I made out with a jerk

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Cary’s classic column from

We work together and now things are very, very awkward


Dear Cary,

Hi. Today I’m working from home because I’m so confused and humiliated about a situation at work that I am taking advantage of this option whenever I can. I started this job about a year ago, as a temp who was quickly hired into a high-powered position. Before that, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program after a year of research in the Third World because I realized the academic life just wasn’t for me. After I came back from life abroad, I couldn’t find work for awhile and just got depressed. Between work, trips to the gym, and finally finding some friends, until a few weeks ago I was rebuilding my life and things were really starting to look up. I was looking forward to a lot of things. I haven’t dated or had sex in almost two years, but I figured that would come. I’m not a supermodel, but I’m good-looking and seem to attract men when I bother to do things that aren’t work or the gym. I’m 31, my situation in life is constantly improving, and a lot of people would be happy to be where I am.

When I started the job, a certain male co-worker caught my eye. We flirted a bit, but nothing serious. We would talk about sci-fi shows and books and generally had really nice interactions. He is 41 and divorced, with several bitter relationships behind him. He’s also a vegan and a self-professed feminist with high social ideals.

A few weeks ago we had a work party at a bar to celebrate a milestone in our year-long project. A few of us stayed late and were having a good time. When I went out for a cigarette, he followed me and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening making out. It was followed by texts and Skype chats, and an invitation to the symphony. We went, had a great time, and went out for drinks. The subject of us working together came up, since we work in a small office where things could get awkward quickly. I said that we could take it at whatever pace he was comfortable with and see where it could go. So he invited me back to his apartment and sexy time ensued. I was happy and excited, thinking that maybe things were going to move forward in the one part of my life that had been empty for so long.

And then I heard nothing. When I texted him, I got a polite response that his day went well and that I left some jewelry at his place. Nothing more. Then I emailed him to ask if he wanted to get together over the weekend and heard nothing. I saw that he was active on the online dating site that we both have profiles on, but he didn’t answer for days. On a Friday afternoon, he sent me an email saying that he wanted to be good friends. That we could really be great friends, but that was what he was comfortable with. He said he was too busy to tell me in person, but he could drop my jewelry off and spend a few minutes with me before he went to dinner on Sunday. He said he was sorry I would be disappointed. It ended with an exclamation point about how excited he was about it being warm and being able to be outside. There was no real explanation, no apology, no discussion of how this would affect our work. Attempting to keep my dignity, I responded with “Message received. Please leave my jewelry on top of the fridge at work — no one will notice.” There has been little communication since, though when he did leave the jewelry for me, he was a bit chatty in the email, asking how I was. I didn’t respond.

I’m definitely hurt, but I’m angry and most of all confused. How do you go through a year of flirting to change your mind like that? How can he be so cavalier knowing that I’ll be uncomfortable in our workplace? He knew how long it had been for me and he escalated things anyway. The way he went about things and handled this was stupid and cruel. And we have to email each other 10 times a day for work purposes. How do I interact with him after he treated me with so little respect?

A close friend in my office knows what happened, and encourages me to just leave it alone and let it blow over. Part of me thinks that’s the way to get through this with my dignity intact. Part of me wants to send an email that isn’t explosive, but that at least calls him out on his bad behavior. Maybe I should talk to another co-worker for advice. I don’t know what to do, and it’s so much harder to shake off the hurt and anger when we have such close contact all the time. It’s also hard to shake off the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with me that made him change his mind so quickly. My self-esteem, which had been growing, is now at a rock-bottom low. I don’t think I function in the world very well, because I do expect to be treated with respect and kindness by those around me, and I do expect people who profess certain values to live by them.

What was he thinking? Why would he do this to me and to our workplace? Am I the immature one for expecting people to be careful? Is it right to do something or to leave it alone? I’m confused and uncomfortable, Cary, and I would really appreciate your advice.

Confused and Dismayed

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Dismayed,

This guy had several bitter relationships behind him. Guys with several bitter relationships behind them are doing something wrong. Look at the pattern.

Here’s what you need to do. You need to adopt some protections for the future so that you do not get involved with another man like this.

Maybe you lack the ability to spot such men. Learn to recognize them. Here are some clues:

Real men who will treat you well may occasionally eat halibut. They might hold the door open for you even if you can get through under your own power anyway. They do it because they’ve seen what happened with Stalin. If that doesn’t make perfect sense that’s OK. It’s meant to be sort of oblique. A man who’s OK and not going to screw you over might even be rude to you but he’ll apologize when it’s pointed out to him. He won’t pretend his rudeness was an instance of high social ideals in action.

He’ll just apologize.

Without beating up on men, because after all I am one, can I just say that if you have been socialized as a man you have learned some pretty rotten stuff? This learning is called “being realistic about the world out there.”

For instance, if I were drinking with a group of young men (which of course I mean I’m 23 years sober but if) and if I mentioned that I had had a one-night stand with a woman at work and had decided I didn’t think it was going to work out long-term, and I was wondering what to do about it, there would not be an immediate outpouring of, “Let’s talk about this together, guys, and put ourselves in her shoes and imagine how she’s feeling and debate the ways you can smooth things over with her and make her feel better about what happened.”

The consensus would be: “Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to pursue the issue and say, “Well, guys, what about her feelings, and the awkwardness of it, and the fact I sort of led her on to believe it was going to be more than what it turned out to be?” the consensus would still be, “Shit happens. Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to say that I think she and I should have some conversations about how things are going to proceed henceforth, there would be some good-natured ridicule and they would move down to the end of the bar.

Guys are taught to let it go and move on. In a fundamental way, this leads logically to the eventual dehumanization of the other. That is, if you are taught to make unilateral decisions in a relationship, then what you are really doing is invalidating the relationship and in the course of it invalidating the other.

The logic of it looks like this: If one is in a relationship then each person has a say. Ethically speaking, if one is in a relationship, one cannot make decisions about the relationship without the involvement of the other. Yet we guys are taught to do precisely that: to be independent, to make up our own minds, to keep our own counsel, to stand on our own two feet, to lay down the law. That’s what he’s doing. He’s doing what men have been taught to do for centuries. He’s made this decision about the relationship all on his own, without any involvement by you. He probably thinks he’s handling it pretty well. Amazing, isn’t it?

If one person has no say in matters concerning them both, then that is a kind of objectification, isn’t it? To treat someone as having no say, no opinion worth hearing, no desires worth considering, is to consider that person less than human, is it not?

So this is why you’re upset. You have been dehumanized.

Of course, this kind of dehumanization goes on all the time. It is so common that we scarcely pause to consider it. We men are taught to do this. We are taught to dehumanize the other. We don’t call it that. We call it being realistic and grown-up.

He’s the product of bad conditioning. He may also have a mild personality disorder. That doesn’t mean you have to be nice to this guy or like him or feel sorry for him. It just means that his behavior is not inexplicable. It’s a perfect emblem of how we live today. It is a perfect emblem of the society we accept as normal.

That’s why many of us feel half crazy most days.

Don’t trouble yourself too much. You’re fine. You just thought you were dealing with somebody like yourself. You’re not.

You must learn to recognize guys like this and stay away from them. If you can’t recognize guys like this, ask your women friends. If you don’t have any women friends, make some.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

11 thoughts on “I made out with a jerk”

  1. this can be summed up easily: a lot of men like one night stands. men like this do not see a person whom is willing to have sex “so easily” as girlfriend material. as a matter of fact, its a multi facited shit test.. if you do have sex that first date, thats the first test, to see how far he can get with you. then if you don’t mind him being a jerk after wards, thats the second part- “hey waddaknow! i can be a total disrespectful dehumanizing asshole and she’ll still have sex with me!”
    slut shaming aside, there is a reason there are literally ancient clichés about not having sexy times on the first date. WE HAVE NOT EVOLVED. AND SLUT PARADES ARE NOT GOING TO CHANGE THIS MENTALITY.

  2. “I said that we could take it at whatever pace he was comfortable with and see where it could go.”

    Oh, honey. Never say that to a guy. Woman intends man to hear: “…and we will gradually build it up into something wonderful and all-encompassing and permanent, but don’t be scared, my darling!” Man hears: “Yay! Booty call tonight!”

    You’re young. This is education. Take notes. Sail grandly on.

    Also, precisely what Cary said, and precisely what Ann Marie said.

    1. I really like this: “You’re young. This is education. Take notes. Sail grandly on.” I could see that on a bumper sticker.

  3. ‘Don’t trouble yourself too much. You’re fine. You just thought you were dealing with somebody like yourself. You’re not’ Absolutely spot on, Cary.

    Lw, You really did dodge a bullet, as another of the posters here has said.

  4. This is brilliant, thanks for the explanation. It explains so much! Including a lot of female behavior. How many of us have disappeared without a trace from a friend’s life or ostracized her from the female pack without having a discussion about what’s going on? Or have expected a man to read our mind instead of explaining clearly and in an non-blaming manner why we’re upset, and icing him in some ways? I think we’ve all probably experienced that on the receiving end too.

    This is a call to humanizing each other. Really making me think. Thanks!

  5. I think I did that to a guy. I left him without explanation or “closure”. It enraged him — he tried to kill me when he realized I was really gone. I think if he had left me that way it would have been business as usual for him, but for me to do it to him was unacceptable. So Cary’s explanation is great — it is male privilege to do this to women. But women don’t get to do it back. Why did I do it to him? He could not “hear” me when I tried to tell him. He was completely defended against what I was trying to say. I tried over the course of a few months, and nothing stuck with him. He did not believe me. So when I left I just left, because more pointless discussions were hopeless. And this was a complete shock to him because he had not believed me earlier when i told him how unhappy i was. Maybe earlier in civilization women did not leave men because the women were financially dependent on the men. So they stayed even though they might be unhappy. Those days are gone. But men may still think they are living in those bygone eras, because it so shocks them to be left. But leaving a woman without discussion is business as usual, and not shocking at all. As cary said, “shit happens Dude, move on.” Actually, come to think of it, I have known more than one man like this.

    1. No, you did *not* do to your guy what LW’s guy did to her; you did just the opposite. You endeavored mightily to communicate and remained for months in an unpleasant situation out of anxiety for the other person’s feelings.

      The person you are describing is a narcissist–“He was completely defended against what I was trying to say”–shading to sociopath–“he tried to kill me when he realized I was really gone”.

      What alarms me is this: “I have known more than one man like this.” Yes, they’re around…but if you mean you’re attracting and dating more than your fair share of narcissists and sociopaths, please look into why that might be happening. Sorry, you didn’t ask for advice, so it was rude of me to offer it anyway; but when I say I’m alarmed for you I mean it.

  6. Cary wonderful insight in how many men are taught to think about relationships (and other aspects of their lives).
    Confused and Dismayed, I understand your confusion and hurt. It sucks when a guy you thought liked you acts so cavalierly about your feelings. As someone who is single and attempting to find a decent man to date, and aslo being old enough to be your very cool and groovy Mom, my advice is be grateful you dodged this bullet. The problem is very much his, not yours. You were honest and open and following what appeared to be a well worn path of flirtation and attraction. My guess is he realized he cared about you too much and he can’t handle you in all your wondrousness. Best way to deal with a man-boy (I hesitate to call him a man) like this is to keep your head up, keep your interactions professional, and otherwise don’t give him the time of day.
    Please don’t talk to another co-worker. One is enough. In a small office you never know when or if someone may betray your confidence. And office gossip is never a good thing.
    Don’t let this one sad incident put you off finding a nice guy to date. Perhaps it’s time to do something more than working and the gym and meet some of those guys. Your experiences in the third world sound like wonderful cocktail talk. Join your local museum’s young persons group if they have one, volunteer for a charity, take dance lessons. When you stop basing your self-worth on a man’s interest, you’ll become more self-confident and attractive to the good men.

  7. Thank you for illuminating how guys think. Can you tell us now how to make women friends? There are no websites or matchmakers for that purpose, and it’s much much harder as you get older.

    1. I hear you about finding it hard to make friends as an adult. It took me years of really concerted effort to find a group of good friends. I met one at work, another at UU church, and one through a writers’ group. And now I’m moving! I’m bummed to have to do it again…I’m going to join a meditation group and some meetup groups based around outdoor activities.

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