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why do i lose interest as soon as they like me back?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer Charlie Squire unpacks “reciprociphobia.”
dear mixed feelings,
So, I've liked guys before, like a lot, and many, too! Every time the same thing happens...First I realize: hey, he's kinda cute. Then I start acting flirty…in a way I'll know gets them interested. As soon as they like me back the problem occurs: I find them not attractive — up to disgusting — so I drop them…I'm a highly sensitive person and care a lot for others but for some reason these situations leave me CARELESS, literally couldn't care less. Do I hate affection, commitment, or even men, or is it just my chart being mainly libra? What do I do if I lose interest as soon as I'm liked back? Thanks for even reading this, felt good to get all of this out xx." — y.libra, she/her
Here’s a timeless question: Are we Diana the Huntress, bound more closely to the hunt than the prey? Are we Samantha Jones, covering our most delicate selves with an exoskeleton of emotional distance? Or are we simply air signs, ruled by Venus and her volcanic fickleness? Truth be told, I can’t tell you who you are. I can tell you that these questions you have about your identity and relationships aren’t necessarily contradictory — human beings are complex and irrational creatures and we can hate affection, crave affection, loathe commitment, yearn for commitment, love, hate, want romance, and despise romance all at the very same time.
I am now about two years into a serious monogamous relationship, but I can only describe myself as a Pathological Flirt. It feels embedded into my nature. I’ve never thought for a second about breaking the boundaries I’ve established with my partner, but I’m a sociable and (admittedly) attention-seeking person and it’s an awful lot of fun to know you can charm someone else over a game of pool or while waiting to pick up your half-caf maple oat milk latte. It’s fun to relate to people, to feel likable, to feel attractive in the abstract, to feel attractive to attractive people. These shallow conversations come with shallow thrills and shallow risks: one momentary rejection, two flushed cheeks, three wasted hours. I get to go back home, to my cat, to my shared bed and domestic bliss. This comfort is warm and secure and stable. It is also utterly horrifying.
You feel like something is wrong because you have trouble forming serious romantic attachments. But are you unhappy? If you’re more concerned about feeling abnormal than you are about feeling unfulfilled, please know it’s perfectly normal to be averse to long-term commitment at certain points in your life.
the dependency paradox
I’ve turned my fair share of suitors down, even the ones I liked, oftentimes because I believed that if they liked me then they must have bad taste or a screw loose or some strange unknowable ulterior motive. In exchange for your own vulnerability, I will offer a vulnerable confession of my own, one that feels embarrassing to share online: All of my relationships have ended with me getting dumped.
I’m a lifelong dumpée. And this is not particularly fun. There’s this sense that relationships are “stable” and constant, which I suppose is ostensibly true, but no one ever wants mentions how scary that very stability is when you’re aware of it and thus aware of the possibility that it will be taken away. I know that every day there is a growing feeling of love, trust, and warmth in my life right now, and I know there is an equal and opposite amount of grief and loneliness and heartbreak waiting for me in the event of a breakup.
It’s this maladaptive compulsion that sits at the root of my insecurity, but the “dependency paradox” has broadened my scope. It’s a phrase used in psychology to describe how healthy relationships can strengthen an individual’s independence and sense of self, despite a cultural conception that we lose something when we enter serious partnerships. “We live in a culture that seems to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness, and especially dependency, while exalting independence,” writes psychiatrist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find--and Keep--Love. “We tend to accept this attitude as truth — to our detriment.”
While avoiding intimacy may preempt eventual heartbreak, it can also preempt self-discovery. If you possess an avoidant attachment type, there are some interesting insights to glean from looking inward: “Although avoidant individuals were found to have a great deal of confidence about not needing anyone else, their belief came with a price tag,” Levine and Heller write. “They scored lowest on every measure of closeness in personal relationships. They were less willing to engage in self-disclosure, less comfortable with intimacy, and also less likely to seek help from others…The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become.”
feelings can be left unresolved
Have you seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? It’s an old French musical starring Catherine Deneuve and described by Lane Pryce in one episode of Mad Men as a film “for all the young lovers in the world.” A man and a woman meet, they fall in love, they are separated by war, she ambivalently marries someone else, he returns to France to find her. By all metrics, it would be considered a melodrama, if not for the fact that it concludes without our heroes reuniting.
The film does not have a plot-arc so much as it has a plot-arrow, things move forward in one direction. Feelings are left unresolved, time changes things and people and circumstances but does not heal them. It’s uncomfortably unfinished — something that is hard to accept for an audience in search of a Deus ex machina and finds an agnostic film. It feels comfortable to live with our most familiar anxieties and heartbreaks. We know how to take care of them, what to feed them, how they’ll behave. After each unique and terrible breakup, I’d find myself thinking I was averse to commitment because I was averse to routine or normalcy. But that’s never been quite true — I was happily committed to maintaining my life as it was, a routine of low-stakes relationships and familiar endings. My aversion was not to commitment, but to losing control over my own feelings.
No one needs to find a monogamous, heterosexual* relationship to be happy, and you certainly don’t need to date to live a fulfilling life. But it seems like you find yourself emotionally shutting down once the power shifts out of your hands, something which will protect you both against new forms of heartbreak and against new forms of jubilation, intimacy, and self-exploration. You don’t have to become a new person overnight, suddenly bearing your beating heart to the sun. Over many years, I’ve dropped my medieval armor of cynicism, opened myself up and exposed my soft tissue and even softer heart to emotional injury. But it’s not like I’m wholly unguarded. I nurture my worries, feed them scraps under the table, never enough to self-destruct, just enough worry about the future to negate the worry of being caught off guard. This is probably not the highest, most evolved, most self-reflective and transcendent way to exist, but it is one that is realistic for who I am.
Here is my most succinct advice: get your heart broken. Promise you’ll never let anyone in again, go back on your promise, and get your heart broken again in all new ways, learn that it does not get easier. What a beautiful, marvelous privilege it is to give yourself up to something powerful enough to destroy you for even a brief chance to feel loved. Don’t be afraid to be afraid of rejection, but don’t let it stop you from loving and being loved, let it remind you that your feelings are so strong and raw and real that you will knowingly grow above and around your anxieties. And if you feel like you’re just too heartbroken, listen to Joan Baez, read the poems of Pablo Neruda, and watch a movie by Tatyana Lioznova and know, if nothing else, you are now tethered to the lineage of lovers and heartbreaks that punctuates the timeline of human history. — Charlie (Gemini sun, Libra Rising, Gemini Venus, Gemini Mars)
*As much as I hate to relegate anything to a footnote, I wanted to make sure to address your comment about sexuality, even though it seems your primary concern is an aversion to reciprocated romance. A brief word of advice: you do not need to be certain about your orientation to explore it. Perhaps you go out into the world and find you have an easier time being with women and you don’t really want to be with men at all. Perhaps not. Perhaps you find you’re just as attracted to everyone, regardless of gender, but you still struggle to pursue serious commitments. Listen to your body, listen to your boundaries and the boundaries of others, but don’t feel pressured to set hard definitions for yourself. Exploration can be as existential as you make it (or don’t)!