Monday, May 30, 2011

A Few Thoughts on a "Rest of My Life" Love Relationship

I seem to be finding myself engaged in a lot of conversations about love relationships these days. Obviously, starting this blog and having people read it is a catalyst. Some of those conversations have come directly from posts written here. However, others had nothing to do with this blog, and I think that, perhaps, it's really an "up" set of topics for me right now.

One of the issues that keeps repeating itself over and over again is how often people cling to a specific story about what the "perfect relationship" is. Everyone's version of this is different. Mine is primarily a story of a dynamic, spiritually driven, rest of our lives partnership. But regardless of the details of the story, what seems similar for most of us is the tendency to be attached to that narrative, and believe that when the person who fits that narrative comes, we'll know it.

The problem is, I don't think we always "know it" when a great potential partner arrives in our lives. In fact, I think the very story we have about what "should happen" often overrides the recognition of a person who might not fit the story exactly, but actually is a better match for you than someone who completely fits the narrative.

There's another theme I have noticed which seems to cause a lot of misery. Namely, the attachment to finding that "one and final love," that "soul mate," the person "you'll be with for the rest of your lives." As people live longer, and as the norm moves further away from, for example, remaining dutifully married to someone regardless of how the relationship is functioning, I believe it's more likely that we will experience multiple "powerhouse" partnerships over a lifetime.

You might outlive a partner by twenty years, and end up with another who is wonderful for you in different ways perhaps. Or you might have an amazing relationship with someone that, in the process of the relationship itself, changes so dramatically that the connection between you is permanently altered. Sometimes, this ends up leading to an end of a love relationship, and and shift towards a platonic friendship.

Although in all honesty, my aim in life in regards to love relationships is to be in a lifelong (or close to that) partnership with one woman, I'm realizing more and more that how I relate to the fluidity of relationships will impact whatever comes in the future.

For example, if I am open to the possibility that what life might bring me is a few "powerhouse, spiritually driven partnerships," then I'm less hung up on finding "The One."

Furthermore, the times I have been most destructive in relationships were tied to fears that whatever I did was going to bring it to an end, so learning to let go of the view that you're gonna screw up your "only chance" actually makes it easier to be present with conflict, for example, and do or say something that has a better chance of keeping your relationship intact.

So, it's interesting to consider these stories and how they impact what we are doing. Even if you're in a long term relationship, these narratives might be overriding your understanding of your partner and even yourself. What you think is commitment might just be slavery to the narrative you have. Don't take my word for it though, check for yourself.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Giving Space" and Caring While in Relationships

There is an excellent post over at Evan Katz's blog about some of the qualities found in people who are great partners. If you read it, you'll probably think "yeah, duh!" because there's nothing terribly earth-shattering in it. But then again, too often, in the midst of some passionate love affair filled with bouts of conflict and hurt, we are not thinking about such things.

The article is directed at dating women, and is speaking about how quality men basically stick with their partners during difficult times.

The following comment from Evelyn sparked a few thoughts for me.

What if HE is the one going through trauma? What is he wants time alone to deal with his trauma? Then you are the one being asked to be selfless, and not get your way, and give him what he needs. He is not there for you, he doesn’t want to be around you, but he is asking you to support him by backing away.

Is it selfish to judge him for wanting time and space to deal with his own career/family difficulties? Or should we be more supportive, as women, of men’s need for space and time to themselves when they ask for it at difficult times?

Or is the fact that he wants to be alone to deal with his traumas a bad sign?

Generally, I'd say this: it all comes back to trust.

If you’re a man pushing away your partner whenever your suffering, you’re probably don’t have much trust in her or the relationship. And if you’re a woman who doesn’t give any space, who thinks that any “alone time” for a guy during that period of struggle is a problem, then you’re also probably not trusting him or the relationship.

I have struggled with this in every long term relationship I have had. It's very much the case that I am one of those guys who needs time and space to process difficulties. As a student of meditation, yoga, and other spiritual disciplines, I naturally gravitate towards working on "my shit" alone at first, and then later start talking things out and making decisions with the help of friends, family, and partner, if I'm with someone.

This hasn't always gone over well with the women I have been with. And I have definitely made mistakes, pushed my partner away, and have failed to trust her desire to support me during challenging times.

One thing I have learned through all of this is how to be more vocal about what I need during such times, and yet that's still a work in progress. When I'm feeling weakened by something difficult going on in life, it's just not as easy to muster up the energy to say "I really would like this from you. Could you not do that?" I still don't always do this when I'm feeling healthy and positive; it wasn't a trait I developed as a kid, given that I had to be more resourceful and figure out things for myself a lot back then.

I think the other thing, and I don't know if this is a gendered thing or not, is about saving face. Not wanting to completely fall apart in front of a loved one and - lets face it - risk being rejected, laughed at, or treated poorly by them. Again, this boils down to a lack of trust, but it's also something I know many men are trained to do. To be "tough," "collected," and "in control." I also know women who are like this - one of my grandmothers comes instantly to mind.

In the end, finding the balance point between a person’s natural way of coping, and what the relationship together calls for, seems key.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gay Marriage: A Conservative Response to Conservative Bigotry

Please check out this post from my other blog on marriage, civil unions, and conservatives. It seems a good fit for the audience of this blog as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Traditional Gender Roles Vs. Current Social Conditions

This is a slightly adapted comment I made on the article referenced in yesterday's post.

A female friend of mine just wrote me about an article she was reading on a blog about stay at home fathers. Basically, she was pointing out how even the very concept upsets or confuses a lot of people, but that it’s becoming more common. And I, for one, think that this ties right into yesterday's post about unexamined gender roles.

A fair number of folks, for various reasons, want to maintain or go along with more traditional gender roles in relationships in the beginning. Some are doing so because that's what they were raised to expect from a partner. Others aren't interested in challenging social norms. Still others are understandably confused enough about modern dating to add on thinking critically about how they want to function within a relationship.

And yet, the general societal conditions are less supportive today for those traditional roles than even a generation ago. A much greater percentage of women are in the workplace. So economically, it’s much more likely to have shared responsibility for finances. More women want, and even expect, to be treated as equals in a relationship. So the part of the traditional male role that includes being the "head of the house," decision maker, and final authority has become problematic at best.

It’s kind of foolish then, for men to identify too strongly with a notion of being the leader and provider in a relationship. Not only because of those changing societal roles, but because of the greater economic instability, which is leading to things like job loss or downsized employment, and/or for those who are parents, more of a likelihood that might have to step into a different role – like being the main child caregiver.

In the short run, it might not matter at all. You can date playing those old roles all you want, but once you start sharing finances, or raising children (if you have children), dealing with job losses, etc. – those old roles start to feel stilted.
I have seen a hell of a lot of men in their 40s and 50s suffer greatly because they held on to the traditional ways of being “the man in the relationship,” only to find that they get laid off and loose the “provider” role, they're thrust into a more active parenting role that had never contemplated before, and/or their partner decides they want a man who is more of a sharer, listener, etc. and leaves the relationship.

So, in my view, it makes more sense for men and women to be a little more critical of these traditional roles, and their desire for them (if they have that desire). I don’t expect some things to really shift anytime soon, and I know as a man, I’ll probably need to do more of the initial steps. But when I hear men and women saying things like “I want a traditional such and such,” I think “really? and how about 10 years from now, when your economic circumstances have changed, or you’ve grown sick of playing those roles?”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Unexamined Gender Views

There has been a lot of discussion on the following post about perceived differences between men and women's attitudes towards being single. One thing I have noticed is how often these kinds of conversations deteriorate into "men are like this, and women are like that," even in these supposedly more feminist influenced days. Consider this exchange between myself and a woman named Margo.

I wrote:

I don’t believe in such fixed dichotomies, nor does my behavior reflect that. This morning, I lead a meeting as the president of a non-profit board. This afternoon, I listened and gently supported a friend. You could split those two activities into masculine and feminism spheres, or you could recognize that in we have the opportunity – in a more liberated world- to let people be whole, instead of trying to act from a gendered role all the time.
Some women might dismiss me. That’s fine. I’m not interested in catering to the traditional roles – even though I can certainly act like a “traditional man” when it’s called for. But I still sit around and wonder about all these expectations many seem to have about both men and women acting in certain ways. Women (and some men) have been right pushing to break down patriarchy for decades. And yet, when it comes to intimate relationships, most of us seem to struggle to let go of the old ways of being, which were primarily determined by a system of male domination. Instead of working towards more equal and fluid relationships, so many want men and women to mostly act out the old patterns.

And she responded:

I agree with what you are saying concerning the concept of equal participation in dating/relationships, but only to a certain degree. I think you have taken the concept too far.

Men and women behave differently in many ways due to innate characteristics that are reinforced by societal influences. This isn’t going to change. Like I said in an earlier post, men are born with the urge to protect, provide and take the lead in a love relationships. If a man doesn’t do these things, he’s not really a man.

If he fails to do any of these things, it’s akin to the woman dating a gay man that has chosen to play the female role. So then, everything can’t be equal or there is something wrong. One of the things that will happen is that the woman, assuming she’s mentally healthy, will quickly lose respect for the man.

I found her "he's not really a man" comment a bit offensive to be honest, but here is what I wrote back.

I really don’t think anyone can say for certain how much of gender differences falls on the side of biological differences, and how much is from social conditioning. And when you throw in all those people who really don’t fit the gender binary, then it gets even muddier.
You say someone “isn’t a man” if they don’t lead, protect, etc. That’s your view. But lots of men don’t fit the mold you desire, and until someone is able to prove that it’s biologically determined that men must do X and women must do Y, all your comment can be is a preference. It’s fine to have a preference; we all do. But it’s not a fact about men.

Although I think Margo's views are more extreme than those of most of the women I have dated, there does seem to me to be an internal struggle occurring within many women between wanting men to conform to the old, stereotypical male roles and behavior models, and wanting men to be more flexible, sensitive, and desiring of equal partnerships. And there's also, from what I have seen, a corresponding internal struggle within some men around a similar dichotomy of stories about women. In fact, I have even seen these struggles occurring in relationships amongst my GLBTQ friends, which goes to show you how much the old heterosexual norms have impacted everyone living in this society.

What do you think about all of this? I'll have a lot more to say about some of these issues in future blog posts, but would enjoy hearing others thoughts.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dating Ambiguity

One of the benefits of having a lot of experience in the dating field is that the ambiguity that often comes isn't much of a surprise. Of course, that still doesn't make it easy. You're out with someone, having a good time, but have no idea where things are going. There's a connection of some kind between you, but is it one of friendship? Just a nice acquaintance? Or is it something more? These kinds of questions can go on for awhile, as you get to know another person. And sometimes it doesn't matter what your initial intentions were around the relationship. Things can change, and what once was a nice friendship can become a lifelong partnership. Or the other way around. Or something else entirely.

Perhaps this is why people are so into those "lightning bolt" relationships. You know, the ones that start out on fire, full of passion and attraction, but which 90% of the time go down in flames. The heat seems like love at first sight, and all the cravings we have to be loved, have intimate attention, and sex get satisfied, usually to an extreme in the short term. Because of this, red flags are missed, as well as what my friend Jake calls "pink flags," those subtle things that may or may not be trouble points in a long term relationship.

I have had a few of these lightning bolt experiences. None of them lasted more than a month or two, precisely because they were too much about heat, and not enough about the rest of what goes into a good relationship.

But the opposite situations, where things start off cool - where you get along well, enjoy each others' company, but no clear direction has been established, can be just as challenging in different ways.

About three and a half months ago, I met a woman who I got along with really well. We met for coffee, had a long, enjoyable conversation on a wide variety of topics. We shared a lot of common interests and values, two positive signs. There was a lot of eye contact and attention paying, two more positive signs. And at the end, we agree to see each other again.

Now, one thing that did raise a pink flag was the combination of her schedule (working almost full time plus in school full time for another degree) and the fact that she had just moved, and made some other changes in her life that were, in part, tied to a past relationship. But that relationship had been done a good year by then, and I didn't get the feeling that she was still hung up about it.

Anyway, we went on another date a week later, and it was almost a replica of the first. Really enjoyable, but the whole thing looked and felt similar. The hug at the end was, in hindsight, a sign that she was indecisive or uninterested. It was a bit too quick, and kind of awkward on her end. Certainly that could have been about how she relates with people, only opening up physically with people she's close to, but it's something I have experienced before that became a sign of things to come.

We exchanged e-mails for a week and a half after this, and then met up for a third time. By this time, she had a pile of schoolwork coming due, and although we spent a good chuck of an afternoon together, she was kind of distracted with how much she had to do and also how busy she had become. And yet, other than the reservedness around touching, she still seemed to be interested in being with me, and chose to delay working on homework to keep talking with me an extra hour and a half.

Turns out, that was the last time I saw her. We had planned to check our schedules to see what would work to get together again, and a few days later, I received an e-mail saying that she had overextended herself, needed to focus on schoolwork until the semester finished (in three weeks), but that she still wanted to try chatting in the meantime. I wrote back and offered to do so, although it felt like what I have come to call a "slow fade" - where someone who isn't sure what they think, or doesn't have a strong enough interest in the other slowly fades from the situation.

Well, perhaps that awareness influenced what happened next. Which was nothing. I didn't hear from her at all, and after three or four days, had let go and moved on.

And then a few days ago, more than a month after I last heard from her, I get a group e-mail from her asking for support on a bicycle race she's doing to support MS research. There were probably a hundred people listed on the e-mail - her whole e-mail list I'd imagine. I laughed. Laughed out loud. And then I thought, I wonder how many other guys were on the list that she had dated and whose addresses she'd forgotten to delete?

Makes you want to go clear out your e-mail listings, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Technology Meets Dating?

I have always been a bit of a hybrid around technology - one foot forward in the future, another foot dangling in the past. But when it comes to how I am in relationships, beyond the use of e-mail and Facebook, I'm really pretty old school.

For example, this is foreign territory to me:

Sexting has become a hot topic lately. The truth is, it was a "hot" topic before it was an urban term. Wikipedia says it is "the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones." There are so many gray lines when sexual subject matters are concerned, though.

What is the difference between flirting and sexting? How do you know that you're doing it?

I have no clue. Even though as a writer, I'm well aware of how sexy, romantic, and powerful well chosen words can be, I can't quite grasp that merged with something like texting.

And the whole "sexting" thing is just beyond me. You got some hot ## baby! I'm all over dat @@!

Ummm, yeah. Anyway, I don't even have a cell phone. Some might dismiss me as "unavailable" because of that fact. Funny how quickly things go from being a hobby toy to a "necessity."

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Stories You Make Up About People

One thing I have learned from doing the whole online dating experience is that it's really, really easy to get caught up in stories about someone you have never met. You read a person's online profile, see their photos, have a few e-mails filled with enjoyable conversation about topics you are mutually interested in, and suddenly you're in love. And that's just the beginning of the tale spinning.

I remember several years ago, when I first tried online dating, exchanging a couple of e-mails with a woman who was juggling a job, being a single mother, and few other things I can't remember. She seemed really nice, we shared a lot in common, and I started to get excited about meeting her. My long relationship drought was almost over, I thought. I was even imagining spending time with her kid already, playing games in her apartment (which I never had seen before).

The day finally comes for the first date and I'm sitting there at a table outside a local coffee shop and she comes up to me, says hi, and then her cell phone rings. It's her ex. They start arguing about something having to do with the kid. I'm listening to her talk to the guy. She sounds a bit like a mother, a forceful mother. Not a good sign.

Finally, she hangs up and we have coffee together. A nice conversation, but I'm still sort of wary, given what I had witnessed. We part ways, agreeing to go out again.

A week or so later, I meet her for dinner a favorite restaurant of mine. Things are going ok, but I suddenly start to sense that voice she was using with her ex creeping into our conversation. We were talking about the new non-profit I had just co-developed with some friends of mine, and I was getting the sense that she felt I'd be "better off getting a good job" instead of devoting time to that project. Given that I hadn't landed the teaching job I would be at for years yet, it wasn't the worst comment someone could make. And if that had been it, it wouldn't have been an issue to me. But suddenly, other comments started appearing that suggested to me that she was used to be in charge in her relationships, and being something of a caretaker of the men she dated. Comments about clothing choices for example, and the length of my hair (which was fairly long back then.

The thing is, she wasn't saying all of this because she didn't like me. She was the one that asked for another date at the end of dinner, and I went because I was less experienced than I am now, and more desperate as well.

However, anyone who knows me knows that this wasn't going to work. And the third date ended with me basically showing a lack of interest. We even had a small disagreement about some political issue, but I still think she believed we'd keep going out because she was surprised when I e-mailed her the next day saying I wasn't interested in going out again.

These days, I tend to cut those stories off at the pass. Not that they never happen, but I have learned that you really have no idea until you meet someone. And that's ok.

*Woman in photo is not the woman in the story.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dangerous Interests: Men, Romance, and the Challenges of Collective Behavior Narratives

One of the blogs I have been reading over the past several months is a blog by a woman who goes by the pen name of Clarisse Thorn. She writes about relationships, sexuality, and feminism, amongst other things. And unlike some of the more well-established blogs that intersect relationships and feminism, Clarisse is quite open to discussion from across the gender spectrum. Something I'd say is a gift, given how tangled and heated these issues can quickly get.

A recent post of hers has to do with some of the problems associated with the loosely defined "Pick Up Artist" community, or PUA. Although it's hard to really pin down exactly what PUA's aims and philosophies are, perhaps one constant might be that PUA is about helping men attract women. This might be through developing flirting skills, offering ideas about "how women think," or being a generalized support group for other men. Probably sounds a little crass to some of you; it often does to me anyway. And certainly, being focused primarily or solely on heterosexual relationships, and specifically in a one way fashion - men attracting women - it's easy to see how there might be some major problems behind it.

Clarisse's post lays out a lot of these issues, but what's even more fascinating is the discussion that follows. One of the reasons I'm interested in all of this is that the dating world is quite a mess these days, filled with conflicting narratives, sloppy manners, and unnecessarily hurt feelings all over the place. And as a man who has embraced feminist views on many issues, I have always felt some tension between what I know about how men can and do act, and how my own behavior in a dating or relationship context is interpreted.

In the comments comments
section, there is an exchange between AB, a woman, and Sam, a man, that highlights some interesting challenges:

AB writes:

I fail to see how women’s fear of sexual assault (encouraged by both men and other women) is the same as male sexuality being marginalised. I recall an article Hugo linked to earlier (trigger warning) about the coverage of a story about sexual assault, blaming the 11 year old victim and treating the behaviour of the boys and men involved as something to be expected. Just to give the other side.

But I’m starting to wonder if part of the discrepancy isn’t who we look at. I don’t see most of the things that tell me how normalised (stereo)typical straight male sexuality is in the way we talk about men and male sexuality, I see it in the way treat women and female sexuality.

And Sam responds a few comments later:

...if you fail to see the connection between masculintiy and male sexuality and violence, particularly sexual violence, you have probably never felt your touch is at least potentially “toxic”, or dangerous. You probably have never been told “don’t push a girl”, you never worried that you may be some sort of rapist when you’re misunderstanding signals and move in for a kiss and she doesn’t like it. The fear of potential male sexual sociopathy – “men are like that” – and ways to manage male sexuality (usually by managing access to female sexuality) is probably among the oldest governance challenges of humanity.

I have felt that fear of my looking, my touch, and really any expression of interest being mistaken as toxic, as the beginning of something potentially harmful before. And I have sometimes struggled, in the context of dating, to balance the that fear with being present in the given situation and just acting in an honest, and also respectful way as possible. As I have grown a little older, and seen more in life, I have actually become more reserved - maybe too reserved, when it comes to things like flirting and showing romantic interest. This has, no doubt, made finding a partner or developing a relationship a bit more difficult.

What's interesting is that I have experienced this "toxicity" Sam talks about in situations where I have no romantic interest in someone. Just walking behind a woman on the sidewalk, for example, I have had experiences where she has sped up or made some other such movements to get further away from me. I'm just walking, but her "potential predator" radar has clicked in.

So, my point is that as a man who genuinely does his best to care, be respectful, and who desires a partnership of equals - it's challenging to manage all the conflicting feelings and views that come up around a simple thing like touching a potential love interest on the knee or looking into her eyes. It's probably the case that I'm overly concerned about such things, but I think it's similar to the very valid concerns most women have around issues like sexual assault while walking at night or in other such contexts.

At the same time, AB's point about victim blaming just adds to the difficulties for everyone. Every time a woman who is raped or assaulted is treated like a liar or a "slut who did something to deserve it" by men, this makes it that much more challenging for women to trust men in general, and that much harder for men who aren't abusive and predatory to have their actions be perceived correctly by the women they are (or aren't) romantically interested in.

Sometimes, I have this foolish longing to return to the naive high school and early college days, when I had less of an understanding of how complicated adult dating and relationships often are. Perhaps this is where some men end up staying mostly when it comes to relationships, in this sort of arrested development place where they can operate with a certain level of confidence derived not from wisdom and honoring others, but from a kind of willful naiveté that isn't hampered by what other men do collectively, but which also completely ignores the needs and concerns of the women they want or bring into their lives.

I don't really want to go back there, but working with all the variables that come with being aware and knowing how other men can and do act can be quite difficult. Even confidence crushing at times.

The only thing that has ever really helped me is to be as present in the particular situation I am in, and to act out of that place of presence. Sometimes, I guess wrong about the others' interest or views about what is happening, but at least in the state of presence, I have more confidence to just be myself.