Hi! This is very sweet, right? But don’t spring it on someone the first or second time you meet them. Friend-date people for a little while and if you’re meant to be friends you will totally figure it out.
Dear Captain Awkward:
I ended my first romantic relationship earlier this year. I’m in my early 20s, still in college. He was 10 years older than me. Long story short, we had met during the previous summer and had been attempting a long distance relationship. We talked constantly. Though he was needy and was borderline smothering me at times, he was sweet and fun. We finally met up again in early spring and everything seemed fine. Shortly after, he decided to tell me that he had slept with two other girls while we were apart. To get them to sleep with him, he told them that he had feelings for them. I was disgusted and called off our relationship. Still wanting to be amicable, I left the door open for a future friendship, but I told him that I needed some time.
I wish it ended there. After a few months, I contacted him again. In a moment of loneliness and weakness, I wrote him a letter apologizing for cutting it off so abruptly. I also apologized for not being expressive enough-I’m not lovey-dovey and I tend to be shy about expressing my true feelings around men (Somehow, at the time, I felt that I had caused him to cheat on me-which I now realize was HIS decision. I have no control over his actions.) I missed him, and I wrote that I wanted him back in my life. Note that I never expressed any desire for a romantic relationship, and I had previously said that I wanted to be friends in the future.
After a month of casually e-mailing back and forth, he suddenly sent me a text message asking to meet me somewhere near my school. After a few texts back and forth, I found out that he had traveled cross country to see me, without warning. A trip to see me would have been long and costly. I panicked. Clearly, what he was doing was beyond being “friendly”. My entire mind and body seemed to be screaming: “Do.Not.Meet.Him!” I didn’t. I sent him an e-mail to leave me alone, and everything finally ended there.
I never wanted to start a romantic relationship again. I had only wanted to start our friendship over again. Was I leading him on? I’m still beating myself up over this. I hate that I had to hurt him, but at the same time, I don’t want to see him again. I felt that he was trying to pressure me into doing something that I didn’t want to do. He proved that he would always think about his own needs/desires first, not mine. But I still can’t justify my own behavior. Was I in the wrong?
Dear Love Rookie:
Your former dude mistook your friendly email for a romantic gesture, so he made what he thought was a big romantic gesture in return, except really it was a stalkery gesture. That isn’t about you “leading him on,” that’s about a story he told himself in his head about what you wanted and about what would happen when he showed up. You say you felt like he was trying to pressure you into doing something you didn’t want to do. You felt correctly! He was in fact a “needy & smothering,” high pressure and manipulative guy! Who lies about his feelings to get girls to sleep with him, which constitutes actually “leading someone on!” You learned what he was like the first time you parted ways, and then you tried to give him another chance to be in your life as a friend, and he blew that other chance.
You did the right thing by not meeting him. Your instincts, the ones that said “Aaah! Too close! Too weird! Don’t meet him!” were protecting you. Maybe from danger. Maybe just from an extremely uncomfortable confrontation with a guy who thought flying across the country at the drop of a hat was a normal thing to do. That’s the Gift of Fear at work.
I’m sure it was very hurtful to him when you did not want to meet him, but that’s not your fault. He set himself up for a fall and seriously overstepped your boundaries. Hopefully he will learn to save giant, romantic gestures for people who are actually interested in his giant, romantic gestures.
Since he has not gotten in touch with you since you asked him to leave you alone, I think you’re safe from further pop-ins, but it might make you feel better to block him on email & social media and see if you can block texts and calls from him on your cell phone. It’s one step closer to leaving him and everything about him entirely in the past.
I don’t think you did anything wrong here. You get to change your mind about people. You ESPECIALLY get to change your mind about people as a direct result of their actions. So why are you beating yourself up?
Well, there’s the whole idea of “leading someone on” to contend with.
I think it is cruel to deliberately toy with someone’s feelings for fun like, for instance, lying to them about your emotions in order to get them to sleep with you, which your ex-boyfriend did to people. That is bad and he should feel bad.
But what mostly happens is that people are in the middle of working out how they feel, or they haven’t figured out how to express their feelings. Maybe they want to be more into someone than they are, so they try to psych themselves up to date someone and then realize later that they aren’t that into it. They get put on the spot and don’t feel like they can say no. Or maybe they are just having fun flirting, or they have a different level of interest in someone than that person has in them at a given time. I’ve definitely really liked someone after one date and then not been so into them after date two or three, and I’ve definitely been on the other side of that, where I like them more the more time we spend together and they like me less. Navigating that stuff can be painful, and awkward, but it’s just part of being human.
The badness comes when the other person puts on their Entitlement Goggles and runs everything you say through the Wishful Thinking Translator. The Wishful Thinking Translator adds deep, heavy meaning to all interactions. And it also translates things you say into things that the Wishful Thinker gets to have: Your time. Your attention. Your affection. Your pants.
Say you have a nice time hanging out with a new acquaintance or date, and this conversation at the end of that.
Other Person: “Do you want to have dinner sometime?“
You: “Sounds good. I’m a bit swamped at the moment, though. Can I get back to you next week?“
Wishful Thinking Translator: “She promised to definitely have dinner with us next week. Time to start scanning Yelp reviews and making reservations.”
Say you remain swamped, stuff slips your mind, and you don’t actually call the person to get together next week.
Someone who really likes you but who is not using a Wishful Thinking Translator on what you say might feel a bit bummed, like, hey, maybe she doesn’t really want to have dinner. They might check in in a casual way, like “I’d still love to make a dinner plan, maybe on X day? Let me know when your schedule clears up.”
If you really like them and want to have dinner, you’ll probably reply and try to set something up. If you don’t want to have dinner, you’ll hopefully send a reply saying so, but if you don’t, both parties will figure dinner was not meant to be and drop it until you do get in touch.
Someone who is using a Wishful Thinking Translator is angry. You promised you’d have dinner, precioussssssss. You owe them dinner gollum gollum gollum. If you do not actually have dinner with them, you are a flake and a mean person who “leads people on.” They will come across as needy and smothering in trying to set up that dinner. And if you say “Oh man, I am so sorry, I am still really swamped” you’ll get a passive-aggressive “I BET YOU ARE” or “If you don’t like me, you can just tell me. You don’t have to LEAD ME ON like EVERYONE ELSE.” This is because when someone is speaking Wishful Thinking and the other person is speaking normal speech, refusals or failures to connect or follow up get sent directly to the Jerkbrain where they receive the worst possible interpretation. “She didn’t reply to my email or call me to arrange dinner = I AM HORRIBLE AND I SUCK AND NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME.“
The bummer is, I think most of us have been on both sides of this interaction. Someone we like agrees to get “coffee sometime” and we pump our fists in the air because Coffee, It Is On Like Donkey Kong! And then coffee never happens, because OBVIOUSLY WE SUCK AND NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE US. If we react to the person from that place of extreme self-doubt & entitlement, our reactions will be disproportionate and weird. We will creep them out.
When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s extreme wishful thinking, it can really mess with your head. A seemingly innocuous interaction will end badly and leave you feeling bad and second-guessing yourself. Like, were you being a flake? Do you lead people on? You’re a nice person, and you don’t want to be someone who leads people on, so should you just go out with them one more time to show that you’re not like everyone else? (No.) Or apologize in some way? (No.) All they did was try to do something nice, right? So why are we so creeped out? It’s not fair!
A manipulative person will use that tiny bit of self-doubt to wedge themselves into your life. They can’t have your freely given affection, so they’ll appeal to your sense of fairness and desire to be a nice person who doesn’t reject people who make nice gestures, like flying across the country at the drop of a hat to pay you an unwanted visit. Gavin de Becker calls this “loan sharking”, and commenters here call it “favor sharking”: Doing something for someone that they didn’t ask or want you to do, and then acting as if it entitles you to a favor or time or attention or affection in return. When someone’s attention feels strange and unwanted, it’s important to cut through all the favors and expectations of niceness and ask yourself, bluntly: “Do I want to spend time with this person? No? Okay, then, let’s all believe in the no.” Love is subjective and unfair. Manipulators will do almost anything to cut you off from asking yourself that question and saying a clear no. They will do anything to make it about abstract things like “fairness” and whether you “led them on” and what their expectations were. They want it to be very difficult to say no. Sometimes you have to cut people off in a way that feels quite cold and brutal, both to you and to them, and it sucks. But it’s better than staying involved with someone you don’t want to be involved with.
Remember this: It is not your job to anticipate and manage every possible iteration of other people’s feelings. It’s your job to figure out what your feelings are and be true to them.
And so often, accusations of “leading someone on” go hand in hand with male entitlement and slut-shaming. “You smiled at me/wore a pretty dress/have had sex before/have had sex with ME before/looked like you might have had sex with someone at some previous time/said you’d go out with me again/kissed me/fell asleep in the same room as me…..and I interpreted that as being some kind of written contract with my penis.” It’s a way of making someone else’s desire for you and wishful thinking about you all your fault, to try to guilt you into doing what they want. So if someone uses the phrase “You led me on” or “I bet you just lead guys on” or “Are you leading me on?” see it for what it is: EXTREME NO-GOOD RAPE-CULTURE BADNESS. It’s a neg. It’s designed to get you to spend more time with and/or sleep with someone who senses that you don’t actually want to sleep with them. It is, in the words of Admiral Ackbar, a trap.
You’re suggesting that you “led him on”, and I’m suggesting that you are not a bad person because you’ve internalized some of our fucked-up culture into your head and think that “leading someone on” is actually something that can happen without malicious, deliberate intent. Intent that you did not have, ergo, you did not lead anyone on.
Letter Writer, this ex of yours sounds like a major manipulator, and I’m betting that he did a real number on your soul and you’re still sorting through the aftermath. I bet the way he treated those other girls is also telling about some ways he treated you. People like him are great at making you second-guess yourself. I’m here to tell you that his unplanned visit to your campus was not friendly, it was not romantic, and it was way out of line. I’m here to tell you that you were smart to break up with him, kind to want to mend fences, and extremely smart and self-protective to mistrust his motives and stay away from him. Your self-protective instincts are fully operational! Now what remains is for you to get the last of him out of your system.
1. Block him on every conceivable communication outlet. I don’t think you should have any more contact with him ever again. I don’t think you guys will ever get to a happy, friendly place where everything feels good, so make a completely clean break and do what’s best for you.
2. If you find yourself worrying about this, and cycling through memories and thoughts of him, stop and say: “There is nothing to forgive, but I forgive myself anyway.” Or write that in a journal 1,000 times. Or write a letter to him that you don’t ever send. Do some ritual thing to make a break with the past.
3. Channel residual guilty feelings into being nice to people that you want in your life. Volunteer. Buy a friend pancakes.
4. Talk it over with a counseling pro. I think this guy probably got into your head in more ways than one, and it may take some time and a trained, friendly ear to get him back out again. If it’s affecting you to the point that it is messing up your moods and your life, it’s worth doing whatever you can to lay it to rest.
5. Be nice to yourself and spend time with awesome people who make you feel awesome.