How “The Ones That Got Away” Taught Me That I’m Enough
One of my biggest pop culture pet peeves is the trope of the “Woman Who Just Doesn’t Get It.” You know the one. Woman longs for Man who holds her at arm’s length, and then once her character arc plays out and she “grows” into a more (ostensibly) mature, or less (ostensibly) shallow, or less (ostensibly) masochistic version of herself, she finally sees that her love interest is a jerk, or that she’s been deluded about imagining she had a chance… and falls instead for some dude she had only lackluster feelings for at the beginning. [*Cue audience swoon.*] That’s how things “should” happen, shouldn’t they? Because aren’t women just flighty, illogical creatures who can’t discern between love and lust, interest and indifference, a real connection and a pipe dream?
Well, in my very real world — turns out — sometimes you can be 100% sure that the guy you love feels something rare and compelling for you… and then he can vanish… but he can also come back after 10+ years to admit how very much the same he always felt. Or you can see it in a man’s eyes the moment he falls for you… and then, just as suddenly as he falls, he ghosts you… but he can still confess, years later, that he often wished you could be together again. Or you can have a gut feeling that the guy you’re dating wants to be something more… until he makes it clear that you’re not a priority, so you cut him loose… but he can return, too, long afterwards, to say that he looks back and wonders “what if?”
That’s been my life’s running trope, apparently: “Female Emotional Sage,” who reads hearts like a book, isn’t clueless or delusional in her assessments — and sure enough, all (or nearly all) her love interests do come back to let her know she was correct. And that she’s special.
“It’s not you, it’s me” sounds like a cop-out. But when you hear it years later in the too-late past tense, it sounds sincere. I know. Because I’ve heard it. A lot.
I spent much of my 20s as a woman that men were inclined to ghost. While my early relationship history was horrible — 7 years with abusive boyfriends, starting at age 15 — I wised up shortly after college and stopped finding red flags attractive. That’s when the mystery began: I’d finally started choosing genuinely sweet, expressive guys, who freely admitted they felt butterflies when we spoke, praised me often, said they couldn’t believe their luck at the fact that I liked them back, and opened up easily about their dreams and struggles alike. These men all looked promising — until, abruptly, they pulled back. Sometimes even before so much as a first date.
In the absence of explanations as to why this kept happening, I only knew that I was the common denominator. I mean, Occam’s razor: either I could assume that every single one of these guys was screwed up in his own mysterious, non-obvious way (which seemed so improbable as to be preposterous) — or I could assume I was The Problem.
So I assumed I was The Problem.
I began to second-guess my relational skills and emotional intelligence — despite having healthy relationships of all other kinds and an EQ so sharp that my own counselor said I’d make an excellent counselor. I started worrying I was the “wrong” shape, size, or age. That I had the “wrong” sexual history, wrong job, wrong hair, wrong wardrobe, wrong interests. I wondered whether my spirituality, culture, ethnicity, race, or lack of affluence made me an unappealing companion for the roads these men wanted to walk. I reasoned that maybe I wasn’t “fun” or “interesting” enough. Or perhaps, instead, it was a problem of “too much.” Too smart, too complex, too disinclined to play the games that young hearts often play.
Worst of all, I worried: what if my history as a survivor of assault and abuse leaves my value forever diminished — and I can never be anyone’s first choice?
Lo and behold, though, these same men routinely crawl out of the archives a decade or so later — often once they’re attached to somebody else or going through some major milestone, like a wedding or a birth — and unload unsolicited confessions. Such as:
- I wonder what we could’ve been if I’d had my emotional shit together. There was nothing about you I didn’t like. I just wasn’t mature.
- I know what we had was fleeting… and then I ghosted you… but I’ve always considered you one of the great loves of my life. I just got scared.
- The intense connection you felt was totally mutual. I was just skittish because I had trust issues. You are [insert list of glowing adjectives here].
Well, damn. All that self-doubt for nothing.
How does it feel when someone returns from the past like this? It’s a very mixed bag of emotions. I’m glad to hear from them, of course; it’s touching to receive tender words, even years after I’ve stopped hoping to hear them. It’s also validating to know that I mattered — and that I wasn’t “Woman Who Just Doesn’t Get It” after all.
There’s a part of me, also, that just wants to laugh: how can anyone’s love life be strung together by SO. MANY. YEARS. of needlessly missed connections? (Props to the jokester gods who wrote this. It’s absurd.)
Then there’s the ache, of finding yourself well into your 30s, so supposedly special that men return years later to tell you — surprise! — just how special they think you are… and yet still not knowing what it’s like to be loved back, romantically, in real-time, by a person who’s kind to you and excited to commit. Sure, I know what it’s like to be committed to and abused. Or treated well but not committed to. Or adored and then ignored. Hell, I even know what it’s like to love and be loved non-romantically by a sweet, reliable guy who commits anyway — but that trifecta of reciprocated romance, consistent kindness, and enthusiastic commitment? No idea what that feels like. Never had it. Still waiting.
(Meanwhile, here I am, with only the vague, pseudo-consolation that many of the men I’ve liked or loved have wished we could’ve been more… even if they acted like they didn’t. [*Shrug.*])
Getting esoteric, I can also tell you that I regret what this pattern has done to my instincts. My read on people, feelings, connection. I’ve come to default over the years, for instance, to assuming that no man has any real interest in me. Not even the ones who hit on me. Because in so much of my experience, men’s interest never translated to follow-through. I’ve developed a learned cluelessness, if you will, about people’s admiration or attraction. Which, at “best,” prevents me from making moves or acting receptive; at worst, maybe it just makes me look arrogant.
And for all the times my gut told me there was a powerful connection, only for someone to let me down, stand me up, and/or disappear as if I never mattered at all? I’ve grown to doubt that I can possibly be correct when I feel something special, or sense that someone else feels the same. Which is perhaps the worst of all of this — because when you give up on trusting what your heart and soul are saying, then you eventually find yourself writing stuff like this.
… even though, years later, the men who made me doubt my senses all-but-inevitably return to say:
You were right. It was real. I felt it too. I was simply scared.
It’s hard to extract a takeaway from a life experience wherein you’d do all the same things over again — especially when it would be fine to do all the same things over again, because those things truly weren’t the problem. I wasn’t losing men over anything I was or wasn’t doing. I know this by now. They’ve told me so.
That’s the hard truth: sometimes romantic disappointments — even YEARS of them — are really not your fault. Human behavior can be ridiculous. Point blank. Especially in love. Like that ivory-tower joke about how the social sciences are the real “hard sciences” because humans can be so bizarrely irrational that their actions are hard to understand, much less predict.
Thus I’ve learned that much of love is really just about random chance, a.k.a. luck. About happening to meet people at the point in their lives where they’re grown enough to appreciate having found you and brave enough not to let you slip away.
And you cannot control this.
Which, on the one hand, is maddening; it’s frustrating to realize you’re at the mercy of the fates, especially when the outcome matters so deeply.
On the other, as long as you’ve done your self-work and can honestly conclude that you aren’t approaching love from a problematic angle — and you’ve been sure to state your feelings — then this exact same helplessness is liberating; it leaves you off the hook. (There’s that, at least.)
If I had to go back and counsel my younger self on love’s grand absurdities, I’d have no advice; nothing actionable would’ve made a difference. I also wouldn’t be able to console Younger Me with the promise that romantic bliss would someday come because I haven’t found it yet, and NOBODY can promise that.
Instead, frankly, I think I’d like to thank her. For never getting bitter, and keeping her heart open: even though I haven’t found Happily Ever After yet, I’d have missed out on so many cherished memories if I’d stopped giving love a chance. I’d also thank her for standing strong despite all her/my/our self-doubt, instead of changing herself out of desperation. I like who I am, and who I always was. (Apparently all my vanishing suitors did too!) I’m happy that Younger Me didn’t shun her.
So after all these years of analyzing and scrutinizing and criticizing myself up and down… and then learning that The Problem was never anything about me at all… I think I finally trust. I finally trust that it’s not that I’m too much or too little. It’s not that my taste in men is disastrous. It’s not that I’m clingy, closed off, or avoidant. It’s not any of my qualities, intrinsic or otherwise. And it’s definitely not that I’m delusional when I sense down to my bones that there’s a powerful connection there.
Which has been the real gift of My Weird Pattern With Guys: these men, in absentia, helped me forge my self-worth. They imparted an invaluable lesson in such a brilliantly roundabout way — by holding out on so many external validations until I started hearing the message within myself:
You’re worthy. You always were. And you were always right to trust what your heart was saying.
So I’m done blaming myself for the ones who disappeared.
And if you feel this, maybe it’s time to stop blaming yourself too.