“I can’t have a girlfriend right now.” These words come tumbling out of the mouth of the tall, dark and quirky math theory researcher I met a week ago at a party — within 10 minutes of meeting me for our first date. “So, um, I don’t know what you’re looking for, but…” He trails off, eyes glued to my face for reactions! Clues! Signs!
I shift position in my chair and smile. This is not going to be a thing and I know it. I change the subject instead. “So, where’d you go for undergrad?” The conversation sprawls out from there. It doesn’t shock me when he says he doesn’t know where he’s heading in life. He is seeking professorships out of state, he’s not looking for jobs in the area (at least, he doesn’t think), nor is he entertaining the idea of dating seriously, something he brings up yet again. I gently poke a little deeper on this last point, trying to unravel the intermixing of feels in his subconscious.
I’ve just finished a book about heterosexual dating and relationships and have been having deep discussions with young-ish guys just like him for the better part of a year now. I’ve also been told I have a “therapeutic conversational style,” so sometimes I can’t help myself. I want to unpack brains, lead horses to water…talk to guys about love.
Math theory guy is, unsurprisingly, convinced that real love hinders forward progress. He tells me about the only real relationship he’s had in his life, who left suddenly for a job opportunity overseas. The whole debacle caused him to lose direction. “Maybe I’m just not ready to be vulnerable like that again,” he says.
Ah! There. We. Go. “I can’t have a girlfriend right now,” he repeats. Me, still chill af: “I know, you said that, and I am here 4 u.”
I don’t date all the time. I go in spells, prompted by my best friend or mom telling me that I’ll one day end up old and alone with a bunch of blankets I’ve crocheted in my oodles of spare time. Overall, I’m just not a small-talk-with-strangers-from-apps kind of gal. So, when I am excited for a date, 1) it’s really rare, 2) I already feel a connection with the person, and 3) I’m really wary, because history has taught me to be such. Connection can be dicey.
There was the late-twenties grad student, who went from incessantly texting me and taking me on nervous-excited coffee dates, to telling me that I was amazing and he loved talking to me, but that he was not convinced he was good for me. There was the “inside sales” guy, who took me on several romantic dates before proclaiming he was “not in a stable place right now.” When I raised an eyebrow, he told me he meant location-wise. “I might move…in a year.” (In that case, I am not stable either.) Then there was the resident doctor, who kept delaying dates and blowing me off. When I finally cut him off, he tried a million ways to track me down and fix what he’d broke. I was just over it.
I’ve talked to lots of straight single women who’ve experienced the snap, crackle, pop of connection, only to watch it fizzle out in an extravagantly complicated way — which is when I tell them my theory: Many men, while still figuring out their lives, struggle with connection. It is a roll that must be slowed and managed. In some ways, they have to fall on accident, or they often won’t let themselves fall at all.
Frequently, we see rocky roads to romantic relationships, or the modern-day version of stringing along, which is really just keeping options open until you’re ready to truly go “all in” on the one you want, when you want it. Social media and technology has allowed us to keep tabs on lots of people, with various degrees of commitment and communication frequency, or so researchers found in a 2014 study on the phenomenon of “back burner” prospects. You have back burners. I have ‘em. Guys have ‘em. They get in touch with you, off and on, to leave the door open to romantic or sexual relationships…often, for the truly intriguing maybes, later.
The theory of the (straight) male dating spiral began with my (straight) male friend from high school, with whom I’ve always discussed relationships in great detail. A couple years ago, he told me that men want to date women who are in the same exact place as they are — in career, in life, in emotional development. If women are ahead, kicking butt in life, they admire that. They get excited for that. But really going for the girl who’s kicking butt will force a guy to grow, and sometimes, they’re in a phase where they just don’t want to face their fears of losing control and being truly vulnerable. “Sometimes, I want that girl who will inspire me to be more, but that’s not what I want today,” he told me. “I’ve always wanted the same girl. I’m just not sure I’m ready to be ‘that guy’ for her.”
But, like, they waffle. One of my more amusing male book interviewees, a tech guy in his mid-thirties, told me that he purposely dates the wrong women. Great girls, awesome, fun, but with whom he feels less connection and long-term potential. He dates prospects he calls “crushes,” and soft-approaches his actual assertive, independent type. “I always have this one woman,” he told me, someone who aligns perfectly to his ideal. “This is a person I pursue, but probably not very well.” He has intentionally gotten to know these women over time, who he calls “platonic girlfriends.” He keeps them in his inner-circle, a nebulous spot in the friend zone where he’ll act like a maybe-sometimes boyfriend, but can’t seem to fully go after them.
It’s a sort of “intimidation,” a twenty-something engineering grad student tells me. At the time we first talked, he was very into this girl, a couple years his senior, in politics, who he got major butterflies around. He wasn’t really going after her, though. Three dates(?) without any legit moves toward romance, and he was beginning to talk himself out of it. “Part of it stems from an overly critical view of myself,” he says. “On paper, this relationship would be on a higher plane. It would require more serious commitment because I’d have to finally become the person I want to be with her. It’s not a turn-off, but it’s a new way I have to navigate.”
Men who fall in this category are unsure if they’re ready to navigate differently, and that uncertainty leads to the start of a living, breathing relationship roller coaster. (All the highs and lows, way less fun.) They start to spiral and talk themselves out of it in front of you, too, as if the hot-and-cold behavior wasn’t tell-tale enough. One of my female book interviewees called the “I can’t have a girlfriend/be in a relationship” line the “mitigating expectations” talk. I loved that.
If you trace it back to the roots, the young-ish career set all have a similar, uber-millennial story. In the age of “emerging adulthood,” a phrase coined in the late ’90s by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, these guys are unsettled and growing; they’re not looking to set up house or commit like their parents did. Maybe they’re about to move across the country, just started a new job, are focused on grad school, have been through a rough breakup, are playing the field, etc.
Problem is, they are also serious idealist-romantics, too. I explain my spiral theory to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor and psychology instructor, and she “agrees with my assessments.” Millennial(ish)-aged men have both a weird pressure to excel, with higher emotional intelligence than any generation before. “They are raised to have passion and purpose, but also be the best at everything,” she explains to me. “And if not, they need to clear the plate of distraction. They are held to their gender role in an age where women have more leeway. Men are supposed to ‘have it all together’ and ‘make it work.’ Love comes after money and success.” So, feeling too much, too soon with someone? Kind of a barrier.
On top of that, guys know you want the best. And deserve it. You’ve been taught to believe that, have internalized it. “I think there is incredible pressure for men to get it right first time, and modern women don’t want to settle,” Ivankovich tells me. “Guys stress over the expectations they think women place on them; it can be a problematic clash.”
I’ve learned to bear with men as they figure themselves out. Sometimes, they really do fall in love accidentally/slowly/carefully. I have so many friends who’ve married guys who were dead-set on not falling, but did anyway. They want to feel it all, eventually, but keep those feelings in check until they’ve built their empires (a.k.a. stable lives). Love can feel huge and scary. In some ways, it is.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018).