Why can't I get a girlfriend?

I'm 43 and running out of options: Why do women accept my help and then not return my calls?

Published June 23, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

May I ask you something you've been asked a million times? I already know the answer, but somehow I still need advice.

I'm a 43-year-old straight male. I haven't dated anyone in years. I haven't had a girlfriend in 15 years. Believe me, it's not that I wasn't trying. It's definitely not that I didn't want one.

I've tried the personals. Until my early 30s, I would get women responding to my ads and asking me out. I would have two or three dates out of it, and then they wouldn't talk to me. I mean, they would not return a phone call. Occasionally I'd get an e-mail that was written in this weirdly stilted language: "While you are a nice person, I do not at this time wish to pursue a relationship with you." Jesus, I'd think, they didn't talk like this, why are they writing like this?

As 30s became 40s, this slowed to one date, then none. I understand no one is going to give honest feedback on what turned them off. It's painful to do, and you don't know how the other person is going to react. A few times I've been in the position of telling the lady I wasn't interested, so I get that.

So no more personals. I would just ask out women I knew, or met while taking classes and such. This inadvertently led to me starting an Emotional and Financial Support Center for Down-on-Their-Luck Dames. See, I'm pretty sensitive to others' emotional needs, and become a caretaker person with very little prodding. Occasionally I would meet a woman who seemed really into me. We would spend a lot of time together. We would share a lot emotionally, but nothing physical. But hey, relationships need to develop. Eventually, these women would always turn out to be in the middle of some crisis: a relationship or a job ending, a life crisis, etc.

Hey, I'm a supportive guy, I'm glad to support my friends.

Invariably, the lady would triumph over her crisis -- get a new job, whatever. Then what happened? They won't return my phone call, want nothing to do with me. I had a co-worker who hung out with me a lot -- she also happened to be car shopping, so I would invariably drive her around to car dealerships before we grabbed lunch. After she found the car she wanted, she barely spoke to me.

So I shut down the Emotional and Financial Support Center for Down-on-Their-Luck Dames that I didn't know I had started. Now I'm completely self-conscious. Any encounter with a woman means I'll eventually say or do whatever I always say or do to ruin her impression of me. Or I'll be an emotional crutch, then tossed away.

I'm in a cold, lonely place, fighting a losing battle against bitterness. I don't know how to stop it, or what to do. I keep trying to tell myself I'm a good person, I'm worthy of being loved, that lots of people find the right person later in life. But the reality is I just keep getting colder, angrier and sadder.

So I started this telling you you've been asked this before, and I already knew the answer. "Just hang in there, dude. Someone for everyone. Just get out there!" So, yeah, this is another "Waaa!!! I can't find love!!!!" gripe-fest. But it feels like I crossed some invisible border where I'm beyond that.

Don't Know Where I Am but I Don't Like It

Dear Don't Know Where I Am,

If you have crossed some invisible border where you are beyond the help of simple platitudes, if you have reached that end of the road where you just keep getting colder, angrier and sadder, then maybe you are close to the bottom of this decades-long charade of caretaking. If so, good. You are about to face yourself. So I give you permission to stop this charade. I tell you it will not lead anywhere but where it has already led. I tell you it is what is stopping you from connecting.

So stop telling yourself you're a good person. Stop telling yourself you're worthy and that things are going to work out. That's not helping. That kind of talk helps some people at certain times in their lives when they need gentle encouragement. That's not what you need. Not you. Not now. You need to get dirty. You need to surrender to the most fucked-up, snarling, unlikable beast that lives underneath your smile.

So I'm not going to tell you to just hang in there and keep doing the same thing. Nor am I going to suggest you "get to know who you really are." Instead, I suggest you meet the other guy. "You" are a nice guy who deserves love. But why aren't "you" getting love? Because of the other guy. You, this nice guy who deserves love, are disconnected from this other guy. The other guy is calling the shots and fucking everything up. You need to meet him. Chances are, he's not a likable guy. Maybe he's even kind of an asshole. But that's OK. In fact, so much the better.

You need to confront this other guy who keeps doing these things that you can't see -- but which women can see a mile off. So how do you do that? I feel like we don't have much time and there's no point going halfway. So my way is to go right to the very worst, most painful, primal core of your agony and fear. Admit that you're in so much pain that you really don't give a fuck what people think of you or how you can save face, all you really care about is finding the truth. Start there.

But how do you get there?

I'm saying just surrender to your desperation, lie prostrate in the street, let some mad moonlight fall on your chest, not because that's a pretty thing to do but because it's the only move you can make now. Admit that you're checkmated; look around your cell; take inventory of your possessions. Stop smiling. Acknowledge the horror of existence. Entertain the opposite of everything you claim to believe ...

You get what I'm saying? I'm saying find a way to reach to the core of your being, your bloodiest, shittiest, most fucked-up infantile, vulnerable, stupid, helpless, confused, bewildered, crying peepee poopoo pants person, your most shameless, naked self. Some people call it hitting bottom. Or there used to be this guy, Arthur Janov, he did Primal Scream therapy, and maybe he was trying to get at this same thing. It has to be authentic. You have to stop fooling yourself.

I can't tell you what you'll find if you go to your darkest corner. But I can urge you to go there and accept the constriction in the chest and the feeling that you are going to suffocate and the feeling that your reason is leaving you. What you find there may be the chaos of your original being. Accept it. It may be some early, terrifying, existence-threatening wound. Accept what it is, whatever it is. Accept your primary wound. Look closely into it and observe what crawls out.

At your dark, primitive core, you will find some repeating emotional pattern, some need so large that you are inside it and so cannot be conscious of it. When you find this, then be ready to find out anything else about yourself, the more mundane the better, the grosser the better, the bloodier and stinkier the better. Maybe you have bad breath. Maybe you're genuinely ugly.  That would be fantastic. You could accept that. You might find out that you're ugly or boring or stupid or rude or you're not a good listener or you have no taste in clothes or that you just have no empathy for women, or that you're needy or clingy or wooden and mechanical. Fine. Wonderful. No problem. You may find out all kinds of terrible things about yourself. Such things, once known and accepted, can be dealt with. They can be changed or they can just be taken in, loved, accepted. This is what I in my unorthodox and unlicensed practice suggest: that you seek out the worst truths about yourself and accept them; these truths will crack your shell. They will bring back your feeling. They will invite you into a community of suffering; they will warm you to fellowship with men and women.

Forget being a nice, supportive guy. It's not that you have to be a macho asshole or some overbearing monster. Just stop acting. Show your pain.

This invisible border you feel like you've crossed -- this could be the best thing that's happened to you in years. Maybe you did cross a border. Maybe you crossed a border to the realization that we are all in the same terrible, lonely predicament, women and men, and that no woman is going to save you from this, and you're not going to save any woman from this, but if you can find somebody who sees the same dreadful truth that you see, perhaps you can ease your loneliness a little, and provide someone with some decent companionship, and maybe enjoy a gyro or two together.

So how are you going to get to this terrifying place where you admit the worst about yourself, and thus join the human race? A talented therapist could help. Note: I said talented therapist. Not just anybody. Somebody who can be a genuine guide. Somebody you would trust with your life. Somebody you would follow off a cliff. Somebody who can tell you the truth and you can hear it.

That's pretty rare. And maybe it would turn out not to be a therapist. Maybe it would turn out to be a boxer or a poet or an Indian guide.

But meanwhile, stop telling yourself you're a good person; instead, start listening to yourself. Maybe you're not a good person. Would it be so bad to discover that you're not all these things you keep saying you are? Would it be so bad to discover that the reason you're not connecting with women is because you are pretending to be some guy you're not -- because you think this is what you're supposed to do?

In addiction recovery we do this sometimes by doing what we call a Fourth Step, that is, taking a complete and thorough moral inventory. But maybe that's just for addicts and alcoholics. I'm not saying you should do that. I am saying, I am begging, actually, for you to strip away everything you think you know about yourself, surrender your hope that you will find a good person underneath and instead face whatever savage hunger is actually there, and make friends with it, accept it, accept whatever this untamed thing is that obviously you have been trying to domesticate all these years. In short, my bet is that you are not connecting with people because you are using a bland mask of civility. No one knows who you are. You've almost forgotten yourself. But you're at the gate. You're at that place. Connect with your own shitty, helpless, rapacious, crybaby monster of a primitive self.

I'll say it again. Somehow, get dirty. Whether by wine, by poetry or by $250-an-hour therapy, no matter. But get dirty. It will hurt but it will be worth it.

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By Cary Tennis

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