You know you’re in a relationship when you’re willing to look bad in order to feel better

People are confusing as hell. At least to me. Dating is especially problematic.

A few years ago, navigating the dating world as a single adult for the first time, I made a classic mistake. I took a man at his word.

No one is honest about their feelings. In part because most people aren’t terribly aware of how they really feel, and how they feel changes from one moment to the next. So if I asked a man why he’s failing to text me back in a timely manner, he likely doesn’t know himself. It probably depends on what’s on TV, how well our last interaction went, the size of the ass of the last girl to text him, etc.

The other reason a question like this would be fruitless is that for most people, this kind of literal communication takes a lot of the fun out of it. For some strange reason, it’s more fun to intuit attraction than ask and have it stated explicitly. Kind of. I have some great memories of asking men if they’re attracted to me and getting an affirmative and liking it.

So all I have to go on is indirect communication — Body language, facial expressions, gestures, etc. In any communication, two people can mean two different things by the same words. Indirect communication, has the same problem, but on steroids.

Finally, after much hand-wringing and asking my friends, I asked this guy outright why he wasn’t texting me back. He said he just doesn’t like texting that much. My friends told me this was bullshit, but I wanted to believe him, so I did.

Later, he told me that at the same time we were dating, he had been talking to and holding out for another lady. The truth was that while he liked hanging out with me and having sex with me, he didn’t want to be as close to me as I wanted to be with him. This was painful for me. Not just (or even mostly) because he liked someone more than me. That, I understood. Despite liking him very much, I could see the glaring points of incompatibility between us. It hurt because I felt stupid. And not stupid in the way that means I get 0/10 correct on the math GRE practice tests. I am okay with being that kind of stupid. I’m only mildly embarrassed by it. I’m deeply ashamed of not being able to take a hint. The intelligence that allows you to correctly interpret others’ behavior is so important to me, because I know you need that to connect to other people. I want so badly to connect with other people. That I’m not good at it is deeply shameful to me. It makes me feel like I’m not worth investing in. Like the whole world is speaking a language I don’t speak. Sure, you could befriend me despite my lack of language proficiency. But what a damn chore.

Sometimes I correct for my deficiencies accurately interpreting non-explicit communication by assuming the worst. I did it three separate times in recent memory. I look at a mix of signals, pick out the ones that look like rejection, and focus on them. “Okay, well, he paid for dinner and proactively reached out to put another date on the calendar. But he also doesn’t read my blog and never asks me about myself. And he got up and started playing his computer game immediately after cumming.” (That at 31 I’d be having sex with someone who still plays computer games is a psychological issue for a separate post.) It’s not even so much that I’m saying he’s not interested in me. What does that even mean? He’s interested in seeing me and putting his penis inside me. He’s not particularly curious about my thoughts, background, or inner life. Except we had that one really great conversation about faith and rationality wherein he asked some really helpful questions.

It doesn’t really matter what his “real” feelings are. He probably doesn’t know. I’m certain it changes moment-by-moment.

The pertinent part is that I think, “This is how it is.” I feel by turns flattered and frustrated by him. And I interpret my flattered as me fooling myself, reading things I want to see into our interactions. I assume I’m deluding myself. And that, like that other guy, I’ll feel stupid later. So better to accept it now.

I did the same thing with my boyfriend recently. Because he’d rejected me in one instance, I assumed he would always reject me. Because he’d been dishonest in the past, I assumed he was going to be dishonest in the future. It sounds like I’m being hyperbolic (ME?!).  But I’m not! When I feel rejected, I inhabit a mental space which does allow for any other mental space. In rejected mindspace, I can remember a time when I felt like I could trust my boyfriend. But instead of feeling confident that I would feel like I could trust him again after we talked about it, I felt afraid I would feel that way again. I felt like if we talked about it, he would just pull the wool over my eyes again. Rejected Cathy can remember accepted Cathy existed at one time, but instead of looking forward to getting back there, rejected Cathy actively sabotages that process. Out of a desire for self-protection, in that moment I’d rather stay sad and disappointed than get my hopes up and get disappointed and feel stupid on top of it.

Even for people who are good at reading other people, life is full of ambiguous signals. Did he answer, “Maybe!” when I asked him if he wanted to go have sex with the hot yoga teacher who just texted him instead of stay in and watch Netflix with me because that’s a better offer, or because he’s flattered and excited to be getting more attention from beautiful women than he ever has before? Yes. What hurts isn’t so much that hers is a better offer. I can accept that. It’s thinking I’d overestimated the value he puts our time together.

Who cares?

I’ve written about this before, though I can’t find it. The best way to be happy in a relationship is to be completely deluded about your lover/s. Interpret every signal as love. Read acceptance, affection, selflessness, and compassion into everything your partner does and says. Because if you’re wrong? Who cares? As long as you can keep up the delusion, you’re never wrong! The truth is that sometimes you’ll be wrong, and sometimes you’ll be right. It hurts to be “proven” wrong to trust him, or believe I was valuable to him, because I’m deeply ashamed about my interpretive powers. But if I can give up that shame, then being wrong doesn’t actually cost me anything. I thought he wanted to spend time with me but me but actually he wanted to have sex with someone else. Maybe he’d actually rather spend time with me right now but he’s worried if he rejects her he’ll never get another chance to have sex with her. Maybe he’s are so horny that he’ll find chaste time with me frustrating. Maybe (insert a million different ways to interpret what he did that aren’t rejection here).

So I’m going to try to err. I’m going to try to err hard and fast and long.

I’m even going to try to reinterpret my difficulty correctly interpreting signals. If I could tell when someone was rejecting or accepting me with perfect accuracy, then I’d never get the chance to see acceptance where rejection lives. In other words, I’d never get the chance to, through my own mental powers of self-delusion, enjoy a better relationship than I’m actually having. It’s a feature, not a bug!

And I expect that as I work hard at interpreting ambiguous signals as love and acceptance, it will get easier over time. It’s a muscle I’ll develop until it’s almost second-nature. Like asking people about themselves at parties.

I’m not sure I want to work out this muscle on gamerdude35998 though. There are two reasons. The first is just sheer volume. In my (tortured) muscle analogy, ambiguous signals are reps. Boyfriend sprinkles in maybe 1 ambiguous signal for every 10 unambiguously flattering signals. He tells me I’m beautiful every day. He almost always asks me about my day. He comes to the door when I get home. He loves to cook for me. He looks at me like he’s excited, in awe, horny, and content at different times but also sometimes all at once. He never, ever wants to not be near me but not touching. He tells all his other lovers about me. He is proud of me. Etc. Not so with gamerdude. His are about half and half. Again, ambiguous *to me*. Someone else might interpret those signals as not signals at all, but actions devoid of meaning and indicative of nothing. I wouldn’t say they’re wrong. Some people really don’t like to text. But it sucks when you not texting me makes me feel rejected and you’re not offering enough unambiguous signals to make it worth the effort to interpret not texting as meaningless.

The other big reason is that when I talk to my boyfriend about feeling rejected, I always eventually feel better. Sometimes we have to fight viciously for two days (which may or may not involve me screaming at the top of my lungs at him at 11 p.m. on the sidewalk in Arlington and then finally walking away and him asking me where I’m going and me saying I don’t know and then going home with him because I need to pee) before I can feel acknowledged and heard. But at the end of it, I do always feel acknowledged and heard. I know this now, in accepted state. I won’t believe it the next time I’m in rejected state. But I know I will be wrong then. And that’s okay. It’s not ideal. I don’t like it. But it’s true. The goal, for me, is to avoid getting into rejected state in the first place as much as possible. To keep my mind open to flattering interpretations.

The thing that’s beautiful about my relationship with my boyfriend is that we’re at a place where we can take the inexplicit and make it explicit. Which is a pretentious way to say we can talk about things. I’ve thought a lot about what makes a move from casual dating to not-casual dating outside of the context of monogamy. And I think that’s one marker. I think you’re in a relationship when you’re willing to look bad in order to feel good. I’m not worried about my boyfriend knowing how important it is to me that he do X, Y, or Z. When I was literally crying about him (maybe) wanting to leave for the night, I told him that if he didn’t want to leave before, he definitely should now that I’m being an insecure, overreacting whiny little bitch. When you’re casual, you pretend to care less in part because you want to care less and in part because it’s embarrassing to care more than the other person. When you live together, and you’re lazy, you cry right there in your shared bed and you hope he comforts you. And he does, and you get back into acceptance state.

There’s another reason I’m hesitant to work out my good-faith muscle on gamerdude. There’s still too much of me that wishes I cared less. I’m very conflicted about him because I’m hella attracted to him but also we want very different things long-term. It’s a ton of work, hard, scary work, to be close to someone. It’s not all unambiguous signals, compliments and flowers and dates. Sometimes it’s screaming at each other on the sidewalk. I feel conflicted about doing that work for someone I expect to leave me for someone else. There’s a difference between might could and almost certainly will. There’s a difference between “You have most of what I’m looking for and I have hope you can develop the rest” and “You are very far afield of what I want in a partner.” Logically I know any of my partners could leave me at any time. Logically if they find a better deal I want them to. I want to run away from this guy because I want so badly to be close to him but I am (so far) too worried about the low likelihood of payoff to do the work required to be close to him. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m in rejected state with him and I can get out of it and when I do I’ll see the ratio of ambiguous to unambiguous differently. Maybe I can do the hard work of loving someone who I know I can only love for a time and it will help me get better at loving people for who they are now and not whether I think they’ll stick around.

 

It’s hard for me to believe that someone worthwhile loves me. It’s almost impossible when doing it feels like I’m walking a tightrope over spikes of shame. The more I fall, the more I expect to fall. When I expect to fall, I refuse to get up again. I just lay on the spikes and accept my loneliness. Rejecting the idea that being wrong is shameful helps blunt the spikes. Interpreting ambiguous signals as acceptance widens the rope.

The other thing I need to internalize is that it’s okay to love people who don’t love me back in exactly the same way. No relationship is perfectly symmetrical and my time is better spent loving people than worrying about how they feel about me.

No one is honest about their feelings. No one knows exactly how they feel and certainly no one knows how someone else feels. The best I can do is to learn how to see something before I know it’s real, to acknowledge that I create my own reality and take responsibility for making it a good one, to have faith that I am worthy of love, and let go of shame about occasionally being wrong. NBD.

 

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