#1300: “Chronically-single abuse survivor tired of dating disasters.”

Hi Captain Awkward,

I’m a heterosexual woman (she/her) in my early thirties. Dating, relationships, and sex are an area of life I feel cut off from and have felt cut off from ever since I was a teenager (I’ve been sexually frustrated for a very long time), and I need help figuring out why I still haven’t found a great, compatible partner. Right now I think finding them would be a major miracle.

I’m a grad student. I think I’m averagely attractive. I have ADHD that wasn’t diagnosed until grad school, and not properly medicated until fairly recently, and short-term memory issues from trauma. I’m definitely less stereotypically feminine than other straight women I know, though I don’t think I’m quite in “soft butch” territory.

Men don’t display interest in me much if at all to the point that I still can’t tell when men are flirting with me – I have many good platonic male friends. I’ve had two relationships, a long time ago when I felt even worse about myself; I wasn’t physically attracted to either one, and for a long time now I’ve had a ground rule for myself that I have to be physically attracted to someone I pursue. The men I HAVE had sex with were not men I’ve been terribly into at all – the attraction was mild at best and the sex wasn’t great (and sometimes scary). I’m usually the one to ask out or proposition someone, and when I’m truly into someone it’s always a no. Men have been interested in me, but I didn’t find out for a long time, or if I did I didn’t reciprocate much if at all. I have a lot of deep, ingrained trauma around non-platonic interactions as a result.

I know a lot of this boils down to attachment issues (specifically fearful-avoidance). I had abusive parents with whom I cut contact two and a half years ago, and painful peer relationships as a kid. I’ve been in weekly therapy for years to heal from it, and I’ve put in a lot of work with my issues with dating as part of it for a long time. I’ve come a long way and still have a way to go. I’m pretty rejection-sensitive; I don’t really externalize it, but I’m prone to think someone isn’t friendly, or is just being polite at best, and put up walls as a result. I have considerable confidence issues, and am better at talking to people the more I trust the person I’m talking to.

I know people with a background like mine can and do find someone, but why not me? I feel pretty lost at this point and feel like men don’t see me as a desirable potential partner at all. Please help.


Undesired and Hating It

Dear Hating It,

There are whole *industries* built on the premise that romantic love will find you if you just work hard enough at it, and they offer up their Secrets™ without prompting: 

  • If you get a makeover and buy these 10,000 things, your lashes will be long, your ass will look great in jeans, and you will catch the right person’s eye. You will be loved.
  • If you get enough therapy, and work on yourself enough, if you doggedly hunt all of your issues to the source and finally deal with them, you will be loved. 
  • If you go on enough first dates, if you download enough apps, if you go to enough speed dating events, and singles mixers, if you hire a matchmaker to arrange a series of lunches, if you find the exact right balance between having standards and lowering them, you will be loved. 
  • If you read these self-help books, find out what really makes your desired gender of partner “tick,” adopt this set of stratagems, and take these quizzes about Your Type, you will finally crack the code that makes you more attractive in general and summon your particular soulmate to your side. If you find the way to be just the right amount of interested (but not “clingy), confident (but not TOO confident), vulnerable (but not TOO vulnerable), gorgeous (but “accessibly” so), you can do it! You can be loved! Think positive! xo
  • If it’s not working, these messages re-affirm that there’s probably something you’ve missed, some dusty corner of your soul that needs swept, some weird chin hair that needs plucking, some flawed surface that can be polished and perfected, and just as soon as you track whatever it is down and diligently address it? True love will find you in the end. 

These sales pitches are so appealing and so hard to shake because they are rooted in at least some truth. We want to feel in control of our destinies, we want to do stuff to change our fates, and effort does count…to a point? For example: 

  • Meeting people takes time and effort, and it’s not silly to tell your matchmaking-minded friends you’re open to being set up on dates, to find platforms and events for meeting like-minded people, and look into dating sites and apps specifically to make the “I am here to flirt (and possibly fuck)” part more obvious. It’s okay to want to fall in love and try to make that happen! 
  • What others will find attractive about us is subjective and usually a total crapshoot, but more than one sweet geeky dude of my acquaintance has benefited from a timely trip to a barber and a gentle “Let’s put everything that doesn’t fit you, has holes or stains, and specifically mentions your college in this special box for right now and see what else we can work with” wardrobe intervention before a big first date, both as a confidence-builder and as a “I give a shit about you/this occasion/myself” message to the people they’re meeting. 
  • If past relationships, mental health issues, and family history are impinging on your present happiness and ability to form and enjoy relationships, sorting all of that out with a therapist *is* a very good use of your time. But it’s not because going to therapy makes you more worthy of love than you were before (“Behold, for I have fixed myself!”), rather, hopefully a happier, more secure, and more emotionally competent you can both give and expect better treatment from other people. 

Where all the tips and tricks and Rules™ really go wrong is their utter commitment to the “You can have anything you want if you just try hard enough (Ergo, if you’re not getting what you want, you’re probably not trying hard enough)” capitalist message, the same toxic optimism-no-matter-the-odds attitude, the same happiness-as-achievement measuring stick that’s infiltrated every other aspect of modern life. Unhappy? There’s probably something wrong with you, better Google “wtf is a bootstap,” make a vision board, buy this organic sea salt armpit polishing and rejuvenation elixir, and sign up for this Master Course in Re-Birthing The Best You You Can Be, only $699 down and $99/week for the rest of your fucking life. 

What almost nobody wants to say out loud, the thing that nobody can sell, is the sucky truth that love isn’t something you can deserve by finally becoming perfect enough, it’s not a final boss battle between you and your worst enemy (who is also you) with the perfect partner as a prize. There are far too many absolute cinnamon rolls who are unhappily alone, and waaaaaaaay too many selfish jerks celebrating golden wedding anniversaries and stinking up R/relationships to ever conclude that romantic love is distributed fairly according to merit. Finding and maintaining a happy romantic partnership with another human or humans depends on the existence, proximity, subjective desires, and a frankly astounding series of large and small decisions that are completely up to a bunch of people who aren’t you. 

That’s terrifying, obviously. It sucks so hard, and believe me, I am very aware of the specific suckitude of having this message delivered by some happily-married blog asshole after you’ve bared your soul in public and carefully listed all the things that might be right or wrong with you: I found love, despite socially unacceptable levels of [body hair][cat hair][body fat][student loan debt][annoying personality traits][chemical imbalances][sartorial crimes], but that doesn’t mean you or anyone else can necessarily guarantee it, sorry. Love, Captain Awkward.”

But the only truthful answer I can give to “Other people do find love, why not me? is “Effort counts; but sometimes luck and timing count way more.” Or, as Sara Eckel suggests in her excellent book It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, maybe treating romance like a perpetual makeover project is a) not actually working to help people pair off b) taking up a lot of headspace and time that could be used on better – and more fun – activities.

The most likely truth is, you are probably plenty lovable and likable, despite your difficult history with sex and dating and your perceived and real flaws. Not everyone will like you, but your singleness is most likely NOT happening because you are failing a series of Adequately Lovable Human: The Musical! auditions. 

“But if I’m just fine, why doesn’t anybody love me?” You know somethings’s wrong, why won’t anyone tell you what so you can work on it? 

But the real answer is still some combination of: “You’re already working on yourself plenty to the best of your abilities” + “You haven’t met the right person or people yet, and there are lots of good reasons for that” + “Incurring the subjective desire and affection of another unique human being isn’t something you can accomplish.”

Let’s review the circumstances. So far, the small subset of straight or bi/pan men you’ve crossed paths with that you’ve been interested dating in haven’t felt that way about you. The ones who are interested in you do not express their interest directly enough to catch your attention, and you’re not interested enough in them to approach them with the same courage and directness you’ve shown when you are pursuing someone you actively like. And you’ve had a few relationships that didn’t work out. That doesn’t read “permanently broken and uniquely doomed” to me, that reads “unlucky so far.” 

You’re in grad school, which is a shallow dating pool at best, probably closer to a puddle or “partly cloudy, chance of rain.” Depending on where said grad school is located, the surrounding community may offer even dryer prospects. Most likely this isn’t a “put down roots” period of your life anyway, this is a “work really hard at this demanding task so you can go where you want when you finish” time, and most of the people around you are in the same situation: Obsessed with work and waiting for that job offer or fellowship on the other side of the country or the world to take them far away. 

You’re also in grad school during a pandemic when it’s not safe to do any of the usual “just get out there!” stuff like going on first dates, a meeting new folks in hobby groups and activities, or finding low-stakes, casual, friendly make-out sessions. Normally you’d at least be able to control how much effort you put in to dating, and you’d be able to hang out with friends and feel less isolated in general, so why, why, why (this is probably a question for your therapist) whyyyyyyyyyyyy on earth does your jerk of a brain keep circling back to “What’s wrong with me?” as the most likely cause of your loneliness during what is literally a worldwide dry spell? More importantly (also a therapist question, I can’t actually mediate conflicts btw. you and your brain):  How can you get it to stop doing that? 

Because more than anything, that’s the loop that needs broken. You’re a flawed weirdo among other flawed weirdos, I’ll accept that on behalf of my fellow flawed weirdos everywhere, but there are tons of reasons for being single at this exact moment in your life that don’t trace back to your abusive childhood or troubling early sexual experiences. You met some assholes, is all, and you met some people who didn’t love you back, or who didn’t do it for you, for whatever reason. The “I must be emitting some kind of special kind of failure-beacon” signal is coming from inside your head and then it’s echoing there and telling you gibberish like “Maybe more…skirts? Boys like skirts!” even though it knows that you’re not really a skirt person.

There’s so much about healing from abuse that involves keeping people at a safe distance while you process what happened to you and try to avoid repeating it in the future, and so much of grad school is spent analyzing things in a way that “gets beyond” whether you liked it or didn’t like it, as if feelings are suspicious and enjoyment is irrelevant. Between these two endeavors, it’s easy to see how you’d get stuck somewhere between a permanent flinch and dutifully eating your vegetables before you can have dessert. 

Until you can safely swipe right on life again, I’d love for you to stop thinking of “How do I fix myself so I can attract more/different men” as your project. Instead, start thinking of your requirements for a prospective partner as regular, normal needs that you have, and put a hefty amount of effort and attention into seeking your own pleasure, right here and now. 

From your letter, the right romantic partner for you is most likely some combination of all of these things:

  • Someone you find attractive
  • Someone who both desires and delights you in return
  • Someone straightforward who asks you out with words or says an enthusiastic yes when you ask them out (vs. someone you’d have to chase or pin down or figure out)
  • Someone who understands the difference between assertive and aggressive
  • Someone who is patient and confident enough to take it slow and give you time to trust them and relax around them
  • Someone who is generally kind and gentle and safe and good

These are not at all weird things to want or need, and even better, people with all of these qualities actually exist! Your past experiences inform your needs, and having had mostly bad experiences doesn’t invalidate any of those needs. I think a lot of narratives around surviving “scary” sex or abusive childhoods or bad relationships try to make the case that abuse and assault automatically make people (women, specifically) Much Too Sensitive in a way that needs correcting, as if we can only ever encounter one rapist or asshole per lifetime (oh, how I wish that were true), and as if healing means being able to approach all future situations as if they — and we– are tabula rasa. Trauma can certainly mess with our sense of safety and require care and recalibration, but if you go on a date with someone who makes you feel scared and bad, or whose behavior displays a pattern of red flags in a way that reminds you of other scary, unfun, bad experiences, it’s perfectly okay to get the hell out of there as safely as you can and not fall in love with them. You do not have to be fair or prove you are objective in how you spend your heart, body, and precious time, and NOT ending up in a relationship with somebody who is mean or too pushy or who you aren’t attracted to doesn’t mean “I have failed…again…to attract men…how do I fix myself or lower my standards so I feel safer…with crappy men.” It means: Good job listening to your gut, and better luck next time. 

If you want to get better at letting your guard down safely, maybe practice saying yes to things that feel good whenever you can safely do so. During quarantine, that means saying yes to self-care: Do things for your body that feel good. Make your living space more comfortable. Learn how to have really good sex with yourself, learn how to understand and express your own desires. Think of something you like that’s a “guilty” pleasure — can it just be a plain old pleasure from now on? Read copious amounts of fanfic or “trashy” novels, if that’s your thing, find a hobby or creative outlet that isn’t about adding lines to your CV. 

I also recommend not putting off the things you want for “someday” or that you may have been mentally saving (or culturally conditioned to postpone) until you are part of a couple.

For an example of how weird and pervasive and self-denying this “someday” mentality can be, starting when I was in my late 20s, I asked for a nice matching set of stainless steel silverware and some dishes and wine glasses over a series of several Christmases. My parents were so weirded out by it — not by the list itself, they demanded/encouraged list-making — but by the requests for grown-up quality cutlery, even though the stuff I picked out was within my family’s usual holiday budget and scope. Didn’t I want to wait, and register for this stuff when I got married, they asked, repeatedly? I countered with, do I really have to throw dinner parties with mismatched dorm-forks and dull knives and jelly jars until I find a suitable man? Because that might be never! (I just counted, and it was at least 16 years between “seeking to acquire decent utensils” and eventual matrimony. That’s 16 years too long to make do with life’s shittiest forks!)

If there’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, but thought, “I should wait until I meet the Right Person before I can have that,” stop waiting, as in, this is probably the perfect winter to adopt a pet to snuggle with, or do whatever that thing is for you that means, I’m home, my life is happening right here, right now. Now is also a good time to harness your ambition, both in terms of your scholarship and career, but also about what you want your whole life to look like, without factoring in anyone else’s needs or preferences. “Someday I’ll honeymoon in [Dream Spot]” isn’t actually a reason not to head there the second your finances and post-pandemic safety allow. I promise, you can visit your favorite places multiple times. 

With the other people and relationships in your life, pay attention to who makes you feel seen, safe, welcome, and appreciated. Who shows up for you consistently and makes you feel cared for? Who appreciates the care and attention and affection you offer them? Pay attention also to who makes you feel exhausted, on edge, ashamed. Spend way more of your time on being kind to the first group and way, way less energy on figuring out and managing the whims of the second. You did a hard, necessary thing by separating from your awful parents, hopefully your asshole-spotter is pretty good by now and you can cultivate a habit of NOT working to chase, appease, impress, placate, or talk yourself into people who would never in a million years put the same effort into you.

Another way to practice being less guarded about your feelings is to be generous with gratitude, praise, and compliments whenever you can. Grad school culture can have a real “suffering is normal, praise is for the WEAK” ethos, and it’s pretty much the perfect place to spend a decade gaining objectively impressive knowledge and expertise while dismissing any and all joy in your achievements for being insufficiently rigorous. Being gentle with others and reminding them how much they have to offer can be a gateway to being gentler with yourself, and a way of fighting against the many forces that would devalue you. Positive feelings count as feelings! 

When you’re ready and able to safely date again, I don’t know how long it will take for you to match with someone you really like, because I truly cannot emphasize enough how much of it is down to timing, geography, and luck. What I hope happens between now and then is that you’ll have such a consistent habit of investing in your own pleasure, and such a practice of curating and nurturing your relationships with good friends, mentors, colleagues, and the wider community in a way that makes you feel good, that when you do meet someone great, the main question before you will be “Orgasms, check, really kind and smart and fun to spend time with, check, so what else can this person add to my already-pretty-cool life, and how well do we work together?” 

Between now and then, there will be enough sadness and loneliness to go around without you constantly auditing yourself for new signs that it’s probably all your fault. Keep going to therapy, keep working on your healing, and try to remember that every reminder that you deserve to feel good and be valued, every reminder that you don’t have to take whatever you get or talk yourself into anything that doesn’t work for you, every possible chance to be kind and gentle to yourself and build a good life for yourself, is part of what will keep jerks and assholes at bay and help you recognize the right person for you — or series of possible right people — when and if they come along.

I hope they come along sooner rather than later, and I hope that when it happens you are struck speechless by how right and how easy it is for someone to adore you for exactly who you already are. 

With love, weirdness, and sturdy, matching forks since 2004,

Captain Awkward