When I was at secondary school I was really into reading. I mean, really into it. I read a book or two a week; mostly sci-fi or fantasy novels (with the family I had I needed a little escapism, after all), but I read a whole range of things. As long as my nose was in a book, I was happy.
Growing up we didn’t have much money, so I rarely had the opportunity to buy brand new books (which is why, to this day, I care for them and never even let the spines get cracked). Instead, I would walk the mile and a bit to or from school and therefore save the 40p morning and 30p evening bus rides. Yes, back then kids had to pay for the bus. Walking meant I had enough money by the end of the week to buy a few books from a quaint second-hand store run by a lovely old lady.
The trouble was, at some point that lovely old lady mistook me for someone else. Someone who loved stories set in the second world war. I didn’t dislike those, but they weren’t exactly my thing. That was, at least until she started saving them for me especially. When I went in she would proudly bring them out and tell me how excited she was that she’d spotted them and put them aside so I could enjoy them.
It would have been easy for me to have simply explained that she’d made a mistake and that, actually, I didn’t need to have thirty or forty war stories on my shelf. But I saw that it made her so, so happy to feel like she was doing something nice for someone when so few people came into her shop that I dutifully handed over my hard-saved pennies and bought them from her. I even read most of them so I could tell her about some of the stories (I think it brought back memories of her own WW2 experiences).
Looking back, that was probably the first example I can remember of my utter inability to cut off contact with lovely people. It’s a fault. I see the good in people and can’t help but want to help them maintain that. In normal life that’s no bad thing, but when it comes to dating that’s a different story.
The trouble starts when I match with someone. Most of the time I’m pretty ambitious about whom I swipe right on; I may have been criticised for it, but I am looking to date and potentially have a relationship with someone I find attractive. I know. Crazy, right?! But, sometimes, I admit that I’ve woken up after a bottle or so of wine and realised my drunken standards are way, way lower than my sober ones.
I’ll see matches with people who seem nice enough, but who don’t make me think “wow, I’m punching up there”. And I’ll see the start of our chats and the flirting that ensues. I’m not a fan of ghosting; I think it’s rude, so I’ll keep talking. This would be fine, but I’ve also discovered I’m an incorrigible flirt. I can’t help myself. I respond to leads and suggestions and before I know it I’m full on flirting.
Next thing you know, we’re exchanging numbers. Dating app turns to WhatsApp, and I’m actually quite proud of my gif game. Flirting continues. It’s pleasant. But I also know that no-one likes penpals. There’s a part of me that just wants to say “It’s been fun, but this is as far as it goes”. My rational brain tells me that I should do this, but after flirting so much how would that sound?! They’ve neither done nor said anything wrong after all. I feel like I’m in some sort of weird flirting contract situation which only leads one way.
So we arrange a date. I tell myself it’ll be fun, a good excuse to get out. What harm can be done? Only, the flirting continues. We end up kissing because, in the moment and after a few drinks, it feels like the right thing to do. Only, I know IT IS NOT THE RIGHT THING TO DO! Even as we’re kissing I know this won’t be a long-term thing (not that we’ve discussed long-term or not, nor whether she’s even looking for that, but I still know it for me); I should just walk away.
But I don’t. By no means do I lead people down a fake road; I don’t look into their eyes and tell them I love them, make promises about our future and start talking to them about meeting my kids. It’s fun, yes, but I still know that it’s no more than fun, and I’m as clear as I can be about that. However, at the time I feel like I’m not doing it because I really want to, I’m doing it because I’m shit at breaking things off and I feel like they want to do it. I feel committed when I shouldn’t.
My rational brain tells me to have The Talk. to sit down with them and just say “it’s been really fun spending time chatting/going out/sleeping with you, but I’ve been thinking and this isn’t going to go anywhere further so it’s probably best if we stop seeing each other before one of us gets hurt”. Or words to that effect.
I’ve a friend who manages to do it all the time. She’ll meet someone, see them for a while and break up with them for a variety of reasons. Every time, though, she makes sure that the other person believes it is their issue, their problem and that they aren’t ready for her. And they believe her. Every time.
I’ve never really done it before, though. The near-relationships I’ve had since divorce have all ended for a weird variety of reasons, with none of them having The Talk. Some of those I’ve slept with knew it was a one-night thing, others we’ve simply drifted apart from each other and some have resulted in weird but brilliant friendships.
I don’t know exactly how to get better at breaking off flirtatious contact before it gets too far, but I know I need to improve. It’s not fair on the people involved and can lead to all sorts of situations. After all, the biggest time it happened resulted in an 18 year marriage and four kids.
Talk about things getting out of hand. Perhaps if I’d learned to tell that lovely old lady in the second-hand shop that I didn’t actually need any more Alistair MacLean books I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this mess in the first place. Curse you, Alistair MacLean.