Getting back on the horse (I am the horse)
July 13, 2013 9:45 AM   Subscribe

How to and should I date the emotionally wounded?

I've started seeing a guy, couple months in. He's 36, I'm 27. I really like him. He's brilliant, interesting, funny, and handsome. He's a pretty oddball guy, but truth be told, we are pretty well matched in that way.

He was hurt pretty badly when his last relationship ended about 3 years ago. I get the feeling he is very much keeping me at arms length. I've asked him about it and he says he's not gotten this close to someone in years and is still trying to figure out if he can be in love with someone again. He also does not want to call me his girlfriend, citing the ol' "labels" refrain (I have never NOT gotten this from someone I've dated). Though we are exclusive and sleeping together so I'm not sure what else to call it.

As an example of aloofness, he has declined a few invitations of mine and later said he regretted not doing the things with me.

I am just coming to realize that I am at least a bit of a "catch." I had decided after my last relationship that I would want the next person I dated to be really excited about being with me and vice versa. This guy says he's looking for a relationship with me, but he's unsure of himself, feels inadequate, feels like damages goods etc. He said something pretty weird: that he sees part of me as a goddess and wonders if he can "worship the goddess." I'm willing to take things as slow as they need to go because I really do think being with him is something special. But then I think maybe there's someone out there who would be pretty excited and relieved to meet someone like me (kinda how I feel about the current guy). Then I tell myself nothing is perfect and I shouldn't take the fallout of his past personally. He has been very open with me. The feelings are definitely starting on my end but I can't help but feel i'm repeating old patterns of being with someone who needs to "overcome something" to love me.

Insight? Particularly people who have been really hurt by past relationships and your experience getting back on the horse? and for the record, I take him at his word; I dont think he's giving me a "line" or that he has a secret attic family or anything. Thanks mefi
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
and wonders if he can "worship the goddess."

Run far, far away. He is not seeing you as a person, merely as what you are not (his ex) and what he wants you to be (impossibly perfect).

The not wanting to commit, will I ever love again??, aloofness, etc are just the cherries on the proverbial train wreck sundae.
posted by lydhre at 9:52 AM on July 13, 2013 [56 favorites]

But then I think maybe there's someone out there who would be pretty excited and relieved to meet someone like me (kinda how I feel about the current guy).

Yes, there is, and you absolutely deserve that.

This guy says he's looking for a relationship with me, but he's unsure of himself, feels inadequate, feels like damages goods etc. He said something pretty weird: that he sees part of me as a goddess and wonders if he can "worship the goddess."

Assuming that goddess comment is not some sort of Tantric sex reference (and probably even if it is), you have absolutely hit it on the head when you interpret all this as "someone who needs to "overcome something" to love" you.

Flaws and damage are not the same thing. You're never going to find a flawless relationship, but you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who at least feels more or less like a whole person, not an open wound.
posted by jaguar at 9:54 AM on July 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I shouldn't take the fallout of his past personally

May I ask, why not?

After all, he's making the fallout of his past very personal for you. I'm not hearing anything here about him taking responsibility for his healing -- is he in therapy? Is he doing any work on himself? Instead, he seems to be putting the burden on you to be patient with him, to be in the relationship on his terms.

He's 36. He presumably has access to resources to work through the legacy of his last relationship. He's had three years to do so...but it seems is instead choosing to hold tight to his identity of Walking Wounded.

There are many red flags here: the "label" thing; the push/pull dynamic he's established; your own downsampling of your expectations and healthy desire for a balanced relationship.

(And oh dear, the goddess remark--!)

There are plenty of men out there who are ready, willing, able, and EAGER to have the type of relationship you want. There is a huge opportunity cost in sticking with this guy who may or may not ever morph into the kind of guy you want.

You might want to gently and kindly part ways with this one.
posted by nacho fries at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

He's a pretty oddball guy, but truth be told, we are pretty well matched in that way.

Be careful with this line of thought. I too think of myself as a bit odd, and have historically been attracted to men who are also kind of odd in various ways. This can be disastrous, as it makes it hard to gauge what's appropriate behavior and what may not bode well for you in the future. The trick is to make sure it's the right kind of odd, and that you are similar in the ways that are most important to you and to developing a healthy and realistic (as opposed to idealistic -- "the goddess," wtf?) relationship.

As an example of aloofness, he has declined a few invitations of mine and later said he regretted not doing the things with me.


He also does not want to call me his girlfriend, citing the ol' "labels" refrain (I have never NOT gotten this from someone I've dated)

I've never gotten that from anyone I've dated. That's not fair to you. I don't think he's ready for a relationship. It sounds like you know your worth but are preparing to compromise on that already.
posted by wondermouse at 10:07 AM on July 13, 2013 [12 favorites]

The number one thing late 30's me wishes he could go back in time and tell late 20's me is this:

The answer to the question, "Why do I get the feeling this relationship might not be a good idea?" is almost infallibly, "Because it's not a fucking good idea."

You deserve someone great and I think you already know you can do better.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:07 AM on July 13, 2013 [55 favorites]

I can't help but feel i'm repeating old patterns of being with someone who needs to "overcome something" to love me.

That's the insight you're looking for. That little voice is yours - listen to it. It's just a tentative little thing because it's new and whispering something unfamiliar: "you deserve better than this." You can't hear it clearly because it's drowned out by the loud booming steamroller voice you're used to: "I RECOGNIZE THIS CHALLENGING SITUATION! BEING WITH A PERSON WHO CAN'T LOVE ME IS A RELATIONSHIP! I AM UP FOR THIS!"

Each time you listen to the little voice, it will gain confidence. The little voice is right: you deserve better than this.
posted by headnsouth at 10:08 AM on July 13, 2013 [41 favorites]

People who push you away-- let them. There are people who only want to be with someone who will keep overcoming this sort of resistance. You don't need to date people like that.
posted by BibiRose at 10:12 AM on July 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Some years back I was hit with a freight train of a heartbreak. Now, it's impossible to say if my experience in any way resembles that of your not-quite-boyfriend. But you have specifically asked 'people who have been really hurt by past relationships' to chime in. For me, that experience which gutted me also turned into a catalyst for some serious soul-searching and growth.

In other words, I did not even try to date anyone else until I worked a few things out. Which means when I finally did start dating someone new, my heart was able to be fully in it. And, honestly, I don't think I would have 'healed' right if I'd jumped into another relationship too soon.

So, whatever happened to not-your-boyfriend, he is not over it. At all. Which does not bode well. And I must agree with other commenters calling out various red flags (like the 'goddess' comment). You are probably both better off if you go your separate ways.
posted by fikri at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

is still trying to figure out if he can be in love with someone again

I think he handed you your walking papers right there. That's a clear statement of unavailability.

And it gives him the "out" to say later down the line, when you've fallen deeply for him, and he still refuses to fully participate: "But-but-but I *told* you I wasn't ready to love, so you knew what you were getting into..."

posted by nacho fries at 10:16 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

How long have you guys been seeing each other?

It seems red-flaggy and weird that this guy is so deeply not over his previous relationship after three years. Unless they were married, that is a long, long time to not be ready to date again. Shit, my last serious relationship ended about that long ago and I'm starting to feel like that can of smoked oysters at the back of the pantry, quietly nearing its expiration date. Obviously everyone is different, but seriously it's kind of concerning that he is still having this much trouble with relationships after so long.

Also, everything you've said is a common signal of a dude who just isn't that into you, isn't serious about you, isn't head over heels for you, etc. Now, if it's been two months, I think that's fine and maybe you should just stick it out and let him be slow about "labels" and let this all work itself out. But if it's been closer to six months and he's still not willing to use girlfriend/boyfriend language, and he's 36 fucking years old for crying out loud, DTMFA.

I'll also say, as someone a few years older than you, that I've come across a lot of these mid/late 30's dudes who haven't been in a serious relationship in years, are reluctant to do or say anything like the teensiest level of commitment, don't know if they can ever love again, blah blah blah. I've come to realize that this isn't just a fluke. A lot of single dudes in their mid/late 30's are single because they want to be single, and haven't fallen into serious relationships/fallen in love/whatever because they aren't looking for that. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and if you're not looking for anything serious, then great! But it would be better for everyone concerned if 36 year old dudes who are afraid of "labels" and "don't know if they can ever love again" just said I'm mostly just looking for a fuckbuddy right now, thanks.
posted by Sara C. at 10:17 AM on July 13, 2013 [26 favorites]

You're not a horse. You're cake. He's having you and eating you, too.

If you're OK with being cake and always being cake, carry on. If you want to be something more than someone's dessert, move on.
posted by jesourie at 10:36 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

for the record, I take him at his word; I dont think he's giving me a "line"

By the way, my read on this is that's exactly what he's doing. He's sleeping with you, tells you you're part goddess or something, but at the same time tells you he doesn't know if he's capable of ever loving you or seeing you as his girlfriend and regularly turns down your invitations to things because he is "aloof." That's a bunch of BS, sorry. I suppose it's possible he's not doing it maliciously, but you have no reason to expect him to move on from his current mindset.
posted by wondermouse at 10:39 AM on July 13, 2013 [11 favorites]

He also does not want to call me his girlfriend, citing the ol' "labels" refrain [...] He said something pretty weird: that he sees part of me as a goddess and wonders if he can "worship the goddess."

Oh god, girl, run. He is almost certainly unable to see you as a regular, fallible, three-dimensional human being, and instead is viewing you as simply someone who might fit a woman-shaped hole in his life. That is, until you prove yourself to be a regular, fallible, three-dimensional human being, at which point he will resent you for not being a goddess.

This is a dance with CRAZY. Decline. There are all sorts of men who actually have their shit together, or who are actively in the process of getting said shit together. They are good candidates for a relationship. This one is not. That doesn't mean he's not a good or attractive person in a lot of other ways. It just means that sometimes good people are BAD candidates for relationships, and are literally unable to co-create a good, happy, healthy relationship no matter how much you wish it were otherwise. I wish I had learned this lesson in my 20s.
posted by scody at 10:51 AM on July 13, 2013 [21 favorites]

A lot of people in every age group are single because they want to be single. It sounds like you've already encountered several. None of this guy's BS is unique to 30somethings although it ages on them rather poorly. Remarks about "worshiping the goddess" and "no labels" do indicate that he's tuned into the current practice of using New Agey and hip terms to cover up some classic behaviors - mostly commitmentphobia and possibly a belief in virgin/whore dichotomies.

I am just coming to realize that I am at least a bit of a "catch." I had decided after my last relationship that I would want the next person I dated to be really excited about being with me and vice versa.

You're 27! You're approaching your peak! Allure magazine says so! And in case the reference to Allure magazine didn't make it clear, I actually recommend distracting yourself with relationship advice books, even if they're sexist and retrograde and terrible (since most of them are, at least to a degree). I recommend them because nearly all of them will repeat the following even if you don't have someone in your life to do it for you: You are a catch, you don't need any one person to survive, focus on how you feel in a person's presence (good? loved? wanted?) and not on admiring any particularly awesome/oddball/quirky qualities they possess, try developing your own awesome/oddball/quirky qualities. You can fume about the sexism of "Don't call him, get a manicure instead!" or translate it into "I'm not going to obsess over this, I have a bookbinding class to attend." Or both. Both are more productive than clinging to a painful relationship.
posted by ziggly at 10:52 AM on July 13, 2013

The only thing I can add is that when you break it off, which I absolutely think you should do, you should not explain the problem to him the way you might explain it to yourself, or the way Metafilter describes it to you. Because my guess is that when faced with losing you, he may suddenly become willing to say pretty much anything to keep you hanging on, and by explaining your reasons you'll only be indirectly telling him what to say, what buttons to push, to keep you hanging on, to make that happen. The dude is not ready for a healthy relationship. Nothing you or he can say can make him ready. And an unhealthy relationship is so totally not worth it. Say goodbye, and not much else.
posted by jon1270 at 10:57 AM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

A 37-year-old man who is remotely dateable will have no ambivalence whatever regarding his relationships. He knows himself, he knows women, two months is more than enough to determine if you have what he wants and vice versa, and he will have the maturity to break it off if he determines that you do not.
posted by MattD at 11:01 AM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just a few thoughts. I do not think we are guaranteed the perfect person who will treat us perfectly, if you decide to pass on this. We all (and I do really mean all) have emotional stuff that we bring with us that we try to sort out, usually for most of our lives. And sometimes the stars don't align well for everyone.

That being said, though, this guy doesn't sound like he's a good match. Not because he's a bad guy, but because he doesn't seem to have the tools to work through his emotional baggage. It's not whether we have emotional baggage (or if a relationship has its problems), but if we are willing and able to work things out when those things come up. That, I think, is an indication of healthy relationship potential, more than whether we come with damage per se.

So, if he's been holding onto this for three years and it's causing him problems in his relationships to this level, I'm not necessarily going to judge that. We all move at our own speed as we seek healing. But it's very possible that he's the kind of person, at least now, who harbors a grudge, or resentment, or puts quite too much of his identity in the fact of a relationship working out or not. It sounds like he sees a relationship (perhaps) as validation of his worthiness, and if it doesn't work, he's unworthy as a person. This would not only be wrong, but a huge red flag in most all relationships. If a relationship provides too significant portion of a person's sense of identity and worth, it crates a burden for the other person that becomes impossible to carry.

As an example of aloofness, he has declined a few invitations of mine and later said he regretted not doing the things with me.

Honestly, I think declining invitations in general is an okay thing, although if he's regretting it, you might want to find out why. If it's because he needed space and is now concerned that you feel bad, I think it was okay for him to have declined the invitations (although it should probably come with some communication in that respect). If it's because he's keeping you at arm's distance, though, because of emotional insecurities, that's another story (see above). In any case, I'd find out what's up, and also whether it's something you want to live with. Because even if you look at this guy and can rationalize everything he's doing as being normal on the spectrum of emotional development, you aren't obligated to continue on if you don't want to.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:01 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sara C. asks the same question I wanted to ask: How long have you been seeing this guy?

I went through a divorce. It was not acrimonious, but it was still hard for me to get over my ex. I started dating again shortly after the divorce to "get back on the horse" (yes, I used that phrase too). As of two years later, I wasn't entirely over her and I knew it. I was honest about that with the woman I started dating at that point. And you know, after we had dated for a little while, I was over my ex. So that's my experience

See the movie Swingers for a good illustration of how this works (also, for a shockingly thin Vince Vaughn).

Anyhow, it's not your job to fix this guy's damage. And that whole goddess-worship thing…sheesh.
posted by adamrice at 11:05 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

He also does not want to call me his girlfriend, citing the ol' "labels" refrain (I have never NOT gotten from someone I've dated)

Run away! Run away! Been there, done that. Only people who are not committed to you will say this and it will vanish the instant they find someone they are actually smitten with. He 's not for you, unless you want trodden on.
posted by Flitcraft at 11:09 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think maybe there's someone out there who would be pretty excited and relieved to meet someone like me (kinda how I feel about the current guy).

Oh, and the inner voice telling you this? Listen to it. This is 100% TRUE. It doesn't mean a relationship in which you're both excited about each other will be perfect; it just means it will have really good potential. Don't worry about perfect; ain't no such thing. Good potential is where it's at to start.
posted by scody at 11:17 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been thinking a lot about whether to answer cause I was a bit of that guy about 8 years earlier. Answering this would be a small step to acknowledge and come to terms with that phase of life..

Translating from my understanding of the thought process: The key point is the guy needs some time to be whole again and you will do him a favor if you keep away. I am sure your presence is making things complicated, inducing a lot of guilt feelings and internal debate. I was having a lot of internal conflict and guilt during that period. He feels himself to be worthless("worship the goddess"). Your presence and the value that you provide is like a pacifier to him. But he needs to be by himself to get out of this. Being in a relationship makes things more difficult.

You should talk to him once, tell him that he is not ready for a relationship and keep away. Move on to others. You can keep in touch with him occasionally and be "just friends" if you feel he is a really great person and probably when he is ready, there might be a chance to get back together again.

The key thing is he needs to make the journey of feeling whole, feeling ready for relationship alone. Being in another relationship makes it difficult to objectively see inside yourself and find out what you are and what you want. Your perceptions are colored by the presence of a partner and his/her reaction to you.

Different people take different amount of time to complete this journey of self discovery. For some it might be weeks, for others it might be years and for some it might even be decades. And he needs to make this journey himself. Your presence will make it more difficult for him to discover and find his real self and self-worth.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:32 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

To add to above, cause it seems that my write-up comes across as in some way blaming you for the things that he is going through.

You don't have a stake in his self growth. There is no guarantee that when the guy is finally ready to be in a relationship, he will want to be with you. Everyone moves on to new Gods.

Hence, you should not be investing too much in it.

How much you invest would be your decision but unless you feel this is your true love, you are going to be risking a lot of involvement for not much of a payoff. And, by the way, you don't even know how long and how much you will need to invest.

Right now, its a one sided relationship or at max a patient provider relationship.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:38 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's a walking cliche of highly objectionable characteristics, and you should RUN.

- The "goddess" comment is a common trope among immature sorts who wish to put the burden of staying on that pedestal on you, y'know, so they can make you responsible for their feelings.

- Not getting over a past person who hurt them, making all that your problem now? More bullshit maturity and responsibility dodging.

- Not wanting to call you his girlfriend despite being with you and sharing your bed?! This one makes me very very sad. Oh, must I really explain this one to you?

I'll stop here. He's 36 years old and he wants to string you along as long as possible. He will never ever change, and it isn't possible for you to do the self-work for him.


Sorry. But I'm glad you wrote this question instead of wasting more time and effort on this guy. Good for you!
posted by jbenben at 11:52 AM on July 13, 2013 [11 favorites]

At the risk of being tarred and feathered, I'm going to throw a different perspective out there. Please don't hate me.

Your question says more about you than about your guy. None of us knows what's going on in his head. Maybe he really is excited about you, but is afraid to show it, or maybe expresses it differently than what you want. Re the goddess comment, it never fails to amaze me how some people take a single quote from someone they've never met as evidence that you should DTMFA. Who knows what he really meant when he said that? Who hasn't said something at some point in their life that was well-intentioned but came out a little wrong? Come on, people.

Re not wanting to label things; some people just are a little wary of labels. What does it mean to call someone a "girlfriend" or "boyfriend"? Some people think these labels apply if you're seeing each other exclusively; other people might not want to use these labels until they feel a certain level of commitment. You're pretty much arguing over semantics here.

Different people take different amounts of time to heal from traumatic events. Not all of us have great self-esteem. He might be on the slower side, but depending on the length of the previous relationship and the level of heartbreak, 3 years isn't necessarily such a long time.

It sounds like you want a guy who will act a certain way (overtly excited), doesn't have a lot of baggage, and meet your needs within a particular time frame. Which is fine, but indicates that you're not a good match for this guy. Unless you want to put in the effort to help him reach his potential (which can be immensely rewarding, but it's not for everyone), then do him a favor and free him up so he can find someone else.
posted by phoenix_rising at 11:57 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

The best advice I ever heard when it comes to relationships, is that if someone tells you (and that can be verbally or with their actions) that they are 'not ready for a relationship' you should listen to them. I know (oh God, how I know) how tempting it is to want to fix someone, but I have never seen it end well. It seems like you are in a really good, sensible head space yourself, and that means you can definitely attract other happy people with a good attitude towards relationships (and yes, people who are delighted to be with you).

From his point of view, it has taken me time to 'get back on the horse' and the moment I was ready for a new relationship was when I was finally happy being single.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 12:34 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Look, I've been there, done that, designed the commemorative T-shirt series. If you want to continue to see him, do so as a non-exclusive thing. Date other people. Do not let him monopolize your time.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 12:36 PM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah. This guy is emotionally unavailable.

You don't have to break up with him because of this. But you also shouldn't hold your breath if you want a relationship/future with him.

Citation: Baggage Reclaim
posted by peacrow at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you are something of a catch, I think you will run into the problem that people will worry you are "too good to be true." They will be skeptical and they will, like a toddler testing parental boundaries, try to poke holes in the facade and see if you really measure up to "goddess" status and, if you really do, then they will question if they are good enough and try to test if you can really accept them blah blah blah. They usually do this by being assholes, by trying to prove they are unlovable to see if you will love them anyway.

FWIW: I started blogging two years ago in part to kind of cope with that crappy dynamic. I wrote a lot for a man who worshipped me from afar and was also very suspicious of me, thinking I was too good to be true, there had to be a dark side I was hiding, I couldn't truly love someone like him, blah blah blah. That relationship was probably doomed from the start and blogging about it helped me wrestle some of my own personal stuff to the ground instead of just idolizing him, so it has been well worth it from that perspective.

Now I have a new-ish relationship and it has come in handy to reply "I have a blog post for that" and send him a link when certain questions come up. I think it helps because it was written before I met him for all the world to read, so it has a sense of reliability that private confession lacks. He does not have to wonder if I really meant it or just said what I thought he wanted to hear or whatever. I was "on the record" about some things before he ever asked, so he can review the record and decide for himself if I am his cup of tea. I am finding this a nice change of pace from the usual stuff that goes on early in a relationship.

Perhaps a confessional blog is not the answer for you (though blogging anonymously about these long standing patterns you cite might do wonders to help you move past them) but I toss it out there as food for thought about how to communicate who you are, prove yourself in his eyes, etc. I am 48 and have little patience these days for things like turning down opportunities to spend time with me and then regretting it. But I do understand that in some sense I need to "prove" myself in every new relationship. I try to focus on that as a communication issue: "No, I really do want to spend time with YOU, not someone else. Yes, I actually think you are hot. No, I don't much care one way or the other that you have X (appearance thing that is minor source of anxiety). No, not only does blah not bother me, I think it's a good thing. Etc. Etc Rinse and repeat."

I am pretty patient with the process of disclosure that must occur for two people to get intimately acquainted. I try to be kind of zenlike and philosophical about it. I try to carefully tell the truth and accept that he will either like it or not. Whatever.

On preview, I will suggest that DTMFA is probably not going to help you change your own bad habits. Blogging (or journalling) while staying until you feel clear it is stupidly bad would do more to help prepare you for a healthy relationship. Wherever you go, there you are. Since some of these patterns are old patterns on perpetual repeat, it certainly isn't all him. I would view him as grist for my therapeutic mill and not move on until I was clear I had fixed some of my own crap. Otherwise it is likely to be "new face, same old crapola."

Best of luck, whatever you decide.
posted by Michele in California at 2:35 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

On preview, I will suggest that DTMFA is probably not going to help you change your own bad habits. Blogging (or journalling) while staying until you feel clear it is stupidly bad would do more to help prepare you for a healthy relationship. Wherever you go, there you are. Since some of these patterns are old patterns on perpetual repeat, it certainly isn't all him.

I think the idea of staying in relationships in order to break old patterns can often be helpful, especially in situations like "I often retreat when I feel someone's getting too close" or "I'm scared to advocate for my own needs with other people." But you might want to stay aware that your pattern is "staying too long in relationships that aren't working." I personally don't see any way to break that pattern that doesn't involve getting out of a relationship as soon as you recognize it's not working.

(As someone who has similarly tendencies as you, OP, I just know that I often use "It's a learning experience!" to justify my inaction. No amount of learning on your part is going to fix his problems.)
posted by jaguar at 3:10 PM on July 13, 2013

My oddball weirdo partner has had some down times in his past and hadn't had a serious relationship in a long time when we met. Dude was fucking stoked to call me his girlfriend. Hell, it's been seven years and he still is. Had some similar wishy-washy bullshit happening before I met him that made me realize: I am worthy of a guy who is genuinely happy to be with me and who shows me through his everyday actions. No begging for love, that blows.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:44 PM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am your age, and was in your shoes, so do with this information what you will. I've had some amount of time pass and it's looking like hindsight is 20/20 once more. Baggage is okay and is expected. But how does someone unpack? Have they unpacked?

I went through a terrible breakup, the death of a 6 year relationship and an engagement. I didn't have the luxury of time for therapy, but there was definitely a lot of working through things. A good, solid half year later, I emerged feeling a lot stronger, and ready again to be in a committed, relationship. I'm not a lukewarm kind of person, so when I go in, I go all in. There was no way I'd be able to date if I didn't feel like I could jump in wholeheartedly.

I began seeing this guy exclusively last year. He'd recently divorced and it was evident that he was still haunted by a lot of ghosts. And that's fine, and that's absolutely normal. People grieve differently. A few months later, he was due to move to another state. I was falling in love and he was still in his place of Having Been Wronged. Needless to say, it didn't work out for us. And I certainly wondered if it could have worked out had he stayed in my city.

Only you can use your best judgment. But all this emotional unavailability has more than just a sliver of truth in it. He should be taking action and responsibility for his development. He's got to pick up the tools and to use all resources available. Life is short and everyone deserves to be loved. YOU deserved to be loved, he deserves to be loved. I know he's not forcing you to be his anchor, but there are many of us out there who willingly choose to play that role. And it can become a lot to shoulder that kind of weight. What makes you feel heroic and wanted can sour into resentment. You don't want that kind of taint.

At the end of the day, all of this behavior is a strange flavor of selfishness. I believe you when you say this feels special and no one should discount how you feel about you two. But actions speak louder than words. Don't become collateral damage in his passiveness.

You're 27 and a catch. Dear god, please go out and date. The world is your oyster.
posted by chloe.gelsomino at 4:02 PM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Aaaaagh! He's "ready" to have sex with you and date you, but not "ready" to call you his GF? This seems to be an acceptable relationship pattern for huge numbers of people - "acceptable" in the sense that one person gets downtrodden and another gets to control the situation and dole out emotional pain at will - but I just can't fathom why guys like him are even allowed to hold their heads up in society. They should be put in stocks in the public square and pelted with rotting fruit and various unpalatable foodstuffs.

In fact, tel3path is issuing a ukase saying that you just do not get to have sex with someone and date them but not call them your GF/BF. (p.s. you also don't get to call them your GF/BF fraudulently in order to get the benefits, because I know that one, too.)

All your previous partners gave you the line about "labels"? And now this one is doing the same thing? Is it going to be different this time? No, sorry. It sucks. But you have correctly identified the spot where you need to break the pattern. Next time a guy attempts to have sex with you but not be your BF, kick him in the balls. Then rip his inconsiderate head off and display it on a pike as a warning to others.

I can't guarantee you a great relationship as an immediate result of doing this, but at least no guy will approach you unless he *really* means business.
posted by tel3path at 4:16 PM on July 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Dude. Wanting to say that he is your boyfriend and you are his girlfriend should be a clear criterion for continuing with someone past the couple of months mark. If someone doesn't want to be your boyfriend, fuck 'em! WHY try to be his girlfriend??

If someone is all "I'm not ready to love again," he's not! Why would you stand around waiting? This may be harsh coming from mid-30s me, but my kneejerk response to all this wishy washy-ness is something like "okay, call me if you ever get your shit together and make up your mind."

But if you don't want to say that, (and admittedly, I don't know the guy; maybe he has his shit together and just happens to know he's not ready), you could say "okay, I wish you the best in healing your heartbreak. I'm seeking someone who is ready for a committed, official, boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. I don't want to be worshipped. I want a relationship where I'm known and loved as a real person, flaws and all. So I don't think we're compatible now."
posted by salvia at 4:34 PM on July 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

I've been the one dating the deeply damaged person. This led, inevitably, to my being the deeply damaged person as a result of who I had dated. We were both in our early 20s. Even at that young age, I understood how selfish it would be of me to enter into another relationship in which I would need to be emotionally available for my partner. So, while I did date some casually, I never, ever allowed dating to become anywhere near a relationship. It took me four years to reach a point where I felt ready, and then I met the guy who eventually became my husband, and 14 years later I'm still a little giddy at how awesome things have worked out. I'm not saying this guy should be over his bad experience yet, it took me longer, but I am saying he shouldn't be entering into a serious relationship if he's not over it.

You have several challenges here:
1. This guy is currently not compatible with what you need in a relationship.
2. In order for him to be in a place where he could be compatible with you, he needs to take a difficult journey to get on the other side of feeling damaged by his ex. He needs to do this under his own power.
3. At the end of that journey, the odds of him transforming into a person that is compatible with you are very slim. There are so very many iterations of who he could become that the chance he will become somebody that will meet your needs is simply against the odds.

If he were 20 I would be more optimistic. He is in his mid-30s. He has lived long enough to have a much better sense of who he is. He already IS the man he is going to be and he is approaching relationships the way he will continue to approach them. This relationship IS the relationship it will be in the future.

If he's otherwise fun to be with, then date him very casually until someone you're more compatible with comes along. But do not have any expectations of him changing to become the person you need him to be. While of course there's a chance that will happen, the odds are vanishingly small, and like everyone else said: you deserve better. You both do, actually.

Everyone deserves the relationship that will make them feel more whole and not less, whatever that relationship looks like. And almost everyone, I think, has a shot at something like that, so long as they practice self-care and self-awareness. Sounds like you're in the early stages of being on the right track. Which is pretty much perfect for being in your mid 20s.
posted by tllaya at 4:58 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, about a year ago, my relationship with a person who sounds very, very similar in many ways - not over his last girlfriend whom he'd broken up with almost two years prior, idolized me in certain ways, told me verbatim that he "didn't think he'd ever be able to love anyone," etc. etc. - exploded with the most horrifying, nervous-breakdown-inducing, painful fallout I have ever experienced in my life.

I am also 27, and I am also a woman with a history of attraction to "oddballs." Do you want to spend your life fighting to extract the kind of healthy love you deserve from this person? There's a big difference between 1. a fun, quirky, sometimes-broody person and 2. someone who needs way, way more therapy than you do.

My handsome, brilliant, interesting, funny "oddball" turned out to be a severely emotionally disordered person who took such an emotional toll on me that it took me a year, post-breakup, to get back on my feet. I could have avoided it all had I taken note of the many, many red flags. Please, don't do what I did. It is not your responsibility to save your SO from his demons. Run.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 9:25 PM on July 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nope, this dude is no good, no good whatsoever. When someone says "I'm not ready for X", what they always (always. every time. as in, even this guy, even this time) mean is, "I don't want X with YOU."

This guy doesn't want to be your boyfriend. He doesn't want to eventually be your husband. He wants to have sex with you until he meets someone he likes better.

Now suppose he walked right up to you and said that. "Hi Anon! You're okay and all but I'm not that into you because I'm too in love with my own psychodrama from 3 years ago. Do you want to have sex with me until I get bored or meet someone I like more?"

Whatever you would do if he said that in so many words, is what you need to do right now. Because he has already, basically, said that.
posted by like_a_friend at 9:51 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re "when" to leave:

I find it helpful to tie such decisions to events or milestones or criteria rather than deadlines or time frames. I learned this from my oldest son who has no sense of time. Learning this rubric has helped me enormously in life.

I see this time based stuffed constantly in relationship AskMes. "We have been together x amount of time and he doesn't want the BF label/hasn't proposed/isn't ready for kids...etc" The only one of those that is time sensitive is having kids. Unless you are specifically looking to have kids someday and trying to arrange your life so that can happen in a healthy, happy way, all relationship decisions can be tied to parameters unrelated to how long you have known each other/been dating/whatever. In my experience, that framing gets better results.

For me, the single biggest red flag here is that he turns down invitations from you and then expresses regret later. I have very little tolerance for that. We are both adults. If I want a relationship with you and you want a relationship with me, show the fuck up. Yes, I realize life gets in the way, scheduling conflicts, etc. (And I realize people have different needs, so I am not talking about, say, an introvert letting me know he needs a tad of alone time.) But voluntarily choosing to not be there and then whining about it later can happen maybe a couple of times before I go "Sorry about your personal issues. I am ready for a relationship. You apparently are not. Go take some time. Sort your crap out. Give me a call if you decide you are ready for a relationship and I am still available. If not, thank you for the time we had. It has been nice knowing you." If his response to that is to suddenly be capable of showing up, we might still be able to work it out. If his response is manipulative, whiny, yadda, then my rejection will get a whole lot more firm and final.

But I am 48. I know what I want. I am not myself sending mixed signals, so I am pretty clear stuff like that is not somehow my doing.

I highly recommend you make a checklist of criteria and negotiate from a point of view of getting that checklist addressed. I have a rather long mental list which most men will fail before they ever decide to ask me for coffee and in the early stages I am constantly mentally comparing a man against my criteria. I don't care how long I have known him. I care how much I trust him, how well he meets my needs, etc. If he is a good fit and I am not running into dealbreaker problems, I am okay with things "moving fast." I am equally okay with kicking a guy to the curb quickly based on failing to meet criteria.

I do understand that one value of time is the longer you know someone, the more opportunities you have to observe patterns, draw conclusions, etc. But I also know that measuring a relationship in terms of "weeks or months since our first date" often overlooks the number of hours explicitly devoted to the relationship. It takes around 15 to 20 hours a week to establish and maintain an intimate relationship. A guy turning down invitations is probably not giving you enough of his time to give the relationship any hope of working.

I don't let men like that string me along. Show up or get lost. I don't care which. Other things are negotiable. This is not. Less than around 15 hours a week and it simply isn't possible to create an intimate relationship. You want a hookup or just sex? Feel free to open your wallet and call a hooker. But don't keep calling me once or twice a week to service you. I don't do that kind of thing. Thanks. (Not that I never do the hookup thing. I have been known to do that. But, no, I don't fall for someone dangling the hope of a relationship in front of me when all they want is guaranteed no strings attached sex on a regular basis. That is called lying and lying to me is a dealbreaking violation of trust. I don't sleep with men I don't trust.)

So I highly recommend you figure out what you want, why you think this guy is so great, what issues of his are dealbreaking things that must be resolved before X (parameter), etc. There are no perfect people in the world. Relationships require that we give a little and understand it isn't solely about me and my needs. But, it is partly about me and what I need does matter. Love isn't a charity event. It does not mean giving because you "care" while getting little or nothing in return.

Best of luck sorting this out.
posted by Michele in California at 2:09 PM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

The first thing that comes to mind is that in the beginning, it is supposed to be easy. If you sit on a park bench and watch couples walk by, counting them, for every one that has "that look", there will be heaps that do not. "That look" being that look of strained togetherness – two people desperately trying to make pieces fit. The reality is that in the beginning, it should feel like a natural fit. If it doesn't, that is probably a red flag.

Other comments follow.

He was hurt pretty badly when his last relationship ended about 3 years ago... Though we are exclusive and sleeping together so I'm not sure what else to call it.

Three years is a long time to be so wounded. There is always going to be vulnerability required in a relationship – any relationship. If after three years, he's not ready to move on, it sounds like he thinks that the problem is him. That he somehow lacks the ability to select a decent partner, and ends up in a purgatory where he finds compatible people (like you) but then cannot find it within himself to trust in the love.

I struggle with that point, because people come back from ultimate suffering at all points of life. Older widows lose husbands, grieve, and find themselves gravitating toward new men. Young people with histories of abuse learn that their anchor points were exceptions, not rules. After three years, if he's still hanging onto some previous hurt, he may well be choosing to avoid intimacy. At that point, the reality is that he is not being a full partner to you.

Relationships are tough – and nuanced. Maybe many of us would love to take a time-out from our partnerships or roles as parents and just go get it together. But that's not the way it works – I don't think. You could be having a bad day, and your partner could be having a worse day. There's no rule that says, "you get to move at your speed, and you can take care of me when you have time". It's about both people's needs. And it sounds like your needs are not being met.

It's embarrassing when people ask, "is this your partner," and there's that awkward stumble where you run through the thought process. "Well, yes, I mean, we act like it, but he doesn't like the label, so, we don't say that." How would it feel if you said "yes, this is my boyfriend, and I love the shit out of him."

As an example of aloofness, he has declined a few invitations of mine and later said he regretted not doing the things with me.

Really sounds like he has a mental process going on. He declines couple activities (which creates problems) and then regrets it (which creates pity). Maybe he is never responsible, because he really wanted to do it but he just couldn't. End result being that you do things on your own and he's not there building the relationship with you. He's not in the photos, you're not reminiscing about that great day. It sounds like you want him to be there, but if you make any demands, he's throws back things about labels and how he's not ready.

What if you are ready? You sound ready. He does not sound ready. And this is how it is going to go.

I am just coming to realize that I am at least a bit of a "catch." I had decided after my last relationship that I would want the next person I dated to be really excited about being with me and vice versa. This guy says he's looking for a relationship with me, but he's unsure of himself, feels inadequate, feels like damages goods etc.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of it all. You decided that you weren't going to deal with someone not ready for you, because you're finding yourself and finding a home within yourself, yet here you are again. This may seem harsh, but there is progress, in the sense that this one wants to be excited, but he's not capable of it (so it seems). At least he's trying somewhat, it seems. But I suppose it's not the same point.

He seems like the same guy, only in a new apologetic package. Either you believe you're a catch, or you don't. If you do think you're a catch, then you set a boundary. You are ready for a boyfriend and a relationship, you want it to be fun, and he's either in or he's out. You cannot make him in or make him out, you can only decide if he needs to be in or to be out.

It doesn't matter if he's ready or not. The brilliant point is that you are ready, and you want it. There's something much less hurtful about breakups when you realise that you are ready and the other person isn't. Because you're no longer trying to figure yourself out. You know what you want. If the person on the other side of the table isn't ready, that's not really your problem. They're opting out, and that's on them. Because that won't waiver your readiness. If you are ready, then you are ready. Now you just have to find the other half of that equation.

This dude hasn't even done that yet, so he doesn't sound like a great match. He sounds like a match for who you were before, not who you are now. Old habits may die hard, but they do die.

Picture yourself ten years in the future with this guy. Are you happy? What are you talking about? Are you talking about his insecurities? Are you talking about your relationship? Are you laughing? Do you feel secure? Is it about him and his state? Is it about you guys as a couple?

I guess in the end, is this what you want?
posted by nickrussell at 4:53 PM on July 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

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