Here’s a most excellent letter about a question that every woman has asked at some point in her life:
“Why is it that a guy fiercely pursues a woman at first, and then when he finds out she is actually interested he is not so sure if he is interested anymore? And then his interest wanes and he starts treating her like an option instead of a priority? When can you let a guy know you are interested! At what stage? Is dating just one big game? How do you get a guy to treat you like priority instead of an option? For background, I’m 29, live in Australia, and I’ve been on 5 dates with this guy so far but we haven’t kissed yet.” — Sheila
Well well. An excellent question that has been posed by women since time immemorial. There he was, totally interested, looking dapper in his buffalo skin while nonchalantly swinging his club at the cave entrance, offering you some freshly killed mastodon meat. There he was, showing up outside your castle window every day in his mostly shiny but frankly also a little rusty armor, strumming his lute and warbling his troubadour songs. There he was at the opera house, his head low and eyes up giving him that simultaneously worshipful and conspiratorial look, passing you a note saying, “Meet me at the fountain when the clock tower strikes nine.” There he was, texting you right back when you texted him, even asking you out on actual grown-up dates to actual grown-up places like concerts and lectures, and then… poof.
What is up with that?! Why do men lose interest? What, if anything, could you have done differently?
Now, I don’t know exactly what was going on in your particular situation, Sheila, since I wasn’t there. However, I do know that I have been that man many, many times. Heck, I’m probably losing interest in someone right now, completely unbeknownst to myself but setting the mind of the poor lass on fire, and not necessarily in a good way.
One saving grace is that most people, male or female, usually aren’t doing this stuff deliberately. It’s more accurate to attribute this kind of behavior to cluelessness rather than malice, which also makes it easier on you. In the meantime, it still sucks to be on the receiving end. So let’s go through some scenarios to make sense of this and maybe give you some tools for handling it in the future.
To start, let’s talk about Relationship Physics. There are forces that strengthen the bond between two people, and forces that weaken it. For example, seeing a lot of each other generally strengthens the bond. Living far apart weakens the bond. Kissing and sex create bonding, since you’re producing bonding chemicals like oxytocin, which is why they’re called bonding chemicals. Shared values bond; their violation separates. If the net forces bonding a couple are greater than those separating them, they tend to stay together. Otherwise, they come apart.
So far, so obvious. Now remember that in the beginning of any relationship — what we call “dating” — the bond is fragile at best, and nonexistent at worst. Two strangers are gambling on each other, hoping something may come of it. In the meantime, an endless panoply of potentially better choices are just a swipe, click, or happy hour mixer away. As a result, nobody’s willing to invest a whole lot of themselves in anything. Why waste time when a potentially better match is around the corner?
Therefore, in the early stages of courtship, people in this age of electronic dating are in Merciless Elimination Mode. You support the wrong candidate? Forget about it. You own a yappy purse dog? Or a cat that sheds? What, you’re a lawyer? I’m sorry, what do you mean you don’t like the Grateful Dead, or hip-hop, or sushi, or my sportsball team, or coffee, or tattoos? You’re part of that religion? Eww yuck blech.
Early on, people will eliminate a perfectly decent human from contention for the title of Mr or Ms Right based on the most trivial and even spurious data that has little bearing on how well they’ll get along as a couple. And with the length of courtship going from months (see: Emma by Jane Austen), to days (see: 20th century telephone era), to minutes for reading an online profile, and 0.3 sec to swipe left on a mobile dating app, this trend of attention spans vanishing to the point of not giving anyone their due is only getting worse.
If you think this is lame and stupid, I wholeheartedly agree. I also urge you to stop doing it yourself, so at the very least you’re part of the solution, not the problem. In every interaction, whether on phone, online or in person, keep in mind, “There’s a real human being on the other end, and a small but nonzero chance this guy/girl could be my future ex-spouse.” So be nice now, and pay attention, and you just might have a much nicer divorce settlement.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about why guys go poof.
1. Something weird happened.
Relatives and pets die. People get fired. Divorces don’t get finalized. Tax season hits. Oh no, final exams! People get sued, sick, or sick of getting sued. In the course of your brief courtship with someone, there’s always a chance that weird shit could happen. As a result, the stress levels of your paramour go through the roof, and your budding romance goes from Priority #1 to #73, right between “start watercolor lessons” and “re-string ukelele.”
Here, let me share a story with you: some time ago, over the course of one week I had two first dates that I thought went reasonably well, concluding in semi-torrid makeout sessions. In my naïveté, I even considered one of the ladies to be marriage material. In the space of one week, the first one’s aunt died, and the second one’s father committed suicide by drinking Drano. I am not making this shit up. Never saw either of them again.
Now, if you’re already pretty well-bonded, these catastrophic events may even make you seek solace and support in one another, strengthening your bond. But in the early phases of courtship (e.g. after one date), it just blows things apart like an improvised explosive device. Usually permanently. Time to move on.
ANTIDOTE: This is not the kind of thing you can prevent or control. Shit happens. The key take-away from this is that you should not take such vanishings personally. Even when you’re 100% sure it’s about you, it’s almost never about you. If you were to remember one of the Four Agreements from Don Miguel Ruiz’s Toltec wisdom, let it be #2: don’t take anything personally. Even if it is about you, thinking that it’s not about you keeps you saner in the long run.
2. The guy was only so interested to begin with.
Men will go out with you for all kinds of reasons. He’s bored, and he finds your company marginally more interesting than a night of Archer reruns. He didn’t have the courage to ask your supercute friend out, but you were cute enough, more attainable, and standing next to her, so voilà. He actually likes you, but he finds your earnest Christian tendencies dampening his enthusiasm. He senses that his enthusiasm for sex is far greater than yours, and knows this won’t play out well in the long run. He senses that your enthusiasm for sex is far greater than his. He thinks you’re really cool and sexy, likes you a lot, but knows that if you two started dating seriously, you mesh so well you wouldn’t be able to break up, and you’re already 40 and not all that into having kids, and he kinda does want kids sometime this millennium. He likes you a lot — in fact, has nursed a crush on you for years — but suddenly finds himself allergic to your high-functioning alcoholism that he’s just discovered.
Or, 95.4% of the time, he’s just thinking, hey, there’s an outside chance I could get laid here.
Do men really have all these thoughts? Well, this man has. And I bet many other men have, too. So you need to know what you’re getting yourself into, and to compare that with what you would like to get yourself into. If you want fling and he’s thinking ring, there’s no ka-ching. If you want steady boyfriend leading to marriage and 2.3 kids and he wants Wednesday Arm Candy #3, we have a mismatch. On the other hand, if you’re both on the same page, whether it’s a short-, medium- or long-term page, things have a better chance of working out than when your relationship goals are at odds. And if his interest in you is limited from the start, then things can only go so far.
ANTIDOTE: Know what you’re getting yourself into. Communicate with the fellow as clearly and directly as possible to find out what he’s looking for in a relationship: “So, what are you looking for in a relationship?”
3. You flipped the chase.
Imagine you’re a lion on the African savanna, stalking a gazelle. You’re thinking, “Aw man, this is going to be great. This is going to be tasty. I’m dying to dig into this gazelle. Munchtime!” Your senses are on high alert, and you just can’t wait to pounce.
Then, suddenly, the gazelle sees you from the corner of its eye, turns around, and starts galloping towards you at full speed. Whaaat?! This is not how things are supposed to go — I’m supposed to be the one chasing! What’s wrong with this gazelle? And it kinda does have pointy long horns… Ahh, do I really want to do this?
Now, I’ve never been a lion or gazelle, but I can imagine that the chief emotion that the lion was feeling at that moment was confusion. Here was the lion, with its advanced hunting software doing what it’s been doing for eons… when suddenly, the chase flips itself. Now he has to rethink the whole situation, perhaps totally losing interest in this particular gazelle. Much simpler to deal with the script he’s familiar and prepared to deal with: Lion chase. Gazelle run.
This one has happened to me a lot, and it operates at such a primal, unconscious level that even I myself marvel at the speed and vehemence with which I lose interest when she starts chasing me more than I’m chasing her. There was the girl who invited me to her senior year final dance in college who was all over me much more than I was all over her. There was the super sweet, cute Midwestern girl in med school whom I tried so hard to charm. And then I didn’t know what to do with her when she made those doe eyes at me and said she was really, really, really looking forward to hanging out again. Gaaaah.
I can’t feel great about these stories since the experience for these ladies was probably not hugely validating. And hey, maybe I was just flattering myself and they weren’t that into me either. But somehow, for some bizarre, primal reason, once they started chasing me I just couldn’t be interested anymore.
Keep in mind that there’s also a positive motive here. Most non-sociopathic men aren’t out to deliberately hurt women. We’re all interconnected at some level, and causing distress in another person causes distress in ourselves. So if I’m interested in just a fling and she’s making Scarlett O’Hara eyes at me, then I don’t feel like it’s right for me to lead her on.
Also, after you’ve pined for so long for a woman, any woman to like you, having one pop up who actually does can be a terrifying experience. The gazelle’s charging me — now what? There has to be a catch. Much safer to bail than to deal.
And at a very primitive level, remember that men enjoy the chase. That’s why the word chase is so often preceded by thrill of the. Why should he be thrilled about your taking away his thrill?
ANTIDOTE: Once again, more cluelessness than malice operating here. Best not to take it personally. The antidote to this is the “one step forward, two steps back” protocol, as I describe it in The Tao of Dating, Ch. 11, p 241.
Sometimes you have to prime the pump to get things going again. So you give him a call, send him a message, tease him a little, and make it playfully but clearly known that his company would be welcome: “So. When were you planning on taking me out again, big boy?” Then step back, and wait for him to do something. If he takes the bait, game on. If he doesn’t, give it a couple of days, then try again. If he’s tone deaf after three tries, move on.
4. He found a supposedly better deal.
Once upon a time, I was dating three lovely women. Then I met this really cute, supersmart adventurous grad student at a party. We hit it off, the sex was amazing, and now there were four. And she was perfectly okay with my other liaisons. Jackpot!
Until she wasn’t. A month into the relationship, she issued an ultimatum that, in retrospect, was such a marvel of simplicity and effectiveness that I’ve been teaching it to my female students ever since: “Listen, I think you’re really great, and we obviously have a great time together. But if we’re going to continue, I like to have depth in my relationships. It’s difficult to get deep with you if I know there are other women involved. So if you’d like to keep seeing the other women, that’s fine, and I’ll miss you a lot, but I’ll have to bow out. But if you would like to choose to continue with just me and get deeper, I would really welcome that.”
Within the hour, I had called it off with the other three. And, thinking about them now, they were great women. Now from their vantage point, there was no harbinger of doom, no sign, no celestial omen of nine ravens circling overhead skywriting “you’re about to get played” in Latin. To them, it was deus ex machina, an abrupt end without explanation (and strangely enough, also in Latin).
But from this vantage point, you can see the submerged part of the iceberg. And you know what? 95% of the iceberg is always submerged. Count on it.
So did I make the right decision? Was she in fact the better deal? Well, that was one of the most disastrous relationships I have ever had. The woman in question turned out to be a dedicated misandrist (translation: she hated men) and a pathological liar who casually neglected to disclose the existence of a fiancé in Europe while she was declaring her undying love to me. I extricated myself the morrow morn (more like after a few months of weepy drama, actually, but hey who’s counting), a sadder and a wiser man.
This all happened before online dating became so pervasive, and way before the swipey apps. Nowadays, I have heard of people pulling out their phones and swiping on Tinder not just in front of their lovers but in the very postcoital bed that’s still emitting steam from the just-transpired session of passion. And before you get all judgey, were you swiping during a bathroom break when you were on a date with a guy you liked? Of course you’d never do such a thing, but maybe a friend you know…
ANTIDOTE: The multiplicity of false choice means that someone you seemingly get along with could just go off with somebody (or somebodies) else on short notice. Your awareness of the existence of such choice also makes you reluctant to invest too much, dooming the whole process from the start. Not much you can do to prevent that these days, except to a) select for people who share your relationship goals and are willing to invest some time to get to know you and b) refrain from embroiling yourself in digital dating so at least one of you remains interested in the courtship process.
5. There was something funny about the sex.
Like most organisms, I like sex. A lot. And, like food, I’m particular about it. It can be too freaky. It can be too vanilla. There can be issues with noise, lack of noise, or unkempt pubic hair. She may want to smoke weed in my bed and set the bedroom, apartment and whole neighborhood aflame. Oh, and teeth. On my privates. Major party foul.
Perhaps people are even more particular with sex than with food. There’s some sexual analog out there for being vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, organic, eating your steak rare, whatever. I can see prolonged tantric sex mapping onto the slow food movement, and maybe S&M is like being a hot sauce fanatic. But what’s the dietary analog of having a foot fetish or being a furry? Judging by the sheer proliferation and variety of porn sites, the number of sexual proclivities probably outstrips dietary ones by an order of magnitude.
All this means that if there are many proclivities, it’s probable that your particular ones don’t line up. So if the two of you find out about this mismatch the first time the clothes fly off, it may just be the last time. This has happened to me many times, often before sex even happens. What else do I need to know once I’ve found out that she kisses like a mountain lion mauling a deer? I need to know where I put my darn pants and car keys, that’s what.
So while you may have been thinking, “Oh, such a typical guy — he must have been just after one thing,” what may have really transpired is that he was after a lot of things, but the prospects dimmed once he sensed you two were not sexually compatible.
Once again, there’s no need to judge yourself — it wasn’t personal! What you’re looking for is a fit. And sexual compatibility is a big one, encoded at the deepest level of who we are: our DNA. If you’re not compatible, sometimes it means Mother Nature would rather not have you engage in activity that could result in gimpy offspring. For the love of the planet, keep on moving.
A note about porn: thanks to the internet, young men nowadays have access to a quantity and variety of pornography unprecedented in the history of mankind. By sheer volume, this forms the bulk of their sexual education, the setting of their expectations, and the wiring of their neurology. So as a woman, it’s really important for you to know what you like and what your boundaries are and to stick with them — at least to start. Because you will encounter some outlandish requests, and you will want to say no. Porn is the fast food of sex: perhaps harmless in small enough doses, but a definite destroyer of pleasure and well-being in large doses. Be wary of those who make it the mainstay of their diet.
ANTIDOTE: The way people smell is a big part of sexual compatibility, and there’s not much you can do about that. You either dig each other’s aroma or you don’t. However, if you’re a bad kisser, there’s no one to blame but you. And it’s always a good idea to have real skills in the sack. Nobody’s born a great squash player, calligrapher or lover, so it doesn’t matter where you start. But get better at it. Consult some books, classes and workshops and get thee some skills. Along with cooking and coding, there’s hardly any other learnable skill with such a high lifelong return on investment. I’ve already written a guide for men, but if y’all ladies complain loudly enough in the comments, I’ll consider writing a guide for you.
6. He kinda forgot how cool you were.
Like all good hunters, guys are very attuned to what’s in front of them. Which means they’re a lot less attuned what’s not in front of them. Thinking about you and finding you attractive when you’re not there is an act of imagination that requires extra work. Whereas checking out the Sports Illustrated, Xbox or pony-tailed blonde right in front of him requires no extra work.
If I’m talking to you at a social gathering, you’re more interesting to me than a magazine, video game or other women there — at that moment. But once I leave the place, you are now competing for headspace with everything else in the world. I get about 50-70 emails per day, and meet 5-10 new people socially per week. That’s about 2000 emails and 20-40 new people per month. There are also events, meetings, groups, friends, professional and family commitments. If you’re a single professional, chances are you’re way overscheduled these days.
So even though you were the burning-hot center of the pulsating universe on that night that I met you, it’s far too easy for me to forget how fabulous you were… unless you remind me. Of course, you could also just say, “Well, if he’s not that interested, then I’m not that interested, feh.” And you would probably be right.
But hold on here a minute — everything I said up there is true of everyone in modern industrialized cities. Unless we pay a little bit more attention and cut each other some slack, we’re all going to be right. But lonely.
Moreover, as a guy, I’ve been turned down, rescheduled, stood up and ghosted upon so many times by fabulously busy women that at some deep unconscious level, I’m probably reluctant to even bother asking them out. So the busyness has a twofold effect: you can get lost in the crowd, and knowing that you’re probably booked, I become gun-shy and stop asking fabulous you out.
ANTIDOTE: Luckily, the solution to this one is easy: let your presence be known! You don’t even have to say anything fancy — just say anything. Really. The three-letter text message “Hey” has probably resulted in more children born than any other in history. And as men, by now we know that if you throw any amount of interest in our general direction, no matter how trivial, there is still hope.
Also, when we’re dithering, we’re really looking for useful information that can help us decide. So if you do want to get fancy, there are subtly effective campaigns of reminding how cool you are which work well. Throw a dinner party and invite him. Connect to him on Facebook — great way to find out what a guy’s really like, by the way — and invite him to group events. Or just subtly showcase your full and exciting life. In other words, be on his mental radar. Even if it truly was meant to be, you first need to remind him that you exist.
7. You had incompatible attachment styles.
Scientists have done much research on attachment theory, and there’s even a pretty decent popular book written about it. Without getting into the social psychology too much, a quarter to a third of all people have avoidant attachment styles. That means they may be really interested in you to start, but when the prospect of real intimacy arises, they unconsciously go “Eek!”, panic and escape.
This escape tendency is particularly pronounced when you happen to have an anxious attachment pattern — what’s popularly called being clingy. You’re going to want to get closer and spend more time, which just makes him want to run even more.
Of course, you can have a secure attachment style, be perfectly decent to someone, cook meals, be a great partner — and the other party will still escape. And then go shack up with someone who treats ‘em not nearly as well. Baffled? Don’t be! Attachment style mismatch often means doomed match anyway. Let it go.
This kind of thing is going to happen with some regularity. And when it does, instead of blaming yourself or getting angry, count your blessings. You just dodged a huge bullet! Better find out you’re incompatible now rather than 7 years from now, with a custody battle on the side.
ANTIDOTE: Attachment styles are established early in life and tend not to change unless you put in some deliberate work. So changing your own style is plenty hard enough without attempting to change your partner. There’s not a whole lot you can do about this one except to be aware of your own attachment style, and work towards getting yourself closer and closer to a secure style. This is not my area of expertise, so I refer you to the aforementioned Attached book.
8. Your first date did not go well.
Let’s face it: dates are phony. Both parties are auditioning for one another. That means that while they’re in Merciless Elimination Mode, they’re also in Maximum Insecurity Mode. This is not a formula for two people connecting successfully.
That said, there are ways to make it even more likely that your first date is your last. You can be more interested in talking to other guys, and give all of them your business card. While you’re in the car with me, you can take a phone call from a guy who is clearly setting up tonight’s booty call with you. You can have so many glasses of Chardonnay that you become incoherent before dinner’s even over.
Do these things actually happen? To me, yes, and all in the last month. I’m sure other guys have even worse stories, and you ladies far worse stories than those.
It’s one thing to deliberately signal to a guy that you’re not that interested in him. But if you’ve agreed to spend time together, you’re interested enough to give yourself a chance to know each other better. You effectively don’t know anyone at all until you’ve seen them in the context of their friends and family. And you know little about your compatibility after one date (especially if it goes spectacularly well). So unless he looks like Jabba the Hutt’s overweight brother, was speaking with an open mouth full of meatballs, or often used the word “pork” as a verb over your romantic dinner at TGIF, do not press delete yet. Here, allow me to quote myself. From The Tao of Dating, Chapter 5, “Understanding Men, Understanding Yourself”:
I always make a point of asking women in happy relationships – married or not – about how they first met their partners. And before even getting started with the story, many of them say, “You know, the first time I met him I didn’t really like him that much.” So it turns out that a lot of long-lasting relationships start with the woman disliking the guy somewhat, let alone having instant chemistry with him.
ANTIDOTE: If you’re even remotely interested in a guy, give it at least 3 meetings. Keep your cell phone off and out of view, give him your full attention, and be interested. And, if you are eating together, don’t order spaghetti or a burrito.
9. You were dealing with a professional player.
There is a certain class of men who are chiefly interested in RELDs — relationships of extremely limited duration. Their entire lives are run by this program that’s trying to maximize the number of women they have sex with, and said program has no OFF button. If you meet him in Belize on a 3-day weekend you have specifically set aside for a fling, then fine — have fun with it. But if you’re looking for any kind of meaningful relationship, you must avoid him because he and his like-minded brethren will diminish the quality of your life in the long run.
Some players are looking for the quick and easy score. This means that if you require any amount of courtship, he’ll lose interest and move on to less effort-intensive targets. Some players (e.g. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova) are motivated by the thrill of conquest, pursuing persistently until they get their trophy. Although this can be quite the ego boost, the problem is that both of these types of players routinely neglect that there’s a person attached to the body they’re trying to possess. They’re treating you as a means to an end, not an end in yourself. This is not a formula for making you happy. If he disappears, consider yourself lucky.
ANTIDOTE: Like with crack cocaine or polio, when it comes to players, prevention works best. So avoid them! In this hyperconnected world, it’s easy to use online tools to find mutual acquaintances who will give you reliable information about what kind of person you’re dealing with. If he rolls in on his Harley wearing a black motorcycle jacket, that’s your sign. For a comprehensive guide, I refer you to my article “On Bad Boys and How to Spot Them” on the blog, as well as Chapter 5 from The Tao of Dating.
Okay, now what?
To summarize some of the highlights of what we discussed: When a man loses interest, most of the time there wasn’t much you could have done about it anyway. You guys weren’t a good match, or he was bad news. Sometimes, you really did pick your nose or rhapsodize too enthusiastically about your machine gun collection on the first date, so he legitimately ran. Other times, you just didn’t do an optimal job of presenting your scintillating personality to him, and an opportunity for a True, Everlasting Love Connection with Mr Darcy was lost. It’s okay; you’ll get better at this.
Above all: do not take this stuff too personally. You can’t change his attachment patterns, the way he was raised, or how he thinks. What you can do is to get your own house in order.
First of all, be good company. I’m not going to write a whole book here on how to be good at dating, because I already did that. The Tao of Dating, especially Chapters 8 and onward, cover that extensively. You can actually get the audiobook version for free at Audible.com when you sign up for their 30-day trial.
If you’ve read this article all the way to the end — congratulations! This means you are potentially interested in forging a better version of yourself, and also have one helluva attention span. Merely understanding information, however, does not necessarily translate into transformation. Whatcha gonna do about it, lady? You’ve got to implement this stuff! Once you incorporate this into your actual behavior (and also meditate, practice gratitude, and a whole bunch of other fun stuff), that’s when your life starts to transform. To that end, I’ve created Project Irresistible, an online course that guides you through the steps of becoming the best, happiest version of you. And in honor of the first day of spring and the new year, the first 20 people to use coupon code “SPRINGY” get a huge ol’ discount.
In the end, everyone that you meet is an opportunity to practice being more loving. And authentic happiness comes not from what you can get out of the world but what you can contribute to it. Keep those two principles in mind, and your love life — heck, all of your life — can only get better every day.