Ever have one of those weeks where your conversations take on a theme? And, suddenly, everywhere you go you are talking about, being approached about, seeing on TV, and reading about the same issue? This happened to me recently. You see, I am back in the dating world in my mid 40’s. My 18 year relationship ended a couple of years back and I am now dating. (Yes, divorce happens to psychologists too.) I was saying to a friend that “I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to dating!” My buddy said, “No one does.” Then I talked to my friend Tawni Blake, owner of Flirt Denver, a matchmaking service, and she was talking about how she needs to educate her clients, across the age spectrum, about how to date, because people often don’t know how to date well. Then, I had a couple of clients indicated they were feeling confounded about dating, ditto for a few colleagues of mine, and even several married friends said, “gosh, I’m so glad I’m not single, I’d have no clue how to date!” Turns out, I am not alone in this sense that I don’t know what I’m doing.
This led me to do some research on dating, and to interview a variety of folks on their opinions about why dating seems like such a mystery. Turns out there are a few themes beyond everyone feeling hapless.
First, I realized that dating is like everything else in life that involves relationships between people, it starts with your relationship with yourself. Second, relationships with others are informed by your past experiences, and your desires for the future. Finally, dating is an exploration of yourself, your attractions, the other person you are meeting for the first time, and also of your desires for your life. Turns out, all of these themes are issues I help people with every day in my therapy practice. All of these are things I work on in my own life, so that I can live my best life, just like I hope for my clients. Best of all, each one of these themes is something that you can work with, improve and shift.
1) Let’s start with your relationship with yourself. How do you generally feel about yourself? How is your self-talk? Are you the person who is encouraging and kind and understanding with yourself, or do you tend to be self-critical, impatient and mean to and about yourself? It is very difficult to engage with other people if you detest yourself. When you are spending your time and energy hating yourself, it makes it hard to be genuine and kind and interested in others. Further, a well-developed habit of beating yourself up can invite in criticism and unkindness from others. After all, if you don’t think highly of yourself, how can anyone else? It is of the utmost importance to begin treating yourself with kindness, and to move from an aggressive, unkind style of self-talk, to a realistic appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t worry, everybody, and I do mean, EVERYBODY, has weaknesses and things to work on. Identifying your own strengths and weaknesses with less self-flagellation will help you take the next step in bolstering your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses, leading to a kinder, more understanding sense of yourself and an easier way to move around in the world.
2) Next, our relationships, especially our romantic ones, are influenced strongly by our past experiences. As a species, humans tend to make sense of our worlds by comparing what is currently happening to what has happened in the past. We then tell ourselves and others stories about how we approach the world. We tend to believe these stories and then unconsciously look for evidence that our stories are true. It has been fascinating getting back into the dating world and examining the stories I hear. I have heard lots of folks say, “I hate dating” or “dating is hard,” even “dating is awful, that’s why I don’t do it anymore.” Now how is someone who is dragging this type of negative story around with them going to have any fun with the dating process? They aren’t! Recognizing the story you are telling yourself and then deliberately shifting it will make all the difference in the world to you. It puts the past in the past and gives you the freedom to operate from a different perspective in the present. So for the folks who think “dating is hard” a sample shift might look like, “dating is interesting,” or “dating gives me an opportunity to meet new people,” or even, “I’m going to have fun with this dating thing!”
3) Finally, forming new relationships, whether friendships or love relationships is an exercise in exploration. Done well, it is about curiosity, investigation and inquisitiveness. Who do you like? Who are you attracted to? Why? Is that thing you’ve always wanted actually something you still want? What do you actually want for your current life, how about your future desires? You are getting to meet new people here, and they all have their own stuff that they bring to the table. Really, this should be fascinating! New people = new things to explore! This perspective of curiosity gives you more robust information about who you are and what you want, lets you explore your patterns in relationship and increases your ability to be kind to yourself and the new people you meet since you are coming from a place of interest rather than judgement.
Try these ideas as you move forward in your relationships (hint: all three themes are applicable to dating and totally new relationships, as well as to longer term, existing relationships!). Let me know how it goes. For myself, I have retired the story that “I don’t know what I’m doing with dating” and moving forward from a place of gentle gratitude and curiosity as I navigate this new stage in my life. Trying to walk my talk!