Maybe what I want is a sandwich…

A friend passed this onto me from an advice column...

Dear Cary,

I'm a 35-year-old professional type, smart and fairly witty I'm told, apparently not bad looking, and so very lonely. I'm told it's easy for men in my demographic to meet women, but nobody ever talks about the flip side of that coin -- it's not any easier to meet the right person.

I'm starting to realize that the problem lies within. This whole self-awareness project is a relatively new one. I'm still sorting it all out. Here's what I've figured out so far.

I got married too young. I was 23 years old when I got married. I hadn't dated a lot. I just met someone who felt right and didn't want to look any further. I truly did think I'd found the person who was right for me.

Eight years later we'd both changed so much we could barely recognize each other. The cool hippie girl I'd married had become an accountant. I'd morphed into what I now am from the dope-smoking skater kid I once was. We barely spoke, never had sex, and drifted further and further apart until it was over and I left. In a lot of ways this was a relatively easy split -- we just had nothing to fight over. No kids, mortgages, nothing -- but in so many ways it has extracted a huge toll.

How can I find a woman for a real relationship?

Now I find myself paralyzed by the prospect of relationships and dating. Not by the terrifying prospect of approaching people. I honestly don't find that terrifying. It's approaching honestly and openly I'm not so good at.

I'm an astute guy. It doesn't take me long to figure out what people want. Put me in a bar feeling desperately lonely and I can reproduce a reasonable hand-drawn facsimile of exactly what a woman's looking for -- at least for the first few hours. So the pattern I've fallen into is basically whoredom.

A female friend of mine put it best. She claims I'm acting like a teenage girl, trading sex for acceptance. I have to agree with her. What I do is trade in whatever fragile bits of self-esteem I've built up since the last time it happened for that close feeling of human contact. For someone who will touch me.

This pattern has varied a couple of times over the past few years, but the results weren't good either time. On both occasions I met what I can only describe as "complicated" women who turned around and delivered me the karmic shit-kicking I probably deserved. I seem to have an inability to let something grow organically between me and another person. If I feel something, it's all or nothing, and I drove both of them away.

Lately I've been trying to fill up what feels like a big empty hole in my life with positive things. I spend time with my friends. I bought a house I'm renovating. I'm learning to play the guitar. All this is good. I have some of the best friends anyone could want. My home is becoming exactly that -- a home. Music is opening up a whole new world for me.

But sooner or later it's 2 a.m. and my married friends are heading home. This is generally when the real loneliness hits -- and when I wind up the next morning wondering what her name is and how I get her out of my house. And when I do meet someone that offers some possibilities, my heart seems to short-circuit and I mess it up. I'm really starting to wonder why I'm sabotaging myself.

-- Paralyzed

Dear Paralyzed,

One thing that happens with men, I think, is that we pretend to ourselves that we're just looking for sex, in order to keep things simple and not be overwhelmed by all our multifarious and complex needs and desires. But we pretend to women that we're not just looking for sex, which is true, except not exactly the way we portray it. We come on a little more heroic and in control than we really are. We're really pretty much a raging ball of confusion, but we don't let on. So we get a little song and dance together that gets us in the door and then once we get in the door, and we can let our guard down, we'd like to be our true selves but we can't because we've already done this other act. So we're trapped in a character we've created.

But if you really laid it all out ahead of time, you figure you'd never get laid, right? Imagine what would happen if you said, Here are my fears, here's my history of being an asshole, here's my meager salary and my secret ambitions to be a rock star, here's my actual opinion of women and love and social bullshit, here's my desire to not ever get married and end up like the guys I went to high school with, here's my possible drinking problem, here's my limited emotional vocabulary, here's my idea of a good-looking jacket, here's my underwear and yes I like it with the holes in it.

I mean, you can't do that, right? So you're trapped.

But you're not entirely trapped. You have to set yourself up with some wiggle room. Picture a scale of 1 to 10. What would be on the scale? Take loneliness and sexual desire, for instance: Need for closeness. Need for sex. Need for quiet talk. Need for sleep. Need for food. Need for exercise. Need for alone time. Need for music and friends. Need for trust. Need to know what's going to happen tomorrow. Just a whole list of things.

Then subdivide them. This loneliness, for instance. There is loneliness that is an aching for someone in particular. And there is loneliness for just people in general, like the need to just walk downtown. That is, there is loneliness that is a longing for intimacy, and there is loneliness that is a longing for just anonymous human contact. Other feelings you think are loneliness might not be loneliness at all, but restlessness, or irritability, or even hunger. You might think you need a woman but you just need a sandwich.

You never know until you start rating these cravings on a scale of 1 to 10, by their intensity and their duration. Likewise, with the need for sex, that could be broken down. What kind of sex do you need? Do you need the kind of sex that involves intimacy with a woman? Or do you need the kind of sex that is more like walking down a street full of strangers, a kind of sex that is more a distraction from yourself than an encounter? You can define all these things for yourself.

What appears to have been happening is that you're feeling various powerful wants but acting on them each time in the exact same way -- by seducing a woman. And you're finding that each time you do it the same way, of course it turns out pretty much the same. And so I'd suggest that you start paying attention to the variations in what you feel, and trying to come up with actions more appropriate to what you're actually feeling. Because you're not in it just for the sex. You're in it for a variety of things.

That's why it sounds like a very positive thing that you're playing music, and working on the house, and you have this web of friends.

But you're probably still uncomfortable enough in your own skin that you need these periods of, like, emotional blackout, where you just go on autopilot. You're going to have to try to stay awake at those moments where you feel so uncomfortable. Go for that middle zone, where you're a little lonely but also a little tired, or a little attracted but also a little put off. Try to carburet your emotions, get some good healthy mixtures. You've been running too rich, and then flooding and stalling out.

You need to consciously try to change the course of habitual interactions with women. For instance, next time you're with a woman and you can see where it's leading, stop. Say to her that you like her and you sense where things are going but you're trying to change your habits with women. And just see if you can't feel your way along with her in a slightly different way than before. Maybe work her into your life a bit -- your life with the house and the music and the friends. Take the time to find out if you really like her or you just want to gobble her like a sandwich. If you just want to gobble her like a sandwich, maybe it's not her, but the sandwich you want to gobble. Maybe then you two could go into the kitchen and put something between two slices of bread.

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