Or, why doesn’t she call me back?

These are questions I hear frequently, and sometimes repeatedly from the same patient talking about different “great” first dates. I am not likely to know the answer. It is hard enough to figure out why people do the things they do; it is harder still to figure out why they don’t do any of the things they could do. Certainly, it is not unusual for a relationship that seems promising at first to end abruptly for no apparent reason. Sometimes, the person who is left hanging does discover at some later date the explanation—at least the explanation given by the other person. Sometimes, still later on, a different explanation may be offered to a mutual friend or to someone else. But those various explanations, which may or may not be sincere, are, in any case, not likely to be true. The truth is, most people do not know themselves well enough to know why someone else has become less attractive to them or less appealing. Or suddenly off-putting. Sometimes, a sudden lack of interest has nothing to do with the other person at all.

Some reasons given directly to the offended party for not calling after a great first date:

Common reasons:

“I was given a lot of extra work suddenly.” Or, “A bunch of exams came up.”
“I was sick in bed with….”
“A family emergency. (Grandmother taken to the hospital, father broke his leg, brother arrested…) 
“I was out of reach of a cell-phone signal.” Or, “My cell-phone died.”
“I had to go out of town.”
 “My car broke down,” or, “The storm,” or “My sister-in-law came in from out of town,” or some other seemingly unrelated event.

Uncommon reasons:

“I had to accompany my parents on a religious retreat.”
”I developed laryngitis.”
“I was stuck in a traffic jam. Then I got a ticket.”
“My friends kidnapped me for a hunting trip.”

Obviously, none of these reasons would really stop an interested date from texting or calling. Therefore, whatever explanation is offered, the bottom line is that that man, or woman, is not very interested. There is no “but…” to take into consideration. “But, he said he had a wonderful time…” Or, “But, she was willing to have sex…” Or, “But, he/she was talking about our spending next Christmas together…” Right now—maybe not yesterday, maybe even not tomorrow—but right now, that person is not interested.

Sometimes, the person who has not called, or called back, happens to be my patient. Sometimes, I ask him, or her, why? Presumably, patients have no reason to make up a story for my benefit. These are some of the answers I get:

(Most common)  “Oh…, I don’t know…,” shrugging.
“He/she seemed too serious.”
About as frequent: “He/she didn’t seem very serious.”
“Too passive.” Or “Came on too strong.”
“When I thought about it, it seemed like it was not going to work out.”

These are the responses from patients who had previously told me they had a “great date” with the person they are now avoiding. Of course, most dates are not “great,” and the person who does not call has the usual reasons for not calling. “He/she was not attractive,” “not bright,” “boring,”“has a lousy job,” “No money,” etc. These explanations are closer to the truth, but, still, not entirely true. If someone is on the verge of falling in love (usually for no discernible reason), none of these shortcomings would be enough to deter that person from calling over and over again. Sometimes, I know the patient well enough to guess at the real reasons for not calling: a fear of intimacy or sex, a fear of marriage, and, very frequently, a profound conviction that sooner or later, no matter how “great” the initial relationship, it will end inevitably with my patient being rejected.

In short, the reasons why someone becomes entangled romantically—or avoids becoming entangled—are in every case complicated and usually not at all clear to either party. They are often arbitrary and capricious. Some things have to be accepted without being understood.

Still, having said all that, I don’t think someone should be surprised over and over again by a lack of response from different people they thought were enthusiastic about them. If someone is systematically  mis-reading what others think, he or she may be making a discoverable—and fixable—mistake. This is similar to those students who constantly under- or over-estimate their performance on an examination. Most of them underestimate how well they have done because they think little of themselves and do not expect success. It is more unusual for a student to repeatedly overestimate her performance.

Similarly, I would not expect many people to think that they have made a terrific impression on someone else, unless, in fact, they were more or less right. (I know of a few exceptions, for instance a woman who thinks everyone she dates has fallen in love with her.) There needs to be a different reason for being disappointed repeatedly.

I have come to understand that the usual reason my patients, men and women both, are disappointed by a lack of response from someone they have gone out with and liked is that they have failed to encourage the other person. Sometimes that date says spontaneously months later, “I thought you weren’t interested.”

You may think that the person you have just gone out with is terrific in every way, but he, or she, is likely to be bedeviled by the same insecurities you—and everyone else—experience. That person is likely to need encouragement. Simply smiling at the end of a date is not enough. Ask directly if you are going to get together next weekend, or at some other specific time. Say that you had a terrific time. Often a patient says to me that she could never do that. She is afraid of rejection. Yet, that sort of explicit invitation is what is required. Someone who is unwilling to risk rejection makes that rejection more likely. “Playing it cool,” works to maintain a relationship with someone who is afraid of a close relationship, but, then, the inevitable dissolution of the relationship is put off but not avoided. Most men and women respond favorably to being liked.

Even if your natural inclination is to be diffident and reticent, you must make a conscious effort to say clearly that you want to see the other person again. Will that always work? Of course, not. There are some who will run away from any emotional involvement. It is one of the others that you want to reach.

(c) Fredric Neuman

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