I’m a student in my early 20s, and I have Aspergers/am on the autism spectrum. I’ve been dealing with a lot of conflicting thoughts and feelings when it comes to the state of my love life, or rather, the lack of one.
I don’t quite have zero dating experience; I had a year long relationship in my teens. In that relationship, my ex-girlfriend ‘C’ approached me and pushed everything forward in the early stages; eventually, she was also the one to choose to end the relationship. Though I recognised this was the right decision, the breakup was ultimately messy, and we have not stayed on good terms. I know that C entered a new relationship less than a year later, which continues to this day. I should also mention that C is a neurotypical extrovert, very different from myself. Around the same time as the breakup, I got my ASD diagnosis, while also dealing with severe social and academic anxiety; I was pretty depressed for about a year, and hopelessly lonely.
In a lot of ways, things have got better in the five years since then. Since starting university, I’ve begun to put together a solid social life, and have made a few great friends. Although there is still room to improve, I don’t feel nearly as lonely as I once did. I’m also working on creative personal projects which give me a sense of direction and purpose.
To some extent, I feel that my current single status is my choice. One of the biggest lessons I learned from my relationship with C is to never settle out of desperation, or out of fear of loneliness. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve realised I was more in love with the idea of being in a relationship, than I was with C herself. I was just flattered that someone was showing interest in me. When I think about it, I’ve yet to fall in love with another person, in a way which extends beyond appreciation. It’s important to me that if and when I meet someone new, that my affection for the other person comes from a much more spontaneous place: that I love her for who she is, rather than merely appreciating her for alleviating my loneliness.
However, I still sometimes find myself thinking about my relationship with C, and the lack of progress I’ve made in my romantic life since then. I sometimes find it difficult to stop myself from comparing myself to C, and the almost seamless way she entered a new relationship so quickly. Sometimes I also feel envious of my coupled-up friends; I consciously know that there’s nothing about them that makes them any better than me, or any more deserving of being in a happy relationship, but it’s hard to shake off feelings of inferiority, or a sense of shame, or failure. I think it taps into a pretty deep-seated fear of being rejected by others, which I’ve had since I was a child.
When I think about it rationally, I know that the situation isn’t all that bad; I’m still young and have plenty of time to figure all of this out. Nevertheless, I still nevertheless struggle with bouts of frustration and self-hatred for my perceived lack of progress. I know that desperation is not a healthy emotion, but it too often gets the better of me and sours my mood. Moreover, I have this irrational fear that my relationship with C was a fluke, that things will never change or get better, and that I’ll never be extroverted enough to make the connections I need to make, to find somebody new. I am weary of my own desperate feelings, yet unable to fully escape them.
Another aspect of this is that I rarely find myself attracted to women beyond a superficial level, and that’s because I have a reciprocal type of desire; I desire being desired by women, but I don’t particularly enjoy pursuing women (this is why C hit all the right buttons with me, initially). This is unfortunate, because for whatever reasons, it seems like most women don’t enjoy actively pursuing men, or aren’t socialised to. It’s normalised that men are supposed to be the pursuers, but I don’t feel comfortable in that role. I don’t know, maybe I will have to accept this discomfort going forward, but it’s one of the factors at play, anyway.
I suspect what I need to do is stop myself from obsessing over what I don’t have and focus on staying in the present moment. I try to convince myself that I can make myself happy, and that I don’t truly need anything beyond myself, but it’s hard. It feels like I have a whole bunch of contradictory thoughts, desires and fears tangled up with each other, and I’m uncertain about the right approach to take moving forward. I’m not sure how well I’ve articulated myself in these paragraphs, but I’m hoping that an outside perspective could help to shine a light on my situation and help me figure out the most productive path moving forward.
Tired Of My Own Thoughts
So, there’s a lot going on here TOMOT, and I think part of the problem is one of self-awareness and labeling as much as it is about anything inherent to who you are. I think with a little introspection and a perspective shift, you’d be surprised at just what you’re capable of.
I think the first thing to address is your relationship with C and the concept of reciprocal desire. Reciprocal desire is a real thing, especially in relationship to sexuality; a lot of folks will get an erotic charge based on their partner’s excitement and desire. In fact, this is part of why the concept that Dan Savage coined of “GGG” or Good, Giving and Game can be important… particularly that last G. The “Game” in this case means “Game for anything, within reason”; that is, being willing to try things that don’t necessarily float your boat but that your partner really enjoys. This comes up fairly often in relationships where one partner has a particular kink or fetish that the other doesn’t necessarily share. This can be important for two reasons. First, because that sense of “being listened to, understood and having their interests respected” is a core component of great sex and relationship satisfaction. Second, what often happens is that the less interested partner often gets an erotic charge from the activity, even though they’re not into it. They’re getting a sort of bankshot arousal from how much their partner is enjoying things. Their partner’s pleasure ends up turning them on and they enjoy their new expanded horizons more than they previously expected to.
However, I think this is a case where you may be mislabeling things. While I don’t doubt that you genuinely get a charge from someone else’s interest in you, I suspect that this is less about reciprocal desire and more that you’re getting validation. I think you’re struggling with feelings of worthiness and desirability and knowing that somebody’s into you feels great. And hey, that’s legit! Those feelings are real, as is the emotional zing you get from it. However, in and of itself, it’s problematic. If you’re defining yourself as someone who gets attracted to folks who are attracted to you — more on this in a second — then you’re setting yourself up for a lot of bad experiences. It means that you’re setting yourself up to have less agency and control over your own relationships. Based on the rest of your letter, this isn’t something that happens often, which sets you up for a scarcity mindset. After all, with the ways that women are still disincentivized from making the first move, this outlook means that you’re going to have far fewer moments where you feel that charge and even fewer relationships.
I suspect that, if we were to really dig in, we’d discover that this is as much about emotional security as it is how you’re wired, emotionally. Pursuing relationships can be scary and intimidating; you’re having to make yourself vulnerable to another person, open yourself up to rejection and the possibility of someone you like not liking you back. It feels “safer” when you know in advance that someone already likes you. That knowledge means you now feel “safe” to allow yourself to not just feel attraction for someone but to feel hope and the possibility of starting a relationship with them. And I think that’s where C comes into play.
C was your first serious relationship, and one where she made all the big or “dangerous” moves. On the one hand, this is a gift and you were incredibly lucky; that takes a lot of the pressure off of you and makes it easier to jump straight to the good and easy parts of a relationship. However, it also means that you don’t have the experiences of pursuing folks, putting yourself out there, getting shot down, trying again and then succeeding. It also means — as you said — you’re more prone to entering into a relationship with someone more out of appreciation that they like you, rather than mutual interest and compatibility. After all… it doesn’t happen often and you’re not as used to being the pursuer and being an active participant in building that attraction. That’s something that only comes from experience… and the way you get that experience is to go out and actively pursue it. That, unfortunately, means that you have to be willing to take the attendant risks that come with being proactive… including the sting of rejection.
At the same time however, that lack of experience is part of what makes it easier to be a bit resentful of C and her apparent ease at getting into a new relationship. While yes, being neurotypical is certainly an advantage and being outgoing (which is different from extroversion) makes it easier to meet people, everything looks seamless and easy from the outside. Especially if you haven’t had the experience of pursuing relationships yourself. When you haven’t gone through the ups and downs of meeting people, going on dates and the winnowing process of finding who you are or aren’t compatible with, what you may not realize is that what you saw with C was the end result of the process, not the entire process. There was a whole lot of stuff you missed in the meantime, simply because you weren’t there to witness it, nor do you have the experience to extrapolate.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a judgement or criticism of you. It’s just a matter of not having all the information and, as a result, drawing inaccurate (but not necessarily wrong) conclusions.
This is the same as your worry that you’ve only felt superficial attraction for folks, not this head-over-heels infatuation you had for C at the start of your relationship with her. The thing you have yet to realize is that this is not the norm, nor is it a reliable indication of the viability of the relationship. Again: this isn’t a judgement or criticism of you, it’s just a matter of experience. Your first relationship was a very specific experience, and not necessarily indicative of what all relationships are like. The majority of the time, relationships are born out of superficial initial interest; after all, we rarely have deep insight into the character and personality of folks when we start pursuing something with them. More often than not, we start with that shallow initial interest and then get to know them to find out if there’s more beneath the surface. That doesn’t make you — or anyone else — shallow; it’s just how we start the process. That’s part of the whole point of dating; you’re getting to know someone and finding out whether or not there’s enough mutual compatibility and interest to take things further. If you enjoy spending time with them and getting to know them, then you’re motivated to keep spending time with them and learning more. As you learn more, you decide whether you feel that there’s enough there to build a relationship on, or not. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t, and that’s all ok.
Now this isn’t to say that every relationship is born out of trial and error. Sometimes you get lucky right off the bat and meet someone that you get along with like a house on fire. But again: this is the sort of serendipity that occurs because you’re creating the circumstances that make it more likely… which is to say, putting yourself out there, getting to know people and asking folks on dates.
This is why I think that your defining yourself as having reciprocal desire isn’t necessarily accurate. While I don’t doubt this is something that you feel, I think that the purpose it’s serving in your life is one of ego-protection. That is, I think by defining yourself this way, you’re avoiding the possibility of being experiencing pain. When you’re someone who falls in love because someone else loves you first, then you’re absolving yourself of the responsibility of putting yourself out there and risking rejection. Can’t get rejected if they pick you first, after all.
However, it’s also a great way to end up being lonely and single for longer than you’d like. It also means that you’re more likely to end up in the very relationships you’re looking to avoid; the ones where you start dating someone out of gratitude or relief, rather than mutual interest and respect.
A lot of the discomfort you’re feeling with the idea of being the one making the approach is because of that lack of experience. I get that much of it comes from a fear of rejection; trust me, I get that, my brain chemistry ensures I got a double dose of that, thank you ever so FUCKING much, ADHD. However, one of the most pernicious parts of the human psyche is how avoiding the things that we fear just makes that fear worse. The more you try to avoid that particular discomfort, the larger it looms in your mind, often to the point where you try to avoid the things that will cause you to even think you might encounter it. Your comfort zone just keeps shrinking and shrinking, giving you less and less room to operate in. And unfortunately, one of the few things you can do to get over it is… well, to just do it. Rejection absolutely stings, but it’s not nearly as bad as what you imagine. When you’ve faced it down, experienced it and realized that you survived and that everything’s gonna be ok, it starts to lose its power over you. It isn’t fun, but it’s the sort of thing you realize you can withstand.
If it helps, think of it like getting a tattoo; it’s gonna hurt (because hey, needles!) but it’s not gonna hurt as bad as you fear and once you get started, it hurts far less than you expected. And that relatively minor pain is what leads to something incredible afterwards — and the pain itself is a rapidly fading memory.
And just to acknowledge something: while yes, we live in a culture where women are still socialized and incentivized to be the approached rather than the initiator, it’s not as though women are completely passive in the interaction. Women put a lot of work into being approachable and showing that they want to be approached; it’s just effort most men don’t recognize or acknowledge. Now, you can, in fact, take a page from their book. There are things you can do that encourage women to approach you, and it’s certainly worth your time to incorporate those practices into your life. However, I’m of the firm belief that folks do best when they have a balance of being approachable and doing the approaching themselves.
So in a sense, you’re correct: your relationship with C was a fluke of sorts. However, fluke overstates things; this wasn’t like winning the Powerball, just a less common experience than most. Where you’re wrong, however, is that you’ll never make any progress or that you’re not “extroverted” enough. Again: extroversion has nothing to do with it. You can have shy extroverts and outgoing introverts; it’s just about how social situations affect your energy. But the answer isn’t to convince yourself that you don’t need other people or that you can make yourself happy; that’s just avoidance wrapped up in self-protective drag.
Here’s the truth: the only reason why you might not make progress would be if you don’t take an active hand in your own development. Not because there’s anything wrong with you, but simply because you’re not exercising the skills that you want to improve. Those skills and mental outlooks aren’t gonna improve themselves. It requires deliberate and active practice, being an active participant in your own life.
And here’s the thing: you have the skillset you need. You’ve made friends and have a good social life; the same skills that you used to make friends are the skills you use to find romantic or sexual partners. Similarly, you know people find you attractive; you had someone go out of her way to date you, specifically. You’re as well set-up for this as you could possibly be. The only things you need now are initiative and practice. Putting yourself out there can be scary. But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll realize that it’s not as scary as you worry, not as painful as you fear or as difficult as you imagine. And not only will putting yourself out there mean that you’ll find partners who you do desire for their holistic selves rather than gratitude for easing your loneliness, but you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll meet another person like C — someone who’ll decide that you’re so awesome that she is going to make the first move. And you’ll be in a better place to judge whether this is the right relationship for you, instead of worrying that you’re only into her because she liked you first.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
This may not be the most exciting question you’ve received, but I’m at a loss, and I need some professional help. I’m a 45-year-old male divorcee who is happy with the way things shook out. I didn’t necessarily win the divorce, but I’m content. Lately, a strange thought has come into my head like a pebble in a shoe, and that’s maybe I should date again, which I haven’t done since 2004.
It’s not that simple, though. For one, this isn’t a need for me to find companionship for my aging self; I’m perfectly happy to live and die alone. For another, I’m borderline asexual (but not sex-averse). I just prefer the one-on-one company of women, and I enjoy doing the kinds of activities that people do on dates. There is no real mechanism to find new friends that don’t involve hanging out in groups, and groups make me freeze up like your joints when you’re trying to run in 25 degree weather. Basically, I’m looking to hang out with a woman, and if things happen, they happen, and if they don’t, they don’t. I don’t want to go into these dates giving her the wrong idea about where I am romantically.
I literally had this idea this morning, so it’s fresh and confusing. I have no idea where a person in my situation should look. Is there a middle-aged, keeping-it-casual dating app I could turn to? Is there one for asexuals to meet up? If you could get me started, I’d really appreciate it.
Honestly UB, this is just a case of overcomplicating things that really aren’t that complicated. You just want to get on the dating apps and be up front about who you are and what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest Tinder for you — they’ve never fully shaken their hook-up origins and that influences both their target audience and the expectations of their users — most dating apps have a “seeking something casual” option. While for a lot of folks, “casual” means “no strings, no commitment”, for others it means “no expectations, let’s take things as they come.” That vibe is precisely what you want to project; you’re recently divorced and looking for friendly and enjoyable companionship. If anything comes of it, great! If not, hey, that’s great too. Being up front about this in your profile, in a way that comes across as friendly and upbeat rather than judgey or exclusionary, will go a long way towards helping you meet like-minded folks.
In fact, you may have something of an advantage in this, if you prioritize meeting women around your age and in similar situations to you. A lot of women in their 40s and 50s find that men their age tend to focus on much younger women on the apps. A man who’s got his life together, who knows what he wants, is up front about it and is interested in meeting up with cool folks his age? That’s not only going to be uncommon, but valued. Play your cards right and I think you’ll have more activity partners (in the platonic sense) than you know what to do with. In your case, I would recommend starting with OKCupid. It’s the 500 lb gorilla of dating apps these days, but it’s also the Swiss Army knife of dating apps; it caters to a wide variety of relationship types, including seeking friends and folks who want to take things slow. Another option you may want to consider is Facebook Dating; it’s likely convenient for you already, and the demographics of Facebook these days tends to be in your favor. Again, the key is to be up front in your profile: you’re looking for companionship primarily and want to take things slow and see what develops.
However, one thing to consider is to look a little further afield, especially if you want to avoid any worries of sending the wrong message about what you’re looking for. There’re apps specifically for folks who are looking to make friends. Bumble BFF and Friender are the big ones in this field, though their target audience may skew to the young side. Another possibility is to look to non-traditional sources and be active on social networks like… well, Facebook. While I’ve been pretty up front that I think people who use Facebook, Twitter or, shit, LinkedIn as dating apps are shooting themselves in the foot, using them to talk to folks, make friends and then see if some of those friends want to get together to do stuff is entirely within their remit. So while you may not be into joining activity groups in person, interest groups on social media might not be a bad way to meet folks in your area who would be cool to hang out with and enjoy some one-on-one time.