Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Photo credit: earl53 from morguefile.com
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 eventually trained myself to listen and pay attention closely - both to myself and whomever I am on a date with. If something felt off or sounded off, I would really cue in on that to see what's going on. Sometimes, it ended up being me reading a situation falsely, and sometimes it was a recognition that something was actually off. Regardless of what any given gut level feeling was, it wasn't enough anymore if someone had similar interests to me, a similar approach to life, or if there was some kind of "chemistry" there. The connection needed to pass the gut level test before I'd move into more seriousness about it. And I've been all the more happier since. Not only did I finally find an amazing partner, but also before that, I learned to trust my gut enough to end a few short term relationships that I would have stuck with (and suffered in) much longer in the past.
This bare attention can take some practice before you're able to do it well while during a date. However, even if you never get to the point where you're flowing between noting your reactions and engaging in conversation or activity with a date, you can still benefit from the practice. After the date, you can sit down and watch the various reactions that come up. Just watching them, not taking a side or trying to rationalize or apply a fixed meaning to them. Give it 10-15 minutes, just allowing yourself to have thoughts and feelings about the date come and go, and then note or write down anyone overall themes.
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 trust your gut responses? Your thoughts?
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Photo credit: click from morguefile.com
I haven't been terribly good at keeping up this blog over the past several months. My attention has been mostly elsewhere, but I also haven't had too much to say recently. Not out of lack of interest. In fact, I did a great workshop last month with a visiting teacher at my Zen center that gave me a lot to chew on when it comes to relationships. So, instead of pounding out sloppy, ill conceived posts, I'm sitting on it.
For those of you who have enjoyed my comments over at Evan Marc Katz's blog over the past few years, it looks like that is finished. I can't say for certain, but it seems like he's blocked me. I have tried to leave a handful of comments there in recent weeks, but they simply vanish. This started before his website overhaul, and right after I left a fairly negative comment about a post I felt was condescending to single folks, or anyone struggling in dating. It was one of those "married people are much happier" posts that, in my view, offer next to nothing in the way of support for anyone who isn't happily married.
Anyway, it's totally possible that there's something else going on. However, the fact that this not being able to post thing started after I left that comment makes me think he decided he'd had it with my comments. Regardless, it's not a terribly big deal to me. There are plenty of other places I can comment if I choose to. Plus, it gives me more time to offer up my own writing here - or elsewhere.
Speaking of other relationship bloggers, I really liked this post by Natalie over at Baggage Reclaim about dealing with people who disappear from your life, and then reappear suddenly wanting something. This issues goes far beyond romantic relationships, and definitely taps into any unresolved guilt or people pleasing tendencies you might have.
Awhile back, I had a former colleague asking out of the blue for help ending a project I had already given several years to. The organization her and I and others had started had slowly gone into the ground, and she decided that she needed to step in and direct the final close out efforts. Which was totally fine and good of her to do. However, when she came to me asking for my help, I declined. Multiple times. In large part because I was in the middle of leading a major project for my Zen center community's board, but also because I felt like I had given enough to the other organization. As I noticed a bit of guilt arising over saying no the first time, I realized that if I chose to help out it would only be to release that guilt and "look good" in the eyes of my former colleagues. It had nothing to do with genuinely wanting to offer my energy to the work at hand.
For me, in these kinds of situations, it's become important ask "What's motivating this desire to do something?" And if it seems to me that the motivation is guilt or "looking good" or some other form of people pleasing, then I do my best to say no. Which isn't always easy, but has become easier over time.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Have you ever dated someone with health issues? How about someone with heavy depression, anxiety, or something similar? My first long term relationship was challenged by the fact that my girlfriend had reoccurring tumors on the back of one of her legs. By the time we stopped dating, she had had 6-7 surgeries to deal with the issue, including 3 while we were together. In addition, towards the end of our relationship, her father developed some form of stomach cancer. I wasn't really equipped back then to face all of that. Perhaps it would have been different if we had a really strong connection, but we weren't the best match to begin with, and so when all the health issues cropped up, I struggled to be compassionate and supportive.
When I read this post today, I thought back to that relationship. And considered what I've learned since then.
Here's a short list of skills/qualities that I think are beneficial to sustaining healthy relationships, even when one partner is struggling.
1. Patience. It seems to me that no matter what else you do with your life, learning to cultivate true patience (as opposed to the grin and bear it kind) is essential to sustaining good relationships. One way to do this is through practices like meditation and slower forms of yoga. Another way specifically within a relationship is to pay attention to how you react to your partner's difficulties. If your partner gets sick, do you feel like your time is being wasted somehow? If your partner isn't able to go out on a fun date with you, do you feel slighted in any way? In other words, do you take things personally?
2. Impermanence. Recognizing and learning to embrace (or be ok with) the fact that nothing stays the same. Even the healthiest of folks will have days or weeks where they're run down, feeling depressed or confused, or are sick. That's all part of the deal in long term relationships.
3. Seeing health challenges as opportunities to learn. This one isn't easy. And in offering this, I'm not staying that, for example, you should stay with the person who is depressed for years for example. Or that you're obligated to become a lifelong caretaker for a partner who's increasing becoming disabled before your eyes. Many factors come into play. How long you've been together. The depth of your connection. Whether you've made a commitment (marriage or some other form) to each other or not. Regardless though, I have found that viewing health challenges as opportunities to learn has changed the way I handle illness in general. When I get sick now, I tend to accept it much faster. I slow down, and make the effort to take care of myself, and/or ask for help from others. Something I rarely did when I was younger. And this attitude spills over to when my partner gets sick or isn't feeling well. Offering support is an opportunity to grow your connection together. And being ok with not having much excitement for awhile is an opportunity to develop some more patience.
How about you? How do you deal with health challenges in a relationship?
Friday, October 11, 2013
Over at Baggage Reclaim, Natalie has a fine post from awhile back on overthinking and it's impact on relationships. This particular paragraph, early on in the piece, was really striking:
I have a friend who spent over a decade (yes you read that correctly) ruminating on her relationship. Every time we caught up about what was going on, she was trying to “work things out” or “figuring things out” or “deciding what the best thing to do is” and even “trying to avoid making a mistake”.
Having done this pattern in the past, I totally know how you can fall down that rabbit hole. Part of me knew six months into my first long term relationship that we were a poor match, for example, but I didn't have the experience and insight yet to overcome the fear of ending it and being alone. We stayed together over three years.
I have also been on the other side of this equation. Another long term girlfriend, instead of breaking up with me fully, asked for a month apart so she could "think about things." That seemed reasonable enough to me, and I wanted to give it one last shot myself, even though the previous several months had been fairly miserable. Then that month stretched into two, three, four, five months, with all of my attempts to meet her to have a conversation rebuffed. Finally, I just gave up, and moved on. And found out later that she had moved on long before I did, but for whatever reason, decided to keep answering my requests to meet with "I'm not ready to see you yet," instead of just telling me she was seeing someone else.
Over-thinking is a pattern that is self-focused. There's a shift from considering the relationship itself, to obsessing about imaginary "perfections." If you want to stay, you tend to fixate on how to make some small aspects of the relationship work really well. You think,if only we could spend X amount more time together. Or if only we could stop arguing about money. Or if only he would stop getting jealous. Or she would stop fussing over my drinking. Whatever the aspect, even if it's something major, there's a "magic bullet" quality to it. That if you just can fix this one thing, the rest will be ok.
On the other hand, if you want to leave, you tend to get focused on executing the "perfect" exit strategy. A friend of mine spent multiple years trying to catch her Ex consuming porn. Even though the relationship had long been dead, she wouldn't leave until she finally caught him. It didn't matter that they had been terribly incompatible for a long time. Or that porn use itself was little more than a symptom for a larger set of issues around sex for them. She needed this proof to justify leaving the relationship. Without that proof, she would have had to accept that there wasn't any one, easy reason for leaving. That things just didn't work out.
I'm all for thoughtfulness and spending the time needed to suss out what you really want and how you want to move forward. However, there comes a time when "thinking about your relationship" (if it's troubled) becomes a protective zone from reality.
How about you? Are you someone who over-thinks your relationships? Do you sit on the fence for weeks and months on end, wondering about the many what ifs? Have you dated people like this?
Friday, September 27, 2013
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.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
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
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.