trusting your gut

dating 101: fantasy and flattery

I recently came across the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” in which Anna interviews celebrity guests and then together they give callers dating advice. It’s always entertaining and often insightful. On one episode, she and Chelsea Handler were reminding a young woman that when a guy is in, he’s in, and if he’s not, then (say it together!) “he’s just not that into you.”

This truism has been well-covered in a book and movie, but hearing it in this particular context made me start thinking about why we need it in the first place. Why do we so often require this reminder in our romantic lives?

Why does a person who’s clearly not interested in us inspire us to be so completely interested in him or her? What’s the deal with crushing on people who couldn’t care less, who may be totally wrong for us? Or, conversely, stringing along someone who we really aren’t that into ourselves?

The reasons may be different for everyone, but I know that in my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

The fantasy part created inauthentic, irrational crushes. I didn’t honor the reality of the other person and what they could truly offer me, but focused on the perfect fantasy of them. This created a sort of painfully sublime ideal of romance made up of genuine attraction + timing/proximity + vulnerability + pure imagination. I’ve had crushes on men I’ve never met or barely knew, men who were clearly a bad idea, men I knew were absolutely not interested in dating me, because they told me so—and yet I wasted weeks if not months feeling all sorts of gushy emotions toward these dudes, dreaming of how incredible it would be to have them like me back, believing that would bring me true happiness.

Is there any benefit to a crush? I guess it can be a nice, light distraction from more serious life problems, but in general they don’t do a lot for us, especially if we’re actively dating as adults. And at their worst, fantasy-based attachments can take us to some pretty damaging places. The truth is, it’s entirely possible not to develop romantic feelings for people we barely know or people who aren’t interested in us, no matter how “perfect” they seem on the surface.

The flattery comes in to play when the opposite happens: someone makes it clear that he or she really likes us—paying us compliments, flirting, asking us out, fanatically liking every single one of our posts. We can’t deny that compliments and attention feel good, giving us a nice ego boost, even if we don’t share the attraction. It’s alluring in its way—it’s flattering. We feel pleasure, validation, gratification from their positive attention. Which isn’t a super healthy or grounded state of mind. In my experience, feeling flattered made me far more grateful than was warranted—I believed I owed the guy for liking me, and that clouded my judgment. I’d conclude that I was single, they were the only guy interested in me at that moment, it felt good to be admired… what did I have to lose?

Well, a lot—namely my time and energy. Just like with a fantasy-based crush, we’re still in the position of wasting time and energy on a potentially limited relationship, distracting ourselves from other possibilities. Sure, there are stories of X who wasn’t that into Y, but gave Y that third chance and they fell madly in love and adopted triplets and a Beagle. It’s definitely a good practice to keep an open mind and give someone different a chance. However, when you reach that tipping point and know in your gut that it’s not going to happen, whether before the first date or after the fifth, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to continue. We can honor their attraction to us, appreciate it, and still remain steadfast in our goal of finding a true, authentic partnership.

So these are a few of the reasons why we might do this to ourselves. We sometimes look for distractions, we’re romantic and imaginative, we have a lot of love to give and want to give it, we feel flattered and like we have nothing to lose.

But how do we not do it? How do we not fall into these traps, when it’s so easy to slip off-balance either way?

When I started dating after my last relationship, I thought really seriously about this. I knew how likely it was for me to develop crushes, and how easy to succumb to flattery. Months before I even considered going on a date, I made some resolutions to help navigate the dating rapids.

I resolved that I wouldn’t talk myself into being interested in someone just because they were interested in me. Not out of niceness or misplaced gratitude, not because I was flattered, definitely not because I had no other prospects. I would acknowledge my appreciation and give myself permission to kindly and firmly detach.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t waste time or attention on any man who didn’t show me he was truly interested—who wasn’t “that into” me from the start. I would reserve judgment, and pay close attention to what his actions told me about him. It might take a date or two to figure out, but when someone’s in, they’re in, and when they’re not, they’re not.

If I didn’t believe he was genuinely interested, or found I wasn’t that interested myself, I’d call it early on.

In all situations, I committed to listening to my inner wisdom and following its guidance. These resolutions served me well time and time again, saving me from attaching myself to incompatible men and allowing me to enjoy the process as it unfolded.

Of course it’s disappointing when a somebody you like doesn’t like you back. Disappointing, but not devastating. When, after our third date, I ended things with one sweet, delightful man who really liked me a lot, I knew I was letting him down. It wasn’t easy to cause him pain, but I wasn’t right for him. The truth is, nobody who doesn’t want us can be right for us. They just can’t. That’s how you know. Whether or not they’ve raised expectations by what they’ve said or done, and no matter how wonderful, charming, sexy and perfect they seem, you can accept this truth, close that door yourself, feel the hurt and disappointment, and hopefully even learn from the experience.

As Chelsea Handler told the podcast caller: life’s short. Move on. If someone doesn’t want you there’s just no point wondering if they might someday, or why they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Stop wasting time and see what life offers next.

On the flip side, it’s fine to go out with someone we’re undecided about who likes us, but if we’re not paying attention, it’s a relatively short step from feeling flattered, relieved and grateful to convincing ourselves to get entangled.

Conscious dating invites us to walk a steady line, balanced between all extremes. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions from the moment we meet someone new, stay open to facing every truth that arises—including that someone we’re attracted to doesn’t feel the same or isn’t available—and use our energy, time and attention wisely. You might have the most amazing first date ever, which is thrilling. Enjoy the thrill—and then sit down with it afterward, honor what your instincts are telling you, give it some room to breathe. By the second or third date, this person might have lost a lot of their appeal as you begin to understand your real compatibility.

Being with someone we know in our innermost wisdom isn’t right, for whatever reason, closes us off to the possibility of meeting someone who is right. You never know who might show up next, or what you could be learning and experiencing in the interim.

Not allowing ourselves to be swept up in either fantasies or flattery allows us to step back and see what’s really going on. It gives us space to listen to our instincts, and make the best, healthiest, most empowered choices possible.

 

ignoring the red flags

My boundaries were crossed recently by someone I trusted, and uncomfortable as it was to go through, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’m still learning: as I’ve gotten some distance from the situation, I know that the person who crossed the line didn’t do it out of nowhere. She was, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “a habitual line-stepper.”

I just didn’t see it—or rather, I DID see it, I just didn’t allow myself to recognize her actions as red flags. This realization really surprised me, because I’ve been extremely wary and aware of red flags in dating since my terrible relationship with a narcissist ended. After it was over, I reviewed all the zillions of bright flashing neon red flags he waved at me, from our first conversation on. It was beyond mortifying, all the ways I compromised myself to be with this guy who showed me he was bad news from the start, but it was also really valuable. I took the time to define what was acceptable and unacceptable for me, and carried that with me like a magic talisman on every date, in every email exchange and conversation with a man.

And it worked. I could trust my intuition to tell me exactly what I needed to know in order to navigate through dating again. There were kind, smart, successful guys I knew just weren’t right for me—and there were charming, attractive guys who I could tell were toxic. I got so good at it, when someone really incredible crossed my path, I knew before we even spoke, just by reading his energy and trusting my instincts, that he was someone worth meeting.

I got pretty smug about it, thinking, “hey, I’ve really got this ‘gut’ thing dialed in! I’ll never trust the wrong people ever again!”

But no.

When a line was crossed, it felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend did something I never would’ve imagined I’d need to worry about a friend doing, making me so uncomfortable I was anxious and sick over it. I had no idea how to react, second-guessing myself, hoping it didn’t really happen. But it did.

After a few days of writing, thinking, and talking to other friends about it, I brought it up to her. I believed she had no idea, that she didn’t mean harm, and I needed her to know where my boundaries lay. Rather than listening with an open mind, respecting my feelings and working to clarify any misunderstanding, she went a very different route—angrily denying the whole thing, turning it around on me, calling me insecure and threatened, calling it “bullshit,” bringing up things I did wrong in the past, suggesting ways I could work on my psychological and personality issues… Your basic recipe for authentic, home-cooked crazy-making. It really stunned me; I’d encountered that kind of reaction from my toxic ex, but had never experienced it from her. Her response went so far as to tell me she knew what she was doing: her boundary-busting behavior was intentional, she just didn’t like me calling her on it.

I believed that she was a good friend, someone I could trust. I ignored a lot of red flags.

As a result, I was blindsided by something that was actually right in line with who she was.

Now, looking back at the three years we’ve known each other, I see she was showing me that all along. All the times she cancelled plans last-minute or left me waiting or stranded; her lack of self-awareness; the ways she taught me not to count on her; her ambiguous comments to and about me; her actions, lifestyle and choices—these were red flags, speaking volumes about her priorities and our differing values. She isn’t wrong, I’m not right—but I see that our closeness came from convenience and proximity when I desperately needed someone to turn to, rather than genuine compatibility. Something always felt off. I just wasn’t letting myself notice, disregarding my instincts like I had in the past.

Because of how she chose to act and respond, because she so clearly had no respect for me, and because I’ve learned not to accept what’s unacceptable, I chose to walk away from the friendship. I’m sincerely grateful for her friendship and support during a hard time in my life. Ultimately, though, what I believed about our relationship, and about her, wasn’t really true.

I don’t regret anything I said or did, but I’m not feeling especially proud of the blinders that got me here. For all my hyper-awareness of red flags in dating, I’ve ignored the fact that they can exist in any type of relationship, and ended up being hurt and disappointed by my own laziness and lack of perception. By believing what I wanted to believe and holding onto that.

The truth is, eventually everyone shows you who they really are. It’s up to us to choose whether or not we pay attention.