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 deciding between getting back together with a toxic ex or staying in their current, sexless relationship. This week, she tackles a question from a reader who desperately wants a long-term partnership, but who just can't find the "one."
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Can we talk about the fact that I can’t seem to get into a serious relationship, no matter how hard I try?
I’m 25, and feel like I’m the only one in my friend group — the only one on the planet, it often seems — who hasn’t had an adult relationship last longer than six months. And most of them don’t even fare this long.
I really want to find love, find my person, but so far I haven't found anything sustainable. I’ve dated men, women, and nonbinary people. I’ve dated people who were 10 years older, my age, and a year or two younger. I’ve been with the jock, the business bitch, and some really kind people who can’t keep a job. And yet I still haven’t found someone I can stick with long-term.
I almost always have fun on dates with people, but I usually fall into one of a few traps that cause things to fizzle quickly. Pattern A) The person is really nice, but I’m not attracted to them and get bored, so I end things. Pattern B) The person is hot and fun but not nice and they don’t share my values. Historically, these people are actually quite toxic (they have mental health problems they aren’t dealing with or are controlling or they can’t be faithful, which is important to me), and yet these are the relationships I tend to invest in and get attached to. But they usually become so unsustainable, dramatic, and bad for me that they implode after six months. “A” happens more than “B” but “B” has happened enough that sometimes I feel like an idiot who pushes away the good things and tethers themselves to the bad.
I feel like Goldilocks, and I can’t find my “just right.” It’s starting to feel embarrassing, and I even once found myself lying on a date that I’d been with someone for years. I justified that I technically dragged things out for over a year with one person because I did keep going back to them on and off for over a year, only to keep relearning the same lesson. But I’ve never had the long-term, rom-com, I-know-your-morning-routine-by-heart kind of love I desire. I’m wondering… Is it me? Is there something I can do differently to get into a real relationship? Am I picking wrong, or am I just not ready myself? Thanks!
Dear Embarrassingly Single,
You asked if you’re picking the wrong people, but maybe that’s not the question. Maybe you haven’t figured out what love actually means to you yet. To figure that out, the first question to ask yourself is: What do you believe about how lovable you are? Do you believe you’re deserving of someone who shares your values? Do you believe the person you’ll end up with will choose you for those values — for who you are and what you stand for — not just your killer calves, great job, or impeccable taste in music?
All of us are constantly organizing and categorizing the world around us. We put people in boxes, but we also put ourselves in them. We all do that differently based on the society that we grew up in, and the stories it taught us about ourselves and what love looks like. Our lifelong work is to break down these narratives and make sure they evolve with us.
But all of us also carry these stories with us when we’re dating. I grew up in a home that showed me loving grandparents but fighting parents. In turn, I stayed in an abusive relationship much longer than I wish I had. One of the reasons for this (which was unknown to me as a teen, pre-therapy) was that a story I very unconsciously told myself was: people love you when they are mean to you. Honestly, so many female-identified kids are told this when male-identified kids bully them. Because of this narrative, my body would only snap to attention in relationships when there was a lot of toxic behavior and arguing — everything else presented to me as boring or even unattractive. Even though I was unhappy, my mind thought this unhealthy relationship was working. I think many of us tell ourselves stories like these, and then, eventually, we look back and wonder why we tolerated bad behaviors. But we can answer those questions by identifying our patterns and digging into what we think love is and why.
A part of our work is to not believe the stories told to us throughout our lives by people who were unhealed and who were projecting their insecurities onto us — whether that’s a parent, bully, or friend.
All of us contain thousands of different emotions and habits, and different situations highlight various parts of our personalities. Generally, one person who acts “toxic” in one relationship is capable of being open and healthy in the next. When dating, it can help to slow down and lean into how complex people are. Yes, trust your instincts too, but instincts can be misleading before we really get to know someone. Feeling nervous about someone who struggles to open up on the first date is very different from feeling nervous about someone who tells you a story about an angry outburst they had. The former might be someone who’s wonderful but just shy, and the latter may be a true red flag. If you really listen versus making assumptions, people tell you who they are. Try to be aware after a date if you notice yourself “categorizing” someone too quickly. Focus on the facts.
When you're tempted to place someone in a box after only a few dates, get a notepad and list out all that you have learned about them and then write down how you felt when you were with them. Notice, I’m not asking you to write down how you felt after the date but during it. Oftentimes our mind falls in love with the story we made up about someone, but when we are with the person we are actually anxious, sad, or frustrated. Alternatively, sometimes we might think of someone as a bore after a date, when, in fact, we had a great time with them.
I know, historically, you’ve felt the folks who are “nice” on paper are falling flat. Why is that? Sometimes people can feel boring when they only ask you questions — at first, it feels nice to be listened to, but by the end of the date, you realize you know nothing about them. If you notice this happening, try to ask a question that probes deeper than what they do for a living or their favorite band – how did they meet their best friend? How do they feel about religion? This may help you see they’re actually not a snooze-fest of a person at all. Another alternate example: Maybe someone keeps checking their phone on the date, and you’re reading it as the “toxic player talking to five other people" while courting you too — but really they just have social anxiety. You can’t know until you get to know them, so it’s best not to judge too quickly.
In the same vein, I think we often think of the obvious “nice one” as the one who won’t hurt us (not always true), but maybe we think we don’t deserve to be loved by someone so stable. Or you might even associate that stability with married couples — maybe you don’t feel ready for this step, or you grew up with the narrative that all marriages are unhappy, or you don’t think you deserve the so-called “happy ending.”
In your last question, you effectively asked: am I not ready for a serious relationship? Well, what if you’re just not ready to be in a deep, intimate relationship just yet. There’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes what needs to come first is taking space for deep intimacy with yourself. I know, I know — it probably feels like you have had all the space in the world, since you haven't had that long-term relationship you long for, but it's amazing how much mental space navigating just dating in general — for any period of time — can take up. So I would take a break, lower the pressure, work on your own stuff for a few months. Put yourself in places that you enjoy. Maybe a kickboxing class, a book club, or a volunteer event. Yes, maybe you’ll meet someone incredible doing them, but make sure they’re things you’d also enjoy solo.
After you do this work, you can really figure out: beyond gender, career, or even hair color, what are you looking for in your “perfect” person. I love your open-mindedness, but I want to loop back to the question I posed at the beginning of this and challenge you to really figure out what's important to you and to be clear on this when getting to know someone — this can only be done when you know your own values and believe you’re worthy of someone who shares them. For example, if you really care about your friendships, but the other person seems to put their career before their pals, maybe that tells you more about if your relationship will work than their morning routine. Knowing what really matters to you can help you stop constantly scanning for whether this person is “nice” or “bad,” “toxic” or “boring.”
Meanwhile, notice your behaviors, especially when you decide to get more physically intimate or emotionally vulnerable with someone. If you feel comfortable doing both, listen to that.
Now onto the fibbing: I don’t want to dismiss your embarrassment in the least, but it’s worth examining why you’ve felt the need to lie about your past relationships.
It’s possible your embarrassment comes from feeling like you are not being “picked” for a long-term relationship. It’s reminiscent of awkwardly standing there during gym class, with no one wanting you on their team. Your mind is interpreting that lonely feeling as rejection — and reinforcement that something is wrong with you, which is why you’ve stayed single. This isn’t true. But it is very real that being in a relationship brings a certain level of validation from society (watch any rom-com on Netflix and it feels like it’s the ultimate achievement). But the idea that someone has more value because they are or have been in a relationship is deeply flawed. So many people feel pressure to enter relationships that are wrong for them — people who aren’t as discerning as you have been — and are unhappy for years. Why do you think divorce rates are so high? You're taking your time, figuring out what you want, and that’s okay. Maybe the hare got picked first in the gym, but, as we know, the tortoise ended up the victor.
Instead of focusing on past relationships and feeling like you have to tell little white lies about them, I’d recommend focusing on past accomplishments — what were you doing when you weren’t in a relationship that was helping you become the person you are today? And what can you do now to continue that journey?
Do the work, and don’t wait to start it until you find “the person” — this means tackling those childhood traumas, relationship wounds, insecurities, and especially your relationship with your body (the kinder you are to your body, the more genuine you will be when enjoying someone else's body).
Doing this continual work, whether you're in therapy or not, is crucial to having healthy relationships — not just romantic ones, but also those with your family and friends. All this might feel very on the nose; if you find yourself, your person will find you. Well, I’m afraid clichés are clichés for a reason.
Although you say you’ve never had a long-term relationship, actually, I can tell you you have. The one with yourself. Nurture that one, and the rest will follow.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.