esther calling

‘I’m Seeing Someone I Really Like — I Just Wished She Liked Me Less’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?. She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

I have, for the last seven years, been in an on-and-off-again relationship with a woman who I am in love with. Every time we break up it’s because she cannot give me the kind of commitment that I want. But I want to move into something more serious. Recently I decided I can’t accept the limits, and I said I’m gonna date other people. I’m 44 — I want a partner. And the first person I matched with was this incredible woman. She’s single, she’s looking for a partner, she’s smart, she’s gorgeous. And, you know, I like her.

However, I want her to like me less.

I just, I keep doing things to ask her to be a little more unavailable. I’m like, why don’t you date other people? Because I know if she dates other people, I’m gonna be more attracted to her. And I don’t know what is wrong with me. I’m 44; I’ve been married and divorced. I’ve been in almost 20 relationships, and I am tired. There is something here that needs to be addressed.

The Phone Call

Esther Perel: Hello, it’s Esther. Pleasure to meet you.

Caller: Nice to meet you.

Esther: And, should we take a deep breath?

You know, I listened very attentively to your question. There was a lot of sadness and a lot of pain and a lot of confusion in your question. Here is how I understood it. I find myself stuck in relationships where I have to fight for crumbs or fight to be loved or fight to be wanted, and when love is given to me generously, freely, I can’t take it. I can’t receive it.

Caller: Yeah. God, that’s hard to hear.

Esther: Mm-hmm. Does that summarize it? Because it’s not the way you said it. It’s the way I heard it.

Caller: It explains why it’s so painful. I don’t like to think of myself that way, but that is the behavior.

Esther: Give me some context to this dilemma.

Caller: As long as I have known what it is to desire somebody, to love someone, to have a crush on someone, all of the people I wanted, I couldn’t have. And it started as a small girl — I knew I was gay from a very young age. And I’ve always had crushes on girls and then women, and they were always straight, and I was gay, and I knew I couldn’t have them.

And so I wanted them as friends, and I would just sort of pursue friendship, and I would take whatever I could get. That’s how I was in middle school. That’s how I was in high school. And so, I have always loved loving other women, and that I think has just followed me into adulthood. The way that I get excited about somebody is, like, wanting to have them. That’s what loving looks like to me — pursuing and getting.

Esther: And not getting.

Caller: Sure.

Esther: Wanting to get, but not getting … mostly.

Caller: Right.

Esther: So you’ve told me what one facet of your experience of loving is. How would you describe your experience of being loved?

Caller: In relationships?

Esther: Mm-hmm.

Caller: Um, I …

Esther: You seem surprised by the question. You’re so busy with the other side.

Caller: Right.

Esther: My pursuing, my making you love me, my making you want me, my extracting this from you … that when I ask you what’s the experience of being loved, which you have been plenty but unable to receive …

Caller: I think maybe just because I don’t think about that.

Esther: Yeah. How weird is that?

Caller: That is weird. I think about it when I’m single, and I’m like, What do I want? Who do I want? I want somebody who’s gonna do X, Y, and Z. But when I think back to the relationships with people that I was in love with, I don’t remember feeling like the best parts of it were about, you know, me being loved by them. It was, like, about me getting to be with them, which is wild. And in fact, I’m a little uncomfortable with the situation I’m in right now, which is that there is a woman who likes me very much. And who I like very much and who, on paper and in real life, is amazing. And she tells me she’s attracted to me. She tells me she likes my mind. She likes the things about me that I like about me. We laugh. We have so much in common, but when she tells me that I am so beautiful or that I’m so smart, it makes me uncomfortable, and I tell her, “I really wish you wouldn’t say that so much.”

Esther: So you tell her, “I wish you wouldn’t say this so much,” and I would tell you, I wish you may ask yourself: What is it about the vulnerability of being chosen, of being given to, what makes me so scared and cringe? When I’m pursuing and not getting, I don’t really feel that vulnerability. I’m in a fight. I’m gonna get, I’m gonna win, I’m striving. When we are striving, we feel stronger, so to speak. When we are receiving, there is a form of surrender. It gives power to the other person on some level.

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: The question is maybe less, “Why do I keep pursuing people who are unavailable?” and maybe more for a change, “Why is it so hard for me to receive from the people who choose me, and I devalue them?” There must be something missing with you because, otherwise, I would want it, but no, I don’t want it. It has nothing to do with the other person.

Caller: Right.

Esther: And you know some of this already, right?

Caller: When you put it like that, yes. I have this, like, really crude way of thinking about people who are affectionate and loving and want to give to me, if I’m honest. And it’s that, like, something’s wrong with them, and I have contempt for it. I don’t know what it is. And you’re right.

Esther: Tell me something about the world that you grew up in. Because this is old …

Caller: Um …

Esther: And you can cry as much as you need.

Caller: Okay. I grew up in a house with two parents that, you know, loved each other, but were very different and very busy.

Esther: Different how?

Caller: My mother met my father doing her Ph.D. in the Caribbean and studying his community and moved back to New York after years living there with him. And he’s not from here.

Esther: They are an interracial couple?

Caller: They’re interracial, intercultural. They have different educational backgrounds. They raised me and my brother in New York City with no other family around. It was just them and being in a home with a father who was navigating being an immigrant in a country that’s unfamiliar to him with no people. And then this very educated white woman who, like, goes off to work and works all the time. You know, he retreated into social spaces and not being home.

I just remember growing up, like, wanting attention, and I got bullied and picked on in school. I would go to my parents, and I would tell them, and my mother would say, “Ignore it.” My father would say, “Beat them up, you’re big.” I just felt not seen. And then I had the secret where I knew I was gay. I got so excited when I had crushes on girls at school because that was a place I just, I don’t know, I felt good in those crushes. I felt excited. I remember being like, Oh, I’m gonna see this one on Friday, and I’m gonna see this one on Tuesday. I lived for that.

Esther: When you had crushes, you felt seen because you saw yourself?

Caller: I enjoyed having crushes. Like, I really felt …

Esther: But what about it? I know, but what about it? 

Caller: Oh, I just loved how much I loved these girls.

Esther: Because a crush is an experience of insatiability, so you could play. With the very experience that usually would be hurtful.

Caller: Hmm. Yeah. I remember thinking that there were little wins that I could get. I used to, like, make little collages and put them all over the school I went to so that the girl I had a crush on could see them, and if somebody came up to her and was like, “Gosh, you know, she’s putting all of these things up for you,” it made her feel special. It would make me feel special that I made her feel special. It was, like, a win.

Esther: Mm-hmm. Yes. I was staging what I wanted and didn’t have. In a beautiful plot line called a crush, and I’ve had crushes into my forties. They’re adult versions of the same little crushes. But when I focus on someone and I obsess and I build up and I fantasize, that’s a mechanism that I’ve put in place, but it still doesn’t answer the other side of the equation — when somebody has a crush on me.

Caller: Ugh. I don’t like it.

Esther: Yeah, but what’s the “ugh”?

Caller: It’s just cringe. It sounds wild because, in theory, I like myself, I think I’m worthy, I think I’m attractive and interesting and smart and funny. But if somebody just on their own accord likes me, not because I convinced them, I don’t believe them.

Esther: Say more.

Caller: You know what I think it is? I think it’s about them and not me, and maybe that’s because that’s how I am with other people. It’s not really about these girls, like, they can change. These women change. Their faces and names change. I enjoy the pursuit of them and maybe it’s that I think that that’s what these women are doing with me. It’s that it’s not really about me. But I want … it’s so bad. There’s this woman who, I know she likes me, and I know why she likes me …

Esther: But that’s not the same as when you say, I don’t really believe that she does. And this word, I don’t believe, means something else.

Caller: I guess it’s that I don’t believe that she could. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to say this …

Esther: That I’m truly lovable, desirable, wantable, chosen, and that I internalized something way back when. Partly with my parents, partly in my community, partly in school, partly in being gay. I know what I mean when I say, “In theory.” I know I am, but “in theory” usually means I don’t really internalize it. I don’t believe it inside of me.

Caller: So what do I do?

Esther: That’s the cringe. What do you do? The first thing we do is we sit with it. That’s plenty. You’ve just done plenty. Because you’ve actually allowed yourself to ask the question from the other side of where you typically place yourself because it’s been easier, more comfortable, less scary.

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: So what do I do? I sit with this for a minute. Because I’ve just opened the blinds on a whole new vista of my 20-year dating life.

Caller: Oh, that’s kind of painful.

Esther: Mm-hmm. And a unique opportunity.

Caller: Yeah. And it relates to the way I behave in other areas of my life. So there’s a lot of shame and self-loathing, and I just didn’t think it lived here.

Esther: What did you just see with your eyes closed? You just saw something.

Caller: To be a 40-something Black gay woman and to realize that I have a lot of shame and self-loathing and that I don’t really believe that I’m lovable. And that’s really hard because I try and tell myself every day, like, in spite of the world and in spite of these things, I am powerful, and I am strong, and I am good, and I deserve. And so to sit with the basic vulnerability and humanity that everybody experiences is just difficult.

Esther: Hmm. And I am honored that you can share this with me.

Caller: Well, I’ll tell you this. The only reason I did this was because I wanted to know what you would say, so thank you.

Esther: And, now that I have?

Caller: Now that you have, I have to sit with it. It means facing things that I’ve always known that I have to do in terms of being with myself and not escaping. Because I think part of the desire and the crushes and all of that is a way of turning away from myself, so now I have to do that work.

Esther: So I’m gonna add something. You know, we sometimes think you know yourself better than anybody else. I think in your case that may not be the truth. Think that there are people around you that see you and know you, more than you allow yourself.

Caller: Yeah, I think that’s true.

Esther: And so in this moment, where you find yourself stuck in a pattern of repeating and going back to a relationship that is continuously reinforcing the worst fears and confirming them, I think that the choice there needs to be clear and your challenge is to actually allow yourself the inner battle of being loved and chosen and seen and desired. It’s kind of an offer you can’t refuse. It’s not a torture program. It’s not an easy thing, but it is absolutely not an impossible thing either.

Caller: Right.

Esther: So I’m gonna stop making speeches about how I am qualified, talented, competent — I mean speeches that I absolutely don’t internalize. I don’t feel them. So that’s why I keep repeating them. I’m going to drop inch by inch, allow myself to deepen my connection with this woman, in real time.

Caller: With this woman, me?

Esther: With the one who chooses you.

Caller: With the one who chooses me?

Esther: No, no. Both. The one who chooses you is also, it happens to be a particular person, but it also is you. You heard it very well. It’s a parallel process. The more I choose me, the more I let you choose me, and the more I let you choose me, and the more I accept choosing myself. It’s an exercise in self-acceptance.

Caller: Wow.

Esther: Does this land on you, and how?

Caller: I feel big and all over the place and messy, but I don’t feel bad. And I feel hopeful. And I feel like I have to sort of change the narrative about who I am, and, like, practice being that woman because the woman who I say I am would always choose the woman who would love me.

Esther: That’s right. Will you write to me and let me know where you take all of this?

Caller: I will. Thank you so much, Esther.

Esther: Okay, I look forward to reading it.

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