You To Be Their Mothers.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@bureaucrab These kinds of guys have happened to me and my friends so often that I've started to wonder if it's a major problem with the way guys are socialized. IE they aren't really given the tools to be in touch with their emotions so they don't know how to appropriately express them. Like, when I say "I really care about you" to someone I have already thought through a million different scenarios and what that means and know that I will mean that for a significant forseeable future. . .whereas I think a lot of the time guys are just like "AH. FEEL FEELING. SAY FEELING RIGHT AWAY" and then have no earthly idea how to deal with it when they have a different feeling a week later.

DidoTwite (#267,544)

I just registered so I can comment because THIS JUST HAPPENED TO ME. I didn't know it was a thing! It is such a relief to know that the guy I dated was just a fuckwit and it wasn't so much about me. He totally swept me off my feet for exactly two weeks and then did the quick-fade. Dudes, I swear.

karenology (#258,236)

@DidoTwite Same thing to me! I could have used this advice oh, maybe five months ago. Still, never too late to learn, I guess.

melhuss (#268,628)

@rhodan So I legitimately signed up to comment to you. 27 here, talking with a 29 year old guy. He treated me kind of like crap last year and I saw him two months ago at our local coffee shop. He looked like he had taken care of himself, was psyched about life, etc, etc. Later that night, we were texting and he told me that he wanted to have something more than we did last year, that we could've been celebrating our year together, that he would give me his heart and soul if I let him. Ding ding red flag. I said something along the lines of "Whoa, too fast but I'm willing to see where this goes." We hung out a few times over the month, very communicative. Finally my house got broken into, a laptop was stolen and I asked him to come over and just watch TV with me. Radio silence for 48 hours. Later that week, I asked him if his feelings changed about me and he said "I feel pressured to do what you want or you get angry with me." I asked him what kind of things he feels pressured about and he said "Anything you ask of me."

Haven't talked to him since. It took all of my strength to be like "YOU JUST SAID THIS LAST MONTH TO ME." Ugh, guys. For real. I am not swayed with all the "we could've been great" words – prove it.

rhodan (#2,774)

@melhuss @didotwite @karenology @paddlepickle @bureaucrab @doraleigh @mystique ahhhh I totally missed these last week and now I'm reading your comments and blinking back tears. Because you are all so right, and you've made me feel better (because, fuck, it's been 10 days but I'm still having moments of wondering what I did wrong.

It's funny because when he was so over the top I did think, 'hm, maybe this guy is unstable' but then I thought, 'I can't let all of the men who've done me wrong before made me doubt someone who is just authentically enthusiastic'. But I think y'all are totally right. He should not have been talking about it after our second date, even if he thought he was feeling it.

Thank you, internet friends <3

DidoTwite (#267,544)

@rhodan It's not you! It's not you. It's been so incredibly reassuring to read all these stories and realize that WE are not the problem. We did nothing wrong except believe what they said. rhodan, I know these comments have helped me and I am so glad it's making you feel better.

toduchess (#269,866)

@bureaucrab That's SO TRUE! The last guy I dated seemed emotionally mature and an "old soul", but he was very excited about having a relationship with me and planning a vacation within days of meeting me. I tried to be cautious and take things slowly but it was hard because he was so intense. He also got over-excited about new things, like business ideas so he could quit his job, but in the end he didn't follow through on anything and hated his real job. After traveling across the country to see him, I guess it was a reality check that I was, indeed, a real human woman and not just a bunny haha. He started to withdraw after I left so I told him good-bye. Although logically I was suspicious of his initial enthusiasm, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and went with it. He is definitely someone who does not think of the consequences to his actions, words, etc. and he still has some growing up to do. At least it only took me 4 months of a long-distance thing to accept that…

@rhodan I just went through the same thing (Two great dates in which a guy expressed more enthusiasm about me than any other guy ever and talked about future things we'd do together,then he faded away to occasional texts)When I finally just texted him to let him know I assumed he'd lost interest and that if that wasn't the case he should let me know, he responded with this really insulting series of texts at 3AM about how he had determined that if we ended up married and having kids it would be a "long winding road" (After 2 dates! All I'd thought about was that I liked him enough to want to go out again) Dating me would only be "for fun" by which he clearly meant sex, and that wasn't enough for him. Since we had not had sex, and I think I have a bit more to offer the world than that, I let him know that what he said was really insulting and inaccurate. He then was like "I didn't mean to imply that you weren't good enough. I just thought you didn't want kids." (I don't. I told him that on the first date. He never expressed any interest in having them, and I'm not psychic.) Even though logically, I knew he was being crazy and concocting an imaginary relationship in which I fucked him a bunch of times and was heartbroken when he dumped me for the wholesome mother of his children, I still felt like I had messed up in some way, that I did something to signify that I wasn't "girlfriend material." Reading this thread has been cathartic. I now know that other women have gone through this. Thank you.

Crispy_Lettuce (#266,942)

Best dating advice ever. I wish I had heard this (and believed it) years ago. I wasted so much time as a single woman feeling defective due to romantic rejection, and trying to avoid that feeling by hanging onto guys that just weren't all that interested.

Finally at age 46 I met someone and had a totally new experience. Someone that really wanted to be with me, had a good character, and was also attractive to me. I didn't do anything differently and I wasn't suddenly better. I have flaws, I have issues, and I have a past. Yet finally here was a relationship that worked well enough. It felt like just dumb luck. The ease of the relationship made it clear how incompatible the others had been.

I wish I had appreciated my single days more. I like my relationship but I miss the sense of accomplishment I had as a single woman. I wasted energy feeling ashamed of being single for so long.

Friends, keep in mind that men who are relationship-minded are mostly in relationships. They aren't single very often! And so it can seem like most of the men we meet out on the open market are worthless cads, but those are the guys who are avoiding attachment. There's just more of them in the dating pool. SO yeah, the stars kind of have to align for you if you want a relationship with one of the relationship-minded ones, but it's totally worth it!

pumpkin (#267,137)

@Sharilyn Neidhardt
Sherilyn, you are very right. I think single women over the age of 30 would be well advised to actively seek men younger than them. My experience of women friends dating in their 30s suggests that the paradigm of dating men the same age or a little older that works for a woman in her teens and twenties really starts to crap out after the age of 30.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@pumpkin I've seen this advice on the thread a few times and I'm confused by it. Right now at 27, I find that most men my age are super commitment-phobic, and I have to date guys 30 or above to find anyone remotely interested in a real relationship. When I meet a guy that's 25 I don't even bother. Does something change about this when you hit your 30s?

chevyvan (#201,691)

@paddlepickle It might have something to do with the guys in their late 20s/early 30s who are open to dating an older woman. They know women in their 30s generally aren't messing around (not that it necessarily means they are ready to start popping out babies). I'm 34 and had a good response when opening up my online dating pool to younger guys this time around. Currently dating someone who is 30.

pumpkin (#267,137)

You make good points. It comes down to the individual experience, obviously. One could write a book about how the male and female experience of romance is different, and another book about how it is the same. It might boil down to how set in their ways people become as they mature. If you are a woman who is mature, fully formed and knows their own mind, it might prove fruitful to seek out a man who is not (excusably so, because he is a bit younger), and who will appreciate someone who is.

nonvolleyball (#9,329)

I'm late to the party here, but the bunny/claws imagery feels like an awesome refraction of the dialogue in Swingers, & as an unrepentant Swingers apologist, I love it. (also the advice is fantastic, Polly is fantastic as always, & I want everyone in the world to either find someone who embraces all their messy weirdness or else take to the sea, as they see fit.)

blueorangegreen (#267,905)

Hi there! I am the letter writer and I just wanted to chime in to thank Polly for taking my letter and for the thoughtful, kind, encouraging and understanding response. Sometimes you just need that extra reinforcement and it means a lot that someone I admire took the time and energy for that.

And I also want to thank all the commenters for their empathy and kind words too :) this has been a slightly weird but very positive experience. Going to keep doing what I'm doing, flaws and all.

cairoh (#270,044)

Thank you for writing the letter, MDSW. I needed to hear this response, too. Thanks, Polly!

electric_feel (#207,273)

Hi blueorangegreen! Thanks so much for writing a letter that resonates so well with my current situation. And hooray to polly for making the answer so… not impossible.

One thing I don't think I see mentioned in the comments, however — is not limiting your dating pool only to men who initially do all of the energetic pursuing. A lot of super amazing guys out there hold back because they don't want to sexualize relationships right away, or they may be intimidated by your amazing life and cat and condo and etc. Displaying some initial interest to them (instead of only reacting to the pursuing/chasey/bunny aspect) might provide you with better sparks, flings, and more..


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