Ended it, now Flooded with Confusion
October 16, 2017 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Three weeks ago I ended a relationship of three years. On one level, I know it had to happen. On another, I’m completely thrown, and hoping for some perspective. Thanks in advance for reading—there’s a lot here, and it means a lot that y’all are listening.

I’m 38, she’s 26, quite a gap. The unraveling began six months ago. On a trip to Europe she was distant and irritable, rejecting most of my attempts at physical intimacy. When this continued back home, I asked her what was going on and out came a torrent. The gist: I was noncommittal, I’d taken nearly a year to call her my girlfriend, I probably preferred being alone, I made it impossible to talk about “conventional” matters like moving in or having kids. Clearly (or so I then believed) she felt like she’d been playing the waiting game too long, and was tired.

The moment was a long time brewing. We’d met 2.5 years earlier on Tinder and both went into it with Tindery expectations. I was initially captivated by her youth, beauty, and innocence. She was captivated by me (she later put this way) as the kind of guy she thought only existed in movies: creative professional, world traveler, big reader, yogi, motorcycle rider, etc. I’d come to our smaller city after 15 years in New York, so I was very much her first taste of a “New York guy.”

Our first year together was in ways an extension of that first Tinder date. We kept things casual, or at least pretended they were causal. I’d been burned by a relationship 1.5 years earlier, had moved to our city to get over it, and was still processing a lot emotionally and geographically. I was scared of love. Nervous to jump into something. “I’m giving you everything I have right now,” I’d often say. “Is it enough?” She said it was, yet it was quickly obvious she was seriously infatuated and seriously anxious, wondering if I’d vanish at any moment. But she was too insecure and conflict-avoidant to really express her wants and needs, and I told myself I was being upfront so it wasn’t on me to address them for her. I’d imagine she spent a lot of that first year feeling like she was auditioning for the role of my girlfriend.

Still, we had an incredible time together. Amazing chemistry in all respects, that unique ease around each other. We took fantastic trips, met each other’s families, laughed over countless meals, complimented each other in amazing ways. I knew I was developing very real feelings—that I was falling in love—but I kind of choked them down.

Aside from working to lessen the weight of my own personal baggage, I was concerned that she was too dependent on me as the sole source of her happiness and identity. She’s prone to depression, and I worried she saw me as a kind of antidepressant. (She’d been on them when we met, but went off them after like a week.) Where she was just out college, still figuring things out, working a service job she despised, I’d had a successful creative career since I was 19. I’d spent a lot of time developing my own foundation, and I worried she was taking comfort in that foundation at the expense of developing her own alongside me. I brought this up plenty, but I’m not sure the sentiment was really absorbed.

After a year and half, a kind of simple epiphany dawned on me. I was with an amazing woman who amazed me more every day, having an amazing time, feeling deep feelings, each of us growing in different ways. Screw the age difference, the experience gap, the lingering concerns—better to stop with the overanalyzing and let the heart take the reigns from the head. I “came around,” as they say. I told her I loved her (months after she’d told me). I was all in, for real.

This lead to a second year that was a lot like the first—fun, heat, comfort, adventures—but with much more depth. Still, I’m not sure she totally felt the shift. Or if she did she maybe felt like she’d won me through attrition rather than genuine affection; she never quite felt “worthy” of me, and said so on occasion.

Meanwhile—and related—she was still neglecting developing on her own. She spent a lot of time saying she was going to do things—pay off credit card debt, draw, commit to yoga, cultivate friends—and then dropping whatever she was doing to be with me. She switched to an even more dismal service job—cocktailing at a strip club—with the idea that she’d save some money and pursue other interests. Didn’t quite happen. The bulk of her energy still went into me, and since my energy was more spread out—I’m passionate about my career, I have a wide social circle to engage in, I owned a house I was renovating—there was a simmering tension.

When I was away for work, her texts turned clingy, jealous, caustic. I did everything I could to encourage her to tap into the inner fire I saw and believed in—setting her up with jobs, teaching her to surf and ride motorcycles, telling her she was a badass capable of anything, always trying to get her to express wants and needs. This went only so far. I’d imagine that my trying to help sometimes made her feel more helpless, or that she was still jumping through hoops to “win” me.

By the winter of this year her depression had returned. She was unmotivated, prone to lashing out, often crying in bed. Our sex life, always ecstatic, took a hit. But she was resistant to the idea of seeing a professional. Also, she had no close friends. I was everything, and I think that scared both of us in different ways.

Anyhow, back to the torrent about me being non-committal, distant, someone she couldn’t talk to about moving in or having kids. In one sense, it was the release of pent-up resentments, the expression of wants and needs from a woman who deeply struggles to express them. And I welcomed it. I’m a confident guy who doesn’t feel threatened when challenged. I believe healthy relationships sometimes require a jolt and it was exactly what I needed to check in with where I was at: what I could give, what I couldn’t. I fell deeper in love with her after the torrent.

I spent some time searching my soul and realized I wanted nothing more than to share my life with her, to be her partner, wanted us to feel like partners, and understood that may not have been fully expressed—that she still felt more like she was invited to sit in on my show than being an equal half of OUR show. I wasn’t ready for kids yet, but moving in (something I’ve never done) sounded terrific. I wanted to fight the fight of life with her, and for her, together.

And I told her all this, complete with roses...

But there was another side to the torrent. A few weeks before, she’d been approached by a smarmy, quasi-hipster businessman who started taking her out to drinks under the guise of seeing if she’d like to be his assistant. She was so depressed, so desperate to get out of the cocktail job, that I think she kind of fell for this slimeball telling her how amazing she was. She could hear it from him and not from me. And in some ways I think she engaged with him hoping to get a rise out of me, which just doesn’t happen; I don’t play those games. Eventually, he offered her the job, and she really invested in it/him the way she’d invested in me—as the thing that would save her from herself.

At one point during this period (a day before our Europe trip) she told me she’d heard “from someone” that a few months earlier I’d been “way more than friendly” with a blonde at a restaurant. This was patently false—I was in another country during the time—and it took me about two days to realize the businessman was the one telling her these lies. I didn’t bring this up, because I didn’t want to cheapen the new chapter by bluntly accusing her of investing in someone who just wanted to get in her pants. Still, when the torrent came out I had to ask: Are these real wants/concerns, or are they triggered by your future boss and whatever’s going on between you two? I mentioned the lies he was telling her, that it was a classic power move by a man looking to get some. She admitted they came from him, but denied anything was going on.

Things got complicated quick. A week before she was set to start, the businessman rescinded the job. Whether he did this because he got laid (one theory), or because he didn’t (another), it sent her into a tailspin. So at the exact moment when I’m trying to profess my ability and desire for partnership, she’s dealing with a truly shattered sense of self: the feeling that she’s nothing but a body, and very real concerns about how she was going to pay rent since she’d quit the cocktailing job.

I tried to use this period to show her what real partnership is—that I was there for her. I reached out to friends, got her two jobs. I tried to be patient with addressing complex issues like her sudden fear of sex with me. (I’ve had my own intimacy issues, and had plenty of empathy.) She finally started seeing a therapist, cultivating friendships, and going to yoga—things I’d long encouraged—and the results were impressive. She became a lot more self-assured. Loved the job I’d gotten for her. The badass woman I always saw in there was coming out, and it was inspiring to witness. I was falling even harder.

Trouble is, during this period she only continued to push me away. Most attempts to communicate were met with tears, silence, or apathy. It was as if she needed me to be made weak in order to feel strong, needed to cut out my influence to authenticate what I’d helped provide as her own, needed to punish me for my noncommittal days even though she’d accepted the behavior at the time.

She became distant, cold, unaffectionate, insensitive, and whenever I tried to talk about my hurt feelings she felt attacked, and the conversation quickly turned to me comforting her. It was almost like the dynamic from our first year was completely inverted, with me becoming the subordinate lap dog, the one jumping through hoops. At one point, I took her on an amazing trip to help us reconnect, and on the second day she was texting some random guy she hooked up with 3 years earlier who happened to live in the place we were traveling. Not cool. Something was up.

Throughout all this I told myself: be patient. It’s a kind of reckoning, a long-overdue adjustment to the imbalance of power. She’d waited for me, now I’d wait for her as she somewhat clumsily went about setting new boundaries. I truly saw us together on the other side of this, and that vision buoyed me. In almost 40 years I’d never imagined that sort of life with a woman, and frankly it was a joy to love that deeply and selflessly. And it wasn’t a total fantasy. I should say that during this stretch there was plenty of good times: good talks, good intimacy, breakthroughs, laughter.

Still, it eventually became too much. Two steps forward, two steps back, when I needed at least a little bit of progress (1.9 steps back) to keep my own nerves in check. A night of next-level, exploratory sex would lead to the following day of sexual rejection. A great, hard talk about the two of us would lead to her clamming up the next time something came up. A long letter from her about wanting nothing more than to figure out life with me would lead to her hedging and being distant whenever I tried to actually see her. What I saw as two people growing together she seemed to see as mere stress. Her total inability to communicate just left me spinning, let alone her inability to treat me with decency and kindness. Whenever I tried to bring up an issue she’d kind of sigh and get annoyed. “I don’t feel like spending an hour crying,” she said more often than not. “Well,” I’d say, “I’m just trying to engage...”

Finally, all these months later, she apologized to me about her behavior with the businessman. He was a jerk and she knew it, but she was weak and needed to hear his bullshit. She felt like trash for believing him over me. Again I asked if anything more than professional had happened and she confessed: yes, there were two small kisses. I half believe that as the full truth, and had long accepted that some kind of low-grade affair had transpired. I forgave her. I’ve had my own struggles with total fidelity and accept the contradictions of humans.

Regardless, it added a new element to things. Where I’d spent months chalking her behavior up to a combination of depression and repressed anger toward me (or anger at herself for putting up with me), now I saw a new component: guilt. She was ashamed of herself, and no wonder she couldn’t embrace my overtures of affection, was distant physically. She owned this, said around me all these months she’s just felt guilty as hell, worthless. And maybe there was more than guilt. Maybe she’d checked out of the relationship during the period of the businessman’s affections, and could never quite check back in, be it guilt over trading up to a true asshole or just a loss of passion.

But when I tried to talk to her about this she shut down.

I was losing my own foundation. Focusing on work was nearly impossible, joy hard to find. This is what lead to the break up. Basically, I said: I see a future but I can’t keep being the only one—I need a partner who shares my vision. It was almost funny, in that I was now saying the things she said in the torrent, which now had come to strike me as a kind of lie. She just started crying and saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” I got cold and pragmatic. “If you don’t know after three years, I think that’s a firm answer.”

I’d hoped that by realizing there were real stakes at hand here she’d be motivated to reengage, but, alas, she just cried. She said that the stress of trying to engage was just too much.

And, with that, we were over.

Yet within a day she was texting me. I’d taken a long motorcycle ride to another city to clear my head, and she wanted to know what I was doing. Our birthdays were coming up, and she wanted to know if we could still exchange gifts. When I posted on FB asking if anyone wanted to swap homes for the fall—I needed a new environment to grieve—she wanted to know what I was doing. Thrown by the mixed messages—it seemed she wanted me only when I was unavailable—I ignored these little attention grabs, realizing I’d coddled them in the past, and eventually wrote her an email: look, I’m just trying to move on an accept what’s happening, that the woman I want to be with no longer has faith in this relationship. “That’s not at all how I feel,” she responded, but left it at that. If you have something big to say, I said, I’m here, but I can’t read between the lines and if you’ve given up hope you have to give me the space to do the same.

She confessed to feeling relieved to be out of the relationship—crushing—yet still continues to reach out in passive ways, all of them tinged with aggression, as if I was still the one who had wronged her. I sent her a firm, you-can’t-do-this email: You don’t get the relief of my attention and the relief of not being with me, you don’t get to tell me you dread engaging and then engage when I respect that dread. I love you, but you checked out and you have to let me do the same. Still, she continues to jab at me from time to time, always with venom.

So here we are, or here I am.

On one level, I can say that what’s happening is exactly what needs to be happening. Probably she needs to go out there and have her own successes and failures (and shallow flings) without feeling like she’s in my shadow, and I just need to ignore her. Maybe she never really wanted something serious—she wanted the lifestyle vessel, the chase, the unattainable guy to reconfirm her low sense of self, and when it got real she looked to another and hated herself too much to accept my forgiveness. If that’s the case, I’ve surely dodged a bullet in getting so invested with someone who so clearly wasn’t ready. Or maybe I “came around” too late, and she wasn’t able to trust my overtures as genuine, especially since she doesn’t much trust, or love, herself. Or maybe it’s just a matter of timing: what excites me right now (whacking through the weeds with a partner, digging in deep) simply scares her.

And yet, what can I say? I love her, I love what we had, love where I saw it going, love the yin/yang way our personalities compliment each other, and in her need to reach out (even meanly) I wonder if she’s telling me she feels the same. I can’t help but wish she’d “come around” just a little bit to be able to embrace that love, rather than having to be her first real lesson in the pain of losing love. I wish she could let go of the past resentment and guilt and just see it all as I do: as the wondrous, complicated story of two people falling in love and stumbling around to build a beautiful union. I feel like we closed the book before the last chapters, and can’t help wondering if I could have done something more. Or if there’s something I should be doing now, aside from ignoring her and rebuilding myself (which I’m quite good at).

But what?

So I guess I’m here asking how I should move forward, what people think about all this. I’d certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who’s been on either side of a version of this—and, who knows, found a way to reconnect romantically.
posted by bluecastle to Human Relations (43 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm kinda wondering if the business guy assaulted her, TBH. (source: female, was 26 once.) I also wondered before I got to that part if she was ever on hormonal birth control, because of personal experience.

Otherwise, cakelite has your answer.
posted by jbenben at 8:46 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please continue to ignore her. Stop responding to her unhealthy ways of engaging with you even if you enjoy the ego stroke. You sound really condescending about her, her life and her mental state and the kindest thing you can do now is let her move on with her life.
posted by like_neon at 8:57 AM on October 16, 2017 [38 favorites]

I don't mean this to be unnecessarily harsh but I honestly don't have other words to describe what I felt when I read this - you are really emotionally manipulative, relatively narcissistic, and the reason she is feeling relieved is she may realize this now that she's out.

Every step of the way here, you were in control of the power dynamic - you were the impossible guy she couldn't believe she had found, you controlled how much emotional satisfaction she got over time (and imply she either lied about being satisfied or didn't know she wasn't satisfied by your answers), you were constantly focused on her becoming some kind of "badass" version of herself which coincidentally sounds a LOT like how you described yourself at the outset and now that you're apart, she's going to end up in shallow flings rather than finding some deep connection with someone else.

Look at how many times you feel confident in determining the motives and thought processes of other people in this whole post - you are so very confident that you are the white knight/good party that you are able to construct all these stories of what your ex was thinking, feeling, what unspoken things was motivating her, what the businessman was thinking and doing, and even what's going to happen to her now that you're apart (shallow flings.) In every one, you are positioned as the guy whose intentions were noble and other people's flaws are keeping them from experiencing the wonderful you.

Some telling language - you say you "accept the contradictions of humans" as though you aren't one. That's weird, man. Your own admitted flaws are vague, noncommittal, positioned as all "in the past", and hardly apply in any tangible way to a problem. Hers are front and center, constantly causing issues and preventing her from being some kind of badass fantasy person that she's not.

I went back and forth as to whether to post this at all, because if I'm right this isn't going to land with your personality type, but you should honestly do a lot more self-exploration here than her-exploration because it will be difficult to find another human contradiction that you can willingly accept if you see yourself in this way.
posted by notorious medium at 8:59 AM on October 16, 2017 [118 favorites]

This is a relationship that you began when she was 23 and you were 35? That's not just a large age gap, it's a large age gap where the younger person has some really important early twenties stuff to get through. It's not a surprise that she was working a crummy job, etc etc.

The best thing you personally can do for her is to let the break-up be a break-up - standard no-contact stuff.

A suggestion from someone who is a little but not that much older than you: don't date people who are in a radically different life stage, especially not younger ones. The only reason that "youth" seems captivating is because we're not in it anymore and we see it from the outside - when we were young, it was hard to be young, and that's how people experience youth. It looks captivating from outside because we see it like it's television. Honestly, the way you describe your relationship is a perfect illustration of why it's healthier to date peers.

It is probably true that living in your shadow has delayed things for her, and that probably doesn't feel really great. A relationship that is going nowhere is one thing if it's with a peer - with someone who has a lot more money and a lot more power, it provides temporary, precarious access to money and power, and that is the worst of both worlds.
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on October 16, 2017 [31 favorites]

I'm sorry this ended badly, I'm sure there were failures and mistakes on both sides, but can you please take the lesson from this that you should only date people you respect? That means you cannot fetishize "youth, beauty, and innocence" when you yourself are approaching middle age. That is actually selecting for someone who will always be at a disadvantage in the relationship, because she will never be anywhere near as developed in her life as you are.

Just let it go. Better for both of you.
posted by praemunire at 9:01 AM on October 16, 2017 [72 favorites]

I tried to use this period to show her what real partnership is

This is not in any fashion what real partnership is, starting from the general problem that you've described it entirely as stuff you're doing for her. God, you say you love her but you don't even sound like you like her. You describe her like she's a fictional character or something.

Hell, you're not even describing YOU like a real person. You were "scared of love"? In your mid-30s? Dude, that's something to deal with with a therapist, not with a potential partner. This is not a movie where you get to be the generic Guy With Commitment Issues and it's her job to help you through that. You're 38, you are not in a position where you get to keep saying "oh I don't know about kids and commitment" like that's normal. It's okay if the thing you know about kids and commitment is that you don't want them, but you need to start figuring out those answers yourself and not making it someone else's responsibility to just roll with you not knowing.

You're a grown-up. Act like it. If you're as great a guy as you think you are, you won't have any trouble meeting someone new.
posted by Sequence at 9:12 AM on October 16, 2017 [66 favorites]

Oh, I've dated you. I mean, not you (I don't think!) but guys exactly like you. It wasn't great for me, like, to put it mildly.

Here, I'll be the person to say the Metafilter standard: Therapy! Try therapy, for you, therapy. It's great. I mean, I often cry during sessions and it is hard hard hard work so it's not like, great in that sense, but it's great.

Lots of soul searching and inner fire and yoga and jolts of recognition and complications and damn roses and waiting to say i love you and not knowing and then knowing and just... complexity! in your post and yeah, like, man, you are not as unique as you think you are. Sorry, that is not meant to be harsh, but meant to be a: you are human, therapy is helpful for almost all humans if they approach it with open eyes and clear intentions (to "be a better human" for some definition of those terms).
posted by sockermom at 9:27 AM on October 16, 2017 [22 favorites]

I’d been burned by a relationship 1.5 years earlier, had moved to our city to get over it, and was still processing a lot emotionally and geographically.
How were you processing it? Yoga and motorcycle rides and traveling the world? Tinder hookups? Or inner reflection with the help of a trained professional?

“I’m giving you everything I have right now,” I’d often say. “Is it enough?”
Yeah, if you're asking this, you know it's not enough. When you see that, break it off. You don't keep stringing her along. Damn, dude.

she was too insecure and conflict-avoidant to really express her wants and needs, and I told myself I was being upfront so it wasn’t on me to address them for her. I’d imagine she spent a lot of that first year feeling like she was auditioning for the role of my girlfriend.
What mean things to say about someone you supposedly love. "Just being honest" is not as virtuous as you might think.
posted by sockermom at 9:30 AM on October 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

So you thought for years that she wasn't enough as she is (because she needs to do #badassmotoyoga to develop), she received this message, got progressively more annoyed by it, started noticing that she's surround by billions of other people and can find someone who takes her the way she is (which is fantastic) and left you and now you mad bro?
posted by WeekendJen at 9:35 AM on October 16, 2017 [64 favorites]

It comes across as if you look down on her. A relationship needs to be based on mutual respect. If someone viewed me the way you view her, I'd want to "jab at [them]... with venom" too.
posted by salvia at 9:35 AM on October 16, 2017 [13 favorites]

So of course she felt like she was auditioning to be your girlfriend: you were urging her to adopt your badass hobbies (motorcycles, yoga) and constantly presuming to know her thoughts. Moreover, you pulled a switcheroo on her which simply changed the label on the constraints you were imposing: going from professing to be unable to care enough, prompting her to jump through your hoops, to professing undying love, which says she couldn't ever change.

The drama: it's all too much. You changed cities to get over your previous relationship, and now you want to switch houses with someone? Dude...

You have growing up to do, which is probably why the age difference wasn't actually that big a deal. Therapy.
posted by carmicha at 9:36 AM on October 16, 2017 [34 favorites]

This is a really nicely written question. I think you will have to heal your history and really work on some of your assumptions in relationships to have a happier one next time, but you can do it. I was very sympathetic to you and chortled multiple times while reading your ask, many of these patterns are very predictable and familiar.

I do not think she was using you as a life raft or antidepressant, I think she genuinely loved you, and you are uncomfortable with intimacy. It's not unheard of for people who are not comfortable being dependent on others to choose someone younger or more "powerless" than themselves and take on a tutoring role. Your own fears of being taken advantage of or used are palpable in the question, and it is clear that you suppressed these and genuinely love her. Some of the ways that you speak about your partner, putting her down - or minimizing her aspirations and dreams, are also probably a way for you to manage these fears. Step back and consider that from her perspective, knowing the person that you love sees you as "lesser" or is taking a keen inventory of your flaws is painful. You may not have felt this way all the time, but such things are palpable and I am sure they are part of why she chose to leave.

That being said, I really feel for you. I do not want to minimize your heartbreak. It sounds like you put yourself way, way out there and were very sincere in your efforts to protect and help her, even after infidelity. It does sound like both of you may have been a good match in disposition, interests, and liking for each others' personalities, but the glue of trust and communication may have been problematic.

For instance - this businessman guy. At that point in the relations, she may have been unwilling to speak up about problems, feeling you were constantly less invested, afraid of intimacy, and in possession of the upper hand. You were unwilling to speak up out of fear this would give her some power, or reward her. I think it would help going forward if you were less afraid of this kind of direct discussion, and more willing to communicate about it - aka "playing these games," as you describe it. You may feel it's beneath you, but I think often times it helps build a bridge to a person who wants to be heard.

You could say, "honey, are you pushing me away because you are interested in someone else?" "Honey, is everything all right from your perspective in our relationship?" Otherwise, what's the alternative? Just observing each others' behavior, and each person silently putting themselves first out of fear.

Ultimately, I have a great deal of sympathy for both you and your parter. These patterns are very hard to break. As an outside neutral party, it seemed to me reading this that both of you are somewhat more comfortable with the relationship when the other is slightly unavailable.

As the younger person who is really learning how to have a good relationship, it sounds like your partner is growing as a person and getting out of a miserable financial situation that made her really unhappy. She probably has a lot of talents and was clinging to what she knew - it will be much, much healthier for her to branch out and have her own friends, her own interests, and a support system that isn't just one boyfriend. I'd not prolong the breakup any further, really. It's great that you have so much insight into what happened and I think if you can work on things like vulnerability and communication in your next relationship, you personally can have so much easier of a time.
posted by karmachameleon at 9:39 AM on October 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

You know, whenever people write this kind of long "broke up and now doubting it" post, people tell them they are essentially in the throes of withdrawal, that the relationship was a form of addiction for them. In this case, it reads very much that way to me. Your big age difference and the constant changing up of the terms of the relationship have made it possible to continue in this kind of fashion for a long time. I think you need to go into relationship recovery. Don't date for a while and when you do, take into account all the advice you have been given above.
posted by BibiRose at 9:45 AM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

UPDATE: Many of you have brought up therapy, so just to be clear: I am seeing a therapist, and have been in therapy in the past.
posted by bluecastle at 9:52 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was initially captivated by her youth, beauty, and innocence.


Look, there is a Thing where older men date women in their very early twenties, because they are so Fresh and Innocent and Untouched and Free, and then those young women get a little older and a little more complicated and a little less breathlessly grateful for any attention and "guidance". You know, more like people. And the same men are like "I guess I love you, but I want you to go back to the way you were before, except in all these other specific change I would like you to tailor yourself to my specifications, which are objectively good."

You were probably weren't doing it on purpose, but your entire post is a re-telling of this incredibly common pattern. She grew up a little and realized that you didn't view her as a real person or a real partner.

She confessed to feeling relieved to be out of the relationship—crushing—yet still continues to reach out in passive ways, all of them tinged with aggression, as if I was still the one who had wronged her.

Look. You dated someone twelve years your junior when she was at an incredibly vulnerable age and you had an enormous amount of cultural capital, and you tried to remold her in your ideal image. She has every right to be angry about that, and she will likely view it as more and more of a violation the older she gets. When you try to “My Fair Lady” someone into a perfect Instagram mate, sometimes they aren’t grateful for the experience, nor do they grow accustomed to your face.

You are talking about her like a character you’re still writing, not like an actual person. Most of her reactions and responses that you find so incomprehensible are pretty obvious, when reading this story through the most common lens.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:24 AM on October 16, 2017 [120 favorites]

You strung her along. Her insecurity turned into resentment. You don't want her to hate you because it causes you cognitive dissonance regarding how you treated her and how you ultimately see yourself. You'll get over it.
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:27 AM on October 16, 2017 [20 favorites]

With all the nuance and evaluations you've expressed in this very long post, I'm seeing little that's positive about her other than many references to great sex (and generic gushing, e.g. "amazing"), while you've gone into great detail about her many faults. That may be understandable in the aftermath of a breakup, and she did wrong you by being unfaithful. But it's striking how your descriptions of yourself over these 3 years are very different, and seem almost cinematically crafted to present yourself as a perfect combination of stoically reflective yet smoldering with passion.

Step back from the whole situation and see if you can discern just one lesson from all this which you could apply to future dating situations. You might not have been able to predict from the beginning that she'd end up doing the specific things she did that you disliked — that she'd start working at a strip club, that she'd encounter a slick con artist, etc. But you still could have looked at the fact that she was a 23-year-old in a dead-end job and decided that she wasn't the most sensible choice for a 35-year-old with a thriving creative career. You overlooked that obvious disconnect because she was youthful and sexy, and exciting in the moment.

There's a reason people say to date someone at least "half your age plus 7," which you didn't do when you first got together with her (by the time it ended, she was the minimum acceptable age under that rule). Yes we can say that rule is "arbitrary" or "close-minded"; but I'm not saying you must follow it exactly, only that there's some wisdom to it. Age matters. It isn't just a number. I don't agree with the commenter who said you're so immature that the age gap probably wasn't a big deal. Since an age gap can make a serious relationship more complicated, I think both people need maturity for it to work. Although I've only read about this relationship from one side, I feel confident in saying that at least one of the people in it didn't show that maturity.
posted by John Cohen at 10:54 AM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeahhhhh I could have been your ex in my 20s, except I cut off my late-30s dude at the pass when it became clear that he expected me to "audition for the role of girlfriend." Lord knows where I found the wisdom and the strength. I am grateful on the daily.

I read your whole question and honestly was like...wait a minute. Did someone just post a screenplay treatment as an Ask prank? You Manic Pixie Dream Girl'd this whole thing, duder, and it seems like the reason you're most upset is because she isn't following the script. In a MPDG romcom, the girl's either supposed to come back to the Hero and be In Luv Forever OR she's supposed to disappear --sometimes by actually dying-- so that the Hero can Heroically Rebuild himself.

Unfortunately you dated a human, and although you weren't some kind of horrible monster you also were kinda garden-variety shitty to her, and she's pissed. So no, she isn't going to gracefully recede into the fog or come back peering winsomely through her bangs and proposing a motoyoga wedding.

You're 38, so I gotta imagine you've had a breakup before. This is just another one. Stop answering her texts, block her on Facebook, and listen to The Shins or something. No need to move across the dang country with nothing but your motorcycle and an artfully groomed dog. Nobody is filming you.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:56 AM on October 16, 2017 [82 favorites]

1) I think the situation with the businessman was traumatic for her, either because of the guilt or because, as someone suggested above, he assaulted her or otherwise cruelly took advantage of her.

2) Your attempts to help her develop her interests and enrich her life, while well-meaning, come across as paternalistic to me. I personally find it difficult to make positive changes in my life that other people Really Want Me To Make. It makes it "their thing," not "my thing," removes my agency, and creates an unpleasant sense of surveillance over the whole process. She is young and she needs real space, physically and psychologically, to explore her interests without a mediating influence.

So maybe she's reaching out because she feels that things are now on her terms and that she can engage with you more as an equal now that she's free from your influence. I think you meant well, but if encouragement becomes cloying, fraught, or weighted with expectation, it can really poison the experience.
posted by delight at 10:57 AM on October 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

A night of next-level, exploratory sex would lead to the following day of sexual rejection.

Sir, that is a hell of a red flag.
posted by maryr at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2017 [38 favorites]

Dating someone who doesn't like or accept you for who you actually are, having them constantly telling you to be a different person, is a horrible evil experience. That you couched it in this drippy self improvement mentoring language doesn't make it better.

Don't date people you don't like. Don't tell people you don't like that if they turn into something else you will love them. That was mean.

It's telling that as verbose as this question is, you don't mention what her "venom" consists of. Is she telling you exactly why she's angry and you don't agree so you are dismissing it so completely it doesn't even contain language?
posted by Dynex at 11:40 AM on October 16, 2017 [45 favorites]

A huge part of what we look for in people is for them to serve as mirrors that reflect and amplify certain parts of ourselves. We also, in relationships, tend to split up aspects of personality between the partners, so that one becomes, for example, the "angry" one, and expresses anger on behalf of both people, while the other becomes the "calm" one and puts on the breaks for both. A certain degree of that is healthy; when it becomes extreme, it's not. As you've described it, this relationship seems intensely divided in terms of who took on what role; there was little natural trading back and forth. (You described it as yin/yang, which is right).

In the early stages, she got reflected as beautiful, young, attractive, innocent, etc. which I'm sure was a rush for her. I dated older men a lot when I was in my twenties, and while I can criticize a lot of behavior on their part, I also own the intoxication of the ego-rush that accompanied it. It's fun to feel beautiful and young and perfect, and guys who see you that way don't tend to look that hard at the (troubled, messy) rest of you, so it can be a way to hide.

She also got to see herself as "the good one" in terms of moving the relationship forward. You say she was "auditioning" for the role of your girlfriend, but another way of looking it is that you were tormented and struggling and burned by love; she was the endlessly patient angel-saint who was just waiting for you to get your act together so that the two of you could live happily ever after. She took on the role of trying to lure you into intimacy, and you took on the role of the anti-hero who needed to be coaxed into love. Again, this wasn't something that either of you did to the other - it's a game two people choose to play, and you both played it. If you had actually turned around one day and been like, "Let's get married and have babies," I bet this 23 year old might have suddenly had a lot more doubts about this 35 year old motorcycle-riding boyfriend she was seemingly so intent on getting to commit. You took on the "job" of forestalling that commitment so that she didn't have to.

You, on the other hand, got reflected back to yourself as this incredible high achiever, creative & soulful and & motorcycle-riding & fresh from New York City - there was a certain 'Big Fish in a Small Pond' quality, where things that you might have just considered baseline (having a steady job, good income, a house) etc. were suddenly great qualities that you could feel proud of, and that's a good feeling! Your basic attributes got reflected back to you all sparkly and glowy and cool. I also get the sense, though, that even more of what you got credit for was the fact that you knew how to "talk the talk" in an adult relationship. Your GF didn't know how to talk about her feelings; you did. You knew how to be "up front" while she was "conflict-avoidant," you were self-aware while she was tangled up. You were happy and healthy and confident while she was clinically depressed. So, while on the one hand, she was the "good one," patiently waiting for you to get over yourself and commit, you were also the "good one," the adult who was giving her the time and space to "figure herself out." The totality of that split is what I think people are reacting to most strongly in this question: this sense (that, again, you both colluded to create) that you were always a step ahead of her, waiting for her to catch up. You're 38 years old and you've never lived with a woman, but with her, you could frame being willing to move in after 3 years as this amazing leap of commitment and love, instead of just, you know, a normal thing.

Part of me wonders if this might have been a reversal of an earlier relationship dynamic: were you previously in a relationship with someone who "taught you" how to be an emotional adult? And were you eager to take on that role with someone else? Ultimately, what seems so striking about the way you've framed this question is how intent you are on portraying yourself as emotionally healthy, doing all the right things for all the right reasons. It seems to me you found a person who helped you do this, to see yourself as the person you needed to see; she was the mirror you needed at the time. And you, for whatever reason, were hers. But that's not working out any more. When you start your next relationship, you might try looking for someone who's less the yin to your yang, and instead try and be with someone who's more like you. It's worth a shot.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:00 PM on October 16, 2017 [26 favorites]

Speaking as a woman who got into a relationship perhaps a bit like this when I was 23 and he was 36, I can tell you what I know now that I didn't know then (despite many people trying to warn me about it or looking askance at me for it): Those are two very different places to be in life. I'm in my early thirties now, and from the other side of 30, I have trouble imagining wanting to seriously date a guy so young—that's just totally not where my head is. Get to 5 or 6 years younger than me and that's about the limit of my patience in general, much less in dating. I find myself wanting to teach anyone even that young so many things, and that's a significant investment in someone who may ultimately, necessarily go in another direction as they live their life. I find myself wanting even to teach my older husband things—and that's where we run into trouble, because he seems much more comfortable when he's the teacher and I'm the student. This reminds me a bit of your dynamic.

I will always acknowledge that there are exceptions to the age thing, because I'm open-minded and willing to meet people where they are, but this age gap would be a large source of your issues here. I'm trying not to judge this too hard—I say this as someone on the other end of even a slightly larger age gap than yours, as well as someone who after dealing with this would probably skew a bit younger than myself in looking for any future partners. But I also say what I say here as a woman, which changes the way those factors balance out in my personal equation and what they mean about me as a person. It's totally possible for an older woman to objectify a younger man, and I try to be mindful of that. But the dynamics are different.

Anyway, I digress. Inasmuch as I've long been mature for my age, and it was flattering to have an older man recognize that when I was just out of college, there really was a good deal of life stuff I was working through in my twenties that I perhaps should have allotted more time to get through on my own. Dating someone that much older, then being thrown straight into difficult situations together, felt like generation-skipping—like a cheat code to access knowledge and experience beyond what I could otherwise. To some extent it was; that's part of the bargain you enter into when you date older. Younger woman grants older man life-giving essence and energy; older man imparts at very least some worldly knowledge. But it can't end there, with those roles constituting the summation of your involvement. Or, well, it can end there, but then it ends there. That may be part of what she's discovering in therapy.

I don't know if this is true for you, but in my experience, I think sometimes an older partner in a relationship like this will be tempted to coast along on greater experience and not stretch to develop deeper understanding of the younger partner. After all, you'll always have had more life experience—you'll always be ahead there. And you know all the words to all the arguments and important life discussions you might ever have, so much so that you can write it all without a lot of effort. Your question has that kind of mellifluousness. Maybe you get the gist and often that's enough, especially in business, where you can quickly and accurately size up and talk through situations. But that doesn't work in a relationship where you actually need to hear your partner. (And I'd argue, it doesn't work so well in business either, because when you stop listening to and really hearing your business partners is when things start going wrong.) That's when you get into a situation where you feel like you've really been trying, because you've been saying all the right words, but your partner has a completely different understanding of the situation.

What I've come to realize in 10 years, of course, is that the younger woman so often comes out on the losing end of this bargain if she stays. Science bears this out; health outcomes are not good for her, whereas the man definitely accrues health benefits and longevity. a fiendish thingy outlines the social outcomes quite well too. It's not just relationships; this happens in the workplace too. When the young ingénue who works robotically long hours and is always there for you is revealed to be a real live human being with human body, human metabolism, human responsibilities, and increasingly feminist and liberal human sympathies, this seems to be what happens. Like cool, we've opted into an older generation—and then get to all of this fun stuff a decade earlier. Fab. I could see where, especially if she's starting to get serious about having kids eventually, your indecision and your paternalism might not be that appealing in a potential parenting partner, even if those aren't things she has put into words to you or herself. Maybe, again, in therapy she's finally finding words for that, only to find that you're not quite there with her.

What I would tell my husband and by extension you, 10 years on: We are not your salvation. We are not your angel. We do not justify your existence or complete you. We're not there to challenge your dreams and balance. We're not there to learn your ways or the ways of the world through you. If you find yourself thinking about us in those ways, as if we're a concept or a project, you're objectifying us, to our mutual detriment. This all may seem unfair to you, because it feels like you've given her so much—and you probably have done so. We're all still growing and learning a lot in a short time in our early twenties, and the experiences you've helped her to probably have significantly contributed to her growth. But that doesn't mean she'll be yours forever. Her ongoing learning may well be taking her in a different direction from yours. There comes a point when we realize we've subsumed ourselves in someone else and maybe that was OK for a while, and everyone got significant benefits from it, but then when things got difficult for us and we didn't feel support and understanding from you...then there was indeed an imbalance.

And I'll say, as someone who's been labeled by my older husband as having trouble expressing myself—I don't have trouble expressing myself. I write and talk to people for a living. I have trouble expressing myself to someone who only hears half of what I say, who dismisses anything that doesn't fit his conception of the world, who writes a beautiful narrative for me in which I don't have any real lines. I don't know if this is a problem you have, but I see shades of it in the way you frame your question, as if she's more a set of forces beyond comprehension than a person. You frame yourself as bold and confident and her as clumsy, easily preyed upon, but you don't seem patient enough to hear what she actually has to say. She's not a thing that is being done to you. And yeah, when you view her that way, when you tell her you're just trying to engage with her, to relate to her, like a brand would engage with an audience, you've lost her—ain't nobody got time for that. It sounds like she sees her interactions with you as a foregone conclusion, where you express a desire to listen then fail to hear what she's actually saying because you don't feel like she's hearing you the way you want to be heard. It's unclear what you want from her that's specific to her.

This kind of reminds me of that bit from the emotional labor threads: "Sometimes people use 'respect' to mean 'treating someone like a person' and sometimes they use 'respect' to mean 'treating someone like an authority,' and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say 'If you won't respect me I won’t respect you' and they mean 'If you won't treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person.' And they think they’re being fair but they aren't, and it's not okay." As in that scenario, it seems like you both want respect from the other, but she needs you to see her as a person, and you perhaps need her to see you as an authority, and you both come out of the deal bruised, feeling unheard. Move on, but think about these dynamics. Try to learn from this.
posted by limeonaire at 1:50 PM on October 16, 2017 [39 favorites]

Well, I’ve been her.

Your question makes it sound like you dated a young woman you found very sexy, despite the fact that she also seemed depressed, emotionally vulnerable, too dependent on your approval and unable to be honest with you about her needs. You conveniently classify all that as “not my fault,” and continue to have “exploratory” sex with her, the day after which she seems not to want to be touched.

So, you dated someone naive and hurting but happily had all the young, exciting sex you wanted while sweeping the messy details under the rug, pretending she’s making clear eyed choices while knowing in your heart she’s not. She most likely felt somewhat disturbed or molested by the more exploratory stuff, but didn’t know how to express her boundaries yet, especially when so afraid to lose someone who embodies the very basis of Male Validation to her. Even with someone her age, she’s afraid to be Too Clingy (every woman knows how easy it is to drive away a man by wanting commitment) but you’re 1) a man, 2) older, 3) her first taste of “city life,” 4) have tons of cool hobbies, and 5) aren’t happy with her because she is acting her age. She’s constantly trying to be enough, but it’s impossible, because you want someone with the maturity of a 38 year old and the body and nascent sexual boundaries of a 23 year old. That’s generally not a thing.

I’m not trying to accuse, necessarily, but it sounds very familiar. She’s probably very angry, because she got older and realized what she must have seemed like to you before (young!), and can’t believe you would knowingly have sex with that person, who to her already seems hopelessly childlike. She’s probably mad that you encouraged her to come into her own, but mostly through imposing your hobbies on her (whether that’s your fault or not). She is embarrassed that she saw you as more than you really are, which is just a human guy, because she had not lived in the big city before.

You’re not “obligated” to respond to her, not is it easy to draw a clear line and say “everything on this side is your fault,” but the very most charitable thing I can say is that you were inexperienced in how to treat a very young woman like the person that she is, and you might owe her a little bit of contrition, and then perhaps no contact.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:46 PM on October 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

“I’m giving you everything I have right now,” I’d often say. “Is it enough?” She said it was, yet it was quickly obvious she was seriously infatuated and seriously anxious, wondering if I’d vanish at any moment. But she was too insecure and conflict-avoidant to really express her wants and needs, and I told myself I was being upfront so it wasn’t on me to address them for her.

Right, because you dated someone with far less experience than you, who never had the chance to figure out how to express themselves in relationships on equal footing, and then you used that as a way to absolve yourself of responsibility. And that's just one of the first gross things in a long list of gross things about this. You had a pretend relationship with a comparative child. I am very, very sure that this is not the only way in which you abused the power dynamic created when a 35 year old dates a 23 year old.

People in this thread are being very kind to you. Far kinder than you deserve. Leave this woman alone. In fact, my advice would be to leave all women alone until you can come back to what you've written here and see what the rest of us see.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:28 PM on October 16, 2017 [17 favorites]

Thanks deeply for all the thoughtful responses. A few things to clarify: Contrary to what I wrote, I don't think I actively pushed my "cool hobbies" on her or tried to mold her into anything she wasn't. When we met, I rode a Vespa; she liked it, asked to learn, bought her own. When I bought a motorcycle, she asked to learn, took to it quickly, and soon we were going on long adventures together. She liked the neighborhood I lived in, and moved nearby. And so on. A lot of that stuff was new for me to, it was a blast to explore them together, and from her I also learned all sorts of fun things I’d never known about. I told her this, and thanked her on numerous occasions for broadening my horizon.

And sexually let me just say that I’m anything but dominant; by “exploratory” I just meant two people giggling a bit as we tried to figure out where the knots were. As the sex thing became an issue—indeed, even before—I always deferred to her for initiation, always told her we could just lay together, whatever made her comfortable. My goal was deeper intimacy and understanding of each other, not intercourse.

I realize my tone above was often condescending; I wrote that in a place of deep heartache, and with heartache there’s plenty of anger. Yes, I dated a woman I initially found very sexy. But I’ve done that before, and know it’s good for about a month. This was three years. What I loved about her was that she was curious, warm, perceptive, intuitive, strong-willed, incredibly wise but unpretentious. I admired her. I related to her. Was she a bit wounded, still finding her footing and sense of self? She was. Was I? Certainly, in different ways. The roots of my intimacy issues (a father who left me when I was child, sexual abuse by a family member when I was an adolescent) are things I’m constantly working through and wear on my sleeve.

I accepted where she was in life and I loved her for where she was—never put pressure on her to “succeed,” never judged the jobs she worked, always tried to temper her moods when she got down on herself for these things (don’t get me started on her parents). I work in a strange world—won’t go into detail, but suffice to say my work is publically consumed and my paychecks come from well-known corporations, and so the “success” can seem magnified/distorted to outside eyes. I was once a waiter myself, I have flush years followed by poor years, and still feel very much like someone a hair away from waiting again. I always tried to lift the veil so she could understand that—that I was just trying to figure out my own shit, and liked the idea of doing it together.

I don’t say this to deflect criticism—the most critical responses here are the most appreciated. Even before I’d full committed, I saw us in so many ways as equals. She actually said to me not so long ago that what frustrated her is that she knew that, but couldn’t feel it.
posted by bluecastle at 3:38 PM on October 16, 2017

You keep saying you wanted to show her what a "real partnership" was, but you still haven't accepted the core lesson from the comments upthread: You did not choose a woman who was equipped to be your full partner. You chose to date a woman much younger than you, who was depressed, unsure of her desires, stuck in a job she hated and so insecure that she built her entire world around you. This must have been very flatting for your ego, but it's also a fundamentally sick, unhealthy and unequal situation. Your narcissism and desire to see yourself as the "good guy" are getting in the way of you taking responsibility for choosing a woman who could not be an equal partner to you in any meaningful sense of the word.

I am curious to know whether you are actually secure enough to date a woman who is your equal. Have you ever dated a woman your actual age, who is as professionally successful as you -- if not moreso? A woman who is so confident and self-assured that she is perfectly happy to focus on her own thriving interests, career and circle of friends rather than revolve her entire life around you? Have you ever dated a woman who is even more mature and emotionally developed than you are? Have you dated a woman who was certain of her sexual desires, confident expressing them and direct in communicating her wants and needs? If you have dated such a woman -- how'd that work out? If you haven't -- gee, why not?

Keep going to therapy. You're going to need a lot more of it.
posted by Gray Skies at 6:25 PM on October 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

Yeah, “in so many ways” as equals, but not the ways that make you actual equals. It’s great to recognize someone’s potential, but it’s not the same as not taking advantage of their (age appropriate) immaturity.

You don’t have to hate yourself or anything, but it will probably be a lot easier to move on if you empathize with her position and realize how bruised and manipulated she (probably) feels.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:25 PM on October 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also: One of the more pernicious tales an older man ever told a young woman—and himself—was that if the woman chose not to be with him, it was because she couldn't handle him and and whatever went along with being with him. It can lead a young woman to stay with an older man way longer than she should, through way more than she should, because she doesn't want to fulfill the prophecy that she's too weak and/or immature to be with someone offering whatever you have to offer or dealing with any cross you have to bear. Even if the young woman is immature in some ways, which might perhaps inform why she chooses to be with an older man who is himself perhaps immature enough in some ways to want to be with a woman so young, she may well be perfectly mature in other ways (and maturing more every day, by the sound of it). And so might you be. If it helps you to deal with this, by all means consider her immaturity, but don't forget that it takes two to create a relationship situation like this. Don't kid yourself or her that someone younger necessarily leaves because they can't handle it.

And that sentence I just wrote—that's the other double-edged sword here, isn't it? If a young woman chooses to be with someone so much her senior, many assume it's because she's immature and seeking guidance and validation. If an older man chooses to be with someone so much younger, many assume it's because he's immature and desirous of someone young enough not to know better. Neither view is quite fair, is it? Neither view really acknowledges individual agency. Yet both perspectives hold some truth, most likely. Whatever boyishness you have that made you attractive to a woman 12 years younger is important to try to keep, even as you work to see the immature views you might hold that brought you to this point. And the maturity you see in her will most certainly be an asset to her as she makes her way forward and works to shed her youthful immaturity.

Consider these dualities and whether any other such double standards might be at play in your relationships or other parts of your life. It may help broaden your perspective.
posted by limeonaire at 7:32 PM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, as someone who went through this, it will always make me wretch to hear a man captivated by “youth, beauty and innocence.” Innocence means inexperience means, generally, vulnerability.

It can be refreshing to hang out with younger people, but yeah, don’t have sex with them, or you’ll probably be the bad guy.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:32 PM on October 16, 2017 [12 favorites]

"incredibly wise but unpretentious"

What does this even mean about a 23-year-old?

Look, as a woman, this is exhausting to read. It was probably soul-sucking to live. The part that's most alarming to me is where you basically diagnose what was driving her thoughts and actions, over and over, without any input from her. I've known those guys, I've dated those guys, and it suuuuuuucks. You try to explain your internal state, your feelings, your thoughts, and, "Oh, I see," they nod sagely, "you're ashamed of yourself, I now perceive that your reaction is driven by your guilt and shame." You say she has a total inability to communicate but I feel like she was pretty clear: “I don’t feel like spending an hour crying," which is a totally legitimate response to the sort of incredibly fucking frustrating conversation with a man who won't fucking hear you and constantly overwrites your actual life with his interpretations of your narrative. And then, “Well,” you’d say, “I’m just trying to engage...” UGGGGGGH. That's not engaging. That's not even listening, and by then she was pretty clear that you weren't going to listen to her or hear her. You couldn't even hear her when she said "I DON'T WANT TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION RIGHT NOW BECAUSE IT WILL END IN ME SOBBING FOR AN HOUR, THANK YOU VERY MUCH." You bowl right over it! And complain she's not communicating! She can't communicate if you won't hear her! She was SUPER CLEAR and you kept insisting that you were "just trying to engage"! I'm sorry to dwell on the point but I'm kind-of enraged on her behalf that you complain she won't communicate and when she is absolutely upfront and clear with you, you get all passive-aggressive, keep talking about a topic she has very clearly told you to drop, and complain she won't communicate. She communicated! Just not what you wanted to hear -- so you refused to hear it. That's on you, not her.

I agree with those upthread who think you've framed this like a movie or a novel where you're the older dude being emotionally rescued by the young, innocent, fresh manic pixie dream girl, who clearly -- in your narrative here -- serves no purpose but to fulfill your desires, and, as you've written her here, has no inner life. She's just there to reflect you back at you, and to forward your emotional journey, and to disappoint you when she doesn't fit the role you've created for her.

"Or if there’s something I should be doing now, aside from ignoring her and rebuilding myself (which I’m quite good at)."

You should go on some dates with 40-year-old doctors and lawyers and programmers and artists and entrepreneurs and other highly successful women who match you in life experience and professional success. If you're the awesome dude you make yourself out to be in your self-description above, trying playing in your own league instead of hitting on very young women. Do you need to be worshipped by someone inexperienced enough to put up with your bullshit instead of calling you on it? Is it threatening to you if you're not at the center of the relationship narrative? That is probably something to address in therapy, if you're unwilling to date women of a similar age and achievement level as you are, or if you're unable to make a connection with them.

Also, final thing, you say "don't play games" but tons and tons of your question sounds like nothing BUT games -- hiding your emotions from her, not being upfront about what you had sussed were the businessman's motivations, insisting she change into someone else, hoping that by playing a game of chicken with breaking up ("giving her real stakes") she'd realize she wanted to be with you -- SO MANY GAMES. So exhausting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:24 PM on October 16, 2017 [59 favorites]

One last thought: normally after a breakup when one party keeps trying to engage, the conventional wisdom is that they are being manipulative or playing games and you should shut it down.

But I think it’s very likely (and I base this on my own experience) that fooling around with the businessman, pulling away physically, the relief of breaking up and her gusto in beginning her new life are ways for her of reframing your relationship. She was realizing slowly that what was once admiration of you, that made her feel insecure and picked apart and desperate in a romantic context, is a normal and healthy basis for a crossgenerational mentorship or friendship. It’s possible she’s trying to transform the relationship into something far more age appropriate, because (bless her heart) she still likes you and also wants to save her own sanity and her respect for you by giving you both a graceful way out, pretending it was friendship all along, and you were just confused for a short while. But she can feel your resistance and to her perhaps that seems disappointing. After a breakup the desire to stay friends is not always sincere but I think for her it is: she still likes you given that the mildly traumatic May-December stuff falls to the wayside and she no longer has to lose faith in the goodwill of adults (or adult men specifically).

Unfortunately, the youth, experience, beauty, is what drew you to her, so you still want something romantic. The only thing more crushing than realizing you were a fool to date someone who could be your dad is realizing they don’t want anything to do with you once you’re not fucking them. It’s a wake up call. She fell in love with you based on an innocent, youthful delusion, and the delusion is over now. But you fell in love because it meant you could have something you’re not supposed to— innocence, young sexuality— and that’s much harder to get over. Things can only get better for her; if you value youth and innocence most of all, they will keep getting worse for you.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:50 PM on October 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

I basically agree with every comment above. But I want to add:

As the sex thing became an issue—indeed, even before—I always deferred to her for initiation, always told her we could just lay together, whatever made her comfortable. My goal was deeper intimacy and understanding of each other, not intercourse.

About this, 1) Always deferring to her for initiation is an A+ way to make a woman feel like you don't want her physically, and 2) Everything you write in your initial post and follow-ups makes you sound like exactly the kind of guy who would use the world "indeed" on the regular and feel deep about it.

You had her on a trial period, and she knew it. She couldn't "feel" you loving her because you didn't. When you decided to be in love with her, she didn't believe you, because you weren't - you had just decided she'd jumped through enough hoops to earn it, so you gave it to her like you'd give a treat to a good dog. And now you're all confused because she noticed you not wanting her, not loving her, and not thinking she was good enough for most of your relationship - and decided to do something about it.

Honestly, you come off in this post like your entire cultural experience of humans is self-help books and obscure indie romance flicks. You need to learn to be a person, rather than your projection of a perfect person, before you have another relationship.
posted by invincible summer at 10:19 PM on October 16, 2017 [11 favorites]

I just basically think she outgrew you. You mentioned she came from a messed-up family. For people who had difficult childhoods, the kind of withdrawn relationship you had with her at first, where she had to prove she was worthy of your love and she never quite got enough attention and had to seek your approval - that can feel normal and familiar, like family, and get mistaken for love. When you got to the point where you were ready for a real relationship with her and the relationship changed, it turned out that what she had what she'd been working and begging for all that time wasn't what she wanted all along. The scales fell away from her eyes and she could see you for who you really are - a middle-aged guy who chases after young women and still thinks motorcycles are the height of cool. Now she wants to kind of keep you around as a sort of father figure in case she ever needs you but doesn't want the romantic relationship stuff anymore. It's over and I think probably best for all involved to go no contact.

If you think you're ready to try dating women your own age with a view to having a real relationship that would be great. But if at any point you even feel the urge to brag "well my last girlfriend was 26" for the ego boost then take that as a sign you are definitely not ready!
posted by hazyjane at 1:09 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

You have all given me much to think about—thank you again. I have, for what it’s worth, typically dated peers (in age and professional status). She was an exception, and no doubt someone I gravitated to because I was someone with a too-big, too-fragile ego who was not ready for a real relationship. As some have noted, I think we both came into it with a version of that idea, from different angles. She and I have acknowledged as much in various talks.

I very much knew I wanted a partner before we met. Contrary to the impression that I’m an overgrown child who thinks nothing is cooler than motorcycles—a fair assessment, given what I’ve written—I’d dedicated a lot of energy trying to prepare myself for partnership. I’d spent a lot of time celibate, hoping to calibrate my head and heart. I’d bought a house that could hold a family, and kept (and still keep) it mainly unfurnished so I could one day make it a home with someone. In order to be a potential supportive partner, I made a point of spending far less money than I earned—an antiquated male approach, I realize, if you don’t also spend time developing emotionally to embrace vulnerability.

So partnership was a want I recognized but couldn’t fully embrace—maybe a want I didn’t think I deserved, and so I chose to cultivate it in a void and invest with someone who would reinforce and validate some of my deepest fears and insecurities. And that, ultimately, is what I got.

It was a misguided bargain that I rationalized on a level just below consciousness. For a while I thought—and she and I both talked about this plenty—that the age difference was in ways ideal. Large as the experience gap was, the maturity gap was smaller, bridgeable, or so we told ourselves. I talked about wanting kids in my early 40s, when she’d want kids. We were in no rush to move in because she was young and wanted some time to be independent—to prove herself in work, to create her own home. In the meantime, we got along, had similar interests, found joy in similar corners, introduced each other to a lot. That we assumed the kinks would work themselves out, in time, was a faulty assumption. They were a lot more, as this thread has helped me see, than mere kinks.

I don’t think any of that negated that something very real and big developed between us—or at least something as real and big as we were each capable of sharing. But it developed on a warped foundation that was too shallow to accommodate true depth as it crept in. Our deepest wants were always expressed sideways, our deepest selves often obscured (from each other, from ourselves), our understanding of each other’s core coming too much through intuition and guesswork than clear communication of the head and heart.

She spent too long feeling unseen, unheard, unappreciated, unsafe, and taken for granted. I spent too long intimidating when I meant to be intimate, even if my intentions were the opposite. These are important lessons, and I hoped they’d be ones I could share with her in the name of a stronger union rather than guide me to a place where I’m better fit for the next relationship, whenever that comes. But the window for that, if it ever existed, probably closed long ago, when my head was up my ass.

Since publishing this she’s continued to reach out in various ways—expressing frustration that we’re no longer in each other’s lives one second, expressing resentments dating back to our first month together the next. Yesterday, she showed up at a bar where she knows I spend Mondays and that she’d never been to without me. It all throws me, it gives illusory hope, tricks me into mistaking fading embers for a sustainable fire.

But that's for me to process on my own and in my therapist's office. I guess the most respectable and responsible response is to accept that she’s outgrown me, to wish her the best in silence, to take it on the chin and just say nothing.

Thanks again for all your insight.
posted by bluecastle at 6:08 AM on October 17, 2017

Well, I agree with pretty much everything everyone has already said, but I thought I would answer your question:

"I...can’t help wondering...if there’s something I should be doing now, aside from ignoring her and rebuilding myself (which I’m quite good at). But what? So I guess I’m here asking how I should move forward... I’d certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who’s been on either side of a version of this—and, who knows, found a way to reconnect romantically."

So, really, you were asking us if we thought you should try something to get this relationship back and, if so, what we thought you should try.

Based on your description of what went down over the last three years -- including mental health issues, job issues, and maybe infidelity issues -- and based on your report that when your ex-partner contacts you now, it's with a good deal of "venom," I'd conclude: No, you shouldn't try anything. This relationship isn't salvageable. How should you move forward? Keep doing what you said you were doing: ignoring your ex and rebuilding yourself.

But I think that's not really what you're doing. You're still trying to find a way write the "story" of this relationship, to keep interpreting it and revising it instead of just letting it be what you say it was: messy, complicated, promising, imperfect, sometimes great, and now concluded. For example, you wrote: "I love her, I love what we had, love where I saw it going, love the yin/yang way our personalities compliment each other, and in her need to reach out (even meanly) I wonder if she’s telling me she feels the same."

But it doesn't sound like any of this is actually correct. You didn't always "love what [you two] had." And it's hard to understand how you can still "love where [you] saw it going," now that it's gone to sh**. I see little evidence of your complimentary personalities in your long post above. And as to whether or not angry or volatile contact from your ex is really a sign that your ex is also feeling the love? No. That's not what that means.

It's time to stop narrating. Just be. And, yeah, I think it's a good idea for you to narrate less and listen more in your future relationships: to let your partners be the authors of their own stories, and to let them legitimately share in co-authoring the story of the relationship.

In this case, specifically, your ex has written the conclusion. It sounds like you got to write a lot of the beginning and the middle. This story is finished now.
posted by pinkacademic at 6:24 AM on October 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

Contrary to the impression that I’m an overgrown child who thinks nothing is cooler than motorcycles—a fair assessment, given what I’ve written—I’d dedicated a lot of energy trying to prepare myself for partnership. I’d spent a lot of time celibate, hoping to calibrate my head and heart. I’d bought a house that could hold a family, and kept (and still keep) it mainly unfurnished so I could one day make it a home with someone.

People aren't saying you are a child because of the motorcycle. Lots of grownups have motorcycles. But reading this sent a shiver down my spine— you have a secret empty house somewhere waiting to be sprung on a future partner, just to fill up with a family once you find someone worthy of it? I cannot even express to you how much this is the worldview of a child, and how INSTANTANEOUSLY most women would break up with a dude who was like “hey, now that we’re ready to take the next step and you’ve made the cut, I have a secret house where we will raise our children! Get packing!” My skin is crawling.

There is a huge disconnect between what you consider to be open, honest, and aboveboard, and the details you keep giving here. That is what you need to be discussing with your therapist.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:26 AM on October 17, 2017 [22 favorites]

Honestly, the thing that I find so exhausting, and remember, I'm only reading words in text and not actually living with you, is that people are telling you very clearly, right here in this thread, and you're still telling them they are saying different things than what they're actually saying.

We are not saying that each of you had your own problems. We are saying that you were the problem, you were the one who needed to act differently, and that you should basically take it as a gift from God that she didn't run screaming earlier. You need to not twist that into a narrative where I'm saying that somehow you're cool and tortured. It sounds like you are not functional to be in a relationship, and every moment that you spend in a relationship while you're this fucked up means that you are hurting the woman you are involved with. You are hurting them by making them jump through hoops, you were hurting them by making them bitch characters in your own redemption narrative, you are hurting them by not telling them what the hell they're getting into.

Please stop hurting women. That is what the best thing that you can do would be, to stop hurting women and take a serious look at yourself.
posted by corb at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2017 [23 favorites]

Having seen your updates, I agree with pinkademic. The narration is itself a big part of the problem. A lot of what you write seems incredibly self-dramatizing, but also hard to parse. "I guess the most respectable and responsible response is to accept that she’s outgrown me, to wish her the best in silence, to take it on the chin and just say nothing. I'm thinking you don't actually mean this? It seems like you are sort of going round and round on a verbal level, saying you're agreeing with everyone-- only not. This creates kind of a closed system where you can keep worrying the subject and not have to really let it go. And I mean, you can walk around for the rest of your life like Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall, or some guy in a novel. You are perfectly free to do that.
posted by BibiRose at 7:36 AM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I don't mean this to sound cruel but there is a literary quality to what you've written that I could best describe as "superficial reflexivity" -- you've somehow convinced yourself that you have insight into your own thinking and the thinking of your ex partner, but the more you write, the more it is obvious to us (the readers) that you don't have nearly as much insight as you think you do. Reading your various updates, I don't know if I'm reading someone's real life or a script for a novel. Your literary flair is compelling and well constructed but quite honestly, it's almost as if you are writing about yourself and your relationship in the mode of the protagonist from Fifty Shades of Gray.

To my ear, the most true thing you've written is:

I was someone with a too-big, too-fragile ego who was not ready for a real relationship.

You should completely ignore your ex and let her move on with her life, no matter how much she contacts you. Block her number, avoid that bar on Mondays and let a few years go by before you ever dream of saying another word to her.

In the meantime, keep doing your personal work to figure out how you can overcome the significant barriers you obviously have to creating a functional relationship with a peer. You mentioned family of origin trauma in one of your updates -- keep working through that, because until you do, you will not be "partner material" for any woman who wants a healthy relationship. The fact that you are in therapy is a good sign -- but you may want to reconsider whether your therapist is actually helping. You may need to find a new one, because by now, at your age, you should have more insight into yourself and into healthy functioning, than you are currently evincing.

Also? Furnish your fucking house. Because keeping it empty while you wait for your future wife to step into your script is really creepy and weird. The empty house also sounds like a metaphor for the hollowness with which you are discussing yourself. But more to the point: How do you even know that your eventual partner will want to live in that house? In a very strange and frankly scary way, you come across as both extremely controlling and completely in denial about how controlling you are ("I've purchased a house I want my future wife to fit into.. but I kept it empty so that shows how accommodating I am!") Have you considered that your future wife (or fictional character, whatever the case may be) might have her own damn house? A house even nicer than the one you bought ?The whole set-up you've crafted here indicates that you do not want an equal partner. You want someone who can fit into the storyline you are writing (about your life, or for your novel -- I honestly don't know which.)
posted by Gray Skies at 9:16 AM on October 17, 2017 [27 favorites]

I too am drawn to this: I’d bought a house that could hold a family, and kept (and still keep) it mainly unfurnished so I could one day make it a home with someone.

If there was an AskMe from a woman who said she'd been dating an older guy who presented a half empty house while intoning "I acquired this house long ago, before I even knew your name, so we could raise our family together here" I would tell her not just to DTMFA but this: RUN.

You present the empty house as evidence of your readiness and hopes for a permanent relationship, but it confirms that in your heart of hearts, other people are just characters you've cast to perform in a play you've written, one that allows them some opportunity for improvisation, but at the cost that you will reinterpret whatever they contribute in whatever way suits your narrative. You're assessing suitability for these roles you've imagined or can work into the narrative, not engaging with people as they are. And you too are a character in this play, pretending to be someone you've imagined rather than being authentically who you are, if you even know.

Just so you know, to a successful woman your age, your half-empty house sends a message that you're a guy who can't take care of himself or make decisions, not that you're an extra hip minimalist or sensitive guy awaiting Ms. Right. In healthy relationships, people decide together where and how to live--even if the decision winds up being using one or the other's property. Similarly, your celibacy-as-"[tool] to calibrate [your] head and heart" creates a burden on your next partner, assuming she's remotely healthy; it doesn't connote noble priestly preparations for a relationship, or whatever you think you're conveying.

Your performative self-awareness--coupled with your ongoing revisions to the drama starring you (which in this space reflect an effort to gain the AskMe community's approval)--disqualify you from a relationship with anyone who has actually done hard personal work and wants a healthy relationship. If your therapist (for whom this thread might be instructive reading about how you present yourself to others) isn't addressing your efforts to put up barriers to actual self-knowledge, vs this imaginary wise sensitive guy construct you've built, get a new one... especially if you know that your BSng him/her like you're doing with us.

PS Look up the AskMe about the guy who wanted to give somebody a banjo, anonymously. It's a great example of how trying to orchestrate other people's reactions via grand gestures, like a half-empty house for future wife and babies, reads as creepy and more about the giver's concept of self rather than any insight into the recipient.
posted by carmicha at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2017 [24 favorites]

You sound like you've adopted the language of therapy, but haven't actually used the meaning, like you are just trying too hard.

Here's something for you to ponder: What if she never actually needed you except to become the vision you had in your head of how she should be (which apparently she was not interested in becoming)?

You sound like Desi, the guy that married Marni in the show Girls.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:40 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agreed with this "LOTS of narration" thing. On the other hand, some of what you have said reassured me that my worst assumptions on reading the initial question are possibly not the case. I can see why everyone is always jumping all over the house thing, but I think the same situation could be viewed in more generous ways. I feel like it's actually not an easy choice between waiting to meet a long-term partner before setting up long-term life decisions or starting to make those decisions knowing that they might not be a perfect fit to the person one eventually meets, and it sounded like OP was trying to balance those. I know it came across poorly, in part because of some of the problems in the original post and in the situation being described up front.

In any case, I was just going to say that one thing that eased the pain of a breakup for me was reading novels -- especially novels that really focus on characters (not like, on fast-paced plots). It kept me from having to go cold turkey from an emotionally-intense dialogue and knowing a lot about what someone else was thinking to just rattling around my own head. It sounds like you're pretty extroverted and seek meaning discursively, and novels (and maybe podcasts, actually) might help with the pain a bit.
posted by salvia at 6:01 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

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