How Can I Identify and Avoid Men Who Don’t Know What They Want?

My ex and I dated for 2 years before we got engaged. When we met, I was 30 and he was 42, neither one of us had been married before. In most of his previous relationships, I did notice that they ended after about 4-5 years, he said it was due to personality differences, or that he wasn’t ready for marriage at that point in time. He also admitted to having cheated at the end of his last relationship because he knew things were coming to an end. Prior to our engagement, we discussed issues like finance, whether or not he wants kids, how many kids, etc. Fast forward to now, he ended the marriage by saying we are just so different, and how he decided he doesn’t want kids after all (I’ve been seeing an OBGY specialist). About 5 months leading up to the divorce, I felt like he was turning into a different person – the tone he would use, the way he glances at me, throwing tantrum at little things, etc. In the end, he said that he thought he was OK with the nature of our relationship and expectations, until he wasn’t OK with it (yes, I know it sounds lame).

I take responsibility for marrying the wrong guy, and moving forward I want to avoid making the same mistake. What suggestions do you have for women to avoid men who don’t really know what they want in life, yet pretend like they do? This was alarming to me because I know other men who are like this too. They are friends who are married or in a committed relationship, but their attitudes are ambivalent. One even told me he was unfaithful to his wife, because he doesn’t know what he wants, but doesn’t want to divorce either. So, my big question is – what kind of warning signs should women pay attention to? In my case, I recall having a gut feeling that he doesn’t respect me as much as I wanted, and whenever we have big arguments he would always try to undermine my point of view. Anyways, hindsight is 20/20, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Thank you!

-Janice

Thanks for your question, Janice. I feel deeply for you.

My wife’s first husband was a man who, after five years of dating, claimed to want to get married and be a father. But less than one year into marriage, he freaked out, said he wasn’t ready for commitment, wasn’t sure if he wanted kids, and cheated on her – twice. They were divorced less than two years after getting married. His loss was my gain.

Ironically, he ended up marrying the woman he cheated with – AND had kids with her as well. I only mention this because it illustrates an important, if dispiriting concept: very often, people don’t know what they want, and very often, people change their minds.

Very often, people don’t know what they want, and very often, people change their minds.

You just happen to date men, but as a coach for women, I can’t tell you how many times I talked with a client who wasn’t sure if she wanted to get married or just date for a while.

Thus, confusion is not just for men – it’s the human condition. Because answers to personal questions aren’t as black and white as mathematical equations, we lurch through life, perpetually vacillating between different points of view, knowing that we’re inconsistent, but still not being able to nail down a single perspective.

On one hand, it can be considered admirable when people are open to new information that makes their point of view subject to growth and change.

On the other, if you’re the woman dating the man who doesn’t know what he wants, it can only be terribly infuriating. Now, you’re looking for a shortcut to avoid getting hurt. I get it.

Since there are no definite answers, I can only try to reverse engineer a response based on what you told me in your short email.

1. The right man takes responsibility for his mistakes and can specifically pinpoint where/when/why things went wrong in the past. “Personality differences” and “not ready for marriage” may, in fact, be valid excuses, but I’d love to hear him go deeper.

2. Cheating is never an acceptable response to a failing relationship.
Everyone has experienced the falling action of a relationship that is coming apart. Most of us deal with various shades of sadness, anxiety, frustration and fear – obsessing about what’s wrong, engaging friends on what you should do, talking with your partner about how to fix what ails you. But once you run into the embrace of someone else’s arms, you’ve lost any pretense of being an honorable person.

3.  Finally, in response to “What kind of warning signs should women pay attention to?” I can only reiterate one of the five must-haves in every relationship (the others being kindness, commitment, communication and consistency): CHARACTER.

The good news is that most of these character-based traits are readily apparent in a pretty short period of time (2-3 months) so you don’t have to waste 2-3 YEARS on the wrong guy in the future.

How does one measure character? Great question with a dissatisfying answer. My method may be imperfect and slow, but I don’t think it’s difficult. A man of character:

a.  Does what he says and says what he means. If there is a consistent discrepancy between his words and his actions, you’ll notice it before your marriage. I would think it would be really rare for a congenital liar to be honest for the first 2 years you’re together and suddenly turn into a whole new man with a ring on his finger. With my wife’s ex, he had a history of being a fabulist – making up or enhancing stories at parties – and also being a Peter Pan who liked to go out five nights a week and sometimes forgot to pay the electric bill. In retrospect, when he got married, he was playing grown-up before he was ready to be a grown-up. Your guy had a history of bailing on relationships. You just didn’t want his history to apply to you.

b.  Cares about your happiness and is not content when your needs are not being met. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, intuits your every desire, and never does anything selfish. It means that if you’ve got a problem, he’s got a problem – and he wants to be part of the solution. That’s what it’s like when you’re a team.

c. Communicates his feelings and is open to the full expression of yours. If conversations make him uncomfortable and he can’t discuss important topics without getting overheated or shutting down, he may be a good guy, but he’ll be a terrible husband.

There’s more to character, of course, but that’s a start. The good news is that most of these character-based traits are readily apparent in a pretty short period of time (2-3 months) so you don’t have to waste 2-3 YEARS on the wrong guy in the future.

Warmest wishes and much love,

Evan

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Comments:

  1. 1
    Becky

    This is such a well written letter by someone who sounds like they really have their stuff together, and an absolutely brilliant reply – thank you so much, Evan!  I feel like all young people should receive a copy of this before they start their dating lives – I think it’s one of the best letters and responses I’ve ever read from you (and they’re all pretty darn good)!

  2. 2
    John

    When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. – Maya Angelou – 

    Once I understood this quote, I could gauge a woman’s character in 2-3 months. If she wasn’t a match, I would let her go and never look back.

  3. 3
    Noquay

    Evan

    This was great!

    Having been in a similar situation myself; and STILL grieving the loss, I sadly realize, like I hope the OP does, that there are no short cuts unless it’s something really glaring like gross irresponsibility, addictions, and so on.  My dude met all the items for character except point c.

    Apart from the obvious red flag of past cheating for which there is zero excuse, the OP really had to put in the time before this guy unfolded. The dude the OPs spouse turned into was the real him, finally appearing. I understand that it must be even more frustrating for a much younger woman who wants family, due to biological limitations, to have this happen.

  4. 4
    Nissa

    My ex-spouse fell into this category of “ex who said they wanted something, until they didn’t”.

    However, in hindsight, it is much clearer. My ex did pursue me, show interest, etc. What he didn’t do was express a desire of his own to be married, to have kids, etc. He generally just went along with what I wanted. When I would say, Do you want to ___? He almost always said “sure” or “ok”. I never realized that this was about avoiding conflict or not having to be responsible for all the planning –  I thought he was agreeable and liked the same things I liked, and I always took his likes into consideration too. I never realized that instead of telling me he wasn’t interested in certain things, he managed to have to work or to have “sudden problems” at the last minute that prevented him from coming to the things he didn’t like.

    The first year, he wasn’t super kind, but he wasn’t unkind either. He consistently showed up for dates, called when he said he would and asked me to be exclusive after a few months without prompting. He never seemed passionate about us, but he wasn’t passionate about anything in his life. He would allude to things we could do together, but it was more of a ‘daydreaming out loud, if it works out’ kind of thing, instead of expressing that I specifically was the One for him.

    What I love about the OP’s letter is how she says: What suggestions do you have for women to avoid men who don’t really know what they want in life, yet pretend like they do? That was my experience: in retrospect it seems like he kept parts of himself hidden from the start – not because he was trying to deceive me, but because he didn’t know what he wanted, and was trying to avoid rejection while he figured it out.

    1. 4.1
      Emily, the original

      Nissa,

      That was my experience: in retrospect it seems like he kept parts of himself hidden from the start – not because he was trying to deceive me, but because he didn’t know what he wanted, and was trying to avoid rejection while he figured it out.

      I don’t know if you’ve done this, but I’ve been guilty of projecting depth onto a man if I think he’s keeping parts of himself hidden or there’s more there to discover. And then sometimes I learn, over time, he wasn’t hiding anything. There just wasn’t all that much there.

      1. 4.1.1
        S.

        LOL. Wow. That can be true.  Sometimes it’s difficult to accept. How can there not be more there? I think, ‘how are you even a person?’

        But some people don’t think about things all that deeply.  That’s the truth, better to accept it early and move on.  It’s fine, but not for me.

        I also have to back away from people who aren’t that passionate about anything or only one thing. I want someone who loves life and is eager to live it.  Doesn’t mean we are bungee jumping and Kilamanjaroing through life.  But it’s not all ‘whatever you wanna do’, either.  It’s tricky. ‘Cause I like when people do what I like to do and when I believe we have that in common.  Until I realize sometimes they don’t really care for it, just are doing it because I want to.  A little of that is fine.  All the time? No.

        1. Emily, the original

          S.

          But some people don’t think about things all that deeply.  That’s the truth, better to accept it early and move on.  It’s fine, but not for me.

          I was just talking about this very subject with a friend. She had met an ex-boyfriend for dinner. He was a great guy in a lot of ways. Funny, smart, ambitious, charismatic. They were still friends, and she tried to “go deep” with him about some family issues and he just couldn’t do it. She realized (they were together for several years) they had never really had a deep conversation about anything.

          But it’s not all ‘whatever you wanna do’, either.  

          I hate that, too. You don’t want someone who’s inflexible, but he should have some personal preferences. I always want to say, “When you figure out who you are, let me know.”

        2. Nissa

          I am really enjoying all the new vocabulary I am learning in these posts! ‘Kilamanjaroing’ and ‘barnacling’ are my new favorites 🙂

      2. 4.1.2
        Nissa

        That’s a great question. I don’t think I was, but we were both in our 20’s at the time and I didn’t have Great Expectations, lol. He had graduated from the Police Academy, but had made a career change to be a teacher, so he was in school for the first years of our relationship.

        Looking back, he had a habit of dribbling out small amounts of information and I didn’t always make the connection. For example, he was fired from his job at the Sheriff’s department, but the way he explained it, while he was in his starting probationary period someone came to his apartment to beat him up, he defended himself, then he was fired to protect the department from bad press, as this was around the time of the Rodney King beatings. Now, if I had heard this all at once, I might have gotten it. But he only mentioned at first he’d had a good job in LA but decided to be a teacher instead. That didn’t raise any red flags. Then months later he mentioned that it wasn’t entirely voluntary, but it was mostly political. Later still, he explained that he was just defending himself. You see the trend.

        I never knew he drank because he never drank with me. I didn’t know that he stole things (small things like glasses from restaurants, but still) when he was out with his friends. It never occurred to me that I should be grilling him about his behavior when I wasn’t with him (and frankly who wants to have a girlfriend who does that?). I wasn’t catching him in lies, because he didn’t give me enough information to ask the questions. Since I wouldn’t do those things, it never occurred to me that anyone else was doing those things.

        What bothered me about this later was that it seemed like he had become an entirely different person, and I couldn’t understand what happened. I hadn’t changed – my expectations and desires were pretty much the same. His tolerance for me did change. As he grew more confident, he hid his true self less. Because this happened so slowly over time, I just kept trying to love him and accept him, telling myself not to be judgmental, to bend to meet his changing needs.

        Now I see it as, he never changed that much – I just finally got to see the real him. How this affects me now is that when I do date, a lot of the men have this ‘interview technique’ where they are asking me all about myself – what do I want to do, what do I expect, etc. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are just nervous or want to get to know me. But I what I really want is for my date to tell me about himself, and I often find that it’s like prying them open. It often sounds like they are just parroting back what I say – whatever I like, they claim to like it too. My tolerance for a man who isn’t excited about his own life is a lot lower.

        My biggest mistake in the past, I think, was that when things happened, I’d think he just had a bad day or that it was temporary. Now, I look at those same things, and say to myself: he’s showing you who he really is – pay attention.

         

        1. Emily, the original

          Nissa,

          But he only mentioned at first he’d had a good job in LA but decided to be a teacher instead. That didn’t raise any red flags. Then months later he mentioned that it wasn’t entirely voluntary, but it was mostly political. Later still, he explained that he was just defending himself. You see the trend.

          It sounds like he was knowingly withholding all the details because he knew some of the information would make him look bad. That’s duplicitous. Wouldn’t it have been better for him just to say, “I was working for the sheriff but I screwed that up.”? To tell you what happened and then explain he’d changed careers. That’s understandable.

           A lot of the men have this ‘interview technique’ where they are asking me all about myself – what do I want to do, what do I expect, etc.

          That’s funny. YAG says women always do that to him.

          What I really want is for my date to tell me about himself … It often sounds like they are just parroting back what I say … My tolerance for a man who isn’t excited about his own life is a lot lower.

          I agree. That goes back to S’s comment above yours. They don’t know who they are. Although, to be fair, it can take a while to figure it out!   🙂

  5. 5
    amanda

    In my limited experience, I think you probably can figure it out if you keep a cool head and gather data (via normal interaction, not creepy stalking, you understand). We’re all some combination of nature and nurture. My ex-husband would fondly tell the story of bonding with his grandfather while a young boy, sitting in the mall commenting on the passing women: “She shouldn’t be wearing that, the silly b*tch!” We laughed about it and I thought he was self-aware about these sorts of influences (he said that he was), until I realised late that those shallow/misogynistic attitudes really were ingrained. His experience of growing up in a fractured family bled into fractured adult relationships. Me, from a stay-together-come-whatever upbringing, didn’t know how to read the writing on the wall.. then. He said he’d never loved anyone like me. I believe it – still – but he just did not have the scaffolding in his past which would help him to sustain a committed and thoughtful life. (NB: I was also too young and stupid to be a rewarding partner.) Happily, our young son speaks very differently about strangers. I am hopeful the cycle is broken. He pointed out once that a man in the next car looked tired. Empathy rather than belittlement.

    My first boyfriend post-marriage had been with something like 90 women and, at nearly 40, had never had a relationship lasting longer than three months. I didn’t worry about this at first as we’d known each other since we were teenagers. I was going to be different, naturally. We both thought that. He talked the talk but he couldn’t sustain it, either. Not ready. Too big a departure. I think he’s getting there with his current girlfriend. I really think it’s about him and not her or me. Anyway, by then I was beginning to tune in to those lone sentences which say so much. He had no assets and lived like a nomad. He said once, “I see myself in old age, bumming cigarette butts, perfectly happy, you know?” Again, the laughter, but this time my ears were open. It’s those not-so-throw-away lines that tell you so much.

    My current partner is so different again that it has taken me some time to adjust and believe. We met online. He reached past my deliberately off-hand profile which I had set up to enable me to browse without being approached. We hit it off immediately. After about two weeks we met and easily decided to be together. His parents are still married and clearly not unhappy about it. His friends are mostly in long-term relationships. One mate hooked up with a 26-year-old at 16 and their marriage appears solid at 40 and 50. There is just an uncomplicated acceptance that this lifestyle is normal and desirable. Never any comments about my weight or other women. I don’t stumble upon unsettling contradictions between what he says and what he does. It gives me such confidence. I’ve been waiting for that red-flag moment and we’re nearly four years in, now. I think I can power-down the instruments. I don’t think we’ll marry (neither of us cares either to do it or not), but the funny thing is, I’m inclined now to see about putting him in charge of my Will. I know, in some deep and certain way, that he would carry it all out even if our relationship had ended before my death. Overall, the data just points to it. 😛

    1. 5.1
      S.

      Amanda, I’m glad you found someone! You are right about those throw-away lines.   And glad you can ‘power down’. It can be hard after so many other things not working out.  Glad you didn’t give up!

      90 women! Wow.  Interesting that he told you that number, but you at least knew what you could going in. I like to think that if someone met me they could be different.  But the departure is often too great.  Even if the guy has only been with one woman by age 40 the departure may be great.  I don’t think numbers are a big a deal in themselves, but if the numbers indicate a certain lifestyle a person is accustomed to and liked, then that means something for the future.

      Lots of food for my thoughts here.

      1. 5.1.1
        Emily, the original

        S.,

        90 women! Wow. …  But the departure is often too great.  Even if the guy has only been with one woman by age 40 the departure may be great.  I don’t think numbers are a big a deal in themselves, but if the numbers indicate a certain lifestyle a person is accustomed to and liked, then that means something for the future.

        I agree. I want a man who’s had some experience,  but I wouldn’t have made it another minute with someone who told me he’d been with 90 women. Does he have any discretion? He’s a Johnny-I’ll-do-anybody.

        1. S.

          I knew someone would comment about that part of my comment. 🙂

          The number doesn’t matter if it’s really not indicative of anything.  Maybe he had a run when he was in is teens. Maybe after a divorce. People can change (as Amanda says her ex is beginning to change with his new girlfriend), just that change usually has to occur before meeting someone completely different.  Not during, not after as a lot of us assume or hope.  It’s just too much ground to cover while starting a new relationship.

          But sure one could have been a convict, a drug addict, anything really.  If that life is truly behind them I don’t think it matters that much. If that was last week before meeting me, I may choose someone who has their baggage more taken care of.  The OP’s question is how do you know if they have addressed and worked on these things?  Just wait and observe.  Everything I’ve needed to know is usually there in the first two to three months of spending time with a person. I’m fortunate too because most men just tell me things, pretty early on.

          The key is getting out early when you see any thing that is a flag for you. I sometimes feel bad and don’t want to end things immediately after a man has been vulnerable and shared things with me.  Seems harsh. But gosh, the men I’ve met have wasted little time when they see a flag about me.  They don’t care where we were hours or days before, they are outta there.

        2. Emily, the original

          S.,

           People can change (as Amanda says her ex is beginning to change with his new girlfriend), just that change usually has to occur before meeting someone completely different.  Not during, not after as a lot of us assume or hope.  It’s just too much ground to cover while starting a new relationship.

          That’s exactly what I wrote to Amanda. Change is a very slow process. You have to meet someone AFTER therapy or self-groups, etc.

          But, to me, 90 is too many. It’s one thing to say you had a slut period in your life. Fine. But i don’t need to know numbers and details, because, yes, there are details I can’t UNhear, and there are things that would bother me. Maybe not intellectually but emotionally/sexually.

        3. S.

          @Emily

          So is it better for you to not know it’s 90 (even if it is 90)? Would you rather he said, ‘many’? 🙂

          I don’t censor someone when they are sharing.  I once dated a man who had done some risky behavior. (Being deliberately vague here.) I did for details because my health was potentially at risk. Usually men do volunteer this stuff and I don’t judge.

          Is 90 so much different than seventy? Fifty? Forty-five?  Forty-five is a hell of a lot of lovin’.  🙂

          Some men say they have honestly lost count.  If that’s true, that’s interesting.  I’m not in 45 range but if I started losing count I would make a list. For myself, I want to remember each one.

          For the guy? I don’t care. Unless he’s determined to move from me (91) to 92. 🙂 I just would then say good-bye and wish him well.

        4. Emily, the original a

          S.,
          So is it better for you to not know it’s 90 (even if it is90)? Would you rather he said, ‘many’? 🙂
          Why does he have to say anything at all? I would only need to know about his sexual past if, obviously, he had an STD.
          I don’t censor someone when they are sharing. 
          I don’t either, but I would think that a man I was dating would have the common sense to realize there is telling the truth/sharing and then there is having no filter.
          I remember dating a guy years ago who I really liked. I asked him some questions about his previous girlfriend, including sexual questions (he didn’t go into great detail), and when I started to reciprocate, he told me he didn’t want to think about me with someone else. I stopped talking and never brought it up again. That’s pretty much how I feel about it now.

  6. 6
    amanda

    He’s a Johnny-I’ll-do-anybody.

    90 women into more than 20 years of sexual activity is about one encounter (or one new encounter) every three months. Casual encounters or aborted relationships? Some of both, certainly. He was my #3 and I was his #90-ish. Meh. He was not a player. He did not have obvious “experience”. My husband, married once before he married me, was a much more sophisticated lover. Mr #90 and I met when we were 12. I had some background. It was a delicate dance for us before we finally went there. After me, he was celibate for a couple of years and I slept with three others at the rate of one every three months. I’m having an extended layover with #6, because that’s my true habit: sit, stay. I hear what S is saying. It isn’t so much the number as it is the brain circuitry. This will end. It always does. There, she’s mad at me. Broken. I’ll travel for a bit, learn some more about the world.

    1. 6.1
      Emily, the original

      Amanda:

      Here’s what you wrote in your first comment:

      My first boyfriend post-marriage had been with something like 90 women and, at nearly 40, had never had a relationship lasting longer than three months. I didn’t worry about this at first as we’d known each other since we were teenagers. I was going to be different, naturally. We both thought that. He talked the talk but he couldn’t sustain it, either. Not ready. Too big a departure.

      The number said everything. He was nearly 40, had a high partner count and all short-term situations. Which should have told you that your situation would be short-term. Which is fine if you were looking for short-term. If you weren’t … I do believe people are capable of change … but it’s a LONG process and takes a lot of work. You would have had to meet him on the tale end of that work, years down the road.

      1. 6.1.1
        amanda

        Yes, Emily, you’re exactly right, and that was why I told the story. He wanted children. He wanted to put down roots. But he did not yet have the skills to follow through. Having known him and his family on and off for nearly three decades, I knew some important qualities were present. He was quite unlike my husband and that was significant. But you have to assess all the data with a cool head.

        1. Emily, the original a

          Amanda,

          Having known him and his family on and off for nearly three decades, I knew some important qualities were present. He was quite unlike my husband and that was significant. But you have to assess all the data with a cool head.

          Had you had a crush on him for years? Otherwise, the situation seems perfect for assessment. You’ve known him for years as a person. You know his romantic history.

          I’m not attacking you. Everybody’s different, but if I really liked someone and wanted something real with him and he told me he’d never had more than flings and had had 90 partners, I’d assume I was just another number, despite what he told me. I’d question whether he was capable of more.

    2. 6.2
      S.

      This will end. It always does. There, she’s mad at me.

      It doesn’t take 90 lovers to get into this mindset. It could take three or five.  Wonder if it’s self-fulfilling?

      I was thinking more that the person wasn’t sorry it ended, just was okay with three-month relationships.  Which can be fun.  I can’t imagine 90 heartbreaks, you know?  My mind can’t see that.

      Interesting he was celibate afterward. Something was changing in him.  Maybe even because of meeting you. That didn’t help you, though.

      Relationship skills are like any skills.  You can’t just up and expect to have them at 40 the way you expect to up and drive if you never have driven, could just up and do surgery, could just up and remove a virus from your computer if you never have.  (That very first virus is hella scary.) And it’s not just skills, it’s also how to manage one’s emotions, the other person’s needs, etc.  Some people are looking at the person’s degree or bank account. I want to see life skills here!  Do you know how to communicate non-violently? Can you apologize and show actions that coincide with that? Can you compromise? Can we go on vacation and be closer afterward than before?

      Life.  If someone is busy with so many women maybe they’ve developed these skills with women.  But probably not.  But hey, maybe they have over-practiced these skills.  Whether they have or not is what really matters.  Not the number. Either way, you still have to spend a couple of months dating the guy to figure out which it is.

       

  7. 7
    Kevin

    Everytime i see women responses on this site i just laugh to myself…NEWSFLASH…men dont sit around “dream of their wedding since i was a little girl” like you all…42 never married in someways i commend him for never folding under the pressure lol…but basically his M.O. is clearly string a relationship on as long as i can…and when i have exhausted stall move after 2-5 years then the relationship is over and i will find another…it is a pretty clear cut system to satisfy his needs until what you “need” can no longer be avoided…so the real question we must ask ourselves is…why can men go on in a relationship forever with out marraige and y it is a must have for women?…why are we so opposite on that issue

  8. 8
    Chris

    I generally agree. Believe what they do, not what they say, look for signs of character etc. But if anyone says or shows that they don’t know what they want, that includes you. I don’t wait for timing or alignment or proclamations. If they want to be with you, they’ll make it happen because even it’s a struggle, and all relationships have a little, it’ll be worth it to them  or they are not worthy of you.

  9. 9
    MA

    WOW! I am just getting out of a 6 year relationship where everything he said was in alignment with what I wanted, but when we finally married it fell apart that day (seriously – on the wedding day). What he said he wanted and what he really wanted were VERY different!! Seeing all these other stories about the same thing takes some of the sting out of it for me. Pay attention to the actions not the words. Hind sight is 20/20 and I can see all the warning signs and have been beating the crap out of myself for not knowing better. This blog / comments has really helped me to see how I can move forward in a way that is more likely for success. Thank you all for your sharing, it has been helpful beyond words.

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