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how many truly equal relationships really exist?
February 12, 2013 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Is there more truth to "treat them mean keep them keen" than people will admit? In my observation most guys seem to be drawn to women who are a bit less invested than they are. I hate to generalize but I don't know how to square what people tell me is true with what a lifetime of experience and observation has born out. Is this just an essential part of human nature that I should learn to accept?

I've heard many times that only abnormal people respond to emotional unavailability, yet every guy I've been involved with seemed to be turned on by it. I've also noticed this in relationships between people I've known. I guess it's possible that all of my boyfriends and most of my friends'/acquaintances'/relatives' partners have been unhealthy but it seems unlikely given the number of people involved. I'm not saying every guy responds to the chase but it just seems like it's more of a majority than a minority.

People always jump to an extreme when you make a generalization. Perhaps they imagine that emotional unavailability equates to rampant cheating or neglect, the kind of behavior that would turn most healthy people off. But I'm talking about a more subtle form of emotional unavailability that I don't think the guys in these relationships are even conscious of.

I am naturally affectionate. In past relationships when I felt a guy was withdrawing I tried small experiments to see if my intuition was right that they were turned off by my availability. The results were usually the same. As an example, if we were texting and I gave them short, noncommittal responses or even just waited a few minutes to respond they would start sending me increasingly more ardent and frantic texts.

Whenever these guys talked about exes that they loved the most I discovered these women were unavailable in one way another -- either less invested in their relationship or not even interested in dating them. Here's what's strange. These guys didn't even seem to realize that they were responding to this quality or that these women weren't fully available. Yet the facts they presented me with made it clear.

I also notice it in small ways all the time when observing the relationships of friends and relatives. In the relationships where the guys seem most invested the women are usually keeping them on their toes, but I'm sure none of these men are even aware of how their relationships look to the outside. How do I mean keeping them on their toes? Subtly critical of their partners, less affectionate, making them do a lot of the heavy lifting, but never to the extent of abuse or blatant mistreatment.

Often these marriages are perfectly stable and happy so the dynamic isn't necessarily unhealthy, but it's just so rare that I witness a truly equal partnership.

In short my gut based on life experience is that most men respond to slight indifference. Yet I keep getting told that the opposite is true! Is my intuition off base? Also doesn't it makes perfect sense that people would value what they can't fully have? The second part to my question is how do I find an equal relationship where I get as much as I give?
posted by timsneezed to Human Relations (58 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
In one of his books, John Gottman says that a man's openness to be influenced by his female partner is a successful relationship sign, while the opposite isn't statistically relevant. His theory is that women tend to defer to men a lot more than men defer to women, and so only those relationships in which the men reciprocally share power are generally successful.

Could it be that you're noticing male deference and not female deference, since female deference is so common as to be unnoticeable? The examples you give seem to be more about female-you pulling back in order to balance things, or other men stepping forward in order to balance things, and not really that unequal.
posted by jaguar at 12:23 PM on February 12, 2013 [28 favorites]


The examples you give seem to be more about female-you pulling back in order to balance things

That is, you said the guys were already withdrawing, so you pulling back just rights the scales, so to speak.
posted by jaguar at 12:24 PM on February 12, 2013


I am naturally affectionate. In past relationships when I felt a guy was withdrawing I tried small experiments to see if my intuition was right that they were turned off by my availability. The results were usually the same. As an example, if we were texting and I gave them short, noncommittal responses or even just waited a few minutes to respond they would start sending me increasingly more ardent and frantic texts.

That doesn't mean they were 'turned off by your availability'- it means you started acting weird and they got confused.

In the other examples, I think you may be assuming that what you see is 'emotional unavailability,' but is it really?

Subtly critical of their partners, less affectionate, making them do a lot of the heavy lifting, but never to the extent of abuse or blatant mistreatment.

Or, perhaps- they're honest with their partners, less affectionate THAN YOU but still plenty affectionate, and enjoy allowing their partners to contribute to the partnership?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:25 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


This has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with fostering limerence
posted by MangyCarface at 12:27 PM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Or, perhaps- they're honest with their partners, less affectionate THAN YOU but still plenty affectionate, and enjoy allowing their partners to contribute to the partnership?

It's possible but for what it's worth mutual friends and relatives also commented on the imbalance in these relationships so I don't think my perception is necessarily skewed.
posted by timsneezed at 12:28 PM on February 12, 2013


In other words, I guess: there's a spectrum from ultra-cold to obsessively clingy, and wherever you fall on that spectrum, you will see less-affectionate people as cold, and more-affectionate people as clingy. If you are more affectionate than average you may be seeing perfectly normal behavior as 'emotional unavailability' when it really isn't. (Not that I'm saying you're clingy! Just more affectionate than average perhaps.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:28 PM on February 12, 2013 [28 favorites]



Whenever these guys talked about exes that they loved the most I discovered these women were unavailable in one way another -- either less invested in their relationship or not even interested in dating them.


People talking about exes may talk more about stuff they are still somewhat disgruntled or frustrated about.
posted by BibiRose at 12:28 PM on February 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


i've dated (probably more than my fair share of) men and women, on basically all parts of the spectrum from straight to queer, and there is nothing i'd say "men do" or "women do" as a generalized rule. if you're noticing things that are true for your relationships and the relationships of your friends, you're probably just seeing a group of people who are socialized in similar ways. i found that relationships go better when the people in them treat their partners like a fully actualized person and not as a collection of gender stereotypes and data sets.
posted by nadawi at 12:30 PM on February 12, 2013 [35 favorites]


But also, if you read Askme questions from people who feel they are being played or strung along by a partner, the answers will also bring up the idea of intermittent reward or reinforcement. Some people will stay interested if you keep them guessing.
posted by BibiRose at 12:30 PM on February 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


In my relationship and the relationships of my married friends, we do none of the things you're describing. No being subtlly critical or playing games or witholding. The most successful relationships I am witness to are between people who are very open with each other and who are very clear in their need to have things be equal.

In my relationship we are an equal partnership. We both are very very invested. We are both very affectionate and loving. We don't criticize or keep score. Our emotional availablilty and commitment to each other is a big part of our success, I think. No one is ever trying to get the upper hand.

I seriously haven't seen the types of things you're describing in any healthy adult relationships. I've seen it in teenage/early 20's relationships, but not recently or in healthy relationships...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:31 PM on February 12, 2013 [53 favorites]


Whenever these guys talked about exes that they loved the most

How is that relevant? The ex that you love the most is still a person you broke up with, for one reason or another. And might the ex a person loves the most be the person they feel the saddest about losing? Perhaps their other exes were nicer but they didn't really care.

I'm sure none of these men are even aware of how their relationships look to the outside.
Or perhaps they don't care given that their relationships are "happy" and "stable"? Why should they live to please you and your nitpicking?

Overall, all the scale-balancing obsession you're describing sounds exhausting. And I think you're confused about the difference between maintaining boundaries and being uninvested, unavailable, etc. You have to figure out how to take care of yourself while in a relationship; you can't expect to find the perfect guy that will always be able to do exactly the right thing to give you what you "need" (like a certain response time to texts). What you describe sounds more like trying to make the guy you're with prove that they don't care, setting up little scripts to get them to admit that, Ah ha! They don't care as much as you! That's an insecurity you need to work out on your own. No guy can fix that for you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:35 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


In other words, I guess: there's a spectrum from ultra-cold to obsessively clingy, and wherever you fall on that spectrum, you will see less-affectionate people as cold, and more-affectionate people as clingy. If you are more affectionate than average you may be seeing perfectly normal behavior as 'emotional unavailability' when it really isn't. (Not that I'm saying you're clingy! Just more affectionate than average perhaps.)

Yet every mutual friend/relative who knows these couples well have made the same observations that I have?
posted by timsneezed at 12:36 PM on February 12, 2013


It depends on the man. If you pick guys who tend to be self-centered and have an intense prey-drive, then yes, the more of a fight the chase is, the more they enjoy it.

But I prefer men who are grown up and not into playing games.

Husbunny and I were friends before we started going out, when we started dating, we were long distance. We're both need a lot of alone time, and we quickly negotiated a call/IM schedule that worked for us both. We saw each other on alternate weekends.

Within a year of our first date we were married, and we'll be celebrating 11 years together later this year.

The more comfortable the guy is with himself, the more comfortable he'll be showing affection.

We have a mostly equal relationship, although I do most of the housework, we trade off by him cleaning the cat box. I can ask him to do specific chores and he will, so it evens out.

We're very sweet to each other and we rarely disagree and never argue. I love and respect him, and vice-versa.

I think that becoming more selective and not requiring a boyfriend to be your main source of entertainment helps keep things in perspective.

I know that I like being with a guy who has a life outside of me, and I know he feels the same way about me.

Any time you're acting against your feelings and your impulses, you're being inauthentic, and that's a game.

It's okay to acknowledge that you like more contact and affection and a grown man will be happy to negotiate it with you.

You: I like to have cuddle time every evening.

Him: I like to spend about 2 hours dicking around on the internet.

You: Cool. How about you do that after dinner, but then hang with me for an hour or so before bed.

Him: Works for me!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:36 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


[OP don't threadsit.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:37 PM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yet every mutual friend/relative who knows these couples well have made the same observations that I have?

The world of human emotions and relationships is more complex than observations of a tiny sample of couples. Also, it's important to note that you an observer of a very small portion of their public lives. You have no idea what goes on in private in their day-to-day lives. You are simply making assumptions which may have little to do with fact.

Stop trying to over-analyze with your friends on very scant and skewed data. There's really nothing good for you there.
posted by 26.2 at 12:43 PM on February 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


I think you either suffer a selection bias (i.e. you, your friends, and your relatives all have a certain notion of how relationships work, so you all have and observe the relationships the same way), or there's something wonky going on about how you define/perceive "emotional unavailability".

I don't think that emotional unavailability is healthy. However, I think being vulnerable and letting your partner help you *is* healthy. I'm a woman in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship. I ask my partner to do the literal heavy lifting because it's very difficult for me. I ask him to do other things that he is just that much better at doing than me.

This (1) makes our combined lives easier, since I reciprocate for things I do better/enjoy more, such as organizing finances, (2) makes each of us feel useful in the relationship, and (3) gives us plenty of opportunities to show appreciation and gratitude that the other person is in our lives.

I also am very adamant about taking care of myself. If I'm not feeling well (not necessarily sick, but sometimes just had a hard day at work or something), I tell my partner, "I don't want to do X, Y, or Z, because I don't feel like it." This is not me being emotionally unavailable; it's me taking care of myself. And yes, this leads to a healthier relationship because he no longer has to guess what I want/need.

Similarly, if he asks me to do something that I cannot do without a serious compromise, I tell him that. It's not emotional unavailability; it's direct and clear communication.

If you feel like you're being "overly available" and he's not reciprocating, I think perhaps you just need to communicate better/more/clearer about what you want and what you're giving up when you're acceding to your date's requests. "Trying experiments" with someone you're dating does NOT at all sound like something someone "naturally affectionate" would do. Rather, it sounds like you're not getting what you need/want, and you're trying to figure out how to. The answer is: talk about it.
posted by ethidda at 12:47 PM on February 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


You're interpreting the motivation to the behaviors through a foregone conclusion.
posted by desuetude at 12:47 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


In a mathematical sense, there is no perfectly equal relationship; it is made up of a patchwork of balancing compromises that shift during its course.
posted by Mistress at 12:49 PM on February 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I haven't observed any of the behaviors you talk about in either my own or my friend's relationships.
posted by OmieWise at 12:58 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


To the extent I've noticed this pattern, it's been in young couples (early 20s), especially those with not much long-term relationship experience. FWIW, when I've noticed it, it's been in same-sex couples, both gay male and lesbian.

So if what you're ultimately looking for is some sort of "Guys like this, and girls like that," well, sorry. Especially since you can't actually see inside a relationship you're not in.
posted by rtha at 12:59 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I also notice it in small ways all the time when observing the relationships of friends and relatives.

A friend once told me, "ultimately, no one has any idea what goes on behind the closed doors of another relationship." Comparing and drawing conclusions based on bits and pieces of behavior will lead to no good. Whether it's about the current relationships you're viewing from afar, or what people have said about their exes (which is by definition a distorted memory of a relationship that didn't work out), in either case, you are drawing conclusions based on incomplete information. Maybe you're looking for clues about how to behave in your next relationship, but this isn't a good way to do so.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:59 PM on February 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Even if this is true, is that really the kind of relationship you want to be in? One where you deliberately withhold affection because it's the only way to get attention from the guy? Maybe there are lots of guys who act this way (I have no hard data one way or the other); that doesn't mean you have to date them and play that game.
posted by mskyle at 12:59 PM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think different social circles tend to have different relationship patterns. Social circles may differ by age, politics, religion, race, nationality, class background, education level...and a variety of other things. My social circle prizes a kind of androgynous egalitarianism - we are politically left/consciously gender-egalitarian, mostly US-born, mostly middle class, mostly white, mostly highly literate whether highly educated or not. Now, people can be mean to each other while still prizing egalitarianism...

I associate the "keeping the man or woman on the hop by keeping them guessing" behavior with younger people and people with a conscious ideology that says "the genders are in conflict; genders are very clearly defined and all people within a gender share more traits with each other than with other-gender people; relationships are constantly at risk from cheating or dishonesty", so I associate it with people who are more conservative politically, practice more conservative religions or perhaps come from less stable environments where "the genders are in conflict and you are constantly at risk" is actually a pretty useful way of seeing the world. I associate this way of thinking with situations where women don't have much material power compared to men - where you can get hit if you speak up, or where you won't be able to support yourself financially if the man takes off and leaves you, so you can't discuss things openly and have to manipulate.

There are other ways to think of relationships - "the genders are very different but complimentary", for example.

You can treat people badly no matter what gender ideology you hold.

Thinking of yourself as very egalitarian may cover up ways in which you are conditioned not to be - as in the many, many relationships where "just by happy coincidence" the woman does most of the chores and all the emotional work "because she is good at it, not because of gender stereotypes".

It sounds as though you are in a social circle where people have a conflict/difference model of gender interactions, so it's quite possible that you're seeing what's really there.
posted by Frowner at 1:00 PM on February 12, 2013 [25 favorites]


Oh, I wanted to add that "androgynous egalitarianism" is not "the best"; there's a whole bunch of stuff about, for example, butch/femme relationships...and often people think that in order to be power-equal, a relationship has to consist of two socially identical/socially "androgynous" people, which is not the case.
posted by Frowner at 1:02 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even if this is true, is that really the kind of relationship you want to be in? One where you deliberately withhold affection because it's the only way to get attention from the guy? Maybe there are lots of guys who act this way (I have no hard data one way or the other); that doesn't mean you have to date them and play that game.

Sorry to threadsit. This will be my last comment on the thread.

No, I most definitely don't want that kind of relationship. It's a bit frustrating for me to have people invalidate my experience because it leaves me with the same problem and confusion. Yes, I'd love to believe that only a minority of men respond to this kind of dynamic and I've tried to believe it but time and again that hasn't been my actual experience in the dating world.

Is there something I'm doing wrong here? I'm white, liberal and in my twenties if that's at all relevant.

Also are there better ways of picking out partners who are capable of equal give and take and avoiding those who aren't? Usually the push pull guys don't become obvious until after the honeymoon phase has worn off.
posted by timsneezed at 1:05 PM on February 12, 2013


Oh, and I add that noting "we are mostly white" came from a place of "the androgynous model is tied in with whiteness, colonialism and the disparagement of indigenous and people of color gender patterns" not "white people are egalitarian! that's best!"
posted by Frowner at 1:06 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think there is some truth to this in some relationships; at least it was my observation in relationships in my 20's as a straight female. As usual, I'll recommend Eva Illouz' "Why Love Hurts" - she writes extensively about this phenomenon (women having to create "scarcity" in a relationship) from a sociological perspective.

I've also heard older people say that a marriage works better when the man is in more in love with the woman than the other way around (or where they both love each other the same - not sure how you would measure that!!!)

However, I believe people when they say that their relationships are decidedly not like that, and so I think it is possible to find a relationship that doesn't involve gaming of that sort. As for a relationship where the man is more in love with the woman - phooey, who wants that.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:06 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


My experience somewhat echoes yours, timsneezed, so I definitely don't think you are imagining this; but it does also affirm what Frowner said - I grew up very conservative, in a conservative church and a conservative neighborhood and a conservative state. I was raised to be passive and wait for the guy to initiate and ask, even though I too am "naturally" more affectionate and assertive. By this pattern, I tended to do my own thing, wait, and date guys who did the initial persuing, and pick among them who I liked. These guys ended up being mostly emotionally unavailable, opinionated, conservative-minded thinkers (at least re. gender roles), and universally ended up HAAATING my "natural" and more involved (what? you have needs? humbug!) style once we were actually in relationships. Being not a passive person, I fought this for years, and then finally left each of these people. My more conservative female friends have had mostly the same experience, and those who are married have often learned to "play along" in order to keep the minimum level of affection they are getting because they don't believe in divorce or the benefit (in their minds) outweighs the cost.
posted by celtalitha at 1:15 PM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think this is a gender-based issue at all, though I do think it happens in relationships a lot, or at least in relationships that don't stand the test of time.

In some relationships, one partner is clearly more invested than the other. We see the result of this all the time on AskMe, once the inevitable breakup occurs.

You have partner #1 who is infatuated, thinking long-term and happily ever after, and partner #2, who enjoys the other person's company but is not as emotionally invested. They are "into" partner #1 just enough that a state of entropy occurs. As long as it is easy, partner #2 will stick around, but if drama ensues or someone better comes along they'll jump ship.

All along there have been signs, like #1 constantly having to compromise more, communicate more, reach out to the other more often. Because they are in love, #1 just really tries to do whatever makes the second person happy, and as long as #2 is happy, things go great, prompting #1 to think and say, "We're so in love! Everything is wonderful!"

When the relationship ends, #1 will be crushed, looking back on all they've done, all the good times they've shared, how clearly in love they were, and wonder what they did wrong, to make partner #2 break up with them!

Alternatively, #1 wises up and realizes that the relationship is one-sided and ends it first--but sadly, this doesn't happen as often as you'd think.

We all want to be loved, and I think part of why we might stick around is the idea that if we could just find the right combination of buttons to push, that elusive partner #2 will fall in love right back with us. It's hard to accept that someone we care deeply about doesn't feel the same way, especially when the intermittent reinforcement thing happens and they do respond sometimes, just enough that we are encouraged to keep right on trying.

What you see in your own examples, I suspect (and again, I don't think this is gender-based at all--just look at all the women on AskMe who are on the other end of the equation) are the relationships where the balance is maybe not so bad that either partner bales. I certainly wouldn't consider that a road map for a successful, happy relationship!

Ideally, both partners are equally invested in the relationship. That means that sometimes one will pick up the slack for the other, and vice versa, but it is not all one-sided, AND the focus isn't on game-playing, keeping score and keeping a partner "on his toes".

That, to me, just sounds exhausting.
posted by misha at 1:17 PM on February 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


Is there something I'm doing wrong here? I'm white, liberal and in my twenties if that's at all relevant.

It may just be that people in their 20s tend to be, well, self-absorbed assholes. I definitely noticed (and heard from peers) the same generalizations as you when I was in my early/mid 20s and dating guys in that age range.

Once I got to 30, however, all that shit went away. Almost like clockwork. For one thing, I stopped letting myself put up with those types of relationships. For another, I sought out guys who were into me being into them and guys likewise sought out women like me. And now, I would say my generalizations and those of my peers is the complete opposite of what you are experiencing.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:18 PM on February 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Among my early to mid twenties friends I see many relationships like the ones you're describing and I would not classify any of them as healthy or strong. I've also seen the dynamic in reverse, with women who pursue withholding men. That being said, no, I don't think you've stumbled on a universal gender binary truth, but I am familiar with the dynamic you're talking about.

Maybe it would help you to read about various attachment styles. You could frame it as you are encountering a lot of Avoidant-Anxious pairings. I've certainly been there and chosen Avoidant-style dudes. Now I know what I want and I dont choose them.
posted by saltwater at 1:20 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is some of that dynamic, but not necessarily I think for the reasons that you are thinking of.

Often, both men and women are culturally primed to date the best possible match that they can - which often translates to "the highest value" that they can. The most attractive, with the highest socio-economic status, the most desirable.

But these things aren't immediately plain to the eye. So people will often do a kind of constant evaluating - is this person above my value? Equal to my value? Below my value? And these things are influenced by small things.

Someone who is distant or unavailable is telegraphing, "I am higher status than you." Someone who is constantly in communicating and offering is telegraphing, "I think you are higher status than I am entitled to." Whether or not these are real, these are what these signs often read as.

So it's quite possible that doing these things turns these guys off, because they then begin to think they are out of your league or whatever.
posted by corb at 1:20 PM on February 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


Subtly critical of their partners, less affectionate, making them do a lot of the heavy lifting

Where I come from we call this "dating a jerk", and it unfortunately happens to both genders.
posted by jess at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'll explain it.

I waited for a great guy, I didn't settle. I was 39 when we married.

There were lots of opportunities to engage with guys who weren't worthy of my attention, I just decided that it wasn't worth the hassle.

If you date whomever, then you get whatever. If you're picky, and really get to know people before diving in and becoming attached, then you'll find that you're not letting these guys past your bullshit detector.

It's your age. Most 20-something guys are not fully baked. Date, meet people, but don't get so entangled so quickly. It's doubtful you'll find a 20-something dude who is ready to be in a mature relationship. So have immature relationships, date them until you're not interested anymore.

I didn't date much in my 20s and 30s. It just wasn't worth it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


In Harriet Lerner's Dance of Intimacy she talks about an unhealthy relationship dynamic a lot of people fall into of chasing and fleeing one another. She gives strategies for getting out of that dynamic, and you might find the discussion helpful. She can be a little woo-woo, but good, so feel free to skim for that chapter, or look at her Dance of Anger instead, which also examines good and bad relationship patterns.

I think it's important to remember that otherwise equal relationships may sometimes exhibit signs of such behaviors, so now that you're sensitive to it, you see it more. None of the healthy relationships I am in or see are dominated by that dynamic.
posted by ldthomps at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think what you might be noticing is that in general, people will often put more effort into what they feel they can't take for granted, and assign greater value to what they feel they've worked harder to get. It's not a man/woman thing, and it's not just a relationship thing.

Or it could be that the guys you're talking about really do want what they can't have, or they want women they think are worth competing over. I've seen this kind of thing a lot and it's not about age or race or beliefs or anything, but about being in a situation with a lot of beautiful or otherwise conventionally desirable women who the men are all vying to get with. Very much what corb is describing, I think.

The women you're talking about sound quite unlikable, and as for the ones who criticize, etc., I wouldn't be surprised if those men were actually secretly miserable. Or will be someday.

The positive version of this would be women who just have their own life, so they're not necessarily always available to go out or write a long text back right away. Just being confident and self-sufficient and busy and not seeming - at first - to need the guy. As opposed to "treating them mean."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:26 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are two principles at work here.

1. People want what they can't have. A lot of relationships get spun out longer than is healthy because, even though both people are done with it, as soon as someone gets the feeling they're going to get dumped, their engagement with it kicks in. We want what we can't have, and no one wants to be the one who gets rejected. We invest in chases. Consequently, we re-invigorate a flagging relationship with that chase; we start putting in effort again. This tends to be a shot in the arm, especially welcome in contrast to the stagnation it usually follows, and that stagnation happens because...

2. Most people aren't that good at the middle of a relationship. There aren't a lot of songs about the middle of a relationship. There are lots and lots about the beginning and end of them, but not so many about the middle. This is the period where the initial flush of new passion has faded into something long-term and comfortable. Most of us are terrible at this. It's where long-term relationship mistakes happen. We start taking our partners for granted. The grass on the other side starts looking mighty green. Little bits of resentment accumulate among long silences and we have a hard time communicating. In other words, the relationship doesn't mature - it just gets older. People coexist instead of making a sincere effort to grow together as a pair.

Principle one can deflect principle two for a while, but it's not in any way a permanent fix. It's the equivalent of drinking caffeine to stay awake - you are artificially prolonging something, with diminishing returns. But confirmation bias is the nature of the human brain, so we see that it works in the short term but miss the big picture. It creates an unhealthy dynamic.

If principle one is exercised in a new relationship, it works for a while because, again, no one wants to be the person who's rejected. But the problem is that, sooner or later, they'll take the hint and lose interest. Your cat goes apeshit when it sees that red dot, but eventually once it realizes it can't catch the damn thing, it gives up. So, again, this is a good way to give a relationship a shot in the arm, but it's game-playing, and ultimately it's self-defeating.

Case in point:

Yes, I'd love to believe that only a minority of men respond to this kind of dynamic and I've tried to believe it but time and again that hasn't been my actual experience in the dating world.

The problem with the statement, "I know this technique works in relationships because I've done it multiple times with multiple people" is that it ignores the fact that all those relationships ended. You may be inclined to say, "Yes, but not because of that," but there's no way to know. Relationships live and die holistically. Something that makes a relationship more likely to work and something that makes the other person more likely to stick around are two very different things - don't confuse one for the other.

Also, note that I said "people." This isn't a gendered thing. Women may be more frequently socialized not to chase, but the drive is there. We want what we can't have, men and women alike.

Finally:

Also are there better ways of picking out partners who are capable of equal give and take and avoiding those who aren't? Usually the push pull guys don't become obvious until after the honeymoon phase has worn off.

No. There's no way to know what someone's like when they're comfortable until they're comfortable - you can't skip ahead to that part. It's frustrating and demoralizing but on some level you need to learn to love the game. Some people get bored when they're comfortable and some people love being comfortable. Some people are just unlucky and some people just suck at dating. No way to tell until the acid test.

A lot of questions from a lot of people on AskMe amount to, "How can I tell if I'm going to be wasting my time with someone?" There's really no way to know. It's a roll of the dice, no matter what you do. Absent huge red flags - and even then, not everyone does the smart thing when they pop up - the only way to find out whether or not you're wasting time is to waste some time. Again, it's frustrating, but that's dating. There are no cheat codes.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:28 PM on February 12, 2013 [48 favorites]


Yes I agree. For both men and women, you're in love with someone because they are an enigma. There is something fascinating about them, something out of your reach. If not, it's just friends with benefits. You have a fantasy that if only you could get it or figure them out, then you'd have the perfect relationship, but if that ever happened, the fascination would vanish and the relationship would end.

But I'm not sure what this has to do with an equal relationship. Ideally, each partner is equally out of reach of the other. That's true of your example of the woman who is subtly critical of her husband. She is emotionally unavailable to him, but obviously she feels there's something lacking in him too. So they probably have an amazing sex life.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:31 PM on February 12, 2013


It's pretty clear that withholding/intermittent reinforcement works, from the slew of questions here on the green, from (mostly) women agonizing about their shitty relationships with cold rude withholding losemeisters whose most attractive quality is their ability to not show up. Since this dynamic is unkind at best and abusive at worst, though, you wouldn't want to imitate it even though it does "work".

A milder form of that would be snapping at someone, occasionally standing them up, etc. That doesn't rise to the level of abusiveness, but it is rude and does amount to "treating them mean". This may keep some people keen, though I suspect not for long unless they're pretty rude themselves. Again, it's not something you'd want to be doing even if it did "work".

But the idea that someone needs to put in just that little bit of effort to please you? That actually does work, and can be done in a way that is respectful and not "mean". An example is the "Rule" that you don't accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday, because by Wednesday you have already made weekend plans. You can say that the rule is stupid, perhaps, but the boundary it's intended to establish is not: that your time and attention are valuable, and that you are an independent woman who doesn't wait by the phone.

I tend to agree that if a guy is withdrawing, it won't help to pursue him. Either he really doesn't want to interact with you, in which case nagging won't help; or he isn't thinking about you, in which case he'll either forget about you completely because you aren't that important (good riddance) or it will dawn on him that he hasn't heard from you in a while so he decides to give you a call. Despite what some people will say, it isn't "mean" or excessively "game-playing" to give someone space to make this slight effort at reaching out to you.

If you're on tenterhooks and desperate to start and keep a relationship with someone, the temptation is to call them all the time, jump whenever they snap their fingers, go with their flow, be at their beck and call, be eager to spend every waking minute with them. People get bored with that. Making one phone call or one email in a row, and leaving it to the other person to reply, isn't mean or indifferent.

tl;dr No, you should never be mean, and you shouldn't misuse indifference because people can only take so much rejection. However there is a lot to be said for "leaving 'em begging for more".
posted by tel3path at 1:34 PM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


timsneezed: In short my gut based on life experience is that most men respond to slight indifference. Yet I keep getting told that the opposite is true! Is my intuition off base?

I think people are not trying to invalidate your experience, they are trying to tell you that the answer to this question is yes.

The second part to my question is how do I find an equal relationship where I get as much as I give?

Talk you your partners, early and often, about your wants and needs and how you like to interact with your partner. "Are you up for cuddling a lot? How do you feel about pet names? I will probably text you a lot. Is that a problem?" If you find someone who is not meeting your wants and needs for the relationship, move along. Believe what people tell you about themselves, and don't assume you can change someone.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:36 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've heard many times that only abnormal people respond to emotional unavailability, yet every guy I've been involved with seemed to be turned on by it. I've also noticed this in relationships between people I've known. I guess it's possible that all of my boyfriends and most of my friends'/acquaintances'/relatives' partners have been unhealthy but it seems unlikely given the number of people involved.

Are you in the United States? Something that has become abundantly clear to me in recent years is that honestly, most of the people I encounter in my world (urban, United States, low-to-middle-income SES) really are NOT fantastically mentally healthy.

Now, are most of them functioning, even without intervention/treatment? Sure! But they aren't functioning optimally in any way.

Plus, why would you assume the people you know are innately attuned this way, rather than being conditioned by decades of cultural hammering? Men are taught, very early in their dating life, to shun women who are "easy" (whatever that means) and women are taught, very early, to be evasive and withholding lest they be judged.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:37 PM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Whenever these guys talked about exes that they loved the most I discovered these women were unavailable in one way another -- either less invested in their relationship or not even interested in dating them. Here's what's strange. These guys didn't even seem to realize that they were responding to this quality or that these women weren't fully available. Yet the facts they presented me with made it clear.

There is a technique from Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns where two columns are laid out for a belief--on one side is how one is advantaged by the belief and on the other, how one is disadvantaged by holding the belief.

I frankly, do not believe this is a universal or even particularly common. It does come up in the beginning of relationship sometimes. But there is no healthy, lasting relationship where this remains a major component.

So one has to ask one's self if this is a useful belief. Try the technique.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:43 PM on February 12, 2013


> In past relationships when I felt a guy was withdrawing I tried small experiments to see if my intuition was right that they were turned off by my availability. The results were usually the same. As an example, if we were texting and I gave them short, noncommittal responses or even just waited a few minutes to respond they would start sending me increasingly more ardent and frantic texts.

This doesn't prove that they are turned off by your availability. That's the converse of what you're attempting to test. But it doesn't prove that they're turned on by unavailability, either...because you're not actually unavailable.

It may demonstrate that when you delay your response to them, they react by increasing their activity, and that they react to changes in your tone. But I don't think that it's at all clear that the only conclusion is greater investment in emotionally unavailable people.

I dunno, when I don't seem quite like myself, my SO and closest friends notice and typically engage me a little more to assess whether I seem like I'm okay or not. I do the same. I've noticed that people can pick up on pretty subtle changes, even just in patterns of text message responses.
posted by desuetude at 1:44 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, I'd love to believe that only a minority of men respond to this kind of dynamic and I've tried to believe it but time and again that hasn't been my actual experience in the dating world.

Have you ever been in a relationship or pursued by someone who was more affectionate, more communicative than you wanted to be? And did you reject them because of that? Or, did it make you feel valued? I'm wondering if you tend to unconsciously choose partners who are emotionally unavailable to you. Perhaps you need to earn affection is to feel like you're worthy of it? Whenever you're seeing patterns repeat in your dating life, it's a good idea to look inward to check what you might be putting out there that's the common factor causing the repetition.
posted by gladly at 1:46 PM on February 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


Yet every mutual friend/relative who knows these couples well have made the same observations that I have?

From whom are you hearing these observations? Is this coming from couples who have been together for many years? Or from other men and women who can't seem to stay in a relationship for more than a year?
posted by nikkorizz at 1:47 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


: "Also are there better ways of picking out partners who are capable of equal give and take and avoiding those who aren't? Usually the push pull guys don't become obvious until after the honeymoon phase has worn off."

This thread has some fantastic advice on red flags.
posted by misha at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2013


Whenever these guys talked about exes that they loved the most I discovered these women were unavailable in one way another -- either less invested in their relationship or not even interested in dating them. Here's what's strange. These guys didn't even seem to realize that they were responding to this quality or that these women weren't fully available. Yet the facts they presented me with made it clear.

This is not about what you think it's about. Think about the various scenarios about your exes. They're all scenarios in which you two loved each other, but broke up.

He was a great guy, except for all the cheating. He was a great guy, except for that annoying laugh. He was a great guy, except for that wandering eye. He was a great guy except for the atrocious sex. He was a great guy, except that he wasn't in to me.

Which guy would you miss the most, when recounting your dating history? I'd pick the guy who was perfect except for the fact that he didn't notice how awesome I am. But since I'm really awesome, we just have to give him a little more time to fully see it. Much easier than fixing all those other character flaws.

As for my relationship, my partner is always a little more affectionate when I start withholding. But that's because he knows I'm withholding because I'm in a terrible mood, and he wants to make it better. Likewise, when he isn't his usualy bubbly self, I turn into Mom and go into overdrive trying to make things better.

I'm usually cranky if we're out too late, while he gets antsy when we've been lazy homebodies. So a majority of our friends only see me being a brat, while he is the magnanimous saint who is appeasing me, because he'd really like to close the place down. That doesn't mean that our relationship is unequal, despite our outward appearances.

That we have that impulse is a good sign that we care about each other. But that moment of extra affection isn't pleasant for either of us. He's stressed out about my well-being, and I'm in a bad mood. Trying to recreate that impulse to get a bit more snuggle time is cruel.
posted by politikitty at 2:15 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also are there better ways of picking out partners who are capable of equal give and take and avoiding those who aren't? Usually the push pull guys don't become obvious until after the honeymoon phase has worn off.

This is a process of trial and error. Many people don't know what they want and give off conflicting signals because they are experimenting to find out what they want. It's hard to spot the signs that your needs are not aligned when you don't know what they look like. So you have to communicate early, and often. You have to be willing to respect the other person's viewpoint, even if you don't agree with it. You have to prioritize communicating and be willing to give the other person space and time to think over what they want to say to you. You have to be willing to put all your cards out on the table, and possibly say something that cause them to decide to end the relationship.

A partner who is interested in an equal relationship and going the distance with you will still admire you after you disclose what it is you want. A partner who is interested in an equal relationship with you will try to find ways to compromise with you even if they can't give you what you want outright. You won't know this about a person if you don't ask.

By the way, I learned this from my current relationship, which I would describe as being pretty equal in terms of effort and attention. Being honest has only made the relationship stronger.
posted by rhythm and booze at 3:38 PM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


It doesn't matter how many "there are". You only need one, if you're monogamous.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:22 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure these status plays do happen for some people, but in my experience, the gameplay and artificial scarcity are less common in relationships where the partners were already fairly good friends before they started dating, and also less common when the partners are mature enough to know what they want in a partner as a person rather than as a trophy.

I would hate a relationship where I had to fake having less interest in the other person than I actually do: that kind of thing is death to genuine intimacy.

Additional data: both my current fiancé and my previous long-term boyfriend were very proactive about being in touch with me, to a sufficient degree that I never felt I had to artificially stay away from them in order to generate interest. In both cases there is strong mutual love and affection (though we have different modes of expressing it) and I don't feel there's a big imbalance.
posted by shattersock at 5:13 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm usually cranky if we're out too late, while he gets antsy when we've been lazy homebodies. So a majority of our friends only see me being a brat, while he is the magnanimous saint who is appeasing me, because he'd really like to close the place down. That doesn't mean that our relationship is unequal, despite our outward appearances.

I am seconding this anecdote.

Friends have said to me things like "it's obvious who wears the pants" in my marriage, because of stuff like the above. Because I don't like too much PDA. Because in friendly group arguments, if I disagree with my husband, I will say so. Frankly, it makes me angry sometimes that they say stuff like this, because they have no idea what they are talking about. They don't know how we talk to each other when we are alone, and the various compromises and understandings we have come to over the years.

OP, you see these women as being "Subtly critical of their partners, less affectionate, making them do a lot of the heavy lifting". I wouldn't be so quick to think you have their relationships figured out. Also, just because other friends are "seeing" what you are seeing, doesn't mean you must be right. As mentioned up thread, no one knows a relationship better than the two people involved.
posted by coupdefoudre at 6:09 PM on February 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


On one hand, you might be on to something. I don't think this observation came out of nowhere. And, after all, Nan Goldin discusses this very inequality in her artist's statement in my copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and how she could see it in the photos she took of her friends.

On the other hand, how many of those images depict domestic violence, again?

Anyway, I don't really mean to automatically equate such inequalities with abuse, but I would also note: there are relationships in which opening up/expressing vulnerability/reaching out with affection leads to a response in which the other partner...opens up/expresses vulnerability/reaches out with affection.

So, yeah, your observation has some precedence (though I wouldn't say it's universal). But is that really the kind of relationship you want to settle for?

If not, then don't.
posted by vivid postcard at 7:45 PM on February 12, 2013


The second part to my question is how do I find an equal relationship where I get as much as I give?

You change the way you're picking boyfriends. What is it that has drawn you to these men you've dated? Some of those qualities are obviously leading you to make bad boyfriend choices.

Consider instead not what makes a man instantly attractive to you, but what you need and want from a relationship. It sounds like you want someone who expresses his affection often and easily, and doesn't like or play games.

Some of the most affectionate people I know take a while to loosen up around new acquaintances, so you can't really screen for that, right off the bat. But you can definitely screen for guys who don't play games. How, you ask? Well, I'm going to second the recommendation that you look into attachment styles -- in particular, there's a book called Attached that you might find helpful. What you want is the secure style. This kind of person does not come on very strong in the beginning; they maintain their own life as they're getting to know you. But as time goes on and your relationship gets more serious, they get more serious too. They don't shy away when you start to show your true feelings; they're pleased to see their own feelings reciprocated. They're also open to listening to you when you express your concerns ("Hey, I feel like you're pulling away") and they do what they can to make sure you don't feel that way any longer. In short, they behave like Full Grown Adults.

I really mistrust most self-help books, but I found this one really interesting, and it totally nailed the dynamic you're describing (which the authors claim comes about when an Anxious sort dates an Avoidant sort).
posted by artemisia at 8:02 PM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think most people respond to this kind of chain-yanking they same way we respond to, I dunno, car accidents on the freeway or loud noises behind us. Poke someone's insecurity and they'll respond, sure. But it's not something I'd describe as healthy.

I've had relationships where people got me hot and bothered due to being-unavailable. But the ones where I actually connected and formed a long-term (or even medium-term) satisfying bond, there was no such dynamic. We complemented, enriched, protected and cared for each other, above and beyond the basic chemistry.
posted by ead at 9:54 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


All you really know, is if your observations are true, they are true only for those people. People I assume are all from roughly the same background, area and general pool of population so other influences including culture, expectations finances etc are all playing a part. It really isn't a great sample from a clinical point of view. The way you have framed the question here really does feel like you are wanting people to validate your own experiences, but we haven't had your experiences we've had our own and so are offering you opinions that are different. All you can really say is that of the people you know, a small group of them appear to act this way. Now if you are looking at this information for clues on how to act in your own relationships that could be worrying. Basically if you want an equal relationship, then decide what that is what you want and persue that.

Also as a side note you seem to act like "unequal" power in a relationship is a bad thing if both people are getting what they want from the relationship. Also just because one person seems more controlling, more needy more something else in the relation ship it doesn't mean it isn't unequal in the other persons favour in other areas. I am stoic overorganised and controlling, my husband is a creative, daydreaming absent minded professor type from the outside the relationship looks unequal, but I provide for him strengths he doesn't have and he provides things for me I don't have. I keep us fed and watered, he keeps us in mad schemes and fun adventures. Unequal isn't always bad.
posted by wwax at 9:41 AM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So what you may be observing is a trap that a lot of people fall into when they are younger, but generally grow out of eventually. People want what they can't have. There can be this aloof, cool kids thing that people do that causes others who aren't aloof and distant to overcompensate. People tend to place value on things purely on the basis of how easily said thing is obtained despite its objective value. It's all a sort of middle school/high school dynamic that takes a lot of people time to grow out of, so I don't think you are entirely wrong here, but I think such dynamics are bound to end relationships eventually and if you are only concerned with which side of that dynamic you are on well then yeah being aloof and distant so you are the one that is supposedly being chased after then I guess it would be effective, but that's a dynamic that's never going to work out long term so what's the point?

As I've gotten older I've found that people (including myself) get more comfortable with rejection and therefore aren't going to great lengths to avoid it. The person I'm dating is pulling away from me and not reciprocating? Well maybe I need to end this then, not because I want dump them before they dump me, but because I don't really want to be dating someone that just isn't that into me. Also, I've found that I can far more reliably call people on their bullshit or who are trying to shift blame away from themselves. So I can sort out between things where someone is just being a manipulative asshole and someone who is bringing up a legitimate grievance about something I'm doing in the relationship. That can actually be pretty hard to decipher when you are very emotional invested in someone, but most people get better and better over time. So the same sort of indifferent borderline manipulative behavior that might have turned me into an anxious wreck trying to regain some guy's affection when I was 20 will now cause me to a double take and reassess whether I still am even interested in the guy.

So this might explain the divide between your experiences and the responses here. Metafilter skews older and settled down and most people in good long term relationships don't have to worry about this kind of stuff anymore (which is a good thing!). I still observe this dynamic now and then, but it's not as pervasive by any stretch.
posted by whoaali at 11:54 AM on February 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


This thread has been an emotional revelation for me. I was so glad to read a lot of these responses to your question. Honestly? I think that guys do engage in the kind of behavior you're talking about, and maybe without realizing it. I now feel like I may have engaged in the same kind of intermittent reward type behavior referenced above, but on the other hand I always thought that my ex acted in the same way. So.

Obviously, we weren't happily ever after. I'm baring my soul here, I hope you appreciate that. By default, I am a someone who over-shares with significant others. I want to be suuuuuuper affectionate, and loving. I want to touch and speak with my SO a LOT. And somehow, even though I should be attracted to people who are the same, I feel the most pain over the breakups where I was with girls who didn't act that way. Girls who meted out affection like something to be earned. I broke up with a girl who was a lot like I am, where she was generous with her affection. It sucks, and it shouldn't be this way, but it hurt a lot less than the breakups where the girl's affection was always some prize to be won. I feel so bad honestly, because the immature relationships I had with girls who didn't really care about me, hurt so bad when we broke up, but the one where the girl was at least trying to maintain an equal part of the loving, I almost didn't miss a step breaking up from that one.

But it goes both ways. I thought of her, the one, as a liiitle clingy. Not a huge amount, but a little bit more than was comfortable for me. I mean, there were circumstances, but either way, she wanted my attention a little bit more than I wanted hers. We got to a point where I couldn't maintain the level of commitment she wanted, and like an asshole, I tried to limit my level of attention to her. I broadened the distance between us, and counterintuitively, I found that she pursued me even more.

I never even thought about it that much until I saw this question, but in retrospect, trying to distance myself a little bit HAD to have had an effect on her behavior. I was intermittently responding, and that type of stimulus is crazymaking in humans. Fuck. Actually, I probably could have been better to her. But at the end of the day, that was what I was doing.

So I don't understand the general sense of disbelief in the premise of your question in this thread. I mean, yeah, it's young behavior to be sure. More mature people don't do this stuff, hopefully. But fuck, it's human behavior.

To be honest, as a male, I always feel a vulnerability revealing myself to significant others. So sometimes I do feel like it's more advantageous not to reveal everything about myself, and to stoke the girl's curiosity about me. Yes, it's immature. Yes, it's based on stupid gender roles. I hate gender roles. I personally feel more feminine than masculine, but I'm a guy, so there you go. But still. If you feel like this behavior goes on, don't think it doesn't. Because, even though everyone in this thread is trying to tell you that it shouldn't, that doesn't mean that it doesn't.
posted by malapropist at 6:55 PM on February 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


So malapropist reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend about his girlfriend when we were probably about 25. He was complaining that he was really stressed out at work and his girlfriend was being unusually clingy. He just really needed some space and he kept snapping at her and being kind of an asshole, which he felt bad about, but he didn't understand how the more of an asshole he was the clinger she was being. I told him well no kidding you're making her incredibly insecure about your relationship so she's overcompensating. If you reassure her everything is fine she'll probably let up a little. And this blew his mind and he realized I was right. The connection never even crossed his mind. And he was nice to her and reassured he everything was fine and things went back to normal.
posted by whoaali at 8:21 PM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


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