Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Longing for the "Unavailable" Partner

One of things about getting a little older is that, if you've let yourself live at all, you actually have had some experiences to talk about. Some you might prefer not to talk about, others might need to remain unspoken, but still, you've got stories! So, when I saw this post, I thought, yep, I've been there before.

A reader recently shared her conflicted feelings about dating an older man:

I’ve been dating a guy that is 20 years older than me. I’m 28. I never saw myself being with someone so much older but since I’ve met him, I’ve never been happier. Older men are not always looking for a younger women because of her looks. They aren’t always controlling or want to treat you like a kid. At least this one doesn’t. He genuinely respects me, treats me like his partner, and listens to me. We really enjoy each other’s company and gradually, I find myself wanting to be with him long term. Although he looks great for his age, I have so much fear about his health 20 years from now. I watched my mom, grandmother, and aunt lose their husbands and so I have this phobia of losing my husband too. I really don’t know how to get past this.

I have mixed emotions about this subject too, mostly because we share similar stories. My Dad was 51 when I was born, and he died when I was 22. I’m ashamed to admit I was angry that he was an older father, especially when he got sick. While my college friends were off to clubs and bars on weekends, I was visiting my Dad in the hospital and watching him slip away. In my young mind, he was abandoning me, my brother, and most importantly my mother. I told myself I would never marry an older man. There was too much risk involved.

My father didn’t really get to see me as an adult, and I often wonder what kind of advice he’d give me now. Especially because I married a man who is older by almost fifteen years. I never pictured this for myself. In fact, I made it a point to only date men my age or maybe a couple of years older. But then, I met my husband and suddenly the limitations I’d placed on previous dates seemed pointless with him. I knew he was right for me, so I went for it.

About ten years ago, I made friends with a woman seventeen years my senior. She was whip smart, funny, kind, good looking - we hit it off really well. However, one of the points of connection for us was her failing marriage, which over hours of coffee and conversation, eventually drew us together closely, a little too closely.

Internally, I resisted being one of "those guys," the one's on the other side of crumbling marriage equation. Turns out, I landed there again several years later, with my last long term relationship. Totally different stories in many ways, but still, the few similarities caused me a lot of pause.

The "thing" with my older friend lasted less than a month. We were friends close to a year by the time things began turning in a different direction. Her flirting. Me feeling flattered. Her saying things like "I really love being with you." "You're perfect. Unblemished even." More feeling flattered. Plus a hell of a lot of resistance to doing anything about what was happening.

I was 26. She was 43. The age difference rarely seemed to be an issue, but what was - for me certainly - was the fact that she was married, and was doing nothing to change that. In addition, there was this sort of idealizing going on from her end, seeing me as an unsullied man without a bunch of baggage and bad choices in his history. She routinely compared her muddled life to mine, imagining that I had few troubles and had mostly made all the right moves.

And while some of that was true, it also put me in a position of never really feeling like it was ok to struggle. That nothing occurring in my life could really compare to the difficulties she had in hers.

This made the declarations of love that she eventually made even more confusing to handle. Who was it exactly that she loved? Me or the imagine of me she had in her mind?

The boundary crossing into physical intimacy between us lasted maybe three weeks tops because although I was fairly young, I was definitely old enough, and wise enough, to recognize this wasn't a healthy situation. And probably wouldn't develop into one anytime soon.

I think she was shocked when I broke it off. She basically disappeared from my life after that, unable to maintain anything resembling a friendship with me, something that hurt at the time, but which I now understand, given the circumstances.

Natalie from the blog Baggage Reclaim put up this post recently, and frequently writes about emotionally or otherwise unavailable men. Much of what she writes applies to their female counterparts. And I have had more than my share of relationships with women who fall into the "unavailable" category in some form or another. Most of them being women with a lot of "unfinished business" from past relationships which negatively impacted whatever we had together.

The example above, as well as my last long term relationship, were the two extreme cases. The others who would fall into that category just weren't fully open emotionally, were too readily lost in thoughts about the failures of their past relationships, and were afraid to risk that I might be different from all of that.

And the reality is that I was almost a mirror for some of this. I was just as risk adverse as these girlfriends were. Unable to fully believe I was "a great catch worthy of a wonderful partner," I sopped up whatever tasty table scraps were offered me from women who maybe wanted to give more, but really were in no position to do so.

I have certainly had a few relationships where these "unavailable" dynamics were not present, but when I look back with clear eyes, the majority of my adult life has been about being with, or longing after, women who either don't want to be with me, or can't be with me, even if they want to.

It's really been humbling to recognize this, but hey, better late than never! In fact, I have stepped away from at least three "opportunities" to repeat this dynamic over the past several months, realizing that it's so much better to be single and happy, than to long after, and maybe get with a woman who will ultimately not "be there" when it really counts.


  1. I have SUCH a hang-up about age, and I need to let it go. Having hang-ups isn't getting me too far with this whole 'dating' thing :)

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  2. Thanks for sharing the experience, Nathan!

    Age difference will color our perception of life just as the behaviour patterns we have developed while growing up with our families will. Knowing this and approaching it from that end, brings us one step closer to "making it work". Do we ever get a relationship in which everything is "fine" form the start: no baggage, no preconceptions, no this or that? I don't think so, not any more.

    I am 40 and my beloved is 24. When we met, I did not even think of the age difference. Fears and insecurities came later, when I started analyzing. But I am at the point in my life where I think LIFE WORKS, and that's what matter. We would have challenges in any case, I am sure of that, age difference or not. I know this much of myself to know this. :-)

    It helps that we have started talking about our fears from the start and decided to turn the difference in our backgrounds to our advantage: I am happy to contribute with whatever I have, and my beloved brings in a lot of energy and enthusiasm into our relationship. I have never grown so much in a relationship the way I have in this one and I look forward to whatever comes, whatever we make of it, be it 30 days or 30 years. I am Ok, whatever happens. Because LIFE WORKS. Always. I only have to make sure I do.

    We don't date "age", we date people and their fears and this is what we have to remember. Fears and insecurities will never go away but we can do something about ourselves to learn to live with them and not run our lives. Whatever the set up for the relationship, you gotta "play" with what you have at hands, be inclusive and see what you can make of it, together. And don't expect things to be easy just because we love our partner. Love in itself is not enough. We gotta do the work, learn to communicate, learn about our own fears and our partner's fears, etc.

  3. Hi Nathan! Great blog!

    I think age difference is just another in the line of things that can be blamed when a relationship doesn't work out the way we thought it would.

    If we cannot easily figure out or understand our relationship difficulties, I think that we will, rather than looking at the actual difficulty itself, tend to look for an unresolvable reason for it. Age difference for example.

    More or less we choose the easy way out, and we put the responsibility on something that cannot be changed or worked with.

    My partner is 18 years older than me, and I had a lot of preconceived ideas and fears about age difference in the initial stage. But when I really looked into it, I found that our difficulties had nothing to do with the years inbetween us.

    Opening up to this together with my loved one has been a very enriching experience for me. And I would hate to have lost all that just by pretending to be in an unsolvable situation.

  4. Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for the comments. It's funny, when I started writing this post, I obviously was intending to speak about age differences. However, as I went into the particular relationship I had, other issues become more central for me.

    I totally agree with appropriateresponse and Bjorn that age, in and of itself, isn't an issue. It never was an issue from my end in the relationship I spoke about above. And I hope that nothing I wrote led anyone to believe the issue there was age - because it certainly wasn't.

    In fact, I believe that when it comes to "age difficulties," they are coming mostly from the outside in. Societal and cultural judgments that we internalize, and fail to scrutinize, which then create troubles in relationships where there are any significant age differences.

    I'm really glad that both of you are experiencing wonderful things with your partners, and are not letting the age difference stand in the way.

    Perhaps things would have been different with me and the older woman I wrote about above had she been single and ready for something more committed.

    love2esme - One time, I e-mailed a woman on an online dating site, and she wrote back to me and said - "You sound wonderful. We share all these things in common. But I'm looking for someone who is 28 years old." I wrote her back and said "Gee, I'm only 30 (this was 5 years ago), what's two years difference?" She writes back and says "It won't work. I must have a man who is 28 years old, just like me." It was so ridiculous sounding that all I could do was laugh. And feel bad for her that she was so attached to something as arbitrary as a birth date.

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