Is She Just Paranoid or Is She Getting Played?

June 9, 2010

Those of you who have written to me personally for advice know that it can sometimes take me a week or two to respond. 99% of the time that’s a reflection of the volume of emails and my own time constraints. I almost always know exactly how to respond, though – take it or leave it, my advice is intuitive and there’s a lot of it! The following email is one I’ve been sitting on, though. It’s a question that has both strategic and moral implications. Strategy is easy, morality a lot more complicated. Take a look, and let me know what you think.

Dear Susan,

I found your blog after I got played hard sophomore year, when I learned that my “boyfriend” had been cheating on me for months with a girl from another school. It was devastating, and I was kind of an emotional wreck for a while. I made a resolution that I’ve kept since: Don’t help players play or cheaters cheat. It means I have a lot less boy drama, which is good, but also less attention from boys, which is kind of lonely.

Here’s my problem. This spring I had three different guys showing interest in me, and to be honest, every one of them is attractive, at least physically, and they appear to be good guys on the surface. But I suspect that all of them are being shady – I don’t know if I’m paranoid now or if they are trying to play me! I don’t want to rule someone out who may be a good catch, but I don’t want to get played again. Please tell me what you think about these guys:

1. Was acting interested and attentive for a couple of months this spring, even getting a little possessive, saying stuff like “Please don’t look too pretty tonight when you go out with your friends,” etc. He doesn’t go to my school, so this was all via text and online chatting. Then I saw his gf from home post on his wall that she was so happy he’d be home soon. When I got home from school he suggested going out for drinks or dinner. When I called him out he said, “I’m allowed to have friends.” I tried hard to trap him, but he kept insisting his intentions were 100% innocent. I suggested he go back and look at his texts over the last couple of months. Either way that was a big waste of time.

2. Worked together during the summers. He’s always represented himself as being single, but there is clearly some girl on Facebook that calls him “Mine!” and stuff like that. It’s clear from her photos they’ve known each other for years – and clearly have a history going back to dating in college, maybe? He keeps suggesting that we “go out on the town.” He’s older and very attractive, and has periodically tried to meet up since I met him three years ago, but I never accept. I want to, though!

3. Met him at a party and we really hit it off, talking and laughing all night. At the end of the night, he said, “Listen, I’ve got to go call my girlfriend, but give me your number.” WTF? I said, “You have a girlfriend? No way I’m giving you my number.” He just shrugged and said OK but since then he’s been sending me Facebook messages and trying to coordinate evening plans. I don’t know if he’s just looking to be friends, or being the biggest douche ever.

Seriously, I don’t know what to think! It’s easy to assume all of these guys are cads, as you would say, haha, but I feel like I turn away everyone! It’s summer, and I really would like to hang out with some boys. I’m not looking for anything serious – it’s back to school in three months. I’m wondering if you think any of these guys could be legit, how I can figure it out, and whether it’s wrong to hang out platonically with a guy who has a gf. Asking them straight out at the beginning doesn’t work – they either lie or make me feel like a paranoid psycho.

Please help! Am I overreacting?

Valerie

Dear Valerie,

Wow, this could make a great rom com screenplay, and there would definitely be true love for you at the end, but not with any of these three guys. First of all, let me say that you are not overreacting. Every one of these examples includes one or more red flags, so it’s sensible to be cautious, especially in light of your past experience and your wise and admirable resolution. However, your email raises quite a few different questions, and as with so many things in life, there are few black and white answers. Mostly we deal in shades of gray. Let’s get to it.

What you’re describing here is not wanting to get caught up in any kind of deceit. You don’t want to deceive yourself, other girls, or these guys for that matter. Nor do you want to be the instrument of someone else’s deceit, either to play you or cheat in a relationship. Your question is a strategic one:

How can I increase my chances of having a fun summer by not turning away every guy who expresses interest?

At the same time, you’re obviously well aware of the moral implications.

The Morality of Double Dipping:

The Accomplice

It’s not surprising that when we talk of cheating, we have little respect for the deceiver. However, the role of the accomplice is often described in unflattering terms as well:

  • poaching
  • stealing
  • homewrecker
  • slut

Fellow blogger grerp writes The Lost Art of Self-Preservation, and recently advised women not to poach other women’s men:

People who are in relationships are in relationships.  They are important to other people. Your interference in that relationship is inappropriate and unethical….Just remember this: a man who can be poached can be poached again.  Will you be able to sleep easy at night when he is late coming home to you?  Think about it.

I fully agree with this. However, you’re describing something quite different – you are not the one pursuing, nor do you have any first-hand information regarding any potential relationships. You are not an accomplice.

The New Significant Other

Relationships end. In fact, every relationship you have before you meet your life partner will end either mutually, or because one of you has decided to call it quits. It’s natural, and there’s nothing unethical about ending a relationship. I don’t accept that someone who does the breaking up is wrong because they have caused pain. They may have been unethical, but there’s no sin in determining that a relationship isn’t working out. (I am not talking about marriage here, which is a much more complicated relationship.)

The truth is that many relationships end when one person meets someone else. Meeting someone new and feeling strongly attracted can be a signal that your current relationship is no longer satisfying. Or perhaps you make a connection with someone that is unlike anything you’ve felt before. Both of my college boyfriends broke up with other girls to date me. I wasn’t a favorite of either of those girls, but the truth is I played no direct role. There was zero overlap. I didn’t date either guy until he was officially back on the market.

This is the key ethical consideration, in my view. If someone who is in a relationship finds you attractive enough to pursue, you should indicate that he can call you when he is single. I give you credit for balking at the request for your number when you thought someone was openly looking to cheat. By the way, if you have to cajole someone to break up in order to date you, they are not a good relationship bet, because they’ve already indicated they would have cheated if you’d been game. As grerp points out, the next woman may have no hesitation in going after your guy, overlap be damned.

The strategic piece is easier in the sense that you don’t have to worry about screwing anyone over, but it’s tricky to know exactly what’s going on, as you’ve discovered.

Holding Your Own With Players and Cheats, or Are They?

As always, it’s important to keep an eye out for red flags.

  1. Is the person upfront from the beginning about their relationship status?
  2. Does information on Facebook or elsewhere contradict what they’ve been saying, or even the tone of their communication with you?
  3. Have they actually made a move or suggested hanging out alone?

Clearly, you’ve seen a mix of behaviors from these three men, but not all sins are equal.

Bachelor #1

He was clearly up to no good, and let’s face it, you knew that when you wrote to me. As far as I’m concerned, cheating is anything he wouldn’t want his girlfriend to know about. You suggest that his texts clearly expressed his interest. He didn’t admit to having a girlfriend until you challenged him. Bad news all around. As a general rule, if a guy is doing anything with you that you wouldn’t want your bf doing with someone else, he’s being sketchy. Betrayal can happen a long time before pants come off. It doesn’t matter what he protested; the two of you know exactly what he was after.

Bachelor #2

There are a couple of red flags here, but I would say they’re of the “be on guard” variety, rather than warranting immediate disqualification. It’s possible that the ex is batshit crazy and tagging his pics, etc. with ridiculous captions. On the other hand, they’re clearly in touch in some way, and that’s really not a good sign. Even if they’re not officially together, do you really want to take up with someone who has a back burner thing of several years duration going on? Of course, if he’s serious about her and trying to “go out on the town” with you, he’s a dog. It’s not clear to me that this guy is bad news – maybe the ex is. For the record, you really can ask him if he’s dating someone when he suggests a plan. You could just say, “Oh, wow, I’d love to, but I thought you had a girlfriend.” If he lies or makes you feel like a psycho, you’ve got your answer. A guy with nothing to hide will be eager to reassure you that he is completely above board.

Bachelor #3

I actually find this example the most interesting and also the toughest to answer. It’s very hard to know what’s going on here. Perhaps he was signaling he is in an open relationship, which is honest at least. He may know that having a girlfriend is likely to make him more attractive in your eyes, and that telling this to girls up front works well for him as a ploy, as they put their best effort into displacing her. On the other hand, you rejected this approach, and he is still pursuing.

It is also possible that he is just looking to be friends – or generally increase his social network. If he hasn’t suggested anything personal or sexual between the two of you, it’s possible. He might have clarified that when you refused to give him your number, but maybe he felt awkward at the time. The truth is, a gregarious and fun guy who has a girlfriend but is looking to share group social plans can be a real find – he’s bound to have single friends, and it sounds like your own social scene could use a boost this summer. In any case, meeting friends of friends is the third most common way that spouses find each other. It’s always a good idea to expand your social network.

I would keep an open mind about this one. See how he proceeds, and treat him like a friend. No flirting. You should know quite soon what his real intentions are.

  • If he makes a move, call him out, and remind him that you wanted no part of giving him your number because he had a girlfriend.
  • If he clarifies that their relationship is open, say thank you very much, but I’m closed.
  • If he wants to lose the girlfriend and pursue you, he should get in touch when he is officially single.
  • If he just wants to be friends, respond accordingly, and don’t make unfounded accusations.

In other words, respond to actions, not suspicions, and you should be OK. You’ll have to keep your eyes wide open, and not tolerate any shenanigans. I have a feeling you’re going to have a drama-filled summer. I know you’re not looking for that, and I suspect none of these guys is a keeper. Still, if you’re looking for some summer fun, and you keep your head on straight, you may find yourself surprised in a good way. Either way, you’ll never know until you dip your toe in the water.

Degree of difficulty: 9.0

Not for the faint of heart.