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?