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He says he doesn’t want a relationship so why is he acting like he does?

Ask Roe: I told him we should stop having sex if he doesn’t want to be with me but we’re already flirting again

Dear Roe,

I’m a 25-year-old woman and met a man through work last year. We immediately got on but he was just out of a relationship and dealing with the pandemic and though we slept together a couple of times, he said he wasn’t looking for anything serious. We flirt a lot, text constantly and talk about personal things. When he got a new girlfriend, I was surprised and hurt because I thought that when he was ready to properly date, he would have asked me. I got upset and he gave some confusing excuses, but we continued being close. Now he’s broken up with his other girlfriend and we slept together again. I asked him did he ever see us together and he said that “we have such a unique relationship already”, which was confusing. I told him we should stop having sex and flirting because he’s messing with me and we didn’t talk for a few weeks. We finally had a conversation where he said he didn’t want to be together but wants to be my friend – but now we’re already back to flirting and being intimate. I don’t understand what he’s doing and it’s been going on for so long.

This is one of those situations where the adage “actions speak louder than words” is going to destroy you, because it’s just not true. This man is acting like he romantically cares about you and wants to build a relationship with you, but he is explicitly saying he does not want to have a relationship with you – and you need to listen to and believe his words.

Most people have had an experience like this, where someone they are interested in is sending them mixed signals, and part of our glorious, ridiculous humanity is our desire to only latch on to the few flickering signals that are pointing towards what we want, all while ignoring the fields of neon-flashing red flags pointing towards the more painful truth. And the painful truth is that – to bastardise a Maya Angelou quote – when someone tells you that they don’t want a relationship with you, believe them the first time.

It’s always very confusing and upsetting when someone acts intimately and romantically but says they’re not interested. It can be tempting to tell yourself that they’re just scared of their feelings or not ready to commit – but all you’re doing is betraying your own needs, boundaries and desires for someone who is acting purely in their own interests. This man clearly enjoys elements of his dynamic with you, but only the dynamics that benefit him. He enjoys your attention, your validation, even having sex with you, but he does not want the commitment and responsibility of a relationship. He also doesn’t even want the commitment and responsibility of being a good friend to you, because he’s not setting healthy and respectful boundaries.

I’m also deeply suspicious of his ability to be respectful to his girlfriends – is he still flirting and being overly intimate with you while in a relationship? How comfortable are his partners with his “unique relationship” with a woman who he knows is sexually and romantically interested in him?

There is nothing wrong with having casual sex with someone, and there is nothing wrong with flirting and being close with someone even if you don’t want a committed relationship – if everyone is on the same page, and the limits and boundaries of the relationship are clear. But toying with someone’s emotions, acting emotionally available in order to keep them attached when you know you will never commit in the way they are hoping, is cruel, self-serving and emotionally immature.

Unfortunately, in the same way that you cannot make this man love you, you also cannot make him act ethically. But the good news is that you can set all the boundaries you need yourself. It will be important for you to think about why you have invested so much time, energy and attention into a man who is not offering you what you need, who has told you he doesn’t want a relationship with you. I’m going to guess that you spend a lot of your time feeling anxious, frustrated, waiting for him to validate you and constantly feeling like you need more. There’s a cycle of him giving you just enough validation to keep you interested, but not enough to feel fulfilling. Meanwhile, you give him everything he wants and needs, are constantly available for him, and play down your needs and frustrations in order not to scare him away.

Think about this dynamic. Why have you put up with this for so long? Why do you believe that you must shrink yourself down, be constantly available for him, and underplay your own needs just for this man to toy with you? Why don’t you think that you deserve more, that you’re worthy as you are? You are invested in an imaginary version of this man who respects you and is committed to you, and are hurting yourself pursuing this imaginary person. Why are you overlooking all of his flaws and bad behaviours while accepting his poor treatment of you?

There’s something in you that doesn’t believe that you deserve more than this treatment. You’re wrong, you do. And you need to start acting like it by setting boundaries. Stop indulging in daydreams of what this relationship could be in another universe and focus on the reality of it, now. Remind yourself of how frustrating, upsetting and confusing your interactions have been. Stop giving this man unlimited access to your time and attention. Take a clean break from him. If he tries to flirt or mine you emotionally for attention, tell him: “We want different things and it’s better for me if we go our separate ways. Take care!” Do not let him argue, do not get drawn into long conversations about his “confused” feelings or your “unique” relationship. If he tries to argue, simply repeat “This is what I need.” He has taken what he has wanted all along – it’s your turn now. It’s likely he’ll resist or try to convince you that he can change, but this is simply because you’re cutting off a supply of attention and validation he has come to rely on.

Distract yourself with friends and other things while you get over this man – which you will, I promise. And the next time someone catches your attention, notice what they are offering you, how they make you feel, and what boundaries you are using to protect yourself. Make sure you’re not always going for people who make you feel confused, anxious, like you need to offer all you can and ask for nothing. Learn to notice the people who make you feel respected, appreciated, who want to build something together, equally. You deserve nothing less.