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Touch and Go Relationships – Do they have to be Superficial?

How does our cynical culture prevent new relationships from blossoming.

Most of the relationship-seekers I talk with today have had a number of intimate partners throughout their dating careers. The availability of the massive options offered by social media has given people more choices for potential partners than have ever existed before. Sadly, most of those new intimate relationships don’t pan out, and multiple failures take their toll on what once were more optimistic expectations.

It’s difficult for people to keep searching for that one special person when the odds of finding that special relationship seem so against them. Some have coped with those losses by trying to balance their hopes with more realistic probabilities, while simultaneously trying to keep a positive attitude despite the odds. They know that cynicism is neither sexy nor attractive so they develop a more casual approach, often burying the authentic desire for true love that still lingers inside the hearts of most.

The great comedian, Amy Schumer, offers solutions to this complicated situation in her often hilarious depictions of the current dating scene. Her comedic sketches suggest that women, especially, should adopt a more de-personalized view of love’s entitlements. In her wonderful new movie, “Trainwreck,” her character protects herself from relationship disillusionment by unabashedly proclaiming that attraction is predictably fleeting and should be completely enjoyed as the momentary pleasure it is only meant to be.

Despite the practical applications of that attitude, accepting that premise as a non-challengeable predictability of all intimate relationships is not easy for most people to accept. It is all too easy to fall prey to the twin demons of cynicism and pessimism as each new hope fades. Many start questioning: “Maybe long-term relationships aren’t even desirable, let alone possible. I probably should go with the tide and let their romantic fantasies become relics of out-of-date expectations.”

But many of my patients are still not willing to give up the quest for a genuine and long-lasting relationship. They are confused as to how things got this way and why. They wonder why the possibility of true love has become so improbable. What has happened to the natural sequence of meet, fall in love, and stay together forever?

The answer is relatively simple. The traditional meet-and-greet processes of the past were much less urgent or rushed. People could take the time to carefully expose each personal layer of availability and capability to commit, or not, as it was appropriate. Most often, relationship seekers, in this less pressured way, met a potential partner and then dated for a while to see if attraction and underlying feelings were reciprocal. If the relationship deepened in attraction and interest, they would then choose to be exclusive and to present the now-serious relationship to significant others. If that next stage was successful and the relationship continued to improve, they would begin talking about “commitment.” They usually had a couple of years before people started questioning when they would make a decision to separate or to stay in a more permanent way.

Except in very traditional, still existing social environments, that pattern has all but disintegrated. Now the typical sequence is more like this: relationship-seekers meet on-line or at a random event knowing full well they may never discover who that person really is. Then they carefully go through an uncertain weeding process, staying as risk-averse as they can, trying to enjoy what is offered without expecting anything more and hoping that there won’t be negative surprises they can’t deal with down the line. If the relationship drags out too long without further depth, they assess whether they should waste more of their time. They try to appear as courageous and non-committal on the outside as they can, and hide any vulnerabilities or disappointments they might feel on the inside.

The touch-and-go skill set that people need to maneuver in that kind of a high-risk, no map, quick intimacy pattern is vastly different from the one needed in order to make a long-term relationship work. It is dependent, in large part, on what the media currently dictates will work for immediate attraction for each gender.

Men need to: make sure they have decent abs, hopefully hair, disposable income, a decent vehicle, a penis that works, and an easy-going, confident manner. Women must: be great shape, look young, be easy to be with, not need or ask for more than is offered, not be attached to a future, come pre-heated, and make the guy feel like he’s won the lottery.

Neither gender is allowed to prematurely imply that this might be “it,” or to project insecurity or cynicism. It can’t show how much time they may have wasted in the past on hopes that didn’t materialize, or if they are pessimistic in any way. If they are to be successful touch-and-go partners, those behaviors might signal too much neediness or reveal limited options.

Too often, these quick-to-connect relationships are incredibly notable in that neither partner knows a great deal about the other’s authentic internal world when they part. Because of the anticipation of early disconnect, they have often not risked sharing anything truly sacred or important. Vulnerabilities, such as broken dreams, past heartbreaks, or even significant experiences from prior relationships are way too risky to talk about to someone they might never see again. “Nothing important risked, nothing lost,” seems a safer choice than potentially enduring the pain of abandonment when they’ve opened up too soon and too much in the past. If they haven’t gotten too close, they might never miss as much when the relationship ends.

The result of these new dating patterns is that most people involved in them for any length of time have become superbly good at the game. They’ve become adept at keeping things in the moment, superficially satisfying, and not getting in too deep. Unfortunately, this practice of no-loss superficial-risk relationship behavior seems to me to be ultimately self-destructive. Whether or not someone we meet could become a closer and more important person in our lives has all to do with how we share initial moments and experiences, even if they are short-lived.

If we routine practice superficial connections, we’ll just get superbly better at those behaviors. The “true” person we are inside, the person we hold on to as being capable of deeper love may have become atrophied, no longer able to emerge as a deep, caring, courageous, and open partner. The truly unusual outcome in “Trainwreck” is unfortunately a rarity when people are attached to their cynicism.

There’s a whole different way to look at this that can meld these superficial dating skills with those that would take you into a long-term meaningful relationship (were it actually to happen). Because you’ve adopted the view that you have nothing to lose in a quick-start connection, you can be as open, as authentic, as alive, and as “out there” as you ever will want to be. If you are predicting that it is more likely you will not deeply connect with this person, what do you have to lose? Wouldn’t you rather have a deep and meaningful connection with someone, even if it didn’t work out?

What is the ironic and powerful result of risking your best self, is that any relationship you start will actually have a better to succeed if you are authentic and real from the start. Telling someone upfront, in an admirable way, exactly what you want, what you love, what you’ve regretted, what you can give, is the best way to know whether that person is looking for someone like you. And, just maybe, he or she will take the cues and offer the same. You don’t have to add intimate details or reveal issues that could backfire. But the structure should be in place for that kind of sharing to be welcome as the relationship matures.

Here’s a way to think of it that may make more sense. Pretend that you’re out in the vast world and you’re longing for a safe haven. So you quickly begin a relationship that seems, at least, to temporarily fill the bill. It has the minimum requirements for temporary comfort and sufficient excitement, but that’s all you need right now. You’ve made no real investment so you can easily disconnect if it becomes evident you need to move on. Keep things simple and comfortably superficial.

But, what happens if you like that person more than you thought you would? You’ve chosen to practice your hit-and-run skills by keeping things on the surface. After all, that’s all you needed in the moment, remember? You never took the risk of being open and real, and you haven’t set the stage for a deeper connection, or expected one from the other person. It was just supposed to be light and fun, wasn’t it?

Would you have lost so much had you given the relationship all of your best self and just been courageous enough to be rejected if that wasn’t what that person wanted? You might be a little more wounded if it doesn’t work out, but you would not have practiced a superficial presentation of someone you weren’t. The payoff, when it does happen, is that you are already in a quality relationship that has real promise to operate at that level of authenticity.

The foundation of a great, long-term relationship is built, from the beginning moments, on honesty, vulnerability, self-accountability, perspective, humor, and mutual sacredness. Is it possible to know that about a person early in a relationship? Yes. Would you let someone know those qualities about you early in a relationship? Why wouldn’t you want them to? Even if you are still ready to bolt, wouldn’t you rather leave a unique memory behind? And, the way you live each moment will absolutely define the next. Live that moment in a hurry or without much commitment or thought, and the rest will be more likely to follow similarly.

In my practice, I watch people struggling through relationship losses every day, and know too well that nothing is guaranteed. People disappear from each other’s lives, often without warning, and unresolved issues do not go away unless they are worked on over time. The more you practice genuinely living fully in the present, even with a stranger, the more you will begin to know and nurture your own qualities. What is fully there will increase its value. What you hide will atrophy.

If you are still committed to your smorgasbord of partner choices, some delectable and some not so, don’t feel obligated to change that behavior right away. Perhaps, at this time in our life, you are enjoying the variety and not worried about “finding the one.” But if that is what’s on your life ticket, make sure each one is the most real and meaningful connections you know how to make in the moments you have together, be it one hour or a lifetime.

I have asked so many people what they regret about their dating experiences that didn’t work. There are two that come up over and over. The first is wishing they’d been more confident to just being fully authentic whether that person liked them or not. The second, and probably the most significant, is that they would have rather learned to love more deeply after each relationship rather than nurture their cynicism. They’ve realized that they have too easily tried to make each succeeding relationship bear the burden of the ones that didn’t work out.

If you’ve been your best, done your best, and given your best, you might feel the sting of rejection more deeply when it happens, but you will never look back at the person you’d wished you had been when you could have made that choice.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.