Am I a relationship freak?
April 30, 2011 10:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 29 year old straight female, and I've never been in a grown up relationship. Is there something really wrong with me?

OK, doing my best not to make this a rambling mess.

I'm a 29 year old straight female, and I've never been in a grown up relationship.

The last boyfriend I had was when I was 18, and a freshman in college. That relationship had its own problems - he was pretty depressed, and tried to bring me down with him, and there was some verbal/minor sexual abuse stuff going on. That lasted for 8 months, before I broke up with him, at which point he attempted suicide, and instead resorted to self cutting, making sure to tell me it was my fault. There was one other boy when I was 19, though he never wanted to call me his "girlfriend," in that teenage drama way. I lost my virginity to him, and cared for him deeply. He cared about me too, in his own way, though awful at showing it most of the time. That went on for (on and off - mostly during the summers as I was away at college) 3 years, though we never left the house (we just stayed in and had sex), I never met his parents, or his sibling, or any of his friends. At one point in our "relationship" he decided he was moving to Colorado, but he didn't want to tell me - because it might upset me? I don't know. So he just stopped speaking to me. Then he showed up half a year later begging for forgiveness. I would say I consider him the only person I've been in love with - unhealthily, obviously.

I hope that all made sense. I don't know if any of it's relevant, but as much info as possible, I figure. Anyway.

Fast forward to today. I admit I'm not great at dating - I'm not very social (a lot of anxiety stuff which I'm just now starting to get over). But I've also not had a shortage of sex partners, so I do meet men. Just not ones that are interested in relationships, whether in general or with me specifically. I've tried online dating, but I don't seem to be made for it - I'm fine with chatting with men online, but once I actually get asked out, I can't make myself go out with them. I get afraid, or too nervous, or I waited too long and then it becomes weird. The other issue is I'm not usually very physically attracted to the men I meet online. I've never been on a "successful" online date - I used to be more willing to go on them than I am now - but they almost never go past the first date, second at most. I'm on OKCupid, by the way, but in the past I've also tried and JDate.

This concerns me more with every year that passes. Many men my age and older are already paired off, or they want children and I don't. I know a large part of this is my fault, for not putting myself out there more, for not agreeing to dates, perhaps even for being picky. But I almost feel like it should have happened by accident by now. I'm a freelance worker, so I'm constantly meeting new people, and I do things like go to coffee shops and whatnot. The only thing I don't do (perhaps to my detriment) is go to bars because I don't drink, and it can get boring.

I have friends who are telling me this is entirely normal, and they know people like me, but I don't know anyone else. I'm sure at this point I'm putting off some kind of "Holy crap, nobody wants to date me" vibe. I don't know if I'd even like a long term relationship, but I'd certainly like to be given the opportunity to try.

1) Is there something really wrong with me here? I realize I'm going to get a lot of "it's your own damn fault" answers, and I know it is in a lot of ways, but could there also be something inherently wrong with me? And because of that, am I damaged goods? Is this going to be the rest of my life?

2) I don't even know what to say when people I don't know that well ask when my last relationship was, how long it was - I feel like a loser answering the truth. Does this make me less desirable as a partner? Are people going to meet me and not want to date me because I'm completely inexperienced? Is this just way too weird?

Honestly I'm really nervous and kind of embarrassed to even be posting this, but I'm doing it non-anonymously so that I can answer any questions.
posted by dithmer to Human Relations (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The other issue is I'm not usually very physically attracted to the men I meet online.

Being tactlessly honest here, how physically attractive are you? Because all things being equal, more attractive people get more dates.
posted by orthogonality at 10:42 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you may have some deeply seated self-esteem issues that are getting in the way of your dating life, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but something worth addressing. Have you tried therapy to deal with this? Once you improve your own sense of self, it may carry over to the way others perceive you.

Also, it's possible that your criteria (if any) or location are contributing to the issue. For example, if you live in a small town but only want to date guys with degrees in French philosophy or something equally restricting.

Good luck!
posted by baronessa at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: She already said she's not had a shortage of sex partners. It doesn't sound like her physical attractiveness is the issue here.

OP, there's nothing WRONG with you. From your post, I'd suggest exploring ways to build your self-esteem and self-worth outside of the dating sphere. The reason I say that is because of your second-guessing of things that are normal, assigning blame to yourself for circumstances that aren't really within your control but rather are just part of the random events of life, and your assumption that there may be something inherent to you that is to blame for your situation. Many women our age (I'm 31) lack confidence and self-worth. It's actually not just completely fine but BETTER to like what you like and own your liking of it.

I would also suggest re-examining your profiles and making sure they communicate what you are looking for in a partner VERY CLEARLY. (This requires you gaining clarity on what you want -- to the extent possible with your experience up to this point.) It doesn't sound like more casual sex is what you're looking for, so stop doing that. Let potential partners know through your profile that you are looking for something to develop into a long-term relationship. Communicate specifically what personality/character traits you desire and those that you possess. I can't stress enough how clarity in this realm will help you... seriously. If you have a profile with a lot of clear stuff in it (rather than vague "I'm down for whatever" kind of language), you'll get fewer responses, but you'll get higher quality responses.

I'm sure you've seen the advice before that one must find a way to be comfortable and happy being single before one can meet a partner. Are you trying to do that? Do you have hobbies, interests, friends, etc.? (These are helpful for the self-esteem building stuff, too.)
posted by hansbrough at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Orthogonality - it's a fair question, albeit one that feels difficult to answer (due to my self esteem issues that baronessa correctly identified). The problem is not really getting e-mailed on the sites. Those come in droves, and they do often mention finding me attractive. I just don't often answer most of them - usually because of lack of physical attraction, or for a deal breaker, like they're looking for somebody to have kids with.
posted by dithmer at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2011

No, you are certainly not a relationship freak! Unless everyone is. Because even though it seems like there are a whole buncha "normal" people doing "normal" dating things, it just isn't true! Everyone has weird moments, or weird stretches of not-really-dating or thinking they are not dating material. Really!

It's also terribly normal not to be interested in 98% of the emails you get from dating sites. But how about picking just one. One guy who isn't perfect (obviously!) but seems nice and shares a couple interests. Send him an email. Make a promise to yourself that you will meet him one time, if he continues to seem nice. Just one time. Just to get yourself over this hump of scariness. Dating is a skill that requires practice just like everything else. You are out of practice. (Also, when you do this one date, also promise yourself you won't sleep with the guy on this one date. Maybe that will help with some of the "omg what is going to happen" kinda worries).

When people ask about your relationship history, you could say:
1. Oh you know, playing the field, nothing long term recently.
2. It's not very interesting yet, but I'm working on it!
3. I haven't had much time for dating lately, but I'm trying out OkCupid.

Also, congratulations on being brave! You are a very cool person who just needs to find the right kind of cool person to complement you. They are out there, dozens of potential mates, likely with the same kind of dating anxiety you are having. Maybe you can help each other out. Good luck!
posted by Glinn at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

One more piece of advice about online dating -- in my opinion, the key is to establish a mutual interest in meeting and then meet in person as quickly as possible (safely, in public, etc.) -- otherwise you can establish a whole relationship together online that doesn't translate into the real world. You have to see if there's in-person chemistry ASAP.
posted by hansbrough at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Umm, well unless the guys are obviously flat-out ugly from their profile pics, you should maybe try meeting them in person. A photo never really shows how someone actually looks and you have to meet in person to experience chemistry or not.

Also, I'm wondering whether you really want a relationship. Maybe you don't. You think you should get some healthy adult relationships under your belt in order to be a Well-Adjusted Person, from the sounds of it, rather than that you actually want to.

And BTW, the word "picky"... gets on my nerves a bit for some reason, because it's usually used by people who expect you to date Shrek. There's nothing wrong with being selective. It's just that you're so selective that you're excluding everyone... which I suspect is what you want to do.

The only cure for that is to force yourself to go on dates, I don't think that just accepting that you don't want a relationship (if, in fact, you don't - I could of course be wrong here) is going to be enough for you. Just don't let that segue into forcing yourself to grin and bear a year-long relationship with some warm body or other.
posted by tel3path at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2011

I've got a question, if I could.

Are you unhappy? That is, do you desperately want to be in a romantic relationship and you're not finding one that works for you, or are you pretty okay with your life but you feel like a freak because you don't have a partner?

Both of those things, for my money, are totally normal. But with one, you're looking for reassurance that you're normal, and in another, you're looking for help solving a problem. People seem to be assuming that it's the former--you want a relationship and aren't finding one--but your question is, to me, implying the latter. Could you clarify? (After which I will expound further on the "TOTALLY NORMAL", taking it in the appropriate direction.)
posted by MeghanC at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2011

Also: this "minor sexual abuse stuff" you mentioned in this question and in a previous question warrants counseling.
posted by hansbrough at 11:14 AM on April 30, 2011

Response by poster: Tel3path, MeghanC - that would have been a good point to include.

Yes, I'd like to have a relationship. At least, I believe I would. The one thing I don't know is if, as I mentioned, I'd even like being in one. I know they can be hard. But I do feel that longing to share my life with someone. And even worse, it's grown into resentment of my friends who are in relationships. It makes me feel like an awful person, not feeling like I'm able to just be happy because they're happy. But it just seems to rub in how very single I am.
posted by dithmer at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2011

I'm sure at this point I'm putting off some kind of "Holy crap, nobody wants to date me" vibe.

Actually, it seems like you're the one putting out a "I don't want to date" vibe, if you're not physically attracted to people who email you. Lots and lots of decent looking people have rotten photography skills. Go out with more guys. You don't have to feel OMG I WANT TO RIP YOUR CLOTHES OFF kind of attraction on the first date.

FWIW, I was 29 when I met my husband (online) and I had almost no relationship experience prior to that. I was functionally in the same boat as you - lots of sexual experience with a string of losers. He didn't and doesn't care about guys I was with before him; he cares about who I am now. A date is not a job interview; you don't have to justify your previous experience. Just demur.

Nothing was wrong with me and nothing is wrong with you. Other people's attraction to you - or lack thereof - does not determine your self-worth. Repeat over and over as necessary. In any case, it doesn't sound like the problem is that people aren't attracted to you, but vice versa. Broaden your horizons.
posted by desjardins at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Question- were most of your sex partners just randoms? No moral judgment here at all- but had you ever considered dating one of them? Why did all of them end up in the "naked friends only" catagory?

It sounds like dating makes you nervous, so you stick to Just-Sex to keep the stress down. It might be worth looking at that for a hot min, but maybe it's time to really look at what you want. Do you want to be in a LTR? What about it do you want? Is it the companionship, the regular sex, the more secure future, the emotional intimacy? Or is it more about you being on track with your friends?

If it IS what you want- then you'll have to take a hard look at why dating isn't working. It could just be that you aren't going out enough (it's a numbers game. 90% of the dates will not work out, so you might have to go on like a million first dates), is it that you need some time with a therapist to figure out what social cues you are missing or accedently sending, or it maye you could use some brushing up on casual conversation skills so you feel more confident. Just to be clear- I really doubt there is something "wrong" with you, but sometimes it helps to check what it is you are shouting to the world.

Maybe it's time to cut yourself off from the easy sex. It's helped most of my friends find their long-term partners- because they stoped waisting time and energy on people they weren't compatable with.

And don't worry about explaining to people why you were single for so long. Don't treat it like it's a bigger deal than it is. It's nothing. And you REALLY don't have to go into detail about ANYTHING to a dude you've only been on a few dates with. You can tell him more as your relationship grows and becomes worthy of your trusr.
posted by Blisterlips at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, please don't feel like an awful person. Everyone feels like that about something--it's human nature. It is, in my opinion, a large part of why marriages and babies tend to break up friendships. It's hard to watch other people have what you want, or what you think you want, and it's even harder when they don't seem to realize the effect that it has on you.

Second, can I just reiterate: TOTALLY NORMAL. You're not a freak; you're not too late. Loads of men your age are already married--and loads of them aren't. And something like half of their marriages will end in divorce anyhow.

There's nothing wrong with you except, perhaps, for alarmingly low self-esteem and the social anxiety issues that you mentioned. Have you been seeing a therapist, or considered it? I know that it's not for everyone, but it can be really helpful, and if you have insurance that'll cover it, it might be worth giving it a try.

Also, from the sounds of it, I wonder if part of your lack of dating success is a subconscious attempt to protect yourself. It sounds like the two relationships that you've had were awfully fucked up, and when that's been your experience, it can be hard to believe that any new relationship can be normal and healthy. (This, too, is one of those things that therapists can be helpful with.)

I would second the suggestion of giving people online more of a chance--my general experience has been that social networking in general either has the absolute best or the absolute worst possible photos of people--there's not a lot of middle ground, and it's totally possible that the guy who looks like a creeper could, in fact, be gorgeous in person. (Which sounds like bullshit, but, I swear, happens all the time.) You might want to consider using dating sites as a way to meet and screen quickly, but not allow yourself to chat too much with people--maybe send two emails, and then try to set something up. Moving it offline faster can make it seem less intimate, and it'd certainly give you less time to build it up and freak out. (I'm not the only one who does that, right?)

Finally, relax. I mean, I know that sucks, but really, getting hyperfocused on this will only make it worse. You're not a freak. You're doing a good job at something that's not easy for anyone, and even less easy for people who've had crappy relationships previously. Eventually it will work out, and you'll meet someone as awesome as you are.

Just as a data point, I had exactly zero romantic relationships between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven, at which point I met the man who is now my husband. It happens.)
posted by MeghanC at 11:53 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this may be something to work out with a therapist. I wouldn't say there's something "wrong" with you, but you may want to talk it out with someone, work out the anxiety and intimacy questions and fears regarding long term relationships in a non-judgmental arena (ie not here).

For example people may say "arachnophobia" is silly, they're just harmless spiders, you're not going to die. But it's very real to that person. I wouldn't mock that. And it's overcomable.

Dating on those dating sites doesn't mean you'll meet someone for a long term relationship. My friends have met their significant others in all kinda of places, it just happens.

I hate to break it to you guys but "unattractive" people also have sex, get married and have long term relationships too. So cut the crap.
posted by mbird at 12:12 PM on April 30, 2011

Make a cut-off date with yourself and stop worrying about it. Different women do this differently, but mine has always been relatively late- 35+- because the women in my family have had kids in their late 30s, including my mom with me, and my aunt, and my grandma-so I think it's safe to wait in my case. This is assuming you want kids at all, even a little bit-or just want the chance to have kids. The cut-off date lets you stop worrying and relax in the meantime. Heck, write it down and sign it- if I'm single by my 35th birthday, or whatever, I'll settle within the year. I don't know. It doesn't matter. The point is it's a psychological trick to stop you feeling desperate. By the time you get there, you will probably have solved the problem or feel differently.

Now, in the meantime, forget about online dating. I mean, maybe brush up your profile, really put some effort into your pictures, but then set it to "looking for friends" or whatever and walk away for a while. Log in occasionally to browse just to make sure you aren't missing anyone wonderful, but don't put any pressure on yourself about it, at all. Nada.

Stop having sex. Identify the point at which your lizard brain takes over and cut things short right before that- IE, don't be alone in either apartment, or wear hideous underwear and don't shave, or whatever. This doesn't mean you have to stop having sex solo by any means- just get the guy out of the equation.

Get yourself a makeover. It doesn't actually really matter what you look like- well, okay, it does- but the point of the exercise is to do whatever it takes to feel confident. I always feel happier and more willing to show off when I'm done up and have just bought a great new outfit. Do whatever you need to do to feel awesome about yourself without guilt.

But the most important thing, and the one that everyone trots out- get some hobbies. Go somewhere on vacation. Say yes to every invitation. Sign up for new groups. It's better if you can go a few times to check it out before making monetary commitment. Heck, in the extreme, even move and get a new job, if possible. Any distant friends or relatives? Tell them you'll be in town for a while, go see them. Really stretch your social life to the utmost. This takes courage and the willingness to be gauche and still cheerful. Do it anyway.

And finally, ask yourself what you really want deep down- all the stuff too sensitive to admit to anyone- the childhood dreams, the crazy ambitions. And make real steps toward them, even if it's crazy and hopeless and (within reason) expensive.

In short, get busy and get a life and get happy, and the rest will follow.
posted by Nixy at 12:18 PM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

OP, nobody likes relationship magic more than me. But at a certain point you have to take the other approach, which is to seek romantic partnership the way you seek anything else that is valuable. Define the kind of man you want in broad terms. Narrow that down to those who are seeking the kind of woman you are -- use actual evidence, not wishful thinking. Now determine where that narrowed set of men is -- physically and metaphorically. Then go to those places, and make yourself available as assertively as you are comfortable in doing. That's all there is to it.
posted by MattD at 1:37 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think your experience is fairly normal. People date because every relationship that came before failed so in that sense you are in the same boat as everybody else on the market. You may feel that your experience is uniquely horrible but believe me it's not (don't really want to get into ex-boyfriend stories on the internets just trust me on this).

When I was single, I wasn't comfortable online dating (this was eight years ago and it wasn't as prevalent then) so I did in person singles events instead (single volunteers, singles dinners etc.) that worked pretty well for me and I met guys who were looking for a relationship,
posted by bananafish at 6:00 PM on April 30, 2011

I don't think there's anything wrong with you, although certainly not wanting kids is probably shrinking your dating pool drastically. Most men I've met your age who want to settle down want kids. Those who don't want kids often do not want to settle down, either. In that case, it's just a numbers/odds issue.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:03 PM on April 30, 2011

Oh this was me. What changed things for me was deciding to be more proactive and to give people a bit more of a chance. I think I had been scared that I was going to have to commit before I was ready, but giving myself permission to be unsure about a relationship at first meant that I had time to get to know the fellow who is now my fiancé. I didn't think there were sparks at first. But after the second date I realised I'd been mistaken by my first impression. By date three I was beginning to suspect there was something there, and by date four I was pretty sure.

What causes your stress might be something different, but realising what it is and finding ways to manage it will help.
posted by jonathanstrange at 6:15 PM on April 30, 2011

I have no answers for you, except that I am a few years older, and never have been in a relationship either. So, you are not alone! I believe one day I will meet my life parter. So in the meantime, life chugs on :)
posted by TrinsicWS at 7:35 AM on May 1, 2011

But I've also not had a shortage of sex partners, so I do meet men. Just not ones that are interested in relationships, whether in general or with me specifically. I've tried online dating, but I don't seem to be made for it - I'm fine with chatting with men online, but once I actually get asked out, I can't make myself go out with them. I get afraid, or too nervous, or I waited too long and then it becomes weird.

With online dating, the goal is to meet in person. Move towards that goal as quickly as possible: initial contact should be along the lines "Hi, you seem like an interesting person. Would you like to meet up sometime? I am free this weekend." or something like that. Try to go on an actual date within a week or less of contact. Do not wait for the other person to ask you out. OkCupid's matching algorithm is very, very good (datapoint: my wife). Trust it, and seek out people who are high matches (in the 80%+ range) even if they don't match what the person you traditionally date looks like. Be way less picky. Remember that most people consider themselves to be "above average" in looks/intelligence/whatever and that this is basically impossible.1 Long term relationships develop based on compatibility along metrics very different than the ones used in dating alone.

If you were a man, you'd be in a very different situation. For better or worse, women are expected to get "hitched up" at an earlier age than men. If you envision having children, and raising them in a two-parent family, then realistically you should try to be in a committed relationship by 35 or so in order to have the best possible chance of becoming pregnant and having a healthy child.

1. Actually, considering outliers like the mentally disabled, it's entirely possible that more than 50% of the population is, in fact, smarter than average but at that point you're dealing with fallacies like "the average person has fewer than 2 legs".
posted by Deathalicious at 8:37 AM on May 1, 2011

Absolutely nothing wrong with it. Actually, you sound a lot like I do. I have anxiety problems that I started to treat when I was 27 and finally started to heal from at some point when I was 29 or 30, I had a couple of relatively decent but decidedly ODD relationships when I was 18-21 (I was probably emotionally abusive to my significant others -- hard to tell as they were sort of as screwed up as I was, and I'm only in touch with a few of them at this point) and then wanted a lot of relationships but ended up just having a LOT of sex through most of my 20s.

Give it time. Keep treating your anxiety issues and keep an introspective attitude towards yourself. Stay social with stuff that appeals to you and keep building your own life.

In my case, a friend got divorced, and we got hooked up by one of my friends who basically grabbed me, grabbed her, and said, "You two should have a one night stand." That one night stand has been going on for a year or so...
posted by SpecialK at 10:00 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Oh yeah, and if you enjoy it, keep having sex. Just admit that it might not go beyond that, and find peace with it.)
posted by SpecialK at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2011

If the men you meet on dating websites aren't that great, why don't you ask out men you actually like?
posted by grammar corrections at 11:28 AM on May 1, 2011

Do you feel highly introverted? Would you rather email than talk on the phone? Do you have to psych yourself up to call customer service? If so, then it could be something psychological, and your best bet is a therapist.

If, on the other hand, you're not excessively introverted... then I, for one, don't see anything wrong. Some people just don't need a relationship to be happy, and that's perfectly acceptable.

If you're feeling lonely, you might want to fill that void with a dog, or two cats. Seriously. But don't stress because you think you need a relationship but don't feel like it!
posted by babbageboole at 1:20 PM on May 1, 2011

Best answer: "could there also be something inherently wrong with me? "

No there is nothing inherently wrong with you. However, you don't feel loveable. That comes across very loudly.

Some 'evidence' is: the two boyfriends -- one was abusive, and the other was witholding (didn't want to refer to you as his girlfriend; moved away, etc.)

And then the fact that the men you have sex with don't want to have a relationship with you and the men who are drawn to you online are not attractive to you.

All defensive maneuvers on your part (defensive implies unconscious.)

You are drawn to men who confirm your feelings of unlovability and, if you have the chance of meeting a man who might love you, you decide before even meeting him that he is "unattractive" (based upon an amateur still photo).

So -- in sum -- it's the feeling that you are unlovable that needs to be addressed. You might be thinking, "hey, I don't feel unlovable -- I know* I'm smart, attractive, this and that."

*It's not about what you know, or what you think you know. It's about your feelings. You might not feel unlovable either, on a conscious level, but you are communicating strongly here that you feel damaged. You even use that word: "damaged goods" (what an expression!)

Yes, I know you're just *asking* us if *we* think you're damaged goods, but this would not even occur to you if you didn't think you were.

People here are telling you that there's nothing wrong with you, and they're right, but that's not the point. The point is that you think there's something wrong with you, and therefore you put yourself in positions where that feeling of wrongness is confirmed. You're in a big fat vicious cycle.

Have you tried some counseling/psychotherapy? It can really help.

There is a possibility that you will meet a man who will be attractive to you and will love you in a way that feels safe and voila, your life will change in the way that you want it to -- this sometimes happens -- but if you want to up your chances, it can really pay off to make an investment in finding out what really going on with you and your self-esteem that's being expressed in the way you relate to men.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:18 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

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