Dating / relationship addict: help!
February 12, 2020 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I have a history of serial monogamy - some successful, some not so successful. I seem to find it easy to fall into relationships, sometimes with fantastic people that for whatever reason it didn't work out with, and sometimes with people who are so clearly ill-suited to me that I have obviously been shaping myself around them like a pretzel - which I don't realise till it falls apart and I realise how unhappy I've been. Help me find strategies for not giving into going on dating apps / starting to look around for men whilst going through the acute withdrawal stage (2 weeks after a breakup) by telling me why this will be good for me, what periods of being single have done for you and how I can stop feeling like I'm 'wasting time' if I'm not progressing towards marriage and kids with someone (FWIW, I'm female and 35 and time pressures have definitely played into my serial dating the past couple of years).

I'm tired and could really do with a break. I'm also currently freezing my eggs, which means I can - and should - potentially take one without feeling like I've lost truckloads of time in my rapidly diminishing biological clock (I jest, but also, this is how society makes me feel. And the truth is my individual fertility statistics seem extremely good - the same as a 28 year olds. I probably have plenty of time).

I really want the next relationship to work. I think taking a break and building myself up might help. And I know everyone says 'get a hobby! make more friends! meditate etc!', but none of that is really sounding appealing, and I've known I should do those things for ages....but I...always seem to find relationships a very compelling way to occupy a fair amount of my headspace.

Even when I am single (my longest stint has been 9 months), I find a fair amount is spent dissecting what happened / what went wrong / how I could do better in my next relationship. I'm not sure everyone is as self reflective as this, and I don't know if it's healthy. It distracts me from actually, you know, doing stuff.

Relationships don't take an unhealthy amount of time in actual life in terms of how much I'm actually with the other person - I'm quite good at balancing them with other bits of my life - but things like hobbies, good self care, etc do seem like less of a priority because they fill so much of my head and I basically spend a lot of time ruminating about problems and looking for solutions on google. It's almost like OCD - I can spend hours a day looking into whatever I feel is wrong with a relationship when I'n in these moments (which is often).

I know this is twisted thinking and probably down to never having established proper habits in the first place. I am currently working with my therapist on attachment patterns - I'm secure / anxious.

I used to have hobbies, which I loved, and I still have a very healthy and thriving career, and some good friends. But right now I feel like there's no 'point' restarting a hobby that I will have lost all skill at, or start a new one, because I won't have time to 'achieve anything' (yes, I'm quite a type A personality) before getting into my next relationship, where of course it will be difficult to maintain that hobby alongside social life and work.

The number of single / available-to-do-fun-stuff friends is dwindling as the majority of my friends are starting to kids, I'm feeling like I'm the mid 30s saddo trying to hang onto her youth when I do go out, and like it's the 'wrong' place for me to be in. I do love the cosiness and structure of being in a couple, and don't actually like big nights out. But I think this is more of a social pressure / expectations thing, and me comparing myself to the norm.

So, to the immediate situation - I'm at that stage, two weeks in!, after a breakup where I'm tempted to go on apps, but I know I probably shouldn't. I think I do it sometimes for a thrill more than anything, and because I'm using dating as a way to shore up my self-esteem. Then I fall into another relationship that I didn't mean to, etc. etc. I also have a high sex drive which fuels some of this behaviour (a healthy sex drive though - not a nympho or anything).

So, please: strategies, tactics for staying on the straight and narrow, alongside your personal experiences with this.

I know this is probably codependent behaviour, and I will be looking at that with my therapist. Please try not to be too shaming about this, as I already feel ashamed at sharing. This is kind of like my big deep dark secret of my adult years, and the one thing about myself I just find really embarrassing.

So be nice please, and do feel free to share if you've gone through a similar thing and come out better. How long did you take out by yourself? How to not spend the time just rehashing old relationships and what went wrong? How do I find....peace?
posted by starstarstar to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It turns out, in my experience, that the healthier you are internally the easier it is to attract other healthy people. It is fundamentally unhealthy to use other human beings to fill up any holes we happen to feel inside of ourselves. Also, life holds no guarantees. Despite your best efforts, you may end up single for long periods of time. So think of taking six months or a year to be single deliberately as an investment in your future emotional health and well-being.

I stopped dating for a year quite a while back because I needed to focus on my daughter and also focus on my emotional health. I saw a therapist; I went to Al-Anon meetings; I cultivated friendships. At the end of that time, when I started dating again, I ended up meeting the person with whom I had the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had. It ended for a variety of reasons but it was in no way a failure.

Do you know how farmers allow fields to lie fallow for several seasons because otherwise all of the nutrition in the soil will be depleted? Or how they enrich the soil by adding nutrients? Dating in a frantic way to solve the ticking-clock problem is a distraction from nurturing your soul. In the end, our lovers and partners and family may complement us with their qualities and support us and love us but they can never complete us.

Filling the hole in our soul is ultimately deeply challenging personal work that only we can do. If you are like me, if you walk around with a hole that you are trying to fill with dating, you will fail at finding what you want most. Because peace has to be generated from within. I am sorry to report this. Lord knows I made many attempts to find it in other ways. Ultimately you will find peace by learning to tolerate discomfort on your journey to becoming a person who attracts healthy, engaging human beings by being a healthy, engaging human being who enjoys the company of others but does not require it.

This is hard but important work. Thank you for asking your question, and best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'd be interested in knowing why you don't think it's possible to have hobbies on in addition to having a job and a boyfriend. That's a really unusual belief to hold and it is definitely worth examining.
posted by cakelite at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2020 [19 favorites]

So, I am also a thirty five year old woman. I am bisexual, and I have found that although I know I would want kids with a partner, I only feel pressure about it when I’m interested in a man. If the pressure were real, that is to say, if my personal fertility were the only way for kids to be achieved, then logically I would despair at the prospect of a relationship with a woman. But I don’t. I know that kids are a possibility in my relationships with women, too.

This points to the fact that there are lots of ways for kids to join a family, and this pressure is substantially a pressure to follow a societal narrative.

YMMV, but I find that going through that little thought exercise takes away a ton of the anxiety around needing to find someone right away.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:54 AM on February 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

strategies, tactics for staying on the straight and narrow

Apologies for not responding to this. When I find myself stuck on a thought that is unhelpful, I use kind self-talk to redirect myself to something else. "Oh sweetheart, you are not a loser. Also, you cannot change the past. You wonderful person, what else shall we think about instead?" Then I try to distract myself or redirect my thoughts, often by using Dialectical Behavioral Therapy tools. Many of them focus on self-soothing techniques that involve physical things, which I find helpful.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I also feel like the idea you cant have both hobbies and a relationship is something to examine and let go of. A healthy relationship should include time to pursue other interests.

It sounds like you really throw yourself into relationships and use them to fill up all the space in your head. I used to do that, and it's...not a good thing. The only thing that broke this pattern for me is taking a year to just be single.

You might look in to activities that dont require a skill level, like taking long walks or finding a favorite cafe to read a book in. Those count too :)
posted by ananci at 10:35 AM on February 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I did this! It showed me that I don't want to ever live with anyone else ever again, and that I prefer even more time alone than I'd previously realized. Not saying that this is something to hope for, BUT what the time did was give me the space to pay attention to what I really want without distraction.

However, my high sex drive was also a problem. I only actually made it six weeks celibate. But I stuck with only casual sex for a year; I was very clear with myself that it was only to scratch an itch. I don't have any trouble drawing that kind of boundary, but if you do and you want to go this route, you can do so with people you'd never want to date long term. People who are going to move, or who are much younger than you, or who don't have important things you're looking for in a partner whatever they may be, etc.

RE not finding the motivation to get back into hobbies: try to change your perspective on this by thinking of it as a long-term hobby rather than one that will fall by the wayside if you start dating again. Envision maintaining it regardless of your romantic relationships; it might be something your partners join you in, or that you do while they engage in their own activities, etc.

And use your Type A traits by focusing on "not dating" as a goal you want to succeed at. Set a clear timeframe in advance... maybe six months before you reassess and decide if you want to continue it longer. Your goal is not only to avoid dating, but to avoid thinking about past or future dating relationships.
posted by metasarah at 11:08 AM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

. But right now I feel like there's no 'point' restarting a hobby that I will have lost all skill at, or start a new one, because I won't have time to 'achieve anything' (yes, I'm quite a type A personality) before getting into my next relationship, where of course it will be difficult to maintain that hobby alongside social life and work.

I see two problems with this reasoning. The first, as has been pointed out above, is that a healthy romantic relationship has room for individual hobbies. In fact, my relationship causes me to spend more time and energy on those pursuits in my life than I did prior to it because my boyfriend actively encourages me to go do those things.

The other reason this is not reasoning you should lean on is that you have full veto power over whether you enter a romantic relationship. You have as much time to develop a hobby as you choose to give yourself. A relationship is not like some kind of contagious disease that descends on you without choice or warning, it is a choice you make. It's OK to choose to be in a relationship, but it's really important to take responsibility for it as something you have chosen. You can't make different choices if you don't recognize the ones you're currently making as choices.

Good luck. Life is richer when you choose to steer, I promise.
posted by PMdixon at 11:20 AM on February 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

Well, first of all, it's fine to take a break from dating! You're not wasting time if you're taking care of yourself (pursuing hobbies, spending time with friends, exercising), because all that makes you healthier, which sets you up better for a healthy relationship. Probably you know this.

Do you want to take a break from dating? Have you ever intentionally pursued casual sex? I think there's a lot of pressure, post-breakup, to "work on oneself," as if time in being single makes you more ready to date. That's definitely true for some people, but dating casually can be a lovely and healthy distraction for other folks. I hear you on the brooding. Brooding over what-went-wrong is not the same as self-care or self-improvement. Some relationship skills require us to be in relationship to work on them.

Is there a way for you to date and not "fall" into another relationship? But date casually and see how things go? If not, then I agree it makes sense to stay off the apps. But it can be a fun and healthy distraction. Yes, of course our self-esteem should come from within, but having a date or two who is interested can make you feel good, and that's okay.

Since you mentioned attachment issues, I do think it's worth mentioning the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment. It's excellent and gave me so much insight into myself and my relationships. Have you already read it? Even if you are talking to your therapist about these issues, I still recommend it. Anyway, one of the pieces of advice for folks with an anxious attachment style is to have an abundance philosophy when you're dating. So make sure to not just go on one first date and see how it goes, or to have high expectations of any one first date, but to go on lots of first dates and know that there could be several interesting, compatible folks out there for you. The book has lots of tips on how to avoid partners with an avoidant attachment style (I'm sure people could debate this endlessly, but tip offs for me at the profile level include things like "No drama" and people who say they are "independent." Not because we want drama or don't to be independent, but I suspect those are people who describe partners as "clingy," etc.). I think the abundance philosophy also means taking back up your hobby. That seems very healthy.

I also want to recommend an excellent audio book. I found tremendous insight in Fierce Intimacy by Terry Real.

I know this is probably codependent behaviour, and I will be looking at that with my therapist. Please try not to be too shaming about this, as I already feel ashamed at sharing. This is kind of like my big deep dark secret of my adult years, and the one thing about myself I just find really embarrassing.

I was sad to read this because I think you are being honest and vulnerable and you have nothing to be ashamed of. You have a good understanding of your patterns and the kinds of relationships you've ended up in, and you are working to have healthier patterns. I don't think that's a source of embarrassment, but should be a source of pride. We all have stuff, you know? You're just maybe further ahead than some other folks in acknowledging it and working on it.

It's okay to want to be in a relationship. I've been thinking about this lately myself, following a December breakup and being now in the very early days of seeing someone new. We have this image of being a strong, independent person, but our society is very much structured around couples and mating, and there's nothing to be ashamed of there. Also, the book Attached talks a lot about how codependency as a concept is a bit of bunk, and how it can be very healthy for people to need other people.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:43 PM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Okay, I just saw from a previous question that you have read Attached. When did you read it? I read it again recently and found even more. (Like, maybe I should read it after every relationship? Hmm...)
posted by bluedaisy at 12:46 PM on February 12, 2020

Best answer: "Type A" personalities tend to be problem-solvers, so I wonder if, when you're coupled up, the ruminating you do sort of becomes your hobby. You're either trying to solve a current problem, or you're planning how to head possible issues off at the pass; this can stem from really wanting the partnership to succeed (& being a little hyper-vigilant due to anxiety).

I think taking a break from dating is a good idea, and working with a therapist, to discuss your dating habits and how you can better balance the different parts of your life (all in service of getting what you want, ultimately) would be a good idea, too. I have a similar sex drive and no good advice on management; if you're able to have casual encounters, as noted in previous answers, perhaps that's an avenue worth exploration. (Though given your self-described serial monogamist history, which is also familiar, it's probably not a viable solution.) Best wishes.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:57 PM on February 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

I used to have a kinda similar dating pattern, and one time my acupuncturist asked me what anchored me, and I didn’t have an answer. Realized I had been depending on other people anchoring me and when I didn’t have that, I felt completely adrift. And so I worked on—and continue to work on—anchoring myself (via therapy and meditation and yoga and doing stuff I don’t really wanna do, including staying single and looking at all the painful things in my life I’ve avoided by throwing myself into relationships, and also really looking at the unconscious patterns I kept repeating over and over until it just hurt. But now I can’t unsee it.)

At some point, it will be just you. Even if you get married, even if you have kids. People leave you, they die, they do all sorts of things. And if you’re not anchored in yourself it can cause such panic.

So maybe take this time to ask what anchors you, and if you don’t know the answer, then that is your answer. Sure, you can throw yourself into a relationship but this will catch up to you. It catches up to all of us. The work you put in now will pay off in dividends later, when life does some inexplicably shitty thing and you need to steady yourself.

Finding your anchor is never a waste of your life. And I would examine why you think just living your life on your own (vs frantically seeking out marriage and kids) is a waste, because god, that sounds so lonely and painful to feel like that.

The other helpful way for me to look at it: you’ve been throwing yourself into relationships over and over. You haven’t gotten what you wanted. Do something different and different things will happen.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 3:07 PM on February 12, 2020 [9 favorites]

A lot of people here have really good advice, but I especially agree with both of Bella Donna's responses.

I've been someone who tried to fill voids in my life with entanglements with men, and I let those relationships consume far too much of my mental energy. In the past year, I've completely separated myself from romantic endeavors. And in that time, I've been trying to understand myself better. One thing that has helped me was to realize all the different kinds of cognitive distortions that take place in my mental self talk. I see it with some of the things you say like:

right now I feel like there's no 'point' restarting a hobby that I will have lost all skill at

That's an example of all-or-nothing (also called black and white) thinking. It's possible you haven't lost "all" skill and could quickly pick things back up if you give it a modest investment of time. You might also be fortune telling and coming to a conclusion about an event that hasn't even happened and telling yourself it is a fact. My sister likes to remind me of a line from a movie, which I'm completely paraphrasing, about one guy asking another guy if he's going to a party later... And, the guy being asked says, "I already went there in my head and had a horrible time." That's totally me, shooting it down before I give it a chance. I now find it helpful to create space for the possibility of an experience that I just can't fathom. It also has the added benefit of shutting down any rumination that takes up too much energy.

Something else you might find helpful that others have mentioned is starting a meditation practice, mindful meditation specifically. It helps clear that mental chatter. I use an app called Waking Up. He has stand alone "lessons", but also a day-by-day guided set of meditations that are only about 10 minutes and slowly build up your skills.

That you are wanting to do personal growth work and have gone so far as to ask others for their recommendations is something that I see as intensely positive. I hope you can see that too and let go of whatever lingering shame or guilt you feel. :)

I think if you can recognize more ways to generate kind, positive, getting-to-yes self-talk, the more ease you will feel with yourself. And, consequently, out in the world.
posted by pdxhiker at 9:06 PM on February 12, 2020

Best answer: Forgive me if this doesn't apply to you, but I also wanted to mention that reading about Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) was supremely helpful for me. It also applies to people who grew up in dysfunctional families, which was my case. In reading the ACoA book, it gave me a deeper insight into what informed my personality traits, like being a people pleaser. I spent my entire adult life trying to make others happy and feeling like a failure when I couldn't live up to that. I didn't have a good model on healthy adult interactions. And, I've jumped into relationships with others where I slowly lost myself and when that one ended, I immediately looked for another. I looked to romantic situations to provide me with all the feelings of validation, self worth, respect, love, and support that I never got growing up. Dating felt like a way to get all those needs met. But I finally understand that I need to learn to provide all those things for myself independent of a partner. That's why I'm putting the time in now. I'm in my late 30s and feel this single time is being well-spent. For me, understanding my backstory helps me make healthier choices going forward, even though I very much wish I had a partner right now.
posted by pdxhiker at 9:55 PM on February 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am 36 and have spent the last four years single, aside from some eye-opening short-term dating scenarios. Best four years of my life! My biggest problem has always been the "WHOOPS! I'm in a relationship!" conundrum you described, where every brief, bored foray on a dating app ended with a committed relationship that I wasn't sure I even wanted. Once I was out of that relationship, I would be TERRIFIED that I'd slip back into one again. Almost like it was happening somewhere "beyond" me.

Call it the biological clock, or the unconscious mind... whatever it was, I had to first remind myself that no, I don't have to turn every causal sex or short-term dating scenario into a bona-fide relationship full of self-sacrifice and rumination. The world is large and there are lots of ways to love and be loved!

Honestly, I still struggle with this, but at least I'm more aware of it and can trust myself to let go of relationships when they're not right. I've also spent a lot of time examining my self-sacrificial impulse, that urge to funnel my life into someone else's life. Being a subject and the star of your own life is really f*cking hard, plus society is constantly feeding women the message that objectification is our destiny. But these are the PRIME years for finding your subjectivity and getting comfortable building a life full of hobbies you love and good sex in all its forms, etc. It's empowering as hell.

(Warning: finding yourself may necessarily involve a little bit of meditation. But it's not so bad. At the very least it's better than spending hours ruminating on a man/relationship that ultimately goes nowhere!)
posted by gold bridges at 9:12 AM on February 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Some really empowering suggestions here. That last one - yeah it is so hard to not feel like you need to funnel your life into someone else's! And four year years is such an achievement! I wish I'd started years ago. I now feel like I SHOULD find someone in the next couple of years because of biological clock rather than wanting to. But what I'm going to do is six months (even making this commitment makes me feel like, yay! Six months of freedom!!!), and then look at renewing again. I do think it should be a year minimum, and that I should be basically over any anger or sadness or guilt about previous relationships, of which there is a lot to work through! Right now I think you're right - going to try and focus on anything BUT relationships for now and get used to that part of my brain that used to be filled with rumination about them to do whatever the fuck it wants. Crazy!!
posted by starstarstar at 2:05 PM on February 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

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