How do I get there from here?
October 5, 2014 6:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm pretty sure I'm not ready to date, but I'd like to be ready to date. Thoughts on how to get there?

I'm a 30 year old single straight white male living in southern California.

I'm at a pretty unsettled point in my life. Overall I'm moving down the gradient towards "more stable" after a decade of financial and emotional instability, but I still feel off-balance and precarious.

I spent the majority of my 20s in a Ph.D program that I didn't end up finishing -- I left with a masters after 6 years, and took an industry job. It's the best decision I ever made, and I wish I'd made it years ago. I'm a bit behind many people my age in the career ladder -- my masters and project record have served me well, but not as well as 6 years of equivalent in-the-trenches tech experience. I've only this month hit my "5-6 months living expenses in the bank" target, and I'm probably a pay-grade or two below a lot of people my age. To my credit, I've also paid off my debts, own my car outright, and live far enough within my means to save pretty aggressively. I love my job most days, but it's too dependent on a single funding source to be truly stable. I'm looking for other work, with some success, to address this source of anxiety.

Even with all this, I have a lot of anxiety about financial stability and providing for myself, never mind contributing financially to a relationship. I realize this is a bit silly considering I have basically the easiest life situation possible (straight white guy in an in-demand field), but the anxiety is definitely A Thing. Not knowing where I'll be in a year, or if I'll have any kind of work in a year, is pretty draining. My job, as much as I love the work I get to do, is also pretty draining.

I also have a history of dating people who probably aren't right for me -- I have pretty low self-esteem, and tend to see myself in terms of "what can I do for people in order to be valuable?" My most recent long-term girlfriend was smart and creative, but didn't have many friends and some of my friends have described her as "co-dependent" in terms of wanting 100% of my non-work time and attention. I have several geeky hobbies that aren't particularly couples-friendly -- I like building electronics and crafty stuff, and sometimes I really want to spend a Saturday holed up soldering/cutting/welding, and sometimes I get really into something and want to stay up 'til 3am puttering. Not every night, not even most nights -- I got into that mindset maybe twice in the six months we were dating, and actually gave into it once (and doing so pretty directly led to the breakup). Anyway I felt pressured to sacrifice my hobbies and interests to satisfy her because she'd become very upset if I didn't stop what I was doing to give her attention at the drop of a hat. In the breakup, I said "I feel like I haven't done anything for me in months" and she said "oh, I was perfectly happy with the amount of time we were spending together, I thought it was really great."

My past partners have been similar, with an added side of "very much invested in keeping up appearances." I had a (very-soon-after, former) girlfriend say something along the lines of "You shouldn't spend time on your hobbies, and the only reason I tolerate you pursuing them is so that when we have kids you can teach them marketable skills." I realize this is my reading of a conversation several years ago so may be uncharitable or inaccurate, but that's the takeaway I was left with.. trying to get through that and find a way to find people who at least accept what I'm into, even if they aren't like "oh, that thing you do is the most awesome thing ever!"

I bring this up because even if I figure out how to filter people I meet along the lines of "has friends and hobbies and a social life already established" (which may or may not even be reasonable of me), I'm not sure how to compromise in limited time without giving up me entirely. I also realize I'm carrying around a bit of stupid baggage in terms of both what I think my past partners have said to me, and how I internalize that and deal with it in my interactions with other people.

I guess what I'm looking for is some external perspective. If you have strong interests and an energy-consuming job, how have you sought out partners with compatible interests/desires, and how have you developed a healthy, sustainable balance between solo/friends stuff and couples activities. I realize that involves giving up "me time" for "us time," but I want to sort out a healthy approach to that. Or should I somehow try to mellow out my interest in stuff? I want to get into a place where I'm ready to be a good partner, but right now I feel like I'm not and I don't really see even a path forward from where I am to where I need to be.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Here's the should date.

I know that sounds like I'm saying nothing, but hear me out. You're doing that thing where you're mixing up "dating" with "being in a long-term, committed relationship," which is so common these days. My Mom just asked me the other day, "Do people date anymore? Like, go out and have fun?" And I had to say it's getting more and more rare.

But dating can be just that...go out, grab dinner, see a movie, do some kissing and snuggling, and don't worry about whether your finances are going to mesh or what you'll name your children. This will allow you to stop worrying over compatibility and start just having fun with a number of people who might (but don't have to) turn out to be someone you want to go further with. Or not!

You should date. Just date. Let the rest take care of itself later. Remove the pressure, because it seems like you're pressuring yourself right out of having some fun.
posted by xingcat at 6:35 AM on October 5, 2014 [34 favorites]

I think xingcat has good advice about just "dating." Doing a bit more of that will help you learn about the issues of compatibility. You get some information, in a date or two, if someone has a healthy social life otherwise and outside interests. It is certainly reasonable and healthy for you to want a balance between me time/us time.

What is telling is that your first couple paragraphs in what is ostensibly a dating question are about your career and finances. This seems to relate to the self-esteem issues, maybe, and I would spend some time working on that. You sound completely responsible and "adult" in terms of all that external stuff. But you know, even if you were unemployed and broke and struggling, it wouldn't make you any less worthy of a relationship. You have value, regardless of your resume and income.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:08 AM on October 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it's really difficult. Especially in the beginning, or more like in the beginning-middle. Dating, okay, that's fine but I get what you are saying. In the long run, how do you make it work without losing yourself and your interests? I think you have to find someone compatible. So while you are locked in a room gluing things together or whatever on Saturday afternoon, they need to be the type of person who will then go off with their girlfriends, or work on their own projects. You need to date more independent people who appreciate you for who you are, and not as a source of funding, permanent on-demand companionship or just good genetic material/skills teacher for kids.
posted by bquarters at 7:10 AM on October 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

33-year-old male, here. I do not have financial security. I have intense, solitary interests. I've been in a few years-long relationships and plenty of shorter ones. They have been important, painful, amazing experiences. You can find other introverts who will give you space for your interests. It's still hard, but it's worth it. It's a life-long process to learn how to be yourself in a relationship.

You have to keep dating to keep learning what you want and how to get it.

Increase your listening-to-your-feelings skills. Increase your verbal communication skills.

Sometimes un-creepy, un-poisonous, un-crazy books can help. Here's a rare example of a relatively sharp and healthy book about dating:
posted by zeek321 at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

31 year old female engineer with a masters here.

First off, you're in a great position. A healthy amount of savings and debt free, gainfully employed, you're young, and you've had relationship experience. Most people who have done grad studies wind up finding out it sets a person back career-wise, and doesn't really seem to make up for it financially. It's just something we have to accept, and learn not to compare ourselves to other people salary-wise. Everyone has a different path.

Your hobbies sound awesome, and I know several ladies who also think so. Artsy and tech-savvy alike. The amount of time you spend on it is also totally reasonable. Absolutely keep up with that, and any partner that says otherwise - kick them to the curb.

30 is a prime age for a guy to start thinking seriously about dating and relationships. You want perspective, then I strongly recommend giving online dating a shot, and just date casually for a while. Go for the women you think will be interesting to talk to, and meet them for coffee. I assure you, you will find ladies who think your hobbies are cool, and who won't be clingy. It will help you get past your baggage, diluting the pool of your experiences so-to-speak, realizing not all women are like your exes. And it will help you figure out what qualities you're looking for in a woman.
posted by lizbunny at 8:47 AM on October 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a woman who also has some solitary interests. We exist! You just have to find someone who isn't so needy, someone who has intense hobbies of her own.

I agree with the people suggesting that your self esteem issues are leading you to pick people who aren't suited to you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:41 AM on October 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Going to therapy is a great way to learn strategies to deal with self-esteem issues, financial anxiety and a propensity toward unhealthy relationships. Even a fairly healthy person like yourself could benefit from therapy. Six months of therapy while starting to date will be the best investment you ever make.
posted by spork at 10:15 AM on October 5, 2014

If you want a partner who will support your doing things on your own, then you prioritize that early in the relationship. "I can't do X on Saturday; I'm spending that day welding. Can we try for Z on Sunday instead?" Anyone who flips out, you stop dating. Anyone who doesn't have a problem, or who negotiates in a mature way that acknowledges you deserve time to yourself ("Oh, I had really wanted to see that band that night, what if I leave you alone all Sunday to weld but we try to get together Saturday night?" or whatever) and then follows through without guilt trips, you continue dating, assuming you are also compatible in other ways.

Learning to set those boundaries in healthy non-defensive ways, and to pay attention to any partners who are trying to cross them in guilt-tripping unhealthy ways, is a way you start to get from here to there.
posted by jaguar at 10:26 AM on October 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

You're really not as behind as you think you are financially. And it is totally reasonable to spend some time apart on crafts. I mean, yeah, if you have a newborn, you might need to take a break from your weekend craft immersions for awhile, but the amount of time you describe does not at all sound like it would be a barrier to having a good relationship. A healthy relationship generally involves serious outside interests and relationships.
posted by salvia at 12:40 PM on October 5, 2014

It sounds to me like you are finding out your own way after some years of struggling. That probably made you lots wiser (it's really good life experience), maybe if you start to see that, word it, you will feel less like you've lost years. After some time n the wrong direction you are finding a way that suits you so much better, so you finally now don't need to worry so much anymore, just move on (which is so much easier than making a big change, like you did).
I am saying this because (analyzing you text a little bit) in your first paragraphs you write about being anxious (trying to have everything in order more and more) and then you write about these anxious, kind of goal-obsessed partners. Once you grow more relaxed and aware that you really did make a great move and choice, you freed yourself from a bad period (really admire that!), you'll probably become more sure and connect better with the girls with more self-esteem automatically. And as you don't see your life and you as a just a (money)provider in general or in a relationship, you will find girls without those ideas.

Also, let me tell you again: you really are in a good position. Really. In the world. You will be fine. You'll still tool on, but maybe you won't need to be so very alert anymore, right? Time for some more laughs and playfulness, jokes, with friends/girls/the colleagues at work. Be proud of where you came from to get here (look back and see how far you've come). I wish for you to enjoy your hard work and struggles up to now. Maybe give yourself a trip somewhere or something nice (not useful or another goal-thing), some symbolic thing just to celebrate you've made it this far. Do you feel what I am trying to say? :)
Even if you don't I think you already are on your way to being a great catch of a man for someone.
posted by Dutchmeisje at 1:18 PM on October 5, 2014

I will suggest an alternate route: Socialize more. Find "clubs" or similar for your hobbies, go to (or arrange) MeFi meetups and start trying to meet more people with things in common with you.

I was a girl gamer and I married another gamer from my gaming group when we were both 19. We were married more than 2 decades. I have no regrets.

TBH, I read through your ask trying to figure out what the heck the problem is. Because, to me, you sound like a completely "normal" guy and in my world those hobbies and what not only become an issue after you have babies and there is just not enough time to go around, especially if those babies have special needs. I come from a social background where work comes first. It is assumed you will be serious about your work and it will take a good bit of your time. And people routinely have hobbies or are involved in crafts or whatever. And I can't quite fathom why this is a big problem in your life.

So I am kind of feeling like you just need to meet the right people so as to increase your luck surface area. You need to be meeting more people who are like you in order to increase the odds of meeting women who are like you in some important way and/or compatible with you even if they are very different in some fundamental ways. You need to meet like-minded women and when you meet the right person, you will do fine. Because I just don't see any problem here with your financial status or hobbies or anything.
posted by Michele in California at 3:26 PM on October 5, 2014

You sound like a couple of guys I know, and maybe a couple of my exes in addition. (I hope I’m not projecting too much.)

What immediately struck me about your question is that the entire first half is about how you’re not making enough money. That seems kind of sad, and indicative of an old-fashioned type of mindset in which you are only valuable to a woman as a pocketbook. Whether that comes from a noble, 1950’s ish place of wanting to be a good provider (“white knight”) or a more cynical, dark place of thinking women only like men for money (evo psych, pick up) it’s still sad either way. Poor people date and marry and have kids all the time. Women and men break “the worthiness rules” and still get into relationships. Love is random and inexplicable to a great extent. One small example that may make sense to you (because it is still practical) is that women often need men to put in additional physical work around the house- to fix the lights, to take the second shift of watching the kid. This is physical labor that is very hard to do with only one person and a small child. It does not matter so much how much money the father makes in that case, only that he is present and willing to do some work. I know lots of hetero couples in which the woman makes more money, including my sister and brother-in-law. I mean, yes- money matters to most middle class Americans. It is a real concern that affects how people choose their partners. And good for you for having sound financial sense. But there are a lot of women out there with the biological clock ticking who would rather have a child, get married, etc. on a tight budget than not at all. You’re completely discounting them. And shared bills are halved bills.

Tons and tons of people do stupid shit in their 20s. You’re on a completely normal timetable. Some people have all their shit together by 25, but a lot don’t. Make sure you aren’t giving in to confirmation bias- don’t compare yourself to the most successful for whom everything goes perfectly since high school, like that hot shot kid a couple years younger who’s making more. You know that middle aged software guy who’s been out of work a lot? Don’t forget to compare yourself to him, too. Some people have it better, but some people have it worse. 30 and floundered for a few years is overwhelmingly common. You are a man and the bio-clock isn’t ticking quite as fast for you, anyway, so you can wait. Do I think you really NEED to wait though? Nah.

All of that stuff is just insecurities you need to face head on and wrestle down. Be honest about your relative strengths and weaknesses, but don’t be afraid you don’t measure up. You’re a person. As good as the next person. We’re all gonna die and you only get one life. Don’t spend it hating yourself. There’s a single woman out there for you (assuming approximately 50/50 sex ratio).

Now, all of that said. The hobbies thing. Maybe it’s because I know a LOT of guys who are super inflexible about their hobbies, but I have to tell you, I’m less sympathetic to you on that one. I mean, yes- in a general sense, it is true that you want to date someone with friends, who has interests of her own, and it is not reasonable or healthy to expect to do everything together and spend every waking moment together. All of that is true. But maybe I’ve known one too many guys who blew off his girlfriend on Saturday night to raid for six hours to have unlimited sympathy for “hobbies are important.”

Here’s the deal, all relationships require compromise, and girlfriends with hobbies are going to be harder to date, not easier. How do I know? Because if she wants to spend Friday on her hobby, and you Saturday, and neither of you is flexible, what you end up getting is no dates and no relationship, and two people who are both very good at being single. Especially if you’re into hobbies that don’t require scheduling, like “Oh I just woke up and felt like staying in and programming in my PJS all day and night, because I was inspired.”

It’s a LOT easier if you have like, regular Friday night poker with the boys and she learns to go to yoga class on that night. But actually blowing off plans with her, or spending an entire weekend at whim on your hobbies- yeah I can see how that would hurt her. Especially if her friends she ends up hanging out with are like “Hey Rebecca, where’s Dan?” and she’s like, “He’s staying in today, to program.” And it’s Saturday night and literally all of her friends and the entire town is out doing stuff. If that’s what you mean by “keeping up appearances” then I can totally understand girlfriend’s POV. ‘Cause that hurts, and it’s a case where you personally are not in synch with society. She’s getting the brunt of social judgment and you’re the unusual one staying home. Like it or not, that’s how most people are.

I would have the hobbies talk early on, and explain that you will not give them up, because they make you happy and that is not nice. But you will compromise on WHEN and for HOW LONG you do them. To me, that’s fair. Also try to regularly plan something together you both like.
posted by quincunx at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I still feel off-balance and precarious.

I have a lot of anxiety about financial stability and providing for myself, never mind contributing financially to a relationship.

I don't think your main issue has anything to do with money or being financially stable. The main issue I see here is anxiety. You need to get that under control, perhaps with a therapist. Cultivating a sense of inner calm and stability that will soothe you irrespective of your financial situations will help you be a calm and stable partner in whatever relationship you enter in the future.

I also recommend the idea of "just dating". Dial waaaaaay back on the pressure. You're only 30. You do not have to have your entire life figured out, romantic or otherwise.
posted by Gray Skies at 6:55 PM on October 5, 2014

Don't sell yourself short in terms of your ability to have a healthy relationship. You identified the problem with the co-dependent girlfriend who got upset when you didn't spend all your attention on her. The next step is to recognize it when it's happening in real time and either have a conversation about it or if that doesn't work break it off when there are enough red flags. It's not necessarily a problem that you like to do welding and electronics till 3 am. Maybe that's important to you. Maybe you need a woman who either loves to weld or has her own weird hobbies. There's lots of different ways to be a fulfilling partner. Date people who seem nice and grounded from the get go and continually ask yourself as things are progressing, "Am I satisfied here?" Then if you're not explore the reasons why and figure out if it's your stuff or their stuff that's making you unfulfilled or what combination. Or that's what I try to do. I have a therapist and a therapist helps!

But anyway, you don't have to crack some big code or be in a perfect place to have a relationship. If you are worried about where you will end up or whether you will move maybe the answer, as someone upthread mentioned, is short term dating.
posted by mermily at 3:27 PM on October 6, 2014

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