How to Let Your Guard Down and Love Again

October 5, 2009

Sad GirlDear Susan,

I’m a 21 year-old college student, so I’m completely immersed in the hookup culture. Like many girls I know, I’ve been hurt by a number of jerks and players that I dated. A while back, I decided to stick to nice guys, but it’s very difficult to trust anyone. I can’t stand the idea of going through that kind of rejection again, so I’ve built an impenetrable wall around myself to make sure that doesn’t happen. I still develop feelings for guys, but I keep them to myself. I’ve become really good at acting like “I’m just not that into you.” It’s backfired, though, because lately a few guys have expressed that they’re moving on to be with someone who they feel more sure about. They never told me how they felt, I think they wanted to be sure of me first. But I find it difficult to express my feelings first and be the one to bring up the “Where is this going?” conversation. I feel ready to be in a relationship with a really good guy, but how can I be open to love after years of being hurt?


Dear Meredith,

There’s an old saying, “Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.” As women we want so much to believe in true love that we often set ourselves up for disappointment again and again, letting ourselves get burned many times in the process. I’ve written before on why women like the bad boys, so I won’t go into that again here, except to say that women do frequently overlook the nice guys as they pursue the guys with the most self-confidence, and the least intent to make a commitment to any girl. I congratulate you on having come to that realization already, and I do think that you are much likelier to find a good relationship match this way. However, it’s important to remember that the good guys have often been hurt themselves by women who dumped them for jerks. I’ve heard from many nice guys who get pushed into the friend zone when some dbag starts paying attention to their girl. Or guys who started as good friends and a crying shoulder, got into a relationship, and then got burned when the girl returned to the bad ex.

Women sometimes ask how they can be sure a guy is not a player, and that can be very tricky in the early days. In a school setting, though, players can easily be identified because they are always chasing a new girl, and they leave behind them a trail of heartbreak. As you well know.

So it’s not surprising that just about everyone has built up some defenses. No one wants to be the one to give in first to a display of vulnerability. Allison Conner, writing for Psychology Today on the Top 10 Dating Mistakes covers some of the difficulties you’re facing:

Avoidance of Intimacy

“While this one is traditionally men’s domain, women are quickly catching up in the fear of commitment zone. We might be so fearful of getting hurt, betrayed or rejected, that we exit stage left just as the play gets going.”

Game Playing

“This strategy is often employed to protect one’s ego. When it comes to dating, everyone, on some level, fears rejection. Playing it cool and not getting too involved may make you feel safe, but you risk coming across as aloof or remote, and may turn the other person off. Balance between demonstrating interest and maintaining your composure is best. You will get further in less time in finding a relationship if you allow yourself to be genuine. It’s OK to put your best foot forward, and also to be a bit cautious, but have the courage to be upfront and show who you are.”

Not Being Honest About Your Needs

“Pretending everything is OK can work for only so long. Assertiveness is a golden skill for those who are ready for a mature relationship. Unless you can ascertain and directly communicate your needs (by being clear and specific), then you are basically operating on a child level. While many people get by this way, it is not very effective, and puts you at a disadvantage. Assertiveness is not to be confused with being bossy or demanding. Being tactful and direct is the quickest path to relationship success.”

What does this mean for you? How can you move on to a healthy relationship that feels secure? Here are my recommendations:

1. When you are spending time with a guy and you like him, you need to let him know that clearly. Let him know that you are enjoying what is happening with him right now.

  • Let him know you have fun with him. That you respect how smart he is. That you think he’s hot.
  • Make an effort to get to know him. Where’s he from, and what’s his life there like? What is he interested in?
  • When he makes an effort, respond positively. If he suggests plans, accept enthusiastically. If you are unavailable, immediately suggest an alternative time, so that he knows you are not blowing him off.
  • Don’t delay returning his texts or calls. There is so much artificial game playing that occurs in the area of communication. You are not too eager if your respond right away to him. You are too eager if you are the one initiating most of the contact.
  • It’s good if a guy is wondering where you are, what you’re up to, or how into him you really are. It is not good if a guy is wondering whether you find him attractive or want to spend time with him. You’ve got to give him something to go on. Let him know that he has a real shot.

2. There is no need to race to the mattress. Taking the sex piece slowly is safer emotionally when a woman is learning to trust someone new, especially if she’s been disappointed.

  • The sex you have will be more powerful if you allow anticipation to build first.
  • Things get confusing fast when you have sex before you know whether you even like a guy. Having sex will make you feel more attached to him, so make sure you’re interested before the hormones kick in.
  • Sex changes things. Give the friendship time to develop before you add that layer of complexity. You don’t want to be saying “It’s complicated.” about a guy in the early days.

3. Having the relationship talk is unfortunate but necessary in the hookup era. There are just too many gradations of relationships. The timing can be tricky.

  • Don’t initiate the talk too early. If you force his hand, and he is unsure, he will balk. If you’re giving him plenty of positive feedback, and not pretending indifference, that should be enough in the beginning to signal that you like him.
  • It’s best to have the talk before sex. At least a talk about being exclusive. If he is not a player, he shouldn’t have a problem with that.
  • Don’t wait too long. As you say, other girls may be circling, waiting for you to fail to close the deal. If you know he feels reasonably confident with you, and is spending a lot of time and effort on your relationship, it’s time to make it official. If he’s passive with you, and you let it slide, then a more assertive girl will take control.

4. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a break from the drama.

  • Right after a breakup, or any time you are feeling particularly vulnerable is not a good time to start something new.
  • It can feel good, even be a relief, to designate some period of time for having guy friends without entanglements.
  • I’m a huge fan of counseling. The best therapists can help you gain perspective and heal from the emotional trauma you’ve experienced. Your college will have a counseling center, and it should be free, so think about checking it out.

Meredith, I wish you all the best. You are still very young, and it’s important to remember that virtually all of the relationships that you have will end while you look for the right long-term partner. Those endings are often painful, and always learning experiences. They will prove helpful to you as you mature by teaching you what you want in a relationship, what you don’t want, and how to make someone else happy. You are already wise as a result of your experiences;  your ability to be honest with yourself and your willingness to take action mean that you’re halfway there.

Best, MWAH,