Most dating advice focuses on the skills of seeking, not the skills of loving. Apps, events and websites offer endless opportunities for meeting, but until we learn how to choose healthy intimacy and nurture its tender new shoots, it’s unlikely we’ll find the love we seek. When we approach our search for love as an intimacy journey, not as a race against time or a search for a needle in a haystack, everything changes.
In my decades of seeking a relationship, I spent incalculable hours looking for love in places that lacked love, using methods that had little to do with love. Play it cool. Act witty. Conceal all traces of unseemly need. As much as I tried–and God knows, I tried–nothing seemed to work. I was endlessly engrossed in my seeking, but it turns out that this was not where the gold was to be found. As much as we are led to believe that finding love is all about upping the numbers of people we date and improving our looks, it’s ultimately our humanity that lets us find and keep real love. When we learn to bring our humanity into the ways we search for love, the real changes begin to happen.
A number of years ago, two friends and I–three “chronically single psychotherapists”–started a support group. Week after week we met and supported one another as we encountered the same frustrating obstacles we’d each hit so many times before in our dating lives. Left to our own devices, we would have taken the same old turns and ended up with the same old disappointments. Now, with one another’s help, we found escape routes out of our unhelpful patterns. As a result, the new choices we made had the lovely taste of earned wisdom. That group changed my dating life. And each one of us–after a combined count of many decades of singlehood–is now in a loving relationship.
More than anything else, it's through finding our own deeper insights that we transform our search for love. Each time we find new, wiser ways to approach our old dating dilemmas; each time we develop a new clarity–or a new sense of warmth in our interactions, we feel a new sense of hope and self-worth. Each of these experiences is a signpost of growth. I have come to believe that these moments move us more quickly to finding love than anything else.
As part of my research for my upcoming book, I interviewed many couples whose relationships inspired me. Manuel and Suzanne’s story was one of the many that taught me important lessons about the search for love. Manuel met Suzanne in the Peace Corps. She was thirty and he was eighteen. He was a virgin. At first, it was just sex. Yet he found myself bonding with her as they kept doing things together. He never dreamed they’d get serious, and neither did she. It seemed preposterous. They were the scandal of the community—no one thought they would last, including them. After they left the Peace Corps they kept seeing each other. At a certain point they just had to face reality. They had come to really love each other. And they weren’t going to give that up. But they didn’t even consider marriage. Seven years into the relationship, Suzanne was offered a great new job, and Manuel was applying to graduate school. It was time to make a decision about their future–and they decided to stay together. It’s been twenty years now. They have four children, and they still feel like they’re really good together. Manuel told me, “I’m more the romantic one; Suzanne is more the practical one.” But, he said, “She lets me be romantic, because she loves me.”
A few years into their marriage, Suzanne had a ruptured aneurism in her aorta. She was six months pregnant with their baby. Suzanne almost died on the operating table. Her blood pressure was zero. Manuel was unable to describe the fear he felt that night.
Suzanne survived, but they lost their baby. And they spent the next few months mostly just crying on the couch together.
Manuel told me about his defining moment: “I read somewhere that half the couples who lost a child ended up divorcing. And that’s when something clicked inside of me. I knew which 50 percent we’d have to be. Marriages aren’t promises of forever. But after what we went through, Suzanne and I were one, and I couldn’t let that change, no matter what."
He continued, “Lots of people talk about soul mates. That may be some people’s experience of love, but I don’t really buy it. I think you can search forever and just suffer if you’re just looking for that meant-to-be match. You need love and you need attraction for love to work. But ultimately, love is a choice. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t decided to choose love many, many times over. Relationships take a lot of work. A lot. It’s not about finding the absolutely perfect match. It’s about becoming someone who chooses love at the crossroads."
Manuel’s words haunted me. Becoming someone who chooses love at the crossroads. And when I looked back on my own circuitous and mostly painful decades of searching I realized that it was when I started making new choices at my own countless crossroads that my search for love underwent a sea change
In the land of dating and intimacy, there are countless micro-crossroads and frequent major crossroads:
Do I approach her?
Do I share a vulnerable secret with him?
Do I try to really listen?
Do I say no to something that goes against my values?
Do I leave or do I keep trying?
Do I let her know the depth of my feelings?
When do we start having sex—and what kind of sex will it be?
Do I admit how I like being touched—or how I don’t like being touched?
Often, our very future in finding love is determined by our small choices at these countless crossroads. Do our choices leave us feeling enriched; do they strengthen our identity as someone who chooses intimacy—even when that means something as hard as saying no to our "attractions of deprivation"? If so, then we are quite likely on a path that will lead us closer to real love. In my years of dating (although I wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone) somewhere deep down, I thought that the true key to finding love was to just lose those damned pounds, and to radiate more confidence. I could not have been more mistaken. Losing weight and becoming authentically more confident are certainly nice things, but it was something altogether different that led me to love. It was learning to become someone who chose intimacy at the crossroads–again and again.
Whether you are seeking a relationship or in one already, I invite you to befriend this question in the countless small and large crossroads you encounter each day:
What would it mean to choose intimacy right now?
More than almost anything else, I think that’s the question that leads us to love–and helps us keep that love alive.
© 2014 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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