Clear-Eyed Dating — 7 Tips for Dating Success in 2020

As a single relationship therapist in the dating world, I face unique challenges that “civilians” don’t.

I also have a perspective on the whole process that’s different from that of my clients who are also single, since I come at it from both my personal and professional mindsets. I’d like to share with you seven lessons I’ve learned from my time in the trenches, from my clients, from the experiences of the men I’ve dated, and from my single girlfriends.

 

1) It’s as important to BE the right person as it is to BE WITH the right person.

You’ve probably noticed this in other areas of your life: different people bring out different aspects of our personalities, both positive and negative. There’s the co-worker whose delivery always sounds like criticism to you, so you go into any conversation already defensive, though that’s not how you usually are.

Or, your friend who brings out the goofy parts of you that you didn’t remember were there. There’s the person you always feel protective of, and the one you just want to smack sometimes; the family member who comes to you for your wise advice, and the one you can never please. As it is with these relationships, so it is with dating.

Different people will call out different things from you, so it makes sense to pay attention to who you are when you’re with someone.

Do you like the person you’re being in that moment? Do you feel genuine and authentic, or are you trying to be what you think they want? Are you playing a role, or being a better version of your true self?

We should all strive to have people in our lives who bring out our best selves, and maybe show us aspects of ourselves we’d never seen, or forgotten, or that weren’t there until that person came along and called them forth. Be around people who elevate you, because those are the right people.

 

2) The right person at the wrong time isn’t the right person. 

Maybe one of you just ended a relationship and you’re not really ready for another, but you meet and it just feels so right. Or maybe they’d be perfect if only they lived closer, or weren’t raising young children when yours are already grown, or weren’t starting a new career when you’re looking to wind yours down.

Whatever the reason, if you’re in a place where you’re available and interested in a relationship, and the other person isn’t, then that isn’t the right relationship for you. Logistics and timing matter, and denying that truth will just make things difficult and frustrating for you both. Life stage differences can be a big source of conflict between two people, and being aware of that can save you both a world of hurt.

 

3) It’s good to have rules and standards, and it’s OK to break them.

I encourage my clients who are dating to have standards about what they’re looking for, what they’ll accept from a partner, what their deal-breakers are, and what are their must-haves. I find this helps weed through the dating jungle, especially in online dating.

For example, I’m highly allergic to cigarette and cigar smoke, so a non-smoker is a must-have. I can’t and won’t even consider someone who smokes. I have pets, so an animal lover is a must. Other people have other standards, and I encourage that. Think about it…if you’re dating for a relationship, you’re auditioning someone for the job of being your one-and-only. It makes sense to know what you’re looking for, if only to make the field of candidates more manageable.

I have a client who said she’d never date a man much older than she, and not one who didn’t want children.

She was in her early 30s at the time, and wanted to be a mom more than almost anything, so her rules made sense. Much older men would likely have enough children already, and since she was certain she wanted a family, any man who didn’t just wouldn’t work. She was saving both herself and the men from wasting time on something that was going nowhere.

And then she met HIM. Her man. The one she’d waited for, hoped for, talked about, and almost despaired of ever finding. And yet…he was eleven years older, had children already, and was certain he was didn’t want more. So certain, in fact, that he’d had a vasectomy years earlier.

She came to me in a quandary. What to do? He was PERFECT for her in so many ways, but the thing she’d thought she wanted most was out of the question. She could love his children, but they’d never call her Mama, and she so wanted that.

She chose to end the relationship, despite loving him and being loved by him more than she thought possible. Her dream of having children was just too precious to her. Yet, she was miserable without him. Miserable! He was equally miserable, but still committed to not wanting more children, even with her. She and I talked, she cried. He and I talked, he cried. This wasn’t an issue where compromise was possible. Give up her dream of motherhood or give up the man of her dreams?

Reader, she chose him. She realized that she had something amazing, and the possibility of motherhood wasn’t worth giving up the certainty of the love of her life. She grieved, and still does sometimes. He supports her, and feels guilty that he can’t fix this. They work through it whenever it comes up, and otherwise live a very happy life. Some rules are made to be broken.

 

4) Early on, it’s good to date “an inch deep and a mile wide”.

This is the exact advice I give my clients, and that I used myself when I entered single life. When we end a relationship and start dating, we often don’t have a good idea of what we want, we just know what we had, and what pieces of that we do and don’t want to replicate in our next relationship. We also don’t know who we want to be in a relationship, we just know who we were.

Taking some time to casually date lots of different people can give us lots of good information about who we want to be and what we want in our next relationship.

Serial monogamists, people who jump into relationships quickly, one after the other, often don’t learn much from any of them. They can keep repeating the same mistakes over and over, making the same choices and hoping for a different result.

Take my client who’d been married or cohabitating with a series of women his entire adult life, not having any idea why none of them stuck. We did a deep dive into his choices, analyzing the women he’d been with for similarities and differences, and to his surprise, we found out that he’d been repeatedly choosing the same type of woman, just in a slightly different package. Beautiful, stylish, aloof, wealthy…different versions of the same person. We also did a deep dive into why all his relationships ended, and also to his surprise, he found out that he pretty quickly got bored with them.

He realized that having the most beautiful woman in the room didn’t make him happy if she didn’t also bring something else to the table: intellect, interest, wit, humor, zest for life. To try to change this, we agreed he’d date widely but casually for 3 months, going out with women he might not have considered before because they didn’t meet his physical standards of beauty.

He could still date attractive women, but he needed to look for qualities that would keep his interest, things more substantive and sustainable than looks. He’s still in the process, having fun, and meeting lots of interesting women. Though he hasn’t met his one-and-only yet, many of them have become good friends.

 

 

5) Anything that can happen quickly can happen slowly. Red flags are there for a reason.

It can be tempting to run full-tilt into something when we find the “right” one. We meet, we click on so many levels. We feel we know ourselves and what we want, and they check most if not all of those boxes, so why wait?

Well, here’s why. Some red flags are there from the very beginning, but we don’t realize they’re red flags until we see them more than once. Some personality characteristics need to be viewed in several contexts for us to see they’re problematic. The man who gets too drunk on Friday nights with his friends may or may not have a drinking problem, and you’ll probably only know by taking time to watch and learn.

The person who’s snarky and condescending to your server may not be “having a bad day”…you just need to wait and see. Or the person whose life is just “crazy busy” all the time, who seems only to have time for you on their schedule. Are they really that over-scheduled, or are they using it as a distancing technique? You won’t know that for awhile. You’ll need time to see if things just never really settle down, they’re not truly available, and you’ll be left hanging more often than not.

Taking time to really get to know someone gives us the opportunity to see what they bring to the table, both positive and negative, and decide if we’ll be able to deal with the difficult parts…because we’ve all got them.

We also get to see how they deal with our own less-than-lovely qualities. I tend to get snarky when I’m hungry and tired, and I need someone who can suggest I have a sandwich and take a nap, rather than become offended or defensive. I get preternaturally calm in a crisis, then overreact once it’s passed…just when most people are calming down. I need a partner who gets that, and won’t take my under-reaction for lack of concern, nor my delayed response as an overreaction. This is something only time and experience will tell.

 

6) People should earn your trust, not be given it.

This is a tough one for so many of us. We often go into new relationships giving people our trust, our vulnerabilities, and our belief in their good intentions. We even say things like, “I trust people until they give me reason not to.” The problem is that sometimes the “reason not to” can be so painful it can break us for a time.

Better to invest in someone to the extent they invest in you.

Give them the opportunity to earn your trust by the way their words, actions, and energy match. Offer them pieces of yourself in increments, and see what they do with that. When you tell someone, for example, that you’re terrible with math and ask them to add up the bill for you, do they quietly do that, or do they use it to tease you and shame you?

If you’re having trouble with your sister, do they support you with care, or do they dismiss your concerns? If you bring to their attention something they’ve done that bothers you, do they listen and respond with thoughtful concern, or do they become angry and defensive?

Better to test the waters with your toes than to jump in, not knowing whether it’s calm and warm, freezing cold, or full of sharks.

7) And finally: You can’t fix people. And that’s a painful lesson.

This one came from a good friend of mine. No matter how much glue we bring with us, or how good our intentions, we can’t fix anyone but ourselves. So, make sure that someone’s brokenness (and we’ve all got some, let’s be honest) is the kind you can live with. Choose not only someone’s shining qualities, but also choose what challenges or difficulties you’re willing to deal with. And be honest about your own.

If we want to be fully known and loved for who and what we are, we have to be willing to let ourselves be seen, heard, felt, and understood. Which can be hard. And scary. And sometimes painful. But it’s the only way to live whole-heartedly. To quote Brené Brown:  “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Here’s to us all finding and keeping love that we deserve, and being the love someone else deserves and wants to keep!

 

 

One-and-Only … or One-of-Many? (a guide to consensual non-monogamy)


What is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

There’s a lot of talk in the relationship world lately about this idea of consensual or ethical non-monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) describes a relationship in which all individuals within the relationship agree to not being monogamous, and all individuals involved in the relationship are aware that it is not a monogamous relationship. It is NOT cheating or infidelity, since those involve one or more individuals not being included in the decision-making process, and someone being lied to or deceived.

Consensually non-monogamous relationships make up about 4-5% of the population in the United States (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopkin, 2015), meaning that approximately thirteen million to sixteen million people are involved in some form of CNM relationship. If not you, then it’s very likely someone you know is or has been in a CNMR at some point. It’s long past time we talked about the structures, benefits and drawbacks of this way of loving and living.

Consensual non-monogamy is a vast umbrella term, describing many different relationship structures, such as Lifestyle (swinging), polyamorous, open, and monogamish relationships. All are slightly different.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle relationships focus mostly on sex, with the couple being the only real love connection. One or both members can “play” with other couples or singles, within boundaries agreed upon by everyone. While there can be friendship among playmates, love and romance are usually reserved for the bonded couple.

 

Polyamory

Polyamory, by contrast, not only allows for but encourages emotional bonding and love relationships among the members of the group, which can be as few as 3 and as many as you can imagine. It has more of a communal feel to it than the Lifestyle because no one pair is the “primary”…all are somewhat equally involved with each other, or have different roles within an equitable relationship.

I’ve tried to explain it many ways, and this is by far my favorite. Monogamy: You are my sun, my moon, and my stars. Polyamory: This person is my sun, this one is my moon, this one my stars. Both love the whole sky!

 

Monogamish Couples

Then there are monogamish couples, whose relationship is monogamous except for certain situations. The clients I’ve worked with who have this type of relationship find that it works really well for them. Some examples: one member is bisexual, and has freedom to explore that outside the primary relationship; one member is ill and can’t have sex, so the other has permission to get that need met elsewhere; one individual has a fetish preference that the partner doesn’t want to accommodate, so that person finds someone who will; both partners travel a lot for work, and both have the option to have casual flings while on the road.

What each of these (and all the others) have in common is an understanding that, while love and sex can go together, they don’t always. We humans are sexual beings, and we’re attracted to variety and novelty. In a long-term relationship, keeping the spark and heat alive can be challenging, as therapist Esther Perel writes about in her book Mating in Captivity: “Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it.”

 

 

Cheese? Yes, Please…

More is Better!

When many of us enter into what we consider a “relationship”, the default understanding is that it will be just the two people in it. There’s an often unspoken agreement that romance, sex, and love are to be found only within that twosome. This can be true for both heterosexual and LGBTQ couples.

But there are other ways to structure a relationship, and each of those includes more people than just the couple. Consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNMR) can involve as few as one extra person or as many as you can imagine.

As we talked about earlier, what sets these apart from cheating or infidelity is the element of informed consent present in each. Everyone involved in a CNMR knows they are in one, consents to being there, and understands and agrees to the boundaries and ground rules. The goal is that there are no secrets, no lies, no deceptions, and there’s fully transparent, open communication among all parties.

Here’s a great explanation of a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

Q: You like cheese right?

A: I absolutely LOVE cheese!

Q: So you like cheddar?

A: I absolute LOVE cheddar!

Q: Only cheddar? Not brie, or gouda, or Swiss?

A: Nope, I love them all. You can’t compare cheddar to brie or gouda. They’re all differently delicious.

Q: Does your love of cheddar reduce your love of the others?

A: Of course not. They’re all yummy, and I want to be able to enjoy them all!

 

If that doesn’t resonate, here’s another – more simple – way to describe a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

If you have a child, you love it with all your heart. If you have another child, your love multiplies, not divides. You don’t love your first child half as much, you find you have enough love for both. More children = more love. And that’s how it is with CNMRs. The good feelings are multiplied, not divided.

 

Other benefits of CNMRs

Other benefits include the opportunity to explore aspects of someone’s sexuality that their primary relationship might not support. A bisexual individual in a relationship with someone straight might yearn for the ability to express their other sexual preference(s). Someone with a particular fetish might relish the chance to play that out, when their partner is unwilling or unable.

Less evident, but just as relevant, is our natural desire for variety. Our partner could do everything we ask, but they’re still the same person. They still feel, smell, taste, sound, and move the same. Often it’s not the acts themselves that we want to be different, it’s the person with whom we’re doing them…without blowing up our marriages, our relationships or our lives. CNMRs allow for that.

One major benefit that almost everyone in a CNMR talks about at length is the improved communication and trust they experience as a result.

Living life with a CNMR of any type requires a high level of self-awareness, honest communication, and the ability to tolerate and work through difficult feelings.

Many non-CNMR relationships don’t even begin to address these issues, while people in non-monogamous relationships HAVE to, or they run the very real risk of shattering what they so value. When your partner is sexually or romantically engaged with someone else, and you are also, you each have to have a high level of trust in the other, but also in yourselves. There are always ground rules and boundaries, and you have to believe in your ability to stay within those as well as your partner’s. Any negative feelings or actions are talked about and worked through right away. Any concerns or fears are taken seriously. Any happinesses or “wins” are celebrated. Some of the healthiest relationships I’ve seen in my practice are CNMRs.

This type of relationship is not for everyone, but if you think it might be something you’re interested in, and you’d like a little guidance in healthy ways to structure and manage it, I’d love to help you work through and design your own, unique CNMR.

How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable [Interview]

I was interviewed again (!) on Q102, this time about “How to Argue”…which I retitled “How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable”.

Amy and I talked about ways to have effective, kind, productive conversations about difficult topics, and how to avoid either attacking or becoming defensive. Give it a listen and let me know what you think!

. . .

Here’s the summary from the Q102 website:

“Doing what we love, with love, this morning on Amy’s Table”


Listen to the entire segment below.

How to Be a Better Partner [interview]

For the past several months, I’ve been emailing, Facebooking, and Instagramming relationship tips every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. (You can sign up for them below, or find me on FB and Insta.)

They’re just a few sentences each, and they hit on topics like sex, how to argue effectively, making time for each other, trust…you know, the stuff we all deal with in our lives!

Amy Tobin (Q102 in Cincinnati) somehow got on the mailing list and found so many that really resonated with her, so she invited me onto her weekly radio show and podcast. We talked about why I started sending them, how to get and keep a healthy relationship, and some of the blind spots that we all have.

Take a listen, let me know what you think…and sign up for the tips! I promise you’ll be glad you did!

 

Here’s the summary from the Q102 website:

“From the very best parties to the very best relationships, to the very best windowboxes to simply being a good kind human, today we’re talking with the experts about which rules we should always follow.”

You can listen to the entire segment below.

Couples Therapy — don’t wait ‘till it’s too late

Hands down, my biggest frustration as a relationship therapist is that SO many of clients come to me y-e-a-r-s too late!

People often seek therapy when things are so bad they can’t stand it, and it makes my job so much harder and their chances of success so much lower. Many couples come in once they’re past the point of no return, after they’ve had a lot of time to accumulate hurt and let it fester.

Sometimes we can unearth this pain together and look at it from a different perspective or with more compassion, and help the relationship return to its previous, flourishing state. Sometimes trust can be rebuilt, empathy reestablished, “the spark” reignited. But sometimes, the pain and dysfunctional ways of relating to each other are just too ingrained.

The relationship has become intertwined with hurt, frustration, emasculation, devaluation, rejection…and there’s just no untangling it all.

Why do people wait so long?

If you think about it, it really makes perfect sense. Telling your significant other that you want to go to couples therapy takes courage, and a lot of people are afraid of the backlash that could happen if they bring it up.

Couples therapy is still synonymous with “serious problems”, “infidelity”, or “divorce”, and since so many people wait so long to come, it’s also synonymous with “the last chance”.

Some of the things you might fear will happen if you suggest therapy:

  • Your partner may express that they’re unwilling to work on the problems in the relationship.
  • Your partner could dismiss your feelings, or say that from their perspective, the relationship is fine as it is.
  • The suggestion explodes into a huge argument.
  • Both people have to admit that they’re not able to reconcile the problems in the relationship without the help of a trained professional.
  • Couples therapy helps them discover that their differences are irreconcilable, and they’re better off apart.

Of course, other possible outcomes of this conversation are that if you go to therapy and work on your problems, you might find:

  • A more fulfilling relationship.
  • A more peaceful and happy home.
  • Improved communication that will see you through challenges that, inevitably, arise when two people share a life.
  • A rekindling of feelings of mutual love and respect.
  • Developing a better, more mature type of relationship with your partner.

 

360° Relationship Performance Reviews

Sometimes, you don’t know what the problems are.

You just know you’re unhappy now and you weren’t before. I was talking about this with a friend, and he suggested that part of the challenge is that most couples don’t have any tool in place to help them regularly check in about the health of their relationship.

“Like an annual review at work?”, I asked.

“That’s right. In a workplace, you have an annual performance review to tell you how you’re doing – where your strengths are, and what you need to work on.

Relationships don’t have anything like that. Julie…you should make one!” he said.

In that spirit, I’m creating a 360* Performance Review for your relationship. You’ll review your partner, your partner will review you, and you’ll each review yourselves.

Watch here for it in the next few weeks…and feel free to email me anything you’d like to see included in it. I’m taking all suggestions!

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