I have a problem that basically boils down to “unfortunately this guy I’m seeing hasn’t found your books and columns yet,” but of course the situation is a little more nuanced than that.
I’m in my late 30’s and have been in several medium to long term relationships. I’ve mostly met men online for the past several years, because I like the convenience and lack of ambiguity that you get from a dating site. Finding dates is not a problem, but after spending a long time playing the field and getting to know what really works for me in a relationship, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to focus on finding someone awesome to build a life with. I’ve got a great career and friends, own my home, have hobbies and interests– I’ve spent a lot of time reading advice from columnists like you, Captain Awkward, Dear Sugar, and Ask Polly, and all of that has helped me become the kind of person I’d like to date! I’m always a work in progress, but I like who I’ve become. I’ve struggled to find that kind of “whole package” in a guy, especially one who wants to commit.
Now I’ve met someone who has tons of potential. He’s got a cool career in a field adjacent to mine (so we already have a lot in common), he’s not 100% my type physically (I like tattoos and glasses, he’s more of a polo shirt and khakis fella) but I do find him attractive and we have good chemistry. He’s liberal and nerdy and doesn’t want kids, just like me. He’s tall and kind and great to cuddle, and he smells fantastic. But there’s just something missing and I don’t know how to really articulate it, let alone find it.
We’ve only been seeing each other for about a month but he’s definitely talking about a future and I can tell he’s very into me. One of the nice things that came from my years of dating around is that I’m pretty good at telling the difference between a guy who’s trying to be a player (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) and a guy who’s very sincere. This guy is sincere af and wants to settle down. And I don’t want to hurt him or waste his time by stringing him along if I’m not going to be able to go all in; I think he deserves better than that.
So what’s making me hesitate? There’s some kind of initiative or assertiveness or joie de vivre that’s missing, and I don’t know how to put my finger on it. Like, he feels like he’s overweight, but he doesn’t work out. He has a dog that’s completely untrained, to the point where she bit me the first time I met her and taking her out in public is iffy, but he hasn’t taken her to obedience classes or tried to train her. He seems content to do whatever I suggest, but he doesn’t take the initiative to come up with cool date ideas. He doesn’t show any particular enthusiasm for… like, anything, to be honest. He’s not NEGATIVE, and he clearly has likes and dislikes, but he just seems sort of placid and meh about things, even things he’s into. He’s smart and not humorless, but I wouldn’t call him witty or sharp, and nothing makes my heart sing like quick banter and bad puns. The sex is nice, but he doesn’t seem lusty, if that makes sense. There’s no edge to him, I guess. And I’m at the point where I know that an edge is definitely not enough to sustain a relationship, but the total lack of it will eventually drive me nuts.
I know, after all this time out there dating, that the guys who grab my heart are the ones who are confident and engaged with the world and enthusiastic, and I know I’m not unique in that. A lot of the self-improvement things you suggest for guys would be great in helping this dude become someone I’d want to be with for the long haul, but I know what a terrible idea it is to date someone with the intention of trying to change them. He has so much potential, though! I know I’ve said that twice now, but it’s true. And I know he would be really sad if I broke things off, but telling him how I feel seems cruel. Is there some kind of script you can suggest for helping him find that vitality that would make me want to become more invested? Should I just leave him alone so he can find a nice girl who will like him the way he is? It seems like such a waste to walk away from a guy I genuinely like who is so close to what I want and who’s so into me, but I know from experience that you can’t change someone. They have to want to change. And maybe he doesn’t! If he was a house, he’d be a fixer-upper and I’d be happy to put in the time. But houses don’t have feelings and people do.
I’m at a loss here. Any words of wisdom?
–This is a Relationship, Not HGTV
There’s a surprisingly common genre of questions to advice columns, especially columnists who handle dating questions: the “our relationship is perfect BUT” question. It follows the same pattern every single time: the letter writer goes on for at least a paragraph about how happy they are, how great their partner is and how much they appreciate everything about their relationship… and then comes the “but”. And somebody needs to call Sir Mixx-A-Lot because it’s almost always one huge but – one that inevitably nullifies everything that just came before. Sometimes it’s a case of a massive how-the-hell-have-you-ignored-this deal-breaker. Other times, it’s a case of the relationship missing some intensely important component. Like an engine missing a critical screw or nut, the relationship may be able to chug along for a while… but at some point, the whole thing is going to come apart, messily and all over the place.
Such is the case here, TRNHGTV. You’ve got a great guy who hits enough of your must-haves that you’re willing to consider him for long-term potential.
In this case, it’s that while he’s got a lot going for him he’s missing not just his edge, but his drive. It’s great that he has so much potential but frankly, potential is worthless without motivation. Anyone can have potential, but if they don’t have the drive to actually turn “potential” into “actual”, then there’s no fundamental difference from someone who doesn’t have it. And this guy? He doesn’t seem to have that ambition to do much more than to coast along doing the bare minimum for anything. He certainly doesn’t seem to want anything more than that. And to be perfectly frank, that’s going to bite him in the ass, sooner rather than later. I mean, if he can’t be bothered to train and socialize his dog so that she won’t bite strangers and can actually be taken out in public? That’s a dude who’s running the risk of losing his goddamn dog.
And – as you rightly observe – this is something that’s going to push you away too.
The problem here is that you can’t really compare a fixer-upper to a person. Houses are inherently passive; they have no animus or agency. People, on the other hand, do. You don’t need a house to be an equal partner in trying to fix it; it just needs to not fall apart in the process. The same isn’t true about people. If a person doesn’t want to change, then you can’t make them. You can cajole, encourage, suggest or even pressure them into doing things differently, but you can’t just inject life into somebody. Not unless he already wants to change. You’re not the one who would need to write in to me (or Captain Awkward or Prudie or Sugar or…), he is.
And frankly, you’re not here to reinvent some sad mediocre dude until he’s ready to live life to the fullest and chase his dreams. You’re not his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and you neither have the capacity or responsibility to shock him out of his rut. Trying to do so is going to make you miserable and likely make him resentful.
You can certainly suggest that he do things differently. You could ask him to take more of an initiative with dates and he very well might. But that isn’t going to make him suddenly develop a sense of ambition or move him to put in more effort than the least he can get away with. The truth is that until this dude is ready to get up and do things on his own, he will only go as far and as fast as you push him. As soon as you stop pushing, he’s almost certainly going to settle back into his old patterns.
Now it’s certainly possible that what he needs is a shock to the system. It could be that realizing that he’s about to lose you is enough to spark his internal drive to life, motivating him to give more of a damn about anything. But at the same time, changes made in order to forestal a break-up don’t always last. As much as some folks need that metaphorical slap to the face to change their ways, some folks will return to their default state after the threat to the relationship is over.
Will that work in this case? I have no idea. But the truth is: you’re only a month into this relationship and you’re already painfully aware of how this is going to end. That’s a pretty bad sign.
As the saying goes, you need to put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help somebody else with theirs. You need to take care of yourself and staying with this guy in hopes that he’ll suddenly wake up with a new personality is the opposite of that. You can even tell him to reach out to you if and when he decides to put that potential to use. But for you? It’s time to let him find someone who’s right for him and – importantly – someone who’s right for you.
You have half the answer already, my dude. Start by looking for what are known as “warm approaches” – people you already have social connections to. It’s much easier to approach people when you know that you all have those connections in common – whether it’s friends, classes, school or what-have you. And if you’re worried about making the first move, having friends introduce you is a great way to get things started. In fact, this is something I suggest to people who want to get better at navigating parties: ask the host to introduce you to some folks to get the ball rolling.
But you’re not always going to be in a place where you have folks you already know who can make the first move. Sometimes you’re gonna have to go in cold. In those cases, what I suggest is that you focus on finding events that are specifically designed for bringing folks together instead of cold-approaching people who’re trying to get from point A to point B. A lot of cons, for example, have mixers, meet-ups and other social events. These are prime occasions to get to know folks, events where the whole point is to talk to people. Some will even have games or activities designed to get even the shyest and most retiring of folks out of their shells and talking. And even if you can’t bring yourself to make the first move, it’s totally acceptable to listen for a little while at first before joining in. Listening is as valid a way of being part of a conversation as trying to get your two cents in – and is often more valuable to the folks around you.
However, you can start conversations pretty much at any time. One of the easiest ways is to simply make an observation out loud. If you’re in line at Starbucks, for example, you can make an observation – “I’m pretty sure that guy just set a record for ‘how specific he likes his coffee'” – and wait for folks to respond. Or you could ask a low-investment question about something around you: “Hey, I don’t recognize that character in the Critical Role pin-up; do you know who that is?” “Hey, do you know how to do $SPECIFIC_THING in this game?” and let the conversation go from there.
The thing to remember is that starting a conversation isn’t as high-stakes as it may feel in the moment, nor is it something you need to put a lot of thought into. It’s as much a habit as it is anything else; the more you get used to talking with folks you don’t know, the more ingrained and natural it’ll be for you.
So now I’m a very happy side-piece. ¡Viva la conversacion! ¡Viva la revolucion sexual!
– EX Coming Out of Relationship, Looking to Evade Opaque and Nebulous Ethics
Glad to hear it worked out, EX CORLEONE!
Just a reminder folks: most of the time, all you need is to just use your words and actually talk this out.