Monday, February 27, 2012

Face it: You Probably Love Drama as Much as the Next Person

When I was steeped in the brew of online dating, one phrase that was commonplace amongst the profiles was "No drama." Sometimes it was put as simple as that. Other times, the writer would go on and on about the lying, cheating, arguing, fussing, and fighting dudes they had dated in the past. I don't have enough experience reading mens' profiles to know if similar kinds of comments are frequent, but I don't think they are all that different from women on this issue.

Most of us, on some level, know that drama isn't helpful to our relationships. Too much of it is a major drain on our time and energy. It undermines trust. It sometimes leads to overt violence, and generally leads to misery, regardless of its form.

However, how many of you can honestly say you don't get sucked into relationship drama very much? How many of you feel good about how you handle the regular ups and downs of a relationship?

I'm guessing the numbers aren't very high.

Let's get more specific. Say you have been dating someone for awhile. You have gotten to know each other to the point where you think you "really know" the other person. You are even to the level where you can sometimes predict how they will act. How they might think about this or that. In fact, maybe it's more than sometimes. Maybe you usually know what's going to happen.

Every longer relationship I have ever been in has hit a place like this. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about my partner. And she often seemed to think the same.

What happens? A level of boredom and/or inertia would set in. It was often hard to tell the difference between one week and the next. One conversation and the next. The same themes would come up, get rehashed again and again.

One challenge during my first long term relationship, for example, was that I didn't get along very well with my girlfriend's best friend. We just didn't have much in common, and I often struggled to maintain any sort of conversation with her. Now, this wouldn't have been such an issue if it weren't for the fact that nearly every weekend I went to see my girlfriend, her best friend would call up, wanting to do something. Sometimes, I wondered if some jealousy was driving this, as well as a desire to help break us up. However, I hadn't learned yet how to effectively address conflict in a conversation with a partner, so I mostly kept my frustration to myself, until it eventually spilled over.

One Friday evening, my girlfriend and I were just finishing dinner when the phone rang. I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, and was thinking that it would be really great to just stay in, watch a movie, and make love. (Why the long gap between visits? We lived in different cities at that point, something that grew problematic fairly quickly.)

She picked up the phone. It was S, her best friend, wanting to play something closely resembling celebrity charades. I felt myself tensing up, knowing what was coming.

"Hey Nathan," my girlfriend called from the other room. "S. wants us to come over."


She keeps talking for another minute or so, before saying "What was that?"

"Oh, Christ, I guess so."

More conversation, and then "We don't have to ..."

"You know I hate that game!" (Actually, I pretty much hated her best friend at that point, but the game was a much easier, safer target.)

"What game?"

She starts talking again, reassuring S. that it will be ok.

"That damned celebrity game!"

"Come on," she said, covering the phone receiver, "I'll give you something good when we get back home."

"Every time I come over, we have to go over there. Every time!"

She goes back to the conversation with S., while I sit stewing in the other room.

After a few minutes, she walks in and says "I told her we would be over in 45 minutes. We have enough time to ..."

"Oh, forget it. Let's just go."

She sat down on her bed, and we sat in silence for about 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually, I reluctantly agreed to go, and we went.

I can imagine now how torn she probably felt, that time, and so many others. Wanting to please her best friend, and also me. Given that both of us could be pretty stubborn and difficult, experiences like that must have caused her a lot of grief.
And yet, it had also become so routine that I had come to expect it. The phone call. The invite to do something I didn't want to do. The sex bribe, or rushed sex before heading out. I knew that I wanted things to be different, but didn't know how to go about making them different. For a long time, I was too afraid of losing her. Eventually, though, I was simply too afraid of being alone, and having to start over on the relationship front.

I am not someone who seems to thrive on drama in some peculiar way. The kind of thing that happened in the example above has always felt torturous to me, something I tried to avoid even while doing it.

And yet sometimes, I have picked fights in an attempt to either change the situation or end the relationship. With the same girlfriend, towards the end of our time together, I chose to argue the merit of Christmas presents. She had asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and after I said nothing, I went on to stress how commercialized the holidays have gotten, and why I just didn't like it anymore. I actually hadn't like Christmas for years, and was, by that time, really feeling like our relationship needed to be done. But I couldn't quite end it. So we fought about presents instead.

Sometimes, I have engaged in internal dramas judging my partner or myself. She never listens to me. She's always late. I'm never good enough. I am always rejected in the end. In fact, during that argument over gifts, I actually felt like I didn't deserve anything. That I wasn't a good enough boyfriend to be getting a present from her.

The same lack of self-esteem that brought those thoughts to bear, was exactly what was behind my inability to speak candidly about how I felt whenever S. would call.

Drama operates differently for each of us.

What's below the drama?

A thwarted desire to grow is often there. For self growth. For growth in my partner. For growth and maturing of the relationship itself.

Grief. Sometimes, I realize that something isn't going to change. Or that it won't change anytime soon. Years ago, I was struggling with anger, and it became clear to both me and my girlfriend at the time that I would need to do a lot more work in order to be a more calm, less reactive partner.

Confusion. I have come to think that some of the drama we bring into our lives is completely tied to something we are confused about. Maybe we don't know what we want and so we up the ante. Or perhaps we do know what we want, but can't figure out how to get it.

These are a few core examples of what I have witnessed in myself after reflecting on relationship drama.

How about you? What do you think the drama you have experienced was about? As always, any comments or questions on anything in the post are welcome.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Trying to "Be More Feminine or Masculine" is a Trap

I have been thinking a lot about gender lately. How so much of what we think is "biological" is not. How a lot of social scientists seem obsessed these days with doing studies to "prove" those biological narratives. And how people love to gobble up said studies, never mind that they tend to be riddled with sexism, and driven by patriarchal notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Here is a quote from a recent post on the blog And That's Why You're Single:

I was working with two women on their profiles yesterday. Both women made it a point to express their love of baseball and beer or golf and sailing. When I explained to them that most men don’t see that as a selling point, they asked why. My answer was pretty simple: because those things aren’t feminine. That and most men aren’t looking for someone to go golfing with or to attend a Yankees game and throw back a few brews. They can do that with their guy friends. It’s not a bad thing if a woman enjoys those activities. It’s just not something that scores them points in a dating profile or on a the first few dates.

This is the mistake so many women make in their profiles. They try too hard to seem like “one of the guys.” They talk up their jobs, their financial security, all the athletic activities they do, and they don’t showcase their more uniquely feminine traits.

I'm struck by what feels like a paradox to me. On the one hand, the advice to offer more "feminine" qualities is probably fairly good, given current social conditions. The majority of men (and women for that matter) do still seem to be operating on the gender constructions we have inherited.

However, I couldn't in good conscious give such advice. I seriously question the ways in which different activities get attached to "feminine" and "masculine." A love of baseball doesn't have anything to do with being a man or being a woman, and it's silly to perpetuate such ideas. More to the point, though, I am entirely exhausted with the deeper set of assumptions that get tied to gender. For example, the idea that women are more "emotional" than men. Or the converse that men are more "rational." Underlying both of those statements is the view that reason and logic are superior to emotions, something I completely disagree with.

Given this quandary, what might be some good advice to people on the dating scene?

Here are a few ideas I have. I encourage readers to chime in with others.

1. Learn how to tell a well rounded story about yourself. Forget about all this feminine/masculine, alpha/beta nonsense. Who are you? What are you passionate about? What motivates you to get up every morning?

2. Become skilled in speaking about what you want in a relationship. Just saying you want a long term relationship or to get married isn't enough. What qualities within a relationship are most important to you? How slow or fast do you want it to move? What are a few deal breakers?

3. Do your best to let go of comparisons to others. This is generally good advice. What I am speaking about here specifically, though, is the ways in which people tend to treat dating these days as a competition. When you think you are competing for someone's attention and interest, you tend to build a story about yourself that "looks good" and "sells," instead of just being yourself. In fact, I remember awhile back while I was doing online dating revising my profile based on the thought that it was better to downplay many of the most important things in my life because they aren't at all mainstream interests. All that lead to was meeting women who didn't share enough of my worldview to even maintain a decent conversation.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Longevity in the Past = Mature Dater Today?

This post and the discussion that follows about signs someone might be a good bet for being in a committed relationship is worth a read. Both for the positive points it makes, such as suggesting asking yourself if someone seems emotionally mature or not, and also the ones I believe aren't effective. Let's take a closer look at two points that appear to be good signs on the surface, but actually aren't in and of themselves.

1. Holding the same job for several years.

On the one hand, it demonstrates that someone is responsible enough to show up to work, get something done, and keep in the good graces of their boss(es). At the same time, it can also be a demonstration that someone has zero interest in growing as a person, doesn't have a terribly diverse set of skills or interests, or is more invested in being comfortable than in challenging themselves.

To be honest, I personally don't put a lot of stock in someone's job history when it comes to dating. I, myself, have been everything from the guy in the same job for several years to unemployed for periods of time. My ability to commit or not commit to someone really hasn't changed with my job status. It's always been related to other factors, such as the level to which I was or wasn't over relationships from the past.

2. Having long term friendships is a positive sign.

Honestly, this one feels the same as the last. Some people simply maintain the same old friendships from their younger days, not because those friendships are mutually enriching, but because they are comfortable and provide a buffer from loneliness, among other things. In addition, there are those who have long term friendships that are primarily focused either around things like shared substance abuse, or are connections with single dimensions (such as guys who love the same sports teams, but really have nothing else in common.)

Overall, it's more important to get a sense of the quality behind any longevity in someone's personal history, instead of taking it as an immediate sign that someone has their shit together. In this age of consumer driven dating, it's really easy to get suckered by what turn out to be superficial criteria. Instead of ticking things off your list, go deeper and see beyond the flash to the substance (or lack of substance) within.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Conflict

If you’re someone who pushes away your partner whenever you are suffering, odds are that don’t have much trust in the relationship. And if you are someone who doesn’t give any space, who thinks that any “alone time” during a period of struggle is a problem, then odds are that you probably don't trust the relationship.

The key to dealing with challenges in any relationship is balance. You have to learn to give your partner enough space and time to process. And/or cool down if he or she is really upset and can't handle a conversation right now. You also have to learn how to re-engage, and not simply hide out until things "blow over." Because more often then not, something that goes unaddressed will return later, sometimes in a much stronger, more difficult way.

It's very much the case that I am one of those guys who needs time and space to process difficulties. Not to say I can't handle conflict in the moment, but more that for bigger issues, I tend to be slower to understand what it is that's going on with myself. As a student of meditation, yoga, and other spiritual disciplines, I naturally gravitate towards being alone with myself during difficult times, and then later talking things out and making decisions with the help of friends, family, and my partner, if I'm with someone.

This kind of approach hasn't always gone over well with the women I have been with. At least one long term girlfriend wanted to hash it all out right away, even if it got really messy and confusing. Now, there's nothing wrong with messy. Sometimes, it's absolutely the best idea to hash things out in the here and now. However, when things devolve into yelling, insults, and wildly off accusations, I think a different approach is called for.

One thing I have learned through all of this is how to be more vocal about what I need during such times. And yet, when I'm feeling weakened by something difficult going on in life, it's just not as easy to muster up the energy to say "I really would like this from you." Or "Could you not do that?" So, it's good to practice doing this kind of thing when you feel good, and when you're partner is doing also doing well.

In the end, the real balance point in a relationship is finding a way to honor your partner's natural way of coping, while also doing the same for your own. Sometimes, you have to adapt a bit, moving towards how your partner does something. Other times, it's your partner who moves towards your way.

This is the dance of a healthy relationship. Conflict is, if handled well, an opportunity for each person to grow.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

People Are Too Into "Having Options" These Days

I just talked to a friend of mine who has been seeing someone for about 2 1/2 months now. A little while back, he asked her if she was interested in a relationship with him, and she said there is "potential."

In a blog post I read this morning, the author wrote about having too many options, but also liking to date folks with busy schedules and who aren't "needy" or "clingy."

On another blog, several men complained about not getting enough responses from women online, and yet, at least a few seemed quick to reject the idea of making a commitment, which makes me wonder what their dating profiles say.

A few weeks back, I read a story about a woman who fell in love rather quickly, and then started having a few doubts about the relationship. Almost the entire comment thread was filled with people telling her that the guy was probably hiding something, or that falling in love quickly is always trouble, or that she might get burned. All of which has some truth to it, but at the same time, so many of the comments seemed built on projections,and were not responding to the given story.

I think many of us are addicted to options. To keeping the door open in case something else better is found around the corner. We've been marketed to in this way endlessly. Our schooling is filled with messages that having choices is the pinnacle of freedom.

All the while, when we have too many choices, we tend to suffer, feel overwhelmed, and often choose to stay in limbo. It's like the obsession with multitasking, which seems like a good skill, but which research is proving to be much more a liability than anything else.

You can't develop a deep, conscious relationship with someone if you're juggling two, three, or four others at the same time. You also can't develop that relationship if part of you believes someone better might come along someday.

Perhaps someone better will come along someday, but what about RIGHT NOW? Where are you now?

In the end, you can't really love someone if your multitasking your relationship. It's just fine if you're just into something casually. But if you want something more, you're fooling yourself behaving in ways like this.