Recently, I’ve been trying to date more and change my conversational patterns. Instead of putting up a good image, I’ve wanted to be more upfront about the two big scares in my life – religion and sex. I write about sex and relationships primarily, but I also write about religion occasionally and have a degree in religious studies. Either one of these scare potential dates away. It’s been my experience that I’m either too “mature” or too “Christian” for potential dates who have difficulty reconciling how I can be either a Christian who enjoys sex, or a sexual person who is also a Christian. Personally, I think it’s funny and will even point this out to my date, noting their discomfort with complexity and “a well developed person.”
Complexity often poses a real challenge to our assumptions about happiness and partnership. Instead of seeing someone as a complement to our lives, we see them as “too different.” Instead of rounding out a couple or a family, the individual is othered, seen as a problem, and dismissed. I’ve observed that this is because we are, in a great sense, selfish. We think of partners in terms of our own wants and needs instead of seeing that all relationships, intimate or social or professional, are negotiated. Given the high degree of emotional and mental capital needed to negotiate relationships, we look for someone to come home to who is simple, who will understand and comfort us, who won’t pose a challenge to what we need to decompress after a day with others. Because we want a partner who poses no challenge to us, when challenges arise, we inevitably categorize our partner as complex – someone who will cause stress for our safe ideal. We don’t want a partner who requires thought, negotiation, and emotional capital. And so when our partner shows themselves to be a real person, our selfishness presents itself in relationally damaging ways. Being a “real person” is, in some sense, a deal breaker for the selfish individual.
I’ve dated chefs who love McDonald’s, artists who think the Masters “aren’t really that great,” and of course incredibly productive women who get shit done at work but want to turn off responsibility and decision-making, be told what to do the minute they get home, and “have absolutely no control, no opinion, nothing” when it comes to their relationships. I don’t see their incongruencies as dealbreakers. These are real people whose inconsistencies give them substance and depth.
Because we have access to so much information, without even knowing it, we begin to feel entitled to say what we want, to give our opinions on other people’s lives, and to discredit or dismiss what others have done with themselves, their choices, and their way of life all in the name of “flirting.” We give them shit because we like them – it’s an adult (though not exactly mature) evolution of the playground. We are mean to the people we like. But why? Why do we do this?
I think it is because of two things: One, the Internet makes judging someone incredibly easy. We do a flyover of their life – age, college, how many times they post on social media (which means how much free time they have in their day), whether their tweets are funny or shady, and armed with this information, we think we know someone. Two, the impact of Bro Culture as a result of Neil Strauss’ The Game.
Let’s start here. There are a cadre of “self-help” seminars that have, I feel, depicted women as mindless “targets” – Strauss’ label for sexually available women. His book and others like them perpetuate stereotypes of confused women waiting (consciously or not) for a man to tell them what to do and who to be. If a woman knows who she is and respects herself or “acts like a bitch,” men are encouraged to give her a little shit – to insult her, knock her down a little bit, or pay attention to her friends so she learns her place and doesn’t think she is superior to the man. Having the upper hand is always paramount in Bro Culture. Strauss’ book met a ready audience in angry, disaffected men who (you guessed it) feel entitled to a woman’s attention and ultimately her sexuality. But Meninism isn’t the only place this behavior can be found. Women’s magazines traffick in similar advice columns on how to minimize a man to get him to respect you, how to “gently” change him, and how to get what every liberated and “woke” daughter of Beyonce deserves.
Defending Bro Culture for a second here, I don’t blame Strauss. I think there is a communication style that most males possess that sees relationships in terms of a hierarchy or vertically. Who is at the top, and where are you positioned. It makes sense that you would want to “knock someone down a little bit” or “get them off their high horse” so that you can ascend and appear superior, or at least have more confidence. Women, by contrast, see relationships horizontally. Is this a relationship that can grow the team, the couple, the family, the friend group, the circle? Deborah Tannen, starting with her 1990 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and now a professor of linguistics for Georgetown University, says that
I have spent more than three decades collecting and analyzing thousands of examples of how women and men interact and have found that men’s talk – both voice to voice and through social media – tends to focus on relative hierarchy, and women’s tends to focus on relative connection. In other words, a man and woman might walk away from the same conversation asking different questions. He might wonder, “Did that conversation put me in a one-up or one-down position?” whereas she might wonder, “Did it bring us closer together or push us farther apart?”
These differences are socially reinforced, of course, and Tannen is quick to offer that “all conversations and all relationships reflect a combination of hierarchy and connection.” The two are not mutually exclusive, but instead “inextricably intertwined.” Her work indicates that Dr. John Gray was correct in a sense – men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Communication is different for every individual, but we see patterns which lend credence to the supposition that men and women not only talk differently and hear differently, but think differently. Anyone seeking a relationship with someone of the opposite gender would do well to remember that gender is far more than anatomy; gendered differences reside at a base level of experience and are often reinforced over time, creating a communication style that affects more than speech. It affects how we see one another. It affects how we present ourselves and communicate, what music “speaks to us” and whether we enjoyed a book. Communication is more than conversation, so the more information we are trading on, analyzing, interpreting, and using to determine a (potential) partner’s value. Which brings us back to the Internet.
The more information we believe we possess, the more we construct our idea of who this person actually is. Social media allows us to peek at hundreds of pieces within minutes and assume that we know this person and whether they are worth our time, energy, investment, and emotional attachment. But, according to Tannen, our perception is inherently skewed. A man who presents his identity one way (in communicates terms of hierarchy) will be not be seen in the way he intends by a woman (who reads that communication in terms of relationship). Without getting too deep into philosophical history, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) discussed the object of Symbol – that there is the symbol itself, the meaning that is attached to the symbol, and how that symbol is perceived. For example, the Confederate Flag exists as a real thing – a collection of colored fibers that, when collected together, create a tangible object we call “a flag.” But in raising that flag, there exists the intention of the person raising the flag (perhaps, let us say, honoring family history) and the way that flag is understood by others (perhaps as a statement on race). Lacan’s contributions to Post Structuralism are profound on the study of social media. Who are we (pause) and how are we perceived?
Whatever our reasons, legitimate or otherwise, we assume we are entitled to this information and “because it’s there” to comment on it, creating a feedback loop of misunderstanding. To quote a childhood cliche, “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” Is it possible, I wonder, that we are so adept at data mining and compressing information that when we reach a wall or something we feel is inconsistent – I would never do that – we read the gaps incorrectly as well?
Naturally, the radical idea of talking and listening challenges our assumptions about dating “well” today. Many of us don’t realize our “information” is comprised of dozens of little assumptions until we are no longer able to listen, to see, and to focus on someone to allow them to show us who they really are. Technological advancement is not a bad thing, and I do not even want to have a hint of the Luddite about me. But it is important to discuss the role of technology as a tool that can affect our perception; we see bits and pieces of information cultivated to create a pseudo-identity instead of a real person. For me, the casual observer would see that I write about sex and relationships frequently, religion occasionally, and (for the scrutinous) tend to have left-leaning politics (Hillary ’16). Sex, religion and politics – the three taboos, readily available. What might that indicate to a potential dating partner? Very little, considering it says nothing about my family, my education, my friends, my dietary practices (or lack thereof), whether I am active or passive in my daily life. The supposedly important indicators of relational health? Not immediately visible. This cuts both ways – we judge someone and eliminate them as a potential partner before we get to know them just as frequently as we overassess a potential partner’s value. We may see a dozen well-filtered photos of them having fun, smiling, and hanging out with other attractive people, then imagine they are living an amazing life when the real story may be something quite different.
It’s not that assumptions are bad necessarily. It’s that technology has given us a way to feed the beast. According to Miguel Ruiz best selling author of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, we make assumptions all the time to make sense of the world.
If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.
That is a scary situation when it comes to relationships, or more accurately the initial stages of a relationship, because we have been conditioned to do a flyover of a partner’s life, to skim over their resume and not get bogged down in the details. We feel excitement as a result of chemicals flushing through our bodies, all the time playing it close to the vest, putting our best image forward, making jokes to alleviate the tension we feel, and yes to massage the truth and pass ourselves off as living a better life than we actually are living. It’s scary because we may very well be building the foundation of a relationship on superficiality. After all, we think, We’re going to have our whole lives for me to hear and tell the rest of the story. My advice to counter this is to quote Maya Angelou. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them. The first time.”
Here’s a few more tips that I’ve picked up to help break down assumptions and help us discover the “complexities” in our lives and those of our partners.
- In my experience, if someone is more focused on telling you what they are against than being for (or even hearing about) your life, you need to save yourself some time and cut it off. If you believe in something and your (potential) partner doesn’t, that’s totally fine. But if they begin to use your interests to “tease” or criticize, to challenge you and your beliefs, to make you feel small then baby it is time to move on. Not only are they being a jerk, but there is absolutely no reason for you to open up and share more of your life. Why would you? So they can criticize and put you down some more? Do yourself a favor and drop that hater – immediately. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Dump their sorry ass.
- People change and adapt. Sometimes, this means the person we loved is not the person we love. Finding a way to accept this is the key to longevity.
- You are not obligated to tell your whole story upfront and explain the complexities, differences, and hiccups. Neither is your partner.
- There is a difference between someone letting us down and someone being “a bad person.” This one took me a long time to accept, but I’ve found that some of the people who have let me down and disappointed me are (gasp!) still human and can still be a good person. Be mad – but also encourage yourself to move on, accept them at their fragile place of humanity, and even encourage them if possible. Don’t forget, but also remember that everyone screws up – sometimes in really big ways.
- There is a difference between who we are and what we do. People are complex, like we’ve been saying here. And sometimes those complexities are confusing. They don’t make sense. Or, even more confusing, sometimes they make perfect sense. But remember that whatever brought us to this point, who we are and what we do can often be a place where complexity is more apparent. Yes, what we do shows who we really are. But sometimes we do things that simply don’t make sense. The great thing is that people can learn from their mistakes. We may do terrible things, and because we did them, we vow never to do them again. Allow space in your life to screw up – but also adapt, learn, and become someone better.
- People are complex – including you. You may have been reading all of this so far thinking about a friend who needs to read these words. Friend, maybe you need to read them again for yourself. People are complex – including you. People are weird. They do weird stuff. They act in ways that are incongruent with who they truly are. And those “people” include you too. It’s okay. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself. You’re okay and you’re on your way.
- Relationships are hard work. “It comes easy” simply isn’t true. The most devoted couples I know who have spent their lives together say they have fallen more in love with each other over the years because they fought with each other. They “drew blood” at times and found a way to forgive, to come back together, and to accept and love each other at their weakest and worst. That’s what makes us the best version of ourselves – honesty, brutal honesty, love, standing up to each other, correcting one another, and ultimately acceptance.
- “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Whatever is going on in your relationship or even with yourself, take a moment to ask, to hear, and to sit with what’s going on before reacting. Sometimes, hearing someone explain themselves is just an excuse but sometimes hearing someone tell their story is the most freeing experience you can have between yourselves. A good rule of thumb is to observe, ask, repeat back what was said, and then begin to talk about how you think or feel about it.
- Recognizing your own selfishness helps you understand when someone else is being selfish. This has been another challenge in my life. I’ve had to learn (and relearn… and learn again) that I can be very selfish. When someone is selfish with me, I am better able to name what they are doing and work through it with them. They are not “crazy” or “an awful person.” They are human – and I know this because I am human too. They say that whenever we point a finger at someone, four fingers point back at ourselves and that’s a good thing to visualize. Very often when we notice something “not making sense” in someone else, it is because we see this same crack within ourselves. We can see it because we see it every day in the mirror. Instead of blaming someone, take a self-inventory. Find a way to accept yourself and then find a way to accept (or finally break it off) with your partner.