An important message for every single person: The way we search for love usually determines the kind of love we find. Popular culture assails us with romanticized images of love and then encourages us to play dehumanizing games in order to find it. The steps I describe in this post and in my book Deeper Dating will not only lead you toward real love, but they will also enrich your entire life because they are the skills of true intimacy.
Go Where You're Likely to Find Generous, Giving People
Forgive me for starting off with the hardest one of all. Going to events filled with strangers is an awkward thing to do. It's immeasurably harder than surfing the web in your comfy T-shirt. Believe me, I know. I spent decades trying to avoid this step.
But if you really want a good relationship, take my advice: Get out of the house—and don't make a bar your first choice. If you're looking for the person who will become "home" for you, start by looking in the best places.
After being single for many years, my friend William is now in a great marriage. He recently told me what he did to find love. He finally accepted he had to go to gatherings with people who shared his passions.
He said to me, "Ken, I'd come home from work and just want to turn on the TV and relax at home. It sometimes almost made me sick to go out to meet strangers again and again, but I knew I had to. And that's how I found real love."
Please note that I'm not suggesting you stop trying to meet people online. Take advantage of all the possibilities the online world offers, but use them wisely. Dating sites are programmed to make us think in terms of numbers, to keep hopping to the next person, the better and sexier match.
Watch for the traps inherent in online vehicles and then use them to your own advantage. Look for dating websites that are values-based, or for websites that offer events, meet-ups, volunteer activities, and communities of shared interests.
Lead With Your Truest Self
Dating is hard. Actually, the word hard doesn't begin to capture it. Most of us have been battered so often that we've learned to stop trusting.
We tell ourselves it's hopeless, while we secretly long to be proven wrong. After too many rejections, we often decide to hide our truest selves—at least until we've sealed the deal. Unfortunately, that almost never works.
I'm not advocating that you share your gravest traumas on the first date, simply that you share your authentic, vulnerable self from the very beginning. This may seem dangerous. You may feel unprotected. But real protection comes from your own self-acceptance and from knowing that you won't waste time with anyone who doesn't offer you the same acceptance.
As long as we lead with an airbrushed version of self, we will feel inadequate and insecure. Why? Because our false self is inadequate. It has no link to our personal power.
It's like climbing a wobbly ladder. There will be a constant feeling of uncertainty, and that's not what we want when we're dating. When we hide our true selves, we find ways to sabotage real intimacy because we're scared of being "found out."
When we grasp for a goal by trying to reshape ourselves, we end up disempowered, diminished by a critical ideal that makes us lose sight of our true worth. And ironically, the less we accept who we really are, the more we'll be attracted to people who share a similar ambivalence toward us!
In nature, creatures are endowed with exoskeletons or endoskeletons. Those with exoskeletons must hide their soft parts with hard armor. Creatures with endoskeletons have bodies that are formed around an essential structure within—their skeleton. Their soft parts can be exposed because of the integrity of their inner framework. When we embrace who we really are and begin to accept our limitations, we feel we have a spine. We can meet the world, skin-to-skin.
When we are ashamed of who we are, there's only one option for protecting ourselves: a brittle armor that keeps the world at a distance. Your true protection is found in choosing someone who is kind, giving, and accepting of who you are. To someone who doesn't appreciate you, your true self may be a turnoff. For the right person, it can be the stuff that romance is made of.
Become Fiercely Discriminating—About the Things That Matter Most
If you're going to be brave enough to show your true self, you'll need to know how to protect yourself. I suggest that you become fiercely discriminating about with whom you choose to spend your time. Is the person you're dating kind? Is he or she emotionally generous (even if quietly so)? Are you inspired by the way this person lives his or her life, and by the kindness and acceptance he or she shows you?
If so, you've found what I call an attraction of inspiration. Celebrate what you found, and do your best to nourish it. It's a rare and precious thing.
Or, instead, do you find that your partner continues to be almost available? Almost accepting? Almost within reach? Almost integrity-based? If so, trust your gut. Talk to your partner about your feelings, and if things don't change, it's probably time to move on. If you really want a love that can last, it's doubtful that you'll find it here. You have the right, and even the obligation to yourself, to move on until you find the real thing.
Unfortunately, it's rarely that easy to leave. These "attractions of deprivation" are tricky and confusing. They often feel more like real love than healthy love does! When these attractions let us down, we believe it's because of a lack in us, not because of a fatal flaw embedded in the attractions themselves.
Most of us are wired to want the person we can't really have. People who devalue us make us want to convince them that they're wrong.
But here's the good news: Just as we can be seduced by unavailability, we are also capable of being seduced by goodness. We can cultivate our attraction to kindness and availability, and as we do this, our dating lives dramatically change for the better.
In a healthy relationship, it's important to understand your "flight patterns." The risk of love scares us all. Watch out for the tendency to devalue a new relationship with someone consistent, kind, and accepting. I call this phenomenon "The Wave," because, like a wave, it can slam you off balance, yet in time, it will simply fade away. If you find yourself pushing away someone decent and available, take the time and space to let the Wave pass. In time, you'll see with clearer eyes if this person is right for you.
Try these three steps in your own life. They will turn your dating life into an actual intimacy journey, a journey that leads both to love and self-discovery. It won't be easy. But it's worlds better than the soul-scarring battle of trying to turn yourself into a "more marketable brand."
There is a real battle to be won, but it takes place in an entirely different stadium than the one we've been herded toward! It's the battle to embrace and navigate the wounded, wondrous beauty of our partner's and our own humanity. That's the place to be, and it's the place where you're most likely to find the person you're really looking for.
© 2012 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved