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Is Cynicism Ruining Your Love Life?

How cynicism destroys the potential for intimacy, and how to stop it.

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Whether we are single or in a relationship, we’ve all probably noticed that there can be a lot of cynicism out there when it comes to dating and relationships. Some of us have experienced it ourselves, witnessed it in others, or even felt it directed toward us. Often, we come by our cynical feelings honestly. We all have stories or friends with stories about awkward first encounters, dating apps gone awry, and relationships that left us (or them) feeling less than optimistic about love. We all also carry deeper, more embedded psychological attitudes and observations that shape how we expect relationships to work. Unfortunately, for many of us, at one point or another, these attitudes can get pretty bleak and leave us brimming with cynicism.

SoulPancake, a media company dedicated to creating meaningful content, recently did a small survey asking randomly selected single people if they’d prefer to be in a relationship. To their surprise, everyone said “yes.” In a video they posted, an interviewer then spoke with several of these people and asked what they were looking for in a relationship, to which participants responded with things like companionship, honesty, friendliness, and “someone whom I can just grab pancakes with at 2 a.m. at IHOP, just because we both feel like it.” However, when asked what they thought other people were looking for, their tune changed — “one-night stands,” “money,” “sex,” and “arm candy.” This led the interviewer to conclude that “we’re all looking for the same great qualities, but we think we’re one of the only ones who is. Unless we were lucky enough that every participant we had was the saint of their social circle, something just doesn’t add up.”

Today, a significant portion of Americans is single (44 percent of adults over 18). Naturally, not all of these people care to be in relationships, but it’s safe to say that there are still a fairly significant number of people who do. Granted, the road to meeting someone we really like can contain real challenges. However, an overwhelming number of people face the added obstacle of being cynical. I've noticed the same thing the interviewer found on SoulPancake from people I see in therapy and people who comment on our website: There is a great deal of cynicism in many single people’s perceptions of potential partners. I would argue that what’s fueling this cynical attitude is what my father Dr. Robert Firestone calls our “critical inner voice.” The critical inner voice describes a negative thought process we all experience to different degrees that harshly criticizes us and others. For many of us, this voice gets loudest when it comes to our romantic life.

Our critical inner voice can act as a barrier to getting close to someone else. Like the world’s worst matchmaker, it tends to feed us a steady stream of awful commentary about our partner or potential partners, as well as dating and romance in general. Recent examples I’ve heard include:

  • “Everyone in college is just superficial.”
  • “Men only want someone they can call for sex.”
  • “Women are too picky these days. They make it impossible for anyone to approach them.”
  • “People expect too much too fast. How can I keep up?”
  • “At my age, dating is a joke.”
  • “Love doesn't last. Why waste my time?”
  • “People will take advantage. They will use you.”
  • “You’ll be trapped. Kiss your independence goodbye.”

One of the problems with cynicism is that it can be very alluring to indulge it. Even though it often feels bad to be cynical, it can also serve as a defense, allowing us to feel guarded, like we’re taking a tough stance against the world. If we’re single, cynicism can shield us from the anxiety that would be stirred up by actively looking for a partner. Many of us have fears about putting ourselves out there and taking a chance. Our cynicism can create a sort of bubble around us in which we can feel somewhat safe and, often, self-righteous, as opposed to vulnerable or uncertain.

These cynical attitudes are frequently false and misguided. They tend to represent and protect more core negative attitudes and defenses we have around intimacy and relationships. These include distrusting and fearful points of view that come from very early in our lives. For some of us, having parents who were miserable in their relationship, who fought all the time, or who separated or divorced led us to hold unfavorable views about relationships in general or dire expectations for how people will treat one another. For example, thinking that people are out to take advantage of us is actually paranoid. Believing that all men are like this or all women are like that is also deeply inaccurate, not to mention unfounded and sexist. Where do these expectations come from? Sure, some people will be untrustworthy and are bound to let us down, but the generalization and intensity of thoughts like these can offer clues into the deeper, more complex feelings we have about getting close to someone else.

Many of our critical inner voices and cynical thoughts operate in the service of maintaining the defenses we’ve formed around love and relationships. The problem with this defense system is that it actually colors the way we see the world and the reactions we draw from others. For instance, imagine the message we’re giving off to others if we’re inclined to immediately feel suspicious and critical. What does the world look like when we’re looking for the worst in people or projecting negative stereotypes onto potential partners? What do we look like to potential partners when we’re in this state of cynicism and negativity?

Many of us know from personal experience that it’s those times when we feel warm, open, and optimistic that we meet the most people and have the most rewarding experiences. Remaining open to other people is, in many ways, scarier than being a cynic. It actually requires more strength to stay vulnerable than to self-protect, but it’s usually the only way to get what we really want.

So, what efforts can we each make to live in a more open and vulnerable place and be less cynical?

1. Broaden your horizons.

If you’re searching for someone, you may consider making your search a little broader. The ultimate aim is to find someone who makes you happy and who allows you to be yourself, not to meet a laundry list of criteria so specific that you miss out on opportunities you immediately dismiss. There are many unexpected rewards that can come from dating outside your comfort zone.

2. Be wary of generalizations.

One exercise that can be helpful is to make a list of some of the negative generalizations you make that may get in the way of your ability to be open. One person in your life may very well have held some terrible qualities, but if you project these qualities or expect them from the next person, you aren’t giving that person a fair shot.

3. Keep asking yourself, “What would make the best story?”

Dating requires some resilience. The more you can see your life as an adventure and trust that you’ll get where you want to go eventually, the more you can enjoy the ride, rather than be fearful and punishing about every choice you make. Getting cynical is a good way of closing doors and avoiding taking risks. Instead of always saying, “Is this the right decision? What will go wrong? Don’t take a chance,” maybe try asking yourself, “Could this make a good story?”

The point isn’t to be frivolous or self-destructive, but to actually let yourself off the hook and have a sense that it’s okay to make mistakes — that it’s part of the adventure that life will always be, no matter how cautious you are. People who are risk-averse tend not to date as much, but you can actually build your resilience by taking chances and learning from experience that you’ll be okay, even if you get hurt at times.

4. Take a chance.

Think about if there is anybody you already know who may possess the qualities you’re looking for. Perhaps you’ve been talking yourself out of this possibility for various reasons. Maybe your critical inner voice has been discouraging you. What would it feel like to stop the shut downs and cynicism, and to just consider that person from a more open angle? You may even want to try taking an action, like asking that person out or just spending a little more time with them.

In the SoulPancake video, the host concluded each interview by asking people to call someone whom they felt had the qualities they’re looking for and to tell them how they feel about them. What surprised me was how good each of these individuals felt just from making the call, regardless of its outcome. They reported feeling stronger and more vital from being vulnerable and direct.

5. Press the pause button on criticism.

It’s one thing to have standards and to not be willing to settle for someone who doesn’t make you happy. It’s another thing to be wrapped so deeply in doubt and criticism that you stop seeing the good in others. It may seem like an oversimplification (and a cliché) to simply say stop being so picky, but you would most likely benefit from dialing down the judgment. And that doesn’t just mean toward others. If you are like most people, there is no one you are more critical of and cynical about than yourself.

It’s important to be realistic and accept that no one is perfect. Every one of us has limitations, and in our stumbling, we’re bound to hurt one another at times. You’re not going to find perfection, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle. It just means you should shape your standards from a more open and accepting place.

Choosing a positive outlook over cynicism is in our own best interest, regardless of its effects on our relationships. For instance, studies have found pessimism to predict paranoid hostility, cynicism, and depression, while optimism has been linked to “better subjective well-being in times of adversity or difficulty.” Other studies have shown that high levels of cynicism correlate with higher stroke risk and lower income. A study of women revealed that most cynical, hostile participants had higher rates of coronary heart disease and higher hazards for cancer-related mortality and total mortality.

Being optimistic can be good for us alone, but it tends to have the added benefit of dramatically improving relationships as well. Research has shown that optimists who expected better outcomes in their relationships actually experienced more relationship satisfaction, and even predicted relationship status and partner satisfaction. One study published by the Association for Psychological Science reported that, “When people are able to quell their concerns about self-protection, they are free to think and behave in ways that create the kinds of bonds that will satisfy their need for connectedness (and bolster their self-esteem). When people cannot escape the need for self-protective caution, however, they set the stage for cycles of negative interactions that are likely to erode their relationships.” In other words, when people expect good things and are less self-protective in their thinking, there are more positive outcomes in their relationships.

We are always better off being undefended and inviting new experiences that can reshape even our most stubborn attitudes toward relationships than allowing these attitudes to shape the kind of relationships we experience. We are also much more likely to find what we want when we don’t allow ourselves to become hardened by cynicism and fixed in our point of view. At the end of the day, being open-minded and optimistic can enhance our well-being and mental health, as well as our interpersonal relationships.