“Never chase love, affection, or attention. If it isn’t given freely by another person, it isn’t worth having.” ~Unknown
We met at a bar with Skee-Ball and slushy margaritas for our first date.
She was gorgeous. I noticed that as soon as I walked in. I still wasn’t sure whether we’d have anything to talk about though. The messages we’d exchanged had been minimal.
It turned out we did.
Conversation flowed from one topic to the next—meandering from her passion for biology in college to how I tried to master mountain boarding at summer camp as a kid to how both of us were passionate about writing/putting words to the page.
I found her articulate, funny, sociable, and down-to-earth. I liked her intellect. Her wit. Her seeming earnestness and appetite for unconventional topics like the environmental benefit of eating insects and sexism in the taxidermy industry.
She came over to my place after; I cooked dinner for us. Talk got deeper. She shared the effect her dad’s depression had on her when she was a kid; how she’d personalize his quiet moods. I shared some of the instability I’d experienced as a kid.
The evening ended in a hook-up. Nothing like a good trauma spill for an aphrodisiac.
A couple weeks later we had another date. I felt similarly elated afterwards. But doubts began to surface before our third; she was acting wishy-washy and noncommittal.
I talked them away, though, because seeing her filled me with buzzy joy. Our interactions powered me through the week with a buoyancy unlike any that my morning coffee had ever provided.
So we kept going on dates.
She’d bring flowers to them. Lift me into the air when we kissed, which I loved. Tell me I was a “really good thing in her life.”
The last day I saw her, we biked around to local breweries.
The sun shone against our faces as we sipped from each other’s beers out on the back patio—having what felt like a raw conversation about intimacy patterns and fears. She was working on hers, she said. I acknowledged some of my own in return.
She asked if I wanted to be in a picture together. We took a selfie, then played rock paper scissors to decide which brewery we’d go to next.
When she asked if she could kiss me (for the fourth time that day) as we unlocked our bikes, I remember how wanted it made me feel.
I carried that golden effervescent feeling with me into the next day. It was still with me when I opened a text from her—but shattered into spiky glass shards when I read what it said.
That she couldn’t continue seeing me. That she wasn’t in the right place emotionally.
It’s not you, it’s me.
We all know the spiel.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had my heart dropped from the Trauma Tower on top of which a woman and I had been insecurely attaching.
This woman was just one among several in a pattern. You can call it trauma bonding. A hot and cold relationship. The anxious-avoidant dance. These push-pull dynamics that played out through my twenties had elements of all of these.
One day the person would open up. We’d connect and it’d feel like I’d really seen them, and they’d seen me.
The next day they’d pull back (even in the seeming absence of overt conflict). The contrast was painful. The shift felt jarring.
According to Healthline, “Recognizing emotional unavailability can be tricky. Many emotionally unavailable people have a knack for making you feel great about yourself and hopeful about the future of your relationship.”
Whenever these situationships crumbled, it would really break me. Feelings I’d hoped to have buried for good would resurrect—among them, doubt that anyone would ever choose to see and accept me fully.
And yet the “connections” felt so hard to disentangle from once formed. From my perspective, the woman and I often had strong chemistry. Words came easily. We talked about vulnerable things, but could also laugh and enjoy the lighter aspects of life. They were my type physically. The perceived strength of our connection compelled me to stay.
It took me some time to realize that each relationship of this sort that I remained in spoke to unhealed parts of me.
Part of the healing I did over the past few years involved looking at the role I played in them. It involved realizing that I too contributed to the cycle—by continuing to give chances to a person who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) help meet my needs.
I contributed by staying and hoping the situation would shift. That the clouds obstructing their full attention and investment would magically lift. That they’d depart to reveal the sun that was waiting all along to wrap its powerful rays around my heart.
I contributed by not establishing boundaries. For instance, in one situationship I felt as if I’d become the woman’s therapist, there to reassure her when self-doubts overtook her; to validate her following any perceived rejection by strangers; to coddle her ego when she felt unattractive in the eyes of the male barista who’d just served us our coffee.
I could have set a limit around how much she confided in or leaned on me. I could’ve communicated that if we were just friends with occasional benefits, then I only had so much bandwidth. That it didn’t feel reciprocal to be her on-call therapist.
I also could have left at any time. I chose to stay in these situations, though, despite the signs. Perhaps I thought those signs were ambiguous enough to be negotiable. Or that I was just giving the benefit of the doubt.
Additionally, I chose to look at the women for who I wanted them to be, who they could be somewhere down the line, and who they sometimes were—rather than seeing them for who they fully were on the whole and in the present moment.
When we see others for their potential, no matter how innocent or well-meaning our willful obscuring of the present reality may be, we pay a cost.
Inconsistency and unavailability are less attractive to me the older I get and the more that I heal from my past trauma. Game-playing has even begun to repel me in a way it didn’t used to. When a person shows signs of it, I notice my interest starting to wane.
Conversely, qualities like consistency, decisiveness, and earnestness are increasingly attractive now. These qualities feel vitalizing, while ambivalence and mixed feelings zap my energy.
In my thirties I no longer find the emotional ups and downs of an anxious-avoidant dynamic sustainable. I want something calmer. A relationship where all of me is accepted and cherished—just as I hope to provide the same in return.
I hope for a connection that takes a load off—not one that adds more stress to a world already saddled with the weight of so much of it. One wherein we’re both safe spaces for the other. I believe this is what we all deserve, granted that we too are willing to put in some work.
In general, having a choosier mentality means you may stay single for more years than you imagined—because it’s true that the dating pool bubbles with people whose traumas and defenses are incompatible with our own. I think maybe it always will.
Still, when I picture all the heart pain spared, it’s an approach that feels right. The thought now of being pulled back into another cycle of fleeting hope and optimism punctured by blindsiding shards of disappointment unsettles me more than the thought of staying indefinitely un-partnered.
Not only that, it also saddens me. The sadness I feel is for every person ever caught in the same emotional cyclone. I can’t help but think it’s such a tremendous drain of energy. Energy that could be used instead to vitalize both the larger world and our own lives.
No more will I follow the Hansel and Gretel path to another person’s heart when it takes me so far from the integrity of my own.
And anyone who’s been through similar experiences—I encourage you to remain hopeful that one day, a person who’s deserving of your love will step into your life and onto your path. Until then, remember you have you. Treasure yourself, treat yourself well, and realize you’re worth more than chasing. You deserve to put your feet up and let someone chase you—or better still, come meet you in the middle.
About Eleni Stephanides
A freelance writer and Spanish interpreter, Eleni was raised and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, LGBTQ Nation Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert, Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium.