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 — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
I’m a 33-year-old female who struggles with feelings of not being enough and this belief that I’m unlovable. I struggle with dating. I haven’t been in a long-term committed relationship, and I find myself continuing to be in this cycle where it’s as if I’m being used as some type of placeholder. The question that I have for you is why do the men I date continue to friend-zone me and choose other partners?
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: Nice to meet you. How did you find me and decide to ask me your question?
Caller: I’m a social worker and I’m a therapist, too. I was going through a really tough time, and I wanted to read a blog on relationships to support me through it. It just felt really cathartic.
Esther: Tell me, when you said, “I need support, I’m going through something, and I need to talk about it,” what was it?
Caller: I had just ended a friendship with this guy that I felt really close to. We had met initially on a dating app, and we ended up deciding that we would become friends. It was a beautiful friendship that we had, but … Is it okay for me to give some context?
Esther: Yes, more than okay.
Caller: So, my upbringing was quite rough. I didn’t grow up feeling loved. My mom told me growing up that she wished she never had me, didn’t love me. I think those experiences made me feel like I wasn’t enough. When I started dating, I continued to have similar experiences. I would invest a lot of energy into the relationships, dating these individuals for long periods of time, and then they would essentially lead me on, it felt like. Then I would have to end the relationship because I felt it wasn’t going anywhere, and it was really hurtful and was just messing with my self-esteem.
Esther: And they all became confirmation of what your mom said.
Esther: They all became reenactments of that: You don’t want me, you don’t love me, I’m unlovable.
Caller: Yes. To add to that, after I would end a relationship with these individuals — not all, but most — they would end up seeking someone else, and they would choose that person and that’s their partner. And it made me wonder, Well, why not me? What’s wrong with me?
This brings me to the friendship I mentioned earlier — the one I had to end. I mentioned we met on a dating app, and we went on a couple of dates, and he let me know that he wanted to continue to pursue me and then ghosted me. Fast-forward: He and I reconnected, I don’t remember how or why, but he apologized for his behavior and it seemed very heartfelt. We connected over that meetup, and it just felt really good, and we continued to hang out quite often on a consistent basis, and he was the one who was initiating our hangouts, texting me. I started to get this thought: Well, it seems like he’s rather interested. What if we did give this thing a shot? But I was too afraid to share that with him. Some time passed, and my feelings started to become stronger for this person. So here’s the thing: He brought up that he wanted to revisit another relationship. And it made me wonder again, Why didn’t this person consider me? And that really hurt me.
So then I decided to just be open and say, “Hey, I like you. You’re complaining about these terrible relationships and how you feel like you’ll never find a person. And I’m right here.” The feelings were not mutual, and that was really painful. I had to sit with myself and ask: Do I want to continue being friends with this individual who has said in the past that I have a lot of those qualities he’s looking for but who still is seeking something better? Or at least makes me feel like he’s seeking someone better.
Esther: Did he try to fight for the relationship, or at least for the friendship?
Caller: He was confused because I ended the friendship rather abruptly. He didn’t understand at first why I ended the friendship. We did meet up later on because I felt like we needed to have an in-person conversation. And he later explained to me that he revisited a conversation with one of his exes — that person said no — and that’s when he realized that he was using me as a placeholder because he felt like that woman was doing the same thing to him. He didn’t realize, and now he understands why I had to take a step back. He mentioned that he would like to continue our friendship, but he also understands where I’m at and doesn’t want to continue to hurt me.
Esther: He didn’t know that he was hurting you?
Caller: He didn’t know.
Esther: He didn’t know because there were two relationships going on: the one with your own feelings and the one with him.
Can I ask you one other thing? Because you asked me about giving me some context. What was the context of your mother’s life that that’s where she landed with you?
Caller: She never felt loved, and that was a big part of her story. I don’t think she was capable of giving that to me. I don’t think she thought I deserved it because she didn’t have it.
Esther: And was there a father? Or a father figure?
Caller: Yes. He’s absent. I know him. We don’t talk often, and I don’t have a relationship with my mother. We’re estranged.
Esther: Was she a placeholder?
Caller: That’s a great question. I know they weren’t in love when they had me, and they weren’t ready to be parents.
Esther: And have you had other mother figures?
Caller: I have.
Esther: Because, in my experience, you wouldn’t be where you are without other figures who do love you, believe in you, support you, and value you.
Caller: That is true.
Esther: Okay. And do they go on a date with you too, inside of you, or do you primarily go with your mom and your absent dad?
Caller: I think it’s hard for me to think of the mother figures that I do have because I see the way that they love their children and I don’t receive that same love. They aren’t always available for me when I need them, when I’m going through something, and that’s also painful.
Esther: Are they relatives?
Caller: Some are relatives. I have a godmom and a really close friend’s mom.
Esther: Is there a relationship where you don’t experience scarcity?
Caller: No. And with this friend, this was the first time that I didn’t feel that way, until I did.
Esther: But if you look at the broad picture of your life, is there someone with whom you don’t experience scarcity? Could be a teacher, could be a friend, could be a boss, could be a relative.
Caller: My therapist.
Esther: Okay. And yet, I’m not sure that because you said so, it is so. What I also am observing is you checking it out every time and hoping to disconfirm, but ending with confirmation.
Caller: So the real answer is no.
Caller: I only have myself to love me.
Esther: No, you have a lot of other people who love you. But there’s a part of you that is attuned to what may be missing.
Caller: That part is very loud.
Esther: Yeah, it’s that. When a date doesn’t work out, it goes right back to that. It doesn’t stay at Okay, met someone. By the way, I think if it had been a friendship, both of you really valued the friendship. But you, throughout the friendship, began to feel like, This feels more than a friendship. And then he began to tell you, “Well, not for me.” Then this whole crude language of “placeholder” comes in — that will take anybody else’s self-worth down a few notches, not just yours. That language in itself is so devaluing.
But my question with you is as we talk, how do you decouple your response to the dates from the master story with your mom and your dad? In a way, it’s like you say: “My dad wasn’t in the picture, so there was not even an expectation. Whereas my mother was in the picture, so I have thwarted expectations, to the point where I basically didn’t want to be in a relationship with her because it just was too painful. But every time I experience a rejection or a refusal … ” And maybe there are people that you friend-zone too. But when you’re on the receiving end of this, it’s her voice that comes back. So these people take on an importance that they probably don’t have because in two dates, they suddenly own your sense of self-worth — not that they own it, but they can affect it. And you’ve only met them twice. Who the hell are they? How come they suddenly have so much power over you? Because her lines, her megaphone, is loud in your head, and you are such a beautiful woman who must have gone through so much that I have no idea about. And you don’t get to feel proud enough about it because she’s poisoning it. She who lives inside of you is poisoning it.
You’re shaking your head.
Caller: I’m trying not to cry.
Esther: You can totally cry. I will cry with you.
Caller: I think you’re right. It’s very painful. Even with me walking away from my relationship with her, it’s like she’s still there.
Esther: Yeah. I mean, you can walk away physically, but it’s the disentangling on the inside. The umbilical cord is very elastic. Sometimes we don’t talk to the person, but the person continues to talk to us inside of us. What makes dating complicated and so painful is that it becomes a reenactment of your relationship with her every time. It’s as if she’s right. It’s confirmed by people who are complete strangers. No, no, nothing is confirmed. It’s not true. It’s disappointing. It’s upsetting. It’s lonely, it’s frustrating, but it’s not an indictment of your self-worth. It’s not a judgment of you, a confirmation of your not being lovable. That is not right.
Caller: But how do I shift that? Because it’s like, logically, I can understand.
Esther: Are there dates where you don’t want to continue?
Caller: Yes. But I think it’s more so the long term… the people I’ve dated for, like, six months, eight months, but they don’t want to commit to a partnership. They want to keep dating other people.
Esther: Right. But are there times when you meet someone and after one or two dates you say, “No, not for me”?
Esther: You do. But you don’t include those in your experience as much. You include much more. The whole dating is a confirmation, an indictment, an affirmation of, Am I to be loved? Or will other people always be loved more than me, chosen above me? And, fundamentally, Maybe she was right.
So you’re not going on a date: It looks like you’re going on a date with a him, but what’s dominating the space is the legacy of her. So the first date is not light, it instantly is a test. That makes it much more difficult, much more painful, because it should be, “Okay, it didn’t work out, it’s really disappointing, but it’s not the confirmation of my value.” Dating culture itself doesn’t help, and that’s nothing to do with you personally. That just means that it brings out a lot of crude stuff in people — not very caring, not very considerate. But a first date or a second date, the subtext for you is so present that there are three people at the table. In a way, when you go out next time, there needs to be you having a little chat with her, saying, “I’m going out tonight and you’re not invited.” But it’s internal, right? “Not every person I meet is there to prove or disprove you, mom. That’s a big burden I put on everybody. That leaves me feeling so bereft afterwards.”
You know, I often think that first dates should not be one on one.
Caller: Can you tell me why?
Esther: Because I think that it puts a tremendous pressure. Many first dates these days are like a job interview. It’s people asking each other questions. It’s lifeless; it’s not fun. It doesn’t elicit curiosity. You sit in noisy places where you can barely hear what people say. You have a life, you have friends, you have things you love to do. When you go on a date with somebody, bring him into that life. You’ll learn a ton about them. You’ll be supported by your own friends. It won’t feel like, I’m here at an exam, away from my life, away from my supports, to see if this person is going to choose me or not. Because that’s her sentence, right? “I didn’t choose to have you.” So that sentence goes with you to every date. “Will you choose me?” Aye! I feel it in my own belly. It’s like, Oh no, that’s not a date.
You have a good social life? You have friends around you?
Caller: I do.
Esther: Okay. When you have a date — and this I say to many people — bring the date to your friends. If it doesn’t work out, the date goes on and the friends continue and you say, “Oof, I still had a nice day.” But also you learn a ton about the person by watching how they interact with others and how they interact with the people of your life. I know it’s not a popular idea at this moment, but really, way too often I hear about how people find dating most unpleasant.
Caller: It’s true.
Esther: And that’s a sweet way of saying it. It sucks. I hear it from you, I hear it from so many, and I’m thinking, This can be done a little differently.
Caller: It’s very hard.
Esther: There’s something you want to go see. There’s something you want to go hear. Take the date with you on a thing that you would like. At least you’re not in the grip of the person choosing you or not choosing you. Choose your thing you enjoy doing and then bring them in, so you have a choice too. You don’t feel like you’re at their mercy.
Caller: I like that because oftentimes I do feel very anxious and uncomfortable in thinking about what they are thinking about me.
Esther: When you’re in that situation, they only see a small fraction of you, too. They don’t see this amazing woman who has gone through so much and has so much to give. Your anxiety is only a part of you. And you’re busy thinking, What are they thinking? You’re not even asking yourself, Do I like this person? Because you’re busy making sure: Do they like me? And therefore they don’t get to see you in the full spectrum. You don’t get to bring that person with you. And that makes it less likely that there will be another date. I mean, it’s kind of backfiring.
Look, this only touches a small piece of everything you’re talking about, you know? This is not a panacea, but — because that’s the work you probably do in the therapy as well — you take that sentence: I didn’t choose you, you’re a burden on me. Then you hope that when you go on a date, somebody will say, “You’re what I’ve been waiting for for so long, I choose you,” and turn over the whole predicament that your mother put you in. Every date is trying to answer to that master story. So I’m only touching a very small thing, but I think that it would give you a different experience: I’m going on a date. I want to have a nice time. I don’t want this date to be my self-worth examination.
Caller: It’s exhausting.
Esther: It’s exhausting and it’s depleting. It pulls you down all the time and makes you constantly feel, “I’m not good enough. I’m not chosen.” If you are with the people who choose you and you bring that person in with your own friends, it mitigates it, neutralizes it. If you choose something you love to do and you say, “Come join me in that,” same. You want your choices in there so that you don’t sit at the mercy of, “will you choose me?” Because then you’re not dating, you’re doing something else, but it’s not dating. How are we doing, by the way?
Caller: I feel better. I think the perspective of I’ve rejected people and not really reflected on that has helped. Also changing the way that I date and having a support system around me, I think, could take a lot of pressure off of me.
Esther: If the person says, “That’s weird” or “Do you always do that?”: “I like variety. Do you always do the same thing? I try different things.” If you’re curious about a person, you generally are curious about what you’d call their context, right? You’re curious about their world. So: “I’m inviting you into a little snippet of my world.”
But the main piece is that dating cannot be the place where you go with that sentence, I didn’t choose you. Then every date is trying to replace that with “Yes, you’re the one I choose.” And then if they don’t, then the rejection feels so acute because it stands right in the front of this primal rejection.
Caller: It does. I don’t want to continue to put myself through that pain.
Esther: You shouldn’t. It’s easier said than done. But when it happens, I want you to go and have exactly that same conversation like the one we’re having — that part of you that is constantly having a conversation with her while you’re having a conversation with a total stranger. “No, this is not the purpose of this. You’re not there with me all the time. I can have a choice about that. I want to soften your voice a little bit.”
Caller: Hearing you say that I have a choice, it’s like this weight has been lifted. I can breathe knowing that. ’Cause I think that voice has controlled so much of my life, not only in dating, but in my career in other areas, and it has really taken a toll on me.
Esther: Was your mother as accomplished as you?
Caller: No. And in some way she tried to stop me.
Esther: Will you remember that? That you got to where you are despite and above and beyond? And when she starts chatting at you, you literally turn to her, have a conversation with that. It’s the her that lives inside of you, but it’s a part, it’s not all. And that part, you have a choice to sometimes say, “Not today. You always act as if you know everything, but you don’t.”
Caller: Yeah. She doesn’t know anything. She hasn’t been with me on this journey.
Esther: Say more. I love that feistiness that just suddenly came out here. Whoa! That’s another part.
Caller: I’ve fought really hard to get to where I am today. I do have supports that have helped me. I often like to tell myself that I did it alone, but as I’m reflecting, I don’t think that’s entirely true.
Esther: No, I did it without her, but that doesn’t mean I did it alone. I did it with the help of a lot of people, and there’ll be many more to come.
Esther: It’s great.
Caller: It feels really good to acknowledge that.
Esther: I would hope so.
Caller: It makes me feel more connected with my community and more appreciative of myself.
Esther: We don’t choose where we come from, but we have more choice in who we become. You can’t undo where you came from and what she felt and how she rejected you, but you have a lot of choice — more than you think — about how much that becomes the driving motto of your life, and how much your resistance to it, and your transforming it, becomes the motto of your life. You can say, “because I was rejected, I feel low, I don’t value myself. I feel not good enough. That line is just defining me throughout.” Or you can say, “I was rejected. I wasn’t valued, and I learned, in ways that I did not know were possible, through other people, that there was a whole other way of me than the one that she made me look at.”
More From This Series
- ‘Where Does the “Evil Voice” in My Head Come From?’
- ‘Why Does Part of Me Want to Cheat?’
- ‘I Lost My Husband to Suicide. How Do I Recover Who I Was Before?’