When it comes to my lovers, I have a really hard time deciphering their intentions. Due to some traumatic experiences in my younger years, I’ve had pretty limited dating experience in the time since. It feels like I’ve forgotten how to read people, or that the dating rules have changed, or both – so when I have sexual relationships with men, I find myself confused about whether their interest in me is genuine and the beginning of love, or if it's only lust.
I’m also from a culture that isn’t particularly romantic or affectionate, and I haven’t really witnessed a couple interact in the way that I desire to experience. I want a love that’s fiercely loyal and that has the potential to last for a lifetime. In general, I’m able to make sense of my own feelings about a guy; it’s just so hard to determine how he’s feeling about me. I know I can’t read someone’s mind but I don’t want to just blurt out my feelings without having the slightest sense of theirs. Is this just due to a lack of experience or am I missing something obvious?
Which L-word Is It?
Dear Which L-word Is It,
Ah, yes, the age-old question. It seems totally cruel how much love and lust can mimic each other, especially while we're defenseless against their neurochemical attacks. If only they'd have the decency to announce themselves upon arrival. Dating is tough enough!
I'm not going to lie – the ‘rules’ for dating have certainly shifted a lot lately. Even before the pandemic, Tinder and its ilk had newly created a dating culture that felt gamified, where we swiped on so many faces that we sometimes forgot they were attached to real people. Then came 2020 and all of its assorted horrors, cutting off our ability to form new connections in familiar ways.
Suffice it to say, now is a pretty wild time to be dating again after a prolonged pause. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't go for it! I just want you to go easy on yourself as you wade back into sex and dating, and not to feel any pressure to make up for lost time. It's much more important that you don't re-traumatize yourself in the process.
A love that's ‘fiercely loyal’ won't be easy to spot up front, but the patience and focus that often come with it might be.
Regardless of the precise nature of those early traumas, or how long ago they occurred, their effects can linger for longer than you may think. It's common to struggle with trust and connecting with your intuition, an essential tool for judging someone's character. If what you went through is still making it tough to move through the world, you may want to address this with a professional before you fully dive back into dating. It's possible this issue could untangle itself in the process.
That being said, you know far better than me where you are in your healing journey, and if it feels right, dive in! The good news is that you seem to know exactly what you want. Do continue to prioritize your feelings while you're meeting and dating new people. It can save a lot of time and stress by quickly weeding out folks who aren't on the same page. Think about the ways that someone can show you that they meet your needs. A love that's ‘fiercely loyal’ won't be easy to spot up front, but the patience and focus that often come with it might be.
It can be really tough to envision, let alone create, the relationships we know we want without ever having witnessed them. I truly admire your determination to do so anyway, because it's tough, but absolutely possible. It's never too late to seek out role models, which I'd highly recommend. You say you've never witnessed couples around you interacting the way you'd like to but is there possibly a famous or fictional couple that embodies your vision of relationship success? Make note of those things, and see if your suitors are aligned with them to get clues about compatibility.
“...Everyone goes through some version of this now and then, and it's fucking terrifying every time.”
You're right about mind-reading though – it's simply out of the question. And this brings me to the hardest truth I must impart: chasing love means accepting the possibility of pain. There's nothing I, or anyone else, can tell you that will always get you the answer that you're hoping for. You'll simply have to choose whether you'd rather get hurt while chasing something you really wanted, or hurt because you're always wondering “what if…”.
I wish I believed there was an objective answer to this question of deciphering love from lust. The truth is, even if you were to ask your lover outright, they may not yet know the answer themselves. The only thing I can promise you is that everyone goes through some version of this now and then, and it's fucking terrifying every time.
But as you start to gain more relationship experience, you'll start to recognize the rhythms. You'll get better at spotting red flags from further away, which will help you trust your intuition to keep you safe. It will all get a little easier, especially if you do seek out a support system. You'll be well on your way to where "love or lust?" is a lot less of a concern, because you'll be much more interested in how you're feeling instead.
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