Is it all about meeting the right person?
December 19, 2019 8:25 AM   Subscribe

In romantic relationships, is the right person someone who will accept you, warts and all, even if you might have some bad relationship habits? (details inside)

In all of my relationships, I've noticed that the same story emerges: I meet someone, he gets very interested and starts off very into me, I get into him, and as we get closer, I start to freak out and put up walls, and then he eventually will disengage loses his feelings, and the relationship ends. Then I enter a cycle of regret and sadness that I'm still into this person, and if only I was able to express my emotions.

I've talked to many friends after the latest relationship failed a few days ago (and this one I actually felt like he could be a right one), and the general idea seems to be that if you meet the right one, it doesn't matter what baggage you have. My exes, since they couldn't see through my defenses or work around them, were by definition not the right ones. Or, they weren't the right ones because I wasn't ever able to feel comfortable enough to lower my defenses.

So, I am at a lost. Is the right person really someone that, as my friends tell me, no matter how messed up I am inside, will see through my behavior as defensive mechanisms and love me? Because the right person would accept me 100% the way I am, right?

In my opinion, I actually don't think so. I think anyone would be put off by my pessimism ("I don't think relationships will ever work out for me", or if they talk about the future, I'd say "who knows if we'll have a future together" - and I say these things even if I feel very happy inside to hear these things and so desperately want to tell them that I'm happy!) and my coldness (I find that often, if I'm upset or something, I have to make a choice between showing warmth and being cold - and I usually choose the latter for self protection). I think I need to work on myself to be able to be vulnerable to someone, so that when the right person appears, I am ready for him. And I feel like I owe it to that person to be the best version of myself. But I don't know - it seems like everyone tells me that I just haven't met the right guy, but I feel like I'm just not ready myself to meet the right guy (plus I feel like I don't have much self confidence, so I don't think I can even believe that someone would be right for me).

So I guess my question really is, are there things that people (aka me) have that must be worked on before they can meet the right one, or is it just that they haven't met the right one who can accept them entirely (again, I don't know who'd want to date someone who exudes very little warmth and pushes people away when things get too vulnerable)? I feel like with my last ex, what vexes me is that I don't know if I didn't have my fear and coldness, would we have worked out?
posted by hazeleatscarrots to Human Relations (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think everyone has their own thresholds for what they'll accept in a relationship, including how understanding and accepting they are of the other person's defense mechanisms.

While self-improvement is good, I don't think you should not be open to starting a relationship until you've "fixed" qualities x, y and z. I think a good relationship can help you gain confidence and become more open to other people, and it's not just romantic relationships.

Don't say no for someone else, especially if you've just me them. They might be a good match for you where you are.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:33 AM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think the right person accepts your flaws, but they also make you want to better yourself for them. A good relationship isn't about finding two exact puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly with zero work. You grow with them.

Also, you owe it to yourself to be the best version of yourself. If you want to learn to open up and be vulnerable, that is an admirable and worthy goal. Do it! But do it so you're happy with yourself, not to twist yourself into the perfect shape for some hypothetical mate.
posted by lilac girl at 8:39 AM on December 19, 2019 [38 favorites]

We all have things we need to work on throughout life. A big big thing is being able to communicate with others about those things, or working to make sure our various things don’t impede our ability to communicate with others. For you, I think “as we get closer, I start to freak out and put up walls” is something you want to work out. It’s not something the right relationship will fix, but it’s also not something that should just stay the way it is.

I look at it a little differently than you: to me, the right person isn’t someone who accepts me exactly how I am (because I’m not exactly one thing, ever), but someone who helps bring out the best side of me. Someone who makes me feel okay reaching out when I feel scared and want to put up walls. Not someone who will fix that for me, but someone I can talk to about it, and who won’t be impatient with me.
posted by sallybrown at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2019 [18 favorites]

I wonder if you'd appreciate reading more about insecure attachment styles. If they're an element of what's at issue, they definitely don't make you unloveable as-is, but they can be pretty perplexing to someone who doesn't think twice about opening up and who lacks experience with people who are more guarded, etc.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:46 AM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is tangential to your question, but if you are describing an avoidant attachment style, then all this means is those other people were probably also avoidant. Plenty of avoidantly attached people find relationships, but you'll more likely end up with an anxiously attached person. Statistically men are more commonly avoidant, so that might have something to do with what you are describing, since you used the word "he" in your post.

So, I would say it's great for avoidant style people to do some personal work so that you can turn toward your attachment needs instead of shutting them down, but plenty of people who operate this way do not do that work and go on to have a partnership, although I can't say how satisfying those partnerships are as that isn't my personal experience.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:49 AM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

The right person is never someone who will ignore your stated wishes and force his presence on you. If you "freak out and put up walls," you are boxing your partner into a position where reciprocal disengagement on his own end is the only acceptable course of action. It's possible you're being even more metaphorical than I think you are, but if by 'putting up walls' you mean engaging in some form of withdrawal and boundary-drawing, you leave a decent man with no choice but to withdraw on his own end. What is the alternative?

Yes, a person who loves you enough will accept any amount of baggage. But they will not accept any kind of behavior.

This doesn't mean that behavior that leads to a breakup has to be some kind of mistreatment of the other person; it doesn't. it just means that if you act like you don't want someone getting closer to you, you might know that this is fear or trauma-driven and doesn't reflect your real feelings, but they don't know that and they can't know that. They can't ignore your words and actions based on a belief that they can read your mind. A person who would ignore that on a regular basis would be scary.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:50 AM on December 19, 2019 [46 favorites]

I feel like there are two parts to this, maybe three.

I think anyone would be put off by my pessimism

1. There can be a sense in which we can pick people who will help reinforce our negative opinions of ourselves (or basically become a person who helps us stay exactly who we are and doesn't encourage us to become a better version of ourselves). It's worth making sure, somehow, that you are picking the right people in the first place. Like maybe you're aggressive and you pick someone who is passive so the two of you "fit" Those choices can lead to relationships that, over time, don't work even though they can also feel "right" in some ways. Picking someone who is right for you is a large part of having a solid lasting relationship.

2. We have an obligation, generally speaking, to treat others well in relationships. If you have personality traits that make that difficult your choices are (very loosely) work on those things or pick someone who doesn't mind those things.

3. Everyone (almost) is on their best behavior early in a relationship, so it's worth trying to think of why you go into relationships with the negative talk like "relationships won't work out for me" or what the self-protection things are that cause you to toss up walls. Because, I'm sure you can see how that might be a red flag to a potential partner or make it seem like a "project" even if they really like you. It's never any fun in a relationship to spend time convincing someone to like themselves. There may be nothing super "bad" there but it may be a thing you can work on on your own (with a friend, counselor, religious leader or otherwise).

So your friends aren't wrong, you can find someone who likes you as you are, but they should be liking you for the things that YOU like about yourself and the two of you, in a good relationship can work together about the things YOU don't like about yourself to help you become a better version of yourself.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 AM on December 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think you should be careful about concluding that you should "work on yourself" before dating again. I think some of that work is realizing what unwanted behaviors you have, so that you can catch yourself in the moment. But it sounds like you largely have that down. And beyond that, the work of changing your behavior requires practice. You need to keep dating in order to try out new approaches, and then review what went right and wrong.
posted by serathen at 9:12 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was worried about the same things, so I decided to go to therapy to "troubleshoot." Also, I had heard that going to therapy speeds up your self-development. A journey that might take years and years on your own can be a lot faster if you have a therapist to guide you. And since I wanted a relationship sooner rather than later, I figured that speedy self-development would be a good thing!

It was a good decision. Therapy didn't instantly make me instantly luckier in love, but it changed my perspective a lot when it comes to relationships -- and to my own agency. It's not just that my relationships are stronger now, it's that I'm more empowered within them (and within my life in general). That change in perspective led me to make decisions that I never would have risked (or maybe even considered) otherwise's fantastic.

I think that fundamental compatibility and chemistry are essential. If someone just isn't the right match...well, you can't fit a square peg in a round hole. But once the sparks are flying, I think that relationship skills, communication skills, wisdom and bravery do make a difference in making things work.

I think that the relationship is sort of a separate entity from each of the people in it. Ideally, you choose the right person, they choose you, and then you both build a relationship together. The relationship doesn't magically get built just because you've got compatible people in place. That's still a process that you each work on every day.
"Work" as in working to get to know each other, to develop intimacy and trust. After all, you're not going to magically be intimate with each other just because the potential for intimacy is there. And if either you or your partner is unable or unwilling to grow your relationship and develop that intimacy, things are bound to fizzle.

I don't think that you have to wait to meet someone, or even that you have that much control over who you're meeting and when. But when you meet someone right for you, you still do need to be capable of building a relationship with them (and they need to be capable of building it with you). If you feel like you're not capable of that now, you need some help, then get that help. It genuinely might make all the difference.
posted by rue72 at 9:13 AM on December 19, 2019 [12 favorites]

Statistically men are more commonly avoidant, so that might have something to do with what you are describing, since you used the word "he" in your post.

I don't think this is at all true, but I do think it is much easier for heterosexual men to have this emotional pattern and to have lasting relationships anyway. Melting a repressed & emotionally frozen man, getting him to drop his defenses through endless and saintly devotion, is a whole romantic fantasy (whether or not women have or appreciate this fantasy, it's a role that has been written for us if we care to play it.) The masochistic satisfaction of passively enduring a man's apparent callousness or even cruelty because underneath it all is a frightened little boy afraid to love, and only the woman who can see that can deserve him -- this is a potent emotional ideal but it is heavily, heavily gendered and I think heterosexual women are by far the most likely to be pressed into its service.

(and since it is so powerful, it's an archetype that's massively overapplied where it doesn't belong, because if it did apply, we would know what to do (tolerate; endure; placate; wait.) which is why men are so commonly called "avoidant" when all they are is uninterested.)

for straight men, I think the closest equivalent is the rescuer fantasy, which is even more bad news as well as not being the same. The rescuer of fantasy is the stalker of reality, and sometimes worse. This isn't at all fair to women who have these perfectly understandable issues but who, unlike men, can't expect their partners to take quasi-maternal responsibility for them. I can only say, OP, you don't want a smiling martyr who thinks of himself as your savior. The satisfaction of being able to tell a guy you love him is better than anything you could have with a guy who doesn't need to hear it from you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:39 AM on December 19, 2019 [14 favorites]

Maybe drop the idea of "the right one." There is no singular ideal person for you; there are a ton of people out there who mesh with you (and don't) and meet your needs (and don't) and are attractive to you (and aren't) in different ways. Every person you meet is a blend of various characteristics, good and bad (for you). You are asking this question about finding someone who will "accept you, warts and all," and yes, such people definitely exist! But will you meet such a person who also is attractive to you, meshes well with you, etc.?... Maybe!

No one can tell you the precise chances of meeting a person like that. It's hard to say even if it's "likely" or "unlikely." Life is complex and unpredictable. You might meet someone like that tomorrow!

What I can promise you, though, is that the chance of meeting someone like that can only get better if you do work on your negative patterns. As your negatives shrink, the group of people who will "accept" you (I'm not sure I like that term, but I'll go with it) will grow! And the likelihood of meeting someone with whom you will have a great relationship grows too! That can only help.

So, do you have to work on yourself before you can hope to meet someone with whom you will have a great relationship? No! Do you have to wait until things are "fixed" before looking for someone? No! Is it a good idea to work on those things while meeting people and seeking a great relationship? Absolutely!
posted by whatnotever at 9:43 AM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

The right person is never someone who will ignore your stated wishes and force his presence on you. If you "freak out and put up walls," you are boxing your partner into a position where reciprocal disengagement on his own end is the only acceptable course of action.

wanted to say this but also add that maybe the right person would be someone you can tell upfront that as you get closer, you'll start panicking and distancing, and who will know they can probe a little when it happens and maybe help you get down to those feelings you find hard to express. since you know pretty well what your defense mechanism is and when it pops up, i think being in situations where you can practice both the being honest about the fact that it's what you're dealing with and the fighting through it in the moment to be honest about your actual feelings would be a good thing. i think absolutely there are people who will work with you on the things you need care for as long as you're working on it too and meeting them in the middle.
posted by gaybobbie at 9:47 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

"Because the right person would accept me 100% the way I am, right?"

I don't think so. This is like saying, no matter how fucked up you are (and I'm not saying you're more fucked up than the rest of us), there's someone who will love you as you are. But do you want to be with someone who loves you, even though (or because) you're extremely fucked up? Surely they've got some issues around that.

"are there things that people (aka me) have that must be worked on before they can meet the right one"

First, define "right." The person who is right for you now might not be right for you 10 years in the future, and might not have been right for you 10 years in the past. The best we can hope for is that as we change, we change on roughly parallel tracks with our partners. My suspicion is that you might not really want to be with someone who is right for you now, and you especially won't want to be with that person in 10 years. So yeah, you need to figure out how to get to the point where the person who is right for you is right because they can and do connect with you on a healthier basis.

I've been married to my current wife for 15 years. We've both commented that it's a good thing we hadn't met when we were younger, because we wouldn't have been able to stand each other. I've definitely had some of my sharp edges worn off, by time and by previous relationships.
posted by adamrice at 10:13 AM on December 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's not a show of love for someone to tolerate a damaging and hurtful dynamic in a relationship. It's possible to love someone, but not choose to be with them because they're unable to connect in a healthy way. Relationships aren't just about love and tolerance, they're about effective communication, shared values, and the ability to engage in a healthy and fulfilling dynamic that improves the lives of both people.

At this point in my life, I'm not willing to do emotional rehabilitation on grown adults. It's just not healthy for either partner to not have their needs and reasonable expectations met because the other party hasn't done the personal work needed to create a healthy connection. Relationships are not a replacement for therapy. Coldness, defensive walls as a default, and reluctance to be vulnerable are all ways to sabotage a relationship. Why should someone subject themselves to being hurt by these things when they've made a good faith effort to build something together from a healthy place? It's not a sign of the strength of their love to stay in a situation like this, it's a sign that they're also likely in need of some emotional work and are attracted to dysfunctional relationship dynamics and the resulting drama.
posted by quince at 10:37 AM on December 19, 2019 [8 favorites]

No, I don't think that's true! When you meet the right person things are certainly easier, but any baggage you bring to the relationship can still cause problems and will need to be worked through.

I don't think it's fair to expect the 'right person' to put up with whatever we throw at them, either.
posted by thereader at 10:45 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

> "I don't think relationships will ever work out for me", or if they talk about the future, I'd say "who knows if we'll have a future together" - and I say these things even if I feel very happy inside to hear these things and so desperately want to tell them that I'm happy!

When you express these doubts, what are you hoping they will say in response? Are you hoping they will reassure you that no, no, of course you both have a future together, and no, no, of course this relationship is going to work out for both of you?

Which is fine, and it might help you to be aware of this need for reassurance, and simply insert one extra step of expressing your happiness warmly AND THEN asking for the reassurance you need. That way you're not disappointing their expectations and sending rejection signals to them when that's the opposite of what you want to do.
posted by MiraK at 11:30 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

What you're saying about yourself reminds me a bit of my partner, and he and I are talking about these issues right now. At his therapist's recommendation, we both just listened to a fantastic audiobook by therapist Terry Real called Fierce Intimacy. He talks a lot about putting up walls and why we might do that. He also talks about people with very poor boundaries, at the other end of the spectrum, and how they often end up with people who put up walls. And he specifically talks about people in your situation, who put up walls and are filled with shame and have some really terribly self-talk about not being good enough for a relationship. He explains why we have these behavior patterns long past the time when they are helping us, and to the point when they are hurting us.

I've been in therapy for a while and have done a lot of reading about relationships, and I found this book to be incredibly insight and useful. My partner and I both learned a lot about our relationship and each other. It's become a lot clearer to me what my behavior patterns are that are damaging to the relationship (and I'm working on this in therapy too, because I'm realizing it was too easy for me to blame him), and he's become a lot more aware of the ways in which he walls himself off, and why he's doing that, and how it hurts me.

Now, about your specific situation: if the right person will accommodate you no matter what (well, in healthy, non-abusive ways), then that needs to go both ways. You have identified a behavior pattern, in which a partner is enthusiastic and wants to increase intimacy, and then you retreat. Well, if you want a partner who will stick with you when you retreat, then you need to work more to stop retreating. And no matter what you do when you're not in a relationship, you likely need to work on this while you are in a relationship. That means working on this now in therapy and talking to any future partners about this issue, not on the first date, but as things develop. This will require some vulnerability on your part.

Your friends love you and they're supportive, and I'm also guessing they haven't been in an intimate relationship with you, or maybe they are seeing other problems in these relationships. But I wouldn't take their analysis as the final and official word. But also... it's clear you have some incredibly negative self-talk, and you need to work on that too (especially if you are saying it out loud to your partner!). Feeling better about yourself, truly believing it, is going to mean you are healthier in your relationships, too.

The situation that your friends seem to suggest -- that you should be able to put up any and all walls and your partner keeps fighting to be in a relationship with you despite their own hurt -- well, that's not healthy and sustainable in the long term. Yes, you want someone who will stick by you. But they also want someone who won't be scared off by growing intimacy.

I'm sorry your last relationship ended when you hoped it had potential. You are asking really smart and healthy questions. But, the answer to your question is no, it's not just a matter of meeting the right person. You need to meet that person halfway (or sometimes all the the way, and vice versa).
posted by bluedaisy at 11:49 AM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Think people have covered the relationship angle pretty well so I’ll just add briefly on the friendship end: I suspect your friends want to show that they like you how you are more than they actually believe the literal truth of what they’re saying, if that makes sense. I would look at their words as a show of support rather than as advice for knowing if someone is a right partner for you. I think other mefites have very wise advice on that!
posted by ferret branca at 1:18 PM on December 19, 2019

(Sorry, I see bluedaisy, and maybe others? have covered this as well!)
posted by ferret branca at 1:21 PM on December 19, 2019

Answers to this previous Ask may be helpful.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 7:39 PM on December 20, 2019

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