March 11, 2009 8:10 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to express romantic feelings in a grown-up way?

Basic story - I've then have been in a long dry spell since the beginning of college - over five years at this point (God, that feels so horrible to type). I'm in a new city now, and I've been generally dating around for the past few months - friends of friends, the online thing, etc.

My problem is that, for some reason, I have a serious issue expressing to women that I think they're the bee's knees and would like to move things forward. For instance, there was a girl I was VERY into at work, and it was definitely mutual, but I let it stagnate because I was paralyzed with fear over asking her out.

More recently, I've been dating a very cool girl for the past few weeks, but she e-mailed me and cut it off last night. I'm almost positive she got frustrated because I never kissed her, or made any attempt to be physical whatsoever, which I was scared to death to do.

I think I've identified my problem - I have no trouble being very friendly with people (first dates almost always go well), but when it comes time to become the stereotypically horny early 20's dude, I can't pull it off. That's not to say I'm not that stereotypically horny dude (I most certainly am), it's just that the fear overrides that instinct in these kinds of situations.

So, I have this pathological fear of nutting up and kissing someone, even when it's obviously appropriate and welcome, and not doing so will harm whatever relationship exists. I'm not sure specifically what I'm scared of - rejection, certainly, but also I'm vaguely worried about crossing boundaries too soon. It's absolutely ridiculous and I need help moving past this - thanks, MeFi.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you're up for a little bibliotherapy, I would definitely recommend reading Burns' "Intimate Connections".

Burns specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It helps you discover your "stinking thinking" patterns and gets you to move beyond them. It can help with pretty much any issue or question you may have. Highly recommended.
posted by willmize at 8:22 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

First off, you shouldn't have any concerns with regards to how long you've been single. Everyone comes into their own in their own time, and I think men in particular feel this pressure to be perpetually dating. I wouldn't be too concerned with how long you've been single.

Second, it sounds like you experience strong anxiety when it comes to intimacy, as much as you might desire it. Anxiety grows on a feedback loop, as it seems to be doing in this case - you develop feelings for someone, grow closer to them, your anxiety about intimacy grows, holding you back, until the other person loses interest, which probably only strengthens the anxiety.

Anxiety isn't created in a vacuum. Can you think of anything that might have triggered it? Did you have a bad experience the last time you were physically close to someone? Trying to understanding what created the anxiety in the first place is a good start to eradicating it.

Once you locate and recognize what has caused you to fear intimacy, you need to work through it. "Dating through it" is not advisable. You need to come to terms with why the situation that causes your anxiety went bad, what the real reasons were behind it, and be fully honest with yourself on that subject. Lastly, once you recognize why that situation took the turn that it did, you need to tell yourself that things like that happen, that it's part of life, that you're not going to let fear control you - you accept that it happened for what its worth, instead of inflating it with power, as anxiety is wont to do.

If you have friends that you're close enough to to talk about what created the anxiety, that's also good, too. It can help disempower the anxiety's root.

In short, be fully honest with yourself about what created the anxiety, recognize it for what it is, and put it in its place, preferably with the help of a trusted friend. Definitely do not attempt to date your way through it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:28 AM on March 11, 2009

Oh, I almost hate to suggest this, but have you tried that glorious social lubricant, alcohol? Perhaps a drink or two will let your inhibitions down enough to be willing to go in for the kiss at the end of the night as a first step. Once you've jumped that first hurdle, I imagine things will not seem as terrifying. Obviously don't go overboard, or you'll achieve the opposite of what you're going for...
posted by agentwills at 8:29 AM on March 11, 2009

Not that I'm qualified to dispense Lurrrve advice, but: I think it is worth realizing that there are really very few women in the world who are so completely sheltered or blinkered or self-doubting as to think that a heterosexual male who's met them a few times isn't at least going to have entertained thoughts of getting to know them in a non-platonic way. Even if they have no intention of reciprocating, no normal woman will be scandalized by the fact that you've entertained that thought. And if they are so appalled as to end the friendship because of it, well, maybe you're better off.

So say you're on a date and you make deliberate light, informal physical contact with your date, early on. You probably worry that it looks really obvious and clumsy and deliberate. Guess what, you're right! But who cares? Either she feels the same about you in which case she won't mind the clumsiness, or she doesn't, in which case she will indicate this by her response. (Obviously you need to respect that response - which doesn't mean not trying again later.) In neither case is anything harmed, unless she is really really odd.

And while I wouldn't want to reject Marisa's advice above, one can easily go much too far down the road of obsessing over past events. The anxiety feedback loop works both ways, and exposure to what's making you anxious will also be highly effective in attenuating it. Don't spend forever introspecting about what happened to you as a child - your life is now.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:43 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't spend forever introspecting about what happened to you as a child - your life is now.

Incidentally, this wasn't what I advised. I asked that OP ask himself if his last encounter with physical intimacy turned sour. Anxiety doesn't just spring up out of nowhere, and if there was a recent negative experience that caused it, then addressing it can put it to bed for good.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:46 AM on March 11, 2009

Best compliment I ever received from a dating prospect: "I think you're neat. How's that for an 'adult' compliment?"
posted by notsnot at 8:56 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have trouble just reaching over and smooching someone, would you be comfortable enough to just ask first? I know it might sound a little juvenile, but if a woman likes you she shouldn't mind and some may even find it particularly endearing. Just something along the lines of "May I kiss you?" is fine; tone of voice and body language will help this from coming off as creepy and it's a lot less invasive than direct physical contact.

When you date these women, though, are they trying to initiate anything physical with you at all? It seems odd to me that the last woman you dated for a few weeks never tried anything with you, either. I don't think you should be expected to do all of the physical contact; it should go both ways and both people should naturally be drawn to want to touch one another. Do you keep a distance from the women you date or do things to otherwise discourage them from kissing/physical contact? Likewise, if the woman were the one to initiate contact, would you be able to go along with it?
posted by Polychrome at 9:07 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure specifically what I'm scared of - rejection, certainly, but also I'm vaguely worried about crossing boundaries too soon.

Remember that dating is awkward just be it's very nature. Both of you are trying to figure out boundaries and those boundaries are changing as you two get to know each other. However, if a girl likes you, then she likes you and is willing to forgive accidental transgressions, depending on how you handle yourself, i.e. you gently push the boundary and back off immediately and apologize while not making a big deal of it.

For instance, maybe you try to kiss her and it turns into a longer kiss and your hands start wandering around and she pulls away, saying it's too soon for that. Reply with "Oh sorry, it's just that you're pretty hot. Want to stick to just kissing?" If she says yes, then got to kissing her, respecting the current boundaries. If she says no, don't make it big deal of it, just say "My bad, you want to continue X?" where X is some other activity that ya'll are current doing, like walking down the street or watching the movie or something. Don't offer to take her home, but instead doing some other activity that involves spending time together. Again, the point to get across to her is that you realize your crossed her boundary and you're willing to respect that boundary while still enjoying her company.

Don't be worried about being utterly perfect or offending her. Every relationship has those awkward points in the beginning. If it takes off, 4 months from nowshe'll be teasing you about it after you two have had yet another bout of great sex and she'll be telling you how cute or charming you were and hey, that memory made me smile, lets have sex again.

Relax. Mistakes occur when dating. They either help you figure in compatibilities or serve as markers of your good character.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:22 AM on March 11, 2009

I'm almost embarrassed to admit I've watched this, but watch The Pickup Artist.
posted by jon1270 at 9:24 AM on March 11, 2009

wow, I went through a period a lot like what you're describing - the dry spell since going to (and graduating from) college, the moving to a new city, the complete inability to ask anyone out or to make any kind of move when it was time to be physical. It's especially interesting that a big part of your fear is the fact that you didn't want to ruin the friendship you had by making any potentially unwelcome advances, because that's exactly what paralyzed me back in the day too (and still does, sometimes!).

Dwelling on past dating experiences while attempting to start a relationship with someone new is a really good way to get anxious all over again. You end up making a mental list of all the things you've screwed up on past dates, and get so focused on preventing those that you forget about relaxing and having a good time. You're so uptight you screw up in all new and exciting ways, which ends up getting added to your list and provides more things to worry about next time.

What usually works best for me is creating situations from which close physical contact can arise naturally and comfortably. Invite her over, cook dinner together, have a couple glasses of beer or wine, then take off your shoes and curl up on the couch to watch a movie. If she digs you then she'll show it, resting her head on your shoulder or stretching her legs out on your lap, that sort of thing. Reciprocate, move a little closer, smile, and make eye contact, and the rest will happen naturally.
posted by xbonesgt at 9:24 AM on March 11, 2009

Yes, dwelling is never a good thing. Chances are if anxiety is arising from a past experience, that's exactly what's happening. But facing it and putting it in its place with an "Oh well, that's life, crap happens" resolve can extinguish its power permanenetly, and make intimacy much, much easier to initiate. And I speak from personal experience on this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:34 AM on March 11, 2009

I'm going to make some people angry with this, I can feel it. Do not attempt to solve the problem intellectually. Your primary difficulty is with feelings and the expression of them, if I read your question correctly. We all have the ability to override our feelings with our intellect, but the feelings just get pushed back, they never go away. The crux of your problem is that very mechanism is limiting you.

So don't try to think your way out of it. Do your way out of it.

Start practicing. Call a parent or parental figure and try expressing feelings to them. If someone has been a particularly good friend to you lately, tell them so. If someone made you angry and you held in check, tell them so. Get over the fear of the action itself by engaging in it directly.

After you've grown comfortable with the action of expression. Engage this last woman directly. Explain to her your fears and apologize if you caused her to experience negative emotions. No matter how she reacts, the experience will be good for you.

It's my guess that you hold back because somewhere deep down you are avoiding pain. But that's not true at all. You are causing yourself far more by avoiding self expression.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 10:09 AM on March 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

What everyone else said, but also, I think xbonesgt's comment is very apt.

Classical dating is such a difficult thing too, because its often done a) in public b) just one-on-one so then c) its pretty damn awkward at the end of the night. Actually this is happening to me right now - I have been dating someone but I don't seem to be able to "close the deal" because we are forever saying goodbye on subway platforms after some public cultural event. Awkward hugs, right?

The advice I got, and maybe you can use, is to forget about "dating" per se and do something that will facilitate getting closer - emotionally and physically. Ask the girl to meet up with you and friends - it shows you like her enough to have her meet your friends. Ask her to do the movie at home thing, or maybe first dinner at home.

One last piece of advice - remember to speak like you are interested in her romantically. If your interest is not platonic don't just be funny and nice like you would to your friendly cousin. Mention how she looks, that you are excited to be with her, that her eyes are particularly pretty. Its not rude or crude to pay compliments, and it tells her a little bit about how you feel toward her.
posted by RajahKing at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2009

Honestly, this may be utterly insane, but I'd call the girl who just broke things off with you, tell her that you think she's pretty great and that you think you understand why she felt things weren't working, and would she mind getting coffee one morning in the next few days?

And if she's ok with that, sit down, jump off a cliff, and tell her what you're telling us. Or print off the question and slide it across the table. And say "I'm into you, and I suspect you'd be into me if I weren't dealing with this. Would you be interested in helping me get past it?"

And it may be the ballsiest thing you've ever done, but so what? What's the worst that could happen? Seriously: what's the worst that could happen? She thinks you're a freak? She calls the papers, and tells everyone you're a freak? People storm your house, turning it into a zoo to see the guy who's a bit anxious?

You can't do this alone. Kissing requires a partner. And if a lot of the other responses above are right about possible sources of your anxiety, it's going to take a positive experience to get you through it. You can get to the brink of that positive experience through reading, or through cognitive behavioral therapy, or maybe through anti-anxiety medications, but when it comes down to it, you're going to need to be convinced by a positive experience.

And really, in this situation, you've got nothing to lose. Go for it. Be brave. Good luck.
posted by Picklegnome at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Might I direct you to a post I made a few months ago about my (now) beau:

We finally just got drunk and made out on his couch, but jesus it took long enough. And I suspect the reason he didn't just go in for a kiss on the second date or so is because he didn't want me to think he was a jerk. Or, you know, in it for the poontang--which is not what I would have thought at all.

You're clearly a nice guy. If you weren't, you wouldn't worry about this kind of thing. Any girl you're dating (whose worth her salt anyway) will be to see this pretty quickly.

It's hard, I know. Really, really hard. And really, really scary. But if she's non-begrudgingly gone out with you more than once or twice and you've both enjoyed yourselves, odds are she really likes you--and really wants you to kiss her (and, quite possibly, other things too). Something to keep in mind is that no matter how hard it is for you to make that first move, and no matter how much you want to avoid seeming like a "horny twenty-something male," society has trained women not to make that first move. To wait around. To be passive. Yes, this is silly. But some of us--even those of us who fancy ourselves feminists--have difficulty getting past this kind of thing. So, what I'm trying to say is no matter how hard it is for you, it's at the very least that hard for her as well.
posted by faeuboulanger at 12:16 PM on March 11, 2009

Oh, also! Hugs, touching knees, patting backs, etc. is a great way to initiate physical contact without seeming like creeper. She'll very likely get the message that you're attracted to her, and either make that first move herself or at least you know she doesn't recoil at your touch. And of course, if she does recoil at your touch, you'll know maybe going in for that after dinner kiss isn't such a great idea afterall. Bon chance!

posted by faeuboulanger at 12:27 PM on March 11, 2009

Just something along the lines of "May I kiss you?" is fine;

Oh god, no! Don't do this, it TOTALLY kills the mood. Seriously, it can go so wrong. One time a guy asked me this and I was so caught off guard that I burst out laughing. i didn't mean to, it was just so . . . weird. he never spoke to me again, i think he was mortified. I felt really bad.

trust me . . . if a girl is sitting next to you on the couch, staring into your eyes at the end of your date, etc, whatever, then she is expecting you to kiss her. If i am around a guy who i can tell has interest in me, and I'm not feeling it, I make sure that to keep enough physical distance so that this awkward moment won't get the chance to happen. if she's close enough for you to kiss her, really, she is expecting it. and if she isn't, and you do it and doesn't like it, she's probably an idiot.

i also agree with what someone else said- alcohol. combined with alcohol, perhaps try making a move on a girl you AREN'T so interested in. i'm not saying one night stands, but you could certainly make out with some chick you met at a party. once you do that a few times, your confidence will build. i certainly made out with lots of random dudes in college. it's fun, and pretty low-pressure. but when i think about the last several guys i dated, my first kiss with about half of them was after a night of drinking. and i think they were actually better. if you really like someone, and they are into you, you get so nervous! it's more nerve-wracking to kiss someone you like then someone you don't. i really think alcohol is totally fine in this situation. call this girl one more time, tell her you've been a little distracted lately (i would advise against going into detail and sharing with all this with her) and that you want to take her out. for a drink. if she accepts, then for god sakes, take her out, both of you have a couple drinks, then make your move.
posted by lblair at 3:13 PM on March 11, 2009

I'm largely quoting from my own post here:

It can be very nervewracking making The Move ... heres how I overcome The Fear (tm) to make it happen.

At that point, I think of the "Me Of Tomorrow" - how annoyed will I be tomorrow that I didn't make a move, at least hold hands, or touch her shoulder or kiss her or SOMETHING...

Also, what have you got to loose? You go to hold her hands, or kiss her, she's not interested in you that way ... and you are where you are now, except you know where you stand. Its a win win situation, you win twice!
posted by Admira at 4:42 PM on March 11, 2009

Start small; don't need to go in straight for the kill (as in the kiss on the mouth).

For example: Take her hand, raise it to your mouth, and kiss her fingers instead. Not too long ago it was a fairly innocuous gesture. Fingers tend to be easier to reach than the mouth too. And you can do this in the middle of conversation without cutting her off.

Other even smaller starts include: putting your hand on the small of her back when guiding her past you through a doorway, touching her arm to get her attention instead of some other means, etc. In other words, being incremental about physical contact seems to help. Builds your own confidence, less potential for awkward "WTF DO YOU THINK YOU'RE TRYING TO DO?" and builds the other party's comfort-level wrt you too.

Something else I've noticed: there are people out there who are more 'touchy' than others. If someone starts off as being *seemingly* at ease with initiating physical contact with me right off the bat, it tends to pave the way for mutual physical contact with minimal awkwardness. So take advantage of the fact that the next girl you meet won't know that you're really hesitant about physical contact, (it's a clean slate), and initiate physical contact in an incremental manner. Be the change you want to see in yourself! :)
posted by nihraguk at 7:02 PM on March 11, 2009

just one more chime in support of the 'jump off a cliff' crowd: i think the challenge here for you is to let go of, even kill fear. that is the hardest part, and after that, whatever moves, suave, calculated or otherwise, pale in importance. you have plenty of good suggestions for what moves to make; take your pick of them. but, like some others here, i have had a similar post-college vacation from intimacy, and i think my moves away from that have had mostly to do with telling myself it's much better to fail than to run away from risk. or better: take a look at the stake you have in the situation. what are you really risking? ridicule? in my experience, that is a severe underestimation of the sympathy of others, and perhaps an overestimation of your image in others' eyes. so many things we take pride in are simply invisible to others, and so many things we pay no mind to are exactly what burn us into their minds.

try paying no mind, practicing a disregard for the anticipation of future consequences to just simply being yourself. it is a matter of shifting focus. the burns book, while kind of potboiler-y overall, does have many useful suggestions for how to do that. meditation works for a lot of people. alcohol as social lubricant, building up to your challenge by practicing in situations with lower perceived stakes - good ideas. but it is important to note the difference between climbing a mountain of nerves and fears, and changing your perspective altogether such that the mountain no longer stands in your way.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2009

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