What I Learned from Being With a Guy Who Wouldn't Commit

Ironically, it took dating a guy to realize I shouldn't be dating anyone at all.
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Caitlin Thornton
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Ironically, it took dating a guy to realize I shouldn't be dating anyone at all.

At one point I practically begged him to be my boyfriend. "Why?" I demanded to know over the phone. I paced around my front porch, shoeless. "Why won't you call me your girlfriend?" 

My voice cracked in desperation. "Please, tell me."

"I..." he started. The line went quiet. I thought I had accidentally hung up on him. He broke the silence with what sounded like a tortured sigh.

I stopped pacing. My chest felt tight. I wiped the corner of my eye with the heel of my hand, and hung up the phone. Then I found his name in my contacts and deleted his number for what must've been the fifteenth time.

I met Sean* less than a month after breaking up with my ex, the guy who I moved from New York to California with. Although I was shaken up by how things ended, I was admittedly a bit too eager to meet someone new. I downloaded Tinder almost immediately.

Although I've attempted to practice that ill-advised adage, "If you want to get over someone, get under someone" before (pro tip: if you want to attract creeps and have abnormally regrettable sex that makes you horribly miss your ex, you should totally go out with this in mind), this time, I wasn't on a mission to fuck the pain away. Rather, I was lonely, and bored.

Another applicable aphorism: Meeting people in L.A. sucks. Working from home didn't make things better. Nor did my resting bitch face. So, I didn't have many friends, and turned to male attention to make up for it.

Sean was the second or third guy I met up with — though that month was a blur of dinners, late nights, and smeared lipstick, so I'm not sure. We messaged for a night, then moved off the app to text. I got him to start using emojis and that app with those cat stickers. He seemed funny, quick, and charming. I mean... he is.

He picked me up the next day in his white pick-up from my mom's, where I was staying while I waited for my ex to move out of our apartment. I saw him jump out of his truck, and run up to a building down the street from where I stood. "Wrong building," I texted him. I saw him sprint back to his truck. He pulled up to me, said hello, and I got in. (Why I haven't been murdered yet, I have no idea.)

We went for a day hike in Malibu. He told me I had lipstick on my teeth. We sat on the same side of the table and ate grilled fish at Reel Inn. He dropped me back off at my mom's, and went to work his shift. Then, he picked me up that night, and we went out again.

Within a couple of months, we started taking weekend trips — to Desert Hot Springs, Big Sur, and Joshua Tree (God Bless California). He picked me up on his motorcycle, and we'd ride around L.A., stopping at new restaurants, where he always ordered for me. He knew good food, and music, and art, and sports. We went to shows, I met his friends. We spent New Year's Eve together.

Between these bouts, Sean made himself scarce. He knew I was fresh out of a relationship and "having fun dating." We talked about giving one another space. He once swung by my place as another guy was leaving. It took me over a year to realize how insane it was that he still wanted to hang out with me after that.

Even though I told myself I didn't want a boyfriend, I needed to be alone, and that I was having fun dating (was I?), I started falling for Sean, fast and hard. That's what happens when you have a ton of new experiences with someone, sleep with them regularly, tell them all your secrets, and realize they're handsome both with and without a beard.

"You did say you're a serial monogamist," Sean said carefully when I brought up the idea of us being together a few months later.

"Yeah, but..." I tried to think of an excuse. Like this time, what was happening between us was different. But I couldn't think of one.

I had been in relationships since I was fifteen. Sean knew that. Consistently a girlfriend, my relationships almost always overlapped. I wasn't proud of it, and knew I had to do something different. That's why I told myself, after my ex and I broke up, that I had to be alone. In hindsight, I suppose I had no idea what that actually meant.

As is my really sexy-hot alluring pattern in relationships, soon after Sean said he didn't want to be in a relationship with me, I felt rejected, and fell back into my old, self-destructive habits. I started binge drinking again, and found myself frequenting L.A.'s coke-fueled afterparties. I tried that thing where I got under guys or sometimes on top of them in an attempt to get over Sean. It only made me miss him more.

When this happened, I'd tell Sean it was fine — I was OK with us being casual. After a few weeks, I'd self-implode again, drinking until my skin went numb, and then drinking some more. I'd find ways to blatantly dangle other guys in front of his face, as in, "You don't want me? Well, here's someone who does."

Sean was not perfect, either. My friend found him on a dating app when I thought it was clear we were both off it. And him countering with, "I only look at it when I'm bored!" when I confronted him didn't make me feel great, either. When we attempted to talk about our future or anything else that made him uncomfortable, he'd shut down and push me away. "I'm emotionally empty," he told me, repeatedly, even though I knew that wasn't really true.

There was one time he came to my apartment on his motorcycle with flowers. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I do love you." We were boyfriend and girlfriend for about a month. I can't remember exactly what happened. But he wrote me an email to tell me he's incapable of giving me what I want. So I deleted his number again.

"Do you love me?" I asked him one night on a Venice pier. We were back on again, we were alone, and the ocean was black. The air smelled like sewage and saltwater.

"I..." he started. He hung his head down.

"Would it hurt you if I was with someone else?" I was starting to cry. We had been out to dinner, and were having a drink when he told me how his ex made him go to couple's therapy.

He shook his head. "I don't understand how you can go to therapy with someone," I sobbed. "And you can't even tell me that you love me." I waited for a few minutes before running to the bar and slamming two drinks.

We stopped and started our cycle, over and over again, for more than a year. During our "off" times, which lasted anywhere from a week to a month, I'd go into that tailspin of self-loathing. Or, sick and exhausted, I found myself back on my path of self-betterment. I moved into a house with a few women, and consequently made friends. I started working out of an office, workshopped some fiction writing, got a trainer, and joined a book club.

Sean made a major stride, too: a development company courted the restaurant group he was getting started with a couple other guys in L.A. This company was putting together an offer that was hard from them to resist — only, it was in Miami. I watched his cat, and chased her around the house after she dropped a dead bird in my lap, when Sean was there for their first bout of meetings.

"That's so sad," two of my friends said in unison after I told them Sean was moving to Florida. They were sunbathing out on our front lawn. I was getting back from housesitting.

"If you love something, set it free, right?" I said, forcing a smile. "It's probably for the best, anyway." They looked at each other, looked back at me, and nodded.

My friends knew everything about Sean. They attempted to hate him for stringing me along, but I told them it was complicated. Still, like any good friend, they tried to dismiss him as an asshole. They told me to forget about him. One sent me a chapter of Steve Harvey's book where he says that if a man isn't confident in his career, he can't possibly be in a romantic relationship. They told me it was all about timing.

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Sean moved to Miami a few months later. I drove with him in a U-Haul filled with his stuff to New Orleans, where I flew back to Los Angeles as he completed the trip down the Florida coast.

Before we left, Sean invited some of his friends out for going-away drinks at a bar downtown. "So, what are you... doing?" One of his girl friends asked me when Sean went up to get everyone a round (typical).

"I mean... I'm staying here," I told her, panicked. I was tempted to tell her I wasn't invited to move with Sean to Miami and didn't want to go, anyway. But I knew that would sound bad, so I fumbled for a few more words. "I mean, I just moved here, not too long ago, you know? And..."

"And, she's moving on," another one of his friends, also a woman, said. I didn't take offense. If anything, I was happy they both thought to ask.

With 3,000 miles separating us, Sean and I still managed to continue our tumultuous relationship. There was the road trip, a trip to Miami for me a few months later, him coming to L.A. soon after that...

"Did you know we went on our first date two years ago?" I asked Sean over FaceTime one night.

"Time is weird, man," he said, obviously uncomfortable. I changed the subject. I was surprised a month later when he told some people we'd been seeing each other for two years, with what sounded like pride in his voice.

A few months later, I'm ending the call on my porch. His response to my plead sounded like a broken record on repeat, one I started hearing two years before.

And maybe it was the time, or the distance, or maybe I was finally moving on, but I realized it had to stop. I blocked him on all social networks, seeing even images of him hurt too much, and told him to please delete my number, too.

My friend asked me recently if she thought he really did. "I know he respects me," I told her. "So he'd do whatever he thought I needed him to do." To me, Sean isn't an asshole, or a bad person, at all. And neither am I — I don't think anymore, at least.

I don't know if it truly was timing that prevented us from being together. Or, maybe he loved someone else. I've tried to extract answers from him. I've tried to force him to give me reasons why this hasn't worked. I gave him many opportunities to tell me something. Anything.

But, now, I know this for sure: I cannot control other people. I cannot force or manipulate anyone to give me answers, or to commit to me, or give me something he or she is not willing to give, for whatever reason.

I also know now that I no longer feel emptiness without a partner. And I've also gained the introspection to realize that maybe I tried to take more than I was willing to give in most of my romantic relationships. I don't think I could've come to that without Sean. Without him, I would've fallen back into a serious relationship, starting my old pattern of taking, testing, and finding someone else when I felt like there was nothing left for the other person to give.

You know that saying, "You can't love someone until you learn to love yourself?" That has proven to be utterly inescapable, at least for me. And though it was tumultuous, I guess it took being with a guy who wouldn't commit for me to realize that I love and respect myself enough to stop doing something that causes me so much pain. So, I guess that means I'm almost ready.