Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Rookie: In theory, I love romantic relationships! I’m a very loving, affectionate person (with my friends and family), and the relationships I see onscreen (and in real life!) all make me kind of feel like, “Hey, I wanna be in love!” However, on every occasion that I’ve been about to enter into a romantic relationship, a wave of ick and panic washes over me and I lose all interest—even if I really liked the boy before!! I feel like a totally different person. Everything starts to feel disingenuous (I can’t believe them/don’t like when they compliment me), and I feel so uncomfortable at the thought of being someone’s girlfriend. Reciprocation of their romantic feelings feels impossible! Inevitably, I end up removing myself from the situation as soon as possible, and I’ve hurt a lot of people like this. (Plus, as soon as they move on, I’m interested again!! It’s so messy.) Should I just ignore those feelings and dive in, hoping for the best? Am I incapable of love? Or have I just not met the right people? Maybe I’m just not ready? Please help me—I really do want to be in love. —Isabel, 18

There’s a short answer and a longer answer to your incredibly insightful question, dear Isabel. The short answer is that “wave of ick and panic” are signals that you just aren’t into the idea of being in a relationship. So many of us stuff, drown out, or ignore the alerts our bodies and minds and hearts send us, and I’m incredibly impressed that you are listening to yourself. You could have just chalked this up to “nervous butterflies because of love!” and gone into situations where you did not want to be. Keep listening to your signals.

So you aren’t into the idea of being in a relationship—so what? That’s a very different thing than saying you aren’t ready for a relationship. (When I hear I’m “not ready” for something, my immediate response is “Hell, yes I am give it to me.”) We are somewhat conditioned by culture writ large to feel like we are supposed to be craving, obsessing over, and going after love as soon as we hit our teenage years. But relationships aren’t hobbies: They are intense partnerships we enter with another human being for the purpose of negotiating our own needs and wants while satisfying their needs and wants. Plus they’re snuggling and going to the movies and sharing food at restaurants and arguing. Figuring out how to lean on, learn from, and care for another person is an important skill for everyone, but luckily love isn’t the only way to learn that lesson.

Now the longer answer, which gets into the reasons why you have knee-jerk terror at the actual possibility of a relationship. It could be that you are crushing on people you know are no good for you, so you are pulling the plug before you throw yourself headlong into something malnutritious for your soul. If so, I applaud you again for your inner self-care. It could be that you’ve seen romantic relationships in movies/TV/books and, though you appreciate them, maybe feel a bit corny once you start feeling the way characters feel. That happens—the experience of love is universal, which is why people think it’s the great equalizer, and why people make so much art about it. If that’s the root of your discomfort, you have to lean into the corniness a bit and accept that it’s OK to have emotions that have been oft described in every form of media possible for centuries. (And even so, no one will ever exactly feel the feelings you’re feeling.) A third option is that your fear could be a reaction to the idea of being vulnerable and intimate with another person. That would totally make sense. There’s a reason they call it “falling” in love—it can feel like a free fall. You’re not alone there.

My advice to you would be to start exploring your intimacy with other people in ways that don’t involve romance. Play with a friend’s hair (as long as they’re OK with it, of course). Have an afternoon of secret-swapping with your roommate. Talk about politics with coworkers. Tell your family how you feel about them, and listen to how they feel about you. Make yourself vulnerable to other people and see how comfortable that feels. Romantic relationships are similar to that—you are giving up part of your private inner life in exchange for access to someone else’s. It is a beautiful thing, but it is also somewhat risky. Any time you make yourself vulnerable you could get hurt—but you also could experience a whole new ocean of feelings you haven’t felt before. Keep having crushes, and be aware that when you start a relationship it’s OK to be just a little bit scared—not paralyzing, danger-signal scared—but the kind of scared you get at the top of a roller coaster. When you feel exhilarated-scared, that’s when you can proceed with an open heart and open eyes. Until then, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and keep being such a good listener of you. Your relationships with other people will come and go, but your relationship with yourself is eternal. ♦

Want some assistance interpreting your heart’s and brain’s signals? Email us about what’s up at [email protected], and please include your AGE, FIRST NAME/INITIAL/NICKNAME, and CITY.