How To Learn What You Want, And Not Fuck Up When You Find It: a field guide for Women
Welcome back from a long time gone to the latest installment of Dear Lizzy. This one is most recently inspired by a friend, but also reflects my own past behavior, that of many friends, and behavior I've observed from many, many women.
Suppose you've just met and started dating a guy. He's really nice, and it may have been a long time since you last went on a date, and you may have felt that in the past that you've dated complete assholes, and this guy is remarkably kind, gentle, and just generally amazing. What do you start doing? You start fantasizing. Not about sex - well, ok, also about the sex, but that's not the bad part. You (and I) start fantasizing about what it would be like to live your life with this person. Because you barely know him, there are a few details about his moods, personality, likes, dislikes and habits that you have to fill in. You take all several days' (or even weeks') worth of knowing him, and extrapolate from all the wonderful things you've noticed about him. Y'know what?
You're doing both of you a disservice. You forget both that he is human, and has flaws, and that you are a fabulous person independent of dating someone.
So, some dos and don'ts of dating and preparing yourself for dating:
Before You Even Start Dating, Do
Figure out what you want in a guy. Whether or not there's currently someone in the picture, figure out what your ideal guy is like. The more you know, the better you know what you're looking for, and the faster you'll realize if you're in a situation that won't make you happy. Realize that no guy will fit your ideal image exactly, but it’s easy to go in the wrong direction if you have no goal in mind.
Figure out what you want in yourself. Decide who you want to be. Figure out as specifically as you can who you would most like to be. Determine what sorts of behaviors and habits someone like that person you would have. Start acting with those behavior patterns and habits. You can change your life simply by changing your behaviors and expectations. I've been astonished at the changes in my own life over the past five years because of using this method.
Act in ways consistent with what you want. As above, do the things you need to do in order to be the person you want to be. Don't muck about with worrying whether or not you're "good enough" to step on stage or write that first novel. Don’t spend time wondering if you dare to presume to pretend to be something other than "what you really are". It's a waste of time, and it turns out that all of those judgments are pretty darn subjective.
Find an outside activity to mirror your inner development. I chose to plant roses. It allowed me to tend something other than myself, something that needed my help, gave me something to root for (pun not intended, but hey), gave me something to take joy and pride in. It also taught me the value of diversified interests.... I now have many rose bushes, and each one represents a different aspect of myself that I've been nurturing. Other ideas for developing active symbolism would be house cleaning (I tend to feel that the clutter in my brain and the clutter in my house are related; when I clear out my physical living space, it helps to clear out the clutter in my mind), community work, set construction for community theater, etc. The activity should ideally be somewhat physical, and have a tangible reward for your efforts.
Make a conscious effort to learn something - about yourself or about people in general - from every person you interact with. Strive not to be cynical about it - you will see in every situation what you want to see. If you choose to see only the bad in people - including yourself - you will see a grim world, where someone else could see a fairly bright world with a bit of quirkiness to it.
Learn something fun and new, that requires focus and physical activity. This will get your energy moving, help to clarify your thinking, work out stress, and give you something exciting to talk about and maybe impress people with.
Decide what is important to you, and throw your heart into things, even if they appear foolish. You get to define what you love and what things and people are worthwhile. Don't allow someone else to define what is important, and realize that other people may not be able to see all the wonderful things that make something special to you. What is important is that you realize how wonderful are the things you love and cherish.
Get friends who will tell you the good things about you. Friends provide us with a mirror of ourselves. When we see ourselves, we tend to see the blemishes and forget to look at the other 98% of our being. Good friends show us a more holistic view. Friends are allowed to see our errors, but ditch friends who you "know" are right when they put you down or make you feel inferior. They're using you as a prop for their own ego. It's not fair, but the only one who can actually make a difference in how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you is, well, you.
Realize that a relationship that ends is not a failure. One of the great fallacies of our culture is the assumption that if a relationship ends, the people involved have failed in some way. This isn't true. You've only failed if you haven't learned something positive from the relationship. Positive bits of wisdom can range from, "he's a great person, but not what I'm looking for/not what would make me happy" to "this man is a schmuck for these specific reasons, and I deserve to be treated better than that. I also treat people better than that by ____."
Focus on what you've gained from past relationships. Sometimes the gain is merely a direction for self exploration, or a spotlighting of the areas in which you require personal growth. While it sucks a lot in the short term, having the most glaring problems clearly marked is really helpful in rooting them out.
Decide what type of relationship you're looking for. Goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is not a bad idea to look for a "training boyfriend" - someone with whom you have no long term plans but with whom you can learn good relationship skills and burn off some steam. Spend some time broken up from a training boyfriend while you date others before committing to a serious relationship with him, if you think you want to. Dating someone because he's "the best you can get" is a bad, bad reason to date someone. Dating him because he's a really amazing guy, and you've spent some time proving this to yourself - that's a much more solid foundation for a relationship.
Face your fears. Push your comfort boundaries at least a little bit each month in the interests of personal growth. This may be talking at a mirror telling you that you're a good person. It may be going to a club and finding five reasons why you're enjoying the evening. It may be taking a chance and inviting over people you've always admired but of whose acquaintance you felt unworthy. Again, figure out what you want, and take steps - however small they need to be, as long as they're consistent - in the direction you want to go.
When Dating, Do
Have a little respect for yourself. Demand behavior of the kind that you feel is respectful and loving. If your ideas of loving behavior don't match up, you're not well suited, and it wouldn't last anyway. While we're at it - make sure you demand of yourself that you act in a manner that is loving, respectful, and productive. I heard this from several men, but I best liked this way of saying it: "Have a backbone. They're sexy."
Ask for what you want. I've discovered guys actually like having the guessing game of trying to read a woman's mind cut out of the equation. Be up-front with your needs and wishes. Men (at least the type I would care to attract) are impressed and attracted by assertiveness. Don't be a bully, and don't be manipulative, but be honest with yourself and the people with whom you interact. Again, work with the things that *you* can control. You can't control finding the person whose wants and needs will match up with yours. You *can* let folks see what your wants and needs are, so they can be attracted or not from the outset. If it's not going to work, it's not going to work. Hiding yourself won't last, and is vastly counter-productive.
Focus on the things you can control. Don't worry about things that are beyond your range of influence. All you can do is to be the best person you can be. Don't hold yourself responsible for someone else not being the person you had hoped they were.
Listen to your intuition. Notice when you have an uneasy feeling about someone. Figure out if it's because what they say and what they do don't line up, seem uniformly extraordinary, or even if there's just a vague sense of "something's not right here but I can't put my finger on it." Pay attention to that sense. You do, however, have to separate that sense from the inner voice that feeds you stereotypes. "He dresses like X, so I can just tell that he would act in Y sort of way." Tell that one to take a long walk...
If you feel like you're "not as good as" a particular guy, question why. If he encourages/agrees with this perception, dump him. (Note that this quantifying of "as good as" is a statement about yourselves in general, not in particular skills). If it seems like it's your own assumption, figure out the particular reasons that make you believe this about yourself. Take them out of the murky ick at the back of your psyche, wipe them clean, and take a good hard look at them. If necessary, show them to good friends and talk about them as much as you need to. Realize that these reasons probably stem from misperceptions about oneself, or out of reasons or states of being that have ceased to be.
Speak up and express your interest honestly rather than wringing your hands and wondering whether or not he likes you. This isn't something you need to make a big deal over. Ask him out - something simple - or simply tell him you'd like to get to know him better, and see how he responds. If you get worked up over asking him, you've invested too much of yourself in his answer, and you'll also come off as a lunatic. It's just not worth the hassle. Ask him, get it over with. The world won't end, no matter how much we may think we want it to. I particularly love how my friend Jen expressed it. "Let's practice. Repeat after me, "would you like to grab a cup of coffee sometime this week?" or, if circumstances warrant, "Would you mind if I kiss you?" See, isn't that simple? Yes, he might say no, but then you get to go home, lick your wounds, and eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's. It's like ripping a band aid off quickly. It actually hurts a lot less than inching it off bit by bit. Some guys will be put off by your forwardness, but mostly just the ones with control issues, and you don't want them, anyway. Most guys seem to respond really well to having a woman just fucking tell them what's going on with her instead of waiting for them to read her mind."
Be specific about date invitations. For example, "I'm free on Friday - would you like to see Halloween 37? This is much more likely to elicit a definite response than "Would you like to get together sometime?", and will allow him the option - even encourage him - to make a specific counter-offer if the time or activity don't suit him.
Keep commitments and keep up communication. Be honest, and if you find you have to break a date, or even a tentative commitment, let him know, and give him the honest reason. Just don't be melodramatic about it....
Assume he's willing to apologize for/accept an apology for a SNAFU or miscommunication if it's clearly explained. Then see whether he does or not. If he doesn't, dump him.
Be honest about who you are. 'Nuff said? On the other hand, don't spill your life story to a stranger. Parcel it out a bit at a time. It will make him feel like he's discovering precious gems rather than being drowned in a deluge.
Enjoy yourself. It's fun being with someone who is having fun, and if you don't enjoy being with someone, why the hell haven't you dumped him yet?
Cook for him, sometime around date 5 or 6 (assuming you haven’t decided he’s not the person for you and dumped him before date 5 or 6). This will tell you whether or not he likes your cooking/baking, whether he's good at expressing gratitude, whether he handles mishaps (should there be any) with grace, and whether or not he eats like a pig.
Do something he likes at least once within the first 6 dates. Ideally, you should like it too. If it's not your thing, find something about it which makes it enjoyable for you. Find your niche in the activity.
Notice whether he makes a point of finding something to enjoy when you do one of "your" activities. If he sits and sulks and makes a point of letting you know that he's miserable, but he's there because he loves you and wants you to be happy, dump him. It's emotional blackmail and a pain in the ass to boot.
Learn how to argue fairly. This involves holding your own ground, listening, and presenting reasons logically. It does not involve bringing up counter-grievances, i.e., "You're complaining about X? Well, what about Y thing that you do that irritates me?" These two things have nothing to do with one another; both must be addressed, but in separate discussions.
Challenge him. I'm not talking about walking up to him and hitting him in the face with a glove - unless his taste runs to fencing and duels - but make a point of not blandly agreeing with everything he says. Don't disagree for the sake of argument, but discuss values and moral dilemmas. This will reveal whether he can respect/accept anyone's opinion besides his own, and will give you practice in having a backbone.
Pay attention to what he has to say. Likewise, determine whether he's paying attention to what you have to say. If either of you is brushing off the other, or blithely assuming that you know what the other person "actually" meant, you're going down the wrong path...
Maintain your own interests, and allow him to maintain his. It's important to do things together, and to share things, but it's also important to have time to yourselves. If you grow too close, you'll stifle each other. Exposure to the outside world without your partner gives you a chance to grow into a better-rounded person, and to bring more back to the relationship. Refuse to hide these interests. They're part of what make you who you are, and remember? If they don't like you for who you are, the relationship isn't going to last - not if you're lucky - anyway.
Don't assume that he's the one who can make you happy, simply because you like him or he seems nice. There are many men in the world. Get to know and like more of them. Realize that "nice" and "kind" and "sweet" does not mean "he will be able to bring joy to my days, and I will enjoy talking to him even when we've already spent years together". Nice and kind are good places to start. They should, however, be the basic criteria for continuing an acquaintance, not for hanging all of one's hopes on a man. I've done this, too. It really, really sucks.
Don't be willing to change yourself for someone - especially if you've only just met. Don't go out of your way to be rude, but don't act differently in order to impress a guy. If you try to second guess him and be who you think he wants you to be, you may miss the fact that he likes who you are. If he doesn't like who you are - it wouldn't work anyway. Also, if you start changing yourself before you know him well enough to know if compromise is worth your time, you may wake up on a fairy hill seven years down the road of mortal time, discovering that you've lost yourself. (Don't worry, that's a metaphor).
Don't EVER feel constrained to "make" something work. As above, this is especially true for someone you just met. By figuring out what you want, him figuring out what he wants, and keeping open lines of communication, you can pretty much figure out if something has a hope of working out in the long run. If it hasn't a chance, see above - don't feel that a relationship ending means that you've failed. Any time that you've had the wisdom to take yourself and your life and pursue your dreams in a realistic fashion is a win in my book.
Don't start making wedding plans just because you've got a crush on someone and he was good in bed. Women actively encourage other women to do this. In "Pride & Prejudice", Jane Austen noted that "Women jump from admiration to love, and from love to marriage, in the winking of an eye."* The behavior pattern is well ingrained - and it’s horribly counter-productive. Realize that people are complex. Just because some things about a person are exactly as you would wish has absolutely no bearing on that person's personality, issues, baggage, habits, or wishes. Instead of hanging your hopes on someone, hang around for a bit and see if you continue to like what you see of their behavior. Perform regular reality checks. Love is as love does. If he doesn't treat you well, don't excuse the behavior with "well, he doesn't mean to hurt me." He's a big boy - at least, he is or you shouldn't be dating him. He's responsible for his own behavior.
*Or something like that. It may also be from the miniseries, which was so well done that many things of the script writer's invention remain in my memory as part of the original work.
Corollary: Don't talk about kids and commitment after only a few dates. Kapisch? (And if he does, run.)
Don't offer to clean his house, start cleaning it, or declare that it needs a woman's touch. He's a big boy, he gets to make his own decisions, and he may just like things the way they are. Also - do you really want someone who will assume that it's *your* job to cook and clean?
Don't call him every day to ask if he misses you. If you feel the need to do this, get out of the dating market for awhile, get therapy, and do whatever you need to in order to become secure in your own worth. Any relationship that starts out this way cannot be healthy. DTMFA! (Thank you, Dan Savage, for that wonderful acronym).
Don't criticize or belittle his sense of humor. If your senses of humor don't match, you won't survive as a couple. If you disagree with his sense of humor, just dump him and get it over with. Likewise, if he derides your sense of humor, dump him. Quickly. This excludes a fondness for The Three Stooges. For some reason, this one style of comedy simply seems to be a Y-linked humor thing. Shrug and accept it.
So - that's it for now. Good luck, be happy, be healthy, be wise.