“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]
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Dear Swipe This,
I’ve been dating a guy for a month and a half, and I’m really into him, which is both exciting and scary. I have a hard time being vulnerable at the start of new relationships, and he’s finally someone I feel a true connection with. But his hot-and-cold texting style is driving me nuts!
When this guy first asked me out, he proved to be a prodigious texter: full conversations back and forth for hours, lots of checking in on how things are going, but not in a stalker-y way. At first, I was surprised by it. I was like, “What’s all this? I don’t need this!” But in truth, I’ve loved it because it’s shown that he’s thinking about me. He also travels a lot for work, so it’s helped us maintain momentum even while he’s away.
I’d say I text an average amount; it helps me keep in close touch with friends and family, but it’s not how I want to spend all my time. Yet now that the bar has been set so high, I expect to hear from him every day and to know what he’s up to. On the days he hasn’t reached out or has taken a long time to respond, I’ve spun myself into a tizzy. I suddenly wonder if I’ve done something wrong or if his feelings have changed. I check my phone constantly. It’s infuriating, because it makes me feel like I don’t have control. Worse, I don’t like how I turn the situation into a criticism of myself and my actions.
The few times this has happened, I usually wait a while and then text him, and everything goes back to normal, and we go out soon after and have a better time than the last. But these intervening moments are making me feel like I’m losing my mind.
I think I’m afraid the second I get comfortable and relax into the idea that he definitely will text me again, he won’t, and I’ll be crushed. How do I chill out?
Compulsive Text Checker
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Dear Compulsive Text Checker,
It’s mid-fall as I write this, but the weather has only turned cold in the past week or so. For all of September, and most of October, the last humid breaths of summer mingled with gusts of cool wind. Sometimes, I longed for fall. And on other days, I enjoyed the extra heat. If it’s going to be an endless summer, I thought as I pulled on my sundress, I might as well lean into it.
And then, suddenly, the air went cold. Too cold. And now on days that still mingle warm and cold, I find myself irritable, unsteady, and unsure how to dress. How much armor do I need to feel sturdy, without feeling suffocated? When I step into the uncertainty of the outside world, will I have brought what I need so that the unpredictable cold won’t knock me on my ass? Or am I overdoing it? Will I be burdened by too many layers of itchy wool and wind-resistant fabrics that block my skin from enjoying what might just be a totally beautiful and perfect fall day?
In other words, I feel your pain. I really fucking do. There is nothing more startling than letting yourself lean into the warmth of a new lover’s excessive texting style only to find yourself out in the cold. I don’t care how tough or independent you are. Once you’ve opened up to the cozy glow of someone’s daily thoughts appearing on your screen on the regular, no one enjoys being at the mercy of the sudden frostiness of a few hours, or days, without contact. If you want to learn more about the neurochemistry behind your reaction to intermittent texting, I’ve addressed similar phenomena in my column before.
But let’s give your personal experience attention. You seem wonderfully self-aware and capable of practical reflection. So I’m sure you already know, without me even telling you, that the ebb and flow of his texts doesn’t necessarily signal a waning interest in you. For all we know, this dude came on strong and now he’s trying to let things breathe so he doesn’t scare you away. Or maybe he truly is someone who runs hot and cold and enjoys intense contact for extended periods but finds himself needing bouts of alone time to recharge. As you point out, you have no evidence that a change in frequency of texts means your connection is waning. If anything, what you have is a pattern of connecting and reconnecting. You say yourself that you’ve gone on to have wonderful in-the-flesh dates after periods of his absence. In short, nothing about his behavior spells disaster.
But it is unsettling to go from hot to cold to hot again. And you’re human to wonder how you can weather this pattern. You may be wondering exactly how much armor you need. Or perhaps you’re wondering if you can really let this person in after all. If you do get “too comfortable,” will he just up and leave? Is he lulling you into a false sense of security only to abandon you completely?
You said that you have trouble letting new people in. So it makes perfect sense that you’re wondering how you can make yourself vulnerable to someone new when you can’t gauge exactly how much they’ll have to give. At the very least, you’re human to wonder if a cold front is on the horizon. It’s natural to want to be prepared for shitty weather, and to some degree, it’s a healthy instinct to want to take care of yourself. But even the most informed, most organized among us make mistakes. And that is OK.
What I hear in your letter isn’t just a desire to get back to a sense of control, but a hope that you can get this “right.” So know this: It’s OK if you don’t see it coming, even if what’s coming is the very worst thing you could imagine. It’s OK not to be perfectly prepared. You might experience a chilly discomfort. You might even get your heart broken. But you won’t die. You will survive whatever comes next.
Frequently, technology offers us the illusion that if we apply ourselves correctly, we really will be in control. We can curate reminder lists and set alarms and even download meditation apps to keep our chronic anxiety in check. We can organize our app folders and tidy our inboxes and tell ourselves, “Hey, I’m organized. I’m on top of it. My life is efficient and so am I!” Yes, we can really trick ourselves into thinking that we’re happy, functional robots living predictable, manageable lives.
But here’s the truth: We are all incredibly delicate and fragile and we live at the mercy of elements that are beyond our control. We are tiny soft-fleshed beings clinging to a swiftly heating planet that spins through space at a speed we could never approach. Although we do what we can to appear strong and brave, we are often helpless, and sometimes we wish our circumstances to be very, very different from our dreadful reality.
And I believe all of this makes us incredibly beautiful and supremely lovable.
The person who you are delicately and slowly opening up to is not going to fall in love with your armor. He’s going to fall for you. The tender, pierceable, vulnerable you who lives at the very core of your existence. Not the manicured, organized, doesn’t-get-freaked-out-when-she-doesn’t-get-texted-daily you. The real you. The you who has hopes and fears and wants and needs. That you is worthy of being seen and she’s worth loving.
I’m not saying you should have a full-on meltdown the next time he goes silent. I’m not saying you have to show him every wound or play the damsel who needs to be rescued from her own mental anguish. What I’m saying is you’ve got to be tender with the girl who has fallen a little bit in love with being texted on the daily. You’ve got to love her when you may feel like scolding her for needing so much so quickly. You can’t control how this man, or any other lover, will respond to your needs. But you can learn to take a deep interest in the part of you that needs, the part that prefers a cooler or warmer temperature. And you can make a choice to love her deeply. Because if you don’t love her, if you tell her she needs to be cool and controlled and some kind of perfect to be lovable, how will you ever let anyone else love her, too?
Sometimes in the fall, when I lean into the cool of a beautiful day, when the sun is out and the sky is blue and I see the leaves bleeding orange and yellow and red at their edges, a wave of anxiety crashes over me. Because I know it will soon be winter. And I live in New York, where winters are hard, unyielding bands of darkness and ice that seem to go on for years, not months. Sometimes, in the dead of a New York winter, the cold and dark are so unbearable that I find myself imagining that summer will never return. This is it, I tell myself. Get used to your new life in the tundra. But inevitably, winter passes, the trees sprout new buds, the days lengthen. And, finally, summer returns, again as it has before.
But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like maybe, this time, it won’t. I could tell myself I’m being ridiculous. I could mock my worst fears. And sometimes, I laugh at my own melodrama and find relief in that. But on my best days, when I simply can’t bear the cold, I fix myself a tea, cover myself in my favorite throw, and hold myself tightly. I listen to myself and acknowledge exactly what I’m feeling. And then a part of me softens, because I know that no matter how cold it is, I am capable of holding myself tenderly. And I feel soothed.
I can’t tell you how this romance will unfold. Maybe it will blossom into something gorgeous and full, or maybe it will wither and fade. But I can tell you that if you love yourself and hold yourself through all the bits and pieces you can’t control, you will begin to feel safe again. So set aside some of your armor, and give yourself a hug. You deserve to feel held in all kinds of weather.