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.