The Courage To Quit

At the beginning of a new year we often think about what to continue and what to quit.  Some things are no-brainers: too much drinking, smoking, and eating are bad for your health, so it would be good to quit.  But others are more complicated.  How do you know when to quit a relationship?  It’s not like you’re going to feel proud of yourself when you wind up feeling alone, guilty, and needy because you left your former partner…

It takes a lot of courage to make a major decision like that.  And usually this starts with the courage to do a serious reality check.  How well is this relationship working, for both of you?  How hard have you tried to make it better?  Are you taking responsibility for yourself, or just blaming her for your unhappiness?  Or are you swallowing a lot of your own feelings to avoid rocking the boat?

Often women talk about long, slow declines in emotional and physical intimacy, wondering for years if they should stay or go.  And this can go on indefinitely–unless, as often happens, a new woman arrives on the scene.  Then there’s the excitement about possibilities, a reminder of attractive alternatives.  Of course, this seems unfaithful and shallow–but it is human nature, for better or worse.

It’s hard to be alone, and it takes a lot of courage to face this without the added bonus of a new girlfriend.  But courage is something we all have, and can grow more.  There are many small, courageous steps that will help you make a good decision about leaving or staying.  You can talk to your partner about your unfulfilled dreams–or you can tell your friends, or your therapist.  You can do more of what you enjoy, and build on strengths your already know you have.  You can broaden your social networks and learn more about living as an individual, not just as a partnered person.

It’s a process, figuring out what expands your life and deepens your loving relationships.  And it always starts with claiming your courage.


When Will You Be Ready, and for What?

Lately “I’m not ready yet” has been coming up a lot. I’ve heard it–and said it myself-many times, and of course it usually makes sense. Everyone need time to let wounds heal, get re-oriented to new situations, settle in after upheavals. But when does “healing” become “hiding out?” How do you discern what’s truly in your best interests, in the big picture of your life?

You’ll hear it about eating, drinking, and smoking habits: I know if I get back on my program I’ll stop this self-destructive behavior, but I’m not ready yet. And also, about starting new, prosocial behaviors: I know I’ll feel better when I expand my social group, but I’m not ready yet.

Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how rapidly we take on big changes. Some people like to gather a lot of information, learn the details, and calculate the outcome probabilities. They’re very careful. and can spin in circles indefinitely. Others dive in recklessly and get repeated injuries. So how do you find that balanced center, where you are vulnerable enough to connect enough?

Maybe you could start with savoring what seems to be going well in your life, where you feel full and okay enough (nothing is perfect!) That’s important to acknowledge–there’s probably a lot that you’re doing well, so appreciate and enjoy this. You made it happen!

Then you can see what’s missing for you, what you want more of –when you’re ready. And be careful to be gentle about this. Saying you want something when you don’t have it can be painful–but saying you don’t want it is being inauthentic, and that can twist you around a lot more. It’s what we call “sour grapes” and it’s not really good for human development!

What is good for all of us, I think, is to stretch toward expansion, being a little more open to others, a little more vulnerable, taking little chances. Please note the word “little.” Scaring yourself out of these tasks isn’t going to help! If you’ve ever had a physical injury from exercising too hard or too fast you know what I mean…easing into it is the way to go.

So when you’re saying “I’m not ready” maybe ask yourself–Ready for what? A first small step that would take me in that direction? That seems more likely that the terrifying dives most of us contemplate when we’re feeling unready.

Why Relationships Don’t Make You Happy

Recently I talked with someone about participating in a “Happiness Group,” a program that’s very research-based and teaches behaviors and thinking patterns that have been shown to increase personal happiness.  Her response was illustrative.

“I’ll try it, but what I really want is to meet someone to date!”

That’s exactly what most women would say, I think, if they’re really honest.  Because we assume that having the right relationship will make us happy.  So why waste time working on making yourself happy when you can just go out and find the right person.  Surely happiness will follow, right?

Not really.  Research shows that the right relationship can indeed make you feel happier–for about 2 years.  After that, you’re going to go back to your baseline level, or what some call your “set point” of happiness.  In other words, if you’re usually at 4 on a 10-point happiness rating scale, a good marriage can pop you up to a 6 or 7 for a couple years, but after than you’re headed back to 4.  That’s because of our amazing human ability to adapt to any situation–whether it’s good or bad.

Turns out, if you want lasting happiness, you need to make some changes in habitual thoughts or behaviors.  And you know how we love change!  Not….but it’s easier when you know there’s a tangible outcome, and the process of getting there makes you feel better along the way.  For example, practicing optimistic thinking about any situation will probably make you feel better immediately, and when you develop the habit of doing this automatically you’ll feel better more of the time.  Or spending more time doing an activity that you get completely absorbed in –what some call “flow experiences” or “being in the zone”– will make you happier in the moment, and will continue as long as you continue to do this intentionally.

It’s true that everything worthwhile takes energy and attention, but guess what?  Being unhappy is eating up a lot of energy and attention anyway.  You may as well be getting something good from it!  And someone needs to be in charge of your happiness.  Might as well be you.

Which leads me back to the comment about “I’d rather just find a relationship.”  When you’re a happier person, you’re going to find a happier relationship.  You’ll be drawn to others who share your positive energy, and you’ll know to stay away from people who are going to be toxic or bring you down.  You’ll attract happier people when you’re happier yourself.   Otherwise, you may wind up either caretaking or being dominated by someone who says she wants to take care of you but really just wants to control you.

I love immediate rewards too, and it’s wonderful to feel that spark with someone new.  But, I’d really rather have a steady flame, and to me that means doing what I need to do for my own happiness instead of waiting for “the right one.”

I always think of that classic question we should all ask ourselves:  What’s it like to be involved with someone like me?  That has a way of clarifying what I need to do!  Like maybe, get happier!

The Problem with Pursuing

“Never pursue a distancer.” This was the maxim I learned in grad school couples’ therapy classes.  It seemed like a no-brainer at the time.  How could anyone keep going after someone who doesn’t want you? I would have more self-respect!

Until I really fell in love with a lovely woman who was less in love with me.  Even as she gracefully and inexorably backed away, I kept making excuses to talk to her.  Maybe if she knew how I really felt…maybe if we cleared up a misunderstanding…maybe if I understood why she didn’t want me…

Needless to say, this inner chatter accomplished nothing positive, except to confirm that pursuing someone who is distancing herself from you just makes the pain a little worse, like adding more salt to a wound.

Why oh why do we do this, knowing how it will end?

It’s just hard to let go of a fantasy, a dream.  Even desperate clinging to elusive hope is better than sliding into a deep hold of unloved aloneness.  Until you realize your fantasy is interfering with reality, where you might find an available partner.

There are two good reasons not to chase someone who’s not reciprocating your interest.  If you “lose,” you’ll feel even more rejected. If you “win,” you’ll be stuck in a pattern where you do the giving, asking, seeking, and “working on the relationship.” Your partner will continue to be elusive and uninvolved.  You’re signing up for a chronic condition of feeling ignored, neglected, undernourished, and insecure. Hopefully, you want better than that.

Sometimes people say “I don’t believe in playing games. If I want someone, I’m going to tell her!” That’s great–but once you’ve told her, listen to her answer, believe what she’s saying, and have the grace to let go if it’s not what you want to hear. That’s not playing games.  That’s respecting yourself, and her too.  It will help you be ready for the person who’s waiting for someone like you.

All the Moms Were Crying

In another heartbreaking scene this week after this recent tragedy, a child summed it up when he said “All the moms were crying.”  And many dads are crying, too, because they also are feeling the terrible raw pain of losing such a precious part of yourself.  It’s ironic that we as humans yearn to be connected to each other, to love so deeply–and the cost of this is the terrible risk of hurting so badly.

Last weekend I took my daughter and other family members to a holiday performance where one of the songs was “I Need You To Survive.”  I felt the tremendous, loving bond in the audience, and the shared sorrow.  It was a moment of feeling present and connected, and that was comforting.  It’s true that we all hug our children more tightly, and this reminded me that we could hug each other more as well.  We seem to need each other to survive emotionally.

There are so many other emotions running wild too–anger, and fear, about the gun insanity that threatens all of us because we’re such a violent country.  Being overwhelmed by how complex the issues are–gun control, mental illness, schools and parents, violent video games, vestiges of cowboy culture…and more. How to start making the change we need to make?

It’s been hard to write about love and intimacy in the midst of this outbreak of violence…perhaps it does come down to the ultimate risk of loving someone–you might lose her.  Or him.  But what are you going to do? Be as present as possible, or back away from the connection?

Talking, Listening, and the 50-50 Rule

Today I’m attending a fund-raising event where lots of wonderful women will show up to support a good cause–and also, to cruise each other.  Most will put serious energy into looking good, and many will make the eye-contact-and-smiling connection that creates an opportunity for a conversation with a potential date.

Then the fun stops.  What if I can’t think of anything to talk about? What if she thinks I’m boring? What if I sound stupid?

Two guidelines: First, just do it anyway. At best, you’ll make a nice connection.  At worst, you’ll feel crushed or trapped.  Oh wait–that’s pretty drastic.  I meant to say, you may have some temporary moments of disappointment, but you won’t die.  Really, it’s true–everyone strikes out some of the time, but you can’t get on base if you won’t step up to bat.

The second guideline takes some thought:  Practice reciprocal conversations.  In other words, you should talk about 50% of the time, listen the other 50%.  I’m serious.  This is important, for many reasons.  Some of us talk too much, others too little, and how you balance these can predict how your relationship will go.

A friend told me about her first date with a talker.  After silently getting more and more irritated, my friend said “Do you know we’ve been sitting here an hour and a half and you haven’t asked me anything about myself?”  Not surprisingly, her date was embarrassed, but had the grace to turn it around.  She said she talks when she’s nervous, and hadn’t realized she was monopolizing the conversation.  They actually wound up dating for awhile, and the communication was more balanced after that initial debacle.

I’d like to point out that the reason it turned around was because my friend spoke up.  If she had sat quietly listening, and fuming, her date would have never known she was being such a turn-off.  I say this because many women will excuse ongoing chatter by saying “maybe she’s just nervous.”  Of course she’s nervous–so are you, but there are other ways to cope without chattering. And letting her go on and on doesn’t bode well for a relationship, unless you’re really okay with not having a voice.  I hope that’s not true.

To be fair, listeners can create a giant vacuum by not speaking. No one likes awkward silences, and talkers may sincerely think they’re helping the cause by filling the air time.  So if you’re a listener, your job is to push yourself to talk more.  Talk about yourself, your impressions of the event, your reasons for being there,  your job, your friends–whatever, just talk.

Most listeners worry about sounding dumb when they talk.  But I’ve learned,  from personal experience, not to worry.  Most people don’t listen with a critical ear, looking for flaws in how well you articulate.  What they notice is that you’re active and engaged in the conversation. And if they’re normal, they like this.

It’s true that some people are not normal, they’re “unique.”  Their own stories and opinions are uniquely fascinating, at least to themselves, so nothing you could offer would be worthy of their attention. Here’s your first clue: You begin to feel one-down, uninteresting, depressed.  If you don’t want to feel that way all of the time, don’t hook up with this person.

Recently someone wrote me a “Thanks for the 50-50 rule.”  Usually a listener, she’d been pushing herself to talk more on her dates, and guess what? She feels more interesting!  I give credit to her for stretching herself, and to her date for being able to stop talking and listen more. This is great conversation!

Dating Criteria: The Boundaries-and-Responsibility Channel

When you finally decide to try online dating, your friends will tell you “There are a lot of crazies out there!”  Frankly, that’s unfair.  The vast majority of women online are not crazy.  They’re just like you, and they worry that you’re crazy too.  So let’s be kind here.  Kind, and wise.

I think there are two  “screening criteria” that can help you avoid a lot of problems.  (1) How is she with boundaries?  (2) How much responsibility does she take for problems?  For both of these, you don’t ask direct questions–just keep these in mind as you listen and interact.  It’s not hard to spot either of these.

First, boundaries: not enough, or too many?  Not enough–when someone divulges too much personal information too quickly.  Especially sexual information.  Also if she professes intense feelings for you too quickly.  That’s so flattering!  Who wouldn’t fall in love with me on the first date?  Sadly, it’s not usually a good sign.

Too many boundaries is less common (after all, she is online).  Except for one very important area.  Some women are extremely closeted.  They may have good reasons–fear of losing child custody, jobs, family, social and professional networks.  These may be valid reasons, but remember “Secrecy = Shame.”  If you’re in a relationship with someone who has to hide you, it can make you feel invisible, unimportant, even stigmatized.

Second, responsibility.  We all have to deal with adversity: break-ups, work problems, family conflicts.  That’s life.  But who do you blame for these problems?

Some people, “externalizers,” blame everyone else.  “My partner was too controlling, my boss doesn’t like me, my family rejected me, the women I meet are all crazy.”  Any one of these could be true, but all of them? This pattern of blaming is chronic, entrenched, rigid; i.e., it’s not going to change.  When you hear someone blaming others, heads up!  You’re next.

Then “internalizers” blame themselves for everything.  These women are often easy to take advantage of because they’re so vulnerable to irrational guilt.  “I’m sorry I irritated you by saying you shouldn’t drive home after 4 drinks.  You probably drank so much because I made you nervous.”

Given the choice, I’d rather be with someone who takes too much responsibility, not too little.  But I really respect someone who hits a balance between extremes.  And I think you can tell that quickly, if you tune in to the boundaries-and-responsibility channel.

More Truths About Dating

Lots of us didn’t learn to date in high school, and don’t really want to start learning now.  Understandable, but not a realistic plan. I mean, some form of dating is required if you want to have a partner, or keep one.

Actually, dating usually means spending an afternoon or an evening with one other person to see if you have any romantic feelings for her, and want to spend more time with her.  Usually, you’ll know that within 1 or 2 dates.  Then there’s a Problem to handle.

What if I want her, but she doesn’t want me?  I’ll feel rejected, humiliated, depressed.  I’ll be afraid to ever try again.

Or what if she wants me, but I don’t want her? I’ll feel guilty, resentful, pitying.  I’ll get stuck in a boring relationship because I can’t hurt her feelings.

Given these appealing alternatives, no wonder some women opt to stay home.

Being rejected.  I like you, you don’t like me, this isn’t going anywhere.  Those feelings can really sting, and it’s incredibly hard not to personalize everything.  But believe it or not, it really isn’t that personal.  We seem to be wired to respond to different behaviors and appearances.  That’s why there’s a click of “This feels right” or “We’re a good fit.”

Or not.

For instance, some people aren’t attracted to Type A personalities.  Others love them.  It’s not a personal rejection -it’s about the fit.

So how is it to be the rejector?  When I don’t like you, you like me, this isn’t going anywhere.  As women, we’re prone to feeling guilty for hurting someone’s feelings, but really, what choice is there?  Don’t date at all, so no one ever gets hurt?  Or try dating, and trust yourself to honor your feelings. Courtesy and respect for each other helps the situation–guilt does not.

Maybe I should talk about why dating is good for you.  Otherwise, why write this?

There’s a way people act when they’re dating.  In the animal kingdom, there are “courting behaviors.”  Humans do grooming and preening, like showering, shaving, moisturizing, deoderizing, powdering, lip glossing…Paying more attention to self in order to look and feel better to someone else. All that usually adds up to a self-esteem boost.  It’s a nice by-product!

The dating looks are good, and so are the behaviors.  You know what it’s like to try to impress someone.  You impress yourself! You are active, planning interesting and fun things to do together.  You practice your best communication skills, listening attentively and talking candidly.  You whisper sweet nothings, expressing fondness and admiration.  She looks at you lovingly, and you feel the glow inside.  More self-esteem growing!

Recently I heard someone say she hated dating because “you don’t get to know the real person…everyone is trying to impress each other.”  Maybe we should try to impress each other more.  We’d probably like ourselves, and each other, more.  We’d probably be better partners.

Does Sex Really Matter?

In my personal quest to affirm sexual intimacy for lesbian couples, I keep hearing “Why?”  If two women aren’t having sex, and both are okay with that, why is there a problem? Maybe sex just isn’t that important to them.

Well, yes, if this were true, it would be true.  There is no rule that states “Thous shalt have sex with thy partner at least twice a month.” And if thy partner does not care, neither should anyone else.

But, here’s the thing.  Most women do care.  There isn’t a rule, but there is evidence, and data. Like the 92% of women on my first survey who said regular sexual contact is important in a long-term relationship.  That 92% isn’t a small or deviant group–that’s the vast majority of these respondents.

In follow-up interviews, every woman spoke positively–or wistfully–about the intimacy that sex can bring into a relationship.  No one said “I don’t care.” Here’s what they did say:

“Sex takes your relationship to a different level–deeper, closer, more full.”

It’s pleasurable and exciting, and feels great to have an orgasm–but even more, it’s just the most intimate way you can be with another person.”

“Sex reminds me that she’s my partner, not just another good friend.”

“When we make love I feel so much more connected.  It’s a glow that lasts for a few days and makes everything feel better and closer.”
Most of these women were very clear that sex mattered to them, that it had a high value.  But that wasn’t reflected in their schedules.

One way to clarify what your true values are is to ask yourself how you spend your time.  If you value spirituality, do you plan any time to focus your attention on spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, fellowship, service?  If you value nature, do you spend time outdoors enjoying it? If you value family life, do you plan time to eat dinner or play together, listen and talk with each other? Do you prioritize your time to fit your values.

So why talk about sex?  Because it matters a lot, to a lot of women.

Sexual Intimacy: High Value, Low Priority

Does “lesbian bed death” simply indicate that sex isn’t that important to many women? I don’t think so.   On my 2007 survey of sexual patterns among women who partner with women, a striking contrast showed up:  92% said sexual intimacy was important in an ongoing, committed relationship.  Many weren’t having sex, but almost everyone commented that sex can take a relationship to a deeper, more positive level.

While almost everyone thought sex is important, only 20% of the sample said they consistently plan time for sex.  These Planners were the only women who were still sexually active after 10 years together.  They were more positive about each other and their relationship, and made time for intimacy a priority.  Non-planners had drifted into low- or no-sex relationships and expressed more dissatisfaction with each other.

This is a High Value, Low Priority problem.  If sex is not important to you, no problem–but if it is, why aren’t you making it a priority by setting aside time for intimacy?

Planning for sex sounds awkward and contrived, until you think about what you did when you first started dating.  You spent days planning what to do, where to go, what to wear, how to charm her.  The planning itself , the “24-hour foreplay” stirred up loving, sexual , excited feelings  You made this a high priority, and it resulted in something wonderful.  That’s when values and priorities are in sync!