How To Close Out A 10 Year Cycle Of Being Bad At Dating

10 years ago I was a tiny baby angel in my early 20’s. I had just escaped a cult (but I wouldn’t call it that for a decade) and my friends and I were all in very tumultuous times in our lives. It was weird to transition from being a student to being a (poor) independent adult with a job and free time and a city to run around in. Suddenly we could drink. Suddenly we didn’t have to believe in god and date good Christian boys. Suddenly no one cared that we could all make different but equally strong arguments for and against utilitarianism.

In the span of 5 years between the ages of 20-25 I lost my faith, my virginity, and the culture I grew up in. I was on my own and a baby deer just trying to stand on my own legs with all my friends who were doing the same. Everything about the new adult world I was in was disorienting and I relied on others to tell me the rules. This didn’t work so well with dating where men are happy to tell you the rules are whatever works for them to extract the most warm fuzzies and sexual experiences from you for the least amount of effort, care, or responsibility.

I met a man through my writing who told me he was a fan. We flirted over email and text and then he took me to a fancy italian restaurant and an urban dance bar after. We met my best friend and her boyfriend and ran into some of our other friends as well. He said it wasn’t a date but he paid for me and invited me over to listen to records after. When I got up around 1am to leave he asked me to spend the night. When I took off my clothes and got into bed and kissed him, he kissed me back. But it wasn’t a date.

This was my first adult romance. The first time I didn’t meet the guy at church or at my Christian college or at a social event populated mostly by my Christian friends. The guy was a lapsed Catholic and culturally Jewish. He had sex guilt. He said he didn’t want me because I wanted him and that made him suspicious. I just saw someone who noticed and appreciated the person I was trying to be, who loved books and wasn’t a basic bitch when it came to thinking. I liked being in his bed kissing him or listening to him talk about how we should call in sick to work and lay in bed and smoke and read all day. This seemed like enough to me. Enough of a foundation to try for something and see.

It’s 10 years later and I still don’t know what his problem was. He just wanted a fantasy for a night maybe. The morning light illuminated something he didn’t want to try. But he never told me that and I was too inexperienced to take a lukewarm response as anything but an invitation to try harder. We talked for two years more years and he never told me why he didn’t want to be with me or that we’d never be together. He kissed me at other times and it confused me. I think maybe he just liked to get a fix of a certain way he saw himself that I brought out in him. But he didn’t want to be vulnerable with me. Didn’t want to be close. Didn’t want to see what we could grow together.

Eventually he told me I was creepy. I think it’s probably not creepy to have a crush on someone who has glimpsed the real you and told you that they like it. That’s a really rare thing and I think it’s okay to hold on for a bit, to try hard. But he was smart and five years older than me so I took him at his word for a very long time. I must have been creepy. We stopped talking and I think I didn’t talk to a guy again for three years and just threw myself into work instead.

I’d been 25 when I went out with this guy for the first time and I was maybe 29 the next time I went on a date. It was a group Tinder date with my really hot roommate and myself. I was sure that 100% of the guys would be annoyed that I was even there, taking away from their time with my hot roommate. But to my incredible surprise every single one of them was really nice to me and appreciative of my presence. It wasn’t so bad. I thought, I could probably do this again. So I did.

I made my own Tinder account and soon I met a guy I’d hang out with for two years. Some weeks I slept in his bed more than my own, but I’d never refer to him as anything other than “some guy from Tinder” because I knew he wouldn’t like it if I did. He walked far away from me on the street even though we mostly walked places in the dark. He basically never tried to get me off. He didn’t say nice things to me. But he did let me love him a little bit and that was enough for me at the time. In some ways it almost felt safer, because I knew what to expect, and I liked sleeping with his arms around me. But I was fully immersing myself in the crazy girl narrative again. I knew that he didn’t want to date me, I knew that I cared for him so much more than he cared for me but I went with it because it was better than nothing. I was creepy and my needs were too much, so I let myself go uncared for until he started dating someone else and dumped me.

After that relationship ended I started dating for real. I had a few year long stints with men that I really liked. I grew more confident with each one. I started going to therapy and realized how incredibly avoidant I was about relationships and allowing anyone close enough to really judge me or hurt me. I went to a weekly group of people who were learning how to have self-esteem and at first I cried every week and asked not to have to share. Now I just cry if I need to cry but I don’t feel the pit in my stomach or the self-judgement when I talk about things that are difficult for me. I know it’s okay to be human and have flaws and things that are difficult. I’ve read about a million memoirs and self-help books since, and it really doesn’t seem like I am particularly crazy or clingy or needy or unattractive.

At the end of last year I met a guy on Bumble and we had a whirlwind Christmas romance. Just a week off work with nothing to do but flirt and have lazy stoner hangouts in each other’s beds. He ghosted me and then resurfaced a few months later and I forgave him and we spent another month in each others arms before he ghosted me again. All I could think about what this idea that I was creepy and I had scared him away by being honest about my feelings for him. I know ghosting (twice) is a really rude thing to do to someone but I couldn’t stop blaming myself for it. I had to have said something or done something creepy. I had offered to make him spicy soup when he was sick. It was probably that. I should have known better than to hint at commitment. How terrible and frightening it must be to have someone who cares for you offer to make you soup so you’ll feel better.

The first guy I really had feelings for in my adult life called me creepy and it’s affected every relationship I’ve had since then. I really internalized that and felt that in every situation, my feelings were too much and inappropriate. I censored myself. I played games to appear more nonchalant than I was. I’d mostly just be quiet with guys and wait for them to set the pace of the relationship, which couldn’t have been very fun for them. There’s no fun or affection in that and relationships without fun and affection are bullshit.

I really went through it when I realized this guy was never going to speak to me again. My heart was broken. I had really thought that this was the beginning of something special. And then I thought, “well of course, I’m creepy, I scared him off.” Months later I heard from his new girlfriend that he doesn’t even remember my name. I asked around. Could you really forget the name of someone you’d hung out with for a few months and had sex with a few handfuls of times? Even my sluttiest and least sentimental friends said “no, that’s not a thing” and I trust them so I think this is just something someone with hurt feelings said to hurt my feelings. But I still have an open wound there and it hurt me.

I think exactly because this comment hit me where my wound was open I realized for the first time that I was in a holding pattern. I realized how much power the idea that I was creepy, that my feelings were inappropriate or unwelcome, that I loved people too much and too soon had over me. I was scared out of being myself and I have spent enough money on therapy that I know I don’t need to do that. There’s nothing really wrong with me. I just have a collection of particular flaws that I work on like everyone else on the planet does.

Earlier this fall I read Stephen King’s sequel to one of my all time favorite novels, The Shining, called Doctor Sleep. In it we find out what happens to little Danny Torrence when he leaves the Overlook Hotel: after all that trauma he grows up to be an alcoholic just like his daddy. One night he gets drunk and goes home with another addict who he learns is a single mother of a neglected little boy. Angry at her for buying coke with his money he steals $70 from her purse in the morning, knowing he is stealing from that poor little neglected boy as well.

Eventually, Danny gets help and becomes a regular at AA meetings. He gets sober and works the steps but he never tells anyone about the $70 he stole from a single mother and her neglected kid. This sin eats at him and grows inside him. It starts to control him and and the way he views himself. His entire morality and worthiness is weighed against this one action he took while hungover and desperate one morning. At the end of the events of the book Danny attends a meeting where he gets his chip for 15 years of sobriety. He finally gets the strength to stand up and tell everyone at the meeting the worst thing he’s ever done. He tells them about a time 20 years ago when he stole money from a poor mother’s purse. People are checking their phones, fidgeting, looking at their watches, waiting for the meeting to be over. People are bored about this sin Danny thought was so shameful that it controlled his life for decades. Once he said the words out loud, they lost all their power.

I think it’s time for me to shine the flashlight in the dark corners of my mind and talk about what I see there. I think when I say them out loud they will lose their power. Someone called me creepy once and it made me question my worth for 10 years. But I don’t think they were telling the truth, I think they just wanted to shut me down. I don’t think he knew how much it would affect me.

The other night I was hanging out with someone new and he kept bringing up that he didn’t want kids and he wasn’t looking to settle down. This was a guy who made me drink out of an open bottle of wine because he only had one cup in his apartment. I had to stop him at one point and point out that he didn’t need to keep bringing this up, that believe it or not I’m not desperate to have the baby of someone who has one cup in their apartment. Furthermore, um, I am a somewhat rich, intelligent, engaged, extremely kind and affectionate woman who is trying to build something that makes the world a better place for everyone. IF at some point years away I decided I did want this guy, he would be B L E S S E D to settle down with me. In my humble opinion that is like winning the partner lottery. (Thanks therapy!)

Being able to drive home that night and be like “this guy seems like a boring idiot kind of” instead of “wow he had to remind me so many times that he doesn’t want a relationship it must be because I am ugly and annoying” was a completely new thing for me. I’m not trying to put this guy down, he’s perfectly fine and maybe a great guy if I get to know him. But his words are a reflection of who he is and what he is dealing with in life right now, not a summary of my worth as a human being or romantic partner. And it feels really good to know that.

Sometimes I think I can just focus on creating the life I want to live and men will be attracted to that and I’ll meet someone someday to be a good partner and we can figure out how to make our lives work together. For my entire life when I’ve thought about jobs or moving states or which apartment I’ll live in I always think about how it will be perceived by men. Will there be men there? Will they think I’m cool? Now, I think, this is pretty great and I meet enough men and it will probably happen for me at some point because idk, humans like to live life together and I am a pretty good human to live life with. It doesn’t have to be the focus of my attention but I also don’t have to be afraid to be open to it.

I think this comes more naturally to men, their main goals in life usually are about their personal challenges and successes, with maybe a family in the background to cheer them on. For a long time, the family was the end all be all for me. For whatever reason I grew up as this girl who wanted to get married young, have babies, go to church and be happy with this little slice of life. Now I think, I want everything to revolve around my art. I want to just be Chrissy and all the things that I used to think of as flaws, all the ways I couldn’t fit into a little Christian housewife life — those are the things that are helping me build the world around me into what I want it to be. I don’t have any friends who are Christians housewives. It’s not a place I fit in. I get excited when I meet people and have experiences that show me how big my life can be. I don’t want to be small. I don’t want to be the supporting cast in a play about my husband’s life.

This helps to know. I don’t approach relationships anymore with the idea that this guy is going to dictate what kind of quality of life I’m going to have. If a guy today told me I was creepy, I could immediately recognize that he is trying to downplay what is happening between us so he can assuage his guilt about his own actions. I would probably complain to a friend about it and then forget it by the next day. I’d probably lose interest in him and move on. It’s a small but powerful feeling. A dragon I’ve vanquished. A tangible milestone in my life, just not the kind they sell greeting cards about.

I am now unwilling to be controlled by the things I’m afraid of. Let ‘em out. Let all these dark spaces see the light of day so I can see what they are really made of and address them. They aren’t scary anymore when you see what they really are, how so many of us all have the same thoughts and fears and desires, how powerful things can be until you say them out loud and realize how normal and boring they really are. I’ve probably heard the phrase “it doesn’t matter what people think” hundreds if not thousands of time in my life, but it took 10 years of trying and failing and practice to being able to really internalize this, and I might have to learn it all over again one day.

It’s so crazy and annoying how in life the very worst things you go through end up being the things that propel you into a better place. Both of these men broke my heart in a real and tangible way, and yet without them I would still be so fragile and impressionable and naive. I would believe anything a guy said about me because I grew up sheltered and he probably didn’t. They all seemed inherently more worldly than me, older and wiser. But it’s just their word against mine, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. They don’t get to convince me my thoughts and experiences are less real or valid than their own. I’m confident in my values and actions. You can take me or leave me, but you can’t convince me I’m crazy anymore.

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