If I look back through the last couple decades and how I approached dating and romance, it’s now obvious to me that I never actually wanted to be in a real relationship. No way.
I mean, I might have told you I did. But I would have been mistaken. Sure, I wanted to be with women. But as far as women went, I only knew fantasies. The same fantasies I lived in when I was a shy, pimply-faced teenager lying on his stomach in his closet leafing through magazines filled with half-naked swimsuit models and TV celebrities, or downloading porn on Napster.
I wanted THOSE women. Those pristinely pretty, pouty (not to mentioned airbrushed/Photoshopped) women smiling back at me suggestively from those pages and screens. And I was positive if I managed to make myself into a desirable enough dude to attract one, the rest would take care of itself. In fact, in all my fantasies, I never even made it past the point where a woman like that would fall in love or agree to have sex with me. That was as far as I got.
So you can imagine my shock years later when I actually did get beautiful women to fall in love with me and sleep with me. Every boy’s dream come true, right? Well, yes, until the illusion shattered. And usually that moment of illusion shattering came when I ended up in a relationship, which is where I began to freak out. Because now this woman standing before me — not a fantasy, not a convenient 2D object of my imagination, but a real flesh and blood woman — was being all real-woman-like. She didn’t just smile or flirt or want to take my pants off all the time. And she certainly didn’t want to save me or take care of me, or be my mother and pick up after me. (If she did, that was always a different kind of trouble.)
It sounds ridiculous to write, but on some level I felt f*ckin’ duped! And angry. This was so much different from the way it had played out in my head. All the movies I’d seen, all the love songs I’d listened to, all the magazines I’d read. I felt lied to, and confused, and I wasn’t sure who to blame. For years I blamed all my former girlfriends (It was clearly their problem that two well-meaning people bumping genitals and hoping for the best couldn’t seem to make relationship nirvana happen). Then I got into therapy and blamed my parents for the dysfunctional relationships I’d watched them have when I was growing up, never modeling a better way to do things. That lasted a while. (Sorry, Mom and Dad. Part of my process.)
Eventually, though, I stopped blaming others and got around to taking ownership of myself. I realized that until I did the work to let go of my childhood fantasies about what relationships were, feel my way through any unprocessed emotions, and agree to take a hard look at myself and my patterns, I was definitely going to keep perpetuating the at-times really fun, but ultimately unsustainable relationships I always had.
Last fall, I had the exhilarating experience of falling in love with a beautiful woman. It went down in a similar fashion to many of my previous romantic entanglements — powder keg connection, zero to total infatuation in a number of weeks. And, because she was my neighbor, we began spending every stray minute with each other.
Here’s the kicker, though: Try as we might, we couldn’t seem to get into a relationship. It would have been kind of hilarious if it wasn’t so painful. First she was closed down, then I was, then we both were, then she had to leave town, then I had to leave town. It was as if life threw up the Heisman, and said: Dude, you’re going no further on relationship autopilot. It’s time to slow down and re-evaluate.
It was in the wake of the two of us agreeing to take a step back from our relationship that I realized I needed to take a pause from dating altogether — simply because I realized I’d never actually sat down and thought about what my intention was with love and relationships before. I had always been run by these unconscious, knee-jerk, conditioning and belief systems: I needed a woman to be alive and fulfilled (that was my Dad’s story), I needed to feel wanted and desirable for my self worth (that was my Mom’s story), if I could always have women around, why would I intentionally stop the flow? (That was my story.)
What I’m discovering in this uncharted zone of not dating or meeting any new women is that this space is outrageously priceless (albeit uncomfortable). This is the space I’ve been preparing a lifetime for. And if I ever want to be in the kind of relationship I know is possible for me, I have to learn how to thrive — yes, thrive — on my own. For me, who spent a three decades hoping a magical woman would arrive to save me, this is revelatory. And by ceasing to outsource my happiness to romantic partners, I’m finding a strength within myself I never knew existed. Not to mention I’m continuing to process and integrate all the discomfort that fed those angsty, teenage fantasies. What I’ve learned about that 13-year-old version of me was he was sure he was ugly, and stupid, and unworthy of love. He was sure his chances of getting a girlfriend were next to zilch. He hated himself and felt hopeless and lonely A LOT. So he needs some love and attention and compassion.
But most of all, that teenage boy desperately wanted a father figure to guide him into manhood, to teach him helpful information about sex and women, to tell him it was going to be okay, that he wouldn’t have acne forever, that he’d eventually become a good kisser, and that he didn’t have to understand anything right off the bat or be perfect or suave, because no one was perfect or suave at it at 16. We’re all terrified of sex and relationships at that age! Anyone who tells you they aren’t is just fronting.
We need that older male guidance and witnessing so badly at that age. But we rarely get it. Instead we get all the usual intra-male collective messaging about women: Find ‘em, f*ck ‘em and forget ‘em, sleep with as many as you can. We get bombarded by “lad mags” and pornography. We get rock n’ roll songs on Spotify that tell us women will either kill us or save us. We get all these messages about love and romance and dating and sex, and none of them prepare us for what we find when we actually do meet and get into a relationship with a real person.
I turn 40 later this year. And I feel like I’m learning the truth about sex, romance, and relationships for the first time. I am learning how to be that strong, male guide for myself and for others. And I am blessed to have so many women friends who have been able to share their experiences, too. I can’t tell you how valuable it is as a man to hear what it’s like from the other side, to hear the challenges that women go through as we’re fumbling our way towards manhood without any solid guidance. Often, in the absence of strong, male role models, women are the ones who act as our initiators. (I know this was the case for me.) And they didn’t sign up for that job. Just like many of us didn’t willingly sign up for cruising around in the dark, not having anyone to show us how a mature, integrated man handles his shit with women.
So here I am. Learning the truth a little late, but with plenty of time left to love and love well. Starting with me, and moving outward from there. A little wiser, perhaps. A lot humbler. Maybe, like me, you’re realizing your relationship patterns won’t change until you do. And maybe it’s time to think about taking those first steps to change. Maybe you’re seeking a place to unpack all the beliefs about sex and relationships you’ve picked up in a lifetime that don’t seem to be getting you where you wanna go.
One of the reasons I love men’s communities like this magazine and like the groups I run is that, ideally, they’re safe places to discuss things that feel taboo “out there.” And it’s my belief that by getting together as men to break down the totally-innocent-but-unhelpful ways many of us grow up learning to love, we’re creating some serious medicine for the world. And the world needs that kind of medicine now more than ever.
Learn more about Sean’s work as a men’s coach here