I was talking to Erin a while ago about a small breakthrough she’d had with her therapist. She’d been discussing the fact that she finds it possible to discuss things with me that she has huge problems saying to anyone else – she can tell me about some severe emotional problem she’s had, or some mistake she’s made, or her feelings - she can allow herself not to cope with things around me, while no matter how hard she tries she finds it impossible to do this to the same extent with almost anyone else she knows. She’s been trying very hard not to use me as her first port of call, as she knows how wearying it can be (and wants to cope on her own), but she hadn’t really thought about why _me_ until recently, when she realised that there was something about me that made it possible.
It didn’t come as a huge shock to me to discover that – I’ve known for years that I come across as a good listener – I’d never really worked out why, but people I hardly know have always found it really easy to talk to me. There have been dozens of occasions where people I’ve hardly met have ended up talking to me about all sorts of normally private things until the early hours of the morning. At the same time, I’ve always found it very hard to progress from ‘good listener’ to ‘partner’, something which has puzzled me. Anyway, Erin talked to her therapist about this and they came to the conclusion that the reason I was easy to talk to about emotional problems was because I tend to be emotionally detached (or as Erin sometimes puts it – cold and emotionless (as well as being lovely,caring, warm and kind, of course)).
I largely don’t judge people for their actions, or take them to task for them. I’m interested in what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, on purely empirical, inquisitive grounds, which means I pay a lot of attention and actually _listen_ to them, but I don’t tell them they were idiots for having done it, or that what they’ve done was the wrong thing to do. For instance, Erin finds it hard not to worry about what other people think about her when she confides in them.
Apparently listening to people in a non-judgemental way is a great way to get them to talk to you more, something I hadn’t really picked up on, but seems obvious in retrospect. The fact that I’m impartially interested in pretty much anyone that’s got something to say that I haven’t heard before means that I tend to just come across as, well, interested. The impartial bit, on the other hand, means that people will tend to think that I don’t care about _them_, and am therefore not really partner material.
In retrospect, I think they might be right. While I was certainly interested in all of my previous girlfriends, I’m not entirely convinced that I was interested in the right way – I combined my general interest in sex (largely lacking in discrimination) with the fact thatI liked being around them because I found them ‘fascinating specimens of humanity’, and thus wanted to be with them. But while I developed emotional attachments, I’m not sure that I was actually engaging in the same way that most people do. Certainly I wasn’t paying enough attention to them emotionally – a very common thread in my relationships has been girlfriends complaining that I didn’t appreciate them, that I didn’t pay them enough attention, that I didn’t appreciate them in the right ways, etc. I tend to think of girlfriends as friends++. I do care about them; I just feel that people should be self-sufficient and not need much in the way of reassurance. Apparently that isn’t what most people do. I don’t get jealous; I don’t want to restrict people, I’m generally happy for them to do their own thing. 99% of the time I don’t even miss people when they’re not about. Apparently none of this is ‘normal’.
Which raises the question – how have I managed to get into a relationship 4 times? One answer, I think, is in this detachment. I listen, I’m nice, I want people to be happy, I don’t apply pressure, I’m patient, I’m almost endlessly forgiving. If you’re not used to people actually taking an interest in you, if you’re worried about being judged, if people being nice to you is a novelty then I come across as some kind of huggable therapist – only the kind you can take home. This isn’t to say that that’s the _only_ reason that I’ve ended up in relationships, but it feels like something important I haven’t been noticing before.
Something else, which I’ve noticed more and more is how my tendency towards newness has affected my friendships. A few years after we broke up I remember Marianne (girlfriend number 1) noticing that my interest in Sarah (another female friend and not a girlfriend) was decreasing. She somewhat scathingly asked if I’d become bored of her too. She’d spotted a pattern I hadn’t really – I’d find a new friend, spend vast amounts of time with them while I learnt all the things that this new person could teach me, and then become bored and move onto someone else. I was a serial friender. This didn’t mean I stopped being friends with that person, but it did mean that I spent less time with them as I found someone else different again, who could teach me more about these strange things called ‘people’.
This stemmed from me having pretty much no friends up until second year at university. I had a couple of people I hung out with a bit, but nobody I actually felt close to. People in general baffled me and I didn’t really have much of a connection to them. On first making real friends at university I suddenly entered this new, strange world. In retrospect I then spent about 3-4 years floundering about, getting on ok most of the time, but not having any idea what was actually going on and making the occasional godawful mistakes. I had no idea at all what was and wasn’t reasonable behaviour and it took me that long just to get a basic handle on things. It took me another 5 years or so to really understand what people are like, why they are that way and how to actually understand what they want and how to deal with them. It’s almost all intellectual knowledge to me, requiring quite a lot of work a fair bit of the time, and still leaving me getting told off occasionally for doing the wrong thing by accident (I sometimes do the wrong thing on purpose, but that’s fine :-> ).
Anyway, it took me a long time to get past that stage of new people being a fantastic new toy to poke and prod, and it wasn’t until 2000-odd, when I was getting the hang of things, that I started getting more interested in all my old hobbies again. And even now, when I meet someone who _is_ different and interesting in whole new ways, I tend to focus very intently on them for a while before getting a handle on them and returning to being, y’know, friends with them.
All of which wraps up todays lesson in “This is how Andy is a bit odd when it comes to social relationships.”