Sometimes, the message is more nuanced than we first realize

I remember looking at him across the table and thinking, “This is everything I dreamed my dating life would look like.” Handsome man, shared values, nice restaurant. And yet, I wasn’t “feeling it.” Shortly after that date, I declined another date.

Why? I asked myself that question countless times over the past few years since that date. The short answer is “I wasn’t feeling it.” But the longer, more precise answer is: I wasn’t feeling it, because I wasn’t ready and able to commit yet.

Now before every single woman who hates hearing about timing and readiness stops reading, I implore you to stick with me. Let me give you some context.

I first saw him across the room at a party, and I thought, “Who is that handsome man and how can I meet him?” Our eyes met several times that night, but we never actually spoke.

A few nights later, I got a message on a dating site, “I don’t want to sound creepy, but I think we saw each other a few nights ago at a party. If not, you have a twin in this town. Whichever way, you’ve caught my eye, and I’d like to get to know you more.”

I swooned, texted a few friends the exciting news, and then I wrote him back. On our first date, we discovered we had even more friends in common, and our family backgrounds were similar, too. The conversation was nice, he was charming, and easy to talk to. Yet, I felt uneasy in my gut, and I couldn’t discern why.

I agreed to another date—it’s just nerves, I thought. A second date came and went, and my “nerves” persisted. We went out a few more times and with each date, I started to find reasons to not like him—he didn’t seem interested enough in my job; he walked me to my car but he should have asked me to text him when I got home safely; he was way too concerned with politics (which by the way, we shared a lot of views on). I started to realize he was more into it than I was, and I worried I’d end up hurting him in the long run. So, despite the fact that he seemed to have all the right traits, I called the whole thing off after just a handful of dates.

I’d love to say I handled it in a classy, direct manner. But I didn’t. I friend-zoned him by declining a date and suggesting instead that we meet up with mutual friends sometime soon. He took a little while to respond, but he sent the kindest text in reply, “Sure, if that’s better for you. I’d just really like to see you and get to know you more.” My heart sank.

My friends reassured me that I made the right decision, and sure enough, that nervous feeling in my gut had disappeared. But, something in my soul told me I’d come back to this decision.

When our gut instinct is wrong

I dated other men after him, and while some relationships lasted longer than others, I still thought about him and those few dates that felt just right, and just wrong, at the same time. Why couldn’t I find another man like him, I’d wonder.

Fast forward a few years, when a friend recommended I take a look at the book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. As an avid learner, and a woman with a deep desire for marriage, I checked the book out. According to the authors, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, adult romantic relationships are defined by three patterns of attachment: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant.

A secure pattern of attachment is just like it sounds: a pattern that is associated with individuals who are comfortable with intimacy, able to accept their partner’s strengths and flaws, and steady in romantic relationships. Most secure people find each other relatively quickly, leaving a concentration of anxious and avoidant attached individuals in the dating scene.

Anxious attachment is also as it sounds: it’s defined by a preoccupation with one’s romantic relationship. Anxiously attached individuals tend to be overly worried a partner is not as responsive to their communications as they should be. They’re incredibly in tune to their partner’s mood shifts, and an anxiously attached individual will often change their behavior or suppress their feelings in order to keep their partner happy and their relationship intact.

Avoidant attachment is also as it sounds: It’s defined by a tendency to avoid getting too close out of fear of intimacy. According to Levine and Heller, “If you’re avoidant, you connect with romantic partners but always maintain some mental distance and an escape route.” This avoidance manifests in ways like, “focusing on small imperfections in your partner,” “saying (or thinking) ‘I’m not ready to commit,’ and “pulling away when things are going well.” Avoidants often also tend to have a “phantom ex” whom they idealize, and this idealizing of a relationship gets in the way of focusing on current romantic interests. One look at this list and I knew: this described me, and I needed to dig further into this theory.

Thankfully, attachment is changeable. An avoidant person like me (and one who’s also anxiously attached) can become secure, and accept intimacy more fully. The best path to change: therapy. Naturally, I avoided it for as long as I could, and even when I finally did go, I distinctly told my therapist, “I think I just need a few sessions.” The truth is, I needed more than a few sessions.

The best way to change attachment is through a secure relationship. Years of therapy with the same therapist allowed me to explore various highs and lows in life in a healing relationship. This relationship taught me how to express my desires, handle conflict, and importantly, accept someone else’s care and concern as genuine.

Through therapy, I was able to make sense of why intimacy was frightening to me, and expand my capacity for closer relationships. It was hard work, and I wanted to quit a few times, but facing the fear was so worth it. It always is.

The end result, among many things, has been a gut instinct drastically different than the one that plagued my dating life those short few years ago.

My story hasn’t ended with a happily ever ending—yet. But I now know it will one day, because I’m less inclined to focus on the “worm in the apple” of my dates. My desire for closeness and commitment, which was always in me, is no longer competing as loudly with my fear of closeness and intimacy. When the right man comes around I’ll be able to trust my gut instinct, because I’m open, I’m secure, and I’m ready. 

Editors' Note: Dating Unscripted is a column in our Readers' Write section. Submit your own story here.