Friday, September 27, 2013

What is Lying? What is the Truth? And How To Listen in Your Relationships

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?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

10 No Nonsense Guidelines for Dating and Relationships

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 even owe you respect.

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 sometimes. Or that you don't know.

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. With that said, it's also true that many of the problems you are facing in dating or in your relationship are partly collective in nature. People are fond of biological differences arguments these days, but social conditioning, gender stereotypes, the straightjacket of patriarchal norms (which brings misery regardless of your gender), economic conditions, and so many other things play a role in our struggles. We can take responsibility for our actions and reactions, but it's not all about "you" or "I" or even "the other person" in the end.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. Life is short. Slow down. Enjoy what you have. Don't get too caught up in what may or may not happen in the future, and let the past teach you, not control you.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Fantasy of Love and Commitment Before Sex

I have been following the comments on post by Evan Marc Katz, and find myself wanting to write my own post about some of the issues coming up.

EMK's post centers around women offering clear boundaries to men who want to have sex with them. Specifically, he's saying that if you are someone who can't compartmentalize or emotionally detach around sex, then it's a damn good idea to wait until you have some kind of commitment from the other person. (Notice that I'm moving this beyond heterosexual folks, since I think it can apply regardless of sexuality.) Furthermore, it's really helpful to communicate your boundaries to the other person in a way that isn't shaming, blaming, or otherwise going to put out someone who might be a great candidate for a long term partnership or marriage. (Obviously, we're dealing with monogamy here. Some of this stuff may be useful for polyamorous folks or those interested in casual connections, but a lot of it, not so much.)

Anyway, the crux of the discussion seems to be around what the definition of "commitment" is, or whether waiting to have sex with someone is about getting a commitment or about something else, like fear or an overbearing moral system.

Here's what I think. If we are talking about a matter of weeks or a few months wait, then the only "commitment" being made is that of being sexually monogamous with the other person. That's it. You can delude yourself into believing that the other person is making a bigger leap and actually is "committed to you as a person," but the fact is they still don't know you. Odds are you haven't, as a couple, gone through any level of difficulties to assess how well you can work together or not when times are hard. You haven't spent nearly enough time to have a sense of the diversity in each others' personalities. To see the gamut of things each other is passionate about. The ways in which each other thrives, and also what all stresses each other out. Etc.

Which gets to another pivot point in the discussion over there. Love. If you have the view that you need to be in love with someone, and/or they with you before having sex, then you're going to be waiting a long time. Months. Perhaps longer. Real love doesn't comes in a matter of weeks, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. What a lot of people call "love" in the early stages of a relationship is lust. A hormonal rush. And a hell of a lot of projections and idealization.

In other words, you can have the story that you require someone to "commit to you," and "be in love with you," before having sex, but unless you're willing to wait several months or longer, all you're getting is a commitment for sexual monogamy and a willingness to give a relationship a try.

Neither of these guarantee anything lasting. They do not give you any real assurance that, when things get a little or lot tough, that the other person is going to stick around and try to work things out. If I had a dollar for every "couple" that committed to each other 1 month or 6 weeks after meeting, only to break up a few months later, I'd be astoundingly rich. It's happened to me more than once. That drunken haze of bliss, followed by a quick tumble down the rabbit hole of misery and "who the hell are you?" realizations, leading to a break up.

No matter what you do, there's going to be some risk. Even marrying someone provides no guarantee you'll grow old together.

Which is why I think some of these delusions about the "scale of commitment" being made before having sex (when it happens in the first few months), to be driven by fears of getting hurt. Of being rejected after you've emotionally bonded.

It's so much harder to accept the reality that the step being taken is a small one, important but still tenuous. You've probably eliminated most of the folks who just want casual sex, but that's about all you've done.

The bottom line is that we have to learn to be ok with the fact that this first stage of commitment is solely about being willing to give a relationship a try.

If you can't do that, then odds are you'll have a difficult time clearly seeing the rest of your relationship.

Clearly seeing where you're at with another person needs to begin at the beginning. Even if that clear seeing is scary. Better to face the fears as they arise, as opposed to letting them build behind a wall of fantasy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I Know You. Who are You?

When people talk about dating and the early stages of relationships, they often use phrases like "I want to get to know the other person. Or we're getting to know each other." Which is true in a certain sense. Or hopefully true anyway. Sometimes the person you get to know isn't the actual person, or is only a tiny sliver of that person. I think some folks are always hiding from the world, and aren't truly knowable in any shape or form.

However, there's another side to all of this. Namely, that each one of us is ultimately a mystery. Too vast to pin down.
Only knowable in a partial sense. Even partners of sixty years can, and should, surprise each other sometimes. If they don't, then they're probably not really "seeing" each other in the now. But more are living off of old images and memories of "who" the person is and how they are in the world.

So, it's helpful to balance seeking to get to "know" someone in the beginning, with a continuous curiosity and openness to the person right now. Too much wanting to know ends up fixing a certain image of them, just as we go about our day trying to fix certain images of situations we experience. Of course, you can also fall too much on the other side of the equation, just being in the now. Enjoying today with the other person, but never really gathering insights about who they are over the long haul.

An old girlfriend of mine used to say "I know you, I know you," but she really didn't, nor could I know her like that. Both of us believed those lines too much, and it probably was a main reason why the relationship didn't last.

Perhaps the aim is to be able to come to a place where you can say "I know you. Who are you?"

What do you think?