‘Is Agreeing to a Casual Relationship Undignified?’

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Dear Polly,

I am a 44-year-old woman who grew up in a toxic, abusive, dysfunctional home. Very poor. Married a narcissist when I was 20 years old, was abused by him, had children with him, and was cheated on by him for 20 years. It did not matter how I gave my heart and soul to that man, everything about me was wrong. Finally I finished a bachelor’s degree at the age of 35, completed tons of therapy, found a good job, and manifested a tribe of healthy boss-ass women friends — I broke free and divorced the abusive husband three years ago.

Shortly after I divorced, I met a man ten years younger who I believe was a soul mate. He loved me better than any man of my entire (very shortly single) life. Better than any person of my entire life. He SAW me. We dated two years. We didn’t end up marrying because his parents are very wealthy as well as very influential over him and they did not approve of me despite my best efforts at cleaning up all fancy. (Though I never walked their line or kissed any proverbial ass, oh hell no.) Anyway, I wasn’t aware elitism is alive and well in common folks’ lives. Breaking up with him was like a crime against nature. (Oh how we had danced together!! Barefoot in kitchens, fed each other, surprised one another, held one another while we cried, acted out fantasies, lived basically in each other’s pockets, dear lord!) That was over a year ago. After seven months of being in an actual (and then just emotional) fetal position, I continued therapy and adopted a radical self-love program for the first time in my entire life. I feel I am better.

I have been dating off and on for seven months. In that time I have only met two men who stir a passion in me. Each of the two told me they had never been so attracted to anyone in their lives, but both had reasons (ones they gave me, anyway) why they didn’t want a relationship with me. The second man who was super-excited about me in the beginning was also pretty concerned all along about the distance, as we live 2.5 hours apart in good weather. He told me he just didn’t think he could continue a long-distance relationship. His whole family lives in his town, and I have a child who won’t graduate for 1.5 years. He was incredibly kind and exceptionally respectful and communicative about where he was at. We said good-bye, but then I reached out to him a couple of days later. Sigh. Now he wants only to see me when he travels through my town, which he does every few weeks. I’ve broken it off with him twice in total, only to break down and contact him again when I get lonely. I went to his home once for a weekend, back when we were “dating,” but now he never asks me to visit and doesn’t offer to come see me (when my kids are at their dad’s), only when business brings him through. He said he is super-happy when he’s with me, and wants to continue, but when he drives home it bums him out royally and doesn’t want the stress of always missing me. He wants someone local.

I guess my question after all this is: Am I compromising my dignity if I see him on the rare occasion? He is incredibly responsive to me if I ever contact him (which is truly rare; I told him I don’t want a texting relationship), he treats me like a lady when we are together, remembers specifics about my life and my likes, insists on paying for me and in all ways is loving and affectionate. It’s absurd because he also gets jealous (but not stupidly so). I figure the day will come when one of us tells the other we’ve met someone else, or we’ll just stop communicating altogether.

But I like him. I just wonder if I’m compromising my dignity giving companionship and sex to a man who doesn’t want to give commitment to me. If he were not so quiet, reserved, respectful, kind, and ridiculously sweet, I wouldn’t even consider it. And I’m not avoiding meeting other men. I tell myself my life has been so bereft of kindness it’s nice to occasionally just be PRESENT with someone and not worry about the DESTINATION. (But if I’m truly honest, I am pretty sad after our “hangouts.” The sadness is minimized because I’ve told him he can’t contact me unless it’s to set up plans. No chitchat.)

I just want to eventually enjoy love and fidelity. My childhood and marriage were full of trauma and grief. I didn’t taste love and contentment in a relationship until I was 40 years old, and now I’m hooked. But does seeing men after they declare they only want something casual with me just reinforce that theme of “I am not good enough”? Because I KNOW I am. Even if I don’t feel it all the time.

Hoping for Enduring Love

Dear HFEL,

There are two things I don’t like about your current situation. First, you never visit his town and he doesn’t invite you there. You’re only 2½ hours away, which is not far. And your kid graduates in 1½ years, which is not long to wait until you can be closer. The idea that he needs to have “someone local” for the next year and a half until you could move doesn’t make sense to me. He can’t conceive of a way to maintain a real relationship, alternating between your place and his, when you’re that close and you have joint custody of your kids? It doesn’t add up.

Second, he broke up with you, and you reached out two days later. I don’t mean to scold you for that, I’ve done it a million times. But here’s the thing — and this applies to everybody under the sun, so listen up, citizens of the fucking world: When a guy tells you he can’t get serious (sweetly! Carefully!) and then you get lonely and contact him and sleep with him, what you’re telling him is that you are still down to fuck even if his heart isn’t in it or he has reservations or whatever. And that’s fine, if you really, truly don’t mind and aren’t curious about his reasons. The problem is, the second you mind a little bit, you will wonder: Is this logistical? Is he actually not that into it? Is he protecting himself? Or does he just want the good sex without any emotional attachments? Is that part of his permanent emotional landscape, actually? And how do I feel about any of those possibilities?

This is an impossible, neuroses-inducing trap for any woman. And here’s the problem: It doesn’t actually matter which of these things is true, as long as you are someone who wants an all-in relationship and he is someone who doesn’t want that with you. Men tend to tell elaborate stories about their circumstances and yours and timing and the phases of the moon, but the truth is simple: You are either willing to hurl your entire body and soul at the chance of a universe-bending love affair, or you aren’t. It’s not about marriage. It’s not about destination. It’s about temperament and desire and romantic vision and fortitude.

You are someone who goes all in. You know this. I know you’re still dating, but the presence of this affair changes the nature of that dating. It also changes the nature of your time alone. I think you’re very afraid of taking away that hedge and just being totally ALONE. It’s understandable, after so many years of marriage. But being alone might be exactly what you need, in the absence of an all-in relationship. I’m not saying YOU MUST SPEND TIME ALONE. I’m saying that from what you’ve said, you’re the kind of person who is best served either alone or with someone who’s 100 percent in.

And you care about passion and respect, a lot. You’ve learned to set boundaries and treat yourself as precious. Congratulations on landing here! But by letting him see you whenever he happens to swing into town, what you’ve just done is downgraded yourself from a luxurious restaurant that serves the finest cuisine but requires a lot of time and effort and money and energy to visit to a convenience store that serves Ho Hos in plastic wrap that you can shove down your gullet as you whip through town. And once you let the motherfucker swing by and grab a Ho Ho, guess what? You are nothing but a Ho Ho to him.

I realize that makes me sound like a very old lady in pearls telling women terrible clichéd tales about expensive cows and free milk and how important it is to ultimately BE A COW. But I would prefer to never use livestock metaphors when your heart is involved, so let’s go back to snacks with regressively insulting names instead: Some language and some actions and behaviors FEEL insulting even when you know they shouldn’t be. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you know intellectually; you have to trust your feelings instead. I say this as someone with years of experience packaging myself as a quick and easy convenience food, sweet and empty, for every nice-seeming-but-ambivalent guy within shouting distance. I did not make it difficult on anyone, ever! “Is your coffee hot enough? Do you want napkins with that? Here, let me take that trash, you’re in a hurry!”

I knew that I was worth a lot — at least, I knew that some of the time. But I always told myself a story about how few men were around. I had to work with whatever I could find. I liked that feeling of improvising, too, of fitting neatly into someone else’s world, at their convenience. It took me out of my own life and my own head. But I settled. I settled for really nice, polite, sweet, good guys who were otherwise not that interesting or even that interested. It seemed like enough of a victory that I could recognize the selfish bad guys and steer clear of them. (I have great narcissistic-douchebag radar, as I’m sure you do, too, after your long marriage to one.) But I didn’t ask myself hard questions about how much we really had to say to each other. I didn’t ask myself if a guy was smart enough for me. What the fuck is that? When you’re a smart person, a very smart partner is just the greatest thing in the world. Someone who can actually keep up? My God, what a blessing. You need a guy you love talking with. It’s important. This guy might be smart enough for you. All I’m saying is that you deserve to ask yourself if you are completely into him. Women who’ve put up with a lot of bullshit often forget that they don’t have to jump for joy over a guy just because he’s nice. Nice is a prerequisite, and it’s important. But I think you need to be reminded that you are the decider here, and you have lots of choices.

When I was single, I often worked hard to stay in control of reality instead of watching and listening and waiting to see what came next. I didn’t insist on a guy’s full attention, time, energy, and patience from the very beginning. And when a guy got ambivalent, I didn’t say, “You can’t come into my luxury restaurant, you’re not even wearing a suit jacket!” I said, “Oh shit, you look like you’re in a hurry, do you want that in a bag? Ketchup and mustard? Straws? Okay then, HAVE A NICE DAY!”

I suspect that the only reason you’ve managed to stay with this guy this long is because you’ve set such clear boundaries with him: You may come to my fucking Quickie Mart if you make an appointment but DO NOT SHOW UP IN THE PARKING LOT UNANNOUNCED. This also explains his good behavior, beyond being a nice person: He knows that if he fucks up, you’ll kick him to the curb. All good! I would take all of that progress to the next level by making a commitment to what you want the most: You want a serious relationship. You like to be completely, madly in love with someone, and half-measures feel, to you, like fear and weakness.

And why shouldn’t they? Look at how brave and strong you’ve been! You know what you want, don’t you? You say it over and over in your letter! You had this whirlwind romance and you loved it, dancing in the kitchen, crying, acting out fantasies. It’s amazing that you landed there, just a few months after your divorce. You found someone willing to show up and give you everything he had.

Step back and admit it, though: You are someone who can work with whatever you’re given, and sometimes that means you have a tendency to settle. I never really saw myself that way, but the second I realized it, it changed everything. I was always worried that I was too picky, because I am judgmental and impatient in most areas. Whenever I was single, I would walk around saying I NEVER LIKE ANYONE, NO ONE TURNS ME ON! But when I looked closely at my dating history, I could see that I wasn’t really in danger of never finding anyone. My biggest danger was settling. I was a settler.

So I changed my tune. I started to say, “Welp, based on history, I’ll have a boyfriend within the year, so right now I just want to savor every glorious day I have left to do exactly what I want to do, by myself, without any constraints!”

And that, my friend, felt really goddamn good, down deep in my bones. My scarcity mentality flew out the window. I loved being single. I loved feeling so strong and alive and good in my skin. Everybody seemed to want me bad, overnight, but I would say things like, “Nah, I have too many boyfriends right now” and also “You don’t really want to date me, I’m very tough on men, you would hate it.” I went from taking nice men too seriously to taking NO MEN seriously. It was so relaxing.

It does get confusing, because dudes start trying to prove that they’re all in. They can afford the luxurious seven-course meal! They can show up for meal after meal, listen forever, just for a kiss! All of that fawning is tough to take seriously, too. It’s weird how just resolving not to sleep with anyone until you feel completely comfortable and interested flips everything on its head. And just telling the truth — “I’m pretty bossy, you should think twice, honestly” — scares off the flinchy ones and attracts the guys who understand that all women are human beings, complex and difficult and flawed.

So that’s my advice to you, and to all women who find themselves in this strange world where they’re repeatedly told that their ideas and experiences and needs matter, but somehow that’s not how it feels. Trust your feelings and protect yourself. Let him show up and ask questions and linger over a million and one meals, and if you never feel like touching him, don’t fucking do it. That’s your right. Take a Sharpie and write it on your forehead. YOU DON’T OWE ANYONE ANYTHING. If you feel conflicted and sad, listen to that. If you think you might be entering a situation that’s a little rushed or feels beneath your dignity, get the fuck out, swiftly and sweetly and with zero apologies. Rehearse your exit strategy in advance.

Have empathy for men when appropriate. I feel terrible about the lies that men are fed by our culture, and how it keeps them alienated from their own complexity. Who knows what’s going on with this guy, that he can’t stand to drive a few hours to be with someone who makes him so happy? But you also need to let it go. The men of the world are not your fucking puzzle to solve. Let them eat Hostess CupCakes! You own the best restaurant in the entire fucking world, five stars, lines around the block, and if you want to close the goddamn doors and savor every bite all by yourself, you can do that. You are the goddam maître d’. And no, that’s not regressive. That is called understanding and respecting yourself as a human being with needs.

You’re better than you’ve ever been in your life. Men (and also bad-ass women) are crazy about you for a very good reason. You are a force to be reckoned with. Do not ever, ever, sell yourself short. You are precious and formidable. Celebrate that today, tomorrow, and always.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Is Agreeing to a Casual Relationship Undignified?’