I don't know what I want, but it shouldn't be this hard
March 3, 2014 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Dating this new guy is crazymaking. I can't figure out if there's genuine interest, if I'm being strung along, or if it's my own anxiety tying me up in knots. Please help!

We met about a month ago and clicked immediately. Since then we've hung out maybe 2-3 times a week and messaged in between. We became physically intimate pretty early and I was the first one to bring up keeping it casual -- until I realised that wasn't going to work for me and I asked if we could dial it back and see each other outside of each other's bedrooms, to which he agreed. I had a fantastic week with him last week, and then on Sunday something in my brain just flipped and my anxiety levels went through the roof.

We had a bit of talk yesterday and it was like a repeat of one of our earlier conversations: he's previously mentioned that he's not specifically looking for anything, that he's never had a serious relationship before, but he wants to take things slow and see where it goes. He really enjoys spending time with me, but it takes him a while to get comfortable with people and he doesn't want to jump into anything considering we've only just met. I totally get that. It takes a while for me to get to know people too. At this point I'm just torn because a) to me that reads as if he's not that enthusiastic about me and is not really open to the idea of having a relationship in general, and b) that would be a dealbreaker for me, except that even *I* don't know if I want a relationship at this stage. In all my previous relationships the guy was the pursuer and we tended to head into things full throttle (with not great results), so I never had to think much about it. I am really not used to this kind of uncertainty and the 'kick back and see how this goes' approach is messing with my head. My therapist says given my relationship history, this could be something good and more healthy for me, but it seems like I'm not handling it well at all, if it's giving me this much anxiety.

So I'm pretty confused right now. I know it's only one month in. I suspect part of it is that I have a long history of ticking boxes (scholarships, degrees, jobs, etc) and it feels like relationships should come just as easily. I also like to cut my losses early as soon as it becomes clear that things aren't going to end the way I want. What I do know is that I want someone to share my life with, in an exclusive way (and we have agreed that we're not dating other people), and that I really like this guy so far, and I feel like the interest is mutual. But the fact that he doesn't want to be 'tied down' strikes me as kind of yellow-flaggy.

Lovely MeFites, am I overthinking it - do I just need to keep my anxiety in check, or is this only going to be heartbreak down the road? Possibly relevant: I'm F, we're both early-mid 20s.
posted by cucumber patch to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
he wants to take things slow and see where it goes.

This is me a few months ago.

We're in love now and disgustingly happy with each other.

Point being, he may well be telling the absolute truth.

I'm trying to understand how "we have agreed that we're not dating other people" and "he doesn't want to be 'tied down'" are compatible. These appear to be mutually exclusive propositions.

You're overthinking it. You're young, enjoy the ride for what it is. All relationships end eventually, don't worry about it for now and just spend time together and see where it goes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:45 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

First of all, answering these kind of interpersonal questions via the written word is really difficult, because one can explain something verbally in 5 minutes that would take five pages to explain in writing, and because writing is open to a lot of misinterpretation. So any comments you get here should be taken with a big grain of salt.

That said, what your therapist said sounds right. You've only been in the relationship for a month. Give it 4-5 months, don't overthink it and see where it goes, don't stress about it during this time, and if at that point he is being equally as emphatic about not wanting to be "tied down," I'd revisit the question and reevaluate the situation accordingly, based on your needs from a partner.
posted by cotesdurhone at 3:52 PM on March 3, 2014

I agree that you're overthinking it. One thing I know for sure and that is: there's no point in pre-emptively backing out of something that seems good to you because you're afraid of getting your heart broken. Your heart will break, many times, for many reasons, and the person who chooses to protect her heart from pain rather than sitting with fear and uncertainty and anxiety will never be free of fear and uncertainty and anxiety.

How is trust built? It's built by taking risks. A little risk here, a little one there, until you get it that the other person does care about you and is worth your trust. Here's a little one for you: take a deep breath (in and out) and just rest in "don't know" mind for a little while. How can you know whether or not you want to be in a relationship with him unless/until you've let the anxious thoughts run their course and ease off for a minute so you can actually see him?

If that doesn't help, consider this: All relationships end. Well, everything ends, so there you go. But I mean, relationships either end because one or both people choose to end them or because one or both people die. Therefore, there's nothing you can do to prevent this relationship from ending. But that might be next month or it might be in 50 years. Are you willing to give up the possibility of a great 50 years because you're too anxious to sit it out for another few weeks or months to see what's there for both of you?

Sending you lots of positive energy and deep breaths.
posted by janey47 at 3:52 PM on March 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sorry, I promise not to threadsit after this. He meant 'tied down' in the sense of getting caught up with what we have/committing to something long-term, not in the sense of seeing other people. So I guess as in doing exactly what I'm doing now -- overanalysing it. *sigh*

(Thanks for the comments so far, this is really helping!)
posted by cucumber patch at 3:54 PM on March 3, 2014

Is there a link in your head that equates being aggressively pursued with general interest and attraction? The flip-side of which is whether you feel like current fellow not aggressively pushing you toward a long-term relationship is somehow an indication that he's not really all that interested in you? If there's a chance that this is the issue behind your anxiety, I think that your therapist is right - that it's a good exercise for you to get used to a different pattern. After all, you two are still in the early stages of getting to know one another.

There are no guarantees that a certain dating approach will magically safeguard you from heartbreak down the road. His not wanting to be tied down after only a month is not a yellow flag. He's agreed to be exclusive, which IMO, is the only healthy commitment to make at this stage. Try to limit how much you allow yourself to project this relationship into the future through speculation and trying to find "signs" that this relationship is either true love forever or fatally doomed. Find some tasks or projects you can do when you find yourself in an overthinking loop.
posted by quince at 3:56 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

It takes about 15 to 20 hours per week to build and sustain an intimate relationship. Is that happening? If so, just give it time. That's all you can do. In some sense, it doesn't matter what promises you make, how you frame it, etc. Either the two of you put in the time or you don't. This fact is part of why military careers are hard on marriages and tend to have a divorce rate: If you are apart too much, you wind up just not having a relationship, even if took vows, had kids, bought a house together, etc.

And I think every single romantic comedy I have ever seen has some thing in it where one person feels surprised or lied or whatever when some new detail comes out that they didn't know. I am old enough now to realize that those things are bound to happen and it is just part of the process of getting to know someone well. You will learn things you had no idea about and there is no way in advance to know if those things will be "deal breakers" or deal makers.

I am pretty socially savvy and I can't know after a month if it is going to be what I want it to be or work out long term. People still surprise me. Plus, my assessment of what is likely to work changes from time to time. I sometimes wish it were that simple, but, then, I think that would probably be boring anyway, so maybe not?

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:10 PM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

For me, anxiety and uncertainty are tightly linked. When there is uncertainty around the future, I worry and fuss and plan and control and just generally spin. This is a counterproductive habit, because it is impossible to know the future. You can't know if you and this guy are going to spend your lives together or not -- it's too soon. But that doesn't stop the anxiety from trying to have it all figured out for you, even to the point of shutting down something nice and enjoyable so you can have that certainty ("no"). For what it's worth, to me his approach of taking it slow sounds emotionally healthy, and not anything to worry about so early on.

How about deciding to spend a month with him, and see how it goes? This is much easier than deciding to spend a lifetime (maybe) with him, right? And then if you are happy being with him at that time, decide to spend another month with him and see how that goes. Give yourself the freedom to let your feelings about the relationship, and his, emerge naturally on their own schedule.

It may be that he is not your life partner, especially if he's giving vague signals about not wanting long-term commitment. But that doesn't mean you have nothing to learn from one another and that you won't grow personally by being with him for the next month. Plus, living in and enjoying the present can be much more rewarding than worrying about the future; it's okay to enjoy being with someone in the moment even if you don't have a plan for everything that comes later.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:22 PM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, man, I so feel you.

I think maybe it might help to start by thinking about what you want.

Obviously this open ended take it slow approach makes you anxious. (It makes me feel exactly the same way!)

But if you were in charge of the script, here, what would make you feel not anxious?

Do you want to hear that he digs you and thinks you're special and wants to keep doing what you're doing?

Do you want to hear that you're on the same page about things in general, but not ready to do the big relationship thing yet?

Are you looking for a serious boyfriend and all the trappings of that?

I think that if you can answer some of those questions for yourself, you might be able to get a handle on things better. You could choose to bring some of this stuff up, or even just ask for what you want. Or it might be that the ruminating about what's making you anxious will help you feel more settled.

Look, it's super hard to feel sane at this stage in a relationship. Because your emotions are so keyed up, but then the rational part of your brain knows that anything or nothing could happen and the whole thing could not work out. So just know that you're OK. Everybody has these feelings. It is likely that he is having these same feelings.

(Also, a lot of guys are socially conditioned to downplay their feelings about romantic stuff and their desire for a committed relationship. Not sure whether that has anything to do with this -- some people just aren't into you -- but it's something I remind myself from time to time.)
posted by Sara C. at 4:28 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Give it another 2 months in which you promise yourself you will just enjoy it. See where things are at. At that point, you should be feeling more like "This is my boyfriend and we like each other so much!" OR "He's not so into this and it's not making me feel good." OR "I like him, but I need more commitment and verbal affirmation of affection, and I'm going to ask for that."
posted by amaire at 4:30 PM on March 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think it might help to re-frame what "relationship" means to you. Exclusively dating someone is a relationship. Long-term, you may not be content with that level of relationship (eventually, I wasn't) but the time you spend dating and getting to know someone (regardless of where it leads) is not necessarily wasted.
posted by sm1tten at 4:33 PM on March 3, 2014

I also really like Percussive Paul's point about deciding to look at the short term. Don't get anxious about For All Eternity. Think about whether you can see yourselves together for another month. A month from now, think about whether you can see yourselves together for a couple more months. Etc. That's what taking it as it comes means.
posted by Sara C. at 4:35 PM on March 3, 2014

I think maybe you're looking for this relationship to do something for you emotionally, fill some emptiness, that you really need to work on filling for yourself by yourself.

Keep busy. Commit to yourself. Either he'll want you or he won't and you'll get to move on and meet cool people and be your cool self.

You can address what the anxiety actually is, what fear it is, and how you feel about yourself in one go. And you can reread the question you posted and ask if you want to let this get you all worked up or if you want to be a lot more dignified and willing to fulfill your own needs.
posted by discopolo at 4:49 PM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, maybe dating other guys at the same time can help keep you in check.
posted by discopolo at 4:53 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

1 month in, and you're exclusive but he's not saying right away that he wants something serious with you. He wants to take time to get to know each other, and work out what he's feeling.

This sounds great! Sounds like he's head/heart balanced, he sounds like the 'Steady Eddy' kind of a guy, one foot in front of the other. He's letting you know where he is at in very clear terms (= he is NOT stringing you along), it's just not exactly what you wanted to hear or are used to hearing (full throttle).

Of course you are anxious, you're starting to feel things for him. I know it feels horrible. Welcome to dating anxiety. Sift through me-fi on how to deal with anxiety. Don't worry about the heart break. You can't protect yourself from everything. Also it feels better when you have your heart in it, trust me. This book on dating anxiety / attachment issues might help.

My Rx: Go with it, honey, and enjoy the ride! After 4-6 months you will know better where things will go. You are very young and yes you have time.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:54 PM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend not investing more than 3 months max in this guy. That's a decent amount of time to get a better sense of his character, of his values, of his conduct. And, if at the end of that time, you still think he's great, but he is still just wanting to "see how it goes," it's time to bounce. Staying in any longer than that, and you are playing a sucker's game.
posted by nacho fries at 5:02 PM on March 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

When you dialed back the physical intimacy, you were in control of that.

When he dialed back on readiness to commit, he was in control of that.

I have found that if I let a pattern of "dialing back" take hold in a relationship, it's a path toward the end of the relationship. I don't mean that a relationship can't bounce back from it. It's just that if it's going to bounce back, that will require moving in a different direction: "dialing up."

You would need to live with some anxiety for a period of time while you dial the relationship very gently up. Shared time together doing things you enjoy. See if he matches your attempts to dial up the same way he matched your attempts to dial back.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 5:05 PM on March 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I spent a lot of my 20's with guys who were okay but not ticking my boxes. Fun to be with, good in bed, but didn't want to commit. But boy did they like to have sex with me.

This last time around, my current husband, we sent each other over 1,000 emails in one month. We had dated in college and now we are besties, we are comfortable with each other. We don't even like the same music, but we like a lot of the same things. One thing I am not worried about: his commitment to me. He loves me and I love him. It is not about sex, though we are attracted to each other: it is a connection that is always there. If I wake up and he is gone, I say his name and he comes into the bedroom and lies down and snuggles with me. If he is down, I am there for him, and vice versa.

So I guess I would say, sex is good, but best friends comes first for me and sex along with it, but I have never doubted that we both really LIKE each other. We can sit down and talk and get along. If we argue and disagree, we have a sense of humor about it. Communication is always there. I can tell him anything and he can tell me anything.

Or as my friend says "Men are like shoes: you have to keep trying them on until you find a comfortable pair."

And it's not always perfect, but the fact that we are friends helps a lot in making a long term relationship work. So my question is: do you feel really safe and comfortable with this guy?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:24 PM on March 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I don't think this is anything to get too worked up over just yet. Especially since you yourself are not sure about wanting a relationship, this is a great time for you to just have some fun with each other and see where it goes. I would say, to protect yourself a little, consciously strive to maintain all your current friendships and hobbies and not allow him to consume your every waking thought.

I think it's good that he's being honest about his feelings and that he's not interested in seeing other people. If you find yourself getting too worked up over him and a couple of months have passed and he shows no signs of change, that might be a good time to bring up the relationship/commitment issue and see where you guys are at. If he is still staunchly "let's just see where it goes," then you might be getting strung along. And then you can leave and go back to your fabulous friends and hobbies.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 5:35 PM on March 3, 2014

Oldest story in the world.

Everyone thinks they're an exception.

You're not an exception.
posted by quincunx at 6:07 PM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't understand the enigmatic and somewhat bitter answer above. It doesn't seem relevant. I don't get that you, OP, were asking about being an "exception" to anything, and that's a bit of a red herring. I think your therapist is actually offering solid encouragement and I don't see anything wrong in your guy's behavior to you. In fact, when people push for getting involved too quickly, that is more often a red flag than those who want to be cautious in relationships. Like others who have put more thought into your question, I would advise that you give it a bit more time and try to relax.
posted by xenophile at 6:35 PM on March 3, 2014

Ditto on the over thinking. He strikes me as someone who is 1. interested in you and 2. level-headed. IMO, the yellow flag would be waving for someone anxious to commit after only one month. Keep your anxiety in check and enjoy the process of falling in love. It might not work out, but then again, it just might. Which is lovely.
posted by mama penguin at 6:57 PM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think you have anything to worry about here. Yes, you are overthinking. Dial back the anxiety and see what shakes out.

(And I am about as cynical and jaded as they come.)
posted by Salamander at 7:15 PM on March 3, 2014

I hate to sound bitter, but if a guy, without prompting, says any variation of "not sure what I want", it means it is likely going nowhere. You seem to have zero interest in spending prime dating time with someone who isn't looking for the same thing you are. That's good. And yet there is this cultural ideal that you should just go with the flow (meaning, the pace the guy sets) and not consider your time, energy, and youth to be valuable resources. Well, they are. That's why you're anxious. Listen to your gut on this one.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:31 PM on March 3, 2014 [13 favorites]

It's impossible to know what this guy is thinking, but speaking from my prior experiences with young men, I think it is probably a good sign that he is not pursuing you intensely (although it sounds like you're spending a good amount of time together). For a young person to recognize that they don't NEED to be in a relationship, but to be able to identify that they like you and like spending time with you sounds very healthy. I know it goes against most female hetero-normative programming to not be intensely pursued but in the past I dated men who NEEDED to be in a relationship and they often had personal issues that required more time single and learning about themselves, not time glued to someone else for support. Also as you mentioned, just letting the guy decide that he wanted to be in an exclusive romantic relationship with you didn't turn out so great, so I think you should see where this goes, but change your focus from whether HE likes you enough to keep seeing you to whether YOU like him enough to keep seeing him. The reason those past relationships turned out badly might have had something to do with you not considering your own feelings before committing yourself to a longterm relationship.

Presently you are hoping that if this guy has the potential to be a longterm partner, that it work out, and there's nothing more you can do except show up and engage with this guy in an open and honest fashion as long as it feels right to do so. Any kind of manipulation to take the relationship to a more committed level from him will backfire eventually, so try not to engage in it. I tend towards anxiety and wanting to control outcomes too, and I've found it works well to put out my intention (e.g. I really hope X happens), but then not spend my time and energy worrying about it.

What set you off on Sunday specifically? Was your anxiety growing as the day went on because you were waiting for some sort of sign from him about the future, or did he actually say or do something that set you off?
posted by lafemma at 7:13 AM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks guys. We had another talk where it became clear that we were better off as friends (as soon as I brought up the idea, he latched onto it pretty quickly). It stings quite a lot, but at the same time I'm weirdly relieved -- I feel like I'm getting back to my normal, bubbly, non-anxious self again. I have to favourite the answers that turned out to be right, but thank you for your optimism everyone. I really appreciate it.
posted by cucumber patch at 2:16 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

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