Stop me if you've heard this before. You start seeing a guy and things seem to be going OK—no major red flags, and the two of you get along and have good chemistry. You start seeing each other somewhat regularly (not even "dating" regularly, I'm talking "hanging out" once every couple of weeks) and things seem fine until he suddenly starts treating you like shit. When you ask why, he says you were getting too serious. This confuses you because you actually don't feel seriously about him at all.
I am dating again after a very long relationship, so apologies if this is a late observation, but: It’s absolutely wild how often women encounter this dynamic. Why do men have a totally unfounded fear that you're in love with them when the truth is, you’re just a kind and affectionate person who’s not looking for love—let alone with some clown who doesn’t even clean his bathroom sink? If you’re a millennial woman who dates, the odds are high that you’ve also been confounded by this. Love is a rare and many-splendored enigma—how can fuckboys believe that its secret formula requires nothing more than a few mediocre lays and some sporadic texting? Naturally, I have some theories.
First: Perhaps some men simply believe they’re that lovable and women can’t help but fall head-over-heels for them. While that is certainly true for men like Jeff Goldblum, for the average scrub who sleeps in a loft bed and doesn't have any goals, this is a delusion—an inflated sense of self-worth derived from privilege and entitlement.
Second: that they're misinterpreting your gestures. While you might think "how’s your day" is a normal thing that humans can ask people they aren’t obsessed with, the question could be laden with other meanings to a man who thinks you have an ulterior motive. Whereas a hug or small token (not a gift, things like "I grabbed your favorite snack from the bodega on the way to your apartment") might be common between girlfriends, a man might read these gestures as sexual and romantic interest rather than friendly affection.
And my third and most likely theory: that he’s just not that into you but too cowardly to say so, instead employing this excuse that conveniently absolves him of accountability and relies on the stereotype that women are clingy girlfriends who become ball-and-chain wives.
But it wasn’t enough to bring these theories to my group text, where they were inevitably met with supportive anecdotal evidence—I wanted to understand other, more invisible factors at work, so I consulted the experts.
I spoke with Dr. Marissa Harrison, a faculty member at Penn State Harrisburg who received her Ph.D in biological psychology with an emphasis on evolutionary psychology. At first, she was surprised by the dating trend I’ve observed. "I don’t mean to be cynical," she said, but "evolutionary biology would predict … that men would want a hookup or think, oh she’s clingy, let me get what I can out of this." Dr. Harrison explained that the instinct to push away a seemingly affectionate woman is further baffling because men tend to fall in love faster than women. And she should know—she co-authored the study on it.
She did note that it's evolutionarily beneficial for a man to assume that women are in love with him. "Think about the thousands and thousands of iterations over time, over millennia. The couple times a guy was actually right would be an increased mating opportunity," she explained. "A false alarm is better than a miss. Is she really that into me? Let me take a chance on it because a missed opportunity is zero chance for mating."
Couples’ therapist Shira Etzion agreed with Dr. Harrison’s hypothesis, explaining, "Even when you’re talking about reading signals, just being on the subway, there can be men that think that if you look at them for more than a second, then you must be into them." It’s important to note that "the perception of interest is separate to the reaction to that perception of interest," Etzion adds. One obvious factor in men’s reaction to the perception of love is their personal history with attachment.
"When we’re little, we get the sense that we are safe based on how we’re treated mainly by our parents and especially our mothers," she explained. "When you have secure attachment (meaning you know that if your mom leaves, she’s coming back)…it [creates an] expectation of the status quo." However, she says, when you don’t have a secure attachment or your feeling of "security gets threatened by abandonment," then you’re left without a rhythm or reliability that naturally teaches you trust. "Instead," Etzion explains, "what develops is a hypervigilance to something that might feel dangerous or hurtful or scary."
"So a lot of people—not just men, though it happens in men more [often] because at this point, socialization is still shitty for boys in terms of not really responding to feelings—will have an unconscious programming that closeness actually equals danger or control or repression of self."
Likewise, Etzion says, if someone grew up feeling "like they had no agency" or in other situations where they "weren’t able to be healthily narcissistic as a child," they can experience fear and anxiety when considering someone else’s emotional needs. "Suddenly somebody else’s need isn’t just, oh here’s another human being with a separate need for me," she explains. "It’s like, oh my god this is pressure to me to have to respond to this person’s emotions, otherwise I’m a horrible, bad person."
While this attachment framework is a logical and useful contextualization of someone’s behavior, it’s not an excuse to act like a shithead. Dr. Harrison says the same about evolutionary theory: "Evolution doesn't mean determinism. We have a frontal cortex!" Maybe in the past, people didn't always need to understand each other, but there is no harm in more information and compassion now. We all have baggage to work through—and plenty of people with fucked up childhoods still know it’s kinder to decline an invitation than leave someone hanging.
Like most things, we get better at relationships with experience. Etzion has observed what she calls an "evolution" in her clients’ dating attitudes: As we grow older, we become more transparent and "weed out who this [dating partner] is and is not from the beginning." Men, she says, experience "a maturity, a kind of growth node" when they must learn how to consider a woman outside of their desire for her. (An a-ha moment when they ask: Am I only pretending to care about her for selfish reasons, or do I truly care about her feelings?)
For people who haven’t reached this tipping point and still get freaked out by the idea of someone loving them, Etzion says you must ask yourself: What are you worried about? Are you afraid to let them down, are you afraid to hurt them? Is it that you want one thing but you don’t want the other thing? Are you just thinking about yourself? Are you not thinking about what the person wants and being realistic with them?
"You can be really honest about any sort of exploration you want, whether that’s an actual relationship or friendship or sex. And you can find other people that are looking for the same exact level of exploration," Etzion said. "It’s a fallacy that you have to be manipulative to get the level of commitment that you want."
And this is true for any kind of relationship—whether it be with your "soulmate" or friend with benefits. We often care about people in ways that look different than the love we see in romance movies—but they still occupy a special and important place in our lives. Instead of thinking you, like Dr. Strange, can accurately predict exactly how things will end, do the adult thing and talk about your relationship with your partner. Instead of assuming that someone is in love with you, ask them.
Giving love is a tedious and emotionally trying experience: you have to earn, protect, and grow your self-love while remaining patient and hopeful that someone else will one day reciprocate. Love is humbling—and being humble is definitely something that men could learn to do better.