Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fear in Dating and Relationships

I want to expand a little bit on one item from a list I offered several months ago entitled 35 Things I Have Learned. Both of the following statements are pretty critical to work with if you are interested in developing a healthy, conscious relationship.

Fear is behind so many of the mistakes we make.

This might seem obvious, but I think it's worth taking a closer look. Fear can operate in several ways. First, there's actions. You might choose to do something because you are afraid that if you don't, your date or partner will react negatively. Or you might choose to not do something for the same reasons. Secondly, there's speech. For example, saying what you think the other person wants to hear. Or withholding certain key information to soften a conversation. Or reacting in an anxious or angry way to comments being made by your date or partner about something. Thirdly, there are none verbal cues. The body tensing up in response to certain actions or comments. Physically withdrawing from touch or even totally away from the other person in response to something.

In other words, fear manifests in many different ways, and it's good to keep that in mind when trying to understand your own behavior, as well as that of your date or partner.

Another reason I am bringing up fear is because it's a normal, human experience. And I think that it's vital to learn how to be ok with feeling fear, while at the same time, being able to act from a stronger place than it. When I am feeling fear in the context of a dating situation, I try to somehow give it some space. Sometimes this means focusing on my breathing. Or doing formal meditation practice. Or taking a walk or doing some sort of physical activity. Obviously, what you choose to do will depend upon the situation. However, the main point is to learn to refrain from simply acting out whenever fear arising.

Finally, instead of treating fear as an enemy, consider that it often is actually an ally. How many times have you been deeply afraid of something, only to find out later that there was a great discovery about your life right on the other side of that fear? What comes to mind to me is the realization I had during one long term relationship that the fears I had about losing her were actually not about HER, but about being alone. In exploring that fear, I was able to eventually wake up to the fact that we weren't really a good match, and that I was sticking the relationship out because I didn't want to be alone.

During the coming week, I want to invite you all to consider the ways fear manifests, or has manifested in your relationships. In addition, consider your relationship to fear itself. Do you see it as an enemy or ally? How do you handle fear when it comes up?

As always, your comments and ideas are welcome.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Does the Person You're Dating Make You Smile and Laugh?

I hear a lot about folks wanting to find someone with a good sense of humor. It's almost one of those boilerplate pieces on the "master list" each of has carries about with us.

But you know what? I don't think humor is exactly what many of us are desiring. Perhaps the word is simply shorthand, but I can imagine plenty of readers out there who have, like me, met or even dated people with great senses of humor that weren't really a good match.

I think better questions to ask are ones like the following four:

Does the person I'm with easily bring a smile to my face, sometimes without even trying to?

Is laughter a regular part of our experience together?

Does his/her's humor add to the relationship?

Are we playful together?

I have had a few short term relationships with women who sometimes used humor to blame others, or avoid conflicts. Furthermore, I have dated genuinely "funny" women with whom I rarely, if ever, felt that spontaneous smiling and joy arising with. We could laugh at each others' jokes, but there wasn't any depth beneath that. It was more like entertaining each other, and when that wasn't happening, the basic level of happiness just wasn't present for the most part.

It's worth considering what lies beneath the surface of humor. Because it's easy to be attracted to folks with a good sense of humor, but there's a lot more to a conscious relationship than being funny.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Flaw Finding as Self Protection in the Modern Dating World

I have noticed a common theme cropping up in discussions about relationships, and it's fairly paradoxical, which is why I find it so curious.

A lot of folks these day have become very good at finding flaws. Flaws in those they are going on dates with. Flaws in themselves. Flaws in the relationship they currently are in.

On the other hand, it's also the case that many of us seem to either minimize or miss all together the kinds of "issues" that make or break most relationships.

This isn't just about superficial complaints like "he snores" or "she's two years older than me." It's about an inability to determine what's important in a relationship over the long term, coupled with a strong overcoat of pessimism about the chances that any long term relationship will ever work.

Pessimism about love is mostly a defense mechanism, as well as an escape clause. It means that if you go through a rough patch with your partner, you can simply say "Ah, well, I guess it wasn't meant to be."

The problem is that we have all these scripts we believe are the gospel truth about how relationships should and shouldn't go. And then we try and match our experiences exactly to those scripts, instead of paying attention to what's actually happening, and how we feel about it. The relationship is going faster than your script says it's supposed to go, and you start wondering when the other shoe will drop, or what the other person's "agenda" is. The relationship is moving slower than your script says it should and you wonder if he/she truly loves you. In both cases, perhaps you have no other evidence to suggest that things are wrong, but because the narrative is so strong, you believe there's a problem anyway.

Online dating and other forms of "relationship shopping" certainly have plus sides, but one of the downsides is that it's heightened the flaw finding mechanism, while also creating the illusion that there's an endless array of possible partners out there if the one you are with isn't perfect enough. The whole structure of online dating sites encourage the brain to scan and reject, as well as scan and accept, as quickly as possible. And this scanning behavior slides often into our actual relationships themselves, especially in the early days when so much has yet to be discovered. Instead of paying attention for obvious red flags and a small, well considered list of deal breakers, it's as if you're a hungry tiger, constantly on the edge of leaping on any little difference or unanswered question as a sign that things are doomed.

And yet, it's also the case that a lot of us miss glaringly obvious deal breakers, sometimes for years. She repeatedly states that she doesn't want children, but the guy continues to stick with her, believing she'll change her mind. She's constantly making criticizing or belittling comments, but her girlfriend still believes they have a great relationship. Your values are completely different, but the sex is hot, so you stay together. The list goes on and on.

It all comes back to an inability to determine what's important in a relationship over the long term, and also understanding that every situation is different, and so how it looks and feels will be different as well. In other words, "what's important" can't be condensed into a concrete formula that you can apply each time you meet someone.

I sometimes wish I could be like so many of the others out there, dispensing black and white, concrete advice that people gobble up and then claim was "The Thing" that saved them. But mostly, that's just not how I see the world. I'd rather try and get to the roots of our problems and fail, then succeed at helping someone snip off only the current, unwanted flower.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Listening to Your Heart's Desire

When I truly listen to what my heart is calling out, and trust it's wisdom, things tend to turn out well. Which isn't to say that everything goes "my way," but more that whatever happens, I am fully at peace. There's little or no second guessing. No frantic worrying spinning out in all directions. No guilt, shame, or long lasting suffering.

In an age where we have 24/7 access to other peoples' opinions, and are surrounded by an endless amount of subtle and not so subtle cues about what dating and relationships "should" look like, it's difficult to not get hooked by something "out there." You hear about the latest best seller dating book and think "Maybe that will have the answers I need." Or maybe your friends and family are constantly giving you opinions about who you are dating, and you feel torn between supporting your friends and living your own truth. Perhaps you've been taking the same approach to dating for years and find yourself feeling dead and lonely, but everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, and you're afraid to stand out in the crowd by doing something different.

If you feel swamped by all the dating opinions coming at you. If you feel stuck in patterns that don't serve you, or any relationship you are in. If you are afraid to take risks anymore because of the countless hurts you've experienced in the past.

If any or all of these are true, it's time to pause. Time to tune out the noise of the world around you and listen to what's coming up. To feel the fear. The confusion. The angst. The loneliness. To let all of that move through you until the truth of the moment calls. Everyone has had those moments when something seems to click, where all the effort to find an answer breaks down and suddenly a voice or an understanding appears and you know just what to do. A lot of us tend to think this kind of thing is accidental, or a stroke of good luck, but neither of those is really true.

You can learn to quiet down, slow down, and listen for the truth of the moment. And if you apply that skill to your dating life, I bet you'll start to see all the opinions and stories of others as just that: opinions and stories. Instead of being a slave to society's narratives about dating, or your friend's and family's narratives about dating, you can finally learn what is it that your heart desires in a relationship. And locating that, it will be that much easier to listen to the heart's desire of the person you're with. In other words, you can be fully alive and authentic with each other.

But it all starts with you, and your willingness to listen to your heart's desire, again and again.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What's Wrong With You? Being Over 30 and Single

I wrote this post a little over 2 years ago. Most of still rings true to me today.

I've been reflecting on the experience of being single and over 30. It's an interesting place to be, partly because there are a lot of cultural assumptions that come with the territory. Two of my students, middle aged women from Ethiopia, asked me today why I don't have a car. I went into the various reasons - to be more environmentally-friendly, to save money, to get more exercise. They weren't convinced, and the one asked the other "Was he born in Minnesota? Is he from here?" After that was confirmed, the other went on to say "You have a family, you need a car. It's important." I then said "I'm single." They couldn't believe that one either. This opened the door to all kinds of questioning about when I would get married, and if, among other things, a rich woman with "a house and car" asked me to marry, would I do it. The whole conversation was pretty jovial, not heavy at all, but you can see some of the assumptions there.

But assumptions about relationships come not only from my immigrant and refugee students. They seem to arrive from all over the place, even from other 30+ single people. Here are some of the assumptions I have run into as a result of being single for at least part of the past three years - post 30 years old.

1. There must be something wrong with you if you're not coupled by now.

Somehow, it still surprises a fair amount of people that you can be well-adjusted and yet not ever married, or even close to getting married, at my age. Even some 30 plus singles have made comments to me like this, which makes you wonder they thought of themselves, given that we were in the same boat so to speak.

2. What about children? Certainly you want or have children, right?

This one seems to be especially true for female friends of mine who are 30 plus and single. And there still seems to be a cultural stigma around either not wanting children, or questioning whether you want children or not. Never mind that there 6 billion plus people on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of unwanted children languishing away in orphanages, group homes, and other places. It's one thing to wonder about someone like me if you're from a war-torn country where children sadly die fairly often, and where childbirth itself is still a fairly difficult, sometimes dangerous process. Or from a country where family and relationship structures are highly controlled and norms adhered to because of what is considered culturally acceptable. I question these, too, and sometimes have "interesting" discussions with my students.

But to have such an attitude in the U.S., or some other post-industrial nation is, in my opinion, a failure to step outside of the reproduction box to see that not everyone needs to get married and have children to be well-adjusted and happy. I say this more firmly because there has been much more talk about accepting alternative or complimentary approaches to living and being in countries like the U.S. We like to tell other nations we are democratic, open, free, etc. And yet, we still seem to really like our white picket fence, two children, car in the big garage fantasy. So much so that many of us go around questioning and subtly or not so subtly go around shaming those who either don't fit that norm now, or who never wanted to fit that norm in the first place.

3. Are you gay? Maybe even just a little bit?

Lines like this reveal so much. The heterosexual norm is so easy to threaten that simply being an older single raises alarms. And notice how there's a not so subtle bias playing out in lines like this, which link "not normal" with being gay. The same may be said when the word gay is replaced with lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or any other sexual minority. I have a friend who went on a date with someone who questioned him repeatedly about his sexuality solely because he works as a hairdresser. She couldn't believe - because she failed to step out of cultural stereotypes - that he could be both a male hairdresser and interested in women.

And what if someone is part of the GLBT community? Somehow, getting a confirmation on such a question teaches you nothing about why someone is single. I have another friend who has spent much of her adult life single, and really quite content being single, and has only in the past few years started dating a bit. Although she has been attracted to both men and women in the past, she often chose to focus on the work and studying she was doing, and really didn't feel she was missing out on something by not dating.

4. Aren't you terribly lonely? How do you do it?

This line of thinking is understandable in some ways. Most of us want a close companion to share our lives with. And yes, sometimes I feel lonely, but not nearly as much as some people seem to think I would given my situation. However, there is still strong assumptions behind thoughts like this. First, that people want to be coupled at all times, and can barely handle it when they are not. And two, that those who say they are just fine without a partner are somehow lying or maladjusted. Or, as a few have suggested to me, maybe "you should become a monk." In other words, being along like this as 30 plus adult somehow is linked with a spiritual calling in some people's minds. This is not to say that such a link is never true, but it suggests the deep split we often have when it comes to sexuality and relational intimacy on the one hand, and spirituality on the other hand.

I find all of this very curious, and yet clearly it's reflective of not only cultural issues with people that don't "fit in," but also an example of how strongly our minds want to pin things down, have solid answers about what reality is and how it works. A single man in his thirties raises a few eyebrows. A single woman in her thirties seems to raise a few more eyebrows. A single person who's gender you can't quite define raises many eyebrows. And this seems more so when these people have no children. Single mothers and fathers get a lot of grief, too, but the children are markers of normalcy for them. I don't have that kind of marker, and I'm not even sure I want to. And saying this, some might wonder what I think of children, as if the two issues have to be linked.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Marrige and Happiness: Why the National Marriage Project's Study is Not Trustworthy

There's been a fascinating debate on Evan Katz's blog about a recent study conducted by the University of Virgina's National Marriage Project. To be honest, this study strikes me as an obnoxiously biased, manipulative document designed to promote Judeo-Christian centric, nuclear families. The Institute for American Values, which runs the Marriage Project where the study came from, is largely funded by two foundations, the John Templeton and the Bradley, that are widely recognized as promoting neo-conservative and Christian conservative viewpoints. Furthermore, the Institute has a decades-long track record of actively lobbying the U.S. Congress and White House to promote their views on marriage and family, something that former Presidents' Clinton and Bush did regularly during their time in office.

Evan happens to like the study, regardless of it's potential issues. Given that he runs a business that caters to women seeking marriage, it makes sense that he would promote positive views of marriage on his blog. However, I argued in the comment below that this particular study isn't even very hopeful for a lot marriage-minded people, never mind those who aren't interested in marriage.

Perhaps one of the challenges here is that a lot of see the very limited agenda of the researchers, and have a hard time letting go of that. I know I do. One other thing I didn’t mention above was that somewhere in their research, I read a statement saying young men “need marriage” as a “civilizing factor,” something I find insulting as a man in his mid-30s who has never been married. The more I read of their research, the more I felt that they actually have a pretty negative view of people as individuals, and basically are pushing for heterosexual people to get married and have children so that said group can “save” society from the rest of us. Furthermore, the entire thing is tiered so that married, “church going” couples are presented as the best model. The gushing about church-going husbands being “more attentive” and more “committed” to their wives took the cake for me, but there were plenty of other choice moments.

It wasn’t terribly hard for me to think up an opposite set of conclusions for this study. Just replace married church going couples with single atheists in terms of most happy. Here’s a controversial study that concluded that non-religious folks have “better sex lives.” And then there’s Bella DePaulo, who is constantly advocating that single folks are happier in a manner that might considered opposite the Marriage Project folks. Those are just two examples of what I’d see as opposite extremes. I think the sex study has some valid points, and Bella is fascinating. However, in both cases, the strong biases and agenda’s present are difficult to ignore. And I also think that the sex study researchers had a pretty negative, stereotypical view of religious folks, and Bella’s writing isn’t terribly kind to married folks.

Which leads me to my major point. When research comes to such narrow conclusions, ones that suggest the vast majority of people aren’t doing life right, and that in order to do it right, they need to do X, Y, or Z, it’s hard not either feel bad about yourself if you don’t fit, or to be very resistant to that research’s conclusions. It makes sense to me that you’d share research that would help your clients and readers who want to get married feel more confident that marriage is worth doing. It just seems to me that this particular study offers a very narrow picture of what a “happy marriage” consists of, and is likely to leave a lot of readers – ones who want to get married or want to improve their marriage – out in the cold.

One thing I want to agree with from the study is the emphasis they placed on basing relationships on generosity and service. It makes sense to me to link happiness and well-being to generosity and service, and so while I greatly disagree with most of the study, I applaud that particular piece of it.

What do you think of all this? If you read some of the study, do you agree with it?