I recently went through a mental health crisis triggered by burnout, then a breakup, both right before lockdown. I feel good now, and I know a big part of what got me here is having consistently done the work to honor my inconvenient feelings over the past half-decade. I have worked with a therapist to unpack how my childhood fuels my perfectionism, I work every day to cultivate self-compassion for my deeply flawed self and others. I’m 30, and though I love solitude and I’m too pessimistic about climate change to procreate, I also believe that being in deep, sustained relation with another person is one of the big wonders and joys of being alive. I know at some point I’ll start dating again. That’s where I falter.
My relationship was the serious, cohabiting type. People were probably expecting some kind of schmaltzy Instagram engagement announcement from us any day. Neither of us cared about these heteronormative milestones, but we had different expectations of what it takes to make a long-term relationship work. I may not have been set on marriage, but I did want a partner that actively showed up to connect with me on an emotional level, with each of us mining the depths of our own bullshit to learn how to better relate to one another and build a productive and joyful life together. My ex, on the other hand, was confused about why I always wanted to make things more complicated than they needed to be. He wanted to coast through life, never feeling the depths of despair but never quite reaching the height of joy either.
I live in the U.K., and I’m struck by the fact that a significant number of women I know are in some form of this exact relationship dynamic: emotionally avoidant men who are disinclined (both culturally and personally) to see any reason to fix that, partnered with emotionally evolved (if anxious) high-functioning women who are secretly harboring hope that their partner one day decides to Do the Work to make the relationship better. I hoped my ex would Do the Work for so long. We started going to couples therapy in the last few months of our relationship, but by then it was too late. As someone who thinks doing your own shadow work is the most fascinating and urgent part of being alive, it was hard to find myself dating someone who more or less saw the whole thing as a frivolous lark. My feelings sent him into fight or flight mode every single time we had conflict.
As the dust settles, I’m wondering: Is it okay for me to categorically state that I will never again bind my life to someone who hasn’t been through therapy? I know therapy may not be for everyone on earth, but I’ve yet to see an alternative that is rigorous and practical. If I do move forward with that belief, I have to acknowledge that my dating pool will be almost comically small.
Friends say I just need to get over this one; we all fall in love again. And sure, maybe one day I’ll fall so madly in love with someone that I’m able to overlook the warning signs of their emotional avoidance. But I’m not sure I actually want that to happen. Nothing feels more important to me than being able to honor the full spectrum of my big, inconvenient, and complex feelings for the rest of my life, without any shame or suppression — even if that means I have to do that while steering my own ship.
Am I the Avoidant One?
In my experience, most men are avoidant, most people in Western societies share the belief that vulnerability is weakness, and many high-functioning professionals have a stunning ability to gloss over emotions and back away from human complexities — in themselves, in others, in the world. Our disjointed, individualistic, workaholic culture feeds us the myth that personal achievement and personal wealth are the foundations of human happiness, and anything that slows or blocks a person’s path to riches and glory is an inherent waste of time or, at the very least, a questionable use of one’s resources.
Many people today seem to believe that feelings are inconvenient and thorny and need to be swept out of the way as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Moreover, some people treat therapy more like a SoulCycle class: less a way of exploring their darkness, and more a way of becoming a more smooth and efficient animal.
And as you know, efficiency is somewhat at odds with the patience and openness required by deep self-discovery. When you’re Doing the Work, exploring past traumas, understanding your own shadow, cultivating an inner life, and excavating your shame, you’re seeking out new mysteries and new layers all the time. Being surprised or embarrassed or alarmed by what you find inside yourself is part of what makes it all so rewarding. It’s part of dare I say the FUN of therapy and of independent self-discovery. So in my opinion, that’s the big question you want to ask when you encounter a prospective mate. More than “Is this man avoidant?” or “Is this man in therapy?” you want to ask, “Is this man curious and open to learning new things — about me, about himself, about his past, about my past, about the world?”
When someone really wants to understand how your mind and heart work, it shows. People like that ask open-ended questions and listen to the answers. They’re attracted to the workings of your mind, thrilled by the big ideas you throw into the mix, excited by the process of excavation itself. In contrast, less curious people will attach tight little morals to the things you say — “You got through it, that’s the important part.” “Sounds like a good learning experience.” “Boy, that’s a lot. Glad it all worked out fine in the end.” People who talk like that are anxious to wrap everything up and then close the book, put it back on the shelf, and never think about it again.
I’m guessing that’s not remotely your style, based on your letter. It’s not my style, either. And when I’m dealing with someone who keeps pushing me to reach some predetermined conclusion, like it’s not just uncomfortable but it’s aggravating for them to have to stay in some exploratory nowhere land with me, I usually don’t end up investing as much in that relationship. I prefer conversations that spin out and remain open ended. I like people who get excited when they encounter new wrinkles and layers and ideas along the way. I love curious people who enjoy rambling, collaborative conversations about emotions and ideas and everything else under the sun.
But let me also say this: I really like avoidant men (and avoidant people in general). Everyone in my family of origin is avoidant. They feel like my tribe. So my favorite people tend to be a weird blend of these two worlds: intellectually and emotionally curious people who are pretty open but still just a tiny bit shut down and insecure in various ways. I like people who are conflicted but curious, who lead with their intellect but who are also trying to evolve emotionally in spite of not knowing what the fuck they’re doing on that front most of the time.
It can be a little limiting to think of men as either totally avoidant/unavailable or completely available, open, sensitive, feelings-embracing. The truth is much more nuanced than that. I would caution you to use those labels to describe just one dimension of what you’re looking for, with a lot of men falling somewhere in between the two extremes.
And also? Pay close attention to what you find attractive! These days most of us are so cautious about labeling other people as good or bad, my type or not my type, healthy or toxic that we forget to trust and also explore our own attractions and desires without judgment. “Oh no, I’m chasing another remote man!” we tell ourselves, only to discover that the man in question isn’t all that remote, and in fact, we’re naturally drawn to men who are just absent-minded or preoccupied because there’s a lot going on in their heads. Likewise, it’s easy to write someone off as too confessional or sensitive for you at first simply because your initial conversation just happened to start off that way, but if you got to know the person more slowly, they’d seem more balanced over time.
Now, it’s true that the world is packed with emotionally incurious people. And why wouldn’t it be? It takes a certain amount of confidence and security to want to know more about trauma, darkness, and layers of emotional complexity, in yourself or others. It takes a crisis or a major loss for most people to face themselves or to want to understand their own desires and needs. Something big needs to go wrong: a career setback, a divorce, the death of a loved one, a scary health diagnosis, a big falling out with friends. Otherwise, why go looking for trouble, particularly if other people have hinted that you’re a little shutdown? Most people are pretty insecure and pretty afraid of finding out the truth about who they are. They don’t even want to know what their true desires are, because what if those desires don’t align with how they’re already living or where they’re pointed? The risks of slowing down, stalling out, and questioning everything are too great.
Even though most people value human connection enormously, they often don’t realize that what’s blocking their path to happiness is their inability to feel their own emotions and connect meaningfully with the people around them. Many people struggle with intimacy. There’s a panicked voice inside that kicks in any time they’re about to get closer to someone, that urges them to move away from any strong connection. Even if they start out showing up, their buried insecurities and traumas make them increasingly remote and cold with the people who are, ironically, the closest to them emotionally. Some part of their brains is always trying to keep them safe from all emotional investment.
Some of these people are avoidant and some are anxious, but mostly, they’re afraid. They don’t want to be vulnerable, they’re afraid to connect, they don’t want to be seen by others. Their underlying belief is that once they have enough friends, find a mate, and start to succeed at their careers, happiness will magically be theirs. They have to hit the wall sometimes to realize that they don’t feel happy because they’ve put their feelings aside for so long that they can’t access them anymore.
So part of what you’re looking for is actually bravery: someone who’s curious, engaged, interested in ideas, and unafraid of the unknown. Are men like this common? Definitely not, but they do exist. Should you lower your standards or cast a wider net simply because men like this are rare? I don’t think so. I think you should dare to believe that the kind of man you’re looking for will materialize before your eyes if you open your heart wide enough. Is that deluded? Is it magical thinking? I don’t personally care that much if it is. I’ve seen it work too many times not to believe in it wholeheartedly.
If you want to fall in love again, it doesn’t help to tell yourself a story about how rare it is to find someone worthwhile. Instead, you have to keep believing in your own process of self-discovery and keep enjoying the folds of your mind. When you embrace all of the possibilities offered by the world and enjoy the endless potential for passion and joy within you, you stand out to other people who are trying to do the same thing. Just taking that leap and believing in joy is sometimes the most important step. This world is big and full of beauty. Keep reminding yourself of that, every day, and watch yourself become a sparkling model of the love and the joy you seek.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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