Another Relationship Question
November 5, 2016 3:34 PM   Subscribe

I haven't had much luck with relationships and I'm not sure why. I definitely put myself out there. I volunteer, I have social hobbies, I do online dating. Now and then I meet someone I like who seems to like me back. It's very exciting, butterflies everywhere, we date for a while and it fizzles after 2-3 months. I almost always get the slow fade, and it's always sad and confusing for me.

The guys I've dated are apparently making a decision within that first 2-3 months. Really 2, because the fizzle is usually obvious by then. I suspect that my hesitance to open up and create emotional connections may be part of what makes them think "well, there's no deeper connection here, I'll move on." While I'm waiting to get comfortable enough to let my guard down. But that's just a guess, and one of many.

Anyway, I'd like to understand what the difference is between what a successful dater (meaning someone who has satisfying long-term relationships that get past the first 3 months) does, vs what I do. And since it's not really practical to explain every single think I do, here's my question: What happens in a successful long-term relationship within the first month? within the first 2 months?
posted by bunderful to Human Relations (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say how old you are, but back before I was with my current partner, if I didn't spot a potential emotional connection by the third date or so, I'd consider it a waste of time to stay with the relationship. Not because I didn't want to date that person, but because I was looking for a long term relationship. Two or three months would be out of the question.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:52 PM on November 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm old enough that many of my peers have been married for several years and some of them have kids in high school. I'm old enough that it's definitely a little odd that I've never had a long-term relationship.

Can you give me more information that will help me understand what helps create an emotional connection?
posted by bunderful at 3:57 PM on November 5, 2016

I think this is a characteristic of online dating. If you meet someone casually, maybe you would let it unfold and see. But most people I know who did online dating (including myself) were doing so with more of an agenda in mind where we were actually looking for a serious partner, and were trying to disqualify or qualify people to be that person. For example, I went on a date once with a guy who had a Russian background, he was a PhD student, great conversationalist, interesting man. And halfway through the date he mentions that his life plan is to return to Russia when he completes his studies. That was a deal-breaker for me. Nice guy to have coffee with, but I knew I would never want to move to Russia with him, so why string it along?
posted by ficbot at 3:59 PM on November 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine who has this problem, uh, drinks a lot. She thinks she's fun but she's treating dating as an adult the way she did in college. Now she was married once but it sounds like it was a total shitshow beginning to end and she definitely settled for a guy who was using her for her family connections. As a late 30s person while she is enormously fun and smart and kind she does not come across as a person of substance at all. And she wonders why all the nice respectable guys lose interest after a month. I'm not saying you're a partier but if you're dating guys who are looking for a long term relationship or marraigr there must be some kind of fundamental mismatch between you and the predominant guys in your locality and social class/ age range. I'm not very right wing or religious which would preclude a relationship with 65% of men my age in my area, for example. I'm also old enough that I'm no longer into spontaneous travel or constant late nights or whatever because I have a career and animals and stuff. I think you have to be realistic about what and who you are looking for and not waste time on guys where one or the other of you would have to change a lot to make it work, especially as you age and become more established. It'll save a lot of heartache.

Now if you hate where you live or don't make enough money to be an equal partner in a relationship or whatever that's one of those "work on yourself first" situations. But it sounds like you're wasting a lot of time on unsuitable menfolk and getting overly caught up in the flush of romance.
posted by fshgrl at 4:22 PM on November 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

It is reasonable to make a decision about the inherent potential of a relationship in the first three months. That it's repeatedly coming as a surprise to you suggests that you aren't having the sort of grown-up Relationship Talks that should be natural, enjoyable, and mutually initiated by both parties already at that point.

Those talks are part of the emotional connection, and also how you take the temperature of the relationship. If you are a woman, you may have been socialized to be very passive and guess if the relationship is going well, waiting for him to take the lead on the decision-making about whether the relationship is going anywhere. They are likely assuming that if you aren't making at least a half-effort to talk about it, you're not that into it.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:23 PM on November 5, 2016 [17 favorites]

How does physical intimacy figure in to your relationships? Are you comfortable with the level of sexual activity you have, and does it align with your partners' comfort levels, desires, and sexual histories? Does the vibe you put out match the level of sexuality you are comfortable with?

I ask because I know a woman who has chosen not to have sex til marriage- but who dates men she meets by going to clubs and dancing in a pretty sexual way. Her relationships tend to be very short, and my observation is that she may be inadvertently implying a level of sexuality in courtship that she is not going to match once the relationship starts. She is going to sexual spaces to find men, and thereby selecting for men who expect their relationships to be sexual- and perhaps she is even discouraging any men who happen to be visiting those settings who would assume by her dancing style that her sexuality is different than it actually is. She is religious but she is meeting men in explicitly sexual, secular spaces.

I'd say around month 2-3 (so maybe around date # 6-15), many secular North American couples in the 20-40 age bracket are having quite a bit of sex- probably "petting" by date 3 if not sooner, and sex by date 5, and then having sex every time they see each other- and the sex is getting progressively more comfortable (in terms of less nerves and more pleasure) and maybe somewhat more daring/experimental.

This is by no means the only way couples can interact, and it shouldn't be the way you interact unless you want it to be-- but I think it's pretty standard, so if that's not your style, you might have better luck if you explicitly search for men whose sexual desires, pacing, or comfort level better align with yours.

If this applies, 0erhaps you could state your preferred sexual pace in your online dating profile, or soon into dating, by saying something like "I'd like to take it slow", "no hookups", "I'm a late bloomer", "I'm less experienced than average and seeking same", "It takes me some time to feel connected and comfortable", "I am seeking a true connection", or whatever describes your desires. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:31 PM on November 5, 2016 [17 favorites]

If by "not opening up" you mean "leave men wondering if you really like them" then that is a serious problem. Most men like to be the pursuer, and will charitably interpret mixed messages, up to a point, but after they point they are going to write you off they think it isn't working and you're not interested. Pretty much every man has had the experience of a woman who won't reject you but won't really go for you either. It is fail and men avoid it when they see it again.
posted by MattD at 4:34 PM on November 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

How often are you seeing these people and how often are you initiating the dates? When I feel a connection, my date and I are initiating about equally, and seeing each other every night or every other night. The few times it's turned into a long term relationship, we've already said "I love you" by the end of month 2. (But I might move faster than average, as well. I'm now married.) So I feel it's reasonable to be able to assess if there's a connection by that time.
posted by ethidda at 5:29 PM on November 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Be mindful of limerence -- it can be an enjoyable little thing, but it can also blind you to certain realities...

Looking at Lyn Never's response, I'm reminded that about two and a half years ago I met a lovely man through an old mutual friend -- she'd known both of us for decades but we'd somehow never quite crossed paths -- and we hit it off wonderfully straight away, and within a few weeks I was asking stuff like: could you ever see yourself living in the country? How does the idea of someday being a stepfather grab you? (He is a city mouse; I live in the boonies with a daughter.) And a number of other pretty serious questions. (Including: what are you looking for, hoping for, in dating at this time in your life? A fling, casual dating, something permanent, etc?) Had he said "Dear god, no" and "That doesn't seem like something I would ever be interested in, sorry," I would have thought, "pity," and enjoyed a fling and let it fizzle out. However, those were not the answers I got, and it was clear that we were both on the same page with a lot of the major things that can be deal-breakers.

It was a pretty intense series of questions and I thought 'The poor guy, I hope I'm not terrifying him and coming off like I expect an engagement ring next week' (I think I might have said that, too...) but it was so nice and so useful to have where we were with Important Things clarified right at the get-go, so I could plan accordingly for a fun little fling with little deeper meaning, or if I could feel free to go around falling in love. And, this all having been laid out on the table, we went around meeting each others' families and close friends and so on without wasting much time there; we were both hoping for something serious and lasting and had quickly discovered that there were no major impediments to that. It took all sorts of ambiguities off the table and left us free to get on with the business of forging an intimate connection instead of pussyfooting about wondering about this and that.

I got a request for exclusivity pretty early on and I think it had to do with that gently risky barrage of questions. The more I think about it, the more I think the barrage (well -- we'd had a little bit to drink and were sitting in my yard on a lovely summer evening; it wasn't quite a daunting onslaught at an awkward time; I was just crushing hard and wanted to know) was wise.

(As for the friend who accidentally introduced us -- we repaid her with a nice dinner, I believe? -- if you can work your social networks and put out the "I am looking for a partner" message, it's a great way to meet people. We had loads of friends in common and it was so nice that he was 'pre-vetted,' so to speak, and I knew a lot of good people had been good friends of his for years, so I had no worries about him being a secret axe murderer, or, far more likely, garden-variety jerk. He came with excellent references!)
posted by kmennie at 5:54 PM on November 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

I reread my message and it comes across a bit harsh. I didn't mean that at all, just that I knwo someone roughly in your situation that is having a lot of heartache over similar and in her case it's a fundamental mismatch. She wants to have fun and do all the stuff she misses out on by getting married young and foolish but the guys want more because theyre looking to settle down. It's best to establish roughly what you want upfront as described above. And then stick to your guns.
posted by fshgrl at 8:14 PM on November 5, 2016

I suspect I may be the only person who's responded who is in your exact situation myself - and I am thus going to offer the suggestion that maybe it is not anything you're doing at all, and it might just plain be shit luck.

I mean, yeah, I could analyze "what I'm doing wrong" to death about each of my exes, and I did - and then I realized that I spent too much time doing that analysis and it was giving me this sheen of desperation. Which was turning people off to me subtly.

And I realized that the truth of it is, there might not be any reason other than just plain dumb-luck-fate. I just decided one day that I am just fucking cursed when it comes to relationships. And you'd think that that kind of thinking is defeatist - but for me, it wasn't. It was liberating, because then it was no longer my fault. I could do whatever the fuck I wanted becuase it didn't matter anyway.

And...that actually then freed me up to see that I actually wasn't doing that bad anyway. and it also let me realize that hey, let me just do things to please myself. That has also taken away the desperation, and sometimes I do catch someone's eye. And for the times when I don't I'm still making myself happy.

So I bet that there is nothing you're doing that's wrong, it's just plain dumb luck. Blame fate for it, absolve yourself, and go have fun. A guy might come along to join you, and he might not, but you're sitll having fun either way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 PM on November 5, 2016 [23 favorites]

You sound nice, you didn't mention any red flags or bad patterns with the men, and it doesn't sound like there's drama, so other than bad luck or timing, maybe you're asking the wrong queston. Is it possible that you are sabotaging yourself by choosing emotionally unavailable men? That doesn't always mean they are bad people, and they might not realize it themselves.

If this is a possibility, check out Baggage Reclaim. (They've redesigned the site again so hopefully the navigation is improved, but do dig around because it's a goldmine. And now there's also a podcast.)
posted by Room 641-A at 8:54 PM on November 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I suspect that my hesitance to open up and create emotional connections may be part of what makes them think "well, there's no deeper connection here, I'll move on." While I'm waiting to get comfortable enough to let my guard down.

I believe you about this. If you're used to being (or playing) the listener in conversations, or, being alone, and not really opening up your inner life to others, or if there's discomfort with self-expression more generally, or maybe as Lyn Never said, perhaps an identification with a passive role, I think it's going to be hard for someone else to find a way in.

I think taking some risks with disclosure will help. Not just with regard to your feelings about the relationship, but your thoughts, preferences, opinions, feelings in general.

I also think that some (maybe many) men expect women to be emotionally "handy". Nurturing, warm, demonstrative - like teachers. If you're more on the reserved side, or "thinky", or just more comfortable with other modes of expression or reflection, men with those expectations might feel bereft. But there are men who embody and express those emotionally supportive, "teacherly" qualities themselves, and might be good complements for you, I'm thinking. Are you often drawn to guys like that? Would you give them a shot, if not?

I think that if this sort of thing is part of it, and you did meet someone nice, it would also help if you worked on articulating and communicating your hesitation, which would buy you some more patience (and time). So, maybe, also work on emotionally focused communication in general - even just talking out your thoughts to yourself, if you're not used to it, so you can then frame them for someone else. Even "I'm not sure how I feel about this" is telling them something (including, implicitly, "and I want to figure it out and am sharing this with you because you're important").

(If this kind of disclosure, with new people/romantic interests, feels scary, have some backup ready - a friend or therapist you trust. And, I mean also, how do you honestly feel about men - do you basically trust them?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:02 PM on November 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

I suspect that my hesitance to open up and create emotional connections may be part of what makes them think "well, there's no deeper connection here, I'll move on."

When I read this my first thought was, do the men you are dating want a deep connection? Do you? Are you and the men you date discussing these things at all, as Lyn Never talked about above?

What happens in a successful long-term relationship within the first month? within the first 2 months?

IMO, what makes a relationship successful in the early days is good sexual chemistry, compatibility (e.g. things in common, same values, etc.) and also, that you are on the same page with what you want from a relationship (i.e., is it just a fling? Are you hoping to eventually get married? Kids?). With all of my past boyfriends and my current husband, we had a talk early on in our relationship (within month 1) about what we both wanted. With my now husband, our sexual chemistry was off the charts amazing, and we had great compatibility (we are best friends).

So, in my mind, that you aren't having much luck having a relationship past 3 months or so could be one of a few things, here are what I think is most likely: 1) The men are deciding you aren't compatible or don't want the same things from a relationship for whatever reason, 2) Bad luck, or 3) You are giving off some red flag not listed in your Ask (probably not likely, but since I don't know you, didn't want to completely rule this out).
posted by FireFountain at 9:52 PM on November 5, 2016

And, I mean also, how do you honestly feel about men - do you basically trust them?

I have a very hard time relaxing and trusting men in relationships. Even though I only get involved with people I believe to be decent human beings who share my values.
posted by bunderful at 10:51 PM on November 5, 2016

I think the best way to get an answer here is to ask, next time, and if you're in a postition to do so, ask retrospectively, mentioning that you're noticing a pattern and looking for honest feedback.
posted by jojobobo at 11:40 PM on November 5, 2016

Nowhere in this post I have read that you actually really liked these men and wanted their company. That, and if the men like you too, is the number one reason why relationships work. Not: emotional vulnerability, experience, openness, different expectations, etc. If people suspect that you are using them for a part or role in your life (I need a long term relationship! I am going to make these dates WORK), then it is unlikely to last long. Did you like these men by dates 5? Did you like them a lot and felt comfortable in their presence? Are you excited to see them?
posted by moiraine at 12:27 AM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you're putting too much blame on yourself. You are not the person you are dating, and they are not you. Blaming each individual failed relationship on these emotional walls that you struggle to bring down is unfair and actually quite damaging. One man might find your hesitance endearing, another might find it annoying.

Personally, I think 2/3 months is a pretty normal time for a relationship to either make or break. You should know each other pretty well by this point, assuming you've spent a bulk of the months in each other's company, and know the qualities you like/dislike about the other. In rare circumstances, the dating pays off and a relationship forms. In most circumstances, it fizzles out because it just wasn't meant to be.

As you move forward dating, I would spend less time stressing out over your assumed inability to form emotional connections and just be there in the moment. I know it sounds like obvious advice but there really is no magic do or don't textbook of the rules for romance. Relationships are a mixed bag with the only common ground in every single one being timing.
posted by Lewnatic at 3:00 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, I like them. If I like someone enough to go on 3 dates - which is rare - I like them. I admire them, I find them interesting, I enjoy being around them, I want to know more about them, I'm attracted to them.
posted by bunderful at 6:24 AM on November 6, 2016

If you are at the settling down stage, I think 2-3 months per person is too much time; that means you are dating 3-4 people a year, tops. You may be somehow missing signs earlier on that it wasn't going to last for whatever reason. Since the chances of any given person being THE one are pretty small, maybe try and date more people-- and even more than one person at a time-- until you feel a really powerful click and/or you have that encouraging conversation others have alluded to that suggests you are both looking for the same thing?

I think you're doing really great for recognizing this pattern and being open to a lot of suggestions. Here's another that may sound weird. If you are amicable with some of the people who fizzled out, ask them what they think happened.

My own story is that I'm living with a guy I dated a couple of times and then lost contact with and then he called me again. He was probably dating someone else in the meantime and there were some strikes against us geographically and for other reasons. I kind of hate the New York Times marriage section but a lot of the stories seem to suggest how things happen for a weird combination of reasons. So by all means check how you may be contributing to this pattern-- I really congratulate you for that-- but maybe also just try to be open to more people.
posted by BibiRose at 7:33 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

That amount of time probably means one of a few things. Either the sex is not so good and they're hoping it gets better (but it doesn't), or the conversation/dates get boring.

To fix the first is a little more difficult. There are tutorial videos out there for things like oral sex, which you might look at NOT to be "perfect," but to see whether you're doing anything very clearly wrong.

To fix the second, I'd suggest more activity-centric dates that don't revolve around conversation, or, alternatively, trying harder to find out what your dates are very interested in talking about and engage them on those topics. Or both.

The second is what you might be getting at when you suspect you're not "open" enough. I don't think you have to be the most open person in the world or anything, but if you're relatively monosyllabic, don't give opinions, agree with everything, don't take conversational initiative, and/or don't show interest in the things they're interested in it can be like dating a friendly and admirable statue.

So, here is a perhaps crazy suggestion (but what do you have to lose?): why not ask one of these men what happened and if there's anything you can fix? Heck, ask all of them. If it's something easy to fix, all the better.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:54 AM on November 6, 2016

In your follow up you specifically asked how to have better emotional connections, so I'll focus on that. I have been intentionally working on my emotional openness for the last four years. I'm still working on it -- probably will be my whole life. But I've gotten so much better at it, and it's made my whole life so much better, not just romantic relationships.

My academic and career background is not kind to vulnerability and weakness, especially in women. The culture is, "no one cares about your problems, just get it done, and perfectly." I had learned to be super competent in everything I let anyone see me do, and did not let people know if things were hard or if I had personal stuff going on. Even with my personal friends, and even with my family. You may not be coming from the same place I was, but if there's some overlap, maybe what I've done will help you, too.

The first thing is to realize that vulnerability is not weakness. It takes strength and courage to trust someone with something you are uncomfortable sharing. It also takes practice, like most things that take strength.

So I made a New Years Resolution (even though I never do resolutions) to work on being vulnerable in my personal life. Just little hints when the opportunity presented itself with people I already knew and trusted. When one of my kindest and most straight forward friends had a party that I skipped, I emailed her the next day to apologize and say that while I normally would have just texted to say I wasn't feeling well, I was trying to be more open and honest with my friends, and the truth was I was overcome by social anxiety at the thought of dressing up and going to a party. She was totally understanding, and thanked me for sharing what was really going on. This helped me realize/remember that people tend to be honored or humbled that you trust them with little things you might be ashamed of or worried people will judge you about.

I also decided to do something I wanted to do but knew I wasn't ever going to be particularly good at-- something where people would see me not being particularly good at that thing. For me it was running, but maybe for you it's taking a series of cooking classes, or a new language. The key is to be around other people who are better than you at it (even when if it's strangers on a running trail). This helped me remember that I'm my own harshest judge and no one cares that I'm not the best at everything, and no one is going to laugh at me when I try and fail.

I also made an effort to be more specific when I tell people about my life and problems. For me, this was in the context of a church small group, but maybe it's when you talk to your best friends, or in some other formal or informal support group.

I started noticing and collecting examples of how powerful it is when people are vulnerable and let you know who they really are. Music, speeches, essays, stuff like that. Jazmine Sullivan's song "Fear," or some David Foster Wallace essays. I still use them as my motivation to open up and share with people. You might also have people in your life who are just amazing ninja warriors of emotional openness -- not people who just spill their guts to everyone (more power to them, but that'll never be me), but people who have figured out how to be tough when necessary and when to open up to people about things that can be truly risky in a way my personal hang ups generally aren't. For me, this was some of my friends with difficult pasts or sexual identities that unfortunately can be risky to reveal in certain cultures. But my friends are awesome people who have decided to go ahead and be who they are, and have (out of necessity) figured out how to navigate when and how to share their lives with people, even though it can carry real physical or psychological risk. To be clear: do NOT make other people's past or identity about you, but if you're lucky enough to be close enough to people you can learn from, do go ahead and notice what they do and how brave they are, and let that encourage you.

Good luck!
posted by alligatorpear at 7:56 AM on November 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

Speaking as a guy here. One thing I dread in relationships is sameness. When you date, you do so with a presumption of the relationship turning into a long term bonding. If you look at people's need to feel safe and their need to feel stimulated and perhaps provoked a bit, those aren't necessarily compatible or maybe they are two sides of the same problem. If the relationship is too safe, it looks to be long term boring. If it's too stimulating, that's crazy-making. Finding a way to be a bit more provoking can perk people's interest and make things more exciting. By provoking, I'm not saying antagonistic, I'm saying push people a bit to the edge of their experience. Hint at a dark past, be a bit unavailable unexpectedly, date two people at once, wear something a bit flashy or unexpected. Be anything but 100% safe and predictable.
If I was to guess at the long-term fade, it's because these guys think this is all that's going to happen, more of the same and it's not feeding their need for variety or the unexpected.
posted by diode at 8:13 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the useful ideas of attachment theory is the recognition that people can be ambivalent about emotional intimacy. Not ambivalent like "eh, i can take it or leave it" but ambivalent like "i both really want this thing and am also kind of afraid of it."

It's very common for two people who are both ambivalent about emotional intimacy to be attracted to each other. Often there's a pattern where one of them is initially quite open to it (in touch with the part of them that wants intimacy) while the other person is more guarded (more in touch with the part of them that is afraid of it).

When the person who is initially more guarded starts to relax and let their guard down, they trigger the fear-of-intimacy part of the person who was initially more in touch with the wanting-intimacy part of their personality. Then the roles switch -- the initially-open person becomes more guarded, and the person who was guarded becomes more gung-ho, more invested in it, more in touch with the part of them that wants intimacy, because it seems like something they had or might have had, that is being taken away.

If this seems like something that could be going on with you, the way to change it has less to do with knowing what a long-term relationship looks like in the first or second month (because I don't really think there are any useful rules there) and more about what's attracting you to the people you date, what's attracting them to you, and how to make different decisions around those things.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 10:44 AM on November 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

"i both really want this thing and am also kind of afraid of it."

Yes, this is me. I really want love, and I'm also completely terrified of being trapped in a relationship or overwhelmed by someone else's needs. Which all goes back to my family of origin.

I'll reach more about attachment styles.
posted by bunderful at 5:24 AM on November 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, this is me. I really want love, and I'm also completely terrified of being trapped in a relationship or overwhelmed by someone else's needs. Which all goes back to my family of origin.

Yeah if this is what's going on, it is absolutely going to torpedo some nascent relationships. The kind of emotionally attuned, connected partner you'd want is going to sense that underlying level of "go away, I don't want you," even if not consciously. So first and foremost, you're going to want to look at ways to practice extending small amounts of trust and setting small but critical boundaries so you can start to feel secure instead of trapped, and start to feel like you WANT to meet (an appropriate number of) this person's needs.

Secondly, though, dating just sucks donkey ass, and might well suck donkey ass for you even if you were the most emotionally self-realized human alive. So, don't beat yourself up. You have maybe one weird tic that makes a relationship a little harder for you, you're not broken or anything.

Finally, some real talk from a person who basically only has sustained relationships: the people you know who manage to stretch relationships out over years are not necessarily, like, better-adjusted than you. They may well be playing out their own family-of-origin psychodramas--they just happen to have learned various attachment styles and behaviors that lend themselves to long-term relationships. I mean, it's real easy to make a relationship last if your parents taught you your own needs don't matter and you must work your ass off to make other people happier than you. But that relationship is gonna suck. Surely you know at least one relationship in which the partners like/admire/are attracted to each other sooooo much less than you could ever be happy with. You know? Just something to remember when you start feeling "odd."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:59 AM on November 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

The book that I read that really helped with insecure attachment styles was Attached. (But it also ruined a lot of the romance movies and books.)
posted by ethidda at 1:09 PM on November 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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