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I told myself third time’s a charm. In the past six months, I had pursued a tortured intellectual type and a guy who left his girlfriend to be with me, both of whom unceremoniously ended things between us after a month or so. I had been so focused on these dudes that I didn’t notice my co-worker, a charming, handsome guy, one of the few men I’ve been attracted to who makes me laugh.
We started getting together outside of work, with other co-workers. Not even in retrospect, but at the time, there were warning signs. He told me about his girlfriend, whom he broke up with shortly after we started hanging out; he started dating another girl; and then he joined Tinder to date other people, telling me about his travails the whole time. I felt jealous and upset and inferior, but I found his attention validating, and aside from everything I just mentioned (I forgot to mention he can be moody and petulant), I enjoyed spending time with him.
One night, we slept together. A couple of times he texted/Gchatted that we should talk about it, but I learned from the aforementioned dudes that the DTR talk never leads to anything that makes me feel good about myself. So he didn’t bring it up IRL and neither did I. I remained confused even as I celebrated what good friends we were (we spent almost every weekend together over the summer) and tried to feel carefree about the intermittent, honestly not-very-good sex.
Then he told me our co-worker had asked him out on a date — boasted about it, really. They went on a date. The next night, he and I slept together. By the next week, they were chatting online with each other, sometimes about me, and I could tell he was sending her all the stupid GIFs he used to send to me. I told him this was weird and that it felt like he was choosing her over me; he said it wasn’t like that, and he didn’t want this to affect our friendship. So far, it hasn’t. Except every time I see them rise from their desks together to leave for after-work drinks, it ruins my day. Or walking back together from their team’s meetings. Or seeing him texting her when he and I are hanging out together.
My therapist has told me I need to remember that I don’t want to be in a relationship with him. And it’s true. He smokes a lot of weed and intimidates me with his quick wit and knowledge of almost everything, to the point where he makes me doubt myself as a person. I do like being friends with him — I think. He’s a great resource at work, fielding my ideas and picking me back up when I get anxious. I am trying my goddamndest not to let this affect my work life or my emotional life. I have a date with a nice guy this weekend who really likes me and whom I blew off earlier this past spring.
As much as I love being told by my best friend that I’m way more attractive than this other girl, that doesn’t make me feel better. I want to feel okay again and like men who want to actually be with me even when my chin is breaking out or I don’t have anything clever to say about the latest Clickhole article, and to not just be fucked and kicked to the curb when something better comes along.
Wanting Something Better
Way back when I had a killer crush on Han Solo and you were just a twinkle in your mother’s eye, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond sang a heartbreaking duet together. I think the lyrics went something like this …
You don’t send me stupid GIFs,
You don’t text me late night,
You hardly give me
Intermittent, honestly not-very-good sex
At the end of the day
I remember when
You couldn’t wait to tell me
About your latest Tinder hookup
Now, after giving me honestly not-very-good sex at night
You’re Gchatting with our co-worker, and you’re feeling all right
Then you just roll over and turn out the light
You don’t send me stupid GIFs anymore.
What a heart-wrenching song! I was just a young girl back then, but I still dreamed that one day I, too, might Gchat with a petulant stoner! And maybe, just like the song goes, my prince charming would start dating my co-worker, but I’d keep sleeping with him anyway, and I’d keep wondering if they were Gchatting about me, and I’d keep imagining that their after-work drinks led to the intermittent, honestly not-very-good sex of her dreams!
Ah, but then I remembered that such fairy tales don’t really happen IRL. So I figured I would have to set my sights a little lower and settle for some nice guy who really likes me — you know, the kind of dork who brings you flowers and sings you love songs and all of that other romantic horse shit that’s a total nonstarter for any smart urban lady with good taste.
By now you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh. But sometimes you need your story told back to you in a new way in order to understand what’s actually happening. HERE’S WHAT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING: You are attracted to tepid. You aren’t just bumping into random flavors of Bad for You guys. You are actively seeking and becoming entangled with flinchy, distractible dudes. AND: You are repelled by nice. You aren’t just having bad luck with random flavors of Really Good Guys. You are actively blowing off and ignoring lovable, intelligent, healthy, grown adults who sincerely like you.
I know what you’re thinking: “But the nice guys I’m talking about are fucking boring,” and “You don’t understand. This guy I’ve been blowing off is a managerial consultant, and he fences on the weekends!” and “I’m just not feeling a spark,” and “I don’t like insecurity in men. I like guys who smoke pot and act like they know everything!”
I’m not saying you should settle for someone dull, because landing a guy — ANY GUY! — is the point of this exercise. I have a serious soft spot for the overconfident stoner, too. Throw me into a crowded room, and I’ll find him. And I’m certainly not urging you to stay the course with a guy who makes no sense to you. I once went on a date with a guy who described, in detail, doing a two-day rock climb up a sheer cliff in Yosemite. He slept on a little hammock anchored into a sheer wall of rock. Not only couldn’t I relate to wanting to do that, but I had trouble imagining him lying around in bed, eating stinky cheeses and cured meats and watching TV on weekends (see also: my version of living happily ever after). And when I laughed at the words FAT HAPPY FAMILY on the Chinese restaurant’s menu, he sat there with a blank expression, waiting for me to shut up so he could keep telling me about the thrills of thrill-seeking.
Recognizing incompatibilities and a complete lack of interest: This is healthy. It’s also healthy to give friendly, mature guys a chance. That means you have to hang out with them a few times. Don’t write them off immediately just because they have no idea what Clickhole is. When I met my husband, he was stunningly unaware of the pop-cultural detritus I lived and breathed as a TV critic. He was also a little awkward and seemed VERY into me, which made me nervous. I was used to guys who ignored me. My husband was goofy and talkative, and he never made me doubt myself as a person. I felt smart and interesting around him. But didn’t that mean that I was better than him?
Luckily, it was very obvious that I was NOT better than him — that, in fact, I was maybe not quite as good as him (but luckily he didn’t notice).
Being watched and heard by someone nice might be an UNUSUAL feeling for you, but that’s the feeling you want. Here’s what you DON’T want: to feel tormented all the time. To wonder if there’s something wrong with you. To second-guess everything you say. To wonder if you’re as pretty or as clever as the co-worker who’s currently sleeping with your guy.
I mean, come on. YOUR FUCKING CO-WORKER? You cannot be serious with this shit. And you want to keep hanging out with this guy because you’re “friends”? I’m not saying you have to be mean to him. You can still be professional. But don’t fire ideas at him anymore. Don’t go to him when you’re anxious and let him “pick you back up,” as you put it. And certainly don’t hang out and drink and wait around for another serving of honestly not-very-good sex.
Look, I don’t want to bag on his sexual performance. I’m sure the sex is no good mostly because you two aren’t a pair. You don’t appeal to him because he doesn’t have to work hard enough to get your attention. He thinks you’re beneath him somehow, because that’s how you act. You laugh and ask him for advice, and he eats it up. He loves the ego boost, because you’re cute and you want him, but he doesn’t really want to be with someone who wants him. He wants to work harder than that. He’s not into being adored right now. He’s into intrigue.
The same could be said for you, actually. You’re hooked on intrigue, so you’re putting this guy on a pedestal while nice guys get blown off. Even so, you know in your heart of hearts that you want someone who’s more steadfast and more serious than this moody stoner of yours, someone who might calm your anxieties — not with condescension but with genuine love and support. You want someone who’s funny and playful, sure, but also respectful and engaged. You want to feel relaxed around a guy, not intimidated and invisible and not quite clever enough. You don’t want to think fast on your feet. You want to be who you really are: an awkward, talkative, blemished, anxious person with a big heart.
If you REALLY don’t want to be a smooth, sexy package for some dude, though, you’d better open up your mind and your heart and stop chasing smooth, sexy man packages.
Nice guys take time to get to know. Sitting down across from a nice guy and having dinner and talking can be misleading. Sometimes they don’t express themselves that well. Sometimes they’re boring. Sometimes when they talk about love, they sound overly earnest, and it’s strange to imagine someone who falls for you before you fall for him. It’s unfamiliar, and it must mean that guy is somehow inferior.
But thinking that way makes you just as bad as your petulant stoner friend. When you don’t like insecurities or anxieties in men that’s a reflection of the fact that you don’t like those traits in yourself, and maybe you don’t like yourself in general. Aren’t you insecure? Aren’t you anxious? If you were a guy, wouldn’t you be a little awkward?
Sometimes I’m so glad I’m not a man, I could just cry. Be a gentleman, hold the door, pay for dates? Be macho, don’t hold the door, move in for the kiss? I would be the geekiest, most flaccid, least macho man on the entire planet. I would hide in an underground cave with a giant stack of ‘60s-era Playboys, and pizza boxes would stack up around me until I was buried alive under them.
You’ve got to change your whole mindset. You’re fucked and then kicked to the curb, but you keep picking yourself up off the curb and going back for more. Where is your pride? Why do you treat yourself like someone who deserves moody-dude leftovers? Why do you assume that he’s smarter than you? A love of pot and a strong drive to entertain sometimes looks like superpowered smarts when it’s really just overstimulated insecurity on autopilot. Do you see how beneath you it is to even notice what this petulant dude and his flavor of the month are doing together?
You said, “I felt jealous and upset and inferior, but I found his attention validating.” You sound like someone who fought pretty hard for her parents’ attention as a kid. Repeating that pattern now is compulsive, and it has to stop. Uninterested guys might feel like home and therefore like true love, and nice guys who care a lot might feel like aliens, but you MUST try on a whole new mindset, in which aliens reveal themselves as YOUR PEOPLE. Because they are your people.
I want you to imagine a guy who makes you feel comfortable and funny and wise. I want you to imagine a guy who brings you (interesting, eclectic) flowers and sings you (funny, profane) love songs. I want you to take yourself as you are right now — confused, upset, flawed, with a terrible recent track record of being rejected — and I want you to picture yourself looking right into the eyes of another confused, flawed human being and saying, “I accept you for who you are.” That’s the starting point. Not some awkward date. Not some after-the-fact relationship talk. The starting point is the moment the nice guy you’ve slowly befriended blossoms before your eyes, revealing that he’s funny and weird and a little forgetful, and he has a big heart. (And he’s great in bed, too. IMAGINE THAT.)
You don’t have to change anything to get there. You just have to look with clear eyes at where you are right now and recognize how you sell yourself short every single day. You have to see clearly how unfair you are to yourself. You have to resolve once and for all to protect yourself and care for yourself and keep yourself safe from indifferent dudes and shitty situations.
You don’t have to settle anymore. You can decide right now: genuine interest, genuine focus, or nothing. Because nothing is much, much better than something that makes you obsessive and sad all the time. Compared to that, nothing can feel pretty goddamn good indeed.
Don’t give up. I know it’s hard to go through this over and over again. But things will get better soon. Look with clear eyes at where you really want to be, and start walking.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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