Are Men in a Relationship Crisis?
This is related to my recent rant about the difference between having feelings for someone and caring about them, but I’ve had what feels like a whack-a-mole year with men. They pop up out of the blue with casual messages or texts, and if I respond that I’m not interested or available, do not accept this and move along but instead argue with me that I’m wrong, we are “friends”. If I don’t respond, they just try again a few days/weeks/months later.
I am tired.
One is the last man I dated who, when I ended things, nearly convinced me he really wanted to be friends. Then when I agreed to see him again, as a friend, he asked if we could have a sleepover.
One is the married acquaintance who comments on my photos and responds to my Instagram stories who asked me why I was mad at him. I told him I wasn’t mad, just didn’t have the energy for a friendship or relationship. “But we are friends!” he protested.
One is a man who stood me up when I agreed to meet him for a drink once and would send me late night texts for over a year after I told him I didn’t tolerate inconsiderate behavior.
One is a man I dated twice, briefly, who will shoot me a “hey” or “I saw you walk by earlier” every so often despite never getting a response.
And so on.
None of these men have asked me a single meaningful question. Nobody asks what I might want or if it’s okay for them to reach out. Nobody seems the slightest bit curious why I may not be available for a friendship or relationship with them. They just continue dropping a line every so often to see if I’ll bite. I resent that I have to continue dodging their lures. I would greatly prefer not to.
“Block him!” the advice columnists say. And sometimes I do.
But considering that these guys seem immune to the intent behind a “no thank you”, assuming they won’t escalate to an in-person attempt feels like a gamble to me. I want advanced warning of a threat to my physical safety. Perhaps that’s undeserved credit for effort. But I’ve heard enough horror stories to seriously consider the possibility that an ignored man will do what is necessary to be acknowledged. Rejection has made many men behave badly.
Not all men are like this, of course. There are men whose friendship I deeply cherish, who have earned and deserve my trust and respect. (Mostly ones I’ve met through Seth Godin courses, interestingly.)
But by and large, I’m finding myself suspicious of men who pay me attention. I usually find out and quick that they are not interested in really getting to know me. It starts with that look, the strange smile that only appears around women he finds attractive. And quickly becomes a pitch for him to get something — attention, a response of some kind. It’s not about a healthy connection, it’s just him demanding a sugary treat like a child. It’s hard to describe the phenomenon of objectification… it leaves me feeling like a husk of a person.
Honestly, I don’t enjoy having to address this behavior, and I don’t enjoy lumping men into one cagey group. I genuinely want people to be well-intended. I like assessing character by truly listening and engaging. I have written before that I believe people have understandable reasons (see #9) for their choices, and I would rather get to this place of understanding versus assumption, even if I ultimately don’t agree.
But this particular issue feels different to me, compulsive in a way. I’ve noticed an internalized pressure not to “tarnish men’s reputations”. I think this is an effect of patriarchy, where men (and especially white men) don’t have their behavior questioned the same way I do. Even though they are starting something with me, I have to explain myself when I set a boundary. It puts women in the position of having to prove our experiences to the (male, I guess?) court of public opinion in order to validate it. When they are called out, men get to backtrack, argue that we misunderstood their advances (“but we’re friends!”), or ignore our perspective altogether.
Despite my effort to judge people as individuals, I’ve reached a point where it is more emotionally taxing to give every man the benefit of the doubt. It’s cathartic just to admit this. Living in a state of distrust is shitty, but the alternative is a sacrifice of self I’m no longer willing to make.
The sheer volume of this behavior also makes me wonder what is happening that men aren’t aware how much better our interactions could be. I genuinely love meeting new people and learning about them. I’m not immune to the cultural condemnation of male sensitivity, but I make a conscious effort to let men be whole, vulnerable humans. I love a good conversation, afternoon or relationship with a man who is willing and able to consider my needs along with his own. The best sex is with this kind of man. Men are an important part of my vision of a rich and satisfying life.
This behavior is just an interruption as I work toward that rich and satisfying life. It really feels like a desperate attempt to use me to combat insecurity. They don’t understand that putting thoughtful, consensual effort into a relationship is much more satisfying at the end of the day than just getting something out of one.
It’s interesting to note that I almost never have this experience with women. I have had periods of having (and being) a toxic girlfriend, especially when I was in my heaviest party phases. But these generally have not survived my lifestyle change into sobriety. They do not continue to demand my attention after I’ve set even subtle boundaries. Women just seem much more willing to move on with their lives, live and let live. They’re probably busy dealing with the same guys.
I’m not quite sure what rationalization these men have for their behaviors. But it also strikes me as sad that someone would continue pursuing someone who clearly doesn’t like them very much. It seems to make them want the “win” even more. It’s such an obvious sign of their dysfunction. Another red flag.
I recognize there’s a lot at play here — toxic masculinity doesn’t allow men to get their emotional needs met by their male friends and over time, that neglect is devastating. One of my dearest girlfriends and I have bonded over a degenerate sense of humor and love of pie. We will make each other random pies or give each other small depraved gifts that remind us of each other. We do each other “inconvenient” favors freely. Her boyfriend was stunned that I picked her up from the airport one day with a freshly baked cinnamon pie. As she said, he doesn’t live in a world where people make their friends random pies and that is sad.
Boys who do thoughtful gestures like this for their platonic friends get called all kinds of names. Our culture can swiftly punish guys when they exhibit vulnerability. When was the last time you heard of a guy picking his friend up from the airport with something homemade?
With these kinds of actual friends in my life, I hope you can agree that it’s absurd for a man I barely correspond with to argue (argue!) that I should talk to him because we are “friends”. They really don’t know what a friend is. In fact, those of us who don’t have any true pie-making friendships should focus our efforts on that before ever trying to make a romantic relationship happen. Even the exceptional friend who you sometimes get your baking pans out for is less emotional effort than a partner. I am starting to recognize how important it is to build a solid friendship before anything romantic is acted on. If they can’t even handle the friendship, there’s no hope for something more.
I’m not the first person to come to this conclusion, and it has been the result of a lot of unpleasant interactions. Unfortunately, the happier I feel in my own skin, the more often these kinds of incidents occur. The more I am able to behave in ways that align with my integrity and goals, that bring out my best, the more these wounded scavengers circle.
Men, we need you to cultivate your mental health and social circles. We need you to be emotionally available for each other, create atmospheres of safety and growth. I want to be a part of an equitable future, but women cannot do the work for you. We need you to hold each other accountable, stop yourself and your friends from pestering the women in your lives, placing unreasonable and traumatizing and exhausting demands. Help each other build up a sense of self-worth and an ability to listen. Step into a “kingly” vulnerability, as Shana James says in this much-needed TED Talk.
I promise you, it’s much more meaningful than that ego hit of a girl you’ve fantasized about. Women can be the most wonderful friends if you earn our trust.
Commit to the work of dismantling your limiting views of women. We are creative and complex and whole in ourselves. And we don’t enjoy repeating ourselves over and over again or being saddled with your fickle wants and insecurities. Learn to take responsibility for your feelings. You have a lot of power when you do! Learn to be curious and respect people’s boundaries.
Step into your fully formed humanity and let us do the same. And when you bake your first friendship pie, save me a slice.