I Said That I Wanted a Boyfriend: But Then I Dated All the Wrong Men.
Let me tell you a story.
Four score and seven years ago, when I was dating, I was in grad school at Oxford, I was pursuing a writing career and a PhD, and I really wanted to find love . . . or so I thought.
In fact, while I said that I wanted a boyfriend, in reality, I constantly found myself dating fuckboys, crushing on unavailable people, or getting into relationships with people who were nothing like what I thought I wanted in a partner.
I also realised that I actually liked dating like this. It was fun for me, I was getting to know a variety of people, and I was learning a lot about myself in the process.
A few years into this whole endeavour, I found myself crying in my therapist's office over a very sexy chiropractor who nevertheless insisted on wearing FiveFinger Vibram toe shoes out to dinner at nice restaurants. (He actually informed me that he had a “dressy” pair of toe shoes specifically for this purpose.) He had recently broken up with me after I had broken the news, not the most tactfully, that I didn't see a future with him.
About 40 minutes into my sobs, my therapist asked me, "Why do you keep intentionally dating guys you don't see a future with?"
I looked up and sniffled out my list of reasons above.
"But," she pointed out, "I feel like you do know yourself really well already. And it seems like maybe a part of you wanted this relationship to last. Even if, deep down, you knew you were never going to long-term gel with someone who wears toe shoes to dinner.”
She was right. Both about the toe shoes and about the fact that a little tiny part of me had grown very attached to the chiropractor, and was beginning to realise that maybe I did want a lasting relationship — with somebody else.
"But," I protested, "I actually love dating!"
I did. I really did love dating. But I was starting to suspect that I'd come full circle — from thinking that I wanted a committed relationship to knowing that I did not want a committed relationship to starting to want one again, but for real this time.
As my therapist and I discovered during that session, the reason why commitment felt scary to me was that four years of Catholic high school (and then another four of Catholic undergrad!) had taught me that a committed relationship was supposed to mean marriage and babies, which I knew intuitively I didn't want — at least not as a 26-year-old postgrad.
Now that I was realising that, in fact, commitment might actually be for me, I was going to need to decide how to reconcile eight years of Catholic school with the beliefs I had formed as an adult (one who now had some dating experience under her belt!) about love, marriage, and religion. (Spoiler alert: I ended up changing my beliefs about marriage and ditching the religion.)
Similarly, a few years earlier, commitment had felt scary because it hadn't been right for me — I had just been beginning to know myself.
You’ll discover your own truths about love — ones that are true for you, and the set of experiences that you’re uniquely working with.
While I can’t tell you what your truths will be, I can tell you what I learned from discovering my own truths.
I learned that avoidance means that something feels unsafe to us about the thing that we’re avoiding.
And I learned that exploring what our avoidance is attempting to protect us from is where the gold is.
In other words, I learned to start paying attention to my avoidance. That it was serving a purpose.
And that unfortunately, sometimes that “purpose” is actually pretend.
The thing is: Just because something FEELS unsafe to our avoidance does not necessarily mean that it IS unsafe.
In my case, behind my avoidance of commitment was a tangle of beliefs about relationships, sex, and religion — and what actually felt unsafe to me about commitment (being roped into marriage and 12 children immediately after grad school) never needed to happen. It was a figment of my imagination.
But in order to see that my fears were imaginary, I first needed to take a closer look at what my avoidance thought it was protecting me from (everlasting pregnancy), and what it was actually keeping me from (a fulfilling relationship with a partner who was a good fit for me). I then needed to rethink my outdated beliefs about what commitment was “supposed” to mean.
Think of your avoidance like a tantruming child. A child having a tantrum will kick and scream and refuse to get up off of the floor until it gets what it wants.
Now — do you just give a tantruming child everything it wants? Of course not. What you do is you listen to the child, and you soothe it, and you maybe give it a hug and tell it that you totally understand and isn’t it so frustrating that it’s time to stop watching Elmo and come eat dinner.
Even if what the child is saying doesn’t make any sense, you’re going to have to listen. Because nothing is going to get done until that child feels heard.
Likewise, not everything that our avoidance is telling us is going to be factually true — in fact, most of it probably won’t be. But your avoidance has certain fears about the thing that you’re trying to avoid. It has certain concerns about safety. About the things that it wants. About change. And those fears need to be listened to and understood before we can even try to convince our avoidance to stop screaming.
How you’re going to figure out whether your avoidance is telling the truth is by slowing down, putting on your listening ears, and paying attention. And then by being the adult in the scenario and critically evaluating whether the screaming child really needs to watch more Elmo, or whether he or she just needs a hug.
If you’re like me, and intimacy and commitment are something that you deeply desire, and at the same time, intimacy & commitment are feeling kind of like parachuting off of a 36-story building:
This might be a sign that your avoidance is on the floor, tantruming. And that you have some listening to do.
In my experience, listening is best done with the help of a skilled guide — like my therapist.
Having a guide is helpful during this process because, while we may think we understand our avoidance, if we really understood our avoidance, it probably would be gone already. Most of us have blind spots around our avoidance.
An experienced therapist or coach can also lovingly call us out on our own BS (like when I thought that I was dating noncommittal men to get to know myself better), and they can keep us calm and persistent (which is what our avoidance needs to feel safe enough to get up off the floor) when we’re feeling tempted to give up and let the child scream himself hoarse.
As always, our ability to create the results we crave in our external reality begins with first examining our internal reality — our knowledge, our patterns, and our willingness to try on a new pattern or a new belief when the old ones aren't working.
What we didn't know in our pasts isn't our fault. But what we learn to do differently in our futures is our responsibility.
Our willingness to learn, to try new things, and ultimately, to grow, is how we begin to carve out a new, fulfilling, empowered reality out of ourselves, our relationships, and our lives.
PS. Of course, as much as I would like to, I can’t teach you everything in one blog post (EVEN IF I REALLY wish I could!).
What you’ve read in this blog post is a sliver of the deep inner work that I take my clients through inside of my 1:1 coaching program.
The process of breaking through our internal barriers to intimacy can’t be accomplished by reading alone: it needs to be learned by DOING, and through guidance with an experienced mentor.
If you’re ready to to break through your own internal barriers to intimacy — to take this work deeper and to learn the step-by-step “how-to” — I’d love to invite you to apply to work with me 1:1.
You can apply to work with me here.