When I was in my final year of college, I went on my first ever date with a guy I really liked. He was extremely lovely, funny and attractive too (all boxes ticked). However, the timing wasn’t great – my mental health was in the gutter and I was concerned about doing long distance as we were both going to different universities in a couple of months. As a result, we never moved out of the talking phase – it was mutual, but I blame myself for putting barriers up. I’m now in my mid-twenties and I’m in a really good place mental health-wise, but I can’t stop thinking about him and what could’ve been. As I said, he ticked all of my boxes. For me, timing was the issue. We have loads of mutual friends and are connected on social media, so it feels like he’s never fully fallen out of my life. So, what do I do? Part of me wants to reach out to gauge whether or not he’s interested but, then again, this idea of him being Mr Right is all in my head... there’s a high chance that he’s not given our date a thought since we went on it. Do I strike up a conversation with him and risk rejection/mutual friends finding out that I’m interested (which would be mortifying); or do I move on with my life?
I have read and re-read your letter, looking for the “catch” – you seem to almost want me to talk you out of pursuing this guy who you hold a flame for; someone you got along famously with the time you went out, who ticked all those boxes, who you shared friends in common with, who you are still connected to (at least, remotely), but I’ll be honest with you: I can’t find one.
“Extremely lovely, funny and attractive”, you say – and the problem is... what, exactly? He sounds brilliant – I’ll take his number, if you won’t (I’m being flippant, but it’s only to try to show you that really, there isn’t any good reason to stay away). The only thing stopping you here is fear.
Often we might meet someone who looks pretty damn near perfect for us on paper (the caveat being, of course, that nobody is perfect): we get along well, make each other laugh, share a sense of humour or friends or film or music or sports tastes and find each other attractive. When we back away from a chance like that, without any good objective reason to do so, I think there is usually one of two main factors at play: timing and/or fear.
When you first met this guy, the former was true for you. It wouldn’t have worked for you at that particular moment, because as you say, your mental health was “in the gutter” and you were worried about the effect of trying to maintain a long-distance relationship. Neither of those issues are a factor for you now – you’ve graduated from university and you’re in a “really good place” mental health-wise (and you deserve a huge clap on the back for finding the right support to help you get where you are today). What’s left? You’re afraid. And that’s okay.
Part of the reason I think you’re frightened is because you are worried that the fantasy you’ve carried around in your head about this man for the past few years can’t possibly match up to the reality – but here’s the thing: it can’t. And that’s not because there’s necessarily anything wrong with him, or with you – it’s just the cold, hard truth that none of us can.
We project so much on to the people we fancy – bestow them with near-magical qualities, sometimes; look past the everyday, less glamorous traits or faults that we don’t want to see, and are frightened of having our own exposed, too. Some of us are petrified of getting into relationships in the first place, or of moving into the next phase of commitment, for fear we’ll be “found out” – a sort of relationship-based “imposter syndrome” that has a lot more to do with our own self-esteem and avoidance of intimacy (and vulnerability) than it does with the person we’re thinking about.
So, you see, we carry fantasy around inside us all the time: about people we like, people we don’t like (yes, “negative fantasy” also exists) and about ourselves. We can sometimes avoid reality to prevent having that beautiful dream tarnished, because we are scared of the messy chaos of real life, real people, of responsibility – and of being hurt.
We can also use fantasy – quite actively – as a means to escape our lives. During lockdown, I was contacted by someone I once dated for a couple of months, half a lifetime ago. He told me he had recently started thinking of me as “the one who got away”. However, I strongly suspect his feelings of nostalgia weren’t actually about me, at all; but about wanting to escape the everyday pressures of raising a family. Fantasy can help us cope with the parts of our lives that we find dull or taxing or routine. It’s worth asking yourself what your fantasy is giving you at the moment, and whether you actually want to let it go.
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If we are going to put our hearts on the line and tell someone we’re interested in them, it’s totally natural to be afraid of being embarrassed – I notice you use the word “mortifying” in your letter. Fear of rejection is real, and makes us all feel anxious, but I would gently say this: the adage of nothing ventured, nothing gained also exists for a reason. You could shut off all hope, talk yourself out of asking him out and “move on with your life” as you put it; or you could make some casual enquiries and use one of those trusted mutual friends to at least find out if he’s single and potentially looking to date. I would also urge you to remember that he wanted to go out with you on a date the first time around, so it doesn’t feel very likely that things would’ve changed that drastically.
One last word on fantasy: retreating into circumspection can be a soothing balm – that way, the person in your head can stay “perfect” and can’t possibly disappoint you or let you down (because they’re not “real”). But staying put can also be stifling – because you’re not really living. You’re suspended in a sort of Sleeping Beauty state, where everything is static and nothing is at risk of going wrong. Hear this, though: for every moment you’re in stasis, the world outside keeps turning. Eventually, your bid for self-protection could end up in you missing the chance of something raw and glorious and messy and exciting and better, even, than you imagined it could be. Isn’t it worth finding out?
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org