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I think I’m in love with my ‘situationship’ but he doesn’t feel the same

Ask Roe: I think we could be great together but he’s flaky and can go radio silent for days

When one person doles out rewards like affection and attention sporadically and unpredictably, we become obsessed with trying to get more

Dear Roe,

I’m a 25-year-old woman and I’ve been in a “situationship” for nearly a year with a man I knew from college. I always liked him but was a bit intimidated by him (he’s very good-looking and popular) and he was known to be a bit of a player. Last year, my friend started going out with his friend and I started seeing him more often, and we started sleeping together. When I’m with him, he’s funny and exciting and I feel like we’re really connecting. He has this artistic side that he doesn’t show a lot of people and I think he’s really talented. He tells me a lot that I make him feel understood.

I think we could be great together but we only ever hang out in group situations or to have sex. He’s flaky and can go radio silent for days only to pop back up again like nothing happened. I’ve tried talking about wanting to see him more and have more date-like hangouts. He always says yes but it never happens. He says he’s busy with work and wants to be able to see both me and his friends and so seeing everyone together works best, and when we’re alone he is really romantic but it’s been so long now and my friends think I need to end it because it’s never going to be more. I feel like they’re probably right but I like him so much. I did try to end it before but he told me he really liked me and wanted to “see where this goes”. Is he just messing me around or can causal things develop?

Can casual things develop into something serious? Sure, sometimes. Will they with this guy? I doubt it. I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear. I know your feelings for this guy are strong and passionate and all-consuming. I know that when you’re tangled up in sheets together or when you threaten to leave that he’s tender and romantic and tells you that you understand him like no one else can, and that you feel special and romanced and like the centre of this guy’s universe.


But here’s what I also know. I know that when he’s dodging your questions about when he’s going to take you on a real date, or when you’re waiting for his text message that may or may not come, or when you’re in a group setting where he is ignoring you and acting like you’re just another random friend and not someone who he has regular sex with and leans on for emotional support, you feel very different.

I know you feel confused and rejected and alone and a little bit crazy because you spend so much time and energy thinking about him, and don’t understand how he can seemingly turn his affection off and on at will. I know you feel exhausted because you think you have to always look your best and be the shiniest version of yourself to keep him interested.

I know you feel like you’re walking on eggshells and have to phrase everything – including your desire for a committed relationship – extremely carefully lest he startle like a deer and run away into the woods forever. I know you feel like you’re constantly playing a game where you don’t know the rules but know you’re behind, until those rare moments he tells you that you’re winning and for a moment it seems like all your hard work has been worth it – and then suddenly he’s gone and you fall back into darkness and you don’t know you’ll ever catch up with him again or where the finishing line is or if this game even has one.

There’s an idea in behavioural psychology called reinforcement theory, which examines how humans and other animals react to rewards being given to them. In studies involving rats, researchers discovered that the most effective way to sustain the subjects’ efforts was to reinforce their behaviour at unpredictable intervals, rather than at consistent ones. This is because when you know when and why a reward is coming, you can regulate and pace yourself, feeling secure in the knowledge that at a certain time or after a certain action, a reward will come. But if rewards come unpredictably, if there’s seemingly no logic or schedule to when rewards are doled out, you will be kept in a constant state of vigilance and insecurity, constantly thinking about the rewards, working hard to try do what is needed to make one come – and when one finally does, no matter how meagre, you’ll be encouraged to continue your efforts.

This dynamic plays out in human relationships a lot. When one person doles out rewards like affection, romance, attention and validation sporadically and unpredictably, we become obsessed with trying to get more, feeding off the crumbs and working, working, working, hoping that one day, it will turn into a feast. But here’s the thing: you don’t want a relationship with someone who plays games and doles out crumbs. You want someone who is honest about what they have to give and wants to share it with you, equally. This guy isn’t capable of that.

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Trust me, you’re not the only one who has found herself trapped in one of these thankless games. But you can get out of it. What you need to do is to stop focusing on how you feel about him, and instead focus on how he makes you feel.

When you focus solely on how you feel about another person, you just indulge your fantasies about who they could be and what your relationship could be. Focusing solely on how you feel about this guy is going to make you believe that he’s perfect, that you’re the problem, and that you need to change yourself to make him want you. Focusing so intently on him is going to make you lose sight of what you need, what you want and how you feel. It’s going to make you lose yourself. It’s already happening, isn’t it?

You need to come back to yourself, and that journey starts by focusing on how you want to feel and contrasting that with how he actually makes you feel – all of it. The confusion, the frustration, the powerlessness, the intimidation, the tongue-tied insecurity. I’m guessing you want to feel wanted, to feel attractive, to feel interesting and alive and passionate and sparky and all the good things he sometimes makes you feel. But I think you also want to feel safe, valued, respected, secure, accepted, appreciated, supported, listened to, understood, committed to, prioritised. And you’re not getting that from him.

Pay attention to the people who make you feel your best – your friends, family members, people who love you. Notice how their consistency, acceptance and love makes you feel safe, and how that safety lets you be yourself. That’s what you need to look for in a partner. Someone who makes you feel like yourself, and loved for it.

Tell this guy you’re done and block his number. You can be friends in two years, if you want to, but for now you need space from him so that your head can clear. When it does, you’re going to have so much time and energy to focus on yourself and what you want – and time to notice all the other great people out there who want what you want: a relationship where you feel like you’re winning, all the time.

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