Retraining Yourself to Love What's There
January 4, 2011 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to retrain yourself to appreciate people who are emotionally available when you've grown used to (and actually crave/pursue) the emotionally distant ones?

Long time lurker, etc, etc.

I've been seeing this guy for a little bit now, and he is a total sweetheart. Kind, polite, very interesting, pleasant to be around, and great to talk to. The only problem is that I can't seem to find myself longing for his company whenever he's not around. In fact, unless we've made plans to see each other and get together, I find it really kind of irritating whenever he calls me, or, worst of all, when he does stuff like give me presents and "woo" me. I'm not there yet and want to keep getting to know him. I cannot figure out why there's a disconnect here. He's great in person. I definitely like him and find him attractive. But when we're not around each other, the idea of talking to him in between hang outs is just giving me the worst feelings ever, like I'm obligated to talk to him and the pressure is just making me crabby beyond reason.

By contrast, I seem to crave and relish the contact I get from other guys whom I've seen in the past, regardless of where our relationships went. These guys were always a little stingy with the contact, but it was nice all the same. Now I'm not sure if it's them or if it's me.

Is this something I can move beyond? I mean, I guess I'm used to being around guys who are emotionally distant, and to be around somebody who is unabashedly set, so to speak, on me and who I am is really creeping me out. It's like I've won an award without ever having entered a contest, and there's something very unsettling about that. What's the deal here? Do I need to go back to therapy in order to appreciate a guy who genuinely and truly likes me for who I am, no changes necessary, or am I feeling something subconsciously that I better not ignore?

And if I do discover that this just isn't something I can move beyond... Will I be a bad person if I tell the guy, "Hey, I really just can't do this, but I want to keep getting to know you as a friend?" I just can't figure this out. I feel horrible and guilty whenever I don't want to talk to this guy, because he's just so puppy-doggy.
posted by iLoveTheRain to Human Relations (12 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, speaking from experience, it's absolutely possible. But also speaking from experience, it's something that is a benefit that comes from a larger process of getting serious about your own mental and emotional health and well-being, which (again, in my experience) leads to a necessary recalibration of understanding what relationships and partners are really for.

Or, to put it more succinctly: "once we love ourselves, people no longer look good to us unless they are good for us."
posted by scody at 8:13 PM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

Do you actually like him? Are you attracted to him, etc? You don't mention that in your post, other than to say he's nice and interesting. Are you not that into him, or are you just not that worried about when you'll see him next. These are not necessarily the same. If you really just aren't into him romantically, tell him you just want to be friends. If it really hasn't been that long and you do have feelings for him, maybe wait a little bit to see if those feelings develop.
posted by elpea at 8:23 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

yeah, I do find the guy attractive. said so in my op. just want to take things slow and for whatever reason talking to the guy when we're not actually there in person weirds me out. I sort of feel like maybe I find him unattractive because he makes himself so ridiculously available, which is sad, yeah?
posted by iLoveTheRain at 8:38 PM on January 4, 2011

Honestly, I don't think you like him all that much. I can't really tell if you only dislike him because he's available and thus you can't pine the way you normally do, per se, but if you aren't interested in talking to him when he's not around in person, ("ugh, I have to talk to him?!"), I think that's kind of a bad sign. You could be uncomfortable with him pitching woo, you might think he's desperate, but if you don't enjoy talking to him on the phone or whatever beyond that uncomfortable feeling, I think that's more of a "I just don't like him as much as I thought" too.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:13 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's a good sign that you feel obligated to talk to him, or irritated whenever he calls. How often is he calling? How often do you guys go out? How long have you been seeing each other? I can think of a lot of possible reasons for why you're not too into this guy that are perfectly valid:

1.)Maybe he's just calling too much and you need some space. IMO there is such a thing as being too emotionally available, especially in the beginning of a relationship, and this can sometimes be a red flag.
2.)Maybe he's overdoing it with the gifts trying a little too hard to "woo" you. Plenty of people would find this irritating.
3.) Maybe he's a perfectly nice guy, but you're just not attracted to him. There are so many intangibles when it come to attraction, and just thinking someone is nice isn't a basis for a relationship.
4.) Maybe you are attracted to him, but you feel guilty that you don't seem to feel as strongly as he does. That can put a lot of pressure on a new relationship and could certainly lead to you feeling irritated. You might just need to give it some more time, and maybe let him know that you feel like things are going too fast. And if he's not able to tone it down, or you find that you're feelings don't change after a while, you might just need to let this one go. There will be others.

Whatever it is, and whatever you decide to do, you are NOT a terrible person for trying to be happy.
posted by smokingmonkey at 9:29 PM on January 4, 2011

It could be that you don't like his availability, or it could be just that he's around more than your comfort zone would dictate. Have you tried saying "I'm not much of a phone person" and "how about just two evenings a week," until it got to a comfortable level for you? If you tried that and his stability, interest in you, emotional awareness, etc., still weirded you out, then you'd know that it's closer to what you describe.
posted by salvia at 9:38 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is long. You have been warned.

You sound just like me six months ago. I had (and still do have, a little) a consistent habit of finding and locking on to dates, sex partners, crushes and close friends with what can most generously be termed an avoidant attachment style. Sometimes, and especially when we first started hanging out, things would go really well. We were immediately mutually admiring, we'd stay up late talking about anything and everything, and all the rest of that shit, but, after the initial spark, they never really came any closer, no matter how much time we spent together. Whoever it was would become flaky, ambivalent and dismissive. They weren't particularly open with others, either. I got addicted to these people. I'd go through withdrawals when they were away. I'm sure it showed, too. I had a lot of longing, confusing crash-and-burn stuff going on.

Then I met and befriended a sweet, shy, kind man who obviously had kind of a thing for me. We shared interests. He was intelligent, principled, side-splittingly funny, a great listener, easy to be with... all typical of my usual type, BUT, he was also a loyal, attentive, reliable, unambiguously devoted friend, and for some reason I could not even begin to deal with that. I had fun when I was with him, but I didn't even think of him on a Friday night bored at home. I got tired of him calling all the time. I was much more casual (as opposed to intense) with him and I enforced strict boundaries, not so much so that I was mean, but enough that it turned out he was terrified of ever approaching me romantically.

Here are my best guesses as to why I reacted this way-- YMMV:

1. We the people value being cool and playing it cool, especially where wooing is involved. When someone doesn't hold themselves back, the knee-jerk response is "desperate", especially if you consider yourself less romantic than most (I do). There's kind of a weird power dynamic implied where somehow being pursued means you're desirable and pursuing signals you aren't.

2. I get some kind of weird kick, a.k.a secondary payoff, out of the whole longing/ambivalence thing.

3. I worried about what that meant for the future. I assumed he must be the all-or-nothing cutesy true-love type. I think this is key: I suddenly felt burdened with his emotional well-being. I was worried about hurting his feelings all the time. I didn't want to have to reject him. I was frankly pissed that I had to avoid breaking his heart. I felt like a bad person. I felt like I "should" like him, and felt guilty that I didn't. It was a lot of pressure. (And I don't have a self-image that believes in doing what I "should".)

I got past it. I'm not sure how, but I did. It kind of snuck up on me. We started spending more and more time together, and by the time I finally made a move on him, it came so naturally to me I hardly thought about it. ('Til about a week later. And then I was like, "GAAAHHHOLYSHITWHATAMIDOING? What does this mean?!") We live together now, actually. And I don't feel irritated, or smothered, or trapped. I occasionally even miss him when he's gone, but mostly I'm too busy being secure and happy.

That said, this isn't necessarily the case for you. Maybe the emotionally-available in question isn't really a nice guy, he's a "nice guy". Maybe you won't adjust, because the problem isn't you, it's him. But the way I see it, you're looking to find out two unrelated things: whether the guy in question is, in fact, kind of creepy, and whether you can change your emotionally unrewarding habit of going for dudes that are, quote, stingy with the contact.

I think the second thing is definitely a yes. You just need some time to be a person comfortable in your own skin. I think things changed for me with my fella when:

He backed off on the wooing shit. I was able to stop worrying less about how much he liked me, and start noticing how much I liked him. I was relatively certain he'd got the message, and I was right: he enjoyed being my friend and figured it was time to focus on that instead of pushing for more.

And there's no big damn hurry, because, back to the first question...

It's okay if you're not comfortable with gifts and attention and demands on your time, pretty fucking normal, actually. You get to set boundaries. You should be able to tell him that that level of attention makes you uncomfortable; there is a middle ground between being a standoffish dick and being too clingy. If you try to, and it doesn't work, that says something about him, not you. You should no more have to fight for space than you should for affection, and guilt is a nasty weapon to use on a good person.

A resource you might also find useful, now and in the future: HBI's red flag list.

So, other things I did that might help you (with you, not with him): I was actually in therapy talking about my weird-ass relationship models, so if you're thinking it might be helpful for you and you've done it before, by all means, go for it. "Needing" therapy is kind of bullshit. We all need it. There's nothing wrong with you; you've just identified something that isn't serving you well that you want to change. I stopped romanticizing the idea of being someone who sacrifices my wants for other people's happiness. I stopped acting contrite when people called me on my bad-boy problem (I think it helped get rid of the defensive-angry-shouldness of it all). Somehow he became someone I could talk to, and we talked about our expectations for relationships. We talk about tensions and problems.

And I'm going to stop now, I swear, but one last thing about him: You're not responsible for his feelings. Ever. Period. And when it comes to relationship questions, ultimately the only person you need to answer to is yourself.
posted by dee lee at 10:28 PM on January 4, 2011 [30 favorites]

Whoops. Okay, I knew that would turn out long, but not That Long...
posted by dee lee at 10:31 PM on January 4, 2011

all of you, thank you... and dee lee, that is the greatest comment in the history of great comments. that's exactly what it all is. two issues, comingling, but really truly separate when it ultimately comes down to it. I have to shake the feeling of responsibility, that guilt. I'll keep working on it.
posted by iLoveTheRain at 10:58 PM on January 4, 2011

>>And if I do discover that this just isn't something I can move beyond... Will I be a bad person if I tell the guy, "Hey, I really just can't do this, but I want to keep getting to know you as a friend?"


He wants a romantic relationship with you, not a platonic friendship. If you tell him you're not interested but want to keep getting to know him as friends, if he's not a wuss he'll say "no thanks; I want to date you, not be friends." If he is a wuss--which is the subtext of your question--then he'll say "yeah, I'd like that." Then, you don't feel guilty, you guys hang out, he still wants you but tries to act like friends, he's still into you and thinks he's got a shot... that scenario is painful for him and you get feelings of validation from the fact that he wants you.

Or something. Anyway, why would you want to be friends with someone whom you can't stand the thought of talking to?
posted by J. Wilson at 6:16 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Scody nailed it. I wish I could say otherwise, but I'm not where she's at. For example, I spend more time of late ruminating over some woman who stood me up and asked me for a second chance and then never got back to me than two or three women who are actively hitting on me of late. I know it has everything to do with unresolved shit from my childhood.

The responsibility thing? A red herring. Keep yourself focused on you and why you can't seem to allow yourself what it is you think would be healthy for you.

As for being friends, as a guy, please don't. Its the worst kind of backburnering and plan "B"-ing out there. Respect him first.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2011

I think Dee Lee is spot on with her assessment. You might have some issues but that doesn't necessarily mean you should force yourself into a relationship if you honestly don't click with this guy.

And will you be a bad person if you tell him you don't want a relationship but you want to be friends?

If this is the truth, then no.

If some guys (not naming names) are not mature enough to make their own honest decisions, that's up to them. If you just honestly tell the guy how you feel (that you honestly enjoy his company but don't want to go further) then that is simply you being honest, not a bad person.

I've had a couple friendships with people with who a romantic relationship didn't work out and didn't find it insulting. This of course will only work with people who don't think that the "goal" of any relationship with a someone is to sleep with them and anything less is a plan B or consolation price....Even if these guys say "yes" to friendship it is usually for ulterior motives.

In other situations when someone's asked to be friends while I really, really wanted a romantic relationship I've simply honestly replied, "maybe in the future but right now I can't think of you in that way and it would affect the friendship" I maintained friendly contact, less of it, but let them know why. Sometimes, once I was able to disconnect my romantic feelings from friendly feelings, we were able to become more involved as friends. Other times I realized I personally had no interest in them as friends (which is honestly a good thing to have found out XD). It's really not that hard, and was my hang-up, not theirs.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:52 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

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