En Garde, Romeo
Or, more accurately, breaking up with my ex and trying to be open with men left me in a state of fear. After getting out of a relationship in which I had somehow allowed myself to become codependent, sacrificing my desires for the sake of “compromise,” I decided to overcome my introversion and be accessible, not just to potential love interests, but everyone—a goal I’ve had for some time, in fact. I wanted to become more extraverted, period, but mostly I had no idea what I was looking for anymore and just wanted to allow a true connection between me and someone else instead of disengaging for fear of small talk.
I don’t get crushes often, and my ex was one of the first people I fell hard for. He was shy, smart, sensitive, seemingly considerate, fun, had the same interests, and liked what he liked without apology. For a brief moment, he made me feel truly special. That didn’t last long, but it had been intoxicating none of the less.
Part of my concerns is that sexual attraction, for me, is far more about personality than just physical traits. You know what I find most attractive in a man? His hands. Specifically, the way he moves them. The way he moves them when his eyes light up. The way his face cracks into a huge smile discussion moves towards his passion. It’s the moment he’s start to relax, be himself, and becomes so engrossed in whatever it is he’s thinking about that you can watch him without the emotional walls in the way. I start to feel a crush when I believe his lingering gaze is more than just him checking out “some woman,” but actually contains conscious thoughts behind them. Not just an unemotional stimulating visual, but a twinge of genuine affection and hope, yet still rational enough to realize he doesn’t actually know who I am, but would like to learn.
It takes some time to get there. Anywhere from 20 minutes of conversation to three months of working side-by-side. It takes more time to be sure it’s never going to get there.
Now, when I say I’m afraid of men, I don’t mean the idea of rejection makes me nervous. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not going to pretend my ego can withstand blows, but I am far more afraid of a man allowing himself to “settle” into a relationship with me because no one better is around. If I could count on a guy breaking it off when he realized it wasn’t going anywhere, I would be far more willing to go on uncertain dates. More importantly, if I could count on a guy accepting I’m breaking it off, I’d be more willing to take a chance. I come from a small town in which men outnumber women 7:1. Adding in the fact that most men are slow to wheedle down their number of potential mates, it’s not uncommon for him to stick around until he has to make an actual decision, which could be years. People say women are more likely to break things off and ask for a divorce in a long-term relationship, and I believe it.
When I say I’m afraid of men, I mean when sitting next to a stranger, I constantly worry about being touched without my permission. I worry about getting screamed at after having a polite conversation that went nowhere. I’m worried about having to reject someone constantly for weeks, being argued with if I explain why, being insulted if I don’t, and not being taken seriously in either regard.
Once I decided to socialize more, I started getting “stalked.” It was benign in nature, an overexuberance on their parts, but I would be inundated with messages from men I’d spoken to only once—or not at all. On one specifically exhausting experience, I took a chance on a guy who seemed normal enough, I skeptically gave him my number to then be blitzed with messages. At first I tried to be respectful and honest, “I’m headed into workshop. I’ll have to see how tired I am when I get out,” and he refused to listen to me, demanding if I was coming with him five times throughout the duration, calling twice.
When I finally told him, “I’m not talking to you anymore because you don’t respect my boundaries,” he continued to message me, his confusion growing worse and worse even though I had already made myself perfectly clear several times. As in, saying the actual word ‘No.’ As in growing from, “We don’t have anything in common,” to “I don’t enjoy being around you.” I did refrain from calling him a smelly, creepy son-of-a-bitch because that would be more for catharsis than the truth, and I knew he was extremely self-loathing and sensitive, so it wouldn’t help. He eventually took the hint when he showed up at my work, a big smile on his face, and I refused to do anything more than allow him to pay for his burrito. He slunk away, deeply puzzled by my hostility.
Over the course of the summer, I got harassed a great deal in this manner; men constantly approaching me with lies and criticisms, desperate for any woman’s validation and treating me like dirt to get it. These were strangers, obviously, and the conversations lasted less than five minutes. Ten at max. But most people didn’t understand the damaging effect from being constantly approached with “helpful” criticism, insincere intentions, and the overwhelming fear that I would once again fall for the wrong person. They instead, told me that my stalker was my fault for engaging with him in the first place, or for smiling, for making eye contact. “Just block them,” instructed one older stranger who I only talked to when he messaged me unsolicited advice about my Facebook posts. “Just be flattered,” others suggested.
Moreover, there is a very understandable issue standing between us: Many of the men who approached me didn’t want to get emotionally invested until they knew they stood a chance. I, however, often didn’t know if we stood a chance until after a natural emotional investment is planted. All I knew was I was having boring small talk with a guy who not only wasn’t paying attention to anything I was saying, but tuning out his own voice as well—an average looking guy who put no effort into being fun, interesting, or even pleasant, who refused to be intellectually present, possibly because he honestly didn’t care about who I was as a person. Yet, despite their obvious opinion that I was replaceable and not worth trying, they were astoundingly confused and obsessive at my disinterest.
You’re not really that interested in me! What’s there to be confused about?
Extraordinary people look normal on the outside. They don’t always make a good first impression, and you don’t always see the beauty in them until after you’ve given them a chance. But you also don’t always see the ugliness until it’s too late.
My male friends, who I respected and adored, thinking they were loyal romantics, would discuss with me their view on love and their wives/girlfriends and… it sounded like settling.
“Oh. I don’t believe in the one. I just believe in picking someone and choosing to be committed.”
They admitted they secretly wanted harems “at one point,” but realized it was just a fantasy.
All of this was so incongruent with the way I perceived love—and had felt love. It emphasized the discrepancy I had felt between me and my ex. I had cared about him, and only him, for the entire two years we were together. I never shopped around or wished anything different about his appearance even when things were really, terribly bad. I didn’t have a crush on anyone else, or lament past relationships, or do anything but wish that he would give me even a modicum of attention. Even when I hated him, I prioritized his happiness. He was having a hard go of it, and I couldn’t throw water on a drowning man, especially one that I cared about. My love was there through thick and thin, and only through extreme self-reflection, logic, and betrayal did I finally convince myself that I wasn’t caring about me, and I should have been.
Experiencing the severe antipathy of men in the following months only strengthened my fear. Hostility was planted between us. I felt every time I was kind to someone, gave someone nervous or insecure or hurting the briefest of chances (just by being polite even), he’d turn around and bite me, smugly, looking down on me for ever being “interested” in someone like him. Even though logically I knew that selfishness, lack of self-awareness, and an inability to listen are personality traits, and I recognize many women who treat their boyfriends badly, the security in generalizing was too appealing. It was better to think, “All men don’t give a shit!” than try and figure out which ones did.
My female friends couldn’t help; I was too privy to the problems in their relationships and only heard about it from the woman’s side. My male friends didn’t help. They just verbally affirmed all my deepest fears.
There was one thing that I could do to overcome it. I Googled my greatest concerns, but instead of writing, “Do all men…” I changed it to “women.”
By flip flopping the genders, I came across articles expressing my exact emotions, but with men who had been in my shoes. I could empathize with someone without confirming my growing bigotry, relate to their pain, and see their desires and fears could coincide with my own. By reading about women who had hurt someone in ways that I never could, it became easier to believe my boyfriend hurt me in ways that another man never could.
It could be scary at times. Many of these searches were filled with the expected anger, turning to violence and promotion of rape. It was worse when the solutions were telling men to do exactly what I was afraid of—don’t take no for an answer. She’s just testing you.
I suppose what made me truly angry at my short-term harasser was that I had gone out of my way to communicate what was going on while still taking care of my needs. This normal, friendly guy had asked me to hang with a group of people, but my introverted self wanted to go home and snuggle with my cat. However my self-improving self wanted to stop telling people no every time I was offered to hang out. But my rational self recognized that I had a routine of going to bed at seven for my three a.m. job, and by 10 o’clock I’d probably be crashing.
I realized I had about two hours of the workshop to make my decision, so instead of ignoring him, which I considered rude, I explained what was going on with me in an honest and fair way.
His blowing up my phone condemned my consideration. Best case scenario? He was so consumed with anxiety as to whether or not I was coming that he was oblivious that I might feel pressured if he demanded an answer—not safe. Maybe he was accusing me of lying, like I was making up stories to back out—it never feels good not to be trusted. But more than that, if I was lying, why didn’t he have the self-respect to say, “I really don’t need that kind of shit in my life.” Either he was kind of stupid or just selfish. Or both.
At the end, it just seemed like he lacked self-control and self-awareness. By the time I got out and read his texts, the group wasn’t even there yet. It wasn’t like they were waiting on me. He just acted on impulse, which is terrifying when you’re a small woman completely dependent on any lover’s self-restraint to be physically safe. If he doesn’t have the desire or capacity to intellectually control his impulses, you could end up severely injured.
It’s not that I don’t empathize, but rather I’ve started to learn that I tend to empathize too much and don’t demand enough respect in return. I gave someone the benefit of the doubt they never offered me. He didn’t listen to me because he had a serious problem listening period, which I found over the course of the writers conference where we met. He spent so much time worrying about how he “came off” that he was never present for what was going on. When I realized how little he took my feelings into consideration, I had already “misled” him by not rejecting him immediately. Had I known from the jump that he wasn’t going to leave me alone, I wouldn’t have done the little things, like offered to having him sit by me when he had an obvious momentary existential crisis whether or not he should. If I had known from the jump what a bad listener he was, I would have never giving him a chance. If I had known from the jump it was never going to happen, I wouldn’t have behaved like it might. But I didn’t know that. I just knew that he was interested, and he wasn’t giving me any deal breakers in the three seconds I had to appraise him. Did we have potential? Unlikely, but not out of the question.
Reading up on men’s view of rejection, I came across the issue of the “shit test.” Prior to that, I had no comprehension as to what his end game was by repeatedly messaging me if I was coming or not. My best guess was that he was extremely impulsive.
As it turns out, many trains of thought thing that women intentionally reject men in order to see how serious he is. And I get this. As I said above, a guy might look like he’s interested on a surface level, but that doesn’t really mean he is, and only time will tell. Plus, many guys show their true faces upon rejection—both positive and negative. If he’s putting on a façade, even subconsciously, it’s more likely to drop after he stops trying. When a guy takes rejection well, he’s much more likely to actually be a nice person rather than faking it. When he takes it poorly, well, you’ve just bared witness to how he’ll act when he doesn’t get his way. If he gets angry, you know you’re dealing with someone who will grow hostile in disagreements.
And you do know he’s more serious, although I would argue that the biggest reasons I receive my “stalkers” (for lack of a better term) is not due to me “engaging with them” as I was told, but because I’m not much for flirting unless I think it’s going somewhere. I tend to “reject” men (and any stranger trying to socialize with me) fairly quickly. The more overt your rejection, the more they latch on. So while he may not have been sincerely interested before, once you tell him, “No,” he will grow more invested. In fact, some men lose interest if the girl is too intrigued too soon, especially if she’s attractive. He wanted the validation of getting the attention of someone more discriminate.
So yeah. Even if it’s only subconscious, I would assume that many women do have shit tests. But I would also like to say it’s not necessarily a test. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants. Maybe she’s serious in her rejection at that moment. Maybe she’s prematurely ending the conversation out of fear of how easily out of control flirtation can get. Maybe she doesn’t really want to reject you, but knows that it’s a bad idea to get involved with you. Or maybe it’s not a rejection at all and she’s just telling you the truth about what’s going on.
Where does that leave men? What am I asking? Nothing, actually. Just understanding. Even though reading the hatred on the internet can be hard, there are those who I relate to. I get why it can seem like people just looking for relationships might be selfish users, why it’s so easy to stereotype and generalize. Why we look for secret agendas and don’t trust, especially after a bad experience.
I share this with you because I do feel bad for the men who have been mistreated by women, and I realize how much effort I had to put in to understand why they behaved the way they did. Sometimes, I realize now, it’s not a complete disregard for my feelings, or a malicious attempt for manipulation, but rather a genuine confusion on what it’s like to be from the other side.
Though I don’t believe men and women are all that different in our desires and fears, some of our personal experiences vary drastically. When I tell men the stories of how others have talked to me, they’re often shocked, skeptical, or freshly enraged. When I hear men describe some of the ways they’ve been treated, I am often shocked, skeptical, or freshly enraged.
Most importantly, when I read recollections about why men are drawn to the Pick-Up Arts that teach how to use manipulation and abuse, I get the evolution. I understand the fear, the frustration, the hurt that led them to seek answers. I see some of the logic in the methods, and in pieces many of the advice understands the female experience better than I do. In fact, some of the advice is straight up good. (While others is downright terrifying.)
But applied without context, Pick-Up tricks start to demand that women grow more and more self-protecting and less empathetic. It turns a possibility into a cold no. It makes a first impression the only impression, the first chance the only chance. Acting like women are evil for not knowing if you’re an option immediately means she’s going to err or rejection. Assuming her “not right now” means she’s shit testing you is likely to chase her away faster.
Maybe sometimes means maybe. If you feel like a woman is wasting your time by intentionally stringing you along or playing games, move on. But the truth is, she might actually just be protecting herself from getting into a car with the wrong person. Or worse, the wrong relationship. If men focused more on a woman’s emotional state—rather than telling her to smile, or that she’s being emotional—they would be better equipped to separate rejection from uncertainty, uncertainty from manipulation. If men understood that women are taking time to separate those things, we’d be less afraid to give them a chance.
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