“So, do you think you’re settling (for the man I was with at the time)?” asked my therapist at out last appointment. My knee-jerk reaction, and the truth, was, “Well, hell yeah!!” I never answered her question directly then; rather, I waffled and said, “I”m not sure…” The painful truth — gained after months of soul searching and a nagging feeling that something with him and our so-called “relationship” just wasn’t right — was one I didn’t really want to say out loud, though I suspect my therapist knew it. After all, she is pretty smart and has a master’s degree, plus she and I have a long-term relationship as therapist-client. So I’m positive she knew…. she was just waiting to see if I would admit it. It probably took me a week to come up with an answer for her, one that I hoped sounded glib and clever. I never told her that carefully crafted answer, which I now don’t recall, as we haven’t had an appointment since (due to my terrible habit of procrastinating).
Anyway, whatever cool-sounding answer I was prepared to give her to that straight-out question was probably full of my usual wishy-washy rationalizing that I’ve been known to do frequently with my male partners/boyfriends/significant others or whatever their role in my life was at the time. Hell, I’ve had so much practice of rationalizing the faults, downsides, crappy treatment, bad habits, and whatever, of the man of the moment (as a friend of mine put it years ago) that I have practically raised it to an art form! I’m a master at making excuses for why I’m staying with some man who really did not deserve it/wasn’t a good fit for me. As Pam Tillis sang, “I’m the queen of denial, buying all his alibis/queen of denial, floating in a river of lies.” We become snared in denial because we want so much to believe this is “the real thing.” Often, though, it isn’t because we grab onto whatever in hopes of finding “the one” and often, well, he isn’t it.
In my case some men really haven’t had to put in much effort because I was holding things together… and keep them going, usually past what should have been the natural expiration date for that relationship (they ALL have an expiration date). Occasionally I was the one putting in waaaayyyy too much effort (far more than the man), effort that in retrospect was not exactly a waste of my time though definitely served as lessons. All this effort, just so I could have a man in my life, have the dubious pleasure rush I would get from saying “my boyfriend” and have the illusion of “security” because I had someone (just seeing that in print makes me want to stick my finger down my throat). But in my self-introspection and soul searching that’s what I’ve figured out: that validation gotten through those liaisons with men was what I so badly wanted. Acceptance and approval, something the more self-aware people know we should be able to give to ourselves, rather than rely on others to give it to us.
After years of therapy in which I happily found some answers to some of my long-standing questions (and learned some painful yet unavoidable truths about myself) I came to realize that I’m a serial monogamist, one who has an, ummm, active “dating” life — and it stems from a couple different sources. One is the ingrained mindset that some women have that we “need” a man in our lives to “take care of us” which supposedly gives us status and standing in the community. We got the message somewhere along the line (from the media/society, our institutions, our peers and families, etc.) that having a man “validates us” and makes us “whole” and of course we all know we live in a very couples-oriented society (at least here in America).
The second reason for said serial dating it may come from a deep-seated need some of us feel to seek positive attention (or at least SOME attention, which is better than none) from others. In the case of people like me we became involved in “relationships” that were often not suitable: where it was like an arranged marriage or a play in which we were reading from a script — a couple of people merely acting like a “couple” — rather than being freely and naturally flowing togetherness; or where we were just fuck-buddies but we pretended it was “more serious than that.” Again we were in denial because we soooo wanted love. So we — myself included — often settled for less.
Since I’m now a few years past the half-century mark in my life — and have been single (divorced after two relatively short marriages) for most of my adult life, I have a fair amount of dating experience. Some of my critics may say I have “too much” of a dating history … but seriously, just who determines that precise number of how many relationships are “enough” or the correct amount??? I have said once or twice in my life that I “am sampling the buffet of men” and once told a friend that I considered dating “a low-budget adventure (especially in regard to online dating)”. He found that highly humorous. For years I’ve been the butt of many jokes, mostly made by my relatives, along the lines of being asked “who is she seeing this week?” For a while it was funny and I’d laugh along, but some jokes wear thin after being told so many times.
Yes, I confess to being a serial monogamist/dater and place no value judgment on it; it just is what it is. And I am far from being the only one. Many of you may be one, or may know one or more people who are one. We are everywhere and we all have our stories. Following is mine.
To understand why I am the way I am (and maybe give readers a clue as to why they are, or people they know are, practicers of serial monogamy) it’s helpful to know the backstory: I was the oldest of three daughters born to very young parents, and raised in a somewhat dysfunctional home setting that tended to be chaotic at times. Over the years — and still to this day — I have often felt like the “odd one out,” even in my own family. I was bullied and shut out by other kids while in grade school (back in the 70s when “kids will be kids” and they didn’t have anti-bullying legislation then). I do not recall whether I told my parents about the bullying at that time; I just remember that for many years I have felt that “nobody has my back.” Surely that helps explain the anxiety and depression I’ve suffered for a long, long, time. Psychologists say we tend to repress the unpleasant memories of being hurt, experiencing trauma or being victimized, and I am no different. These experiences left their scars, which can’t be seen on the outside though they are real, they cut deep and their aftereffects are numerous … even if we don’t recall what the traumas were or acknowledge the wounds.
Anyway, as far as school went I was a disinterested student, sliding through because it bored me. I was generally a fairly ok kid … until teenagehood set in and I discovered boys, which presented to me an opportunity to gain attention/approval/positive strokes (either real or pretend) that I very much wanted and felt I didn’t have in my home life. Toward that end I began acting out, as kids will do in that type of situation in order to be noticed by their parents, because negative attention is still attention, right?
As it turned out it was not that difficult to get attention from boys in school and thus began my active dating life. We all know that the odds for getting a lot of male attention increase when a girl “puts out” as they use to phrase it back in the day. When I was in high school in the ‘80s there were the ones who “put out” on a fairly regular basis with different boys; they were known as “sluts” back then (I am aware of the slang term used nowadays for sluts, but I despise that term so much I won’t use it — ever. I’m fine with “slut”). Of course there was that stupid double standard that the boys who had active, varied sex lives were admired and called “studs” but that’s the wonderful sexist society in which we live. We also had girls in our classes who were saving themselves for marriage, and many of them married at a fairly young age too. But in my mind, that was “old fashioned” and besides, it wasn’t my main goal in life to snag a man and “settle down.” I had a life to live, college to attend and a career (in writing) to pursue. I was a “modern girl” (who, in my later years I’ve found, has an “old soul”).
Generally over the years my relationships last from six months to a year and this was true in high school. Some of the boys were “drinking buddies,” others were somewhat “serious” but never too much so: I considered myself the original “Free Bird” (the title of the song by Lynyrd Skynyrd which should be engraved on my headstone) and didn’t want to be tied down because “there’s too many places I’ve got to be.”
As happens in all of our lives, the years progressed. I followed and achieved my dreams. I was married, divorced, became a mom and then married again, all in the 90s … and divorced again in 2001, at which time my almost-middle-age post-marriage dating scene had begun. It was as much a roller coaster ride as it always had been. I clearly had/have an anxious-avoidant attachment style and thus the revolving door of men in and out of my life. An aunt of mine commented on my seeming “short mourning period” after a breakup. That obviously was due to my not-very-committed (in other words, shallow) dating partners who probably also were anxious-avoidants too. There are a lot of us out there who are this way.
I know I’m not the only one who has done this too; we all encounter people who are emotionally closed off like this. We see them on those rom-com movies where one person (usually a hot guy) is a “heartbreaker” going from one girl to another and another, until he meets the girl of his dreams with whom he falls head over heels in love and poof!! There goes his serial monogamy/heartbreaking days, presumably forever. It usually turns out that he became such a “heartbreaker” because someone, maybe 15 years earlier, really tore his heart up, and then he became a serial monogamist … until “The One” came along, like they always do in the movies. Not so much in real life, though I’m sure it has happened to SOME people.
I’m still waiting to meet that man who will inspire me to change my ways. I would like to be positive and believe that he is out there, somewhere: a non-drunk who is open to a loving relationship and will adore the quirky me that is who I am, wrinkles and all. But I’m not going to make it an all-encompassing goal as I’m going to go on and live my life hopefully without the distraction that is a semi, kinda sorta half-ass “relationship” with someone who is mostly holding the stick with the carrot at the end (an old fashioned way of saying “breadcrumbing”). I’m all too aware that I need to work on myself — by myself and perhaps with my therapist— and change some habits and mindsets that have kept me in this “groove” for so many years. I have read that it is possible, though not exactly easy, to change in this way and become open to deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Then again nothing worth having, as I’ve heard time and time again, is ever “easy.” In the meantime, my cats are getting most of my attention and they’re lovin’ it.
Unfortunately — as mentioned in the beginning of this story — I settled a LOT and most of the men were emotional unavailable men with serious drinking and/or other drug dependencies. This seems to be the “type” I attract, and I finally figured out why in the past 10 or so years: The “bad boys” or “good-time guys” that’ll give you a song and a dance but never, or rarely, diamonds and gold. A number of the guys I dated were abusive in one or more ways, besides being very shut-off emotionally (or “cold-hearted” if you will). It was in my 40s that I began awakening to some pretty unhappy truths about my relationships, which I once termed “relationship lite” because there was no real depth or commitment, just “fun for the moment” as long as it lasted. Nowadays I refer to these as “semi, sorta, half-baked borderline so-called ‘relationships’” (as I said above) to describe what I was in with, for example, the man mentioned at the beginning of this story.
That awakening — plus a physically violent relationship I had the misfortune to get involved in— led me to therapy and also to reading a ton of self-help/relationship books to try to figure me out. I already knew who I attracted and why, so I wanted to find out how I might attract something else … better? Last year I stumbled upon a book by John Bradshaw called “Creating Love: The Next Great Stage of Growth.” In it he talks about how many people are “wounded souls” who are looking for love (sometimes “in all the wrong places,” as Johnny Lee sang) but don’t have a clue or good role models to show them how to love, to give and receive love and form “healthy relationships.” Honestly I wouldn’t know a “healthy relationship” if it bit me on the ass, so little experience I have with such. Bradshaw wrote that it takes time to nurture our “wounded inner child” and do the work toward a more fulfilling love life, though it can be done. Hmmm.
Earlier this year (before the pandemic got a foothold here in America) I got more answers upon receiving an official diagnosis from a psychiatrist that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I’d suspected this for years, along with the anxiety and depression that I’ve been battling for decades. After finding I have ADD I rushed to the library to check out Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, “Scattered: What ADD is and How You Can Deal with It.” Within those covers there was a wealth of information that made the light bulb on top of my head light up constantly with many “Aha!!” moments. It was incredibly interesting and told me a LOT about myself and why I am this way, and the whys of my early relationships with my parents and our family dynamics. Mate said ADD could also stand for “Attachment Deficit Disorder” because many people didn’t have a secure attachment — a deep bond —with our caregiver(s) when we were babies, which leads to ADD. After reading this I was like, “Wow!! That explains soooooo much!”
Interestingly enough, one of the chapters was about people who are, like me, serial monogamists. People who get bored easy and flit from one thing to another (or one fling to another), sometimes quite rapidly. I was amazed to see myself so clearly described in Mate’s book, a classic that is probably a top go-to publication for people wanting to know more about ADD. I highly recommend it to people with or without the disorder. One comment that I found especially noteworthy was when the author said that “we tend to attract people who are at the same level of emotional maturiry as us.” (I migth not have the quote correct, though that’s the gist of it). Ouch!! That observation hit below the belt and made a lot of things blindingly clear, such as why I get involved with them men I date. Anyway, so I now have a pile of new insights into why I am this way. I actually became sad after reading it because I thought, “So, because I have this I’m doomed to spend the rest of my however-many-days are left in shallow, not-very-satisfying relationships and that’s just the way it is???” Well, maybe…. or maybe not.
As much fun as I have had being a serial dater, I don’t see it as a desirable option anymore, being past 50 now and all. It gets kinda tiresome training a new one in every year or so. Plus there’s all the effort involved when one is with a person who doesn’t care enough to put in much effort himself, plus the wear and tear on my body and mind … and just thinking about it now makes me a bit weary …
As for the man mentioned in the first paragraph, he and I had been dating for about two years. It was not a committed, long-term thing, and though he never came out and said it I just knew it all along and was fine with that. Because, like many of my boyfriends, he has a serious alcohol dependency problem and he is also anxious-avoidant. We weren’t “in love” we were basically “friends with benefits,” a phrase I despise, but it is what it is.I knew some time ago that I was holding on to him partly because we did actually have fun together, though I was never really “fine” with being FWB. I’ve just grown weary of being the butt of people’s jokes all the time about my active relationship life as it were, so I determined I’d hold THIS one for longer than a year. One minute I think I’m “perfectly happy” with this man and other days it’s, “Why the hell are you with this guy??” Sometimes I feel I “deserve” better — read: some guy who will move heaven and earth just to be with me — because this man doesn’t conform to all those “expectations” that I was set for in my much-younger days (via my mom’s advice that I didn’t take). Because I’m aware of what’s going on, a first step in recovery, and it’s part of the process of becoming a reformed serial monogamist.
P.S. I have a couple of takeaways from this story: One, parents, please pay the proper attention to your children, and I mean all of them. I know it’s probably hard to interact equally if you have more than one, though I’m sure it’s not impossible. I’ve heard it said that those who seem the least lovable are the ones who need it most, and there may be a grain of truth to that. If children don’t feel they’re being paid attention at home they will likely seek out and find it elsewhere from anyone willing to give them real — or fake — positive reinforcement. This might lead to them being an easy “mark” for predators as I believe has been the case with me over my life. Parents, if you don’t “have the time” or the emotional resources to adequately pay attention to and interact with ALL your children, then maybe you should reprioritise your lives and/or rethink your parenting styles and choices in hopes of raising well-adjusted happy children. Just a thought.
Secondly, we all know people (okay, females because men who sleep around are still generally looked upon in a more positive, accepting light than women are) who are what others generally think of or call “sluts”. After reading Dr. Mate’s book on people with ADD who are sometimes desperately seeking positive attention, I realized maybe we should have some sympathy for those “promiscuous” people (and by the way, who defines how many lovers is “too many” anyway???) rather than scorning them and putting them down. Perhaps we could all use some compassion, ask more questions, find out people’s backstories, love ourselves more, be loving towards others and live and let live. Don’t pile on the hurt other people are feeling/probably have felt for years, even decades. Just another thought.