Just tell me if you like me

Stop calculating your chances. I am who I am. Who are you?

By Cary Tennis
Published July 14, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

After years of thinking that people I met happened to be weird, I have concluded that I am the odd one. My friends have finally convinced me that my expectations of others cannot be based on my own logic. I do not know others by knowing myself.

To me, relationships are a huge deal. I was in a long-term relationship once, and I think of it as something very special. I have no aspirations of meeting "Mr. Perfect" in terms of money, looks or education. I also don't think it's necessary to have the same interests, tastes or political beliefs for a relationship to be possible. But what are the odds of meeting someone that you can trust, connect with intellectually, have fun with, and also feel some sort of chemistry or attraction? It's not something I take for granted.

Since I stopped seeing my ex-boyfriend five years ago, I have met only three persons I felt I could potentially share my life with. And by that I don't even mean falling in love, just feeling that I possibly could. So for me, even at an initial stage, the stakes are really high. I know that if things don't work out, it will probably take a couple of years before I'm interested in someone else. For the other person though, I am just one of perhaps several people they are casually flirting with at the time. His interest can shift from one person to another seemingly overnight. If the interest isn't mutual, it is important for me to find out so I can move on. Instead, people have given me what I perceive as mixed signals, either because they enjoy the attention or because they want to have me on hold in case it doesn't work out with someone else.

This is a difficult equation. I'm thinking I would be better off if I could swallow my pride and play the game others play. Sticking to my convictions that people are not interchangeable and that love is not just about timing, I am banging my head against the wall. But how can I use this conclusion to change my thoughts, feelings and actions? Have I been too naive, or have I become too bitter? Should I adapt, and is it possible for me to do so? I have no idea how to be different.


Dear Bewildered,

What a lovely letter. It is like a poem.

You don't have to be different. You can be perfectly true to yourself. You are in a great position. All you have to do is make that position clear.

The great discovery is that you do have agency. Your very singularity gives you agency. As long as you are true to yourself, you have agency. Or, as George Costanza would say, you have "hand." For you, too, are desired. People want something from you, and it is your privilege to offer as much or as little of yourself as you consent to. You are free to present yourself as exactly the way you are. By being explicitly yourself, you can find out what others are thinking and planning. That is not "playing the game" unless it is somehow inauthentic. What is inauthentic about revealing yourself as you are?

You are the one who says: This is how it is. This is who I am. Come through the gate or stay in your garden. Climb over the fence or stand watching me as I walk away.

I suggest that you be as frank and clear with potential mates as you have been with me. Then observe and use your intuition to gauge what they intend. Do not expect them to be truthful. The ability to be truthful is rare. Most of us are too twisted up. We don't know what we feel.

We men, when we are young, we say things. Do we lie? Do we mislead? Are we plotting to conceal our intentions? We do not even have intentions. We have only our bundle of confused desire.

A young man speaking to the object of his desire will say anything. He is seeking release and comfort; he is seeking status and admiration; he is seeking reflection and refuge. It is not as though he is plotting consciously. He may think he wants to marry. He may think he wants to stay single. He does not know himself. He does not know what it is like to be hurt so grievously that you can't see straight for months and walk into things and can't remember to eat. He sees you and likes what he sees and thinks about what it would be like to be with you all the time, but he does not know.

It is just our condition. We cannot be better than we are.

But eventually something happens, and we tire of being confused and uncertain, and nothing we have done has made the future any clearer, so we leap into the water.

Here is something of how it happened for me. I met my wife and I said, I'm willing. I am willing to go all in. I can take care of myself and am not pleading for rescue, or promising rescue, but we can go into this together and protect each other from what torments us; at least we can try. That was pretty much it: Here are my chips. I'm all in.

It was a risk. Of course it was a risk. It is always a risk. You choose from available people. You say OK, enough time has elapsed, enough crying, enough pain, enough chasing: Let's do this.

And then it's pretty much a simple yes or no.

But even when you receive a reply, you must still interrogate yourself, knowing that this other person, for all his apparent eloquence, has no idea what is in his heart. You must be the one to judge: Do I believe he can do this?

And if your answer to yourself is yes, then you are the one rolling the dice, saying, OK, this is my gamble, this is my roll, this is me going all in, this is me studying the face of the croupier and crossing my fingers like a girl waiting for a gift.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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