I only have quick relationships

Cary’s classic column fromTUESDAY, APR 19, 2011

I get in and I get out. How can I slow down?


Dear Cary,

I have always been good at quick relationships. Any time I have wanted a boyfriend, I just started flirting and it wouldn’t take long before someone would invest in me. Relationships could start overnight if I just acted perfect enough. But they didn’t mean much when the truth came out. My happy demeanor would fade away pretty quickly once I realized I was in a relationship with a guy I either had nothing in common with or wanted nothing to do with. I would turn bitter and everything would go down in flames with the same intensity with which it started. Then I’m back at square one.

About a year ago I finally noticed the pattern, but I don’t know how to fix it. For example, I met a guy who really is nice and we talked through email for a few weeks before trading phone numbers. Two months of talking and I felt like I was losing my mind. I finally asked him if he was going to come visit me or not. It drove him away faster than I could realize what happened. I assume I was too pushy, but with my history of talking and having a committed relationship within a month, I am feeling more than lost.

I have thankfully gotten what I feel is another chance at having a very nice, funny and intelligent guy. He really is great and we’ve been talking since Feb. 28 of this year. It’s been mostly through email, but I already feel like it’s taking forever. Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to fall into that same trap of driving him away again. I just don’t know if I’m doing the right thing at all. Do I keep dating others and make myself busy? Do I take his silence as a sign? Is he just trying to think things through before getting ahead of himself? And if so, how do I calm myself down enough to not care in the meantime?

I feel like the girl who pulled the short stick in life and was never even taught how to fish with it. Please help me to learn so I can end this bad cycle. I want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience.

Love-Stumped

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Dear Love-Stumped,

If you want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience, then you have glimpsed a truth about real relationships: They are profoundly inconvenient. Being in a relationship means there’s another person there, different from you, likely to respond in unexpected ways to things you say and do. This brings excitement but can be frightening and difficult. If you want control and convenience, with it come shallowness and brevity; if you want depth and longevity, you’re going to have to give up some control and convenience.

One way to begin to deepen the relationship would be to ask the other person some questions. This can be fun. For instance, you could ask the other person if he wants to have a relationship. This may hit him by surprise. He may ask, Well, what do you mean? You may say, Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Just wing it. You could ask then if he wants to have a relationship with you, and what kind of pace feels right, and what he has been thinking about. The trick here is to just ask the question and hear the answer. You don’t have to do anything.

There’s no right answer. What you’re doing is participating in a new way that opens up possibilities instead of closing them down.
There is no way to know what his answers will be. But by asking these questions, you give up some control and invite his viewpoint. In the past, you have probably been basing most of your conversation on what you think his reaction will be. Now, you are not trying to have any particular effect. You are asking open-ended questions in order to try out a new way of being with others.

By asking this other person what he wants, you will find out in what ways the relationship may require you to inconvenience yourself. It may be that he wants to spend a day with you reading by a lake. You may not want to do that. So then you have a choice. You can continue to run your life without any interference from outside, or you can decide to allow your life to be altered a little by the desires and ideas of another person. You can spend the day with him reading by the lake.

He may decide he wants to kiss you by the lake. You may find this agreeable. Or it may alarm you. You may fear that you’re about to do the same thing you always do. To make it more interesting, you can ask him a question before you kiss him. Ask him, Oh, I don’t know, ask him what he thinks is going to happen next. Maybe he will say something witty, or maybe he will seem confused and dim. Hmmm. What would be a witty and engaging response? Well, maybe he would say that he expects when he kisses you that the earth will shake and the heavens open up. That would be an acceptable response. At least he’s trying. On the other hand, he might stare at you blankly, with paralyzing fear in his eyes, and this may take the bloom off your whole afternoon.

The only way to find out is to experiment. Be a scientist. Observe and formulate hypotheses.

Here is another thing you can do. Remember your carefree days as a child. When you were a child, you were not plotting so carefully. You were not thinking so much about what others might say or do in response to what you say or do. I suggest you return to that time in childhood and remember what it felt like.

Then try relating to others with some of that simplicity from childhood, some of that innocence. This is just my idea. I’m no psychologist. But sometimes when I am too confounded and my thoughts are racing, this is what I do. I approach people simply again, as a child.

Remembering childhood relieves us of the burden of knowing what will happen next. We have no idea what will happen next. We’re just kids!

Think of childhood. Forget the rules. See what happens.

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