Dear Captain Awkward:
I’m caught in my own head and could use a guide to get out of it. There’s a gentleman who’s recently come back into my life. We first connected two years ago when he was separated from his (second) wife and while we talked all of the time and hung out a bit nothing ever came of it datewise. He faded out on me and it was a bit painful, last I had heard he had gotten back together with his wife to see if things could work.
They obviously could not. He’s now living on his own (well, with his kids) and found me on a dating site. He apologized for disappearing (understood, lots of shit going on, obviously! Had I known, I wouldn’t have gotten at all involved/interested the first time around) and I generally feel like people deserve a second chance. We’ve started talking again and hanging out as friends but the potential for more is there. We’re both still insanely attracted to one another and get along like gangbusters.
We’ve tried talking about where things are headed and how we should approach whatever kind of relationship (friends? more?) is developing, but I think we both make it more confusing when we try to use our words. And not to sound condescending but I’m not sure that HE knows what he wants/needs at this point. He’s only been separated about 4 months so far and living on his own for the first time in a long time. He wants to just take things as they come and go with the flow. My heart agrees but I’m afraid I’m (we’re) going to be too intense too soon after meeting up again and clicking so well..and then he’ll freak out a little while down the road. I like this guy too much for him to be a booty call or friends with benefits, I can do just friends but then both of us need to turn the flirting and romantic overtones WAY down, stat. I’m not sure how to reconcile what he might need with what I want or how to approach the whole damn thing. I also don’t know what words to use or how to use them when we end up just talking in circles and end up back at ‘I like you, you like me, let’s see what happens’.
I’m worried it’s too soon for a full blown dating situation (which is ideally where I’d like to see this go, in time), that he might need to go out and date oodles of people or maybe just be on his own and be cool with that before I get involved with him. When I’ve suggested it he says that I make it hard to want to go out and meet/date other people. So do I absent myself from his life for a certain period of time? Then again, you’d think that at 40some years old he would know if he ought to get involved with someone…but his track record says otherwise…but every situation is different. Right? Aaaarg!
On the other hand, I’m 30+ years old and also wonder if I should be looking for a more ‘suitable’ partner even though I really like everything I’m getting to know about him. Is liking someone for personality and pantfeelings enough? I know we all have baggage but is this (two kids under 13, two ex-wives, financial um pinchy-ness and general lack of free time due to aforementioned kids and ex-wives) biting off more than I can chew? Maybe I’m just overthinking all of this and need to follow my heart and tell my stupid brain to shut up and enjoy it for what it’s worth and deal with any fall out and heartache that may occur or do I let logic lead the day and cut my loses before I know what they might be? Or is there some third path I’m not seeing? Any insight from you or the wonderful commentors would be appreciated. Thanks!
– Stupid Brain
Dear Stupid Brain:
Looking around at my extended friend-family, I can tell you that sometimes it’s the second or the third marriage/very serious relationship that’s the charm. Great love stories can start when shit is all complicated and uncertain, and divorced people deserve/need/can be awesome at giving love, too.
I think this is a question about how to figure out when your anxiety is protecting you from potential sadtimes and when your anxiety is just anxiety that’s getting in your own way.
Because if you were having fun and feeling 100% awesome and hopeful about this thing, you wouldn’t be writing to me right now. You’d be too busy having sex with your new hot boyfriend. And your brain would deal with the questions you have about the future – How is this all going to work out? Am I going to have to become someone’s stepmother? – by seconding the motion made by your pants. Your pants move that you stop thinking about this, have sex again, and eat French toast. Delicious, delicious after-sex French toast with berries, or maybe an omelet. Maybe the anxiety is just anxiety, in which case: Your breakfast awaits you.
But let’s say there’s a really good reason you don’t trust yourself or your future around this guy. His stats show that he’s really good at getting women to marry him and let him put his babies in there. Stated in the most positive light, he’s a romantic and an optimist and those people are charismatic and fun, fun, fun to be around and you are not stupid for wanting to be a romantic and an optimist, too. I understand why you are fascinated and also thinking “Hey, those other women felt exactly like I do right now, and it didn’t work out for them. So what’s going to be different this time?”
His stats are what they are and they don’t automatically make him unsuitable as a partner, but it’s worth poking about in his history a bit. Does he have self-awareness about why his relationships ended and his part in the whole thing, or is it all the other person’s fault? Does he take on too much guilt about it, presenting himself as this tragically fucked up person who doesn’t deserve you and do all these
conversations end with you comforting him about how no, really, he’s awesome? If so, beware: HERE BE DARTH VADER. He will suck the life out of you and manipulate you into comforting him the entire time he does it.
How did he treat his exes on his way out of the marriages? Were there consistent dealbreakers or sticky wickets between both that you can also see being sticky wickets for you? Do you feel like he’s using you as a therapist and/or soft landing so he doesn’t have to deal with being alone and figuring out his shit? It’s an uncharitable thought, but I’ve done enough dating-in-my-30s to have seen it more than once: Some people are crap at being alone and when one relationship ends they look immediately for another one with a benevolent girlfriend-mommy who will pet their hair and tell them they are smart and pretty.
Maybe the most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to forget the idea of “suitable” or what “should” happen or the idea that you, by withholding your fine booty for some necessary period of mourning and self-discovery, can magically control whether he can be a good partner for you down the road. Because you’re already the expert here. You know the guy. You know his history. You know (or are in the process of figuring out) your own needs and wants. More importantly, you know your own history WITH HIM.
How did he treat you when he disappeared and left you feeling crappy before? I know you didn’t actually date, but what expectations & hopes did he put out there before he disappeared? What’s different now?
You worry (with reason) that he’ll be stretched emotionally, temporally, and financially. Let’s flip that around for a second and make it about your needs and whether he can meet them. Will he be there for you in the way you need a partner to be there for you, or will you always come in second to his responsibilities? When you date someone who has kids, you sign up knowingly and willingly for coming in second to those kids. Is that going to be enough for you? Is there something concrete he could do balance things and to make sure you are getting the time and attention that you need?
Now for the very concrete advice part:
First, you’re absolutely right. You can’t be “just” friends. You’re not friends now. Your pants are going to literally catch on fire any second. So either jump into the big-time sexy serious intense relationship you’re right on the edge of having and accept the risks and the consequences, or say a firm and total goodbye.
Second, don’t make it about whether he’s ready. It’s a canard. It’s patronizing. And you can’t control that for another person. The question is: Are YOU ready? Are you excited? Do you think you’re going to be happier with him than you were without him?
Third, should you need it, this is what a firm and total goodbye looks like: “I have too many anxieties about the future to want to date you right now, and too many pantsfeelings to be able to sustain the lie that we’re just friends. I’m tired of going around and around about this question, so I’ve decided that it’s better for me if we don’t talk anymore. I wish you the best.” And then you delete his number from your phone and purge your e-life of his flirty e-messages and you do not find reasons to run into him. You go out and you meet other people and do your own thing.
FYI, a Darth Vader will hear that speech and he will take it as a sign to try to put his penis in you now, quickly, before you get away. He will want to hug you “one last time” and that hug will last a little too long and it will get all handsy in there and it will feel really, really good. And the next day you might have delicious breakfast, but you might also have an expensive visit to the pharmacy to purchase Plan B and the 150th long circular talk about how you really shouldn’t do this even though you both really want to
Fourth, I don’t want to go all The Rules on you, because, barf, but I want you to watch yourself for signs of becoming the World’s Most Accommodating Girlfriend Who Is Always Cool With Everything Because She Understands How Busy You Are, Dear. Keep your own needs in sight, ok? Put yourself out there, but watch for reciprocity. Let him do his share of planning the time you spend together and looking for ways to delight you and improve your life. The sad truth that we’ve discussed here before is that you can adore and have massive pantsfeelings and chemistry with someone who isn’t a good partner for you. It can also be easy to get sucked into the idea of The Future, Where Everything Will Be a Little Bit Better Than It Is Now, If You Just Believe Hard Enough. Love is risk. Love is optimism and hoping that you’ll beat the odds. But brand new love should be awesome all the time Right Fucking Now.
Right Fucking Now, I’m all the way in love. And one way I know that (as your fellow anxiety-monkey) is that my biggest anxiety these whole past few months has been “This is so fucking great. Is it TOO good? Should I be having more anxiety about it?” And the answer every time has been um, no, because it’s GREAT and he is GREAT, idiot. I didn’t make pro and con lists* about whether I should date him or love him or whether it was the right time or check in with my friends to see if it was a good idea…I mostly checked in with my friends to say “GREAT DUDE IS GREAT, YOU GUYS, LET ME TELL YOU MORE STORIES ABOUT THAT.” I didn’t worry about how it will all work out (except to occasionally worry that I wasn’t worried enough), and something magic happened to my jerkbrain: It shut the fuck up for a while and decided to let me be happy.
So the last thing I’ll say, as your adopted love-guide, is to suggest if you decide to go for this thing is to have all the sex, eat all the breakfast, and to let yourself enjoy it fully. But also, since you are not quite trusting yourself or him, put a date a few months out on your calendar where you sit down with a journal and write truthfully about how things are going. If that journal entry looks AT ALL like a list of pros and cons about whether you should be dating him at all, if you find the worries and circular reasoning that you’re having now at all reflected there, if there are some consistent ways that your needs aren’t being met, then see it for what it is: You risked, you tried, and now you have some more information about whether this will make you happy in the long run. That’s a smart as you can be about things, I think, and still maybe let yourself maybe be happy.
*Blanket Statement: If you find yourself making “pro” and “con” lists in your diary about whether you should be or get involved with someone, you already have your answer** about how this is going to work out.
**Hint: The answer is CON.