Monday, September 15, 2014

Better Relationships Through Balance

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You might notice that one of the underlying themes in much of my writing is balance. When our bodies are healthy, they are said to be "in balance." Experiencing homeostasis. The blood Ph level is hovering somewhere around 7.35. Body temperature right near 98.6 degrees F. Blood pressure rates vary a little bit more, but with all of these indicators, anything more than a slight shift can cause great disturbance.

The same can be said about human relationships. Whether we’re talking romantic relationships, friendships, family, or even relationships with co-workers, if you focus too much on the other person's flaws or weak points, you miss everything you are adding to the equation. On the opposite end, if you focus too much on your own flaws, you can miss or downplay questionable or negative behavior the other person might be displaying. You might even take responsibility for their bad behavior, thinking that "you did something to deserve it." And definitely, no matter what, too much focus on your own flaws will make you a pretty unpleasant person to be with. Always apologizing. Always thinking you did something wrong. Always feeling like you're never good enough. None of that is attractive.

So, balance. Self reflection is an essential ingredient, but so is being able to drop that and pay attention to the other person. Learning to detect red flags in another, like the person who seems a little too keen to impress you, is an invaluable skill. However, so is recognizing the subtle and not so subtle good qualities in a person.

Better relationships with others starts with being able to balance internal awareness with external awareness. From this place, we’re more able to share, create healthy boundaries, and love well.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Just Be Yourself?

I've seen a lot of posts lately that boil down to lists of dating advice that "have to go." Artificial times seem to be high on all these lists, and even making a suggestion that they might be helpful sometimes doesn't go over well. Overall, I tend to agree with much of what's being offered on these lists. At the same time, they often feel like shooting fish in a barrel.

However, I found this point in DrNerdLove's current post about the advice to "Just be yourself" pretty interesting.

The problem however, is that “just be yourself” is inherently bad advice. Being authentic is one thing – that’s something we all should be doing. But “just be yourself” is about not changing, period. And sometimes, quite frankly, being yourself is the problem. It doesn’t do you any good to “just be yourself” if you suck. Being told to be yourself means refusing to change, even when your current self is what’s holding you back. I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve known whose “bad luck” with women boiled down to something about themselves – something that was well within their ability to fix.When I’d point out their issue: a shitty attitude towards women, an unrealistic expectation of relationships or just plain being a selfish asshole – they’d come back with “well, women should love me for who I am. I’m not going to change just to please people.” Then with their very next breath1 they’re back to wondering why women don’t like them.

One thing I've grown to have disdain for is how much of the general dating advice scene is about how everyone is so dysfunctional and how the path to finding love is either one of learning how to navigate through all sorts of horrible, predatory people, or it's about following someone else's supposedly "foolproof" plan. There's something really disempowering about all of that.

When I see people acting really resistant to ideas and suggestions that might actually be quite helpful, I'm reminded of my own resistance back when I was in the dating market. It's not just whether something is "good advice," but it's also how it's delivered that matters. In fact, I'd say how it's delivered matters more. And also timing.

DrNerdLove's comments point to a fair amount of this. First off, he's absolutely right that giving that kind of advice to some people is awful. Because it just reinforces their sense that the problems are outside of themselves. Secondly, his tally of men in this case, demonstrates that timing matters a lot. Even if he gave the opposite advice to these guys that they needed to drop the shitty attitude and change their behavior, odds are plenty of them wouldn't have listened. In these cases, "Just be yourself" is reinforcing what they already believe. Namely, that they're trying to navigate through a field of landmines, and mostly are getting explosions from messed up people in return.

Overall, I think DrNerdLove is rejecting "Just be yourself" because it's too vague. Which is fair. However, the subtle distinction he makes between that phrase and "Just be authentic" is probably lost on many people. I'm not really convinced that using the word "authentic" would trigger self reflection on ways someone is acting poorly or negatively. He needed an entire post himself to unpack the difference, which to me suggests it's not the particular phrase, but more that advice needs to be more specific and detailed as a general rule.

So, more to the point from my end, the biggest problem with "Just be yourself" is that who you are in the world isn't static. Telling people to just be themselves tends to reinforce the stories they have about themselves, regardless of whether they're positive or negative. Which in my opinion, isn't terribly helpful to entering into a dating situation with fresh eyes and openness not only about another person, but also who you are, and how you might be in a partnership with someone.

Along these lines, DrNerdLove says in his second post:

he concept of “You” is far more fluid and malleable than most people would think. We change who we are – who we truly are – all the time; after all, we’re not the same person we were when we were 10, or 20, or 30. We are constantly being shaped and moulded by our experiences, our beliefs, even our day-to-day experiences. A bad break up can leave us bitter and resentful and mistrustful of others while a sudden shock – a near-death experience for example – can inspire us to live life to the fullest instead of taking everything for granted.

Of course, none of this means that the goal is become chameleon-like. There are plenty of things about you that aren't going to rapidly change. Furthermore, those people who do rapidly change to try and fit in and be loved all the time are pretty awful partners. And sometimes damned scary in fact.

However, it's really helpful in my view to learn to hold everything you think about who you are and what you're about in the world a little more lightly. Because holding on too tightly to self-identity is probably one of the biggest roadblocks in dating and relationships. Which is why even if someone needs to be more authentically themselves while dating, "just be yourself" isn't terribly helpful advice.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dating Notes from a Former Nice Guy

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I used to be a Nice Guy. Not kind, generous, open, and honest. But "nice." The one many of the dating experts warn you about. And yet, too often, you still fall for because ... well, he's just so damned nice.

So, here's what was true about me. I was desperate to be liked. I was afraid of hurting anyone. I was friendly and agreeable. I listened well. And once I had my first girlfriend, I didn't want to be alone.

Except that, I also wanted "space" a lot of the time. I shared my thoughts and ideas, but not really what I was feeling. I was afraid of conflict, and the possibility of loosing someone as a result of conflict. If I was upset with a girlfriend, I'd stuff it until I couldn't take anymore and then would blow. Not violently, but more of an unleashing of a litany of wrongs she had done - and which I'd kept tally of, but hadn't mentioned until then. I took almost everything that happened in the relationship personally, even though often whatever it was had nothing to do with me.

I was, throughout my teens and 20s, depressed more often than not. I had no idea how to ask for what I needed, and was afraid that if I did start asking sometimes, I'd be considered "needy" and ultimately get rejected. The joke is that although I presented myself as almost selfless, and generally did give a lot - both in my relationships and in the community - I also was pretty needy emotionally. However, instead of getting those needs met directly, I'd occasionally suck energy from folks through over the top ranting, or I'd get my needs met through sideways asking that probably was more manipulating sometimes.

Now, the thing is that despite all of that, I was fairly well liked. I had a good circle of friends, got along well with co-workers and classmates (when I was in school), and generally was a productive, engaged member of society. But something was off. I wasn't quite real or authentic. And as a result, many of my relationships and dating experiences weren't so great.

What happened? Well, a lot of things. I began a serious yoga and Zen meditation practice. I had a long term relationship crumble in a way that exposed many of my "Nice Guy" flaws. I decided that I'd use my online dating experiences as opportunities to take risks. And eventually, I committed to being myself, and letting the chips fall as they may.

Let's consider the Nice Guy in more detail now. Here's a good list of traits, from an article exploring the nice guy stereotype.

They believe that if they are good, giving, and caring, that they will get happiness, love and fulfillment in return.
They offer to do things for a girl they hardly know that they wouldn’t normally do for just anybody else they know.
They avoid conflict by withholding their opinions or even become agreeable with her when they don’t actually agree.
They try to fix and take care of her problems, they are drawn to trying to help.
They seek approval from others.
They try to hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
They are always looking for the “right” way to do things.
They tend to analyze rather than feel.
They have difficulty making their needs a priority.
They are often emotionally dependent on their partner.

Now, say you're out on a first or second date. And perhaps you're wondering how to discern the difference between a mature, kind man and a Nice Guy.

Here are some questions to consider.

What happens if you disagree with him on something? Does he rush to agree with you?

Does he seem "too perfect"?

Is he overly quick to offer to help you with some issue that no other person who barely knows you would? Or is he overly giving right off the bat?

Is most of your conversation about ideas and intellectual interests?

Does he seem to be seeking approval from you a fair amount of the time?

These are all questions based on the traits above. Here are a few more, based upon how I used to be.

Does he paint himself as the underdog much of the time, in order to seek sympathy?

Does he struggle to make eye contact with you when talking about anything more serious?

Does he shut down, go quiet, or change the subject when emotional topics are brought up?

Of course, none of these alone mean a whole lot. But if you've got someone who fits several of the patterns these questions are getting at, then chances are you're dealing with a Nice Guy.

I could say more, but I'll stop there. Thoughts? Anything to add?

Monday, April 7, 2014

How Your Dating Conflicts Are Sometimes Mirrors from Your "Distant" Past

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The issue of communication in a relationship is often tricky. Each person has their own style and needs, which sometimes conflict. However, sometimes the conflicts are about something deeper than just basic differences, such as in this post from a yoga practitioner who's blog I've been reading for awhile now:

I've been unhappy with the lack of communication I had with the bf. We barely interacted besides funny cat pictures he occasionally sent me, so last week I decided to tell him that either we see each other more often, or he calls more often, or I wouldn't see him this weekend.

Worst. strategy. ever. He got furious, started listing everything that I have ever done wrong, how I stress him out, and now it's zero communication.

I realized we probably already interact more than he's comfortable with, which is ridiculously little by any normal standards (we might as well be in a long-distance relationship even though we live in the same city). I started browsing through a thousand articles about men and why they stonewall women and how to get them to communicate more and stuff. I already tried to mentally prepare myself for the worst case scenario - our break up, but it was still very painful.

Now, this situation doesn't sound terribly promising in my view. She's thinking that he's at his limit in terms of contact, and yet in between seeing each other, they're only sharing cat pics? Seriously, not good, no matter how you slice it. However, there are some details missing that might make an assessment easier. Such as how often they see each other, and also how long they've been dating. So, let's move on.

The most interesting piece to me is in this additional paragraph:

My dad also has a style of rarely talking or discussing things, but it suited my mom because she likes to have complete control over the family and he lets her shove him. She treats him like a small child: she tells him when he needs to put on more clothes; she decided that he should retire early and we should move to North America; she signed me up for all sorts of extracurricular activities without ever discussing with me or even informing me beforehand and made him drive me to these classes while I was young. He put up with all this and never complained much.

Over the years, I've noticed how I have attracted dates and partners that reflect traits of my parents. Sometimes, this is a positive thing, such as finding someone who has my mother's general optimism about life. Other times, though, it's been a major source of conflict, like in the situation above. The unresolved difficulties you had/have with a parent can be mirrored in the person you're dating, giving you yet another chance to face and resolve things, or get tripped up by them.

How we communicate and connect with each other are often driven by old patterns from our formative years. It takes a lot of deliberate focus and effort to overturn such patterns, and to operate from your own ground, as opposed to that which allowed you to handle your childhood years.

My own pattern of heavy self criticism around mistakes, given to me by both of my parents to some degree, needed to be shaken out of me over and over again. In terms of dating, I was prone to finding other perfectionists who triggered my sense of internalized shame around screwing up, even in the most minor of circumstances. It really wasn't until a few years ago, when I dated someone who's streak was so strong that after a month or so of going back and forth between fighting with her and going along with whatever to not upset her, I realized this was old, old stuff. That I would never be "good enough" for her because she didn't think she was good enough herself. All the controlling, endless analyzing of any situation that didn't go well, or how she wanted it to - all of that was just a variation of what I was prone to doing.

Needless to say, that relationship didn't last much longer, but ever since then, I've found it easier to identify the "not good enough" narrative and let it go.

How about you? Have you seen these kinds of issues in your relationships?

Monday, March 31, 2014

The #1 Reason to Delay Having Sex

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No point in getting into a shit storm of a fight over on Moxie's blog about her constant lampooning of folks who want to slow things down, and also her endless suspicion of anyone who doesn't fuck after a handful of dates.

I'll just say here that I think she's wrong. And her advice suffers terribly for it.

In her current post she cites this article, which I think is pretty level headed, if also lacking in details and supportive research.

I particularly like this section:

One might think if American culture has continued to become more open, then the three-date rule might now be the first-date rule. It is, but only with a small minority of daters.

Instead, by becoming even more sexually liberal, our culture is more accepting of a wider range of sexual attitudes and behaviors.

This is a positive, don't you think? Folks who so fiercely advocate against delaying sex seem to me to be, in part, battling against the opposite kind of culture. A socially conservative one where sex is shameful, to be controlled, and littered with oppressive gender scripts. Something that's still present in the U.S., but doesn't dominate our overall discourse, despite the religious right's continued attempts. Of course, regionally there are major differences. Some places are much more open and accepting than others. But overall, we're a nation with a wide mix of views about sex and sexuality, many of which contradict each other.

What I find so fascinating - and disappointing - about the commonplace heterosexual arguments in favor of sex right away, or nearly right away, is that they're usually built on really old stereotypes about male sexuality. In particular, the idea that men can't wait, won't wait, and those who do must have some issue (sexual dysfunction, they're closeted, etc.) These folks think they're being so progressive in voicing all this, but they're actually peddling the same old patriarchal nonsense that has dominated the sex lives of generations of women and men before them. Yes, they're free to have sex whenever they want now. But their thinking isn't that much better than their grandmothers and grandfather's was on the subject.

If a man runs his dating life on the premise that he's got to have sex early on, or else he's going to move on, he's not "liberated."

If a woman runs her sex life on the premise that men are going to bail if she doesn't have sex with them early on, and/or that guys who don't want sex right away are "damaged" somehow, then she's not liberated either.

True sexual liberation, in my opinion, is being able to engage the current dating situation as it is. To be able to let go of the stories and propaganda you've swallowed over the years to face, and embrace, the person before you as they are. To learn each others' actual needs and desires and go from there.

The number 1 reason why waiting a bit is a good idea is that it takes time to wade through each others' conditioning and fears/hangups from the past in order to actually engage sex in a more liberated way. Hell, the first month or so of most relationships, you're operating almost completely on a fantasy sketch of who someone is, and how they are in the world. Add on that all the mixed messages you've swallowed over a lifetime, plus your past dating/relationship history, and it's gets complicated really fast.

Which doesn't mean you can't have casual sex, or that sex on the first or second date dooms a relationship. I'm just saying you're fooling yourself if you think that just being able to have sex whenever is a liberated position. That you're somehow have so much more freedom just because you can fuck whomever whenever.

Because You don't. It's not that special anymore. Take a look at the underlying motivations and rationales. Consider whether your ideas about men and women are actually your own, and also whether they help you be the best person that you can be in a relationship. Having a liberated sex life is much more than just being able to do it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Gathering Evidence Becomes a Dating Crutch

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In my 20s, I was an endless evidence gatherer. In fact, that even was true with women who I never dated. I recall one in particular who demonstrated a bit of interest a few times, but then didn't really respond to my "let's get together sometime" kind of comments. I sat around for weeks, rethinking the conversations we had had. Did that look mean she was interested? She really liked the poems I had written. That must be a sign. But she didn't want to get a drink with me? Is she a recovering alcoholic? Should I ask her about that? The questions were endless, as was the tallying. All for a woman who probably thought of me as some nice guy she had a few conversations with, and that's about it.

I have had to train myself to cut off the evidence gathering mind. To know when enough information is enough, and when it's time to make a decision.

You have to learn, for example, how your mind rationalizes the poor behavioral patterns of a partner, or the ways in which you discount or marginalize your own needs in a relationship as a way to keep the peace. Or out of a fear of losing the person. You also have to learn to see through the cooked up stories your mind makes about ambiguous situations. It takes some discipline, and really a willingness to let go of knowing for certain what's going on.

In other words, it's all about balance. I think it's especially difficult in the beginning, when you don't know the other person well. And also when trying to decide if something should end or not, where emotional attachments and feelings of not wanting to give up on something you've put a lot of effort into come into play.

When it comes to those of us who have challenges with leaving, it's really important to remember that you don't have to justify everything. You don't have to have reasons for every last thing you don't like about the relationship, nor do you have to explain all of that to the other person. Offering some of that to the other person, especially if you've been together a long time, is probably a kind thing to do. However, if somewhere in your mind you believe that you have to explain your way completely out of a relationship, then what you have built is a prison, not a relationship.

If you find yourself spending numerous hours tallying pros and cons about a relationship, and/or constantly digging for more information or opinions from others about your relationship, this is probably just another form of endless evidence gathering.

At the end of the day, it's all about trying to avoid pain and suffering. Which never works in the long run.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Boys Don't Cry:" One Reason Why Modern Men Struggle With Grief and Other Emotions

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You ever wonder why so many men struggle with their emotions? Or why in particular men don't seem to handle grief well, or cry very often? Well, I don't have all the answers, but in my latest post over at Life as a Human webzine, I share a bit of my own story and talk about how modern economics plays a role in how men deal with grief. Check it out!