Sunday, July 08, 2007

Do "The Rules" still apply?

In today's interesting "Modern Love" column in the N.Y Times Style section, Sari Botton addresses a central sticking point of contemporary relationships, the crucial question of who makes the first move. During the course of her commentary, Botton recounts her father giving her a copy of the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view and dating status) The Rules, a "how to" plan to help woman met the men of their dreams.

What's funny about the column is that it, to me, illustrates how out of whack dating has become. This may have to do with the jaundiced eye I'm forced to cast on the relationship scene where I live, but in reading the column, I was shocked at how the observations made by the female author could just as easily apply from a man's perspective (sub in "girlfriend" below):

Of course, I was complicit in my misery. No matter how badly my men behaved, I hung around for more. I remained the best, most low-maintenance girlfriend in the world, requiring next to nothing. I would get out of my boyfriend’s way whenever I sensed he needed space — anticipating it so he wouldn’t even have to ask. I would never ask for a thing, fighting back tears when he flirted with other women or forgot my birthday.

I would tolerate his negligence, just as my mother had, racking up resentments as ammunition until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I'd walk, and my favorite part would begin: I would get flowers and love letters and promises of better behavior. He would plead for a second chance, but by the time we had reached this stage, I was already out the door. Sometimes I had my eye on someone else, who would no doubt turn out to be even worse, and the cycle would repeat.

There's a lot of painful truth here. It's terribly frustrating to fall into a series of relationships that you know, deep down from the outset, aren't going to help you evolve as a person, and yet, you can't seem to find a way to break free. Most of this has to do with how we judge our own self-worth, but it is, of course, hard to be at peace with who you are when you find yourself in dating relationships that reinforce your own worst suspicions about how others view you (and how you view yourself).

Continuing on, Botton relays an episode with her therapist (again, subbing in "woman" or "girlfriend" where necessary):
I'd had therapists before, most of whom worked slowly and let me keep getting in my own way. Not this guy. He wasn't the central-casting version of a male therapist, the paunchy, bearded, paternal Judd Hirsch. No, he was a ruggedly athletic man in his late 40s who was into rock climbing. He worked fast and didn't mince words. He dubbed me the Needless Wonder because of my doormat ways. At the end of a session, he would open his office door and bellow into the empty waiting room, "There she goes, ladies and gentleman, the Needless Wonder, able to exist on air alone."

I was unnerved when he tried to persuade me to take an active role in courtship, and to ask to have my "healthy needs" met in a relationship. Didn't he know about "The Rules"? Didn't he, as a man, know that a boy chases a girl until she catches him? That guys respond not when you ask them for stuff, but when you blow them off?

"There's a term for that," my therapist would joke. "It's called 'sadomasochism.' You don't want the guys who respond to that."

Again, there's a certain sad truth to that passage (I'm not even going to address the the insanity of "the chase" in dating...that's another post, altogether). While I have an immense distaste for the touch-feely sounding nature of the term, "healthy needs", I do have to admit that I often (always?) fail to define my limits/expectations about the direction of a relationship, and in so doing, I prevent both myself and the person on the other side of the ledger from getting the maximum takeaway from the experience (that sounds like an economist talking, but whatever).

So being happy with one's self and knowing what you want are keys to having lasting and fulfilling relationships. Earth shattering! Common knowledge, yes, but building a positive view of self while also possessing a sense of reality about the things you want versus the things you actually need is much easier said than done. I've found that most people often get into relationships taking into the account the "wants" but disregarding the "needs" side of things, and in so doing, end up in situations that are more complicated than they need to be at the outset. This, to me, is the ass-backwards way of approaching things, but, sadly, we have to initially judge based on the superficial (looks, perceived social status, school, money, etc.) rather than the other way 'round. There's an important caveat to dating here that I should mention, however. Sometimes we don't "need" anything from another person; we simply want them to puff up our egos, be available to us when we want them to be, and generally serve as emergency hook-up partners/people you can have mindless fun with. This is most often, but not always, seen in the wake of a break-up when a person goes on a spree of "dating" (however you define that) in order to validate to themselves that they are indeed still desirable to members of the opposite sex. This could be called trophy dating - "sit there, look good, and don't say something stupid".

Ok, enough for that extended aside. To get back to the unfocused musings of this post, I want to address the idea of who can make the first move in a relationship before I tackle a few loose ends in regards to wants vs. needs.

At least here in San Francisco, I don't think there's any question that either a girl or a guy can initiate something should they feel strongly enough about it. My general thought, though, is that most girls would still prefer to be asked out rather than do the asking themselves, but the notion that a woman can't make the first move is a remnant of courting days long since come and gone and, as such, it should be retired. If stereotypes are to be believed, men have no clue what's going on half the time anyway, so why wouldn't an attractive woman go ahead and make her intentions clear upfront, whatever they may be? Guys have to do this all the time and it has somehow become akin to accepted fact that men shouldn't have a problem with this stare of affairs. Again, this is antiquated thinking. Why people don't recognize how absolutely terrifying it can be to approach a woman you're interested is beyond me. Most of the guys I know don't indiscriminately hit on every single girl in a bar that catches their eye. Does that mean we're more discerning? I'm not sure. But I think a lot of guys have an innate sense about how they think their advances are going to be received, and if they think they're going to crash and burn, they save themselves the humiliation by doing nothing.

Now, I can anticipate the rejoinder that would come from a lot of self-confident, successful woman to the above. They'd all say the same thing in slightly different ways ("Man up" or "Grow a pair" for those who were being nice about it; "Stop being a pussy" would flow from the mouths of the more crass members of that cohort). Yes, you certainly can't win if you're not playing, but sometimes you have to be aware of the game that's being played before you try to get involved. This lines up somewhat with the hilarious complaint that I sometimes hear voiced from good looking women who say that no guys talk to them in bars. Note to attractive women: If you're out with a group of your friends, and you're not especially welcoming to advances by a guy here or there, other guys won't waste their time because they will assume (probably correctly) that they have less than a snowball's chance in hell of talking to you. If you're a guy that doesn't think of himself as especially good looking, it is beyond intimidating to go up to a gorgeous woman to attempt small talk. If you're a totally hilarious guy, or a guy that doesn't have a problem making a fool of himself, you can get past that, but otherwise, it's not easy (related: This is of course why the vast majority of social interactions take place in the presence of alcohol. It's not called "liquid courage" for nothing).

So, to wrap this back around to who makes the first move...ladies, if you see a guy that catches your eye, make a move. If we have to suffer the indignity of rejection, you should too. It's a world of equals, right? So, to answer the question in the title of this post, no, the rules do not in practice have to apply.

Back to wants and needs (via another passage of the article):
Stop living in a women's magazine version of the world," he would plead, trying to prod me into action. Start being real — and having needs. You won't have a satisfying relationship until you do.

First off, I think I need to find Botton's therapist. On a serious note, though, we're all guilty of living in our own little dreamworlds in regards to relationships. The highs and lows I can conjure up in my head are (generally) pretty far off from the reality of what is actually going on. To that end, forming a real view of yourself requires divorcing yourself from the fantasies that populate your mind and instead making yourself take a cold hard look at the facts of who you are. Turning inward to admit your own faults can be very difficult, but, therein, one can find a certain catharsis that is needed to move on to the next step, which is coming to terms with who you are...and who you are not. Finding that middle ground is what can lead you into a "real" relationship with well defined needs.

A semi-related point (or two). Despite the fact that I'm about to mention a few clichés nobody wants to hear, they are generally true and they should be heeded (however grudgingly). Most often, people find something during periods of self-discovery/improvement, which typically follows after swearing off dating due to some recent bad experience. Personally, I know I need to embrace this period of living and doing for myself, rather than wasting it by playing the "what if?" game. Every day is new, and it brings with it an opportunity to change your way of thinking. Additionally, it is counterproductive to try and assign blame for the untimely demise of a relationship. The central point has to be that the relationship is over and, try as you might, you can't fix it (at least not now, if you even want to).

A few weeks ago, a friend encouraged me to draw up my own list of things that I was looking for in a relationship. I can't say for sure that this is a complete list (nor can I say it's a permanent one), but it represents what I'm feeling now:

  • I need to be involved with someone who recognizes that I will not be a supremely confident person every day of my life. Some days I will question my abilities, and, perhaps, my own self-worth. I want someone who can understand that growth can come from introspection and critical observation of self and that I will, from time to time, need them to be strong enough to accept that and realize that from this I can become a better person for not just me, but for her as well.
  • I need to be with a person who wants to be with me.
  • I need to be with a person who can be completely and totally honest with me about everything. There's nothing worse than being fed a line or harboring the feeling that what's said to you as truth is not what's said to others as the same. It's patronizing, and frankly, it shows a lack of character. Have the courage of your convictions and say what you mean.
  • I need someone who is able to understand and appreciate who they are.
  • I need someone who is going to make an attempt to meet me halfway and who is going to be present emotionally in the relationship. Being emotionally distant is oh so very outré.
  • I need someone who has a certain sense of adventure (traveling to Asia, yes; base jumping, probably not so much), a dash of cynicism, and an ability to find beauty in gestures, both grand and subtle.
  • I need someone who will, at the bare minimum, tolerate my obsessions with music, books, sports and politics. I know fantasy football is fucking stupid, but I enjoy it.
  • I need someone who is willing to let me try to act like the gentleman I was raised to be. I may not be the most handsome man you'll ever lay eyes on, or the wittiest, the richest (this I will certainly never be), or the most funny, but I will certainly always try to treat you with respect and I will always endeavor to be what it is you need me to be.
  • I need someone to understand that while I may not be overly religious, I am indeed spiritual.
  • I need someone who can encourage me to follow my dreams...and who is willing to help me achieve them.
  • A simple, but crucial point: Don't equate being a nice guy with being a pushover. There's a line there, and while I certainly have a higher tolerance for bullshit than a lot of people do, that's not an open invitation to try to take advantage of my easy going nature. Laid back doesn't mean stupid.
  • I need someone who won't go running at the first sign of trouble. We will frustrate each other. We're going to fight. Sometimes, we may not even like each other very much. But, if we still believe in what brought us together in the first place, then that person needs to be willing to stick it out. Anything worth wanting is something that's worth fighting for. This is a cheesy way to illustrate the idea, but it works (and besides, who doesn't like New Edition?).
  • Related to above, I am cheesy sometimes. Deal with it.
  • I need someone who is willing to be truly be themselves around me.
  • I need a person who is passionate about life and what it means to be alive. that's the start of my work in progress. I will revisit this from time to time to see how my feelings on these things evolve. It should be an interesting journey.


A Friend of Your Sister said...

The musings are necessary, but so many of us have the courage to venture beyond the metacognitive stage and into action. Maybe another question to ask is: what can we do to desensitize ourselves to rejection? As you stated, it is necessary to understand ourselves and why we do what we do and think what we think, but many of us need to get over the fear of rejection, simple as that sounds, without having to resort to liquid courage necessarily (I can't see alcohol being available in bookstore aisles) or being a total clown (which, for some reason, isn't viewed as an "attractive" quality for females to have).

"Finding a match"--or even just getting a date--is so clearly unscientific. There's just gotta be a way to not take rejection so personally, regardless of who does the asking.

A Friend of Your Sister said...

Oops; I meant to say "...but so FEW of us..., or "...not many of us..." in that first line. (As our friend Ben would say, "Pretty [but not much else]!)

I also forgot to say how wonderfully written this post is! Why is it you are not writing professionally???

MPP said...

Friend of my sister,
Thanks for your comments! In re: is definitely one of, if not the the most, crippling aspects of dating. I think part of coming to terms with rejection is simply recognizing that not all forms of rejection are the same. When we fall for a friend and they, while flattered by the attraction, don't want to go down that particular road, we need to see that this is not the same kind of rejection we experience when, say, we lust after someone whom we don't know but find extremely desirable and they shoot us down. That's not to say that one feels better than the other, but they should feel different, if you get my drift. I would put more weight on the rejection from the friend, personally, but, even then, the reasons for the rejection there are probably still wrapped up in some form of affection from the friend. Put it this way...there's a reason a guy can hit on one girl after another in a bar and it won't hurt their feelings that much, but that same guy becomes a mess when he realizes he's really attracted to his best female friend and she shoots him down.

Furthermore, as hard as it is, sometimes we need to flip the script on how we look at rejection. Sometimes, and this is contra what we tend to think, we ought to embrace rejection (especially at the outset of a relationship). We all want to be with someone who wants to be with us, right? So when people cut us free, sometimes we need to recognize that this is indeed a good thing. Why waste your time with someone who is totally unsure of their feelings for you? Someone out there will like you for who you are and there's no reason to settle, even if things aren't going the way you want them to at a particular time.

Yes, finding a match is a basically a crap shoot. There's no denying that. Many times, most of us wonder why we even bother. Having said all that, don't give up. Be who you are and embrace your strengths and faults. Live for yourself, your family, and your friends. My guess is there's someone out there feeling just like you (or many someones) and if you keep your faith high and your eyes open, you never know what's just around the corner.