Tell me if this sounds familiar: (1) He likes to “grab drinks” but never meet for dinner; (2) He forgets the basics, like where you’re from, the name of your sister, and whether you thought it was blue and black or white and gold; (3) He tells stories that, while amusing, have the whiff of recycled anecdotes; (4) He’s charming but not intimate; 5) He’s vaguely aware of your birthday the way he’s vaguely aware of Columbus Day; and finally, most crucially, (6) He hasn’t had a serious relationship in years. These are the symptoms of a flabby Boyfriend Muscle.
I was recently diagnosed with this condition. We met the old-fashioned way (OkCupid). I liked her, I think she liked me, we saw each other once a week, we texted every day, and things seem to have, as they say, “potential.” Then one night, after a couple of months, my iPhone does this strange thing where it emits a loud, curious sound, which I can only describe as a “ringing”-type noise, and apparently it received something called a “phone call.” She was calling me.
After the Awkward Pause of Doom, she said, “I’m not getting what I need from this.” And I can’t blame her. She would have liked me to call her sometimes — (two months, zero calls) — ask about her day, maybe take her somewhere fun that’s not a bar. “I’m not saying I need this when I first meet someone. I don’t,” she said, calm, reasonable, and not in the mood for bullshit. “But after a couple of months?”
These are fair things to expect in a courtship. It’s Suitor 101. She wasn’t asking for a horse-drawn carriage, mixtapes, or the second coming of Lloyd Dobler. She just wanted the basics. And I realized that these are things that I used to be good at. In my 20s, I was a good boyfriend. I once did things like surprise my girlfriend with trinkets, or maybe arrange a picnic with her favorite snacks, or even, yes, buy her flowers. But that seems so long ago. I remember those days with the same fuzzy nostalgia as when, say, I could do 20 pull-ups.
I’ve lost my boyfriend muscle. And I’m not alone. Take my friend Shawn, 39, a filmmaker and DJ, who pulls twentysomething women into his tractor beam, oozing charisma, like a younger version of The Most Interesting Man in the World. “I’m good at being single. And I’ve fully embraced being selfish,” says Shawn, who hasn’t worn the label “boyfriend” since 2008. “But the more distance I have from the last relationship, the harder it is to commit. It’s easy to just keep things casual, to always be hopeful about what’s on the horizon, about what that next fucking Tinder swipe could bring.”
Shawn says it takes work to be in a relationship, and after years in his cozy bubble, he finds that work exhausting. “If I’m in a relationship and I’m committed to you, then I’m obligated to call you, and see you, and any time we go out, the pressure is on me to think of something fun to do. But I only have, like, three or four fun things to do. That’s my shtick. With a girlfriend, I can only work my shtick so far and then I’m out of ideas. Whereas if I keep recycling girls, then those three or four fun things will always be fresh.”
Or take another friend of mine, a doctor, also in his late 30s, who hangs with a model-y crowd that pinballs from Ibiza to Art Basel to St. John. “Sometimes I’ll just flake, forget to call her, text her, or whatever you’re supposed to do these days,” he tells me over drinks. After four years of being single, he recently “dabbled” in a quasi-monogamous relationship. It didn’t take.
My friend is largely okay with this. He still loves the Game. Like Shawn, he has doubled-down on the pleasures of his 30s singledom. Unlike these guys, however, I’m no longer content with the hamster wheel of casual dating. I want more. And this has changed over time. In the boozy euphoria of your 20s, it seems foolish — unthinkable, really — to squander your freedom in a relationship. In your early 30s, it’s a toss-up. Now I’m 38. The bulk of my friends have moved on, wifed-up, spawned cute little toddlers. (Years ago I had sworn off marriage and shrugged at this conventional path to happiness, but now I see that these married friends are just, well, really happy.) I found myself at a bar one Friday night, alone, halfheartedly flirting with randoms, wondering what the hell I was doing. Is this it? Is this the fruit of singledom? I swapped numbers with a woman and maybe I texted her and maybe I didn’t; scenes blur. The charms of your 20s are the chores of your 30s.
The working theory, for me at least, was that I could relish being single for as long as I chose, and then, when I shed my fear of commitment, when I was ready to “settle down,” I could flick some switch and instantly become a good boyfriend, husband, father. But I flicked that switch and the room is still dark. I’m no longer afraid of commitment — at least on four days out of five, anyway — but somehow, for whatever reason, I’m unable to bridge Dating Mode to Relationship Mode. But why? I reached out to psychotherapist Rachel Sussman, who tells me that she frequently sees this phenomenon in her male clients. “Repetition makes people better at things. If you’ve been a chronic dater for 10 or 15 years, you’re going to be very good at dating. But the only way you get good at being in a relationship is by being in a relationship. If years go by and the new norm becomes casual dating, well, it’s just like not going to the gym for a long time. You’re going to lose that muscle.”
Hmmm. The other possible explanation is that I just haven’t “met the right woman.” Yet let’s look at the math. It’s grim. As a ballpark estimate, let’s say I’ve been on six first dates a year. Since I was 21, there have been (gulp) 17 years. That’s 102 first dates.
This yields a data-set that’s no longer, as the statisticians would say, a “small sample size.” It stretches credulity to think that NONE OF THESE WOMEN were a good match. Many were amazing. The “I haven’t met the right woman” theory just lets me off the hook. It’s a cop-out.
“As soon as I find the right woman, I’m ready to be a good boyfriend, maybe the best boyfriend I’ve ever been,” another friend of mine argues. He’s a 40-year-old actor in L.A. who routinely dates twentysomethings. “But I sort of want to skip the romantic honeymoon phase and just go straight to the part where we’re a comfortable couple.”
A married buddy of mine, exasperated with this mind-set, tells me, “What you don’t realize is that by perpetually dating in search of your perfect woman, you’re diminishing your ability to be a good boyfriend.” He tells me that being a boyfriend is hard. It takes effort. It means “you have to embrace the fact that someone else is as important as you are.”
Right now, I’m accountable to no one. I spend every night however I please (even if many of those nights, okay, are spent watching NBA League Pass), and I can make a pot of chili and eat bowls of it for ten straight days. The rubber hit the road on that recent phone call, when, even after the breakup was a fait accompli, she took the time to puzzle through my issues. “You want a wife and kids, right?” she asks.
“Jeff, where do you think this woman, this wife of yours, is going to live?” A beat. “She’ll be living in your fucking home. Your home! She’ll be sleeping right next to you. All the time. How are you going to deal with that? You need to practice this shit.”
I ask Sussman, the psychotherapist, what I (and other guys in my shoes) should do in this predicament. “Be in a relationship,” she tells me. She says I need to push past the flaking point. “Let’s say you go out on a couple of dates, and maybe in the old days you would have given up, but you decide to go on Date 3. Soon you learn that she really does make you laugh, you go on more dates, you’re more attracted to her, and now you have a little mini-relationship. Even if she’s not the One, you’re practicing, you’re getting better.” I reach out to Dr. Paulette Sherman, a psychologist, who echoes this advice and even suggests that I use a concrete plan. “Maybe every two weeks when you’re dating someone, do something that works that boyfriend muscle, like getting flowers.”
I’m torn on whether I’ll follow this game plan, as the idea of a “practice girlfriend” feels a touch dishonest. We’ll play that by ear. I am, however, convinced that the boyfriend muscle is a real thing, and that if we don’t at least acknowledge it, we take false comfort in “waiting for the One,” which means that dates No. 103, No. 104, No. 105, ad infinitum, will end the way they usually end.
There are generally two reasons why a guy would be chronically single: (1) He doesn’t want to be in a relationship; or (2) He’s not able to be in a relationship. My premise: These variables are interrelated. We tell ourselves it’s No. 1, but after a while it’s muddied by No. 2. For many (not all) guys who are single, casual dating is a choice the way unhealthy eating is a choice: It’s not a conscious decision, but a habit that takes work to undo. Just as over 30 percent of the nation is clinically obese, my hunch is that, at minimum, 30 percent of the men in New York have lost their boyfriend muscle.
If life were a rom-com, as soon as I embrace this mind-set, I’ll crash bicycles with “the right person” and we’ll laugh and live happily ever after. Life isn’t a rom-com. And the math suggests that the right person, or, more likely, the many right persons, have already come and gone. But I’m still optimistic. So instead of blaming Fate, I’ll reacquaint myself with things like, well, that “ringing” sound in the iPhone. I’ll break routines. I’ll work the muscle. Because after all the slicing and dicing, after all the hemming and hawing, some truth can still be wrung from that oldest of clichés: It’s not her. It’s me.