Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m a 42 year old woman who has had one long term relationship in my life, that lasted about 10 years but ended over 10 years ago. Other than that it has been a series of dates here and there, but generally the guys just ghost or tell me that they aren’t feeling a spark. And this has been the case my entire life. I didn’t date in High School because nobody would ask me out even though, in the years since, a lot of my former friends from that time told me they had crushes on me, but they were intimidated. My one boyfriend broke up with me because he felt like I didn’t really need him, and that I would be better off without him. (I guess he was sort of right, after the relationship ended I quit the job I hated, but kept because it worked with his schedule, and went to law school and became an attorney).
I want very much to be in a long term monogamous relationship, hopefully marriage. I am on dating apps. I try to always look cute even if I am not conventionally attractive anymore (but I was very hot as a teenager and I still couldn’t get dates, so it can’t just be my looks). I am in therapy to work on the grieving process I feel about not being married by now (and the fact I probably won’t be able to have biological children) and he has had me ask my friends and family about why they think I’m having issues in this area. The thing that keeps coming up is that I have a big personality, have carved out this full life for myself, and that I am always doing lots of stuff to stay busy, and that guys are scared by that because they don’t see where they would fit in my life.
Is that something guys need? It doesn’t make sense to me because if I meet a guy who seems to have a “girlfriend shaped hole” in their life it freaks me out. I don’t want someone to be auditioning me for a part they already have written to see if I fit, I want someone to get to know me and build something with me. Is that unusual? Do guys need to feel needed, and if so how can I build that life so that I need someone who may, or may not, ever exist?
Running Solo Build
Congratulations RSB, you asked a question, not realizing that this was an ‘insert quarter, receive essay’ topic for me.
So there’re two things going on, RSB and they all come down to one thing: society has really fucked men up.
The first is the classic issue of The Intimidating Woman — someone who is just too “intimidating” for guys to ever feel comfortable getting into a relationship with. This is an issue a lot of women face, especially growing up; they’re ambitious, they’re focused and driven, they’ve got passions, goals and a future… but no dates. Meanwhile, guys are out there saying that they want someone who’s focused, ambitious and driven… but they’re not dating the women who embody those very qualities. And if you were to ask them why, they’d tell you: those women are a little too intimidating for them. Instead, they end up dating women who seem to be the opposite of what they say they want — women who’re less driven, less ambitious and often less successful in areas that those men feel are more “their” province, particularly in terms of careers or financial status.
The second issue actually ties into the first: guys who feel like they need to be needed by their partners in order to have a relationship. If a woman has her life together… well, then why would she possibly need him? So the woman who may not Have It All, but at least Has Quite A Lot — women who’re successful, who have big or forceful personalities or who live a fulfilling life often find that men… just don’t feel comfortable approaching or dating her.
So I want to be clear here: this isn’t a you problem. This is a systematic issue with society as a whole and the way that men have been damaged by the way we’ve been socialized. This has little to do with your accomplishments and everything to do with the whammy that toxic, confining and restrictive ideas of masculinity have put on men’s heads.
One of the issues I’ve brought up a lot around here is how emotionally and socially isolated men tend to be. Men have fairly few close emotionally intimate relationships — far fewer than women do, and very few with other men. This is in no small part because we’ve been socialized to see emotional intimacy as being the same as, or a precursor to, sexual intimacy. This didn’t used to be the case. Throughout history, men had very close, emotionally intimate and significant relationships with other men. If you were to look at old photos of men and their friends, you’d be shocked by the amount of closeness and physical contact between them. You’d be forgiven, in this day and age, for thinking that these were lovers, not good friends. But the truth is that, until recently, men were freer to have that level of casual physical and emotional intimacy with other guys. We were more comfortable with casual touch and physical affection with one another and treating our friendships as significant and meaningful.
And that all changed as social narratives surrounding masculinity started to curdle. Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as “gay” and idea of masculinity as social dominance came to the forefront and started to change male friendships and leaving men more isolated and alone. And to be clear: this is learned behavior. You can see this today in the friendships that boys have in childhood; they’re much freer to express themselves, more affectionate and more connected to their friends. This starts changing by the time we turn 10; social narratives about what is or isn’t acceptable “guy behavior” start getting enforced and boys start taking those lessons onboard. By the time they’re 13, those friendships have altered drastically, if they survived the transition at all. Boys become more closed off, less warm and expressive and far more concerned with not being seen as weird, weak or “faggy”, and those lessons follow us and are reinforced for the entirety of our lives.
(Yes, even in 2021, we have boys growing up afraid of being seen as queer and we still have queerness weaponized as an insult.)
Now, the reason why I bring all of this up is because of the knock-on effects that this changes brings.
One of the biggest is the fear of weakness or being perceived as weak or less dominant. Because aggression and dominance are emphasized as masculine virtues, not being dominant or in charge is seen as a failure as man. This weakness means you’re going to be forced down the social ladder by other men; after all, dominating others is one of the fastest and easiest ways for men to establish their manly bonafides. And so we equate not being dominant or in charge as a form of failure to be a “Real Man”. That, in turn, means that we’re weak, vulnerable even… and thus more likely to be dominated by others.
This leads to one of the reasons why you run into guys who say one thing — “I want to date a driven, ambitious, successful woman” — and do another. It’s not that they don’t want to date someone who’s driven and ambitious, it’s that silent, unspoken addendum: “…who’s not as driven or ambitious or successful as I am.” It’s one thing to date somebody who has her shit together and is going places. It’s another entirely to date someone who might outclass or out earn you. And as silly as that may seem in the modern age, the fact of the matter is that a lot of men who earn less than their spouses have higher levels of anxiety, insomnia, depression and erectile dysfunction. Not being the primary breadwinner is literally emasculating to them.
Another effect of this change that men face is the emotional isolation it brings. Because emotional intimacy is seen as either a prelude to or synonymous with sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy is thus forbidden except with people you might conceivably fuck. So — leaving aside how this conflation of friendship and sexual intimacy perpetuates the whole Friend Zone myth — part of what happens is that men’s friendships with other men are incredibly limited in scope and connection. Meanwhile, their only acceptable outlet for emotional intimacy and vulnerability is with women.
Now, here’s where the “need to be needed” part comes in: that emotional isolation also cuts us off from forms of validation and self-expression. Consider the typical friendship between women. It’s said that male friendships are side-by-side while female friendships are face-to-face. What this means is that male friendships tend to be activity-based; our friendships are focused around doing things together, where any sort of bonding is secondary to the activity. Female friendships, on the other hand, tend to be about bonding, intimacy, validation and sharing; women get together with their friends to see their friends. And a significant part of those friendships involve validation, vulnerability and support. This is something women in general and young girls in particular develop early on, and it creates a very different dynamic between how women are socialized to see themselves and how men are.
If you were to look at girls’ Instagrams and other social media, you would see how often their friends hype them up; they have their squad telling them how great they look, how cool they are, and so on. Boys, especially straight boys, don’t have that sort of social support from their friends. And that takes its toll in a lot of ways. And one of the most profound — and relevant to your question — is that it leaves men thinking that they’re not desired or desirable. And this is a problem on many levels; after all, not only do men and boys crave intimacy and validation as well as emotional connection, but one of the toxic ideals about manhood is that a man’s status is, in part, measured by how much sex he has.
But if men aren’t desirable… then what are we supposed to do to raise our status? Well, it comes down to the issue you’re facing: because men don’t feel wanted, they feel like they need to be needed instead. If they’re needed, then at least there is a value-for-value proposition; they provide value in the form of “being a provider”, particularly financially, and are rewarded with sex… which then raises their value and status.
However, there’re a number of drawbacks to this. Well, drawbacks beyond “wow, that’s a really toxic and shitty thing to believe about yourself,” anyway.
To start with, the idea that our value is predicated in part on our ability to provide creates a sort of arms race, where those who can provide more are thus more valuable. So we instill the belief that our value — and commiserate ability to acquire “valuable” women — is in part predicated on our financial and material success. So someone who has more — more money, more success, more stuff — is thus a more desirable partner. This creates a cult-of-success mentality where you need to have a consistent and rising amount of financial success in order to be sufficient to date and to ward off your supposed competition.
It also creates an antagonistic relationship between men and… well, literally everyone else. Other men are seen as our competition and believed to be likely to pounce if there’s even a hint of weakness. Meanwhile, if a man’s value is in what he can provide, then his value is inherently unstable, especially in the current economy where job security is the career equivalent of The Loch Ness Monster. Worse, under this system of belief, there’s (theoretically) no reason why women shouldn’t always be on the lookout for a higher-value man. If women, in this scenario, are attracted to a man’s ability to provide, then they’re motivated to trade up whenever possible. And worse, because women “control” men’s ability to raise their value by controlling the access to sex, it creates an antagonistic relationship between men and women. Men are incentivized to get sex at any cost, while women are incentivized to withhold sex until they get the highest value they possibly can… creating a situation where someone is going to lose.
And just to make matters worse, this idea of “man-as-provider” was predicated on a time when women simply didn’t have the same financial opportunities or security that men did. Most women had to look to men, not for love or connection or companionship but for survival, because the alternative was starvation or worse. But in this day and age, as society continues to narrow the economic gap between men and women, and women have unprecedented financial security and freedom, women aren’t reliant on men for survival any more. The economic “need” is functionally rendered moot. Worse still, as women become more empowered to handle their own affairs, capable of doing “men’s work” in their lives and otherwise being able to survive and thrive just fine on their own… the areas where men are “needed” grows smaller and smaller.
So if you’re a guy who doesn’t believe that he has worth outside of what he can do for someone else on a material level… well, you find yourself to be a rapidly depreciating asset. This gets made worse by things, like, say, not wanting a woman who’s “needy” them because they want to be able to live their life as though they were still single. Managing someone’s emotional needs is difficult when you barely have a grasp on your own emotions and needs, so they want a woman who doesn’t “need” them”.
(A lot of the men who don’t want “needy” or “clingy” women also are hoping to be able to keep fucking around until they find one they’d rather have, but that’s a different issue entirely.)
This creates a situation where men get stuck; they supposedly want a particular type of woman, but as with many areas in life, there’s the vast difference between “wanting something” and “dealing with the reality of having it,” that is — as so many things in this modern age are — best expressed in meme format.
Man: “Man, the last thing I want is some clingy girl. I want to date a woman who doesn’t need me.”
Woman: “OK…” **goes off and lives her life.**
Man: “Wait, not like that…”
So you end up with these competing desires. There’s the desire to be wanted, which they think they aren’t, and instead gets sublimated to the desire to be needed. However, they want to be needed in a very specific way. At the same time, they want a woman who matches certain criteria, but can’t be honest enough with themselves to admit that either they don’t actually want that, or they want it in a way that leaves them feeling superior and in control. So either they can be ‘needed’ or they can be needed. But as more and more women don’t need men — not in the limited way those men tend to think — and the delineations between “men’s stuff” and “women’s stuff” gets erased, men find themselves in increasingly untenable positions.
And thus we come back to your dilemma, RSB: you want to date, but you also live life out loud and don’t “need” a man. Thus you end up with guys who find you “intimidating”. So what do you do about it?
Well… ultimately you have two options. The first is that you live your life and look for a guy who can actually meet you where you are. This may be someone who’s a little softer and less caught up in traditional, restrictive forms of masculinity, or it could be someone who’s confident enough in himself that he doesn’t need to be “needed” by someone to feel desirable or worthy of love. However, this means accepting being single for a while, likely longer than you might prefer. Sometimes the issue with waiting for guys to catch up to you means that you’re going to be waiting for quite some time. While there’re more and more men who are becoming comfortable with shucking the restrictions of coercive forms of masculinity, socialization is a motherfucker and it can be difficult to uproot all of it. So you may well meet dudes who seem like they’re able to meet you at your level — or who are cool with being the support class to your front line character — but who end up having issues with it, a la your last boyfriend.
The other option is you can choose to change, to make adjustments so that some guy would feel like there’s “room” for him in your life. But, to be blunt: a lot of times, this means making yourself smaller for the comfort of others… sanding off bits of you so that other people aren’t as scared or feel less intimidated by you. The trade off for having a relationship means that you had to reduce and limit yourself so other people wouldn’t be as afraid or intimidated by you… and that can chafe. A lot. And it sounds to me that, despite not having romance in your life, you have a pretty good and satisfying life.
You can also try to carve room in your life for someone to fit. But that can be difficult, especially when you love your life, and when you want a guy who can meet you at your level and on your terms. As I’m telling guys all the time: you want someone who complements your life, not completes it, who adds something to it rather than fills a hole. Because, honestly: that hole isn’t there because someone was missing. The hole is there because there’s some part of you that’s missing.
Now in my opinion, I think you’re making a lot of the right moves. Talking to a therapist to process your entirely reasonable feelings of loss and regret is a good start. So too is living a full life. One of the unfortunate truths of this world is that love and companionship don’t always happen on our preferred schedule, and sometimes the love of your life needs to be the love of your life. Having a life full of friends, family and meaning is important. And while yes, love is important too… sometimes giving up that life for love means finding a love that doesn’t fit, or a love that doesn’t match who you are.
Does that make the loneliness any less or the sense of loss for what children you may have had any easier? Not always. But there are ways of dealing with both. What there isn’t, however, is a way of dealing with the special kind of loneliness that comes from being with someone who isn’t right for you. Being lonely because you’re with the wrong person is like having a void that can never be fully filled or closed; you can ignore it or distract yourself from it, but the feeling is always there just at the edge of your perception.
I’m not gonna lie: looking for someone who can actually match you or complement your life can be frustrating. You may be looking for a while. But as the saying goes: nobody ever said that it would be easy… just that in the end, it will be worth it.