A Personal History of Dating Men With ‘Potential’

I convinced myself I could make things work, no matter the obstacle

I have gone to extraordinary lengths to make people love me.

I loved my first real partner, the man I lived with in graduate school, because he was a delightful combination of strong and gentle. He’d experienced the harshness of the world and yet stayed kind. His smirking good looks didn’t hurt, either.

He had immigrated from Afghanistan to Scotland, where I lived at the time. His English was broken. He lived with friends who treated him like a little brother, and for whom he worked at a job he hated.

Like many women in their early twenties raised on Western media, I believed the goal was to get the man you fancied to love you. Always.

After all, I’d never seen a princess in a fairytale say, “I should really take my time. Find out if I actually like this guy who just climbed my hair. I mean, I barely even know him!” From books, film, and TV — even from my own family — I’d absorbed this lesson about women turning frogs into princes. It didn’t happen through a single kiss, mind you, but through enormous effort devoted to sorting your man out, whether he liked it or not.

It’s a sort of cultural joke, this idea that men “need help” and that it’s their partner’s job to provide it. That said, I’m not sure exactly who the punchline is for.

InIn my own little fairytale, my boyfriend moved in with me and secured a slightly better job. I found him a free English course and, gifted in language, he raced through it. I got him into school, where he earned an engineering certificate because he’s very smart and works very hard. He landed a much better job at the college he attended. Then, I found him a lawyer, downloaded all the paperwork, and we obtained his citizenship.

Don’t misunderstand me — he worked his ass off at every step of this process. All I did was point to each opportunity and facilitate things I was better at; things that were more straightforward for me, a native speaker and a Westerner. I also talked him into things, and through things. He could do English school. He deserved a better job. He was smart enough for college. Yes, he deserved an even better job. He could take a risk; I would be there if he tripped.

I cast him as a vampire. Only years later would I realize that I’d opened my own vein and forced him to drink.

I helped convince him he was ready, now, for things he thought he’d do later — like applying for citizenship, going to school, having a career.

By the time I left Scotland, and him, to pursue my own life, I was exhausted. Because, while he was still gorgeous and sweet, he felt like my responsibility, not my lover. This was not his fault, mind you. I had done this to us.

Let me be precise: I killed our relationship by putting all of my energy into making him the man who better resembled the person I thought he could be.

Was I aware of this at the time? Yes and no. How I felt was obvious to me, and yet my role in what happened remained obscure. In my mind, I had given him everything and he’d simply left me drained. I cast him as a vampire. Only years later would I realize that I’d opened my own vein and forced him to drink.

SSince then, I’ve experienced various reiterations of what I now consider my original sin (and which others may recognize as a propensity for codependency). I hadn’t diagnosed what was really wrong — that I fall for potential only I can see, rather than the person actually standing in front of me. I tried to “do better” by dating wildly different men rather than working on myself.

After a rather regrettable rebound with a man I nicknamed “Bad Decision,” I dated a string of people I will call “complicated,” with all of that word’s casual irony. On one hand, they were actually complicated: most were brilliant at something, or in general. All were entertaining. They had stories to spare, and I always fall for a good story.

On the other hand, almost all of them were disastrous at life. Some were wildly talented but not so good at the practical side of things, like having a job. No worries! I knew I could “help” them, what with my limitless talent for practicality. Others were successful in their careers but had the emotional intelligence of a pebble — except with me, I’d tell myself, convinced my extraordinary powers of communication could break through where everyone else had failed. Basilisk-eyed Lotharios, I told myself, were intriguing, rather than insane.

I believed otherwise nice men who insisted they were ready to have a relationship, even if they were clearly not. I convinced myself I could make things work, no matter the obstacle.

That tendency to “convince myself” is at the heart of what I now recognize as a problem. These men weren’t evil. Like everyone, they deserved love. But I wasn’t really trying to love them; I was trying to fix them.

I believed I needed to prove my value by fixing the most brilliant, beautiful object in the room, rather than recognizing my own worth as a subject.

I love order and light and optimism. I like transparency. I can’t keep my own secrets and my face gives everything I feel away.

I am terrible at poker and politics.

And yet I dated men who lived for obfuscation, men who invited chaos. They whirled in their gyres and I’d throw myself in, too. Partly, I liked the rush, but I also liked the challenge of ordering their universe. I never quite got there, of course, but working on them meant I didn’t have to work on myself.

These were hard truths to see, let alone to admit. It was easier to blame the men. To point out where they had lied, or disappointed, or broken my trust.

Admitting to my own role in these relationships has begun to free me from my worst predilections. I’ve had to confront the part of me that believes I deserve ownership over that which I fix. I’ve also had to admit I’ve been less confident than I should have been. I believed I needed to prove my value by fixing the most brilliant, beautiful object in the room, rather than recognizing my own worth as a subject.

So, I’ve turned to fixing myself rather than other people.

In the process, I’ve seen how focusing on a mirage of the future made me overlook pretty shitty behavior in the present. I’d stay in relationships that weren’t working, with people who clearly were not invested, because I thought I could work hard and invest enough for both of us. I put precious energy into being the perfect possibility, hoping they couldn’t help but be drawn into my orbit.

NNowadays, I try to ignore the mirages sparkling in the distance. I’m not perfect, but I’m a good friend and partner. I have an abundant life, full of opportunities I’m happy to share, and I work hard at myself and my relationships. I don’t have any huge hang-ups and I’ve managed to reduce most of my baggage to a carry-on. I meet interesting, engaged people all the time. I’ve come to see I already live in an oasis. So why try to convince someone who doesn’t want me otherwise?

Moving forward, I refuse to accept crumbs. Not when my life is already a feast in a crowded, lively house.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store