Originally published by The Washington Post on May 9, 2016
I have a bad habit of not believing people when they tell me things, especially when they’re telling me something inconvenient. Sometimes that’s fairly harmless. I’ll ignore the number of calories in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked, for example, and wave off people who tell me I own too many floral patterned shirts. But my selective hearing gets me into trouble when it’s something that could later cause me pain, such as hearing a prospective partner isn’t into “chubby guys.” I’ll write that off as an innocuous comment — until a few weeks later when I can’t so much as take my shirt off around them.
I’m a self-diagnosed selective-hearing dater (SHD). I refuse to believe what people say about themselves. My first instinct when learning something inconvenient about a person I’m dating — like they don’t know how to be emotionally intimate, or they don’t want to introduce the person they’re dating to their friends — is to figure out how to change it rather than run in the opposite direction.
Perhaps this stubbornness stems from a childhood spent watching Julia Roberts exhibit the same behavior in “Pretty Woman” all the way through “Runaway Bride.” But I know I’m not the only person suffering from SHD.
One of my best friends, a recent law school graduate, has no interest in a long-term relationship. Between looking for a job and studying for the bar, the last thing she wants is to get into anything serious. “I’m not emotionally available right now,” she has told several dates. “But I’d love to have fun and hang out.”
Fast-forward a few weeks and she’s sitting across the bar from someone, shocked as they complain about her inability to connect emotionally. “It’s not that I’m unable to,” she told me,“it’s that I’m unwilling to right now, and I’m always super open about it up front. I’m busy, they like the idea that they could be the one to change that.” Commiserating with her about how ridiculous it was that these people refuse to believe her, I realized I’m one of those delusional people.
How many times had I done that? How many times had I decided someone else’s truth wasn’t convenient for me and attempted to rewrite it? I once tried to convince someone I’d been dating for a few weeks that he could absolutely learn to want kids one day, even though he’d said time and again he wasn’t interested. It’s not that I was ready to start planning our family on our third date, but if I know I want kids someday, the time to convince him otherwise was now, not two years down the line.
A couple years later, I tried to convince someone I was dating that he was totally ready to be in a long-term relationship, as he attempted to breakup with me. I tried over and over to assure him of his own emotional readiness, as he repeated back to me that he simply wasn’t in that place. Apparently I thought I knew better, and I blame “Notting Hill.” If there were to be a “Notting Hill 2,” Hugh Grant wouldn’t have been able to cope with Robert’s fame as she’d convinced him he could. She’d be just a girl, standing in front of a boy, disputing his request for alimony.
Following that breakup, I decided to start believing people. It was time to acknowledge that daters aren’t divulging this kind of information for the fun of it. No one is walking around telling people they are emotionally unavailable, or don’t want kids, or aren’t interested in being intimate, as a coy cat-and-mouse game. It’s because they know their truth, and they have a hunch you’re looking for more than they can give.
So when the most recent person I’d been on a few dates with told me he wasn’t interested in a committed relationship, I believed him. Rather than taking that as a challenge, as Roberts has taught me, I accepted it and decided to embrace casual dating. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped looking for something long-term, but for now it’s okay.
Recovery from SHD doesn’t happen all at once. This guy did tell me he doesn’t like the 2001 remake of “Josie and the Pussycats,” and I am on a mission to convince him otherwise. That is the kind of battle I have the time and energy to invest in, rather than attempting to change his entire outlook on dating.