Ask Polly: Why Don’t the Men I Date Ever Truly Love Me?

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Photo: Adam Jones/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

This weekend, after 18 months together, my boyfriend told me that he cared very deeply for me and that we had the best partnership he’d ever experienced, but he did not love me because there was a spark missing. 

So he ended things in a kind and mature way. We’re both in our 30s and the entire thing has been kind and mature and caring (and sexy and vulnerable and honest) from the beginning. I’ve dated my share of guys who were bad partners, and this guy was a good one.

And although I am hurt, I get it. I also know that he was always a little bit on the fence about letting me fully into his life. (Literally and metaphorically: Whenever I would go to his apartment there would never be a place for me to sit. He would have clothes and books and projects piled on every single one of his chairs and his sofa.) 

So I kept waiting for him to start taking the actions that would let me in, and he kept waiting for the spark that would make him want to move forward. And in the meanwhile we made a fun little team. 

In the end, although I am sad that he and I aren't going to continue our team, I respect him and I get it. And, to be honest, at my core I’m feeling a bit of relief. I want someone who wants to let me in fully.

What is flooring me is the piece about how he didn’t love me. None of the guys I’ve dated long-term have ever loved me. They’ve liked me a gosh-darn awful lot, but boy-oh-boy do they not want to pull out those three little words.

And I think I’m lovable. Both in my innate humanness and in my adult life. I have my shit together. I went to a therapist as a preemptive measure because I knew this most recent boyfriend and I were about to have either the breakup conversation or the “let’s start taking steps toward building a life together” conversation, and I wanted to talk through how to approach both scenarios.

My therapist said, “There’s nothing about you that is getting in your own way. You have remarkable communication and emotional-coping skills, and you and your boyfriend have a highly evolved partnership.” She used the words “highly evolved.” She did warn me that the fact that he wasn’t physically making space for me in his apartment was a red flag, which, you know, I knew. We agreed that whatever happened between me and the boyfriend would happen in a mature and respectful way and that I would be able to handle it vis-à-vis my remarkable coping skills, and all of these things have come true and I’m still not fucking lovable? I should be cherished. 

I realize this sounds like a female version of Nice Guy. I'd like to think that there's a difference between "I'm a good person, why won't you date me" and "I'm a good partner, why don't you love me," but maybe there isn't. I also know that the big difference between me and Nice Guy is when I get broken up with, I didn't go, "Whyyyyyyyyyy," I went, "Okay, that's sad, but it's true and right and reasonable." (Nice Guy doesn't know what the truth of a relationship is, and I know what the truth of a relationship is. But I ache that the truth is always "I don't love you, good-bye," instead of "I love you, but good-bye.")

I know I am not owed love. I also wonder sometimes if I don’t know what love actually feels like, since so many grown men have told me it’s been missing from our relationships. (One came back a year later and said, “Oh wow, I did not realize that I loved you when we dated, I am so sorry.”) 

So, Dear Polly, what is love? Why is it missing from my highly evolved partnerships? 

Sparkless

 

Dear Sparkless,

I have two things to tell you. First, this guy was going to dump you no matter what. He says he never had enough of a spark for you. Sometimes men imagine that they're going to be blown away by someone, literally knocked off their feet by a babe straight out of a Doritos commercial. But other times, men just don't find your personality intriguing enough. They might like YOU — being around you, going out to dinner with you, sleeping with you, having brunch with you the next day. But they don't necessarily find themselves fully engaged and interested in who you really are. They don't want to sit and talk unless there are a few cold beers and some snacks nearby. They don't want to walk and talk unless the two of you are on the way to a movie.

I was always paranoid about this when I was younger, because there was always so much evidence that the guy du jour liked being part of a "fun little team" and getting laid regularly and spending time with a talkative, funny woman, but HE DIDN'T NECESSARILY LOVE ME. Even though it made me feel paranoid, I found evidence of this in little things: He wanted to catch a movie instead of having dinner together. He wanted to meet up with his friends after one drink at a bar together. He wanted to listen to the radio in the car instead of talking.

But actually, it's a little rare, to find someone who loves you so much that he just loves to talk, talk, talk with you for hours. Plenty of dudes will want to form a "fun little team" with you, particularly if you're smart and highly evolved and you have your shit together. Your stock will always be high. There will always be lots of dudes with projects strewn all over their apartments who will take in your easygoing nature and your 18-month-long ability to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow indefinitely.

There's nothing wrong with you, in other words. You're probably attracting a wider swath of men than is good for you. They aren't self-selecting themselves out of contention, because you seem perfectly healthy and reasonable. If you seemed impatient or intolerant, you might slough off some of the wishy-washy slackers in the mix. If you were a little temperamental, you might lose all but the most fervent admirers. Instead, you are healthy and sane and no one will object to being a team, and when you hit month 18 you'll (very wisely) assess the situation with your therapist: "Welp, he's either going to pop the question or hit the road, and I need to be fully emotionally prepared for either eventuality."

Okay, this is where the record screeches to a stop. You seriously didn't know if he was going to say "Let's be together forever!" or "I like you bunches, but I never want to see you again!"?

I don't get that. It makes me wonder if you're really showing up or not. It makes me wonder if you don't want, so badly, to be someone's dream girl, that you've got your hands on all of the sliders and the knobs (sorry!) at all times, controlling all the levels to achieve the perfect mix. Does he look impatient? Turn up the tempo. Does he seem bored? Pump up the bass. Does he seem on edge? Turn down the treble. Play up the mid-range.

You write, "I know what the truth of a relationship is." Sometimes when someone writes something that straightforward, it's the least true thing in the entire letter. If you knew the truth of this relationship, wouldn’t you know whether you'd be together for another day or another four decades? Wouldn't I know a thing or two about you or about him? I get that you can't put too many details in your letter, or you might be recognized. But I can't tell from your letter whether you were madly in love with this guy. I don't know if he deserved that love or not. I don't know what all of these other wishy-washy exes were like.

Your letter is all about you. You're really asking me if you're capable of being passionately loved or not. But you haven't told me anything about you. You haven't mentioned any details or any troubles in your past relationships or any overarching flaws you might have or repeating mistakes you might have made. In fact, the most DETAILED bit of your letter is the part where your therapist assures you — before she knows if you'll be getting dumped or getting engaged — that you're 100 percent healthy and evolved and approved for future marriage or future singledom. Either way, you are a government certified, grade-A, consumer-friendly woman, approved for multiple uses, from forming a fun little team to kind, healthy, mature fence-sitting!

Your real problem is that you're sure you have a problem. Because you're pretty sure that you have a problem, you're hiding. You're putting up with whatever. You're never getting ruffled or hurt. When someone breaks up with you, you're not yelling "Whyyyyy?!!!" In fact, you imply that only a weak or less evolved person would do that. You imply that you aren't a weak person, you're not crazy, you're not fucked up, you're evolved, you're healthy, you have proof: Your therapist will vouch for you. You have "remarkable communication and emotional coping skills."

You're so good at being GOOD. But how good are you at being YOU? You know what makes a spark? A real human being with a bad attitude who's tired of moving shit just to sit down in a motherfucker's apartment. A woman who, after 18 months of doing everything together, doesn't sigh and say, "Okay. I'm hurt, but I totally get it." She says, "HOLY FUCK I THOUGHT YOU WERE ABOUT TO POP THE FUCKING QUESTION. THIS IS SUCH A FUCKING CURVEBALL." [Knocks a pile of books off a chair to sit down.] "I just wish I hadn't worn these fucking tall shoes, they're killing me, and I thought I should wear them in case we needed to go out somewhere nice to celebrate!" [Takes off shoes and throws them at the wall.] "GodDAMN IT! FUCK THIS!!!!" [Grabs a sketch from some pile of shitty sketches and rips it into a million pieces. Throws body onto filthy carpet and sobs, noting bits of filth in carpet while sobbing.]

Okay, so that was a dramatization of some messy behavior. I'm not trying to tell you to be more of a psycho and someone will love you completely. But you DO need to be SOMETHING. Are you afraid of being something?

Because let me tell you the god's honest truth: A lot of women out there are afraid of being something. The template for us is pretty clear: We are meant to have clean skin, a pleasant demeanor, and a nice rack. I'm not speaking up against nice racks, Lord knows. But there are lots of ladies around me, everywhere I go, who hesitate to say what they're thinking and feeling. They go with the flow, they never make waves. And eventually, they don't even seem to know what makes them who they are. They live to serve. They read the books that other people are reading. They say the pleasant things that other people are saying. They never put their needs first, unless it indirectly serves someone else — a manicure, some highlights. They make sure everyone around them is 100 percent satisfied. Like grocery-store managers. Like customer service reps. Like masseuses who also give free happy endings.

If that sounds sexist or demeaning, then it's by design. The developed world is packed to the gills with shiny, pretty sheep who will never step on your toes. I know many representatives of the middle-class suburban version of this, and I even know women in creative fields who pull the same "Me, too!" face in everything they do. It's soul-sucking and it's problematic and let me just say, too, that it is a FUCKING SNOOZE.

When someone says to me "I try to be nice" or "We make a good team" or "I like for things to be clean" or "I'm pretty organized," you know what I think? Well, first I think, "I need to be nicer and clean my fucking house a little better." But then I think, "Jesus. Why don't you try being a dick and striking out on your own and making a fucking mess for a change?" And also I can see it in some of these husbands' eyes. This woman is holding it down at home, and God forbid she do anything else.

I know I'm digressing, Sparkless. But you DO have a spark. If you wanted to be swept up by some conformist everyman who replaced the multiple projects with a clean condo and a straight job, you could do that quite easily. There's a more average bear that will love, love, love this highly evolved, communicative self you present to the world.

I think you want an artist boyfriend because YOU want to be an artist. You aren't writing me so that I'll tell you that some man will love you someday. You aren't writing to me to prove that you're healthy enough and now you're ready to be cherished. You're writing to me because you're ready to cherish yourself.

Like you yourself wrote: YOU SHOULD BE CHERISHED.

I want you to get out some colorful markers, and I want you to write these words 50 times, on the same page. You SHOULD BE cherished. You should be cherished. You. Should. Be. Cherished.

You don't cherish yourself. You do whatever what's-his-face wants to do, for the sake of the fun little team, for the sake of demonstrating your good communication skills. Just admit it. You never draw lines in the sand. He says, "We need to talk, it's serious." And you don't say, "WHAT do you MEAN motherfucking WHAT?!! TELL ME RIGHT NOW." You say, "Okay," and then make an emergency trip to your therapist and discuss all of the possibilities, and then you show up the next day, well-rested and prepared to discuss either ending it or nailing it down. That sounds perfectly sane and wonderful, but THAT'S NOT FAIR TO YOU. You are cherishing him, and cherishing your therapist, and cherishing sanity, and cherishing evolved-lady living, BUT YOU AREN'T CHERISHING YOU.

Don't you deserve something, beyond falling right in line with the other perfect, shiny ladies who deserve doting husbands? Don't you deserve a bigger, brighter existence than the ones they might be perfectly satisfied with?

You aren't satisfied with "evolved." That's not enough for you. If it were, you'd be more sure of your spark, and remarks about lacking a spark wouldn't get under your skin. You wouldn't take some dude's ambivalence personally.

And look, you'd also feel more alive and less worried if you felt comfortable with simply being GOOD. Because even the ladies who step right in line and aim to please, they have lots of spark, if that's what makes them happy. YOU WANT MORE THAN THAT. The lack of spark within you comes from the conflict between WHO YOU TRY TO BE and WHAT YOU REALLY WANT FOR YOURSELF. You want more. You act like you don't want more, you act like you're satisfied, but in fact, you want a lot more.

I don't know what, specifically, you want. Maybe you want the freedom to say exactly what you mean, instead of saying the "right" thing. Maybe you want to be assertive and bossy but you don't like women who do that, so you're afraid. Maybe you want to be the one with the projects strewn all over the place.

I used to date men who were obsessed with their creative projects. After a while, I realized that I didn't want THEM. I wanted to BE them. I thought being close to that energy might be enough. I thought that being loved by someone who was willing to give himself completely to the creative process was enough. I met a musician once who was consumed by his creations. I put him on a pedestal. I had so much crazy lust for him, it was almost stupid. But it wasn't him — I hardly knew him — it was his focus, his total involvement and belief in what he did, that made me crazy. I wanted to have that kind of passion for myself. I SHOULD'VE BEEN CHERISHED. I refused to cherish myself. It was easier to pretend that all of that magic and passion belonged to someone else, and that I had to ask permission to get a little taste of it.

You should be cherished, too. Cherish yourself. What kind of work are you doing in therapy? Is it time to stop being so good and start discovering what's going to transform your life into something big and vibrant and shocking? Do you want to get little pats on the head and control your expectations and quietly hope for more? Or do you want to say, for once and for all, NO MORE KIND, MATURE SLEEPWALKING. NO MORE WISHY-WASHY DUDES WHO LOVE THEMSELVES BUT FIND ME WANTING.

It's time to forget about being lovable. And in fact, it's time to forsake someone else's idea of what gives you a spark or no spark. Block the "other" from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher. You are the eminently lovable and the lover. You are a million brilliant sparks, flashing against a midnight sky. Stop making room for someone else to sit down. Fuck "good" partners. Fuck waiting to be let in. You are already in. You are in. Cherish yourself.

Fuck wondering if you're lovable. Fuck asking someone else, "Am I there yet?" Fuck listening for the answer. Fuck waiting, alone, for a verdict that never comes. Don't grow up to be one of those women with a perpetual question mark etched into her brow: Am I good? Am I lovable? Am I enough?

You are here. Sit down. Feel your potential in this moment. You have accepted too little for too long. That is changing today. Breathe in. Draw a picture of yourself. Tape it to the wall, with the words: YOU ARE HERE. You are here. Cherish yourself.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.