I don't understand men!

Why did he come so far to see me and then act so cold when he got here?

Published May 4, 2006 10:31AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

OK, so everyone says that men are straightforward, uncomplicated beings and that women needlessly complicate things. That we are demanding, overly emotional beings who send mixed messages and "want it all." Of course, these are all generalizations that reflect a sexist society, but I have to admit that until now even I, a feminist, partly believed that men are more straightforward and simple (and not in a pejorative sense) than women. At least, that has been my experience. We women tend to talk everything through with our friends until we're blue in the face, going over every single detail of conversations and encounters with significant others. Most of my male friends get straight to the point.

But here's my dilemma. For the last seven months, I have renewed a close friendship with Matt, a man who was my best friend in high school. We went to prom together and had a great, platonic relationship with no sexual tension between us (at least, not on my end). He lives in another state, so our conversations have all been on the phone -- we have been talking two to three times a week for the past six to seven months, and flirting heavily. He's sent me pictures of him, and I've returned the favor. We were supposed to see each other at Christmas, but he canceled on me at the very last minute, only to call two weeks later to apologize profusely and say he really didn't know why he backed out.

That was a red flag, but I decided to give him another chance, since I liked him, and I thought maybe he had been nervous. And besides, he kept calling. Finally, I told him that if he was really serious about liking me, he needed to show it and make an effort to come visit. Amazingly, he bought a plane ticket.

(By the way, we hadn't seen each other in seven years and were both newly single when I contacted him last August.)

So, we had a great three-day weekend in the town where I'm a graduate student. We flirted like crazy, went out with my friends, enjoyed the bars and restaurants -- you know, all the dating stuff that people do. And he stayed with me in my studio apartment.

But did anything romantic happen? No. Which is OK, although I was somewhat disappointed, and my friends were baffled. ("Is he gay?" they asked. I said, as that oft-cited book proclaims, "Maybe he's just not that into me.")

Actually, we held hands (which I initiated). And I asked him at one point, since things seemed to be going really well, if he wanted to curl up in my bed with me to sleep (believe me, I had no intention of trying to seduce him, but would not have complained if we had made out). He said no. Because I wasn't getting cues from him that would have made me confident about trying to kiss him, I didn't attempt to. Holding hands was as far as it went. But I did flirt outrageously with him the whole weekend, and he flirted back.

All in all it was a great time, and when he left I felt excited about the possibility of seeing him in May when I'm done with school.

Then I didn't hear from him for two weeks. I even sent him a "thanks for your visit" gift and he never even called to say he got it. When I finally did talk to him (eventually he called), he said that during his weekend here I was way too direct and he felt that I had had an "agenda" that he wasn't a part of. He said that he thought he was just coming out for a friendly, old-friends-getting-reacquainted type visit ... and this after flirting with me for months and telling me many times over the phone that he liked me, couldn't wait to see me, etc. (By the way, the physical attraction factor is not at issue here.)

I was so shocked I didn't know how to respond. I replied that naturally I had hoped something romantic might happen, but that a hope is not an expectation, and that I didn't expect anything from him. I said it's only human to flirt with someone you like, and I am human, but that I was sorry he found it off-putting. I said I wish he had told me he was feeling that way and I would have toned down the flirting, if not stopped it completely (naturally I don't want to make people uncomfortable!). But he seems to have great difficulty talking about his feelings and could not bring himself to tell me at the time that he felt pressured.

I am totally confused by his behavior. One of my friends thinks he can't deal with intimacy, which is why it was all great for him over the phone but not in person. Another says that I probably intimidate him because I'm attractive, smart, successful, independent and direct. Another said that men don't like it when you show how much you like them (the "hard-to-get" theory, I guess). I think he's screwed up after his breakup with his ex-girlfriend (they dated for five years and she was with him through his dad's death from cancer), as he has complained to me many times that he felt he was "manipulated" by her.

Is this man completely crazy? Is he emotionally inept and unable to communicate? That is what I've taken from this. I'm disappointed he jilted me, but mostly just angry that I ever could have taken an interest in such a nincompoop.

Can you please explain the male psyche to me? Or at least this male's psyche?

Hopelessly Confused by Men

Dear Hopelessly Confused,

It is not unusual for me to have nothing useful to say. It is only unusual for me to admit it.

Over the past two days (make that now five days!) I have tried to respond to your letter several times, but each time I found I had produced nothing but small-minded carping, grandiose exposition and theorizing. It sounded as though I were angry with you, a person I have never met.

This happens from time to time. One can publish. Or one can wait. I chose to wait and see what would come.

I waited until I thought I had something wise and useful to say, and then I wrote another column.

That column, too, once read by another, turned out to be full of small-minded carping and grandiose exposition and theorizing. It sounded downright mean this time. Underneath it was this tone -- I know this tone; my wife knows this tone -- this tone of the old intolerant father, superior and cold and angry at you for not knowing more than you know and for not being more in control and cooler and more measured, angry at you for displaying yourself as you are, real and true and flawed like all of us, like me, like this guy you went to the prom with.

So there I was confronting my own self, my own towering ego, my own fear, my own reluctance to feel, to imagine what you went through.

It's not that hard, really, just to imagine what you went through, what it felt like. Sometimes one just doesn't feel like doing it. It would be easier to skate along pretending to have answers.

But we don't have answers. We just have feelings. For days this went on. And why? What was the source of my reluctance? Did I not really want to help you? Did I want to punish you?

So unbelievably I am trying yet again, and this is what you get to see this time: the actor putting on his makeup, trying out his lines, throwing the script down and starting over.

Having played the part of the imperious, cold-hearted patriarch for days now I am desperately trying to get down to the real. It's not all that complicated. You got your feelings hurt. Is that so hard to admit? You really were excited about this visit and it was a disappointment.

Perhaps you did not even know how much you wanted something to happen with this person. You thought you knew but your feelings were stronger than you realized. And now you find yourself trying to act in control, looking for an explanation.

Stop looking for an explanation. Search your heart. Get honest. Get so honest it hurts. This was deeply embarrassing. It was painful. It was a bigger disappointment than you realized. You had more invested in it than you thought. But these things happen. People get their wires crossed.

It had been seven years. That's a long time. You wanted it to be a certain way, the way it had been in high school, only better. And you wanted to show him off to your friends, and have everything be perfect.

I was wondering what he meant with this "agenda" business but now I think I know. It's all the planning you put into this, all the thought. Naturally you wanted everyone to like him and him to like everyone. You wanted him to see your interesting, exciting life and be interested. You wanted your friends to see him and understand, through him, a bit more about who you are and where you come from.

And so what happened with him? Why was he such a dud? He may have been overwhelmed. He may have been annoyed that you had gone to such trouble to arrange things; he may have felt you were displaying him. You deny that you had "expectations." But something was going on. He felt put on the spot.

And also no doubt he has changed in seven years. He has had experiences with women since then; he has found what he is comfortable with, what works for him. He felt perhaps that you were addressing him as though he were that high school senior you went to the prom with.

He has been through a lot since then. His dad died of cancer. It is a terrible thing to lose your dad early in life, when you're still young enough to want to show him what you can do, what you can be. And this girl he felt manipulated by: He must be sensitive in that area now. Apparently people are tugging him this way and that. What do people want from him?

Look what has happened. His dad died! His girlfriend left him! He's trying to heal from big loss. And then he finds himself in a situation full of inner conflict for him, full of the potential for failure and shame, and he lacks sufficient grace and tact to spin it. So he gets hurt and you get hurt. And he lashes out and you lash back.

And why, if he didn't want romance, was he flirting with you so in the first place? Maybe he doesn't even know what he wants. Maybe flirting with you just feels good and it's safe and familiar. He's hurt and lonely and it feels good to flirt. But he's wounded. It's not just that he can't handle intimacy. That's a little unkind of your friend to say.

He's been hurt. The wound may have limited his capacity for intimacy; he may have closed down protectively around the wound. But is it wrong to have been hurt, to not be at the top of your game, to be grieving for your father, and grieving for your girlfriend, who not only is gone but who left you with a bad taste in your mouth?

So as we empathize with him we get a fuller picture of a real person who may have had all kinds of real feelings that perhaps he wanted to share but did not feel safe or comfortable sharing, who felt that he was being asked to perform some other role he was not quite prepared to perform, out of his realm, out of his comfort zone, staying in your apartment, unsure what to do. And so now he is angry and hurt and you are angry and hurt.

Call him. Tell him that your friendship is valuable to you and you feel it's in jeopardy and you want to save it. Admit your disappointment, your shame, your anger. Admit that you were hoping something would happen but it didn't happen but that's OK. Why pretend? It was a disaster. These things happen. Let it go. Try to save the friendship.

To be quite frank, I think if there were chemistry between you it would have been there in high school. I think you are destined to be only friends. If you handle this well, perhaps you can be the best of friends for life.

In consolation for this dismaying and uncomfortable event, however, I suggest you find an actual lover. It is not that hard to do. An actual lover is someone who takes your clothes off. He unbuttons them or unzips them or unsnaps them or unties them.

Just find yourself a lover who will unbutton your dress. Do it as medicine to heal these recent wounds.

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