Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Other Lover

The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere,
they're in each other all along.


An attendant mistake to this is trying to find someone exactly like you, or judging everyone you meet on the basis of the lover in the story you have.

How many of your complaints about dating, or about your current partner, are really about them?

Another, better question might be this: how many of your complaints will actually move you in the direction of love, of intimacy, of awakening to what you really want in this life?

Most of us bumble along map-less. Some take the love stories that most excite them, and attempt to frame their lives around them, as if a person could become the characters within. Others collect the viewpoints of experts, friends, family, clergy, strangers on the street, and then attempt to follow the advice they're given. Still others operate with little framework other than sexual attraction, "chemistry," hoping from one hot catch to the next.

None of those options are very helpful in the end, even if they contain pointers.

Until you meet yourself, and see that the love story is really about you, you'll struggle in all things relationship.

A lot of folks never figure this out, and spend a lifetime struggling together and/or alone.

Whatever else you do, make an effort to find the lover within.

*Image "The Two Fridas" - Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Because Blaming Others Is Just So Much Easier

Having spent a lot of time paying attention to how people write about dating, one of the most common issues I have seen is the tendency to focus on another person's flaws. Not that this should surprise anyone. Humans do that all the time. In order to avoid looking at ourselves, or seeing where we are part of any given problem, we point our fingers outward at whomever is the easiest target.

Read the comments section of any popular dating and relationship blog, and you'll see countless comments about the bad behavior of others.

My date was an asshole. He flirted with the waitress, talked endlessly about his boring job, and didn't pay for my dinner.

My girlfriend was a bitch. She never cleaned our apartment, she complained about everything, and she turned her friends against me.

These statements might be true, but how often are they balanced with some self reflection?

I really wasn't very attentive on my date with X.

I often got angry at silly little things.

I allowed him to keep crossing my boundaries.

I stopped caring towards the end with her.

You might notice that one of the underlying themes in much of my writing is balance. When our bodies are healthy, they are said to be "in balance." Experiencing homeostasis. The blood Ph level is hovering somewhere around 7.35. Body temperature right near 98.6 degrees F. Blood pressure rates vary a little bit more, but with all of these indicators, anything more than a slight shift can cause great disturbance.

The same can be said about dating and relationship analysis. If you focus too much on the other person's flaws, you miss everything you are adding to the equation. Furthermore, you miss all the other person's positives, perhaps to the point where you reject someone who could be a great partner for you. On the opposite end, if you focus too much on your own flaws, you can miss the red flags the other person might be displaying. You might take responsibility for their bad behavior, thinking that "you did something to deserve it." And definitely, no matter what, too much focus on your own flaws will make you a pretty unpleasant person to date or be in a relationship with. Always apologizing. Always thinking you did something wrong. Always feeling like you're never good enough. None of that is attractive.

So, balance. Self reflection is an essential ingredient, but so is being able to drop that and pay attention to the other person. Learning to detect red flags in another, like the woman or man who seems a little too keen to impress you, is an invaluable skill. However, so is recognizing the subtle and not so subtle good qualities in a person.

What do you think about all of this?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Yes. You, Too, Can Have a Happy, Fulfilling Relationship

It's been a few weeks since I have written here. Although I've been involved in a few relationship conversations online and in person, I haven't felt compelled to offer anything here. Guess you might say I'm feeling a bit jaded about the general nature of American relationships. The way dating is so often reduced to exchange and game playing. The way gender stereotypes and patriarchal commentary still seems to rule the day for so many, despite all the social changes in other directions.

If you think this is a post driven by personal angst, you're wrong. I'm actually in a happy, fulfilling relationship these days. Something I'd like to think happened because both of us have the kinds of skills and approach to it all that I've been writing about here.

Furthermore, I can think of several friends off the top of my head - ranging in age from their late 20s to over 70 years old - in happy, fulfilling relationships as well. It happens. People do it despite all the bullshit we all have to wade through to get there.

So, today's post is a series of short points attempting to skewer some of that bullshit. Maybe it provides some insights or points of contention. And maybe it's just for my amusement.

Anyway, off we go.

1. People don't owe you anything. Seriously, they don't. They don't owe you dinner. They don't owe you sex. They don't owe you respect. They don't owe you anything.

2. Stop believing that instant chemistry equals love and ever lasting romance. It's a bloody story. Fairy tale. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, that oh my god feeling you have with someone on a first date will lead to a few weeks or months of hot romping in bed, followed by misery, slow fade, or fast disappearance.

3. Stop believing you're so special that everyone should worship your every word, and cater to your every need. Even if you only think this 20% of the time, get to work so that 20% moves towards zero.

4. No one is always right. Learn to admit you're wrong. Or that you don't know. And get used to doing so.

5. Someone who listens well, and is measured in their criticism, is a hell of a lot sexier than the charismatic know it all over the long haul.

6. If you find yourself placing all or most of the blame for your dating and relationship struggles on others, wake the hell up! Because it's YOU that is the common denominator! Go. Get a mirror and stare into it until you can't see yourself anymore. And then repeat until humble, or until you blackout. Whichever comes first. Please, whatever you do, don't drink and stare.

7. Humor. You have some? Let it lose. You don't have any? Find some. Borrow some. Buy some. The one area where the exchange economy might be necessary. Cause if there's one thing lacking in the modern dating world, it's humor. I'll take a funny single person over a dour, hyper serious coupled person any day. I bet you would too, even if you're one of the hyper serious folks I'm talking about here.

8. Gratitude. The single most important ingredient commonly missing from modern dating and modern relationships. When was the last time you were grateful simply to spend a few hours with someone on a date? Not out of desperation, but because they showed up, and listened to your silly stories, and shared a few of theirs. Seriously, our lives are fleeting, and it's way to easy to loose most of it to selfishness, expectations, and other such nonsense.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

How Emotionally Charged Judgements Are Relationship Killers

One common paired theme that seems to come up on one dating blog after another is lying and truth telling. Obviously, these two not only apply to romantic relationships - they are found in all human relationships, and frequently are the pivot points between harmony and discord.

But when you get down to it, what is a lie and what is the truth? It's a simple question that isn't always easily answered. Furthermore, when it comes to working with others in your life in a caring, respectful manner, the issue is timing, as well as how something is said can be just as important (or moreso even) than whether it's truthful or not. In other words, I think people sometimes get too fixated on a black and white sense of truth telling and lying, forgetting that everything happens in a larger context.

As a general rule, I find it really helpful to make a discernment between basic facts of a given situation, and evaluations or judgments. This idea is loosely coming from a relationship practice called NVC, or Non-violent communication, which was developed by psychologist and social activist Marshall Rosenberg. What Rosenberg discovered working in situations where conflict was quite high and challenging was that when people spoke from a place of their feelings and perceived needs, instead of a place of judgment and evaluative criticism, not only was conflict reduced, but it became easier for everyone involved in a given situation to gain clarity about the truth. Having taken workshops on NVC in the past, I'd even go so far as to say that the truth isn't a set of statements - it's more about a way of being and acting. A process, in other words.

Some key components of this process are the following:

1. Deep listening and patience, even in the face of things you don't want to hear.

2. A willingness to speak from a place of how you feel and what you believe your needs are, instead of judgment.

3. Making an effort to separate factual observations from evaluations or opinions.

4. Being open to making requests of another, as well as receiving their requests.

Now, all of this takes practice. It's not something you can simply try once and be skilled at. In addition, I believe that within any given relationship, there are times and situations that call for some judgements or evaluations to be made. But even then, I believe that something like NVC can be helpful in delivering that information to another in a way that it might be heard.

Let's consider point number three above in more detail, since this is one that often trips people up, whether on a first date or after ten years of marriage.

Suppose your waiting for your date or partner and they are late. Here are two ways you could think about the situation:

Factual observation: "He/she is 20 minutes late."

Evaluation/Judgment: "He/she doesn't respect me. He/she isn't interested in me."

If your mind is like mine, you might have the tendency to flip towards the second kind of statement. Statements like that seem to offer an answer to what's going on, and also tap into the anxiety, anger, or other turbulent emotions that might be happening in response to uncertainty.

However, although it may feel good in the short term to internally blast your date or partner for being late, it's actually not helpful in terms of the relationship as a whole, nor does it do anything to get at the truth of the situation. You're just speculating about motives or reasons, and usually said speculation is all negative. Instead of thinking "I don't know why they are late. Maybe it's this or that." You leap to the worst case scenarios, or make some totalizing judgment about the person that does little more than burn off a little steam in the short term. How often have you called someone an asshole in your mind (or even to their face), only to find out that there was a very good reason behind what it was that they did or didn't do?

None of this, of course, means that you should put up with patterns of behavior that aren't healthy or respectful from a date or partner. Obviously, if someone is chronically late, you have every right to say something. But when you decide to speak up about someone's chronic lateness, you have to consider what your intention is. Do you want to mend the relationship? Do you desire to stay together with this person? Or are you so pissed off that you don't care anymore?"

If you want to aim towards maintaining the relationship, then even when speaking of the pattern, you can re-frame it in a way where you might better be heard.

For example, you might say something like "You have been late to the last several dates. When you are late, I feel anxious and sometimes angry because I don't know why you are late, and I value our time together."

And you can, in the spirit of NVC, add a request here, such as "Would you be willing to talk a little about this with me?"

Again, one of the main reasons for approaching things in this way is to maximize the chances that you'll be heard. And to maximize the chance that you will hear the other person. So much of conflicts boil down to not listening deeply enough to each other, and simply jumping to conclusions or judgments that may have nothing to do with the actual truth. When I look back at some of my relationships during my 20s, I kind of cringe at the numerous ways in which I failed to listen well, and simply assumed the worst.

And so, I offer NVC, as well as a general call for deeper listening, as methods of truth finding, and also relationship strengthening.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Rape, Feminism, and Power Narratives

There's been some contentious debate on the dating and relationship blog of Evan Marc Katz about this article, written about rape by Charlotte Shane, "a writer and prostitute living on the east coast." A lot about the discussion that unfolded on Katz's blog is problematic, which tends to be the case when topics like rape are directly addressed. Instead of recounting all of that, I want to address the article itself, and why I consider it to be a deeply flawed attempt to shake up the national conversation about rape and sexual assault.

The first thing that stands out is the experience she recounts of being raped anally, needing an expensive surgery, and then seeing the same client again a month later. She claims, following his silence about the previous incident, to feel "more powerful than him," suggesting she knows something - what that something is, who knows - more than him. As we in the literary world often ask "Is this a trustworthy narrator?" Her take on this incident sounds pretty twisted in my book.

The next thing that strikes me is citing Camille Paglia, well known as a right wing provocateur. Amongst her major influences are Sigmund Freud and Ayn Rand. Every last article I've read by her - and I read plenty during my graduate days thanks to a certain art history professor - was filled with appeals to see the weakest points of Freudian psychology - the Oedipal and Electra Complexes foremost - in everything from Hitchcock films to Rembrandt paintings. Again, not exactly the kind of source that fosters trust in the argument being offered.

Thirdly, she makes the really interesting point that our cultural attitudes about rape were shaped by men, and that some of what we see today is still playing out those disempowering, sexist narratives of the past. I totally agree, and in fact, would even support her view that there needs to be more liberation around the stories we tell about rape and it's aftermath. Even though I suffered a lot following my sexual assault, I rarely think of what happened to me these days. It's mostly been dealt with, and I don't really feel "permanently damaged." However, her article isn't about men controlling the rape narrative. It's mostly an attack on feminists, and programs and ideas promoted by feminists. Not only is the thesis muddled - Are men responsible? Are feminist women responsible? Both? - but the very diverse school of feminism is reduced to a singular, boogeyman trope. Never once does she even cite an actual individual feminist writer or researcher on rape. It's just this abstract concept - feminists - tossed around again and again, even though she also points to the fact that men historically shaped these views of women and of rape.

Fourthly, she repeatedly makes the point that rape is an individual experience, and yet also appeals to us to - rightly, and I thank her for this - to address the societal level silence surrounding male rape victims, and particularly male rape victims in prison. In fact, it also seems to me as if she desires to privatize the experience of rape for women - it's up to each of "us" to come up with our own narratives and solutions - while simultaneously advocating for a much more public response to rape for men. In a matter of paragraphs, she takes shots at rape counseling and trauma responses for women, and then suggests - rightly - that men who are raped often have nowhere to go, and no one to talk to about their experience.

Then there's this section, in which she questions the effort to shift rape away from notions of sex and sexuality.

But our culture is unable to address rape with the sobriety and clarity the topic deserves because we are still unable to address sex with the sobriety and clarity it deserves. The contention that rape should be regarded as an asexual act has done nothing to remedy this. Nor will it. As activist and writer Wendy McElroy points out, “there can be as many motives for rape as there are for murder and other violent crimes … Rape is every bit as complex.”

I think she misses the point of decentralizing sex in conversations about rape. It's exactly because we live in a society where the complexity of rape has long been reduced to a sexual act, and for centuries one that wasn't "a problem," that a non-sexual definition is required. Power dynamics must be addressed. The nature of violence and control must be addressed. Because regardless of whether or not a sexual element exists in a given situation, rape and sexual assault are mostly about power and control. Period.

Finally, when in read Charlotte's accounts of her own assaults, she's quite insistent on separating acts of penetration from everything else that occurs. As if what lead up the rape, and what followed it, are something else, void of any particular connection. This separation is a major flaw in the popular rape narrative. Without a more holistic understanding of the ways in which different rape and assault experiences unfold, it's impossible to address them well as a society. It took decades of lobbying in order to get the FBI's definition of rape expanded beyond "forcible penetration," a change that only happened this summer, for anyone not in the know. Forcible penetration is only one part of one set of rape experiences. If you've ever wondered why rape prosecutions are so difficult to get, this is exactly the place to start your research.

What happened to me on a college campus in the fall of 1997, before the Catholic church scandals, Sandusky trial, and the rest, was undefinable. I'm still not sure what to call it. Assault. Rape. Some kind of "other" violation. Like Charlotte Shane, I "lived through it," and was not left in some never ending state of shambles or disintegration. Unlike the victims in the situations that recently brought male rape and assault experiences to light, mine occurred as an adult, and adult male experiences of this kind are still invisible for the most part.

As such, however muddled her arguments are, I think Charlotte and the other women's stories she cited in her article are important. They add nuance to the discussion, and demonstrate how much these experiences impact us, even if some claim to have "gotten over it." In my view, we don't really get over anything that happens to us in this life. The wonders. The horrors. Even the mundane. All of it stays with us in some form or another, however miniscule.

As always, your comments are welcome.

*Image: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Notes Against Chasing While Dating

Oh, for the love of a good fantasy. To have someone appear in your life, fall in love with you nearly instantly, and then do everything in their power to be with you. You don't have to lift a finger, plan anything, think about anything. It's all on them, and you get to be the prize.

What a load of bullshit! And seriously, how many of you actually would be happy with a situation like this? Trust a situation like this?

But oh, that fantasy is good, isn't it? So, good you're willing to let it trump reality. Steam roll right over the more equal, less "romantic," but much more right connection right in front of you.

The way I see it, there's a difference between making an effort to demonstrate your interest and chasing. Chasing is always a one way street. One person is expected to prove something to the other person before anything will go further. Which is very different from a mutual effort where both parties do something, say something, or otherwise express something that shows an interest in the other.

While both men and women thrive on this kind of fantasy, I feel it's more common amongst women because of the old socialization patterns we are all bumping up against these days. There's still a sense that it's sexy for a man to keep calling, keep writing, keep pressing for dates, keep doing all the work, all the while tossing sweet comments in the woman's directions. It's tied in with the whole financial set of expectations around men paying for dates to express their interest and level of potential commitment.

However, some of this is changing, and for men, employing THE CHASE is a mixed bag tactic. When I was younger, I employed a level of chasing towards a few women I was interested in. And honestly, it was mostly a flop. In fact, one got downright irritated at the extra attention I was offering, and basically stopped talking to me. It's really difficult to not look like a stalker in such cases, if someone either isn't sure they are interested in you, or doesn't like to be pressured.

And that gets to another point: I don't like to be pressured, and I don't like it when someone seems to be trying to sell me something. And that's what chasing feels like. You're upping the attention towards someone too much, and the quality of that attention feels like the guy at Best Buy trying to sell you a high end television.

Once I realized all of this, I simply stopped. No more chasing. If I show some interest, and put in my share of effort and there's no response from the woman in question, I move on. End of story. If someone is naturally shy, I might put a little more time and effort in, but at some point, there has to be some kind of positive response. And frankly, if someone wants to run me through a bunch of hoops, she's probably not right for me anyway.

That's my take. What about you?

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Romaticism of Marriage Meeting Reality

Hey all! I know it's been awhile since I've written a post. I have been busy with several things, including doing my part to promote this new book on yoga practice. As one of the essayists in the book, it's been exciting to see so much positive interest in such a short time. (The volume has been out for about 2 weeks now.)

Anyway, back to relationships. I found this post a few days ago. It has the provocative title "Would marriages last if we stopped romanticizing them?" Historically, there were all sorts of reasons why people stayed together. Primarily those reasons involved social pressure, and frankly, a fair amount of oppression - especially for women. Qualities like loyalty don't really mean that much when your entire society defines your worth by whether you're married and have children or not.

But when I consider the landscape today - in the US anyway - those social/cultural pressures are lessened, and the romantic "love-based" model of relationships is the norm. More and more folks are also ambivalent about, or completely against, the idea of life-long marriage to a single partner. This, even as the tide is beginning to shift towards freedom for GBLTQ folks to get married.

Right wing conservatives are fond of framing all of this as the "breakdown of the family," primarily blaming the liberation movements that sprouted in the 1960s for the increase in divorces, people having children outside of marriage, etc. I reject that frame. In my view, there are many reasons why the culture around marriage is shifting, and the majority of those reasons are positive.

First off, there's the understanding that "til death do you part" came from a time when the average person lived to be perhaps 60 years old, and where it wasn't uncommon for people to die in their 30s or 40s from everyday illnesses, complications during child birthing, or dangerous working conditions.

Secondly, more and more people are realizing the limits of a single, nuclear family unit as the model for healthy relationships. It's one model, but not one that serves the entire, diverse population of people alive today.

Along those lines, there is a lot of exploration around what it means to be "committed" to another person, and whether such a commitment should be maintained "no matter what." I recall the story of an American Zen teacher who married the love of her life in her mid-40s after a long period of friendship, and then later courtship across continents when he was living in Australia. He ended up moving to the States to be with her, but found the experience of living here miserable for a variety of reasons that had nothing much to do with her. They spent a lot of time talking about the situation, trying this and that, hoping that something would shift. But it never did. She was deeply rooted here, and didn't want to go live in Australia, and essentially experience the same thing he was going through.

Eventually, they decided the best thing for both of them was to end the marriage, and for him to move back home. You might say that they should have never gotten married, and yet the time they were married deepened a friendship that feeds both of them to this day. They live half a world apart, and yet continue to share their lives, and love for each other, in a different way.

Thirdly, taking off from the last example, I think more people are paying more attention to the personal growth curves in relationships. And recognizing that sometimes two people do simply "grow apart," to the point where it's not really in anyone's interest for them to stay together any longer. Part of my goal with this blog has been to emphasize the beneficial role that simply paying attention and learning to see what's actually happening can have for each of us. A lot of these "growing apart" situations tend to creep up on couples because they haven't been paying much attention. I'd like to think that if people were more regularly focused on how changes in their own lives are impacting their relationships (romantic and non-romantic), that there might be more opportunities to salvage the connections worth salvaging (before it becomes too late). And to bring a kind, respectful end earlier to connections that aren't serving the two people involved anymore.

Eh, but we're all still people in the end. And sometimes, things like loyalty or attachment overwhelm the reality of a situation.

Furthermore, I still think there's value in lifelong partnerships. When they actually are mutually beneficial, and/or help make both members of the couple better people. But like the author of the post I linked to above, I do wonder if there's too many romantic notions driving the desire to get married, and for some, to stay married. It's not as simple as just that, but it's part of what's going on in my opinion.

What do you think?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Are Hope and Fantasy Running Your Dating Life?

For a variety of reasons, we often fail to listen to our guts, intuition, or what have you. Sometimes, it's giving in to the competing circus of voices in our heads. Other times, it's the allure of the person in front of us. Adding a few or more drinks to the equation is another common method of blurring out awareness. And let's face it, most of us live in a society that doesn't value deep listening, and truly following our hearts.

So, we end up making mistakes. Sometimes repeatedly. And when it comes to dating, those repeated mistakes can drain your energy, make you jaded, and press you into a corner, desiring to give up or settle for being with someone you really shouldn't be with.

That's why paying attention from the beginning is so important.

I have trained myself to listen and pay attention closely - both to myself and whomever I am on a date with. If something feels off or sounds off, I really cue in on that to see what's going on. Sometimes, it ends up being me reading a situation falsely, and sometimes it's a recognition that something is actually off. Regardless of what any given gut level feeling ends up being, it's not enough anymore if someone has similar interests to me, a similar approach to life, or if there's some kind of "chemistry" there.

In the past, I would frequently override signs that indicated coming discord or simply a bad match because of one or more of those qualities. I'd notice dysfunctional behavior, but think "oh, but she loves to do the same things as me." Or I'd see that she was responding erratically to my calls or e-mails to get together again, and I'd rationalize that she was busy, or that things were just "moving slowly."

Why did I do this? Well, you know, endless rounds of dating get old. I hadn't learned how to be alone and actually enjoy it yet. And I also really liked some of the women who displayed red flags, and truly hoped that my gut was wrong.

Hope itself is a trouble spot. It's a story about a "better future" that frequently is built on a house of cards. Politicians often play on the hopes of the people they end up supposedly representing. Marketers play on the hopes of the populace as well, saying that whatever product they are selling will cure all our ills and make us happy. And while there are also a small percentage of people who deliberately play on others' hopes in the dating world, more often than not, we let our own hope stories play each of us. The person we are dating might spark the story to surface again, but he or she is simply today's version of the leading role, the current star of the love narrative we can't seem to shake.

Dating and building a relationship are hard enough as it is. Why add in a failure to pay attention and to trust your gut responses?

I did for many years, and still have to work at it sometimes - to not let other things override what I am really experiencing. But I really think I'm better off now than in the past, when things like hope and fantasy ruled the day.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why Ambigiuity is Necessary for a Good Relationship

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.

Awhile back, I met a woman who I seemed to get 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 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.

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.

Perhaps situations like this are one reason 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.

More and more, I'm understanding why so many people seem to equate "instant chemistry" with love and a good relationship. Because something clear and unmistakable is present. There's not all this ambiguity requiring patience and attention. But as unsexy as it is, that patience and attention are actually what's required of each of us in order to have long lasting, successful relationships.

If you can't learn to be comfortable with some ambiguity, you're going to suffer a lot.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Addicted to "Love"

Scroll through a thousand online dating posts, ask a couple dozen friends, go on a dozen dates, and you'll find that most of us are, either consciously or unconsciously, looking for fireworks. Hot chemistry. That mad attraction that we can't soak enough of up.

And when we meet someone that doesn't, for whatever reason, elicit it from us, many of us will move on. Fast. Even if the person otherwise might be a great partner.

So, what gives?

In my own experience, the relationships that started with hot, passionate chemistry died a quick death. The fire brought us together, but once it cooled a bit, we really weren't a good match for each other. Some psychologists argue that such passionate, fire-filled beginnings often are coming from matching wounds from the past. That the coming together isn't about love and longevity, but more about co-habiting dysfunctions hoping to heal each other. Most of the spiritual teachings I study also caution against believing the stories we have around desire, precisely because they are designed to get us to go out and pursue whatever it is that is desired.

Related to this is another set of issues. People want it All to happen Now. Many of us don't want to "waste time," and find out later that someone "wasn't right." But how can you know, if you don't actually take some time to get to know someone? An hour and a half over coffee or dinner isn't enough to get to know anyone, but you'd be hard pressed to find a roomful of singles who don't believe that these days. Furthermore, in addition to being impatient, many of us fail to register more subtle passions for another because we're too busy looking for, or "trying to will," something that will burn a city block down when/if it comes.

I also think there's another issue here. Addiction. The U.S. is truly a society of addicts. There are high level addicts who destroy their lives and the lives of others. Some make it into therapy and/or recovery groups, while others never make it. However, beyond these folks, I'd argue that a large percentage of us "normal functioning" folks are actually low level addicts. Some absolutely "need" those two or three cups of coffee every morning. Others are miserable if they don't get their video game fix, or miss their favorite TV show. And still others are addicted to "love," which is actually lust. They chase the high, and then burned, again and again.

Are you one of these people?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First Impressions Are Overrated

There. I said it. First impressions are overrated. Now that's twice. However, there's a catch.

What we choose to focus on when first meeting someone makes all the difference. In other words, because people often pay attention to the flash during first encounters, what they glean is kind of useless. This is why the whole focus on "chemistry" above all else approach to dating is big trouble. Because wanting hot attraction with someone who is a stranger nearly always leads to overlooking the more subtle aspects of the other person. Which leads you to overrate your connection, and overrate the potential for a relationship to really work over the long run.

A few years ago, I had a brief fling with a woman who, when we first met, I thought was a good match. We had a magnetic kind of attraction. She was smart. Funny. Shared a lot of common interests with me. Etc. All those base-level things people ramble on about wanting in their online dating profiles. I went into subsequent dates with her having focused on those elements, and thus failed to notice - for a little while - the rest of the picture. That she was emotionally all over the place. That she was controlling. That she wasn't terribly kind or willing to listen to opinions that were different from her own. And that she really didn't have any passion around social issues or life's big questions.

As this other side of her unfolded before me, for a short time I justified staying with her because I was blinded by the physical attraction, and also placed too much importance on common interests that actually wound up to be superficial connections. Both liking poetry a lot didn't really matter. Liking similar music really didn't matter. An interest in travel really didn't matter. Both working in the non-profit field really didn't matter. That last one, I think, fooled me into believing she was someone who thrived on helping others, and giving back to the community. When the reality was that it was just another job for her.

But that's what happens when your focus is on the more superficial aspects of life and relationships. You hear something that sounds like a connection, and then in your mind turn it into a "deep connection," an oh my god this person is my soul mate kind of connection. It's pretty silly if you think about it, and I don't know anyone who hasn't done a bit of this in their lives. However, for some people, this mode of operation is the only one they ever do.

When you choose to focus on the more subtle, but I'd argue deeper aspects of a person in the beginning, it's much more likely that a first impression will be more useful. Here are some things I look for, just to give some examples:

Good listening skills.

Basic Kindness.

A sense of compassion. Like if she's describing a difficult situation at work, what do the comments about particular co-workers sound like? How much blame and criticism is directed at any particular person?

Values compatibility. For example, as I hinted at above, it's really important to me to be with someone who cares about social issues, and feels compelled to do something that might make the world a better place. In other words, social engagement. Like volunteer in the community. Or be involved in a lobbying effort on a particular issue. If someone has no interest in social engagement on some level, then I might not be a good match for that person. So, it's really important to figure out what values you have, which ones are deal breakers, and then to pay attention to what values the other person seems to be displaying. This is one of those areas that can unfold pretty slowly, and is why the rushed dating culture that has developed in recent decades is kind of troubling.

Sense of humor. This one might seem shallow, but actually I think it's pretty key. People who can't laugh at life, at least a little bit, are pretty miserable partners. (Unless you also have no sense of humor, in which case, misery loves company, right? :)

Breadth of interests. Although I still lean towards dating someone who likes similar things as I do, what I have realized is more important is that the person have a wide variety of interests. A well-roundedness. Which leads to the last quality I look for.

An openness to lifelong learning. Wanting to keep learning about life and world is pretty sexy to me. And I also think that it demonstrates an openness and flexibility that spills over into other areas as well.

So, what do you think?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Screw "Dating": Let's Hang Out!

Dating Blogger Kelly Seal asks "Is online dating a thing of the past?" Certainly, at this point, the answer is no. And it's a little difficult to imagine a world with the internet, but no online dating. However, it is fair to to say that things are evolving.

Have you ever heard of social discovery sites? I don't think I have before this morning. Here's a description and a bit of commentary from Seal's current article:

Social discovery sites provide a place where people can meet and socialize online - to date, make friends, play video games, exchange music, or a number of different things - not just for dating. Which means users who join stay around longer, even after they meet a significant other.

AreYouInterested's new move from a dating app to a social discovery site is an interesting one. They already have a large user base (more than 6 million monthly active users) and are synced with Facebook, so it's obviously popular for singles who want to meet via Facebook. The company wanted to expand its purpose, to be more than a site used only for dating. According to an article in Mashable, this move will appeal to a broader audience.

Users who are already on the site for dating purposes can continue to use it for dating, but new users might be there for different reasons. So I have to ask the question - doesn't this kind of muddy the water? How do you know if someone is interested in you or if he just wants to hang out and be friends? It seems much less ambiguous to join an online dating site, since you know why people are on it.

Ambiguity. Yeah, I don't think there's any way around ambiguity. On her blog, Seal declares herself "not a fan" of ambiguity. She goes on to say, "Maybe I’m old-school, but if you’re interested, why not show it – at least enough to let a girl or guy know that it’s a date, even if they don’t want another one after that?"

It's funny. If you look at things historically, what we call formal dating has existed for perhaps a little over a century now. Coinciding with the rise of urbanization, introduction of the automobile, development of restaurants, and the increase of equal rights and opportunities for women. And so, while Kelly might be "old school" in one sense, we are all new kids on the block in another.

I think one of the big challenges facing us all is that the rate of change is so much quicker these days. Twenty years ago, "online dating" was mostly a concept in the imaginations of a few enterprising, and perhaps lonely, tech geeks. In just over a decade's time, we went through the meteoric rise of online dating, and the corresponding cultural struggles to develop appropriate guidelines and mores for people trying to meet each other, and develop successful relationships. It all happened so fast; it's no wonder so many people are looking for something, anything to hold onto to understand what's going on with.

Over the past few years, it's become apparent to me that the waters of online dating are already muddy. Kelly suggests that the multi-purpose approach of social discovery sites is making things more ambiguous and by extension, more confusing. I'd argue they're just a more transparent expression of what's been happening with online dating in general. When I first started doing online dating, back in 2003, it was quite clear that the vast majority of people on websites like and the old Onion Singles were looking to date someone. They may have had a diverse set of understandings about what constituted a "relationship," but the idea that we were single people looking to go on dates with other single people was pretty much universal. This simply isn't the case these days.

Some people use online dating sites as a form of entertainment. Or to find penpals who they can write to, but with whom they have no other strings attached. Another percentage of folks are date collectors - people who like going out with other people, but who really have no intention of making any sort of commitment. Some of these folks aren't even looking for sex; they just want the short term companionship. Then there are the relationship fakers, who write like they want a relationship, but actually only want casual sex, but can't come out and say it straight up. The list goes on and on, but what Kelly is worried about changing as a result of social discovery sites has already happened.

Is this a good thing? I don't really know. It makes things more challenging in some respects. On the other hand, Americans claim to love their "freedom" and "independence." Which makes me think "Hey! Here it is folks! You don't have to be tied down to anything. You can meet someone, hang out, do whatever and not call it anything in particular.

I do think that learning how to be at peace with ambiguity is a life skill everyone would be wise to develop. Whether you put a label on what you are doing early on or not, it's always ambiguous in the beginning. You're getting to know each other. You have no idea if you match up over the long haul. The unknown is infinitely more present than the known.

At the same time, there is a danger of free-floating for years on end. And perhaps Kelly's comments could be pointing towards a culture where such free-floating and lack of definition is considered the highest achievement. I have wondered this myself in a different way. Thinking that you have the free floaters on one side, and the reactionary "traditionalists" on the other side. And the rest of us somewhere in the middle.

What do you make of all of this? And how do you handle ambiguity?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Do I have a Bad Attitude? A Dater Asks.

Over the past few months, I have been receiving e-mails from readers asking questions about their dating lives. If you'd like to have your situation posted with comments from me, just indicate that in your e-mail, and I will work up a post.

Today's letter is from John, a reader in his forties from Long Island, NYC.

I sent an email to a girl on POF. She replied and then she suggested talking on the phone in her second email to me. We had a good conversation. I live on Long Island and she lives in Brooklyn. It is about 35 miles but with traffic (and there is always traffic)it would take somewhere between 1-2 hours each way. She does not have a car. So I agreed to meet her at a bar for drinks/apps in her area.

Upon further reflection, this bothers me. I knew she lived 35 miles and 1-2 hours with traffic when I initially emailed her, but her not having a car caught me off guard. I guess I wish that she could have suggested she take public transportation to someplace closer to me but she didn't. She didn't even offer to do that. Presumably, I will pay for the date plus the gas plus the drive time. Seems a bit much for a first date. I hate it when I assume all the risk and am wondering if thats just a bad attitude on my part or just being a more efficient dater. I do go out on a lot of dates, so thats why I prefer to keep first dates either low investment time/moneywise or have the girl put in just as much effort. The onesidedness always bothers me- perhaps too much so.

Any thoughts would be appreciated on how you would handle this.

First off, let's consider the "money issue". I have long held the view that in this modern age, where men and women are making more equivalent incomes, there's really no reason for heterosexual men to be expected to pay for dates with women. In theory, you'd think women would consider this a good thing. They wouldn't be beholden anymore to offering something in return, such as sex, for the drinks, dinner, or whatever the man paid for. The idea that they can pay their own way would be considered a sign of respect from the man, and also an awareness that he sees her as capable of taking care of her needs financially.

However, the reality appears to be that the majority of women think otherwise. Which leaves men who don't like the idea of constantly footing the bill stuck.

I wish I had an easy answer for the money issue, but I don't. If a woman thinks you are cheap or not interested in her because you didn't pay for all or most of a date, there's isn't that much you can do. And if you are concerned about that happening, you might decide to pay for first dates, and then suggest to those you go out with again that you'd like to share costs from then on. Here are two ideas worth considering though.

1. Reduce the number of dates you go on.

Online dating offers you more options. Way too many more options. It's easy to get caught up in meeting everyone that responds to you, and seems good looking and interesting. However, you have to think about how much time you want to devote to meeting strangers, knowing that the majority of dates will be 1 and done events. Even if you manage to find women who will split the bill with you without complaint, it can still get expensive to go out twice a week or more, which some folks seem to do. So, consider being more selective.

2. Do activities that are free or very low cost.

During the warmer months of the year, check out the local listings for free outdoor concerts, arts events, or food-related festivals. Or offer to go for a walk around a popular lake, in a public park, or along a river boardwalk. In the winter, check out a museum with no or low cost admission fees. Go skating. Or do some other outdoor winter activity. There's always the coffee meet and greet as well. The main thing is that if you're budget conscious, consider shaking up how you're meeting your dates.

Now, let's consider the "car issue." I have never owned a car, which is a rarity for folks living in the Midwest. Has this created some challenges while dating? Sure. Does this mean I expect my dates to always come to me? Absolutely not. On first dates, I usually have erred on the side of going towards where my date lives. Sometimes, this has meant somewhere half way. And sometimes, this has meant me finding a way over to somewhere close to where they live.

As a non-driver, I think it's incumbent upon John's date to make sure she's choosing men that live fairly close to her. Close enough where she can get transport to their neighborhoods at least some of the time. Even in a less congested city, 35 miles apart isn't that close for someone without a vehicle. I guess if I were John, I would wonder if she is going to expect that he always come to her. That may not be the case, but because she's not offering to meet somewhere half way, it does raise a flag.

Finally, let's consider attitude.

I hate it when I assume all the risk and am wondering if thats just a bad attitude on my part or just being a more efficient dater. I do go out on a lot of dates, so thats why I prefer to keep first dates either low investment time/moneywise or have the girl put in just as much effort. The onesidedness always bothers me- perhaps too much so.

Whatever you end up doing or not doing, it's really important to be at peace with it. If you enter into a date feeling bothered or unhappy about the length of the drive, the cost, or anything else, odds are it will have a negative impact. So, you either have to let go of those concerns and just enjoy the experience, or you have figure out ways to address the concerns before meeting.

John, you agreed to do drinks in her neighborhood already, so you probably should just go with that, and request a different venue next time. Before finalizing details on future dates with anyone, make sure you are ok with the location.

Overall, I'm wondering if John is feeling pressure to move quick, and accept whatever comes his way in the interest of keeping things moving. It seems like for some folks dating these days, it's all about showing you want them, and showing it RIGHT NOW. If you aren't rolling in bed after a few dates, it must be a failure. Furthermore, some of the same people tend to assign entirely too much value to money spent on a date, thinking it represents a high level of interest.

If you are looking for a committed relationship, you have to consider what qualities are needed over the long run. And you need to decide what is most important to you, and then let that drive your decisions. Even if that means some of your dates, or potential dates, reject you out of hand.

For example, I'm interested in dating someone that is flexible and fairly easy going. If I find myself in a battle negotiating basic details of a first date, that's not a good sign. It shouldn't be a big deal to swap suggestions for places to meet and things to do, and then agree upon something that both parties think is a good idea. The majority of the time, in fact, I make a suggestion that's fairly conveniently located for both of us, and it's accepted. Sometimes, it's been the other way around with me accepting the suggestion. Occasionally, a few ideas are shared, and then one is chosen. But the overall tone is one of ease, regardless.

The times there hasn't been ease in this process have turned out to be miserable dates for me. Because the tussle over the venue and other details represented a general inflexibility and pickiness.

Point being, once you decide what's most important in the long run, then you aren't as concerned about scaring away those who don't fit in the short run. It seems like a lot of dating advice these days in geared towards shifting your behavior to get a maximum number of dates. That's fine if you're into casual dating and sex, but if you want something lasting, you have to be ok with sticking to your core values and desires, and rejecting or getting rejected by those who aren't a match.

Readers, any thoughts for John?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Social Media May Be Messing Up Your Relationships

I'm troubled by the ways social media are sometimes used in the context of intimate relationships. In fact, we could move beyond the romantic context to our friends and family as well. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are really useful tools that can help us stay connected and share information. They also have the tendency, if you aren't careful, to become a form of surrogate living. In other words, you think you have deep connections with a lot of folks, but actually you have an abundance of shallow connections.

When it comes to our romantic lives, the lines between public and private have become quite blurry. Some people are willing to subject their entire relationships to public scrutiny, offering a blow by blow account of conflicts and make ups for anyone connected with them to read and comment on. Whether its Facebook status updates or daily blog postings, for some folks, it's all on display.

One of the major problems with this is that every little high experienced, as well as every mistake made, is both magnified and amplified. You tweet your first kiss to a thousand "friends" and receive several dozen virtual high fives in a matter of hours. Or you write about your latest fight on Facebook and have dozens of sympathizers calling your partner all sorts of names and telling you to get rid of him or her.

How is it possible to develop and maintain a clear and realistic assessment of your relationship amidst all of this?

Furthermore, how is it possible to stand on your own two feet, and make your own decisions about your partnership when you have dozens of other voices nearly instantly appearing in your head to compete with whatever your gut is telling you?

Here are a few guidelines I have for myself, which might be helpful for you as well.

1. Don't share current relationship conflict on social media. If I want to talk about current struggles with others online, I might head to one of the numerous dating and relationship sites. I have a list of excellent ones on the sidebar of this blog.

And I'd be more than willing to host letters or write about questions readers have about current conflicts/challenges.

The main point in this is to aim towards minimizing harm, while also supporting the need to work through issues with others.

2. I don't have a relationship status on Facebook. Early on, I did change my relationship status a few times, and found that it just led to confusion and having to tell people stories about very short term relationships that really didn't need to be told. Dating someone for 3 or 4 weeks doesn't need to be highly publicized, nor does the end of that connection. Reserve the status for major milestones.

3. Mostly, I have steered this blog away from "real-time" intimate relationships. Perhaps there might be some reason to break that rule in the future, but for now, I think it's a smart decision that also upholds point #1.

How about you? How do you handle social media and your intimate relationships?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bringing Community Back Into Modern #Relationships

Last night, I was a member of a Quaker clearness committee in support of a friend who is getting married next year. It was the first of several meetings over the course of the fall/winter, during which the group will explore issues in their relationship, and support them going forward into marriage. From what I can tell so far, it's quite a reflective and open process designed to help couples bring forth any potential challenges to the relationship, as well as highlight strengths, known to the couple and not known to them.

We are a diverse group age-wise. I, my friend, and his partner in our mid-late 30s. A couple in their 60s. And two elder women whose husbands have passed on.

As I sat there listening to our different experiences with relationships and marriage, I thought to myself: "How many Americans experience anything remotely like this before getting married?" I am aware that some Christian couples undergo a period of council with a priest before marriage, but the dynamic there seems completely different. It's not really about sharing and exploring, but more about getting guidance from the minister, who may or may not understand the particular needs of the couple. Beyond some Christian communities, I'm not aware of any set practices around supporting couples getting married over a period of time. I haven't heard about much of this going on formally in spiritual communities like my Zen center. Surely, there are informal processes happening for certain couples, but nothing established and out in the open like these Quaker committees.

I have been writing a lot about what constitutes the fragmentedness of modern dating, and this fits right in. From meeting online or at some event, to the process of getting married, having children and raising them, so much has become privatized and isolated. If you have trouble in your partnership, you're support is often limited to a few good friends, family members, or hired therapists. Some don't even have these people around, due to issues in the family, busyness, and lack of financial resources. It can be even harder for queer folks, who not only face some of the same issues of isolation, but also continue to experience strong levels of discrimination, despite gains in recent decades. Furthermore, couples and folks living in "non-traditional" relationships, such as open marriages or polyamorous relationships frequently face barriers of understanding that limit who they can turn to for help during crisis.

Given all of this, it seems to me that developing the kind of cross generational support committees, like the one I am participating in, would be a good thing for many couples. They need not be focused around marriage, since some people choose to not be married. They can easily be structured to focus on a current crisis in a long term relationship, or perhaps to support a couple make a major step like having or adopting children. And they need not be connected at all to a religious or spiritual community.

Some folks have the kind of friendship and family support to do this kind of thing informally. Perhaps that's all that is needed. I have to say that the cross-generational aspect of the committee really appeals to me. Getting views from different stages in life helps balance out the understanding of what is important and what isn't.

Have any readers experienced something like the Quaker clearness process before? Who do you go to for support and advice when having a relationship crisis or are making a major relationship decision? Do you wish you had more support?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Some Perils of Modern Dating

I think a lot of people – regardless of gender – forget how different online dating and "blind" dating in general are from what most of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did in the recent past. Go back further than three generations, and you'll find even more differences when it comes to dating and courtship. What folks think of as ingrained social conventions are truths are products of modern, industrial society - and there has always been some flux in what is considered "normal" and "proper."

Going on a date with someone in the recent past often meant being tied to an intricate set of social connections. You were probably connected through peers. The parents of both daters sometimes knew each other. Perhaps you were both part of the same religious/spiritual community. Lived in the same neighborhood. Regularly attended events in the same locale over a long period of time. In other words, the odds were that the two of you were not total strangers.

Given that, there was a stronger sense of urgency around treating the other person well on a date, even if nothing came of it. Because if you didn’t, it could quickly burn your reputation. This, coupled with the fact that men were the breadwinners and were expected to be in control of relationships, brought about a lot of what is considered chivalrous behavior. With rigid gender roles in all facets of life came a set of reliable, but also limiting and often oppressive intimate relationship cultural norms. Some of which linger today.

Certainly, plenty of people still experience these kinds of social webs when dating. But with online dating and other forms that bring strangers together, the dynamic is different because there isn't a social network to consider. You can literally meet dozens of people over the course of a year that you see once or twice, and then never again. The shopping mentality of it makes it easy enough for people to ramp up their list of desired traits and behaviors, and also ramp up their level of rejection for anything that "doesn't fit" the dream. Even when those things are quite minor and not direct, reliable indicators of someone who could be a quality long term partner. In addition, some folks take the fairly anonymous quality of stranger dating as an opportunity to let their worst out. Fits of anger. Litanies of criticism and judgments. Pressuring for sex. Using dates for upgraded, expensive meals and entertainment.

Unfortunately, sharing dating horror stories and publicly ranting about all the things people dislike about each other is quite common these days as well. Indeed, all it takes is a few clicks of the mouse to locate a blog or dating comment board filled with people who will gladly reinforce how awful dating is in general, and how much of an asshole or bitch your last date or partner was.

The seeking of a like-minded tribe online (or amongst friends who only know you) has mostly replaced the social circle of people who know the other person, and can offer some more accurate, specific back story about them. While there is a certain freedom in much of modern dating that wasn't present in the past, it also can be a pretty lonely place. Meeting people you know next to nothing about. Having to rely mostly on generalized dating advice from other strangers you'll probably never meet, and the sometimes not helpful, or overly biased advice of friends and/or family.

In the end, it always comes back to your gut feelings, the connection you feel, and the level of trust you develop with another person. It's always vital to open yourself up to learning more about relationships and about yourself - your needs and also the places where you need to grow.

But I can't help but notice that a lot of what people consider good dating advice these days is little more than grasping for straws.

We live in muddy times. And I think this requires people to let go of a lot of assumptions and expectations.

At the end of the day, especially with online dating and blind dating, going on a single date with someone only gives you a tiny slice of information. Unless someone is totally off, it really is mostly a gut decision whether or not you decide to go out again. How much can you truly know about a stranger after a few hours together? And how much can they know about you?

The muddiness of modern dating is calling for all of us to be a bit more kind and open to possibilities. To turn people down with more grace. To give people that are a little rough around the edges another shot. And to let go of the fairy tales so many of us have been force fed by the popular media.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Avoiding and Overthinking in Relationships

My first long term relationship probably should have been over in a few months. Six months in, I was quite clear that we were a poor match, and even made some weak attempts to end it. However, I didn't want to be alone, and I also wanted to "give it a chance." Of course, I was also avoiding all the ways in which our lives were really different. How our life goals were on quite different pages. Our interests often didn't match up. How we frequently ran out of things to talk about. Even though things never really got any better, we stayed together over three years.

With another long term girlfriend, instead of breaking up with me fully, she asked for a month apart so she could "think about things." That seemed reasonable enough to me, and I wanted to give it one last shot myself, even though the previous several months had been fairly miserable. Then that month stretched into two, three, four, five months, with all of my attempts to meet her to have a conversation rebuffed. Finally, I just gave up, and moved on. I found out later that she had moved on long before I did, but for whatever reason, decided to keep answering my requests to meet with "I'm not ready to see you yet," instead of just telling me she was seeing someone else.

I often write about how in a rush folks seem to be these days when it comes to dating. However, the opposite can also be true. Over-thinking. Avoiding facing deep pockets of incompatibility because you're attracted to someone, don't want to hurt their feelings, or are simply afraid to be alone.

I'm all for thoughtfulness and spending the time needed to suss out what you really want and how you want to move forward. However, there comes a time when that place becomes like a cave you go to hide in. A protective zone from all the possible consequences you can imagine. Consequences from leaving someone. Consequences from staying with someone. And eventually, the consequences that come from waiting too long to make a decision.

How about you? Are you someone who over-thinks your relationships? Do you sit on the fence for weeks and months on end, wondering about the many what ifs? Have you dated people like this?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bitter, Controlling, Hyper-Critical and In a Hurry

I have been having a lot of conversations about relationships lately. Intimate relationships, friendships, and family. Instead of a post on a single theme, I'm going to offer five short, pithy reflections that have come out of these discussions. Enjoy!

1. We are too hard on each other, precisely because we are too hard on ourselves. Learning to be ok with things not being "perfect" in the way you see "perfection" is a vital skill in having healthy, long lasting relationships.

2. A natural reaction to the changing, diverse modern dating world is to seek some way to control it. Having unrealistic expectations, indulging in bitterness and cynicism, and frequently criticizing the actions of your dates or partners are all common methods of controlling. Perhaps you can think of others to add to the list.

3. In heterosexual circles, there is a lot of bickering and posturing between men and women. Some of it is due to the confusion around changing gender roles and expectations, but I honestly think more of it is due to too many in the dating media, and in pop culture in general, pushing the idea that there is a war between the genders. It's a reinforcing loop. Some set of writers or commentators pit men against women in some way, readers buy into the idea and spread it, and then you have more writing and commentary in a similar vain. All of which seeps into our individual relationships.

4. I really think it's best not to rush our relationships in the beginning. I've experienced the fall out of rushing both in intimate relationships and in friendships. With intimate relationships, I'm convinced that the two main culprits behind rushing are lust mistaken for love, and a fear that not moving quickly will cause the other person to leave. With rushed friendships, there seems to be a pattern of over-emphasizing commonalities, and/or imagining common ground that isn't there.

5. You don't know the future. You might be able to make an accurate guess, but sometimes things turn out really differently from what you thought. I have had relationships that I thought were dead redevelop again after months, even years in surprising fashion. I have also had connections that I thought would last for years, maybe a lifetime, that completely fizzled, a couple of times in spectacular fashion.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Consumer Love: Online Dating as a Commentary on Modern Relationships

This post from Evan Marc Katz's dating blog has gnawed at me for awhile now. It's title question, "Do dating sites promote gender stereotypes?," provoked a number of "No. What nonsense!" kind of responses. Many readers were irritated with the snarky writing of Lindy West, whose article was the inspiration for Katz's post. Others defended "traditional gender roles," using everything from the old biological differences arguments, to the idea that bucking the "system" leads to failure. A few readers agreed with West's article, while onesuggested the gendered advice itself isn't a problem, but more how dating sites like eharmony frame it that is problematic.

Other than a somewhat snarky and cryptic comment early on, I stayed out of the conversation over there. It didn't take long for me to recognize that trying to debate the gendered quality of the online dating world wasn't going to go well. In addition, although I think that online dating advice does sometimes advance stereotyped notions of men and women, there's a lot more going on than just that.

There's no doubt that online dating is popular. Here in the U.S., a good 40 million people have tried it at least once, and according to one study of people in 18 different nations, nearly 30% found their partner through online dating services. Amongst the reasons for it's popularity: great expansion of the dating pool, ease of connecting with potential partners, ability to bypass the in person ask and dreaded in person rejection, opportunity to learn more about someone before going on a date, and the general flexibility offered for people with busy lifestyles.

Years of online dating experience taught me a lot about myself, what I need in a partner, and what I don't want as well. I learned to let go of a lot of the fears that come with asking someone out on a date, and also meeting them for the first time. I also learned how to be more of who I am, and to forget about trying to "be perfect" early on, because it isn't going to hold up over the long run anyway, and actually, attempting to appear perfect stifles your personality and individuality. Another thing I learned over time was that no matter how well a first or second date went, there's no guarantee that such initial "success" would lead to something more long lasting. All of this and more has been invaluable to me in dealing with the ups and downs of dating and relationships. And I can thank online dating in part for these revelations.

However, after years of personal experience, learning about the experiences of friends and family, and also reading about online dating, I have become wildly less impressed by it as a method. One of the interesting statics cited in one of the links above was the difference in length of courtship before marriage for those who met online and those who met offline. Online romances that lead to marriage go there over twice as fast as those that began in other ways. Which leads me to one of the major challenges I have with online dating as a whole, as well as the modern dating culture that has cropped up around it: the speed factor.

Because there are so many more potential options available, many people feel a great deal of pressure to move quickly through the steps and "lock" someone in as their partner. Better follow up after that first date really quickly, or you'll be left behind. Better have sex within the first few weeks of meeting or you'll be considered not interested. Better declare exclusivity after a month or two, or else you might loose out to some rival.

All of this leads me to my second point, which is that online dating is a majorly driven by consumerism and tends to promote dating and relationships in business-like terms that warp who we are and how we act.


You meet someone and like them enough to want to spend more time with them. But the website you are on is filled with hundreds, even thousands of others who could be better, and so you continue shopping, either while seeing the first person, or after dumping the first person because you figure you might do better with someone else.

You disqualify people for decidedly unimportant reasons you'd probably never fuss about if you met the same people in person. Their user name is goofy. They like a musician you think is awful. They are 5'11 instead of 6 feet. They're 30 years old instead of 28 years old. (I have experienced the last two personally.)

You spend entirely too much time looking for "red flags," instead of actually being on your dates and experiencing what's happening.

Your list of must haves and must not haves both become so long that almost no one could ever meet your desired qualifications.

You find yourself doing things differently not out of a sense that changing would help you be a better person, but because you think that you'll sell yourself to others better.

You find yourself justifying withholding certain critical aspects of your life from those you date, as well as more and more "little" lies.

You find yourself conforming to old gender roles not because that's who you are and what you believe in, but out of a sense of practicality. While prioritizing the practical is definitely called for sometimes, it can become a way of loosing yourself or sacrificing who you are and want to be, in order to get or keep someone around. How many of you have woken up one day while in a relationship and thought to yourself "Who have I become? Why did I keep doing X, or stop doing Y and Z?" It's definitely happened to me before.

You become fixated on the next date, the last date, the number of potential dates, and everything else related to being an active dater. To the point of obsession.

You find yourself keeping tabs like an accountant. Constantly checking off pluses and minuses in your head.


Now, any of these can happen to people who are not active online daters. But it seems to me that more of them, in greater quantities, are present in those who are submerged in the dating culture that online dating has spawned. Which goes beyond people actively doing online dating, but is driven by online daters.

The thing is, though, that these qualities I am linking to online dating are actually sourced in our overall capitalist culture. Where dating and finding love are both a highly profitable industry, and also a means of demonstrating personal success and worthiness in social settings. Being single after a certain age - say 30 - is widely considered a mark of failure or at least a sign of being deficient in some significant manner. Whereas those who have long term partnerships and marriages tend to be viewed more positively, even if the relationships are destructive or totally stagnant. It usually takes high levels of physical and/or emotional abuse spilling out beyond a given couple to make their "stock" drop. Whereas the single person, divorced person, or person only doing casual dating often has to ramp up other aspects of their life to be considered successful and worthy in mainstream society. The same is true to a lesser extent for couples without children. You better damn well have a highly successful business, be an uber active community volunteer, or someone who is wildly generous with your time and/or money to make up for the lack of a partner and/or children.

What's fascinating to me is that online dating has probably opened the door for people to more easily engage in a diverse array of relationship arrangements. You want to meet people for casual sex? It's a click away. You want to date people interested in polyamory? A click away. People who want long term commitment, but not official marriage? A click. Folks into fetishes? A click. It goes on and on.

At the same time, the nuclear family, a model that's intimately linked to modern, industrialized capitalism, continues to be the norm. And what I have noticed is that as more of us buck this norm in various ways, the rhetoric of "lack" and "sin," attempts to legislate "morality," and general calls for a return or continuation of "traditional values" get stronger. It's not just coming from religious conservatives either. EMK's blog doesn't seem to attract overtly religious types (here, meaning people who couch most of their arguments in religious teachings or directives) in general, but the main audience of the blog are people looking for nuclear family marriages. Some might not want children, but it's a great minority the number of regular commenters who are considering options outside of marriage. And lest you say "But that's his niche," it's the niche of nearly every popular online dating site and dating writer.

I can hear folks saying, "Duh. That's what people want. Love and marriage." Which is true in a practical sense, but if there was less pressure to conform to this model, would the same truth remain? I can hear other folks saying "But the family is the glue that holds society together, and the vehicle for raising healthy, successful children," which may be the case in the capitalist, privatized society we have created. But would it be true if major changes come to our country? Would it be true if the economy completely tanks? Or if global warming brings even more extreme weather and land condition crises? What if it becomes impossible for every couple with a few kids to maintain their own household? Have you not noticed that this is already the case, and has been for awhile.

Getting back to online dating specifically, regardless of the kind of relationship you want, I think finding a decent one through online dating requires a lot of insight, the ability to remain true to yourself and buck outside pressures, and probably a bit of luck as well. It's popularity is understandable given the sped up, overly busy modern culture we live in, and I wouldn't tell people to reject it out of hand. Like I said, I learned invaluable lessons going on dozens of online found dates over the years. But online dating is more than just a vehicle to potential romance. It say a lot about modern society, and a fair amount of what it says is troubling, even if many people find the loves of their lives in the process.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Social Pressure to Have Children

People who don't want to have children still seem to get a fair amount of flack. Especially women. Even queer women. I have noticed that tied to the drive to gain same sex marriage, there is also an underlying current of reproducing mainstream-looking family units, where two women or two men function quite similarly to mainstream opposite sex couples. The 2 children, house, nice lawn, "normal jobs," and white picket fence kind of vision.

Seven billion + humans on the planet and still, the social pressure to reproduce is strong. Entire religious and political movements want to restrict or outlaw birth control options. And all abortions, regardless of the reasons.

This, here in the U.S., supposed home of liberalized sexuality and individual freedom. It's more a tangled mix if you ask me. A push towards liberation on one side; a push towards "restoring" or maintaining patriarchal norms and controls on the other. With the majority of people lost somewhere in between these two poles, trying to figure out who they are, and what they want.

Consider these lines from the following post:

As a feminist, I feel strongly that I should have a choice in how I live my life as a person. I don't want to feel that someone else is making a decision on my worth or identity based on the fact of my genital parts.

I have a friend who chooses not to have children. I've witnessed the 'just give it a few years, you'll see' remarks (honestly, I should have given him a little kick in the shins for that one... but I punked out for social etiquette... and we were at a birthday party...).

Her decision is a great environmental decision, no matter how you slice it. The reality is that babies pollute. Instead of made to feel awesome (as she should) by her choice, she's judged for making a decision that is best for HER self and her body.

As if she were born to make babies. As if her uterus defines her entire point of existing.

Being in my mid-30s, I have been asked about children as well. And yet, as a man, it seems like I'm given more of a pass. Perhaps because people think "he's got more time. Maybe he'll want children in his 40s." Maybe I will. In fact, I have considered having children in a couple of relationships I have been in over the past five years. But I'm still on the fence. And honestly, the point about the environmental consequences has always weighed heavily on my mind. It might be a bit crude to say "babies pollute," but I have always wondered "how many humans is enough?"

Don't get me wrong. I love kids. I spent a good chuck of my 20s working with children in various learning settings. One of those places being a treatment center for children who had been removed from their homes. Seriously neglected children. Physically and emotionally abused. Some sexually abused. My job was to help these kids learn the basic social skills needed to get along with others, and to get their personal needs met as well. It was quite the sobering job. When people with children claim a sense of superior understanding about parenthood simply because they had kids, I immediately think of Paige, John, Samantha, Brianna, David, and dozens of others I worked with over the years. Their parents were an absolute train wreck. At 25, I already had a better sense of caring for their kids than they did.

Many of the children I worked with at the treatment center would go on to bounce around in "the system," never finding anything resembling a permanent home. They're the forgotten ones. When Americans, especially white Americans, think of adoption, they think of African babies, or Asian babies. Not the suffering kids living in a facility down the street. Adoption also seems to be a last resort option for most. Something considered because of age or infertility. What's that about?

But beyond all that, I also happen to believe that people can live full, vibrant lives without being parents. Direct parenting is only one way to influence the lives of young folks. My life to this point has absolutely not been lacking because I don't have children of my own. And that will be true if the rest of my life remains "childfree."

Human life is so much more than simply our ability, or lack of an ability, to have offspring. There are far too many of us on the planet to be placing the biological drive to reproduce above all else. If anything, we are much more in danger of overpopulation than dying out as a species from lack of reproduction.

So, I want to support the development of a society that moves beyond the function of our genitals, and beyond shame and guilt narratives, and supports a wide variety of decisions around children.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Intimacy Pedestal

There's an interesting debate going on in the comments section of this post from The Good Men Project. It's about intimacy. Men. Women. And social conditioning. I found myself agreeing with the majority, but also questioning some important sections of the post. Let's take a closer look.

Author Bill Cloke begins with this:

most men are taught from an early age to be competitive, that feelings are a sign of weakness and to avoid vulnerability and dependency at all costs. The ideal for men is fierce independence and strength.

Although there are signs of some change these days, this does reflect how boys are "trained," and how the men those boys grow up to be act, or try to present themselves as in any case.

However, I would argue that more and more American women are embracing "independence and strength" as core virtues. It's quite easy to find Gen X women and those of younger generations placing higher value on being happily single and financially sustainable, than upon being partnered up and dependent in any manner.

Although every last human on the planet is dependent to some degree on others, for the majority of Americans, male or female, being ok with dependence is just not ok. Heterosexual men best not have any financial needs of their female partners because those that do will roundly be slammed as lazy, good for nothing leaches. Heterosexual women best be in a financial position to leave a relationship at a moment's notice if things start going bad. Heterosexual women also would do well to "train" their male partners to not expect emotional coddling by cutting them off at the first pass. Guy starts talking about how difficult things are at work, and the girlfriend tells him to "toughen up." Guy expresses some form of upset about something going on in the relationship and he's told that he's "being too sensitive."
I could go on with more examples, but general idea is this: many Americans love to project independent and strong images of themselves, even when it might harm their intimate relationships to do so.

A little later on in his article, Cloke offers the following:

Men do not do as well as women in the clinches. Men have a harder time with stress reduction, and anxiety around conflict. Women have gears inside built for childbirth where they can tolerate pain. This internal mechanism to withstand anxiety and pain allows women to deal with emotional stress way better than men. Men usually avoid conflict and make every effort to make peace. For this reason they do not tend to resolve conflicts well which creates distance in their relationships. This avoidance of confrontation, pain and anxiety can build up over time and cause the eventual breakup of a marriage.

I don't really buy this. Stress is a cross gender, societal problem these days. Millions of people, for example, are on medications for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related fallout, precisely because they were never taught how to deal with stress naturally. Others have chosen a more destructive route, drowning their stress through illicit drugs, alcohol, or engaging in various forms of violence. In my opinion, what might be gendered is the ways in which men and women "act out." Men are more likely to avoid problems through distancing and silence. They're also more likely to engage in physical violence when things have gotten too pent up. Women are more prone to what I would call forms of emotional violence. Manipulation. Deliberate emotional and/or sexual withdrawal to get what they want. Mind games of various sorts. But all of these are maladaptive responses to stress and dissatisfaction, and none of them are the province of a single gender.

Getting back to the issue of intimacy, I think it's more accurate to say that men and women have somewhat differing intimacy-hindering patterns, and that perhaps the patterns the majority of men choose are more successful at keeping others - especially their partners - away. Distancing, cold silence, and physical violence are pretty effective at cutting off connections, whereas other approaches tend to require some level of connection in order to be successful. And these connections may be mistakenly considered intimacy by the casual onlooker, family members, friends, and even the partner him or herself. Partners enmeshed in elaborate mind games and emotional violence tend to appear "really close." It may be that the dominantly male patterns of avoiding intimacy are simply more visible and obvious than the dominantly female patterns.

One last piece in Cloke's article that I quibble with is this:

Women frequently complain that their partner wants to have sex even though they don’t feel connected emotionally. Men want to have sex to feel connected and women want to feel connected to feel comfortable having sex.

First off, how people express their sexuality is wildly diverse. It's probably always been so, but it's easier to find this diversity out in the open these days. I do think it's fair to say, though, that women in particular have benefited greatly from the sexual liberation of the past forty-fifty years. And one of the ways in which this plays out is that more women are into casual sex, sex without love, or other forms of sexual expression not dependent upon having a close, intimate connection with their sexual partner.

I do think though that there is a fair amount of accuracy to Cloke's statement, but what follows it misses something vitally important in my opinion. He writes:

Because some men want to skip over feelings and go straight to sex, porn and prostitution has taken off since the advent of the internet. Men who find themselves avoiding confrontations and intimacy will find anonymous intimacy in internet chat rooms, porn or prostitutes.

Here's the thing. In a society where other forms of intimacy are deemed by "man culture" as weak or "emasculating," sex becomes the main portal. As such, many men view having sex as the only "safe way" to express care, desire, and vulnerability - something that, if it goes well, pleases their partners and also makes them look good with their male buddies. This is probably a main reason why men are so apt to test long term compatibility via sexual connection. If the sex isn't good enough, a lot of guys probably think somewhere inside "well, there's no place for me here." The "me" being the person who is open, vulnerable, fully alive without being hindered by shame and guilt.

It's kind of ironic that sex - an activity so clouded with moralistic shame and guilt baggage - ends up being the place where so many men go looking for a safe place to be totally themselves.

Overall, I think Cloke's argument that men struggle with intimacy is a fair one. However, he seems to place women on an intimacy pedestal, and then expects men to work towards reaching them. In my view, the dominant patterns brought on by patriarchy and colonialism have made intimacy difficult for everyone. It's time for a more well-rounded picture of what's wrong, and also the many ways in which people might make it right.