Sunday, October 2, 2011

Two Dates in One

Some of you may have noticed how much I focus on paying attention. Specifically, paying attention to - as best as is possible - the whole picture of what's happening in your life. On this blog, it's about the intimate relationships in your life, or the ones you want to have in your life.

The main reason for this is that I've noticed how so much of our individual and collective relationship misery is tied to poor attention skills. Seeing things that aren't happening and then reacting from that place is pretty common, as is missing the vital cues arriving at your feet, sometimes every time your with someone. Then there's the misuse of attention, placing it upon a narrow swath of elements and assuming that those elements constitute the whole of a relationship. All of this breeds a lot of suffering.

So, I want to be a voice for bringing your attention back to dating and relationships in a holistic way. To develop less fixation on a narrow list of desired attributes, and develop more of an ability to response (as opposed to react) to what's happening in your relationships as a whole. This is easier said than done, but I truly believe - having experienced it myself - that stronger attention skills make for stronger, healthier relationships. And also healthier ends to relationships when that it called for.

Let me share a recent experience as an example.

I went on a date last week. We had exchanged several e-mails and seemed to have a lot in common. In noticed that her language sounded similar to mine. That the way we drew conclusions appeared to be on a similar page, something I haven't often experienced doing online dating. In reading these e-mails and setting a date, there were moments when I started to get excited. Started thinking that maybe she was going to be girlfriend material and that I could finally put the searching mind to rest. I can imagine some of you out there have been through this very thing before first dates. It's almost impossible not to get a little excited, nor is that really a problem.

However, unlike in my earlier days of online dating, this time I didn't let the stories in my head grow. Images of the first kiss? Let it go. First vacation? Let it go. Working together on some project? Let it go. Anything in relation to this women I simply let go. Again and again. Until I was (mostly) able to arrived at the actual date and be with the person sitting across from me, experiencing whatever was going to happen.

Which turned out to be like being on two dates at once. Something I attribute to my developed attention skills.

On the one hand, we had this wide ranging conversation that kept finding intersection points in sometimes unusual places. She had worked in the after school program that was next door to the elementary school I used to work in. We had a couple of disparate friends in common. She was just as passionate about certain social issues as I am. There was plenty on the surface that "looked right."

However, there were also all these other things going on. She seemed impatient and in need of dominating the conversation. Her relationship with her immediate family was terribly strained. When I leaned in a bit at one point, she leaned back. Her body language in general was pretty closed. I also felt some stress in the pit of my stomach while talking to her, and probably wasn't as physically relaxed and open as I usually am. And this was a different feeling from first date jitters; it had a quality of pushing away from, as if my body was telling me something wasn't right between us. Furthermore, we really never talked about what it was we wanted in a relationship, even on a basic level. In fact, it was hard to tell if she was interested in a relationship, or if she was still exploring the dating scene.

If this date had happened three or four years ago, I would have either missed most of that "underlying" stuff, or I would have minimized whatever I did experience, placing more emphasis on the points of connections. Which would have led me to pursuing more dates, and perhaps a relationship might have resulted.

However, as I sat by a lake after the date, what I realized was that the feeling tone that lingered from the whole experience was a lack of warmth. That even though I felt some attraction to this woman, and knew that we had plenty of shared interests and viewpoints, there was none of the mutual caring and warmth that's so needed for a healthy, long term relationship. Now, obviously, those qualities are something that need time and shared experiences to mature. Yet, when I consider every relationship I have even been in for any significant length of time, there was always, from the beginning, a spark of that warmth and caring.

So, needless to say, I decided not to pursue further dates with her, and it seems she was on the same page.

This is the power of skilled attention. And I'm convinced that these skills will eventually lead me into a great relationship, if such a relationship is a part of my life path. At the same time, I realize that these same skills can bring some bitter pills. You probably stay single more often than if you opt to just do things like you've always done. You realize that there are a lot of near misses out there, including ones that under different circumstances, might have become relationships. You get to be face to face with your impatience, loneliness, desire, and sometimes grief in ways that you really may not want to.

But in the end, I feel less burdened by thoughts about relationships. Less mired in angst, negativity, regrets, and clinging to the past. And more able to accept what's happening, even if it's not what I want. This is a good thing for anyone who is single, but frankly, it's also a good thing for anyone who is part of a couple.

Love itself is deeply cultivated attention trained upon your beloved, and the shared joy that comes from doing so. Without attention, there's no love. In some ways, it's as simple as that.


  1. I may have more thoughts on this after I've sat with it a while, but one thing springs to mind immediately:

    You give an example of where the surface looked good, but the broader attention said "this isn't right". Do you have an anecdote or example of a time when the surface looked incompatible, but the underlying stuff - gut reaction, attention, etc - said, "this could be worth the effort", and you listened to the attention etc and it was worth pursuing?

  2. The gift of skilled attention (to those small details of compatibility, etc.) was a gift I got only recently, after successfully being treated for panic disorder and ADHD as an adult. You don't even realize how much of your mind is being taken up by worry, obtrusive thoughts, or the feeling that you are screwing something up until that space in your mind is cleared, especially if you've become accustomed to having that mental space occupied over a lifetime. I see it as analogous to getting glasses and contact lenses when I was a pre-teen. I didn't realize how out-of-focus the world was until everything in the frame became sharp with vision correction.

    Another reason I read so many dating blogs is because I am trying to understand how humans interact. I've been successful in career and in love, but horrible with friendships. Looking back, most of my friendships were based around me providing something for someone – a surrogate therapist, a wingman, a career counselor, or the possibility of sex or at least a fun diversion. As an adult, I've never had a friendship move beyond the situational, so when that friend moves, or I do, or the friend finds a partner, or whatever, it's over. Currently, I have no friends. It's a horribly lonely feeling.

    So I am going to read this post closely again, because there's a lesson in here for me. I am certain that with past friends, I was missing key signals that the friendships were inevitably always going to be situational, or based on me providing something the other person wanted. With proper treatment for the issues that clouded my perception, I can now begin to dig deeper and really hone in on how I'm interacting with others, and figure out just how compatible we will be. This is exactly what I needed – thanks.

    -Ms. Bee

  3. I think you've just hit the nail on the head. Everyone goes on about communication, which is vital, but seldom break it down into its component parts. Paying attention, and being able to understand what you see and hear, is probably the unsung hero of good relationships.

    It's a great sign that you're reading the cues early on that can help you avoid getting into an unhealthy situation. Unless you're one of those people who isn't happy unless romantically entangled (even miserably) being able to identify and avoid the incompatible early on is a huge gift.

    Have you considered writing a book? In general, I think your blog is addressing some important issues that a lot of other dating/relationship bloggers aren't.

  4. Snowdrops, that's a good question. The first thing that comes to mind is the relationship I wrote about in the first post for this blog. It ended painfully, but I easily could have dismissed the opportunity as too full of red flags - when in reality, I have never felt a stronger connection with someone as I did with her.

    I also missed some cues during our time together that, if I had addressed quicker, might have helped us take the relationship to the next level, or end it before the drama that ensued.

  5. Hi Ms. Bee,

    Thanks for your comments. You definitely point out how internal shifts make such a big difference in how we perceive what's happening.

    I'm sorry to hear about your struggles with friendship. It seems to me that this is a pretty common challenge for a lot of post-college aged adults. And I think that the lack of strong friends is one reason why people rush into and maintain romantic relationships that aren't healthy. In fact, I think the cultural messaging is pretty fierce around coupling up and forming "nuclear families," and that those who aren't in that position often are left behind by friends, co-workers, and others who are.

    I have been fortunate to have some excellent friends in my life over the years, but even I look around sometimes and think "almost everyone is too busy for friendship right now." I've had formerly close friends disappear once they've coupled up, and I have also been in that "surrogate therapist" mode a few times. To some degree, it's just how life is. However, I also think that many folks fail to see how important strong friends are to our quality of life.

    Obviously, none of what I wrote really helps in terms of finding new friends. But for me, anyway, having a sense of why people downgrade adult friendships in our society gives me a little bit of solace.

  6. Doc and Aryanna,

    Yes, I have thought about writing a book. I agree that the ways in which I'm writing about relationships are different from many of the other bloggers out there. In fact, that was the main reason why I started this blog - feeling that a fair amount of "something" was missing.

  7. Nathan: That seems like an interesting choice of example, but I see what you're getting at with it.

    I have sat with this post for a bit now, and I think it's got some very good points. Personally, I know that I am very prone to conjuring stories and phantasms of future bliss - I am the type who almost immediately starts testing out how well her surname goes with my first name, or vice versa! So, knowing this about myself I know I have to be very strict with myself about letting that go until I actually have an ongoing relationship, and not just a first date coming up.

    Again from my personal perspective, an issue I have is that I really don't trust myself to read the subtle things accurately. I observe and am attentive, but I don't know how to interpret it so I kind of have to check back somehow. The interesting thing is that I still have these doubts even though for a few years now the feedback I've had from friends and from dates has been very positive about how well I "got" them with these check-ins.

    I think there's something very helpful about being centred and paying attention to what's going on in oneself (the way you described your body telling you to back off, for example) as well as being externally attentive. I can think of a few times when I wish I had acted on that inner attentiveness, back when I was first starting to date as an adult. It's a tough feeling, wanting to be wrong.

  8. "wanting to be wrong" - This is a big one. And when I think about my own relationship experience, as well what close friends and family members have shared with me, that wanting almost always is a mental override of everything that's happening.

    I think it's kind of like the gambler who keeps loosing, and yet thinks "It's gonna happen. That one big hand is so due." It almost never happens. And when it does, the gain was usually already lost over the 30 previous hands.

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