Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Bitter Dating Crowd

Injustice collecting is one notable way that partners create and hold on to strong feelings of animosity toward each other. Injustice collecting is a psychological process whereby we gather and accumulate an inventory of grievances concerning our subjective perceptions of having been mistreated by others or by the circumstances of our life. Injustice collecting reflects our unconsciousness interest in remaining stuck in negativity.

Although blogger Peter Michaelson wrote the above in relation to married couples, I actually think it's applicable to all of us. In fact, something I have been thinking about recently is how single people often run their dating (or non-dating) lives based upon a heap of collected injustices from their past, expecting that somehow they'll find a person that will never "wrong them." Which is impossible. And which points to one of the reasons why these folks remain single.

So, what are we talking about here? It's important to note that the "injustice collecting" Michaelson describes above is not focused on violent or abusive partners. He's not, from what I can tell anyway, trying to psychoanalyze away the pain and suffering that come from being in an abusive relationship. What he's really getting at are all the little, innocent things people get annoyed by, or irritated with. Or the minor transgressions that are elevated in the mind into major violations.

When it comes to what might be called the bitter dating crowd, what you find is an increasingly rigid view of what's right and what's wrong, coupled with a long, internalized list of possible offenses to be on the lookout for. Instead of entering a new dating situation with fresh eyes, the bitter dater has one hand firmly placed on the rejection button.

The woman who is 15 minutes late is rejected because she "must be inconsiderate, just like X who never cared about my time at all."

The man who fails to compliment my new dress "is probably just like that ass I dated two years ago who never really loved me."

The guy who doesn't display the same love you have for kittens "is probably an animal hater, and I'm not dating another one of those."

The woman who doesn't display the same love you have for the Lakers "is probably a sports hater, and will nitpick me every time I wanna watch the game."

These are kind of ridiculous extremes perhaps, but the reality is that the majority of "injustices" people speak about in the realm of dating don't have much more substance to them. They are minor actions being linked to long term projections about who the person is, and how they behave in their partnerships. At best, they are poorly researched guesses. At worst, they are essentially erasing the uniqueness of your date by equating him or her with someone from the past. Or with some gender based abstraction.

Having been through my share of dating struggles over the years, I'm well aware of the fact that it feels better to quickly reject, than to face the possibility of having to do it later, after you've been together awhile. Furthermore, it's a hell of a lot more easier to place the blame on the other person's "character defects," than to sit with the mystery of why things didn't work out. Because often it really isn't totally clear why a relationship worked or didn't work. Why a first date didn't lead to a second. And the more that we admit that whatever conclusions we come to are partial, the more likely it is that we will be open, available, and ready when the right person comes along.


  1. Maybe this is primarily confined to younger daters? I mean I believe it's possible, but my experience, talking to the divorced & middle-aged, is that the problems that lead to guardedness & rejection are generally pretty damn serious. A guy trying to drag a woman into various nonstop perversions because his life's centered on porn, and he's got this vast library and a whole secret extracurricular hookup life. Mental illness of the kind that leads to repeat inpatient hospitalizations. Alcoholism and drug addiction. Violence. Revelations of gayness or wives that never actually were divorced. Financial secretiveness on the way to ruin.

    After which, of course, people say, "Why didn't I see the warning signs? How was I so blind?" Because you always get these geniuses saying, "Well, something must've been wrong with you, because you picked him. Off to the shrink with you unless you want to repeat this mistake endlessly." In the end, what really happens is that you learn to keep your ears pricked up for the sound and quality of things characteristic of your earlier disaster.

    Is it unreasonable? Mm...maybe, maybe not. A guy shows some sign of not taking care of himself: overweight, no exercise, medical condition ignored. Hey, people are human, right? Shouldn't be a deal, minor cosmetic thing. And yet repeat experience teaches me that where a guy doesn't take care of himself, much more serious problems than a size 40 waist are involved. Things that are going to make for a miserable relationship, and possibly the expectation that someone else will look after him. Resentment/despair/self-loathing when others (like me) are energetic and successful. Willful blindness to reality (like the nutritional content of that ghastly thing he just ordered).

    If pickiness is really an excuse for not finding someone, then that's another story. But if it's to do with not lining up for a ticket on Titanic II, I see the wisdom.

  2. I don't think it's exclusive to the younger set. The thing is that what I see a lot of are people choosing to take those yellow flags (like weight, time management, etc.) and automatically extending them into a total picture of a person. Not only is it unfair, but it's a good way to eliminate potentially quality partners.

    The examples you give are extremes. If you know someone has one of these issues, or you have enough evidence to guess that they do, then certainly it's time to move on. And sometimes it only takes one date to learn enough to say "next."

    The thing about keeping your guard up is that if you are too focused on not getting hurt, you'll never really see the person you are dating. There has to be balance between self-protection and being open enough to meet someone. That's going to look somewhat different for each of us, but I do think that, in general, if your mind is focused only on avoiding disaster dates, you'll probably get nowhere.

    Past experience is a helpful guide, but today's date is today's date. They may or may not be like the person you dated in the past. Unless someone displays some truly reckless/problematic behavior right away, you really don't know.

    If all you have are isolated superficial indicators, it's really more intelligent to spend more time getting to know someone before making a more definitive decision. The things you point to in your second to last paragraph are - together - a pattern. Being overweight, combined with poor eating decisions, displays of resentment/self loathing, etc. Any one of those things in isolation on a single date or couple of dates doesn't mean a lot in my view. Whereas the combination of them, even if you only go on one date, says plenty.

    That's really my main point. That being on the lookout for patterns, as opposed to isolated behaviors that remind you of someone from the past, is a more effective approach to dating.

  3. "The examples you give are extremes."

    I wish this were true. These sorts of things turn out to be shockingly common. "We were great, and then we just sort of...lost it, I guess," isn't something I hear much from single mothers. Which makes sense. People don't generally break up their children's families over a sense that this nice person they're married to just isn't really so much their soulmate anymore. People will on the other hand try to hang on through significant hardship in order to preserve a family for their kids.

    Like, for instance, the couple on the corner here with the severely autistic kid. Most marriages involving disability break up, and these guys did, for a while, too; the woman eventually came back, maybe because it's the only place where she has a support network for her child and her English isn't great. Apart from that, let's see, going down the block, reasons for divorce: Violence, alcoholism and abandonment; mental illness disability; violence. Nice middle-class professional neighborhood. Around the corner, sex addiction. Wander online, to single-mom boards, and you'll get the same stories and worse. These things, so not rare.

    Really, women don't call it quits over trivial things when kids are involved. On the whole. The things my married friends deal with.. these are things you'd only swallow if you were already married and had kids growing up. I do think, though, that these kinds of disasters are unusual when you're young, healthy, and single/childless. Then you're just talking about a creepy guy or gal whom you drop posthaste, move on, shake it off. It's different when you have no choice but to maintain close contact with the person, when there are commitments, children, legal issues. Then you begin to see what kind of damage those problems can do. And you'll avoid the merest hint of them the next time.

    I think behaviors are probably more complex than you're giving them credit for -- call it a smell. Something that reminds you powerfully of a place you've been before. My experience? Ignore it only if you want to find out you were right in the first place.

    I think all you're seeing is that people get more experienced as they go, and also that while people may be unique, we're all working from the same costume box of behaviors, crazinesses, etc. It's very mix-and-match. And while it's true that sometimes the good guy's wearing the long twirly moustache, most of the time, no.

    I think also you have to ask why people should put themselves out the way you suggest, ignoring a certain congruence with disaster. What's the cost? Evan, for instance, doesn't want to hear about demoralization, but it's a real thing, and a woman who needs to keep herself together because she's raising kids, or responsible for something else serious, can't afford to hang around getting chronically punched in the nose by guys' various problems. She's not the only one who'll be affected by it.

    I can hear the steam coming out your ears, btw, because I'm still talking about patterns, not isolated behaviors. So here: I'm saying there are no isolated behaviors. Things are of a piece with other things. The question is one of polysemy. Can the thing you're looking at reasonably be of a piece of *good* things. Well, let's have a look at being fat. Hang on -

  4. Okay. Posit the overweight dude who meets me for a date.

    Why are people overweight? Lots of reasons, but the main ones are still too much food, not enough exercise. So here's the flow chart:

    - Is the guy on steroids for an autoimmune disease? Yes? Okay, though understand that the disease is going to have real effects on your life, if things go well with this guy: emotional, relational, financial. Do you want this? Boy, he'd have to be some kind of superstar.
    - Is the guy on psych meds that blew him up? Yes? Uh...all apologies to NAMI, but you probably don't want this unless you have natural talent as a psych nurse.
    - Is the guy a boozer? Abort, abort.
    - Does he just shovel food into his mouth indiscriminately? Yes? Why has he got no respect for his body, then? Is he in denial about the aging/death business? Anxious, a compulsive eater? No willpower or selfdiscipline? Will do anything to please his mom? Eats what other people say he should, afraid to assert himself? Any of these will mean trouble.
    - Just likes how things taste and doesn't want to be bothered with nutrition/fitness reading? Well, he's too incurious for you, but will eventually be a bear, then grateful, to some woman who saves his life for him.

    As I think about it, the only reason I can think of that passes muster with me is "Man was on a kamikaze mission on some tremendous project or goal and lost sight of his own body while doing it, has finished, recovered, and said 'oh fuck, I'm the doughboy', and is in the midst of applying the same intensity and focus to getting himself back into shape & healthy again, but the fact is that once you're fat it's damned hard to lose weight, and sometimes impossible."

    Now, that's me. Maybe someone else is fine with serious depression, or chronic physical illness, or a certain obliviousness to future harm. Wouldn't mind living with those things if she loved the guy. Me, no.

    You could do the same with "15 minutes late". I'm almost always late. To me punctuality's like pantyhose or underwear that's too tight, and I hate paying attention to the clock instead of the urgencies of whatever it is I'm working on or enjoying. Is it rational? No. Respectful of others' time? No. Someone who ditched me because I was 15 minutes late for the first date would totally be making the right decision -- this is someone for whom punctuality is important, someone who needs a level of anxiety and clock-awareness and hoop-jumping willingness he's definitely not going to get from me. I appreciate the reasons for his indignation, but I don't share his feelings about them, and there's a host of other things I'll do that likewise appall him or drive him up a wall -- I'll be impolitic in front of colleagues, or whatever. If he doesn't call me, he's doing the right thing. For him.

  5. I don't know. It's so easy to come up with reasons to reject people. I am speaking about balance, not being wide open and risky. I tend to be fairly selective about who I choose to date, even as a single man with no children. Being selective is fine. But I still say that if you mostly are looking for flaws in someone, that's what you'll find.

    "Then you're just talking about a creepy guy or gal whom you drop posthaste, move on, shake it off. It's different when you have no choice but to maintain close contact with the person, when there are commitments, children, legal issues. Then you begin to see what kind of damage those problems can do. And you'll avoid the merest hint of them the next time." This makes total sense to me. There are behaviors and attitudes that remind me of Ex's and which tend to send me packing when I experience them on dates. And yes, it's going to be more intense for anyone who has to keep in contact with an Ex because of their children.

    Unlike Evan, I'm not terribly interested in defending men in general. The way I see it, there are plenty of men and women who don't have their shit together, make poor choices, and believe in unrealistic stories about what relationships should be. You almost seem the opposite of Evan sometimes, overly defending women and not speaking at all about how women are contributing to dysfunctional situations.

    A lot of this blog is about learning to pay closer attention, so that you actually see and experience what's happening. That includes recognizing that you are being impacted by someone's smell, or by the location of the date, or any number of seemingly incidental things. I just don't think it's smart to let your past dictate your present, no matter how miserable that past was. I know many people who have broken free of violent, abusive relationships and found something so much better, primarily by learning to see more clearly, have more intelligent boundaries, and have much more self-respect. And I know others who have learned to really enjoy being single when they are single. That's really what I'm focused on. Balancing reality, however difficult it might be, with possibility.

  6. I did say the other day that romance is the rawest form of human existence. The games we play to avoid pain--it's like we are reacting on animal instincts.

  7. Kristina - yeah, it's so true. The thing is that a lot of times, the work to avoid is so exhausting and painful that it trumps whatever pain would have come if we were just more open and faced reality.

  8. Nathan...I love this article. Seriously. In a world of bitter daters sometimes I feel I am awash at sea, drunk on optimism and there isn't another boat in sight with the same "let's have an adventure" may be a bit of a labored analogy but you get the idea.

    And the truth is, all it takes is a little bit of logic to know that you can't hold one person accountable for the actions of another. Simple. Case closed.

    Now I rarely like to engage with the comments of other readers (but I find I have something to contribute so here goes)...

    Amy, while on the one hand I understand where you're coming from...a fat guy shows up to a date and you want to know why he's fat. But here's the thing, you would've already known he was if that's not a thing you can deal with, this hypothetical situation would never happen.

    That being said, all those women you talk about staying with their husbands because of the be honest...their idiots. Yes, it sucks that they made poor choices and couldn't see what assholes their husbands are (or simply the incongruousness in compatibility the relationship) but staying because of children is a bit like drinking while pregnant...I thought we figured this stuff out in the's bad for the babies, so to speak.

    Finally...and here's the real clincher...I think you're actually defending/discussing two different things here. While Nathan (assuming I myself have understood the premise of the article correctly) is suggesting that people do not judge others based upon the actions of further others of the past, you are arguing against an unstated argument that we don't judge people for anything ever, which is entirely different.

    Using the example of lateness, if you showed up to a date 15 minutes late (having not called or texted) and your date sat there fuming thinking about his ex and how she was so inconsiderate and just like her, a woman who never cared for anyone but herself, and then decided to leave, this would be holding the "sins of the past" against you, if you will.

    Now imagine the "you" in this scenario really is an inconsiderate dick who doesn't care about the time of others, you're watching the end of your favorite show instead of getting ready, a friend calls and you chat, you lollygag your way through the whole thing and then show up 15 minutes late. The "you" of course in this scenario really is a huge dick (much like the dude's ex).

    Only here's the thing. What if the "you" wasn't a part of this date and it was "me" meeting this fellow. He's still fuming, I'm still late. Only what if I'm almost always on time, I show up for interviews 20 minutes early, when I say I have plans with someone I always stick to them, my word is my bond and I value you the time of others as it should be valued, with respect. Only, the thing is, I was so nervous for this date and wanted everything to be just perfect that I spent too long on my hair and makeup and am now running 15 minutes late. Certainly I would be likely to text or call and let my date know, but let's assume that I'm embarassed I'm late and thus just spend my time speeding to get their rather than calling. I show up and my date has left. Because he assumed I was a dick like his ex when in fact it was my "caring too much" and not too little that caused me to be late.

    Just a thought. :)

  9. As someone who is almost always early or on time, that example totally resonates with me. In terms of women staying in marriages for the children, it's a complicated issue. Financial dependency is sometimes involved. In cases of abuse and domestic violence, their is a great deal of fear of being harmed or even killed involved. While I don't think staying in bad marriages for the sake of the children is really helpful to the kids, I understand why some end up staying.

    Back to the general post, I just think that if people want to date, and hope to find a good partner at some point, then they have to learn how to move beyond thinking the worst of others. Sometimes, I get the sense that a single mistake, or even simply a single misunderstanding during a conversation is enough for a rejection these days. Because of online dating, speed dating, singles events and the rest, some folks are always thinking they have endless options and that every last item on their magical perfect partner list will be ticked off by the next date or the one after that.

    The thing is that the best partners often have things about them we didnt dream of. And some of what we think we want actually turns out to be what we don't want. It's amazing though how some will cling to their ideas about a perfect partner, even after being shown ample evidence that not only does such a person not exist, but even if he or she did, you probably wouldn't be the best match anyway.

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  11. So if your overweight, even due to an autoimmune illness, your un-dateble and should pretty much just slit your wrists, stick you fingers in a light socket, and dowse yourself with gasoline and light yourself on fire? Anything to stop being a burden to those around you? If there was any justice in this world you'd have a fatal case of lupus within the next month.

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