Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was stuck in a cycle of going for unavailable partners. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about their dating habits and patterns and how they did (or didn’t) break them.
Jana, Southern Ontario, Canada
Jana immigrated to Canada with her family as a child and grew up in a household with “a violent, alcoholic father.” Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old. “We were plunged into poverty,” she says. “My father went back to our home country and my mother never received any child support or alimony from him. I never saw him again. We were all shell-shocked. And none of us actually got past it or received help. Survival was the priority. For myself, I internalized everything that I had witnessed as a child and grew into a depressed and angry teenager with an unhealthy mindset regarding men and relationships.”
Jana, now in her late 20s, says these experiences lead to a pattern of her expecting the worst from people — men she was seeing, in particular — based on her past experiences in life. “I grew up thinking that domestic violence was the norm,” she says. “In my romantic relationships, this manifested by me accepting bad behavior as just being normal. Because it could always be worse, after all — He could be hitting me... I had no sense of establishing my own boundaries or of what healthy arguments and conflict resolution looked like.”
It took time and a few unfortunate dating experiences before Jana recognized that she was consistently expecting — and putting up with — the worst. When she noticed this cycle, she realized that truly correcting it meant working on herself first. “I had not developed any real sense of self. What was my character? What were my values? Where did I want to be in five years? I didn't think about any of that,” she says.
But, Jana notes, “I had no idea where to even start undoing years of bad patterns. So, I made a list. What was I looking for in a man? And I didn't mean superficial things, such as ‘he likes to travel,’ but deep things such as finding someone who wanted to build a future, a family. What was his character? His values? How many children did he want? How would they be raised? What were his political views? Religious and spiritual? How would we navigate conflict?”
Once she had her list describing “the perfect man and the ideal life I wanted,” she took an objective look. “I realized, depressingly, that I had moved so far away from being the type of woman that a person like that could ever want to be with. Nothing about my present lifestyle or mindset was conducive to being able to even accept a healthy relationship. If I were my ideal partner, I never would have dated me at that point.”
Jana had just gotten out of a bad relationship, and she stayed single while she began to make changes. “I saved my money,” she says. “I pursued my hobbies… I went on solo hikes through the Icelandic wilderness where I never saw another person. I went on a road trip with my girlfriends where we just hiked mountains in Western Canada. I didn't go near men in any capacity. I couldn't trust myself to not go back to old patterns. I spent a lot of time alone.”
“Time passed and I gradually felt more at peace with myself,” she continues. About two years later, she felt confident enough to begin dating again — and she met someone who became her husband, and later the father of her child. “Now, I have an energy that I never did before,” she says. “I wake up eagerly and start my day instead of laying in bed wondering what the point is… You have to understand, I was a poor immigrant and I was so miserable and self-destructive that my current life seems like a dream. I have a sense of purpose and direction in my married life as a wife and mother that brings me a sense of contentment I never thought possible. Not only am I more trusting, but I'm quieter, gentler, and have confidence in who I am as a person and in who I will continue to grow into. There is something that happens to you when you slow down and start doing things deliberately. Small tasks take on a greater meaning. There is a purpose to the day and a sense of possibility that gives you hope.”
It's not a linear process, this kind of self-growth, Jana says. “I still get down on myself and need reminding that the greatest things in life — the biggest changes — are gradual and require sacrifice,” she says. “But everyone has the capacity to change.”
In her early 20s, Karly found herself single after splitting with her long-term partner. In the first year post-breakup, she noticed the same thing kept happening to her: She’d go on a few dates with someone and they’d hit it off. Then she’d start to get anxious about the next steps, and she’d confront the person about if they saw a future. “I’d say, ‘Here’s how I’m feeling and here’s what I want,’ and they’d be like, ‘Well, we’ve only hung out twice,'” she remembers. “I was like, 'Why do you need three weeks to decide if you like me?' I gave everything zero room to breathe.” If the person started to pull back, she didn’t hear from them for a while, or their communication was inconsistent, she’d self-sabotage, she says. “I would become backhanded or passive-aggressive,” Karly adds. “When things didn’t work out, I would take it personally as a hit to my ego, and the only way I knew how to deal with that was imploding things and saying something horrible so we’d never talk again.”
After this happened more than a few times, Karly decided to do some introspection. She went to therapy and ultimately decided to take six months and be completely single. “I went off the apps, there were no friend hookups, no rekindling old flames,” she says. “I realized that I had never been alone with myself, and so that time was so important. I was really trying to listen to my emotions and sit with them. And to understand my triggers.”
When she dipped her toe back into the dating pool, she met someone she liked, and started to feel attached early on. “I noticed myself falling back into it and being dramatic,” she remembers. “But instead of blowing things up, I stopped myself. I thought: I’ve spent all this time working on this, and I’m hurting myself and other people. Instead of getting upset and unleashing on them, I just took myself out of the situation. This wasn’t serving me. I said, ‘You obviously don’t want what I want, so we’re not going to do this anymore.’ That was the first time I did it that way… That was the pivot point.”
Now 25, Karly says her approach to dating has changed for the better. “At the end of the day, I’ve come to believe it’s all about understanding yourself,” she says. “It’s important to figure out what you want, how you process things, what upsets you, and how you understand the world around you, before you add another person into the equation.”
Pam*, Los Angeles, California
The first time Pam dated an older man, she was 16 and he was 19. By her late 20s, she’d noticed she had a pattern of dating older men, and she decided it needed to stop, as it was causing her heartache and trauma.
Upon reflection, she was particularly disturbed by the power dynamics in many of the relationships she’d been in. There was always a perception that they knew better because they were older, which created an imbalance. Another big example: when she was 20, Pam began dating her college professor. “It was a violation of so many different ethical rules, and had a devastating impact on my mental health,” she says.
It took a lot of work to recover from this, which involved “acknowledging her role in the cycle and taking responsibility to change it,” while also recognizing that these older men were the ones taking advantage of her. To do this, she looked at the pattern and tried to determine what internal struggles she needed to confront. Pam relied on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and hypnotherapy to help her work through the complex succession of relationships with older partners she’d found herself in. She also found it helpful to explore witchcraft practices and to write a letter to her inner child.
These exercises helped her gain insight into her past and understand her present mindset. “In some ways, I thought dating older men made me special and showed maturity, but, in actuality, I was a tool that they used to make themselves feel younger and more desirable,” she reflects.
Pam says she came to see that her absent father and her childhood faith both played a role in her tendency to date older men. “My family comes from a heavily Christian background, and the idea is that you should find a male to take care of you,” she explains. “There were all these traditional gender roles. I think, deep down, I thought if I found someone older, they’d be able to take care of me. Now, I think many of these men were predators.”
Amanda, Brooklyn, NY
The first time Amanda ever ghosted someone it was, fittingly, Halloween. It was 2013, and she’d been feeling for a while that a friendship had become abusive and codependent. So, she “decided to never respond to her again,” she says. “The outcome was what I wanted, which was her out of my life — full stop, period. But it was so scary because I’d never cut somebody off like that before.”
By 2015, Amanda realized that ghosting was becoming a habit, now in her romantic relationships. “I was going on a lot of dates, and a lot of the time I was just like, ‘Nah,’” the 30-year-old says. “But usually it was mutual ghosting.”
“Ghosting gets a bad rap, but, to me, it’s not bad,” she continues. “Because it’s almost always done out of self-respect. As a society, we’ve built up this almost moral obligation to others. But I’m a Black woman in society and no one has ever felt a moral obligation to respect me.”
While Amanda acknowledges that she’s “been ghosted, and it sucks,” she believes that when it’s done the right way, there’s nothing harmful about it. She’s a fan of the “slow fade” when you’re both on the same page and just let things fizzle out. She also believes in ghosting for your personal mental health and safety. And partaking in the practice when you’re simply at your capacity, mentally, emotionally, or physically, and need to step back. But the blind-siding ghosting of someone who really likes you and doesn’t expect it is more likely to be hurtful, and she tries to avoid it.
All told, Amanda has recognized her ghosting pattern and all the reasons she’s done it in the past — and isn’t in too big a hurry to change her ways. She says she's still looking for the perfect "Tetris piece" partner who fits just so into her already busy life. But, until that happens? She may ghost a few more folks who don't.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
*Names have been changed.