The Only Reason You Need to Know for Why Your Relationship Didn't Work Out

A friend of mine recently dumped a guy she was crazy about.

She made that hard decision partly because in the six months they'd been dating, she'd never gone to his house. Not once.

When she first told me this my antennae went up. "Seriously?" I said to her. "He's married. He has porn covering the walls. He operates a slave ring from his basement. He's a hoarder. I could go on."

Turns out it was none of my knee-jerk suspicions -- he and his roommates have a no-guests agreement, he finally explained when she pressed him.

Now, I used to share a very intimate railroad apartment in New York City with a friend, and we instigated no such rule, despite living in four minuscule rooms with -- and I'm not exaggerating here -- a bathroom the size of an airplane lavatory (and also located in the kitchen), with our beds about six feet apart separated only by a glass French door. In the four years we cohabited there, we managed to find ways to allow each other enough personal space to date because, you know... life. So this was another red flag for me.

Up until my friend finally called it off, she saw him twice a month -- even half a year in. "Essentially, I'm in a long-distance relationship with a guy who works a mile away from me," she'd told me. "I don't get it at all: why start dating someone who is looking for a relationship when you don't have any time to devote to it?"

The answer that first popped to mind was one I didn't want to say to her: Because being unavailable is his way of letting a woman know he's not interested in a relationship. At least not with her.

Like my girlfriend, I used to think that if I was totally honest with potential dates about what I was looking for -- a committed relationship -- I'd weed out the ones who were just in it for the minute.

But there are a couple of problems with that theory. First -- and buckle up, because I'm going to make a possibly unfair blanket statement here -- sometimes men aren't paying that much attention to what you say. After all, you went out with them, right? Sure, maybe you posted something or other in your online dating profile about a long-term committed blah-blah, but you said yes. You continued to say yes.

Men and women think a bit differently: Women listen to the words; men pay attention to the actions. How many men know perfectly well that a tight-lipped "I'm fine" from a woman means anything but? And how many women have dismissed our instincts that something is wrong in a relationship because a man assures us everything is A-OK and it's all in our heads?

My friend, as I mentioned, is an extremely smart woman. If she had judged her date on his actions, then she might have decided that a man who doesn't make much time for her and doesn't want her in his private space is -- to quote the brilliant and revelatory Liz Tuccillo and Greg Behrendt -- just not that into her. Or if he had judged her by her words, then he might have realized even before they connected online that she wanted something more than he did from the relationship.

But on the other hand... how could he know that until he went out with her?

Maybe he did think he was ready, and he wanted to see whether my friend was the right girl for him. There's every chance he simply didn't know he didn't want a relationship with her until he started to have one. In that light, maybe he was trying to be a good guy -- trying not to lead her on by letting things develop beyond what he was willing to offer.

Which of these reasons was the real one this guy kept her at such a remove? My girlfriend, I suspect, has been trying to puzzle it out even harder than I am -- and probably with just as little success. The fact is, she can't know for certain why things never moved forward with this man, even though when they were together, it felt exactly right. And I can't know either. In fact, there's only one person who can really know in this case -- and maybe not even him. She's looking for answers that in all likelihood she'll never get.

The bottom line is that you can't control any aspect of a relationship except what you put into it -- and what you are willing to accept from it. My friend wants to know why things went down the way they did, but she may never find out. What she does know is this: She didn't think her ex was at a place in his life where he was ready for a committed relationship, which is what she's looking for.

So she broke it off.

That takes guts. And it takes faith -- the faith to know that what you want is out there for you, and you deserve it. And that if you open up a space for it -- by letting go of relationships that aren't serving that goal -- you just might get it.