The Great Combo


by Randall S. Frederick

Q: I cut ties with someone I was on/off with because he wasn’t good for me. So that feels good, to be honest. I have an interesting question to pose to you: I think it’s rare that you find someone that you get along with, are attracted to, and have a great sex life. All those three have a hard time lining up. I think women realize how hard it is to find that combo, but I don’t think men or they don’t care much. What do you think? Am I right or crazy?

A: Well, I want to say I hope you’re taking care of yourself post-breakup. Cutting ties with someone you have romantic interest in is always tough because you’re not just giving up on the relationship, you’re giving up on the possibility of a relationship. Good for you, making proactive decisions in the New Year and “cutting ties” instead of slowly fading out of their life. 

Getting to your question, I don’t think you’re crazy. But I’m also not sure you’re right. I don’t think men – and only men – have an inability to notice or fail to care about the combo that comes from good mental and emotional connection, physical beauty, and healthy sex life. Women fail at relationships just as frequently as men do in ways that we imagine are uniquely gendered. People sabotage good things in their life, regardless of gender issues.

And while I’m not convinced you’re “right”, I also don’t think you’re crazy. I’m one of the first people to say “Men are stupid.” Most of my friends happen to be women and it’s rare that I have a guy friend because I think men – generally speaking – have been acculturated towards, even rewarded for, emotional unintelligence. Instead of dealing with their feelings or expressing what they are thinking and experiencing, men deal with problems two ways: they are either passive and ignore it, or they are active (and rewarded for this) by taking out their disappointment in “productive” ways like sports and work. Being active and “dealing with it” (instead of “learning from it” or “growing from it”)  is rewarded by our culture, which celebrates sports, athleticism, stoicism, and productivity more than development of the interior life. When men express their thoughts and feelings, they are made fun of or humiliated, even by important people in their lives. This begins early in life. Girls are allowed to cry, while little boys are told to stop crying, “suck it up” and “be a man” decades before they are physiologically or psychologically mature enough to carry through such a request. Over time, boys are rewired to deny the interior life and, as they get older and become men, have a hard to drawing from, connecting with, identifying, or constructively expressing their thoughts and feelings. I don’t think it’s a tremendous leap to say many men are damaged, broken, and out of touch with reality. But that doesn’t mean all men are like that.

To be fair, women are not much better. It’s not as though little girls grow into healthy, mature, committed adults. If culture swings too far in the raising of boys and the ideation of masculinity, it swings blindly in the development of women as well. This will probably erode my Feminist credentials, but women have been reduced to a collection of coffee, reality television, and general bitchery in popular culture. This is the model girls are taught to embody, to grow into. And god forbid a woman expresses her authentic self; her feelings and experience will be minimized or – and I think this is perhaps worse – congratulated and inflated.

I see this happen all the time with my friends. A woman will talk about her relationship, and the solution is to “fix” it (really, fix her and tell her things she needs to do to make it better) or someone will tell her to get out of the relationship as fast as possible, then congratulate her for already being perfect – You don’t need anybody! You don’t need to change! You’re so amazing, and it’s their fault for not seeing that! This ultimately rewards her for being relationally immature.

These are generalizations, of course, but I trust they are familiar because they are prevalent. They happen, and they’re not at all far-fetched. For every man who “doesn’t get it,” there’s a woman who “does” and still follows the bad advice of her friends and family. For every man isolated to the terrain of his own selfish mind, there is a woman who doesn’t follow her interior, doesn’t trust herself, but instead allows someone else to compel her to make decisions she knows she shouldn’t.

In the end, it comes down to one simple question: Is it your responsibility to make sure someone sees how amazing you are, or is it theirs to open their eyes and see it? Your question indicates an expectation of what men should be or what they can do for you. If this relationship was built on you expecting him to “see the combo”, recognize it, and appreciate you because of it, then maybe it’s best you ended things because you were expecting someone to see how amazing you were. And maybe you weren’t. Maybe you weren’t amazing. Maybe you weren’t special enough to change him, to “fix” him (because all men are broken, right?) and wake him up.

Is that too harsh?

Here’s my story: Several years ago, I dated a young woman who had a lot going for her. She was smart, funny, kind-hearted, and attractive. But once we started dating, I have to say, I realized all of that was really just an image that she projected. She was needy, insecure, unpredictable, and mean spirited. I tried to address this with her, to tell her “Hey, it really embarrassed me when you did this. Can we talk about that?” but in the end, her behavior got worse and worse.

A few weeks after we broke up, two of her best friends reached out to me to say they felt she was “a horrible person” and apologized, just human-to-human, for her behavior. I thanked them, and even offered my own apologies for her behavior towards them, for supporting her and for allowing her to treat them badly as well. I was convinced she “had a good reason” and had to apologize for being complicit in shitty behavior.

It took me a while to come to terms with that relationship, with the way that I endured her emotional abuse and with the way that I allowed her to make me believe I deserved it. At the time, I thought “she just doesn’t see how amazing I am – maybe I can show her!” and so I did all kinds of romantic gestures and really tried. Put myself out there. But the more I did, the more it was wasted. Flowers were left to rot. Dinner was left uneaten. Efforts to communicate were brushed aside. And in all of this, my thought was that I needed to try harder to show her. Maybe if I could prove how amazing I was, she would finally see it, would see me, would love me the way I loved her. I could make it better.

But, as you already know from your own experience, that’s not how the story played out. Things got worse until my inability to be good enough, worthy enough – just be enough – and her lack of emotional instability caused us to break up.

Sometimes, I miss her – or at least her better qualities. But the older I get, the more I realize how different we were and I’m grateful our relationship ended where it did when it did. Nothing I could have done would have gotten her to see how amazing I was to her – and the older I get, the more I realize how amazing I really was and how much was wasted on her. Nothing I did or said or could have been would have ever been enough to stop her friends and family from telling her that it wasn’t her fault, it was mine, that I wasn’t good enough. Nothing could have stirred her out of her own dark world, her mental and emotional problems. And nothing could have stopped her from having clouded judgement.

In other words, I wasn’t enough. And I never could have been.

Coming back to that question, was it my responsibility to prove to her how amazing I was (and still am)? Was it her responsibility to grow up and be an adult? Maybe it was both. Maybe it was neither. But instead of staying there, we – and I mean, really, you and I; both of us, Friend –  have to learn to move past the damage that a emotionally vacant loved one left us with. We have shrug our shoulders, and come to terms with the fact that people, even good people, will sabotage a good thing. And that there’s no point in resenting them for that because this is (or could be) true of ourselves as well. We will put up with relationships that hurt us because we want to be loved – and because we’re not sure what else is out there. Sometimes, many times, it’s not enough to know better. It’s not enough to be aware of it. Sometimes people make mistakes, even mistakes concerning us, and yet we must forgive them and accept this as their reality so that we can grow and learn and move on.

One last note: you say you broke things off because he “wasn’t good for you.” I support that, without knowing (or needing to know) the details. When it comes to the point where a partner isn’t good for you, it’s time to end it. I don’t want to discourage you from having an ideal partner in mind, of conceptualizing what makes a good relationship, and living into that ideal until it becomes a reality. But (and I think is a very important “but”), what are you going to do every time your partner fails you in some way? If they are not emotionally present the way you want them to be, or claim you “need” them to be? Another way of asking this is: Are you building trapdoors for an exit? Are you playing Relationship Hokey-Pokey, with one foot in and one foot out? Because what stands out to me here is that you are saying “men can’t see the combo” but you didn’t see or hear the messages this person was communicating to you. They “weren’t good for you” and it’s only recently that you figured that out.

Friend, do not allow someone else’s mistake to harden your heart.

I want to encourage you to grow and learn, to accept your limitations, and to recognize that you are always changing. Be mindful of this change, and move towards positive change rather than allowing the hurt and disappointment to take root and continue to hurt you in the days, weeks, maybe even months that follow. Take comfort in the people around you who know you and can encourage you – not the false encouragement that says you are perfect, but the kind of encouragement that accepts you, your faults, and motivates you to live life to the fullest while you have one.

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