I read your column religiously, not only for the wise perspective it provides but also for your style of writing that makes it so easy to relate to. I feel like I trust you and the worldview through which you interpret people’s letters. I hope you can make some sense out of mine!
I recently turned 27, and I feel like I’m reckoning with some of my 20-something lady experiences now and trying to process how they impacted me, especially when it comes to my love life. When I say “love life,” I laugh a little because it’s been pretty much nonexistent up to this point. I feel a little silly sending this letter, because my issues in love do not include stories of cheating or breakups or anything like that. I have never been in a long-term relationship but mostly have been on terrible dates or have attached myself to men who do not reciprocate or want anything serious with me. The last two “relationships,” if you could call them that, ended in very humiliating ways. One guy was a friend for a while, and I ended up developing feelings for him but found it really difficult to be honest with him about it. We danced the line of flirting and intimacy but never in an overt way that forced us to confront what we meant to each other. He ended up meeting another woman, and while we were hanging out one day, he told me we “couldn’t do this anymore,” implying that there was a “this” in the first place. He ceased all contact with me and went on to seriously date this other girl. I realized I had never developed feelings like that for anyone before, all-consuming feelings, but I minimized the impact of his ghosting because it was humiliating to think that it had happened to me. I felt like a joke.
The second experience was with a guy who was a friend of my sister’s. I met him at a few gatherings and parties. Whenever I saw him, he seemed to seek me out, and we got along very well. One particular night, I interpreted his interactions with me as flirty and very intentional, to the point that other people were noticing and telling me that we should go out together. Granted, I’m terrible at knowing when a guy is flirting with me, and I know this has to do with my low self-esteem. But it felt very obvious to go for it. I ended up asking him out, and he excitedly accepted! We had to postpone the date, he never texted me back to reschedule and then, when I saw him again, he didn’t bring it up. I confronted him via text, and he minimized it, saying he thought I just wanted to hang out as friends and didn’t think it was a date.
The situation could’ve been fine. I got over the weird miscommunication and embarrassment, and we were cool. But wait, there’s more! Remember when I mentioned he was a friend of my sister’s? Well, they started dating a couple of months later. They are now engaged and have moved in together in a completely different state. Even as I write this, I don’t know how to feel. Am I supposed to laugh because it’s a little absurd and I keep trying to minimize it, or do I feel the real hurt and humiliation it caused me?
The deepest feeling that rises to the surface when I think about these experiences is shame. Shame that I chose these guys to have feelings for and to get hung up on for too long. Shame that I didn’t adequately stand up for myself or speak honestly about how it made me feel. Shame that I feel too many emotions or feel too much pain about relationships that didn’t happen and for people who didn’t care about me. Shame that because it’s my sister, who I love, I have to just be present at family gatherings while he talks about loving my sister for years, and I was just a little blip on the map that he never fully addressed when they got together.
Some days, I feel like I was able to grow from these experiences and find my own self-love. Other days, I feel eternally blocked from loving and trusting another human. I’ve dated since these experiences, but I feel blocked from intimacy of any kind that would evolve into a long-term commitment. I feel fulfilled in other areas of my life: I enjoy running as a therapeutic experience, I’m in grad school to become a social worker, I love my friends and family. However, I do want to meet someone to go through life with and experience real, true reciprocal love with. I feel like I stand in my own way, and I sometimes feel that I’m not worth it. How do I change this narrative in my head?
I Need a Different Story
One of the saddest things about growing up in our culture is that we’re taught to associate unrequited feelings with shame. We’re taught to adore a God we can’t see or feel, we’re told to love our parents and friends who often seem to underestimate or misunderstand us, and we’re instructed to embrace the whole world even when it doesn’t seem to love us back. But when we love someone romantically and that person doesn’t seem to feel the same way, that means we’re pathetic and deluded.
The situations you describe might look embarrassing after the fact. But in the moment, what bad choices did you make? You were extremely conservative with the first guy and didn’t express your feelings directly, only to discover that some mutual attraction must’ve existed all along (otherwise, why would he refer to it as “this” and imply that it was causing him distress?). With the second guy, you gathered up your courage and expressed yourself, only to discover that he had strong feelings for your sister all along (which doesn’t mean he wasn’t interested in you for a while, too). I don’t think you’re someone who misreads situations at all. I think you accurately read the first situation but were fearful about making a move. Then you accurately read the second situation and made a move, thereby providing a catalyst for your sister and her future fiancé to admit that they liked each other.
What did you do that was shameful? Nothing. You were too reserved with the first guy, so you tried to be bolder with the second guy. All good! But when situations get murky and confusing, women are usually the ones who helpfully soak up all the ambient shame in the room. Even though the most likely scenario is that your sister’s boyfriend had a longtime crush on her, didn’t act on it, found himself attracted to you as well, realized that he’d mess things up with your sister if he ever spent time with you and then corrected course and finally stepped up to the plate with her, somehow you’re the sad reject? I don’t buy it. You not only clearly expressed your feelings, which marks a massive step forward for you, but you did your sister and her future husband a big favor by forcing him to reckon with his feelings for her.
Part of the infrequently addressed problem is that some straight men will never, ever make a move on anyone, ever. They know they can wait it out and eventually most women will pick up on the hints and do it for them. Some men also (rightfully!) worry that making a move will be received badly. In a world filled with clueless men making unwelcome advances, it’s not that hard for a man to resolve not just to avoid hitting on women but to write off any and all direct expressions of interest as unduly risky. Moreover, if he makes too strong a case for his feelings for someone he doesn’t know that well yet, he could end up either turning off the kind of avoidant woman who has trouble maintaining interest in any man who’s openly interested in her, or he could be misread as looking for something serious before he even knows if he’s truly interested (or capable of seriousness).
I tend to side pretty unabashedly with women in all things. What can I say? I have my biases. We all do. But let’s just go out on a not very thin limb and admit that there are a million and one ways to be blamed for fucking something up as a single man. Boldness in men is not always rewarded at this moment in history — for good reasons. Caution is warranted.
Caution is also warranted for women, for much more dangerous, high-stakes reasons. But let’s cast aside the more upsetting scenarios and just assume for a second that two straight human beings are mutually interested in each other but they don’t know how or when to show it. If the man is sensitive and aware and thoughtful, he’s also probably cautious. He might wait a long-ass time not just to say something about his interest but also to take the risk of feeling his feelings at all. He might wait a loooong time not just to speak up but also to stick his neck out in any way whatsoever or open himself up to the idea that love might improve his life in some way.
I have a bunch of single friends right now, and one thing I keep coming back to, in talking to them and also talking to my husband about their situations, is that many straight men are slow, avoidant, risk-averse worriers who are exceptionally fearful of getting tricked into an extended entanglement with an even mildly assertive woman. (She might be crazy! She might try to control you and end up ruining your life!) But they also want a woman to lead emotionally — as in, Nothing will ever happen if she doesn’t.
And if the woman doesn’t take the lead and push things a little, guess what? Dude can wait forever. In fact, I have to say this, even though I know I’m painting with a very large brush indeed: Lots of straight guys just don’t give a fuck about love on a day-to-day basis. They aren’t that romantic. They don’t like intrigue that much. Words are not really a thing with them. So you have to be directly in front of their faces for them to care. They have to feel it, in person. Otherwise? It’s just not at the top of their agendas.
The other thing is that most men are avoidant. They get flinchy when you try to pin them down. They won’t address emotional shit directly unless they’re under extreme duress. So even though YOU KNOW WHAT THE FUCK IS UP, you can’t say it in words. They hate that. They don’t want you explaining anything. They don’t want you defining things. And even though the dude WAS RIGHT THERE and YOU KNEW WHAT WAS HAPPENING, IT WAS OBVIOUS, that motherfucker will pretend there was nothing there at all.
Did I mention that most men are also ruled by shame? Even though women tend to bear the brunt of the shame in any misfire, men chart their courses in order to avoid shame at all costs. Because it’s too easy to be painted as weak or pathetic as a man when it comes to feelings. It’s something all men have to steer around constantly, so often that it affects their ability to feel much of anything at all.
So look. I know that was a lot of words dedicated to convincing you of HOW COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE IT IS TO BE A SINGLE WOMAN RIGHT NOW. But I need to lay it all out for you. Why? Because we need to shake alllllll of this shame off your back right this minute, and we need to get you back out there in the world, showing your full self, being your bold self, expressing yourself, and reaching out for love without fear.
Because love is the best, the best, the absolute best, motherfucker! Of course you want to embrace love and not be ruled by idiotic relationships or dead-end infatuations. Of course you want to remain confident and independent — you already know that about yourself. Should you steer cautiously around love the way these dudes so often do? Fuck no! Because love matters. Sometimes you have to remind a straight man of that. Sometimes you have to remind him JUST BY BEING YOU.
So stop soaking up all of the ambient shame in the room. Picture it rolling off you onto the floor. It doesn’t belong to you, so it can’t stick. Your sister and her fiancé are the ones who have to process and accept the fact that he liked you. That project is much higher stakes and longer term than anything you need to worry about. If they want to pretend that you were the only interested party and you got rejected, just let them. The less you try to defend your position, the clearer it will be to anyone observing the situation that it’s a tiny bit more complicated than it appears. Bite your tongue and let them tell whatever story they want to tell. Don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with you.
We all have a million and one reasons for fearing love. We’re all very susceptible to bad stories about what unrequited interest means about our value as human beings. I’ve noticed this lately as a parent: Even confident kids often collect reasons why they’ll never be fully loved and they’ll never completely fit in with others. That compulsive accounting is just an echo of our culture’s poisonous notions about value and human connection. We all grow up believing that somehow the other human beings around us are giving us vital stats on what we’re worth.
If you want to love and be loved, the very best thing you can do is to stop looking for feedback from others about how lovable or shameful you are, and build your own religion around how you deserve love and respect and you’re going to circumnavigate shame at every turn. The pain of heartbreak isn’t actually so terrible, once you subtract shame from the picture.
Embrace love and heartbreak alike. Embrace the light and the darkness that come with feeling your truest desires. Embrace your absurd power as a woman who is starting to develop a clearer understanding of her own worth. Embrace your role as THE ONE WHO HAS TO BE BOLD SOMETIMES OR NOTHING WILL FUCKING HAPPEN.
People will try to feed you their shame and make you feel weak and rejected. Accept that and let it go as much as you can. It’s time to tell your own story now. And by the way, women always have to learn to tell their own stories, because the dominant story never does us justice. It’s time to start building a private religion around who you are and what you believe in.
I believe in love. If you do too, then feel that and live it and talk about it and never, ever be ashamed of it. This world needs us. If you have the courage to stand up for love, to give your love generously, to lead by example, to throw your love out there without worrying about who loves you back, then do that. Let someone else hang back and feel ashamed. That’s not you. You greet the sky with open arms. You embrace whatever comes next. That’s how love finds you.
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