Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a white ciswoman in my late twenties living in the Midwestern US. I’ve had a free online dating account for a while, having marginal success with short term dating but nothing that’s really led anywhere. My only *serious* relationship ended five years ago, after less than two years. I’ve come to terms with being choosy, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but more recently I’d started to wonder if I was being too picky or not patient enough or something. However, this latest guy has me all excited and fluttery! However, he’s got some baggage that has me confused as to how best to behave.
During our back-and-forth he was friendly and engaging, we got on quite well, and even realized we had a female friend in common (which was like an instant recommendation). We’ve only had a few dates so far, but we seem to be clicking really well and it feels like I’ve known him much longer. I was already be a bit nervous about too-much-too-fast (scaring him off?), when he told me (over a few conversations) that he’s in the process of a divorce that’s ending a marriage of mutually-destructive maybe-verbal-abuse and disillusionment over their shared religion, and the split was less than 6 months ago.
(I know that some cheaters use “getting divorced” as a cover, but given our mutual friend, his social media profile and his dating profile, as well as my gut, I believe him)
I am not sure what I should be doing given his situation. He’s voiced worry he might be using me, and while I don’t feel used, I worry he might mean using me emotionally as a rebound (is a “rebound” even a real thing?). Ideally, I would be there supporting him to help him work through what he needs to work through for us to have a great and fulfilling relationship that lasts for a while and leaves both of us happier, but how wishful is that thinking? I worry that being in too much of a caretaker role would get in the way of being seen as a romantic partner, but should I worry? And mightn’t moving too quickly romantically lead to relationship collapse if he’s not as ready as he thinks? Can you help me balance my desires and his potential needs?
Wishing it would just work!
P.S. I don’t think it matters to him, but he’s in really good shape compared to me, so I also have that frustrating but common worry that he’ll suddenly notice and not find me attractive anymore, which is definitely contributing to my fear about coming across as too much of a shoulder-to-cry-on or too maternal.
If he’s “worried that he might be using you” and expresses it as such, he’s worried that he might be using you. So, are you okay with that?
Sometimes people say that to warn people not to get too attached. It’s a way of clearing their conscience and getting to feel like the Good Guy when things fall apart. “Well, even though I acted like I really wanted to be your boyfriend, I warned you that this was a bad idea on some level, so I don’t have to feel guilty if you are hurt now!”
Sometimes people say that to get reassurance from the other person. “No, I don’t feel like that!” “No, I don’t think you are!” Low Self-Esteem Guy, whatever, it’s possible, given how you describe his marriage.
I would generally rather pull my fingernails out with pliers than validate this trope, but I’ve met the dude who loves to have sexytimes and intense conversations with big girls but only “really” dates thin girls and I’ve also met the married (or just separated) guy who comes on way too strong and intensely because “Are you my mummy/soulmate?” is the only speed he knows. And, again, sad to say, those are the dudes who say stuff like “I’m worried that I’m using you” because they know what they are doing is not cool and they feel bad (but not bad enough to stop fucking you).
Whatever is going on, in my experience, nobody says that in order to communicate “I can’t wait to find out what our limitless future together will hold! FULL STEAM AHEAD!” At very least, it means slow down. Evaluate.
A rebound thing can absolutely turn into the real thing. Not every relationship ends cleanly before the next one begins, whether it does isn’t an absolute judgment on its future potential. And I don’t fault this guy at all for wanting to date new people even during a messy time. When you’re leaving a bad relationship, the reminder that other people are out there and that human connection is possible can be a lifeline. I’ve been on both sides of this one, so I send all the love and none of the judgment his or your way!
But I have personally spent way too much time living this paragraph from your letter:
“Ideally, I would be there supporting him to help him work through what he needs to work through for us to have a great and fulfilling relationship that lasts for a while and leaves both of us happier…”
In my 20s? Fat, lonely, shy, awkward and overflowing with love to give away? I could have made a living offering being the Rebound Girl who will fuck you and listen to you and support you until you feel ready for a relationship….with someone else. Tell me all about your ex (or…current!) squeeze and let me analyze the ins and outs of your relationship as a way to know you better! No one will ever understand you as much as I! Emotional support is just what good partners do for each other, right? Whatever you need, no problem, my door is always open, my fridge is always open, my heart is always open, my wallet is always open, my schedule is always open, my legs are always open….
The movie of that period of my life would be called How (Your Name Here!) Got His Groove Back And Then Disappeared Forever Into Graduate School or the Peace Corps and/or Married That Hot Girl Who Was Not Me.
They weren’t necessarily bad people and I don’t regret that things didn’t work out for us, but I do wish I’d put in less effort wooing people who were not so much wooing me. And, I’m not saying it will be true for you, but I am saying this was absolutely true for me:
- When I drew a bright line about such things (Separated = still married. Getting a divorce soon = still married. “It’s complicated” = too complicated for me, kind sir!)…
- When I decided that after sex, I did not want to listen to or help my partner process his feelings about some chick who was not me….
- When I decided, that in the middle of my workday, I did not want to email back and forth with some dude about the latest thing his ex was doing to his fragile psyche now….
- When I decided, in fact, that such conversation was the most BORING and IRRITATING topic in the world….
…My life, my self-esteem, and my confidence and security within my relationships got approximately 10,000 times better.
If you enjoy this dude’s company and want to keep seeing him, then enjoy yourself and keep seeing him. But “supporting him to help him work through what he needs to work through” isn’t your job. And if that’s what you spend your time together doing? Like, the dates always come down to him talking about his feelings about his ex and why his marriage ended, etc.? The details and the emotional recovery after an important relationship ends is not for hot new potential girlfriends, that’s for friends, therapists, spiritual advisors, LiveJournal, PostSecret, family, a journal, writing bad poetry or music, internet advice columnists, or, literally, anyone but you. Not because you’re unworthy, but because of boundaries.
Emotional support is what good partners give each other. But a few dates in? Emotionally rehabilitating someone to the point where they are ready for a relationship again isn’t remotely your job! Even if you offer an ear voluntarily, it’s not cool for him to put that stuff on you, and it leads to all kinds of boundaries being muddied and you using words like “maternal” to describe how you’re worried you are coming off. If that’s how you see your potential role or value to him? I have trepidation about that, honestly. If even you see yourself that way, how is he supposed to refrain from joining you?
If he wants you, being “too nice” is not going to scare him off. If he doesn’t want you, being the nicest and most accommodating person isn’t going to convince him that it’s a good idea. If your relationship is solid and great, hopefully one cranky advice writer isn’t going to tank it. One of the things that’s telling me “Go slowly” is you framing the issue as something you could do or be differently to make this work. Be you. He’s into it or he’s not. He’s the one who is married to another human being. You’re not the one with the most stuff to prove right now!
You’re the one who is actually living out this story, so listen to yourself. “Ideally I would emotionally support him until he’s ready.” “Maternal.” “Caretaker.” “He’s worried he’s using me.” Three(ish) dates in? I’m totally happy to do the “You’re only a few dates in, everything is fine, you must chill” reassurance from time to time, but those aren’t sexy, optimistic, “I’m so happy and excited!” kind of words you’re using.
My concrete advice?
Keep that dating profile open and keep meeting folks. You don’t have to date someone else, but keep it there as a reminder you have options.
As you continue dating this guy, evaluate:
How much of your time do you spend listening and comforting vs. having fun times?
Do you feel like you spend a lot of time with him as a coach, cheerleader, Reassure-r In Chief? How much time do you spend talking about his stuff vs. your stuff? If you are playing therapist/cheerleader more than a fraction of the time, I gotta tell you, that sounds unsexy to me.
Is he respectful of your schedule? Is the “work” of maintaining the relationship equally distributed? Arranging dates in advance vs. just dropping by at the last minute, doing his share in planning dates and finding cool stuff to do, who calls/texts who, etc. If he breezes in and out, and meanwhile you do all the work while reassuring him that it’s “no big deal” or “I like taking care of you,” yeesh, I gotta tell you, again, that sounds unsexy.
Does he introduce you to the important people in his life – friends, family? You have that mutual friend in common, which is good, but does he mention you to other people and introduce you and show you off, or do you feel like a secret? Does he enthusiastically want to meet and spend time with your friends? If your relationship feels like it takes place inside a hermetically sealed capsule, here be the Emotional Vampyre. Run.
When you talk to your friends about him, do you find yourself editing out things that are going on and striving to present a rosier picture than there really is? Bad sign!
Are you making lots of Pro/Con lists? Bad sign!
If he says the thing about “using you” again, ask him what he means. “You’ve said that a few times now, and honestly, it feels like it’s code for something I don’t understand. What are you actually trying to tell me when you say that?”
- If, shortly after this conversation, he breaks up with you “for your own good,” BELIEVE HIM. Run.
- If he says a brief, “I’m sorry, that’s kind of a shithead thing to say!” and subsequently stops saying it, maybe it’s not a big deal.
- If this question is the prelude to Self-Loathing Hour, where he explains how terrible and unworthy he is of you? Believe him! Run!
- “You’re the only person I can really talk to about this.” This is not a compliment, and is more of a statement on him than on you. I would be leery.
- Please, for the love of all that is holy, treat any iteration of “I’m just not ready for a relationship right now” as “I do not want a relationship with you.” If it really is a timing thing, he will come back and see what’s up when the timing is right for him. People you want to be with don’t keep you hanging on while they make up their minds about you.
Ooh, also, you sound not all that up for casual dating. If you know that about yourself, embrace it. It’s not anything you have to apologize for, but it might make this guy, on whom so much speculation rests, a bad fit for you right now.
You signed yourself “Wishing it would just work.” There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re allowed to want getting to know someone to feel easy and fun and uncomplicated. You’re allowed to say, Dude, you seem great, but this is too hard right now. Come back if you want when things are easier and you know your own mind better, and if I’m free we’ll go grab a pizza somewhere. But until then, I’m not feeling it. I’m not ready to put in the work. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or unworthy of love, even though there are a million cultural messages that will try to guilt you into thinking so. There’s a common trope in onscreen and literary romances that “All good love takes work” and “You have to work at love to really make it!” and “The harder you work, the sweeter it is in the end.”
No. Just no. I mean, every relationship takes some maintenance and involves some logistical effort in order to stay healthy, but if it feels like work? A few dates in? If your plans for a Friday night are “Gotta pick up milk and then go home and work on the relationship/work on helping my boyfriend be ready to be a good boyfriend/helping my boyfriend leave his wife some more” maybe it’s too much work. Definitely don’t work at someone who isn’t working at you.
I’d love to be proven wrong! I’d love for this to be the beginning of something great for you. And I wish you nothing but happiness however it goes.
tl;dr Do less work.