Ask Polly: What Am I Doing Wrong With Men?

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Photo: Janice Lin

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Dear Polly,

I keep ending up in the same situation and I’m trying to figure out why. A little history …

I was a really shy child and socially anxious (I joined the Girl Scouts when I was 8, showed up for the first camping trip, but was too nervous to actually get on the bus and then I was too embarrassed to ever go back). However, I discovered the wonders of liquid courage in high school and became more socially outgoing. Still, I had only dated one guy and kissed maybe three by the time I went to college. Most of my friends had dated multiple people or even had a few serious, by high-school standards, boyfriends. I wanted that. I wanted a boyfriend.

But I still loved a good drink and a fun party and in college and after, I fell into a pattern of drunken hookups. Nothing serious ever came of these, obviously, but poor, naïve me, I always hoped something might. I would mistake a guy’s drunken lust and affection for genuine interest in me. Even when I would meet someone and go on a date, I’d usually sleep with him on the first or second date and then it would devolve into a hookup or he wouldn’t be interested anymore and that was the last I’d hear from him.

But I still wanted a boyfriend. Someone to share all the highs and lows with. Someone to spend time with doing fun things or even just reading next to each other in bed. Someone to listen to and talk to. All my close friends have serious partners and I am tired of being a third wheel. I know I was approaching it from the wrong end (literally??) before, so I’ve been consciously making an effort not to do this in the past year. I’ve been waiting to have sex until I know someone better. I’ve been trying online dating and letting friends set me up with their friends, but I’m still ending up with guys who seem to change their minds once we have sex or all of a sudden do a 180 and decide that they don’t like me enough to date me after all.

Most recently, I met a guy through a dating app and our first date was awesome. We met for drinks and talked for six hours about art and science and politics and travel. He checked in to make sure I got home safe and set up another date that night. Our next date was just as wonderful. Our third date went well, too, but something seemed a little off. Afterward, he texted me that evening and apologized and said he was having an off day. I started to freak out, but told myself that I was being paranoid and I just expected him to leave because that’s what had happened in the past. But then he stopped texting me and when I asked about making plans he was busy or he would get back to me or whatever. And, voilà, two weeks later he finally tells me he doesn’t know what he wants from a relationship right now and he needs to focus on himself, but he thinks I’m so kind and smart, blah blah blah, and he’s sorry if he led me on, but he’s not dating anyone else or looking to (I guess that’s supposed to make me feel better?).

The problem is, I can’t get over this guy and why he changed his mind so suddenly. Usually, I’ve felt stupid when this happens and I can move on because it’s partially been my fault for continuing to hook up with people when I know they don’t want a relationship. But I didn’t get any of that from this guy. I know I didn’t know him that well or for that long, but it felt so good and so right. How could I have misread the situation this much? I thought this was going to be different from all the other guys and relationships. I thought I was doing everything right.

I want to ask him why. I want to know if he knew before we met that he wasn’t looking for anything serious or if he changed his mind after one of our dates. Should I have told him right away what I was looking for in a relationship? Or maybe I showed interest too quickly. Could he tell that I liked him a lot (maybe too much too early) and it scared him off? And I want to ask him if that was supposed to be a good-bye forever text or if we could see each other again once he’s figured his shit out. I guess I’m hoping that he can answer all these questions and in turn provide answers to what I’m doing wrong. So instead I’m asking you.

Sincerely,

Too Many Questions?

Dear Too Many Questions,

This scenario has nothing to do with the men themselves. They aren’t stupid or bad for not liking you. They aren’t mysterious or important for not liking you. They simply exist. You are repeatedly imbuing them with power, pretending that they hold the key to your true identity and your true mistakes, when they just don’t. I want you to see clearly how this scenario demeans you. That bichon frise is not demeaning you. You are demeaning yourself.

And even if the bichon frise in question could offer up an encyclopedic analysis of every single thing you did wrong, from moment No. 1 (Talked Too Much While Waiting for Drink at the Bar) to moment No. 457 (Fidgeted and Laughed Nervously While Leaving His Apartment), isolating every single time you made a noise or a motion that bugged him, what good would that do? These opinions would only make you more worried, more neurotic, more intent on FIXING WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU. And would a man capable of loving you share this perspective? Probably not.

Listen to me now: There is nothing wrong with you outside of your fixation on what’s wrong with you.

I am happily married — ADORED, EVEN! — and I could walk out the door right now and talk to 200 men in a row and only one of them wouldn’t find me wanting. That leaves 199 men to hold forth on everything fucked up about me, at length. (“Holy shit, what’s with her arrogance? Why does she talk that way?”) And every single thing those dudes said would sound, to me, like evidence of exactly how I’m rocking it out. Oh, you don’t like my baggy jeans? Well, I dig my truck-driver style. You don’t like the way I sing R&B in the kitchen with my hair standing straight up on my ugly horse head? Like I fucking matter? Like anyone wants to hear my stupid white-lady version of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It”? Well, I require this level of obnoxiousness to feel alive. So move the fuck along and leave me to my motherfucking MAGICAL KINGDOM.

But even these examples I offer of my wrongness don’t tell the whole story, because I also talk too much and laugh nervously and fumble and overanalyze everything, maybe just like you. I’ll bet I’m 15 times more jittery and weird about things than you are, in fact, and I’m 45 years old! The jittery bullshit is also part of who I am. I would not be who I am without it. I would not have nearly as much to offer you without my squishy shitty sad soggy places. I can’t turn my back on those places and still breathe fire.

But I will say this: I’ve had a realization lately that sometimes I’m drawn to people who seem a little MEH about me, and I’m really questioning THAT right now. I’m really noticing how much I enjoy getting stuck in the quicksand of other people’s indifference. And because lately I’ve been singing in the kitchen and dancing and noticing the bright, shiny impulses of my big fucking brain more than usual, I’m struck by how weird it is that I’ve chosen to chase people who are lukewarm about me, and I’ve also — often — chosen not to take big risks or break out of my comfort zone. I’ve chosen to live in a cave for much of my life.

I lived in a cave because at some point I decided it was wrong to be BIG and loud and arrogant and alive. I lived in a cave because I took my cues from the people who were ambivalent about me instead of taking my cues from the people who loved me like crazy. I lived in a cave because I handed out scoring sheets and asked everyone to score me and then I paid special attention to the NOT VERY SATISFIED CUSTOMERS and ignored the people who said, “We love the fuck out of you, five stars, keep up the good work!”

This is what I see in you, Too Many Questions. You have chosen the life of the cave dweller. Stop reading the tea leaves of indifferent male faces and get the fuck on with your life. I know you want love. Love will find you eventually, some time after you stop asking questions and start answering them. Stop asking indifferent strangers about the brilliant sparks emanating from your big head. Indifferent strangers were born to tell you that those sparks are something scary, a house on fire, a burning bush, powers beyond their control, fearsome and loathsome and wrong.

Sometimes I think we women (and many men, too!) were built to ask questions. We shouldn’t hate ourselves for that. But maybe we need to stop it with the around-the-clock polling and feel, within our hearts, what we know is true, and proceed from that truth.

You are the one who decides what you are. You don’t need to poll the population. Instead of imagining that you are fucking things up with the best, most awesome guy in the universe over and over again, imagine that you are merely working your way through a tepid mass of dudes, 200 strong. You are probably on No. 133 right now. Imagine getting the exact same reaction another 66 times! Now that you see these guys as INHERENTLY INDIFFERENT UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE, what will you do differently, for your sake instead of for their sake? You will sleep with fewer of these guys, I bet. You will do less gesturing and pointing and running around in circles to impress them. (Not that being animated is bad!) You will stop cutting yourself off mid-sentence. (Although I continue to second-guess myself, and that is fine! Fuck it!) Maybe you’ll just start to say things like, “I’m not feeling this.” Maybe you’ll fucking decide for yourself whether HE is worth it or not, first and foremost.

What kind of reward comes from trying to win over 66 indifferent men, hoping for their stamp of approval? What kind of strength can you draw from that? What if, instead, you cycled through 66 indifferent men with a kind of detached, openhearted indifference of your own? What if you took away their power to judge you, and you relied on your own judgment, your own instincts, your own sense of your power? What if you stopped feeling so seduced by quicksand? What if you simply stepped around it and moved on?

What if you tried asking different sorts of questions, questions about your life in the absence of men: Why isn’t your work more engrossing? Why aren’t your friends giving you their all? Why can’t you feel your feelings unless there’s a guy in the picture? Why can’t you follow your own whims and honor your own values and desires and buy yourself a nice meal even when you’re not on a date with some dude? When will you start giving weight to your own experiences? When will you buy a book and read it in the park and stare at the blue sky and say to yourself, HELL YES I AM ALIVE AND I CONTAIN MULTITUDES AND I AM PERFECT JUST THE WAY I AM, RIGHT NOW, RIGHT HERE, TERRIBLE AND JITTERY AND FUCKING PERFECT?

No more questions, then. No more.

You caught me at the exact right time, because this is where I am today. I’m determined to breathe fire today, and I’m not going to slow down just so some fucking hobbit can show me how to do it “the right way.” I know exactly what I’m doing already. I’ve always known, I just didn’t trust myself before.

Let’s trust ourselves and turn our backs on those who don’t. Let’s breathe fire and magic together. Let’s burn your stupid fucking questionnaires and scorecards to ashes, and then let’s fly through the blustery wind together, brilliant and perfect and terrible. Let’s never live under that mountain again.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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