Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Applying the Brakes

Remember when you were a kid, and your parents were driving the whole family to Disneyland or Magic Mountain or Lion Country Safari? As soon as you saw the signs on the highway telling you there were only a few miles left to go, you hopped up and down on your seat and squealed, “Faster! Faster!” You couldn’t wait to get there. Remember what your parents said in response? “Calm down. It’ll still be there when we get there.” The same holds true for this thing you’re on the verge of experiencing. Calm down. It’ll still be there when you get there. You’re still in the ignition stage. As you read through this chapter, I want you to envision a flashing yellow light. Proceed cautiously. Don’t come to a complete stop, but slow down and look both ways. Enjoy the scenery. I know it’s hard chilling out when you can’t wait to arrive. (I have a daughter. We’ve been to Disney World.) But there are lots of really good reasons why it’s a good idea to take a deep breath and gently apply the brakes, or at least be a little less lead-footed with the gas.
In previous chapters, I talk about the chemistry of love. What you’re dealing with in this early stage of dating is the chemistry of lust, which can be much more compelling and much more confusing. When your dates go well, your brain becomes flooded with natural amphetamines, or uppers, that make you feel — literally — high on life. You’re full of happiness, energy, optimism. If you were on an old Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, you’d toss your hat up in the air. It feels like this excitement will last forever, which is lust’s practical joke on us all. It doesn’t last. Eventually, the chemicals fade, and if deeper feelings haven’t developed, your fledgling “relationship” fades as well. When you race into a relationship instead of meandering along the scenic route, not only do you miss out on all the good stuff you’d never see otherwise, but you also set yourself up to drive straight off a cliff if things don’t work out. It’s hard to see all those Dead End or Detour or Slippery When Wet signs when you’re speeding, so the ultimate crash and burn takes you completely by surprise.
  • Focus: Why do I really want this person in my life? Is it about liking him or her or how good it feels to have this person like me?
  • Motive: Is this a romance or a rescue mission? Do I need or want this person?
  • Rationale: Do I think I’ll lose him or her if I don’t give all I’ve got right away?
  • Function: Is this more about getting into bed rather than getting to know someone?
Be honest. It’s important to know what’s truly lurking in your head and your heart. Misleading a date is uncool. Misleading yourself is unwise.

Four Stages of Attachment

Although each dating situation is unique, each progresses in a fairly predictable way. This progression from first date to budding relationship is what I call the four stages of attachment:
  • Stage One: Ignition (from first date to first month): Your interest is just starting up. Hopefully, there’s enough fuel on both sides to ignite a spark. You’re on your best behavior, wear your best clothes, shine your shoes, wear clean socks, pluck your eyebrows, thin your sideburns, and stash breath mints in your pocket.
  • Stage Two: First Gear (from 1 month to 3 months): If all’s well, you didn’t pop the clutch and kill the engine or flood the carburetor. You’re getting to know each other and checking the rearview mirror a bit, but mostly you’re keeping your eyes on the road ahead, trying really hard to mesh those gears without going too fast. You’re relaxed enough to be real, to fumble with the check, to wear a shirt straight from the dryer without ironing it, perhaps even to wear something comfy rather than spiffy. You offer your date a breath mint, too, instead of just sneaking one for yourself.
  • Stage Three: Acceleration (from 3 months to 6 months): Foot on the gas pedal, you’re raring to go. Physical and emotional attraction are steaming up the windshield. You like each other a lot. You feel so comfy you invite your date over to your place even when you haven’t picked the newspaper off the floor. You order extra garlic on the pizza. You feel a sense of give and take. Some of the nervousness about whether you’re on the same page, map, or galaxy or in the same car has lessened a bit — okay, mostly a lot.
  • Stage Four: Cruise Control (from 6 months to 9 months): Sit back, relax; you’re on the freeway. It’s a bona fide relationship-to-be. You love each other, though you may not have said it yet. You’ve seen each other’s flaws and find them adorable. You ate cold garlic pizza for breakfast, and your mate asked you to, please, brush your teeth. Happily, you complied. Not only are you in the car together, you can take turns driving (right . . . ), choose destinations together, and really enjoy the trip.

Avoiding Pitfalls

“Tell me a little about yourself” can always be countered by “What would you like to know?” which can be sidestepped by “Whatever you’d like to tell me.” Don’t be tempted to lie, even for effect. If you don’t plan to see this person again, stay on neutral subjects, talk about the weather, or — okay, okay — go to the movie where, at least, you won’t have to talk. Another pitfall to avoid is the tendency, when you hear a problem, to move in to fix it, becoming parent, therapist, or confessor. It’s awfully early to become a fixer.
If you do plan to see each other again, don’t worry that everything has to be said now or forever hold your peace. You have time, so relax and be as much yourself as you can. Pretend that you’re talking to a friend who doesn’t know you very well but likes you and isn’t going anyplace.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Spanish Inquisition phenomenon

The Spanish Inquisition was established by the Catholic Church to root out heretics in 1480. The inquisitors’ methods were brutal, employing, among other horrible torture devices, the rack, thumb screws, and boiling oil. You do not want your date to be reminded of this historical era as you tastefully peel away the protective layers and find out who this person is. Any question can feel like an intrusion, so make yourself and your date comfortable:
  • Share some things about yourself without dominating the conversation or showing off. The best way to elicit information is to offer some. I’ll show you me if you’ll show me you.
  • Ask thoughtful, nonaggressive questions. Doing so shows that you are genuinely interested and paying attention.
  • Avoid the enough-about-me-what-do-you-think-about-me? approach. Remember, the trick is seeming interested enough to ask gentle questions that show interest rather than reportorial zeal.

Good questions to ask

It’s important not only to be interested but to seem interested in your date by asking cool questions like the following:

_ What do you do?
_ What sports do you like?
_ What’s your favorite free-time activity?
_ What movies have you seen?
_ What restaurants do you like?
_ Do you think the president’s doing a good job?

Avoid questions like the following:
  • Do you come here often? Trite, silly, and demeaning leading nowhere.
  • How’s your food? The most common response is “Fine.” Complaining is tacky, and what are you going to do about it? If you want to focus on the food (I wouldn’t suggest it), you can offer to share. You can find out gobs about your date very quickly by his or her willingness — or unwillingness — to share.
  • Can you believe the weather? Pleeeze try harder than this. It’s a deadend question that runs the risk of making you sound desperate. Good questions are those that draw your date out without putting him or her on the spot. The goal here is to learn about one another, not scare the daylights out of your date with your investigative prowess. You’re trying to show interest, not terrorize. Talk, explain, find out what makes your date tick a bit. It’s fun, so lighten up and follow these easy guidelines:
  • Be prepared to talk about a lot of things. You can see why keeping up with current events, the latest movie, a local political scandal, or (in a pinch) your horoscope is a cool idea. If all you can talk about is work or your exes, it’s going to be hard to begin building those conversational bridges that give you the feeling that you’re getting to know someone and letting him or her get to know you.
  • Don’t worry about your next question. Listen to your date’s response. It’s even okay to be quiet for a minute or two.
  • Don’t fall into the Spanish Inquisition phenomenon.

Past sexual experiences

When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. If there was ever an area about which to draw a blank, it has to do with past sexual experiences. Over, done with, irrelevant. Don’t ask; don’t tell, even if tempted. You’ll both regret any departure from this policy.
All of us want to be loved not in spite of our warts but because of them. You want to feel that someone knows and loves the real you, but confessing sexual issues feels good for you for the moment but bad for the person who has to listen, and it will come back and haunt you both. See any pattern in the following list? You should. All these topics relate to past sexual experiences to keep a lid on:

_ Previous love affairs
_ Previous one-night stands
_ Previous indiscretions
_ Flings with the boss
_ Flings with your best friend’s significant other
_ Sexual preferences
_ Ménage à trois or more

If you have fantasies of being with someone else, remember that you’re not the only person who has occasionally thought about an old love or a movie star when you’re with your current date. The question is not “Is it okay?” but “How often does it occur, and how necessary does it feel?” If this type of fantasy happens most of the time, you’re not ready to be with this person. If it happens only occasionally and, in general, you’re pleased with your date, keep your mouth shut and enjoy the once-in-a-while forbidden pleasure of letting your mind wander.
You’re an adult, and human beings aren’t perfect. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Like everybody else, you’re a compendium of everything that’s come before: the people you’ve known (teachers, parents, sibs, the kindergarten bully, Sunday school teachers), the things you’ve done (your first kiss, dance lessons, strike-outs), and the things you’ve experienced (getting bad haircuts, developing crushes, receiving a favorite Valentine, getting a bloody nose, adoring favorite rock stars, losing report cards), and so on. Your sexual history is part of you, but the more you talk about it, the larger it’s likely to loom. And a looming sexual history does nothing but taint your current dating situation. If you need to confess about past sexual experiences, find a priest or a therapist, but with everyone else, adopt the Clinton plan: Don’t ask, don’t tell. You’ll both be happier and wiser.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When to say “I love you” (and when to keep quiet)

Few things are more memorable than the magical, angst-ridden, fingers-crossed, breath-held, passion-filled moment when either you or your date says, “I love you.” The phrase is much more than three little words. It’s also a silent question. As in, “Do you love me, too?” Properly managing this moment can spell the difference between euphoria and humiliation. Tips:
  • Wait at least several months, a minimum of three but preferably longer, before confessing your true love — even if you feel it on the first night. It takes a while to gain and build trust. Zooming ahead too fast can easily backfire, and it’s really embarrassing to find out you changed your mind and you don’t really love ’em.
  • If your date says, “I love you” and you don’t love your date back, don’t say “Love you, too” just to be nice. You’ll open a can of worms that’ll only make a gigantic mess.
  • If you’ve been together a while and you’re just waiting for your date to spill the beans first, take a chance and tell him or her how you feel. Your date may be waiting for you to take the plunge.
  • Realize that “love” doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. For some, the word “love” is followed by the word “marriage.” For others, “love” is always followed by “ya.” Make sure you’re clear on how you feel before putting your feelings into words, and give a thought to the way your date might receive what you’re about to say.
  • Understand that true love implies commitment. If you’re not ready to be monogamous, connected, open, and loving, don’t say “I love you” just yet.
  • If the only time you’re tempted to confess love is during sex or when you’re apart, close your mouth, open your eyes, and see what’s really going on.