Ask a Fuck-Up

AAFU: I’m still in therapy. Should I be dating?

At what point is someone done working on their issues?
Ask a Fuck-Up

AAFU: I’m still in therapy. Should I be dating?

At what point is someone done working on their issues?

Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s associate editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.

Dear Fuck-Up,

I’m a just-turned 30-year-old guy who has been in therapy for years working out tons of baggage. Most of that baggage affects my ability to have lasting, valuable relationships, which is something I definitely want.

As each week of therapy passes by I uncover more shit that's really holding me back from being able to have these relationships I long for, but I am doing work, and that work has helped immensely.

What I want to know is: Should I spend more time working through these issues before I go back on Tinder and swipe to my heart’s content? Am I leading people into a trap in which they will be dating a piece of metal that is being reforged ever so slowly and may never be complete? Or am I worrying for nothing. Are we all just bad blacksmithing metaphors and I’m being too hard on myself?

I don't want to dick anyone over, but I also don’t know if completely cutting myself off from dating is the right move either.

Am I allowed to date?

Single but not sure I can Mingle

Dear Single,

I get some version of this question — I don’t feel ready for meaningful relationships; I worry that I’m too messed up to commit — fairly often, almost exclusively from men. How interesting! Yours is the most recent and I am lazy but it’s a question I want to address so I’m opting to respond to you and the question of readiness more generally.

Let me begin by saying to you, Single, and the others who have written me, that I know how time-consuming it can be to unpack your emotional baggage and keep up with fantasy football or drive a stick shift or whatever it is men do, so I realize you may have missed out on a few things. Did you know, for instance, that we are probably past the point at which we can save ourselves from ourselves and we will be punished by rising seas and devastating drought? Did you miss the ongoing rise of fascism? Perhaps you were not aware, and this will come as a bit of a shock, that Donald Trump is the president?

In other words, what, precisely, are you waiting for? Do you think conditions are likely to improve?

I’m being glib, of course, and I do sympathize with this feeling of unpreparedness. In some ways, you are hardly to blame. The language of labor has so effectively colonized our ideas about love — emotional labor now frames all care as transactional, dates are understood to be job interviews, etc — that it makes a sort of sense you would seek to do a bit of emotional resume-building before heading back out into the market.

And, truthfully, there are circumstances under which one should not be dating. However, in my experience, those are not typically marked by careful self-reflection. When I first moved to a new city after leaving my marriage I was wildly optimistic about dating again, filled with the sort of deranged assuredness one can only get from drugs or wax wings or being very, very wrong. I met someone for whom I had unreasonably strong feelings and promptly turned into an utter lunatic. When I think back on what I unleashed on that generally well-meaning guy I want to crawl into the earth.

But you don’t mention a discrete event that may be responsible for your hesitation, just the vague idea of “baggage.” If I had to guess, I’d say this allusion to an inability to maintain meaningful relationships means you have hurt people before, and you either feel genuine guilt about it or you are uncomfortable with the experience of being told you caused someone pain. I’m glad you are uncovering some of the root causes behind that but let me suggest one you may not have previously considered: you are a bit of a coward. That’s fine, most people are, and this is a particularly insidious and easy-to-mistake form of cowardice that thinks itself courage.

When you are terribly afraid of being held responsible for the emotional well-being of others, it feels very mature and responsible to decide that you should “work on yourself.” It becomes both a way of retroactively absolving yourself (wow, can you believe all of the ways my issues manifested before I decided to work on them) and a rather elegant little trick to exonerate ongoing bad behavior (dang, those pesky issues again! I guess I must keep working on them). This is especially true for those too-clever-by-half motherfuckers who think that nobly warning someone in advance they “are working on their issues” mitigates any way in which they might disappoint or harm. And even with the best of intentions, it obviates the fact that relationships themselves are a process of being made ready, not something you come to static and fully formed.

Perhaps you do have good intentions. It’s hard for me to say what these issues of yours are, since you do not go into specifics, and perhaps you are making a good-faith effort to work on yourself sans scare quotes. Some of the questions I get in this vein do indicate a sincere and profound yearning to find love, but a conviction that one must be made ready for it through work. I can understand the urge, especially now as things get inexorably worse, to slow down; to pull inward and take stock and focus on ourselves. But I would ask whose interests are typically served by enclosure? By the sort of emotional austerity that says you do not have the resources to devote to others?

Who told us self-sufficiency was a virtue and why did we believe them? Especially when the truth is obvious, or at least has become very obvious to me over the course of this year, as I’ve eked out a meager space for myself writing the preferred advice column of depressed socialists: we need each other desperately, in ways none of us can be ready for.

In truth I doubt I’ve been ready for anything in my life. Especially for things to end, which I have been thinking about a great deal lately. You, Single, are now old enough that more and more things will end, and it’s good to consider what you want your life to look like as that happens.

My grandfather passed away a few months ago. I loved him fiercely and I’m still not able to realize the full breadth of my grief. Mainly I read about other people losing someone they loved and think “my, how terribly sad for them to experience that.” He and my grandmother were married for more than 60 years, which is also something I find difficult to contemplate. She suffers from dementia that has accelerated since his death, and while she has many lucid moments, she is completely incapable of remembering that he’s gone. Rather than break her heart anew, whenever she asks where he is everyone says he’s just gone out to run some errands, or have some lunch with a friend. She finds this answer both plausible and soothing. I think it’s probably a kindness that she doesn’t have to feel alone at the end of things. I don’t want to be alone at the end of things either.

So by all means, Single, and everyone else who asks me some form of this question, continue to work on yourself and figure out how to be better. Go to therapy for you, so that you may feel more at ease in the world. But above all, if you are sincere in your desire to love someone, grow the hell up. You don’t have to be finished or complete unto yourself to be good to people. We are rarely ready for the things we need.

A Fuck-Up

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