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Dating: Whose Relationship Is It Anyway?

Four tips for defining dating rules of engagement.

Simone has been dating Jake for several months. Every time they get together it’s wonderful – he’s sensitive and open, the sex is great. But then he’s gone – no contact for a couple of weeks, then he’s back, two dates nights in the same week, then back a week later, then nothing for 3 weeks. Simone feels like she is on a rollercoaster. She obsesses about him when he’s gone, but is afraid that if she pushes for any regularity or, God forbid, commitment he’ll bolt.

The problem here is that the relationship is Jake’s not Simone’s. He’s setting the pace, the rules of engagement, and she is essentially is taking what she gets. There are a couple of dynamics at work here that are keeping it in this stalemated position.

One is that intermittent reinforcement at play. There is no pattern, Simone is constantly off-balance. Just when she might reach her bottom-line – that Jake is always gone for weeks at a time and she is fed up – he instead shows up. Each time they have two dates in the same week, her brain starts thinking that this is the beginning of a possible change. This trying to connect dots that aren’t there both feeds her obsessing and keeps her emotionally hooked.

The other is that by taking what she gets, by her fear of rocking the boat and making demands, she is not actually getting to explore the relationship or Jake. The purpose of dating is to get to know someone, to see if you are truly compatible. An easy mistake to make is to stay in good dating behavior mode for too long. Both individuals let things go rather than speaking up, they accommodate rather than taking the risk of letting the other person know what they like, don’t like, need. The fact that they are not living together allows the distance to dissipate what might ordinarily become a source of tension.

So how does Simone not settle, make the relationship more her own, change the rules of engagement? Four steps:

She needs to decide what she really wants.

Simone needs to move from being reactive to being proactive, and before she can do that she needs to decide what she really wants. Is she wasting her time with Jake? That’s up to her. She may be fine right now with the excitement without the commitment, or no, she wants to settle into a permanent relationship. She is the only one who can set her own priorities and for this she needs to step back and take a look at what she really needs and wants right now.

She needs to be assertive with Jake.

This is the only way of changing the rules of the game. Simone needs to have input. This does not mean that she needs to lay down a list of demands that she wants Jake to follow. It’s all about the process. She needs to explain to Jake how she feels, that she wants to sensitive to his own fears and hesitations. What they need to discover is whether she can be more honest and whether they as a couple can truly compromise and solve problems. She needs to discover through the process whether Jake, because he cares about her, is willing to listen and make some changes. If she doesn’t she has no way of understanding Jake, testing what the relationship can or cannot be. She’ll stay treading water.

She needs to diversify.

Simone is putting all her emotional eggs in the one basket that is Jake, which fuels her obsessions and riding the rollercoaster. It would help her feel less trapped, have a better perspective if she can create other baskets. This may be dating other men, it may be not waiting around to see if he calls on a Saturday and instead make plans to go out with friends. Continuing to take what she gets, staying reactionary will only keep her emotionally dependent and unhappy.

She needs to work on her stuckpoints.

This is likely not the first time that Simone has gone-along-with in a relationship. She may do the same with friends, at work. This is not about her relationship with Jake but about her, her high tolerance for accommodation. Even if Jake feels like too big an emotional challenge to take on right now, she can practice speaking up and being assertive with friends, with colleagues from work.

It doesn’t matter where she starts. Her goal is to practice taking risks, however small, as long as they help her step outside her comfort zone. With practice and successful experiences under her belt, her self confidence will increase. Even if Jake eventually fades away, she will have the tools to run her next relationship better.

And doing it better is ultimately what it is all about.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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