Relational Availability

Breakups-Image-over-clouds-940x627

by Randall S. Frederick

Q: I’ve been talking to someone online for a few weeks now, and it feels like we’ve hit a wall. She won’t return text messages, doesn’t want to talk on the phone anymore, and it feels like she’s ghosting on me. A few days ago, I sent her a message saying as much and she assured me that it wasn’t me – she was busy that week and apologized. But now she’s doing it again and I’m not sure what to do. We met up recently and I’m wondering if, after we met up, she just wasn’t feeling it anymore. My friends say to give her time and maybe she’ll come back around, but this is really stressing me out. I want to be a “good guy” (whatever that means) and give her space, not pressure her or chase her, but then again I don’t want to just let this go either.

A: Sounds like she has put you on the backburner, bud. Simple as that.

I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations, but when it comes to relationships I’m a firm believer that if someone wants to talk to you, they will find a way. If they’re not making contact, then they probably don’t want to talk.

My advice to you is don’t press it. Don’t be that guy. Don’t even allow yourself to go down that road where you “check up” on her or look through her Facebook photos, her check-ins, or whatever. If you do that – pay attention here – you are starting to lose control of what makes you a great person. Accept that this person is trying to get away and that the mature thing is to accept this reality, swallow your feelings, and move on.

Guys tend to fixate on a woman, or obsess, because they start to lose a sense of who they are and what they are about. As Eddy Baller writes,

They don’t realize that their infatuation is fueled by neediness and a lack of options. Usually the object of desire isn’t even the kind of person the obsessed guy thinks she is either, she’s just an avatar (a character or representation) that was created in his mind. Why? Because he doesn’t know anything about her; he just filled in the blanks and is imagining a woman who is probably a lot different than the real person.

You know, your situation happens to a lot of people. Even me. My friends. People I work with, study with, and know well. So I want to break down a few different instances here, maybe go a little longer than I would usually, and spend time coming at this from a few different angles. In short,

  • Stalking v. Knowing What You Want – When you know what you want (a good thing), you can get carried away and obsess over it (not a good thing). Know where those lines are at and give space to allow your partner to meet you there.
  • Emotional Investment v. Withdrawl – Wanting a passionate love is a good thing, but not everyone is ready for that. If you become overly invested the more someone pulls away, you’ve created a very unbalanced ‘ship.
  • Being a “Good” Guy – Whatever being a “good guy” means, it never means making someone else uncomfortable. Never.
  • New Relationships Are Tricky (whether we are committed or not) – You’re still trying to figure each other out ad if your partner makes an early exit, that’s okay. You can’t fault someone for seeing you put your best face on and getting disappointed when you start showing who you really are.
  • Recognizing the Loss You Feel – If you feel sad, feel sad. It’s normal and healthy to grieve – but recognize what it is you are grieving. Is it this particular person (probably not) or the idea of happiness you attached to them (probably so).
  • Recognizing That Dismissive People Are “Not Cool” – Whenever you fail to treat someone with dignity and respect, you are the loser. Every time. It’s “not cool” to ignore someone and act like they are not a human with feelings.

Stalking versus Knowing What You Want

I want to get this out of the way: intense emotions generally make men appear “crazy and unpredictable.” Intense emotions generally make women appear “crazy and emotional.” Neither of these statements are fair, but whether or not they are fair, they tend to stick. So let’s talk about intense emotions for a moment.

You seem like the kind of guy who knows what he wants and enjoys communicating – you say that you communicated well previously through texting and talking on the phone. Then you met up. And now that she’s not as available, you feel stressed out. That tells me that you really liked her and, because you know what you want, you’re feeling a level of anxiety because she’s not responding the way she used to. Many people – guys and girls – go through the same experiences, the same feelings, as what you describe. It is exceptionally frustrating and disappointing when someone demotes you without notice.

You say this is really stressing you out, and I think it’s great that you are able to say that and to own your feelings. Typically, people resort to name calling. “It’s not my fault, she’s just a bitch!” But you? You’re identifying what you’re feeling and that’s a great start. You have a right to feel stressed out, to be disappointed, and to wonder what happened but now I want to challenge you to figure out where that stress originates from – is it because of this particular situation, the feeling that “all women act like this” or a general sense of disappointment with dating culture? Because what I’m betting here is that sure, this was a disappointing event, but you’re feeling anxious because you don’t see a way forward. You don’t know where to go. And you’re “stressed out” because you don’t have an optimistic outlook for your dating life in the future.

What I feel is that you are the kind of person who wants to love someone really well, to be a passionate and fully invested partner. That’s awesome! That’s a positive quality. But if you allow that side of yourself to turn, it becomes very unhealthy very quickly. You could fixate and believe this person was “The One” and that if things don’t work out with this one person, you’ll die alone with your 14 cats eating your face. So you get angry. You feel like this person stole something from you, and after all, it’s because you deserve respect and attention. As you said, you’re a “good guy”!

That’s the wrong direction, bucko.

I want to challenge you to keep examining that stress and anxiety you are feeling because it sounds to me like you have allowed your good quality to become your biggest problem – you’re ready for a committed, sustained, “all in” relationship and I would caution you that wanting those things can turn very quickly into something really awful. So pay attention to that and don’t let knowing what you want become scary. That may very well be the reason she cut off communication, after all – you were too intense and scared her.

You need to be stronger than that. Recognize that you want a healthy kind of love and if she is not meeting you there, then you are powerless. You have to step to the side. Don’t let another person’s indecision mess you up.

Emotional Investment versus Withdrawl

A few months ago, a friend of mine from grad school, Kasey, was faced with the same situation. She really liked a guy, but he kept disappearing on her. She confronted him on it and he reassured her that he really did like her and would do better now that they had talked, but within a few days he went back to his old pattern and she was really “stressed out” about all over again. Kasey is so amazing, I think any guy who is able to spend time with her (including myself) is better for it. Super funny, super smart, has an adult job, and she’s a great conversationalist. I think the world of her! But so what? For some reason, the guys around her kept flaking out. Finally, she decided to stop chasing guys and recognize those signs of indecision more quickly. She recognized that she was getting emotionally invested in guys who, for whatever reason, we neither matching her nor even showing up. They were withdrawing. And so, as they pulled away, she was becoming more emotionally invested.

You’re right. It may very well be that the two of you met up, she looked you over, and wasn’t feeling it anymore. When I was growing up, I was told all the time that “boys care more about appearances than girls do.” What a lie! Women absolutely care what a guy looks like! Girls go crazy for a sharp dressed man. So if you’re taking care of yourself and putting your best dressed foot forward, then there’s not much else you can do. You tried. And she wanted something different. She’s perfectly entitled to feel that way because she’s human, so let her go look for what she wants and bless her on her way out.

Today, Kasey is in an amazing relationship, is posting happy photos with her guy, and they are every bit the cute couple you look forward to feeling sick over. But it’s really because Kasey recognized that she was amazing, she was really trying, and if her partner wasn’t willing to meet her, then that was his loss. When she began to see relationships as a compliment to her otherwise full life instead of another thing she had to pursue, her dating game changed entirely.

Think about the degree of your investment and withdrawl with your last three relationships – who was the “giver” and who was the “taker”? Who loved more, and who loved less? Who was more invested? Those are very important questions, whether you were both invested, because your mind will seek to fill a void. If she “abandons” you without an explanation or without closure, your mind will inevitably try to fill the unexplained places with reasons that may or may not be true. Knowing whether you overinvested, whether she was equally invested, or whether there had been signs of this for weeks and months (and you just ignored them because you have rose-tinted Love Blinders on) will help keep the memories true and accurate.

Going forward, what you can begin to learn about yourself and your partners is that sometimes you need to leave space for your partner to meet you. If you are always the one chasing them, there will come a day when you chase them away. You will have established a pattern, and given your partner permission to not love you equally – to take until they are full and then, when they no longer need you, off they go feeling full and loved and not at all invested in you.

Which brings me to my next point.

Being a “Good Guy”

What does that mean? What does being a “good guy” look like? Because you’re not being a “good guy” when you love her more, are attentive, and are prioritizing her. Whenever I hear a guy tell me he “just wants to be a good guy,” I’m not even sure what that means. It means something different for every guy, and too often “good” is relative. Good for whom? Good for him, his ego, his own sense of self-importance? “Good” for her? It’s really just a confusing statement all around.

Okay, okay. Maybe you’re trying to be “a good guy” and “give her time to work it out.” But what if you lean out and she leans out and neither of you manage to lean back in?

When you put yourself out there and a partner is no longer meeting you halfway but is instead backing off, then you need to back off as well. If a partner backs off, you should too. The best relationships tend to include partners who “mirror” each other because being in a relationship is a shared experience – if she leans in, you should too. If she leans back, you should too. A healthy relationship has to be a shared experience, or you need to reassess.

Look. The girl either likes you or she likes someone else. I guarantee you, if someone wants to share their time or energy with you, they will. If this woman isn’t responding to you, you need to let her go. Don’t fixate. Don’t allow yourself to get anxious. Remind yourself that you are seeking something that is obviously more than she can give you right now and go invest yourself in someone who is better able to meet you halfway. Maybe this woman needs time. Maybe she needs space. Maybe she’s busy. Whatever her reason, don’t run after her and whatever you do, do not make her feel unsafe. No matter what “being a good guy” means, you’re not being a “good guy” when you do that.

When friends of mine find themselves in this situation, my vote is to pull away. If she wants to talk, she’ll let you know. Chasing her doesn’t make you look like a “good guy” – it makes you look like a stalker. And again, any time a man feels emotions strongly, he is considered dangerous. Right or wrong, that’s where we’re at. As Dr. Jed Diamond writes,

For more than forty years I have specialized in working with men. I’m seeing a disturbing trend of increased male irritability and anger, along with a rise in the depression and suicide rates for males. In doing research for my book… I’ve seen a disturbing trend where more and more men feel disconnected, disrespected, and angry. We see the anger acted out in violent attacks such as the ones we saw in Orlando and also in the rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump.  We also see it in a rise of male loneliness. 

When I speak to large groups of men and women, I ask the women how many have three or more close friends that they can talk to about their hopes and dreams as well as their fears and frustrations. Almost all the women raise their hands. When I ask the same question of the men in the audience, almost no one raises their hand. Many men don’t have even one close friend that they can share their most intimate concerns with. For men who do have a close friend, it is often his wife. If there are stresses in the relationship, as is true for all marriages, the man has no one who he can open up to and with whom he can share his feelings.

Loneliness, Dr. Diamond writes, is the number one stressor for men but it goes unnoticed because culture depicts a “real man” as someone who doesn’t need to talk, doesn’t have emotions (much less show them – my goodness!), and is perfectly fine that way. So, the fact that you’re seeking more and wanting to talk about what’s happening while she abandons you (i.e. “treats you like a man”) can be exceptionally frustrating. Being a “good man” means you recognize that she is treating you like a man and, in a perverted sense, “respecting” you but is also treating you in ways that an emotionally intelligent person has every right to call out as bullshit.

You want more. That’s awesome. But you’re already a “good man” because of that, whether or not she interacts with you.

New Relationships are tricky, whether we are committed or not

Let’s flip this around. What do you do when you’re not into someone? You might let a text message slip by unanswered. Maybe you find that you’re “busy.” You’re not necessarily ghosting on them – they’re just not a priority to you. I know it’s not cool to say this, but you’re not obligated to give your full attention to someone you just met. Their dignity as a human being does not rest on whether you have a conversation. As Emily Blackwood puts it,

If he wanted to be with you, he would be with you. You deserve more.

About 99% of the time, dating doesn’t make any sense. With all the ways you can meet and talk with men (both online and IRL), the possibility of you getting confused and misreading signals is insanely high. Making the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt even more crucial. And while yes, he could have REALLY missed your second date because his car broke down on the highway and he had to hitchhike to the nearest gas station, but he could also be playing you for a fool. The sad part is, most of the time you’ll just never know.

Though I’ll always be the one to preach for believing in the best in people, dating is an area where you have to put yourself first. You have to be honest with yourself when trying to see if a guy is genuine about whatever situation is keeping you two apart, or if he’s lying. This is usually easier said than done, because once you like a guy, you want him to be the one.You ignore all red flags and warning signs with the belief that the goodness you know is inside him will prevail through all the bullshit he’s currently feeding you. Sounds kind of insane, right?

Well the best way to navigate past your own emotional attachments is to think of your current situation as logically as possible. What is really keeping you apart? Is he making an actual effort to resolve things as quickly as he can? Compare what he’s saying to what he’s doing.

And if you find that he’s massaging the truth more than he’s telling it or that he’s pretty much leading you on (for probably no reason other than sex), then let him go. Don’t let his smooth talking fool you. If he wanted to be with you, he would be with you. End of story.

Specifically to you and what you’re going through right now, I also want to point out that it sounds like you got invested in a relationship really quickly. Are you dating? Are you “talking”? Are you having sex? There are some blurry lines here. You say you’ve only met up once. That stands out to me, so I’m wondering whether you are the kind of person who overinvests or invests in the relationship too quickly. Clearly, this ‘ship (whatever kind of ‘ship that is) has affected you.

I’ve noticed that people tend to invest really quickly because the nature of dating has shifted. We only have 144 characters to communicate. We only have 7 seconds of video. We only have a handful of photos to summarize a concert we went to. It’s nuts that so much of the world now has to push themselves through that door of meeting someone new in such a small amount of time. So, to accommodate, we throw ourselves out there as fast as possible and hope something sticks. It’s awful, isn’t it? And what’s worse, we never know how the other person will respond. Will they like this flash of who we are? Will they see who we really are, how amazing a partner we can be, or will they feel like we’re too much and move on? It sounds to me like you’re stuck in this awful situation right now and my heart goes out to you. You threw yourself out there and unknowingly overinvested yourself. You overshared. You put too much of yourself out there in an attempt to communicate and now you feel like you’ve put yourself out there and got rejected for who you wereI would encourage you to do a few things here.

  • One, let her go completely. Do not expect her to call you back. It’s over. She may call you a few months down the line when she gets bored, but brother, you need to move on and stop allowing her to put you on the backburner, to ghost on you, and to keep hanging around waiting for her to respond to a text. Stop. Completely. It’s over.
  • Two, spend a few minutes reflecting on what you liked about this person then spend a few minutes examining what it was that made you feel so anxious. Relationships are supposed to be a good thing, to bring us comfort and joy. Relationships are supposed to remind us that we’re not alone and give us an opportunity to focus care and attention on another person. Healthy relationships aren’t supposed to stress us out and make us feel the things you’re describing.
  • Three, accept that you don’t matter. That’s probably too pessimistic to say in polite company, but let’s face it. None of us matter. We can love with everything we have and it still won’t be enough. All of humanity could join together and give their next paycheck to end world hunger, or wiping out a nation’s debt, but it will never be enough. Your ability to love, your ability to do a good job at work, all of the books you’ve read? To all of these things I say, “So what?” It doesn’t matter. People love and then they stop loving you. All of life is a series of adventures, it’s just that some of us are better storytellers.

Recognizing the loss you feel

You feel stupid right now. It’s totally natural to feel stupid as you sit and go over your time together with someone and see it play out a dozen different ways, all resulting in this person vanishing on you. Like I said earlier, the mind seeks to fill a void. And with all of the “answers” you are now giving yourself, the memory begins to change – maybe when she said something, you heard it one way and are not interpreting it differently. But keep in mind you feel stupid, but you’re not stupid. I promise. This person abandoned you because they were not emotionally or mentally mature enough to recognize you as a human being and say, “Hey, I think/feel X and now I think/feel X and so take care.” You feel different because you were treated differently. Be strong enough to recognize the difference between how you feel and who you are.

That’s not to say feelings are not important, though. Grief and gratitude are both forms of love. It’s trendy right now to exit a relationship with “gratitude” and rainbows and visits to the beach with filtered photos. And that’s great for you, if that’s where you’re at. But grief is one of the ways we come to accept what it is that we are feeling, what we feel we have lost, and where we find ourselves now. I think both sides of that coin, both gratitude and grief, can blind us. We can be so “grateful” that we fail to acknowledge what hurts us and why. In like turn, we can get so caught up in our sadness that we fail to accept the joy in our lives – how another person made us feel good about ourselves, new things we learned from them, and why it may very well be for the best that we never see one another again.

What I want you to do is fully accept how you are feeling. Embrace it. Luxuriate in it. Allow yourself to feel the full measure of grief and disappointment, but then I want you to move on and accept the good things you learned about yourself and the world. Or do it in reverse, if that is how you choose. Start with your joy and work your way towards disappointment. You can only feel so much of an emotion before you are empty. Recognize what you’re feeling and why. Name what you’re feeling, accept it, and make it a point to recognize those limits, accept them, and move on.

For example, the last time someone “ghosted” on me the way you were ghosted, I felt really shitty. I felt like there were a hundred reasons why she vanished on me – and she was probably right for doing it! But then I said, “Hey. I’m still pretty young. I’m not super attractive, but I know I’m still handsome. I’m well educated, and I know I’m a responsible, mature, and very loving partner. If she wants someone else, that’s awesome. God bless her. I’m not going to keep feeling depressed about this, I’m going to figure out why I feel depressed, why I feel sad, why I feel angry, and then I’m going to get past this. She was so amazing – but so am I. And because I’m pretty great, I’m not going to waste another minute living this way when I know I have a lot of love and happiness to give.”

And just like that, I moved on. Which is what I want you to do also – accept what happened. But don’t ever let what happened blind you to your great qualities and your ability to love someone who will love you back.

Recognizing that anyone who is dismissive of you is not cool

Finally, I want to point out something pretty obvious. Anyone who is treats you dismissively or does not regard your feelings as important is not a good fit for you. They may very well be a good person in other areas, but to disappear without an explanation is very immature – it shows that this person does not think you deserve any attention, it shows that they don’t value the time they spent with you, it shows that they feel, think, believe and are acting like you’re not deserving of dignity and a final conversation to close things out. They are, coming back to my own experience, “not cool.”

You may never know why she gave you the shoulder, but with some of the ideas discussed here, I feel you are off to a good start to getting over the disappoint you are feeling right now, taking time for a self inventory, and making yourself available once again.

Let me know how you’re doing. Keep me posted.

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