Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

I Met My Spouse Online and You Can Too

3 ways to manage the online dating conundrum and enjoy doing it

Dating confronts you with much you can’t control, so it's important to focus on what you can control. I joined a dating site in 1998 at age 44. I didn't love the idea of dating, but I met the right man in a few months and we’ve been married since 2000. It was a bumpy road, but I'm glad I screened out the negativity and focused on things I can control.

1. Focus on the person you’re with in each moment 
The person on the other side of the table is a unique individual who wants to be appreciated for themselves. If you see him or her as another one of “them,” they are not inclined to enjoy your company.

I used to complain about the boys at my college when I was a freshman. I'll never forget the great advice I got from an older, wiser junior: “It only takes one." You don’t have to like all of them, so there's no need to get worked up about the ones that are not for you. She could have said, "You're finding categorical flaws with people to manage your insecurity." But lucky for me, she said it in a positive way that I could hear.

Each person you interact with adds value to your life, if only to help you learn about people. The dating process won’t feel draining if you focus on the value you’re getting from it.

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2. Set boundaries and then enjoy
If you expect the other person to “make you happy,” they may decide they are not capable of that. And they’re right. When you take responsibility for your own enjoyment of life, you are good partner material. Dating can be hard to enjoy because you feel like you’re being judged, and your expectations risk being disappointed. But you have power over your own judgments and expectations. You can find the positive in your dating experiences despite the inherent difficulty.

Set boundaries so you don’t feel like a victim. You have no power over others but you have power over your own boundaries. Steer clear of experiences that you leave you feeling bad, and then commit to enjoying the experiences you choose to engage in.

When I was dating, I decided to appreciate the slowness of a coffee or meal with one person. In our busy lives, we rarely have such focused interaction. In the end, that person may fall outside my boundaries, or I may fall outside theirs. Instead of over-analyzing it (and I was sorely tempted to overanalyze it!), I decided to just respect the miracle of people opening their lives to a stranger for a hour.

3. Trust yourself
You cannot find perfection, but you can trust yourself to negotiate the inevitable tensions between two people. They have weaknesses and you have weaknesses, but you can find someone who accepts you and accept them in return. Instead of expecting a relationship that’s problem-free, you can trust yourself to handle problems as they arise.

Our problems are often the flip side of our strengths. My husband has a great wit, which thrilled me until I realized that he used humor to avoid talking about things. I pointed that out to him, and now he’s not as funny. It’s my loss, but it’s not worth problematizing because our mutual acceptance adds so much to my life.

It would be nice to have the support of friends and family through the difficult dating process, but they may make it worse. Their love life is just as complicated as yours, and if you try to please them you may never please yourself. I am not saying you should be blinded by chemistry and ignore all feedback. But your own weighting of the costs and benefits is best, even if you get sneers from others in your life.

Dating is an impossible conundrum because our brains evolved to reproduce
Natural selection produced a brain that's super-responsive to the mating game. Though you're not consciously focused on reproduction, your brain surges with happy and unhappy chemicals in response to anything relevant to reproduction in the state of nature .

Dopamine gives you a feeling of excitement whenever you seek and find. But dopamine plummets once you have what you seek. Your brain longs for more dopamine, and tries to stimulate it in ways that worked before.  

Oxytocin surges with intimacy. But the great feeling is soon metabolized and your brain looks for more. Each brain looks in ways that worked in its own past experience. 

Serotonin is stimulated when you feel like you're in the one-up position. No one likes to admit this in themselves though it's easy to see in everyone else, and in animals. It feels so good that your brain looks for ways to stimulate it again.

It would be nice to be high on dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin all the time, but your brain is not designed to work that way. Your mammal brain rewards you with a good feeling when you do something relevant to reproductive success. We are all challenged to create long-term well-being with a brain that releases happy chemicals moment to moment. More information on this is at my website, InnerMammalInstitute.org.

To make things harder, your brain releases cortisol when you see something that hurt you in the past. You can mask this awful feeling by stimulating happy chemicals, but that creates a bad loop. You are better off learning to manage your cortisol instead of trying to mask it with lots of short-run jolts of happy chemicals. You may be wishing other people would do this, but you have no power over their brain. You have power over your brain, if you use it. 

Taking responsibility for your own happiness makes you a great romantic partner. You can manage your cortisol and enjoy many moments of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, with and without a long-term partner. There's lots more on the mating conundrum in my books:

Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, Endorphin

 Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity

 I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness

I must tell the weird inside story of my online dating career. I filled out a lengthy essay and multiple choice form on a site that no longer exists. Then I was offered the chance to push a button and let the computer make matches for me. I pushed the button and the man I eventually married came up #1. I read his profile and did not like him because of one answer. The next week I had a date that didn’t go well, so I pushed the button again. My husband came out #1 again. I thought about that one answer for a few days. It was just a flippant quip, really, so I wrote to him. My instincts were right. We did have a deep difference in that one area. But we developed a mutual acceptance that adds so much to my life, and I focus on that.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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