DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a more general question about men and dating advice for women: where is the line between being intrusive and showing interest?
I’m a woman in my middle 30-s, beautiful, well-educated, 100% working in Big Tech. I have my interests, friends and hobbies, very sociable and know how to listen. So, I never experienced problems with attention of men. The problem appears later
My first high school boyfriend (I was head over heels with him) broke up with me because he wanted freedom and I wanted something more serious. It was painful.
Dating coaches and popular literature for women recommend to give men space, not being intrusive, back off if they pull back, mind my own business etc. “Why men are afraid of commitment”, “never pursue him”, “never call him first”, “concentrate on your own live”, “work on yourself”, “have your own interests”, “don’t burden him with your problems”, “be independent”, “respect his boundaries”, you name it.
I follow it and it seems to work at the beginning. But later it feels like men feel I am not interested. The last one told me: I wish you loved me more.
Could you please disclosure, how to show the interest and not being intrusive.
Thank you for what you are doing.
Go Away A Little Closer
DEAR GO AWAY A LITTLE CLOSER: Here’s the thing about “rules” when it comes to dating – they’re more what you might call “guidelines” really. Or “strongly worded suggestions”. The problem with calling them “rules” is that this implies that relationships and people all follow the same basic patterns, have the same expectations and cultural upbringing and are interested or respond to the same things.
And obviously: we don’t. Dating in the US looks different from dating in the UK, which looks different from dating in Spain, which looks different from dating in Slovakia, which looks different from dating in Taiwan, which looks different from dating in Japan. There are often superficial similarities – pop culture transmits ideas and social norms far more efficiently than almost anything else – but the general expected and accepted behaviors, timelines and so on are going to be all over the place. Hell, dating culture doesn’t just vary between countries, it can vary between cities. Just ask anyone from the deep South what it’s like trying to date in New York or Portland.
So while there’re general best practices, a lot is going to come down to who you’re dating more than anything else. Individuals have this stubborn tendency to remain individuals and what’s cool with one person is going to be unreasonable to another. But hey, that’s ok… part of dating is, y’know, getting to know people and figuring out if your quirks foibles are going to mesh up or not.
In your case, you’re dealing with the eternal question of trying to figure out how much interest to show, and when. Too much, too soon and you look clingy and needy or seriously over-invested. Too little and you end up with guys who feel like you didn’t like them at all.
And going by the examples you’ve provided of the advice you’ve gotten over the years, you certainly seems like you’ve erred too far on the side of “show less”.
I have to be honest: I appreciate that you chose these examples, because so many of them seem to come from the same place… The Rules – a dating guide for women that came out in the mid-90s and has hung around in one form or another ever since. I appreciate it because this gives me an opportunity to rant about them. Frankly, I find them kinda fascinating in as much as they do the opposite of what the people following them want.
Now, much like The Game, The Rules was a response to the frustration of dating in a specific environment – in this case, dating men in New York City in the 90s. This was, in particular, a time when social mores were in flux; third-wave feminism was on the rise and running headlong into men (especially men in finance and legal professions) who had very strong opinions about traditional gender roles and a s--tload of insecurities when women started having greater equity in both work and society.
The Rules were self-consciously retrograde, requiring that women take a much more passive role to encourage men to do more pursuing. But they also encouraged women to play head-games, never letting men know exactly what they were thinking or how things were going – both to keep “control” and an air of mystery but also to avoid seeming too eager or interested.
The idea, of course, is to keep men engaged by treating women’s interest and availability like a piece of string in front of a kitten: dangle it just long enough to get them to chase it but never catch it. The problem, however, is that playing games and not ever letting people feel secure in where they stand is frustrating and exhausting, and following The Rules to their not just logical conclusion but the conclusion the authors advocated leads to some truly bizarre moments. One example of a woman following The Rules correctly involved taking her boyfriend of six months with her when she went to buy a new bed… and buying a single bed to make sure that she didn’t give away signals that she’s interested in shacking up with him or getting married.
No, I’m not making that up.
Small wonder that more often than not people had similar experiences that you did: a lot of interest up front that faded pretty quickly because nobody wants to chase someone forever.
(Incidentally, the podcast “If Books Could Kill” has an amazing episode on The Rules if anyone wants to know more.)
Now let’s get back to your situation. Some of the things in your examples of conflicting advice are actually good. Having your own interests and life separate from your partners’ is inherently a good thing. It means that the two of you don’t make the other your sole source of emotional or social support, you both get to have your own hobbies and experiences and so on. But others, like “never call first” and “never pursue” are the sorts of things that leave folks feeling frustrated and unsure. Yes, you don’t want to be waiting with sandwiches by the computer, waiting for the “online” indicator like Gatsby staring across the bay, but the idea that you shouldn’t express interest or make a move or even just be the first to call or text is really only going to make dating worse for you and your dates. All advice like this does is create artificial barriers for no reason other than keeping the other person off balance and not showing “too much” interest or availability.
After all, who knows? If he knew you liked him he might… I dunno… ask you out on more dates. Or to be exclusive. Or something awful like that.
And while the initial chase and feeling like someone is juuuuust out of reach can be fun for a little while, it gets really tedious after a while… especially when it seems like one person or the other is doing all the work and one person is playing games.
And you know how it goes when you play stupid games – you win stupid prizes.
Now we get to the frustrating part: how much is too much and how much is too little? And it’s frustrating because you’re just going to get a Vorlon answer: “yes”.
Too much and too little tend to depend on the people involved. We theoretically know what too much looks like when it starts edging to the extremes because pop culture loves throwing the overly-clingy/needy girlfriend/boyfriend trope all over the place. But all too often, we tend to take any expression of interest or affection as being “too much” and worry that we’re either being too much for the other person or we’re giving them too much power. So people tend to over-correct in the other direction.
So part of the solution here is to know yourself and to know what you want from a date and partner when it comes to things like demonstrating affection, time spent together and so on – are you someone who prefers a lot of communication and togetherness or are you someone who prefers more alone time? Are you a “call every day” person or not? Are you a prolific texter or are you someone who prefers to talk in person and doesn’t go for DMs and instant messages?
The same goes with the ways you show affection and the ways you receive affection. The “Five Love Languages” gets a deserved amount of s--t, but the core idea – that different people have different ways of expressing and receiving love – is a solid. Being aware of how you express love to others is important, as is being aware of how you receive it.
Then you want to prioritize finding people who are like you and who mesh well with you. Some of this can be sussed out in the early stages – I like asking “so, what kind of texter are you?” as a “getting to know you” question on first dates – but some is going to be learning about the people you date as you go.
When it comes to showing interest, the best practice is to be sure that your partner knows how you feel. This is going to be far more important than any sort of artificial “wait three days before calling” or whatever other “be aloof and distant lest they think you like them” bulls--t people might sell you.
Part of what makes dating frustrating are the number of times that people treat dating like a game of Diplomacy, as everyone tries to hide their true intentions lest they give up some precious advantage. Being honest and straight-forward cuts through a lot of the frustration and guesswork. That doesn’t mean being blunt to the point of rudeness or being cold and matter-of-fact, but you can say things like “hey, I like you, I’d like to see more of you” or “I like having my space, so I do best meeting up once a week” or “I feel like I’m doing a lot of the work, here and I would appreciate it if you could show me that you care by taking up some of the slack” or even “Here’s my favorite ways of expressing and receiving affection, what are yours?”
In some ways, it can be helpful to think of it as learning to speak one another’s languages and teaching them yours. Communication only really works if you’re both understood, after all.
Letting people know where they stand with you goes a long way towards helping you find the folks who are right for you; a little certainty and understanding can be incredibly refreshing in a dating culture where people still act “who cares less, wins”.
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