A client recently began a session by showing me a text she had received in the waiting room from a guy she’d been dating (and discussing in therapy) for two months:
I like you very much and want to continue seeing you. I’m just not ready for a relationship.
As a male it wasn’t too difficult to read between the lines: the guy didn’t want a relationship. Why is it so difficult for women to see this? Perhaps because men don’t always offer full, or even consistent disclosure in relationship matters. This isn’t meant to lay blame on men. They have their challenges, but women often play willing accomplices to these challenges, letting things go a little too far before throwing down an ultimatum.
When I handed back her phone she said, “When we first met he said he wanted a relationship. He even told me he was ready to settle down. What the fuck?”
As most women might, she suspected the guy was pulling a bait and switch: initially he says he’s open to a relationship as a way of “getting her,” but once he has her he doesn’t want a relationship. Given this, she might rightfully conclude: the guy’s a dick.
Perhaps it’s not that the guy doesn’t want a relationship, and the goodies a relationship provides. Maybe “he just isn’t into” her; or is pursuing someone he’s more into. These are valid reasons: they happen. It’s different though, when a guy doesn’t know how to assess who would be right for him, and then to be in a relationship with her on top of it!
Typically, it’s the woman who advocates for relationship and the ideals that maintain it. In private practice working with couples, nine times out of ten it’s the woman who makes the initial call and cites the specifics that bring her and her spouse or partner into therapy. Men dragged into therapy generally capitulate, only occasionally adding incidentals or defensively fielding her “specifics” regarding the quality of their communication or state of their relationship. Couples-therapy usually centers around learning how to communicate better. Because of this, the initial focus is often on the man’s lack of engagement in their communication. Generally this is in regards to his feelings, but specifically his feelings about his partner and what he wants from their relationship.
While most men don’t have difficulties talking about themselves or their careers, they passively let the woman take the lead in relationship matters, but then become resentful when their partners make assumptions or misunderstand his intentions. When he tries to clarify his feelings, he states what he wants as if it were evidence of the relationship’s lack of viability, instead of collaboratively trying to make the relationship work. And she certainly isn’t going to try now–feeling defensive herself. If the relationship ends here, he leaves it frustrated—not with himself, or even with her particularly, but with relationships themselves. When he gets in range of another relationship opportunity, he may tentatively be willing to pursue it, but his ambivalence will be apparent. While this ambivalence acts as a buffer against the frustration he anticipates, it also, unfortunately, buffers him against taking responsibility. Naively, men just assume women want a relationship, and feel they only have to hint at the potential for one to keep a woman’s interest. In a sense he’s saying, “I’m not sure I’m into you enough (to be in a relationship with), but you might be able to convince me.”
When this ambivalence has the feeling of a dangled promise of a relationship, it creates the setting for a story in which the guy, having been wounded by previous relationships, now must recover from the psycho-ex-girlfriends who left him needing to protect himself from further reproach. But in this story, love could prevail over its hero’s ambivalence–if only the right one came along, someone who “got” him, didn’t criticize him, wasn’t needy or demanding. Because his ambivalence is often expressed as vulnerability, this becomes the hook whereby she becomes the heroine, hoping for a happy ending. But this sets up an unspoken challenge in which the woman unconsciously agrees to pursuing a relationship with him, not recognizing the trap being set for her. If anyone can bring him around to relationship she can—after all, she doesn’t criticize (she processes, sure), she isn’t needy (she has needs she wants met), and would never make demands (although she would like to know where she stands). To be sure, were she to get the psycho-ex-girlfriend’s side, that ex might not seem like such a psycho after all. Throughout the story the guy wields his ambivalence, leaning toward relationship when it suits him, and leaning back when it doesn’t.
The tension running throughout this story is when, or whether, the woman will stumble upon key questions regarding his ambivalence:
- Is he afraid he will miss out on better opportunities?
- Does he value her enough to risk investing in her, and being hurt?
- Does he already know at some level that she isn’t right for him and the relationship won’t work out, and wants to avoid the hassle of dumping her?
The longer they act out this story, the more the woman holds on to the hope that she can win him over, and the more the guy’s ambivalence turns to guilt and obligation. Guilt and obligation, aside from feeling dishonest, can keep someone in a relationship far longer than is good them. Because men often defer the responsibility of maintaining relationships to women, they fail to recognize that they too can take responsibility just as easily. This tendency for men is not only short sighted, but unnecessary. After all, no one can be required to stay in a relationship that isn’t right for them. Relationships can be ended, perhaps more easily than suffering through a drawn out struggle with ambivalence, guilt, or obligation.
But perhaps his ambivalence isn’t vulnerability, avoidance, or a bait and switch, but simply a lack of interest. A potential twist in the story would be if this turned out to be true and the ambiguity was the woman’s. Unwilling to acknowledge his lack of interest, she, in denial, casts it as ambivalence to avoid rejection.
A relationship, like most cooperative ventures, requires contributing sensibilities vis-à-vis individual and mutual similarities, especially involving sexual and/or romantic feelings. Each individual contributes pieces of themselves to a mutually evolving puzzle. While it’s unlikely every piece will fit perfectly with the others, the over all picture ought to be recognizable. Agreeing to be in a romantic relationship with another only means you are interested enough in this other person to “take yourself off the market,” in order to pursue this person and see if a relationship with them is possible. In essence the only requirement is, “Ok, let’s see how this goes.”
How does one know if they want a relationship with someone until they see if they can have a relationship with that someone? Meeting someone and being interested and attracted enough to consider them as a potential partner involves enough follow-through to see if the consideration is even viable. But again, in order to see if a “relationship” is viable, one has to be willing to be in it first. While in this relationship, the two individuals can determine whether they are well-matched, have mutual interests, are sexuality compatible, share ideals, are similar socially, and how well they deal with conflict. In any relationship, not all traits are equal. One might decide to accept that in one area there is less compatibility, where another with greater value is more compatible. For example one’s partner may not be exceptionally sexual, but handles conflict exceptionally. One or both may find they require more of a specific compatibility from a partner, such as religion, financial matters, or life style, and thus need to seek another potential partner. This is another area where men falter. They may determine the other doesn’t have enough of the particular trait or traits they require, but they don’t know how to decisively end the relationship. They avoid the breakup because they are afraid the other will react badly or demand a painstaking explanation. If they do attempt to end the relationship, they minimize what they don’t like to the point of abstraction, or otherwise blame themselves: “It’s not you, it’s me.”
To be told what you are lacking never feels good, nor is it easy to differentiate between an objectively desired trait verses a subjectively desired one. But this is just one of the unavoidable aspects of relationships. The alternative is for one or both to hold their tongues, try and live without their desired traits, and risk resenting the other: basically a recipe for a bad relationship. Good relationships don’t require honestly, as much as allow for it. If one can’t be honest because their partner tends to personalize feedback, it may be a sign that this isn’t the right partner. In fact, it would be “fair game” in terms of reasons to end a relationship. Only by entering into a relationship and exploring whether it’s viable, can one then honestly and cleanly get out of it. By challenging their ambivalence and taking responsibility for themselves in relationships, men can learn to navigate their way around the question of relationship with less cautionary distance.
So, what’s a girl to do? Be sure there’s always mutual communication when it comes to discussing the potential of a relationship. She should state what she’d like, request feedback, and be open to what she hears. She should make sure to reflect back what she has heard for clarification before making any assumptions or decisions about continuing the relationship. If he says he isn’t interested in having a relationship, ask for clarification carefully, but be prepared to believe what he is saying, despite the lure of ambiguity. If he says he doesn’t want a relationship, it isn’t up to her to doubt him: he will only resent her for this. When men are uncertain they often hold back, resorting to vague explanations rather than risk offending the woman by being honest.
If both mutually agree to have a relationship, they can do so perhaps with the caveat that they will check in at prescribed times to discuss how things are going. They should consider how they are around honesty, self-reflection, discuss any “issues” that might come up for them, and set up some ground rules for communication.
With both sexes, unless they are explicitly dating for fun or experience, they are dating in the hopes of finding a suitable person to have a relationship with, and don’t want to be held up in this process because of someone else’s ambivalence. It’s better for both to state their intentions at the onset, explore the possibilities mutually, and assure the other they will survive if it doesn’t work out.