“You don’t need me,” my now-ex said, all casual and matter-of-fact. We’d been talking about the real meaning of commitment and all the reasons he didn’t feel he could truly commit to me. In the pause that followed came this seemingly disconnected statement.
He was right, of course, from a purely practical standpoint. I didn’t need him; if we split, I would be fine. I could pay my own bills and support myself. I was obsessed with my career, which was moving full speed ahead. I had a supportive family, my health was in check, and my life was generally in order. I didn’t “need” him. Or anyone. But I wanted him. Wasn’t that enough? In fact, wasn’t that better?
He didn’t seem to think so. Eventually, he broke up with me. He didn’t know what he wanted in life: maybe grad school or an out-of-state move to start over. He was stubborn about his independence, he told me, though I sensed he resented mine. He said I was a little too settled. “You are so sure of yourself, Jenna,” he claimed. “It’s a good thing. But you are going to scare men.”
He also once said, “There are so many things I want to give you, but I’m not sure where my life is going yet.” I remember him saying this to me with a faraway look, like he was performing an open monologue to himself. What if I’d never asked for those things? I thought. What if I’d never asked you to have those answers? It took me years to understand these were expectations he placed on himself.
Men vs. Women
More women than men are now graduating college, and they are significantly likelier to have a bachelor’s degree by age 29. For the first time in history, more American women have bachelor’s degrees than American men. We are thus flooding the workforce, demanding equal treatment and equal pay, outing injustices that might hold us back. And in relationships, more women are breadwinners than ever before; the number of family units with female primary or sole breadwinners has quadrupled since 1960. This is a big shift for millennials, who are watching these changes happen, aware that times have changed since our mothers’ and grandmothers’ day.
That doesn’t mean old societal expectations have completely fallen by the wayside, however. They still play a role in dating between men and women — subconsciously or consciously. For my book on dating and relationships, I talked in depth with many men who date women, and most told me that they still felt pressure to “establish themselves” and “provide.” The data backs up their feelings: In December, the Pew Research Center polled Americans on gendered expectations. Male and female survey respondents said they felt the two biggest stressors for men were still “supporting their family financially” and “being successful in their job or career.”
As I started to collect my own data on why modern-day relationships worked out or didn’t, “having your life together” was a big deal for men especially. I learned a lot of heterosexual men still want to be a full contributing partner — someone who has the capacity to support a significant other financially and practically if needed, and someone who brings home at least their fair share of the bacon in a dual-earning household.
My female interviewees commonly reported hearing refrains like “I’m not ready” and “You don’t need me” from their male partners. Maybe you’ve heard it, too. In an Instagram poll for Man Repeller readers, 72 percent of participants reported they had been told “I’m not ready” in the context of a relationship. Some 78 percent said they’ve had a relationship or connection thwarted due to “bad timing.” And around 62 percent of those participants said they had dated guys who, they felt, were turned off by their independence, paycheck or career.
But per recent survey data, in almost direct opposition to such anecdotes, straight men claim to want just what these women offer: a partnership with someone smart and self-sufficient. (So did my ex, for that matter, before our commitment conversation.) But if that’s the case, what’s going on here? Well, for one, needs and wants are different things, and timing is a crucial element of modern-day relationship success. I have a few theories.
Needs vs. Wants
For millennials, “I’m not ready” is not a line or excuse, but often a reality of dating and falling in love. And here’s where one of my basic theories on modern relationships comes in. I like to illustrate it using some classic psych, a.k.a. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the gift from 1943 that just keeps on giving.
As humans, we move all over the hierarchy every day. All the time! But in general (and as the theory goes), all needs must be fulfilled eventually, and when a need is unfulfilled, it’s activated and we’re motivated to work on that need until it’s met. Typically, we work from the bottom up. Physiological and safety needs come first (you’ve gotta survive) before esteem and love (to help you thrive).
Enter modern-day romance and relationships: Hey there, idealism! What they say about our generation is true. Not only do most of us want to explore and expand personally, but we want couple-with-your-best-friend, do-life-together loves, too. Partnership is a beautiful concept, surpassing a mere “relationship” or even “marriage” as a thoroughly modern aspiration. For those of us in pursuit of a relationship, we’re more often than not looking for an equal partner — a “team” dynamic.
If we check the hierarchy, then, for us modern daters, love is not just support and belongingness (level 3), where it might have slotted back when commitment was more about baseline stability than anything else. Today, men and women alike repeatedly told me they wanted a partner who “makes them better.” We are a generation focused on self-actualization: fulfillment, satisfaction, reaching our highest potential (level 5, peak #goals). Fantastically, true modern partnerships (or at least our idea of them) can and should help us self-actualize, elevate us, and help us become our best selves. But we need esteem — level 4, knowing who we are and what we bring to the table, having most of our basic needs checked — to create the type of relationship where we’re able to grow in the same direction.
This can apply to any couple, opposite-sex or same-sex: When one person is lower in the pyramid, there is less headspace for love (level 3), especially of the makes-me-better, self-actualizing variety (level 5) because he or she must first tend to self-esteem (level 4). But while this applies to all relationships, I’d argue it applies quite consistently to modern men forming opposite-sex partnerships — especially those for whom the pressure to “succeed,” “provide” and conform to a gender role was (sometimes subconsciously) impressed from a young age, changing and intensifying the markers by which they measure self-esteem. The resulting landscape, as I see it, is one wherein men are often stuck on the bottom levels of the pyramid a little bit longer.
He’s Just Not at Your Level
Of course, not every man or woman follows the same trajectory, nor do we all measure our pyramids in the same way. Some have stepped far outside the mold that society laid out and figured out what works for them as individuals. Hats off to the men and women who so beautifully juggle career and love, or those who have decided to fully embrace their single status because it brings them more joy or makes them feel like their most actualized selves.
But for those of us who seek companionship, gender norms and socialization can still have quite a dramatic impact on the pursuit of love. Among the people I interviewed, many men described a pressure-filled, hyper-rigid climb toward “success” before they could feel confident enough in themselves and their abilities to enter a relationship. Many women, on the other hand, described feeling more free to define success on their own terms, granting them the flexibility to move through Maslow’s pyramid with more ease and patience, believing they could work on themselves and a great relationship at the same time.
Whether you participate in this particular narrative or not, people have been theorizing for years about why straight men don’t commit or pursue relationships as readily as women. One of my least favorite theories? “He’s just not that into you.” It’s a popular explanation, and it can work as an excuse for literally anything a guy does, from canceling a date to avoiding a text to breaking up with you. But in my view, it doesn’t encompass the very real and nuanced reality of how we build lives and loves. I watched this explanation gaslight some of the coolest, brightest women I knew. It wasn’t that they couldn’t believe a guy wouldn’t be into them; it was that they couldn’t believe they sensed a great connection and could be so wrong about how it would all play out. When connection after connection failed to pan out, they concluded they weren’t enough — and often set out to change themselves in pretty fundamental ways. I hate that.
I’d like them to consider another explanation: Maybe it was him, and maybe it was timing, and maybe he was struggling to deal with the relationship as a result of simple psychology. For example, if he’s working on gaining a steady source of income after a career change (level 2: safety needs) while you’re working on a promotion at work (level 4: esteem), or he wants a casual relationship (level 3: love and belongingness) while you want that modern-day, growth-oriented partnership to hit every continent or start a side hustle together (level 5: self-actualization), maybe the tough truth is he’s just not at your level.
A straight guy friend told me he thinks he subconsciously struggles to date women who are ahead of him. I once tried to set him up with a good friend of mine — smart, pretty, driven, insightful. The full package! I thought it’d be a great match; they even had the same “out there” taste in music. He talked to her for months but couldn’t make solid romantic moves in her direction. “That was a good match,” he admitted to me years later. “But I was intimidated then. I wouldn’t be today.” Ahh, growth. As for her? She moved to D.C. to work in advertising and, by all accounts, has one of those committed, inspiring partnerships I mentioned earlier.
“Someone in the same place in life,” my friend mused. “It’s hard to find.” And so is modern love. The good news is, although fulfilling relationships may seem rare among the oodles of options we have today, they may ultimately prove more powerful tools for personal growth than “ideal” relationships of the past. And in even better news, for women, there’s more opportunity for fulfillment on the road of life than ever before — whether we’ve found a love that lasts or not.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; art direction and infographic by Emily Zirimis.