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Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

I know a lot of people who don’t have much self-esteem.

I used to be one of them, in fact.

Having low self-esteem can be a self-perpetuating cycle. You feel bad about yourself, and so you look outside of yourself to feel better. You look for validation from other people. You care a lot about what other people think. You are more easily suggestible. You worry that people don’t like you, and of course you’re worried because you haven’t learned to like yourself! In extreme cases, you let someone new in your life (a significant other, a boss, a close friend), and your identity changes radically because of that relationship.

(Note: I’m not talking about small changes and compromises. Those are normal. New people encourage us to try new things, to learn new things, to think about things differently, and that’s great. But have you ever known someone who got into a new relationship and then it was almost like they were a different person? That’s what I’m talking about.)

The problem is, getting external validation from other people is never enough. It never lasts. It’s like putting a band-aid over a large gaping wound that needs stitches. Maybe it stops the blood flow, maybe it keeps you from dying, but it’s not going to heal right. It’s probably not going to heal at all. And so then you just always have this inflamed wound, causing you constant pain, ripping open again at the most inconvenient times.

But it’s not so obvious with self-esteem. I’ve seen people who want more money, more advancement in their career, more friends, more compliments, more awards. And it’s not that wanting any of these things is inherently bad. The problem occurs because all of these things, if you achieve them, do make you feel really good for a short period of time. So it feels like they work, and you stay caught in the cycle.

Meanwhile, if you don’t achieve these things that you want, if you fail (because failure is, after all, a part of most successes) or even if it simply takes you a bit longer than planned, it can damage your already vulnerable self-esteem even more. Which also keeps you caught in the cycle.

Plus the genuine way OUT of the cycle feels…well, it feels corny. Corny and fake and maybe even a little bit embarrassing. It’s not something our culture teaches us is important. It’s something that’s easy to pay lip service to but a lot more difficult to internalize.

So what is the way out? It is in cultivating a relationship with yourself. A loving, kind, respectful relationship. A relationship in which you get to know who you are, and you take a look at all those wounds, and you learn how to love yourself anyway, in spite of whatever flaws you find, in spite of whatever has happened in the past, in spite of failure or disappointments or trauma or mistakes. Maybe even BECAUSE of those things, if you’re feeling especially ambitious.

Myself with myself!

Myself with myself!

This can be a difficult thing to do. Your jerkbrain has been getting a lot of practice saying mean things about you. So you have to institute habits to get practice saying loving things instead. You have to practice listening to yourself and learning who you are. You have to practice looking at your shortcomings and then being gentle about them. Meditation, affirmations, mindfulness practice, journaling, stopping and thinking before making decisions, catching negative self-talk and re-casting it, giving kind pep talks, taking care of yourself so you feel better: all these things can help.

And eventually the idea that it doesn’t matter what other people think is not just a thing you know you’re supposed to think. You actually believe it. Not that other people aren’t important, that’s not it, but that you are also important, and you are, after all, the main character of your own life, so you are perfectly entitled to be in the driver’s seat. Other people’s opinions still matter, and listening to the people you are close to is still important, but ultimately you will make up your own mind.

Your feeling of self-worth is no longer strongly tied to anything or anyone but yourself. It is yours and yours alone.

And just as you would do for a relationship with your significant other or a close friend, you keep working on your relationship with yourself. You keep giving it attention and love. Sometimes you might slip a bit, you might get busy and caught up in other things, but then you’ll come back and you’ll remember and you’ll do the relationship maintenance that will keep it strong and growing.

Self-esteem comes from yourself (hence the word SELF-esteem). No one else can give it to you. And in times of hardship, you will reach for that relationship, that core of who you are, and instead of bringing you down further, it will give you solace and strength.

My relationship with myself is the most important relationship I’ve ever had.

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A few months back, I made a new friend, and we spent a fair amount of time chatting and getting to know one another. And I was struck by something he was doing.

He was asking me a lot of questions.

He asked me my opinion about a lot of things. He asked about my past. He asked about my work. He asked random questions, about my favorite color and Nala and what I like and don’t like. He asked follow-up questions. When I referred to something obliquely, he asked about that too.

In general, I have tended to be the one who asks a lot of questions. (More recently, I’ve been deliberately pulling back so as to strive for more conversational balance.) So I was fascinated by this turn of events, and I resolved to sit back and observe. And what I realized is, it is super flattering when someone asks a lot of questions. I was basking in the attention. And since I was asking questions in return, it built connection and rapport comparatively quickly.

And the result is now I have this new friend who, no joke, knows more about me than friends I’ve known for years.

That is the power of asking questions.

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Okay, now bring this knowledge to dating. This is a bit more complicated.

Asking questions can potentially turn a date into an interview, and personally I don’t think this is a desirable outcome. However, I think the interview date isn’t too hard to avoid as long as you’re paying attention. As long as the questions are more or less organic (as opposed to sounding like a list you’re trying to get through), and as long as you are also speaking about yourself (which will be easier, of course, if your date is also asking you questions), the interview effect isn’t as likely to happen.

And then there’s knowing which questions are appropriate. There is more than one opinion on this subject. There are those who try to keep the first couple dates on the lighter side, and those who want to dive more deeply right away. I don’t know that there’s a right answer here, but I do know a few subjects I don’t want to talk about right away:

  • Money. I hate when people ask about this on a first or second date. Obviously I am solvent and, you know, doing stuff like paying rent and feeding myself and Nala, and we can discuss the details when I’ve spent more than a couple of hours with you.
  • Past relationships. A little of this is okay, but being on a date with someone who goes on and on about an ex….means this will be the only date. And I’m certainly not going to ask detailed questions right away.
  • Asking questions for the purpose of then being able to deliver a critique on how I live my life. Just…no.

But there are so many potential questions to ask, whether you’re looking to go deep or stay lighter. Movies, books, the article you read yesterday, music, pets, travel destinations. What makes you the happiest. What makes you sad. How you’ve changed over the years. The favorites game. What you’ve learned this week or this year. And on and on.

And yes, I’ll even take my least favorite question over no questions at all.

Now, there are some people who seem to rarely ask questions in conversation. And, um, I have eventually asked them the question of why they never ask questions. (Of course I have.) The answer, inevitably, is this: “I figured,” they say, “you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”

No. Maybe this works for some people? But it certainly doesn’t work for me.

Having been in a huge number of conversations with people who don’t ask questions, I can tell you the stuff I never talk about tends to have very little to do with my desire to talk about it (with a few exceptions) and everything to do with whether I’m given an opportunity. I find myself looking for a moment where I can drop in a morsel of information so someone can actually–*gasp*–get to know me better. But looking for those moments, well, it takes effort, and it’s never as good as a conversation in which I don’t have to look for those moments because, hey, the other person is actually exhibiting active interest in me.

Now, I know sometimes conversations on first dates in particular can be…awkward, to put it mildly. And I know sometimes a good question simply doesn’t present itself. Even as a lifelong question asker, I sometimes come up empty.

But asking questions gets easier with practice. And it can be a powerful tool, in dating and in relationships in general. Questions allow us both to get to know someone more deeply and to make that person feel special.

What questions do you like to ask when you are getting to know someone? What questions do you like being asked?

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Facebook is an amazing social tool. I know a lot of us love to hate it, and it has its problems, but we don’t leave for a reason, that reason being its extreme usefulness.

Aside from allowing me to stay in some kind of light touch with people who live far away and giving me a curated set of articles to read, Facebook is the single easiest way I’ve found to grow my local social life. You friend someone and then they invite you to their events, and then you meet people at those events and friend them, and they invite you to their events, and your social circle grows with much less effort on your part than back when you had to wait to be on email address exchange terms to get an invitation. (Or phone number exchange terms, heaven forbid!)

Likewise, I’ve found Facebook to be indispensable for dating. Basically, there are two ways most of the single people I know date. One way is to use internet dating sites: OKCupid is super popular among my friends, but there are a whole slew of sites to choose between. You don’t even have to choose! Some people are on a bunch of them all at once.  (And I guess a corollary of this would be speed dating, which I kind of want to do just because then I could write a hilarious blog post about it, and we’d all have fun with that.)

The other way, the Facebook way, works like this: You go to a social event. Any event where there are people will do; parties are perhaps the most common, but this also works with game nights, group dinners, conventions, classes, dances, etc. You meet another single person and spend some time chatting. Maybe a lot of time. Sometimes they then pull out their phones and add you on Facebook on the spot. Other times you friend each other in the next day or two or three. Regardless, now Facebook is your main point of contact.

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

“But Amy,” you say, “surely you could exchange phone numbers or email addresses instead!” Yes, you are right. Surely you could, and occasionally you even do. But I’d say ninety percent of the time, you don’t. You friend each other on Facebook. And then maybe you switch to email or texting after that. Maybe. At some point. Or not.

Anyway, now you’re Facebook friends, and you begin messaging back and forth. There may be some banter. At some point the possibility of hanging out in person is discussed. All of this is very casual. After all, this is the exact same way you might go about creating any new friendship. Occasionally someone is very explicit about asking the other person on a date, but more often than not it’s all unspoken subtext. (I know from my Maybe-Date post we all have lots of opinions about this. Regardless, this is in my experience what tends to happen without making deliberate effort to make it happen differently. Not always, but often.)

I was talking to my friend about hipsters because I find the hipster movement fascinating and slightly confusing, and the conversation turned to hipster dating conventions (of course it did). My friend said that for hipsters, it’s all about plausible deniability and avoiding possible embarrassment. I don’t know if my friend is right, but the relaxed technique of hanging out and testing the waters with potential romantic interests happens all the time. And Facebook forms a cornerstone of this strategy.

(Of course, my friend went on to say, “Limbo can continue for months.” Months! Who has the patience for months? I certainly don’t. I’d simply turn my attention elsewhere. But apparently this too is a thing.)

In any case, I would not want to be dating right now without Facebook. It is simply too ubiquitous and useful. Plus I haven’t done any online dating since January because I was so appalled by Creepy Neighbor Guy (met on OKCupid, for those keeping track) that I just got annoyed with the whole thing. So at this point in time my dating prospects are all people I’m meeting first in person, and Facebook is the easiest way to facilitate that.

Of course, Facebook is a convenient way to encourage new friendships and grow existing friendships in general. Dating is just one facet of that. But it’s definitely an interesting part of the Facebook experience!

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Creating intimacy can be something of an art, whatever the nature of the relationship.

One of the most important parts of my job as a voice teacher was to create a safe space for my students to be vulnerable and experiment with their voices. An important part of the teacher-student working relationship was establishing trust: that I wouldn’t mock them; that I genuinely believed experimentation was key to the learning process, even when that meant messing up; that I believed in them as individuals and as musicians; that I had been where they were and so could understand; that I would be constructive but kind.

It was a part of my job that I was damn good at. And I think it was a large part of why I was in demand as a teacher.

Everyone’s been talking about the piece in the New York Times about Dr. Aron’s study on falling in love that resulted in a marriage between two of the subjects. The big takeaway from this study seems to be that falling in love is not so much a random happenstance as it is a choice: the choice to be vulnerable with another person, the choice to cultivate intimacy, the choice to give another person the opportunity to see you. Share enough personal information, stare deep into each other’s eyes, and off you go!

My first thought was, this is something people don’t know?

Look at one of the favorite fictional romantic couples, Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth can’t stand Darcy at the beginning. His first proposal is disastrous because even in the process of making himself vulnerable, he is hiding behind his pride (and failing on the kindness front, as well). He makes himself truly vulnerable only when he takes her admonishments to heart and seriously attempts to address them. And it is when Elizabeth makes herself vulnerable to him in return by revealing the true nature of her family scandal that she begins to actively reciprocate his feelings. It is his reaction to this vulnerability, of continued regard and attempted assistance instead of judgment and reprimand, that seals the deal.

Photo Credit: °]° via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: °]° via Compfight cc

Vulnerability can create intimacy in all sorts of relationships, but romantic relationships can be more complicated because they require a reflection of some kind. As a teacher, I expected my students to treat me with respect and to honor our business arrangement, but beyond that, it was my job to create an effective learning environment for them, not vice versa. Whereas in romantic relationships, at least the ones I’m interested in, trust has to go both ways. Both people have to ultimately choose to be vulnerable. Both people are involved in creating an environment conducive to love and partnership.

Dr. Aron’s experiment simulates, to a certain extent, the process of creating intimacy. After all, what do two people dating often do? Spend time together and talk together. Stare into each other’s eyes and give each other goofy grins. Affirm appreciation of each other. The common wisdom about not going to a movie on the first date (interaction at a movie is minimal) is given for a reason.

But the lab experiment also simplifies things. It gives each person a script, and it demands a certain level of reciprocity. (Both people have to answer each question, so the focus never freezes on only one of the couple.) And because it isn’t presented in the context of dating, there are fewer expectations going along with it, and perhaps less anxiety as well.

In real life, it’s less clean, and the opportunities for intimacy are less well-defined. When we confide in someone and ask for support, we are asking for something, yes, but we are also presenting the other person with an opportunity. And that opportunity will not always be accepted or handled well. But once you’ve ascertained a certain amount of chemistry and interest in another person, one of the big next steps is giving these opportunities, because how somebody responds is very revealing, and can either deepen the relationship or hasten its ending.

Because really, many of us want what I gave my students as a teacher. We want a safe space to be ourselves and share our stories without judgment. We want room to experiment and mess up. We want to be appreciated. We want someone who will listen and do their best to understand. We want someone who is both kind and helpful in a constructive way.

We want to choose to love because an intimacy has been established that is worth the fall.

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I don’t write about dating or romantic relationships here on the blog. That is a deliberate choice. I once had someone tell me they thought I must be anti-romantic relationship since I never talk about it here, which I thought was hilarious, and also a good illustration of how much people can read into this blog that simply isn’t true. (Yes, sometimes people read a lot into this blog. It is unfortunate. I’ve also decided it’s probably inevitable.)

Anyway, today is different! Today I’m going to talk about dating! And it’s because of my friend Rahul, who wrote this fascinating blog post about the novel Ready Player One, among other things, called “Why do all sci-fi novels assume that if a person likes the same stuff as you, then they’re your soulmate.” I suggest you go over and read the whole thing so you have context, but this is the paragraph of particular interest to me:

“What we forget, though, is that friendship and love aren’t about shared interests. They involve a sense of connection and understanding that goes deeper than that. They’re about…a…a…a sense of fascination with each other. And that loving the same geeky shit really does nothing to provoke or prolong that sense of fascination. All it does is give you something to talk about once in a while.”

Many of my friends and I spend a lot of time talking about dating and relationships. And over time, I’ve developed a few pet theories. One of them is about just what Rahul is talking about here, the idea of the importance of having interests in common. Because we hear about this so much! The online dating sites are set up to highlight common interests, and when people talk about their ideal dates, they often bring up interests they would like to share.

But I agree with Rahul. I think common interests aren’t actually all that important. I’m not saying it’s great if you have absolutely nothing in common. And I think shared interests can be pleasant, like a nice bonus. They can smooth out beginnings, in both romantic and friend relationships. Shared interests give you an excuse to hang out, basically, and they give you something to talk about when you’re not sure what to talk about because you don’t know each other very well yet.

But in my experience, not sharing a particular interest hasn’t usually been a big downside in a relationship. I haven’t dated a serious musician since right after college, and music has certainly been important to me since then. I think I’ve dated more people who didn’t care about board games than people who really liked them. Certainly I’ve never dated somebody who shared all my interests. And I never felt like I had some big void in my life as a result. Plus sometimes I’ve picked up new interests and learned new things because of someone I’ve dated (or someone I’ve been friends with, for that matter), and that’s pretty cool.

I’m not saying that sharing particular interests can’t be important. For example, it gives me pause to consider the idea of dating someone who doesn’t read. The written word has become so intrinsic to my life, and I think I probably talk about it all the time, or at least I’d want to, and it would maybe be a little weird to talk about it with someone who never actually reads. Or even worse, someone who doesn’t even have an appreciation for the art form that is the novel. That being said, I have many friends who don’t read, and that’s fine. I just don’t talk with them about that part of my life. But with a partner? Yeah, I think it might be weird.

And of course, it’s great to spend time around people with whom we can have interesting conversations. But I’m not convinced shared interests are the key to having interesting conversations. They help, certainly, but equally important can be some combination of knowing how to ask good questions, knowing how to listen, having a lively sense of curiosity, having compatible senses of humor, being a good storyteller, having things in our lives that we are passionate about, and using empathy.

Photo Credit: Shawn Lavery via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shawn Lavery via Compfight cc

Overall, Rahul’s idea about fascination seems more important. Fascination causes us to enter the realm of something deeper, of something not simply based on a shared interest for an activity, but instead on a shared interest in each other. It is at this stage in a relationship that we can talk about the things that shape us, the truths that are more personal, the vision of who we truly are or want to be or are afraid to become. Fascination causes us to be interested in someone else’s history, in their opinions, in their emotions, in all the components that added together equal themselves. And of course, fascination can be related to chemistry, whether we’re talking about physical chemistry or conversational chemistry (for example, the friend you can talk to for hours without effort in a satisfying back-and-forth).

Where does this fascination come from? I’m not really sure. From some magical combination of chemistry and curiosity and expression and appreciation and paying attention and who knows what else.

Shared interests are fine and good. But fascination, I think, has the potential to make a relationship truly extraordinary.

 

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