Self Care and Dating as a Millenial Caregiver: Part Two

I finished season nine of “Married at First Sight” with a fervor. Aside from the small, superficial satisfaction of television drama, I was most struck by Matt and all he encompasses. He was the villain I could recognize fully in a past romance of my own. It was baffling to see on the screen a parallel version of someone I once knew. It was eerie, yet fascinating. Being an audience member to this particular demeanor and behavior, instead of a victim to it, allowed me to dissect the situation, the red flags, and the characteristics subtly presented.

Although I have grown a lot in recent years, and most of the following less desirable characteristics are not as prominent for me, I saw a lot of myself in Amber:

  1. Hates and avoids confrontation.
  2. Wants love and is willing to forgive/move past issues too easily.
  3. Sensitive.
  4. Eager to trust a new love interest, but also guarded because of previous mistreatments.
  5. Responsible.
  6. Strives to grow.
  7. Quirky.

And here’s my conclusion of Matt’s characteristics:

  1. Great at telling people what they want to hear.
  2. Fun and easy going.
  3. Actions don’t back up words or promises.
  4. Not ready for commitment, but won’t say as such.
  5. Quick to apologize with conviction, but it’s disingenuous.
  6. Poor communicator.
  7. Selfish and self-serving, manipulative.
  8. Avoidant regarding feelings, personal details, and the past.
  9. Secretive about romantic involvement with other women.

The guy I was involved with, who is a dead ringer for Matt and the above traits, was someone I spent time with about a decade ago. Our friendship and romance was sporadic for a couple years. Let’s call him Jon. He was tall, handsome, athletic, fun to be around, goofy, subtly charming, and mysterious. Embarrassingly I admit that the nickname I used for him was “TDH”, which stood for Tall, Dark, and Handsome. We started off as flirtatious buddies, often hanging out while with a group of mutual friends. The first time he made a move on me I was ecstatic. I leaned into the sparks eagerly. I was too naïve and smitten to speak up when, in the weeks and months afterward, he started showing signs of dishonesty and egotistical tendencies. His charm was intoxicating, but at least I had the wherewithal to start keeping a list of the instances he would flake on me. That’s right…a tangible list. It was a feeble attempt to untangle emotion from reality. We’d make plans to go for drinks or grab a bite or attend a professional sporting event, and then at the last minute he’d cancel. I’d be heartbroken, but I still held out hope.

The first time I cut ties with him was hard. I had enough of his say “one thing but do another” approach, but I badly wanted him. Our break lasted for a few months until one day out of the blue he texted me. We wanted to see me, and to apologize. I resisted at first, but eventually gave in. I met up with him. He was drunk at a party on the other side of town. He met me outside and profusely apologized for treating me the way he did. Jon went on and on about how kind and wonderful I am, and how I didn’t deserve the things he did. I accepted his apology and melted. And again we began the cycle of him abusing my forgiveness and attraction to him, and him repeating all of the same nonsense from before. The M.O. was: Apologize with false sincerity. Praise me for being a good person. Shower me with attention and physical connection. Flake on plans. Have secret relationships with other women. Avoid commitment of any kind. Lie. And then I would have a breakdown and distance myself from him when my heart couldn’t bear the romantic gaslighting.

When I became despondent enough to remove myself from him for good, I did so with great internal struggle. It was one of my lowest points. The combination of a residual, years-long struggle with depression and my relationship with him caused me to give in to self-harm. It was a desperate attempt to escape my emotions and the pain of believing I’m “not good enough” for him, or for anyone. At the time I only told one person about my dangerous cry for help. Within a few months though I picked myself up and felt relieved (and proud) that I had finally drawn a clear boundary for myself. I had walked away willingly and accepted the self-respect I had been missing for far too long.

This relationship changed me.

It had been such a cathartic experience to expunge Jon from my life that I was strong enough to handle what came next. Later that same year I learned that he was in a committed relationship with the woman I had confided to regarding the half-hearted suicide attempt. It was a double betrayal. His girlfriend tried on multiple occasions to force me into attending social events where they’d be present. I refused to participate in their drama, egos, and any twisted attempts to insert me into unhealthy and unstable situations. I wasn’t angry. I was disappointed, tired of bullshit.

It was the first time I really stood up for myself. It was empowering.

It’s interesting to know what will happen when you find yourself in a corner, tired from repeating the same mistake again and again. Thankfully the silver lining of Jon was that he was the first chapter of my journey toward emboldening my true self.

Years later when I found myself in another relationship with a man who couldn’t commit, even just to saying that we were a couple (after five months of dating), I ripped off the band aid swiftly. There was no back and forth, on and off stalling of the inevitable. I could have ended things sooner, but I’m prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt. The important thing is that I chose to demand decency and respect instead of accepting sub-part treatment in a disillusioned hope of turning things around.

Soon after the end of this second empowering relationship I met a man who was kind and thoughtful, and reciprocated my feelings of interest. We fell in love. And when we broke up after two-and-a-half years I was of course devastated. But instead of choosing dangerous coping mechanisms I channeled my heartbreak into planning and executing a 48 state road trip. It was the third chapter of growth into adulthood and learning more about myself, how to curate healthier relationships, and paying attention more quickly to red flags.

With the most recent boyfriend a couple years ago I broke things off only three months into the relationship. A sweet, well-intended man, he hid his traumas and pain by overcompensating. He aimed to please by lying with detail about having similar interests and hobbies (cooking, camping, traveling, rock climbing, etc). He downplayed his religious ideologies so that he outwardly aligned with my own style of moral compass and personal guidance. More than once he tried to bribe me with sushi so that I’d visit him, even after I explained that he didn’t need to buy me dinner in order for me to want to see him. I was dating him, so therefor I wanted to spend time with him. All he had to do was invite me over.

Just about a month after we were “official” he started bringing up marriage, kids, and how he was going to propose to me. He asked if I loved him. I told him, honestly, I wasn’t there yet but appreciated his vulnerability in telling me how he cared about me. I asked for patience so that I could develop the same feelings in time.

Our whirlwind romance ended soon after an incident where he ditched me repeatedly at his sibling’s wedding and then drunkenly crashed his car on a rural road post-reception. Thankfully I was not in the car because we drove separately to the event, nor did I realize how much he had been drinking beforehand…because I spent a majority of the event by myself trying to make small talk with his family and the other wedding guests. The more time that went that on, the more blatantly I could see his pain manifesting in manipulative and unhealthy ways. These hints and allegations made me see that he was trying to fix his life and unhappiness with marriage and a new baby, as if they were cure-alls instead of things to be manifested with care and deep consideration. The early-days grace period of patience and giving the benefit of the doubt had clearly expired, so I let him go.

These men are all important mile markers during the last two decades. They’ve helped teach me how to date and what kind of people I should deem worth my attention and time.

Since becoming a caregiver I’ve found that dating hasn’t gotten any better, but enforcing boundaries and basic expectations had gotten much easier. Navigating stress, grief, and the constant care of my mom has further helped me develop relationship maturity. Now red flags are like flares at midnight instead of traffic signs I know are there but chose to ignore.

Here I am today, more sure of myself than ever, and dating is still generally and consistently disappointing, exhausting even. In my opinion online dating has only made things worse. Yes, I am aware that some people have found great success with this approach to finding love, but here and now I’m speaking in terms of my own experiences. Between Jon and present day I have always preferred to meet potential partners organically, in person, but I’ve also put efforts into trying several dating apps and sites (not simultaneously). OKCupid, JDate,, E-Harmony, Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. These virtual grounds for potential romance have become more clutch since the unfortunate trifecta of a small town, caregiving responsibilities, and the pandemic has come into play. All of these apps and sites have resulted in a lot of the same exhausting dead-ends. After years of connecting with several dozen men I’ve found there to be behavioral patterns and archetypes across the board.

To be continued…

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