Category: Abusive relationships

  • Tainted Love: How to Deal with the Addictive Appeal & Dangers of Bad Boys

    This post has three parts to it:
    1) An excellent letter from a reader, asking about what she should do about a friends with benefits situation that has gone on for 10 years.
    2) My survey question to you: What is your biggest challenge in dating and relationships these days?
    3) A treat from me to you, relating to the new project I’m working on.

    First, the letter from reader Lainie:

    I have read your book, The Tao of Dating, several times and it is awesome! It has helped me in many ways.

    I am in an unusual situation. I met a man nearly a decade ago and we started out as friends. We were next-door neighbors. We quickly turned into friends with benefits [for non-English speakers: that means they had sex without making any explicit commitment to each other – AB].

    We spent a lot of time together. I watched him go out with woman after woman. I finally got to the point where I said I wasn’t going to watch him be with other women and broke it off.

    Several months later he came back and said he wanted a relationship with me. That was 4 years ago. Since then we have broken up and gotten back together at least 6 times. He goes away for a few months and then comes right back into my life. He tries to be my “friend” for a month or so and then we’re right back in a relationship.

    Every time he breaks it off it’s because he says he cannot picture himself married with a family and can never give me what I truly want, even though I have not tried to pressure him. He also says he doesn’t think about me all day (so he doesn’t obsess about me like people do when they FIRST meet someone). I have explained to him that I do not think about him all the time either, and I am not head over heels for him.

    It’s a deeper love now, after nearly 10 years. We are best friends and the sex is always good. I know he loves me. He has admitted he has never done more for a woman in his entire life and that he really loves me. We were together for an entire year this time with out him freaking out, and now he has broken up with me again. Same reason as always. I know he’ll come back again, and although I love him, I don’t know if he’ll ever get past this Walt Disney fantasy about what love really is. What should I do?
    — Lainie, getting a little tired of it all

    Thanks for the note, Lainie! The answer to “What should I do” is simple:

    You should take up needlepoint.

    So soothing. Increases your dexterity. And you’ll have pretty presents to give to friends every time you finish a project. Perfect!

    Just kidding. And I jest because every woman who asks me a question does the same thing: they ask “what should I do, doc” without making clear what they WANT. How am I supposed to steer you towards an outcome without knowing what it is?

    So – what’s your ideal outcome, Lainie? If this man did not exist in the world and you could design a perfect relationship with one of the remaining 3 billion men, what would that look like? Would it be intermittent commitment, with some good sex and regular yearly breakups? Think about that and get back to me :)

    If I could wave a magic wand and have the relationship I always wanted, I’d be with a guy who has the same loyalty and love that I do. Someone who didn’t question everything, someone who was affectionate and kind. Definitely not what I’ve been going through with this guy. Someone who was fun and outgoing, and enjoyed going on adventures with me. He’d be my dream guy. 

    Great! Now we’re getting somewhere. So, next question: does this guy fit that description? If yes, please proceed full steam ahead. If not, you need to stop sleeping with him (preferably forever) because with the emotional and physical connection and multiple breakups, you’ve already created an addictive circuit in your brain around this relationship.

    What happens with an on-again, off-again relationship is that you’re activating what neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky calls the power of maybe. He goes into that in some depth in his new tome Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (ebook and paperback), which may be the greatest work of nonfiction I’ve ever read. I’ve talked about this maybe thing before, but it’s worth repeating.

    The way you get neurologically hooked on something is when there’s an irregular reinforcement. For example, the nice guy is always nice. He’s highly predictable in the sense that you know he will always do the kind, decent thing.

    The jerk is also predictable: he’s always mean. Not very interesting or pleasant.

    The bad boy troublemaker, on the other hand, is unpredictable. Some days he’s nice. Some days he’ll do what he says. Other days, who knows. Some days he feels like smacking you around, physically or emotionally. Others, he treats you like the queen of the universe. You just never know.

    The problem is that dopamine is the neurotransmitter that mediates addiction. And the more uncertain an event is, the more dopamine your brain produces. Maximum uncertainty happens at 50% — half good, half bad. Withdrawal just means that the next dopamine spike is going to be that much larger when you finally get it.

    So Mr FWB (short for “friends with benefits”) can’t commit. He strings you along for a month, a season, a year. Then – boom! Cuts you off. You’re adrift again. But something in the back of your head still craves him back.

    Moreover, you’re having sex with him, and you say it’s good. I’ll interpret it as meaning “I’m having orgasms with this fella.” If that’s the case, two more things are happening that make the situation even trickier.

    First off, orgasms cause additional dopamine secretion. To be clear, that’s what an orgasm is – one giant wallop of dopamine to the noggin. So there’s your nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of your brain, getting another hit from the presence of FWB, and getting you more addicted to him.

    Second, orgasms cause secretion of oxytocin. It’s a bonding chemical well-known for its effect on increasing trust. Trust applied to the wrong person has a name: bad judgment. So it’s helping you make poor decisions. Like keeping this guy around for a whole decade after 6 breakups.

    Now I don’t know how old you are, Lainie, but this much I know. You’re behaving as if you have an infinite amount of time. You do not. We’re all gonna die. (I know, I’m a hoot at parties.)

    Moreover, as a woman who’s interested in having children, you will not be fertile forever. And if you had let this guy go 8 years ago and instead found someone else who was interested in commitment, you could have had a kid in 3rd grade by now.

    Think about that.

    So what we have here is a sunk cost of 10 years. You’re never going to get those back. But you can do this: take corrective action immediately so you don’t lose out on another millisecond. Remember: we’re not going to live forever.

    Now you may have noticed that I used the language of drugs and addiction when describing your situation here, Lainie. That is intentional, because the neural circuitry of sexual love mimics that of drug addiction. That’s why the parallels between the two are so striking: The failed attempts at quitting. The ecstatic highs and the soul-crushing lows. The resolve that “this time it’s going to be different.” The craving, the draw, the seductive ease of slipping back into the same routine.

    Gambling works the exact same way. If gamblers won every time, or lost every time, it wouldn’t be so interesting. Gamblers would get bored and quit. But it’s the uncertainty around winning or losing, its sheer haphazardness, that keeps us hooked. As a one-time semi-pro poker player, I can tell you that’s true.

    So you need to treat it like any other addiction. The first step is complete cessation of the drug – in this case, contact with FWB. You may feel it’s too drastic to stop talking to him, but it would actually be the most effective path since you both have a pattern of falling back in bed with each other.

    You must allow time for your brain to heal. Technically, that means spending enough time without him such that your brain downregulates all the extra dopamine receptors it has created over the last 10 years. In the parlance of rehab, this is known as “detox”, and it takes a while. My preference is that you break off contact with him permanently. Like alcohol for an alcoholic or crack for a crackhead, the only acceptable dose is zero.

    Then, you must find healthy substitutes for the stimulus you were receiving. That makes the cravings easier. Ideally, this would be a commitment-minded guy you really like who likes you back. Quality time spent with friends and family is also good. Spend as much time in community as possible. Mindless sex with strangers would mostly perpetuate the problem you’re already having, so I do not recommend it as a healing modality.

    I refer you to this 5000-word piece I wrote some time ago about getting over breakups:
    How to Get Over a Breakup: Professional Edition

    Ladies: every minute you’re spending with the wrong guy is a minute not spent with a much better match. The bad news is that the design of our brains has made the hot-cold, on again-off again treatment of bad boys inherently addictive.

    However, if you’re after a long-term relationship and maybe a family, this is not a legitimate excuse for giving in to the charms of the bad boy and wrecking your life.

    Because the good news is that we also have discipline, wisdom and willpower. How many of you say, “Omigod, I mean the crack pipe was there, and I just couldn’t help myself.” Or, “Well, I was at the party, and the heroin syringe just came around and I HAD to inject myself.”

    No? You wouldn’t do crack or heroin? Ever? Not even because come on, they’re so much fun!

    Why? Because you know they’d wreck your life. All of it.

    So please treat bad boys exactly the same way. Like the human equivalent of heroin or crack, only worse. Lies, infidelity, divorce, financial instability, custody battles, a world of pain. Those are things that wreck lives. Lainie’s pretty lucky – all she’s lost are 10 years of the best dating years of her life. Still irretrievable though.

    Sometimes it’s tough to spot bad boys, but if you’re interested in having a long-term committed relationship, I’ll boil it down to one thing: inability to commit. If commitment is what you want and he can’t offer it, then that’s all you need to know. To you, he’s a bad boy. Done and done.

    So write down what you want in a relationship on a piece of paper, and stick it in your purse. Now you have a basis of comparison for every guy who comes along. Have standards for the character of the kind of guy you want to have a relationship with, and stick with those standards. Ten bucks says that “flaky” and “wavering” are not on that list.

    I would also encourage you to do “Exercise 12: The Ideal Man” on page 154 of The Tao of Dating (ebook and paperback) to get you started, and to take a look at The Prospective Spouse Checklist: Evaluating Your Potential Partner (ebook and paperback) by Isabelle Fox.

    A Big Question for You

    As I sit here in front of a computer screen with nary a reader of mine in sight, I often ask myself: “Am I doing any good? Is this useful to anyone? Am I just repeating myself myself?”

    So in the interest of better serving you, I would like to ask you a single very important question:

    What is the biggest challenge you’re experiencing in dating and relationships these days?

    The idea is that if you had a magic wand that you could wave to solve the single biggest problem in your love life, what would that be? The answer to that question is hugely important to me, because it will tell me what things I can create for you to solve the problem!

    So please do us both a medium-sized favor and take 60 seconds to answer the question via Google Forms. I’ll also have survey results for you to share what other readers said.

    In the Meantime: A Sleepy Treat for You

    I’ve been working on a project called Happiness Engineering. It’s a manual for educated folks who want to design happiness into their lives instead of merely leaving it to chance. I’ve already given a TEDx talk about it which some of you have already seen.

    One of the five pillars of Happiness Engineering is good sleep. Statistics say that a large portion of the population is getting mediocre sleep (like, 1 out of 5 people). So if you’re one of those who has difficulty falling asleep, I’ve made this recording for you. It works best when you listen to it through headphones. Note from Captain Obvious: Please don’t listen to this when driving :)

    Dr Ali’s Sleep Script

    You can listen to it for free right here. Length is 15:48min, but most people conk out after 7min. If you’d like to download it to your devices, click here to pay whatever you consider reasonable.

    That’s all for now, lovelies! If you have a question for me, please send it to my new address: DrAliB (at) TaoOfDating.com. Make sure it’s under 200 words and it contains a question, preferably addressing what you WANT :)

    Go forth and conquer, Dr Ali

    PS: In the interest of getting to know more of you, please join me on Facebook if you have not already! In addition to my articles, I post travelogues, photos and random observations, usually of the silly variety.

     

    Continue To Article

  • “Does he like me?”: Five principles for telling if a guy is into you

    Dear Dr Ali – There’s a guy I like who’s in my social circle. He’s my friend’s boyfriend’s best friend, so we spend a lot of time around each other. He’s always attentive to me, and has even given me shoulder rubs a few times – something I have not seen him do for other women. We’ve even spent one-on-one time together lying down on a blanket watching stars. But he has yet to make a move. Why hasn’t he kissed me yet? Does he even like me? What should I do? Should I even bother? – Perplexed in Paris

    Well there’s a perennial question if there ever was one. How do you know if a guy likes you? I mean, yeah, he does like you, as in he clearly wouldn’t let you get run over by a bus. But does he like like you? As in smooches and snuggles?

    That shouldn’t be hard to figure out. But additional challenges present themselves when you see a guy frequently as part of your social circle, whether at work or in a group of friends. How do you broach the subject of “Do you like me?” when the negative response means having to hang out with someone who snubbed you? Or, even worse, what if you hook up and it doesn’t work out? Now you have willingly planted an ex in the midst of formerly friendly territory. Surely there is a way to finesse this tricky social situation.

    The best way is to take me along to a party to hang out with both of you. And by turning on the super-sensitive Dr Ali-dar and observing your interactions, I will give you a read of the situation.

    But, alas, the best way is often not the most practical way, and I’m usually far away (greetings from Barcelona and Lisbon!) and would probably end up eating all your hors d’oeuvres (unless they’re supermarket crudité platters – who likes that stuff?).

    So I don’t get to observe whether he looks directly into your eyes and how often, how often and where he touches you, how he talks to you, how he reacts to the other women around you, and a zillion other things.

    All I get to see is your world through this tiny keyhole of an email. From that I must deduce your character, the nature and intensity of his interest, and your suitability as a match. Piece o’ cake!

    What might be wiser, however, is to give you some general principles for spotting interest from another party, so you can apply those to your own situation and figure out what’s going on.

    1. Active vs passive interest.

    When trying to gauge interest, this is the overarching theme. Is he actively pursuing your company, or just settling for casual bump-ins and group events? The more deliberate effort a man puts into spending time with you, the more interested he is. Doing something that risks rejection, such as asking you out on a date, raises the stakes and is an even stronger sign of romantic interest.

    Now I heartily recommend that folks initially get to know people through group events. They’re far less threatening settings than one-on-one dates which are contrived situations that fail to bring out the best in us (unless your best happens to be anxiety, self-consciousness and phoniness). But if a guy only invites you to group things, he’s either not that interested, or too much of a wuss to step up and ask for your company solo. Either way, that’s not someone you should be signing up for.

    2. How is he looking at you? 

    A few years ago I was sitting at this deathly boring talk at a conference in Los Angeles when I spotted this dazzlingly beautiful woman across the room. Before the talk was over, I must have involuntarily turned to look at her 50 times. Why? Because we tend to seek out more information about things we’re interested in. That’s kinda the definition of interest. And lord knows I made a beeline to talk to her afterwards.

    The quality and quantity of a guy’s gaze says a lot about the degree and nature of his interest. Does he keep looking at you even when you’re not looking at him? Interested. Does he look at your face when he’s talking to you? Interested. Straight into your eyes, seriously trying to plumb its depths of mystery and passion? Seriously interested.

    The pro-level tip here is that you want to arrange the environment such that you’re a) getting useful information and b) letting him be at his best. For example, if you’re with him on a date at a topless beach, chances are his eyes will not be glued to you the whole time no matter how interested he is. Same goes for sitting in a restaurant: if he’s facing the crowd and bustle of the outside world, his eyes will wander, and you’ll get inaccurate data. Do yourself a favor and you take the banquette seat so he’s looking at just you and the wall.

    3. Touch.

    Most Western societies are pretty touch-free, so if a guy touches you, that’s a big deal and a sign of major interest.

    Or is it? Touching behavior varies culturally, which changes the salience of the act. A classic study done by Sidney Jourard showed that during an hourlong conversation between friends, in England they touched each other zero times. In the US, twice, during bursts of enthusiasm. In France, 110 times, and in Puerto Rico, 180 times! Watching people here in Barcelona I’d say they would touch 200 times at least. So this means that a touch from a shy English guy counts for a lot more than one from the gregarious Spaniard.

    The second level information is the quality of the touch. Is he giving you a high-five or a shoulder rub? The more prolonged and deliberate the touch, the greater the interest.

    In Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, Prof David Givens enumerates five phases of courtship: attention, recognition, speech, touch, and lovemaking. Touch is the final phase before getting in the sack. So if he’s touching you, it’s safe to say his interest is not entirely platonic. That’s a nice start, but there’s an essential bit of meta-information that you need to know, too.

    4. Is he interested in you specifically, or just women in general?

    You meet a guy. He’s utterly charming, listening to you with rapt attention, gazing deep into your eyes to plumb the mystery/passion, and touching you early and often. And you’re loving it.

    The question that most women don’t ask themselves: is he doing this because he’s into me, or because he’s into women in general? Because to an observer the two behaviors look exactly the same.

    Now, if you’re just looking for a RLD (relationship of limited duration), then – who cares! Run with it, girl. But if you’re looking for something lasting longer than a Scaramucci (i.e. a temporal unit equivalent to 10 days), you need to get more data.

    ‘Cause if he’s a shy guy who hardly approaches women, the nature of his attention is much more salient than if he’s a player who collects 20 phone numbers a week. The shy guy is putting everything on the line. The player, on the other hand, has this routine rehearsed so well that he can do it after 7 margaritas, in microgravity, while tied up in a burlap sack.

    The distinction between specific and nonspecific attraction is important because they’re mediated by different brain circuits and hormones. Nonspecific attraction (i.e. lust) is fueled by testosterone. The guy is just generally horny. Specific attraction runs on dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter of goal-directed activity. He is horny for you, and therefore seeks you out. This is the difference between RLD and long-term love.

    So take some time to find out what this guy’s really like. What’s his reputation? How does he behave around other women when you’re with him? Does he flirt shamelessly with the cute waitress, or does he focus his attention fully on you? What do his friends say about him? These are all important bits of information for establishing what kind of person you’re dealing with, and how to interpret his attention.

    5. Actions vs words.

    The most accurate information you can get about a guy is his long-term behavior – the stuff he actually does, over and over again. The least accurate information you can get about him are his words, especially when they are about himself.

    This isn’t necessarily because men brag or that all humans are evil liars. Rather, it illustrates a central principle of human behavior. Science shows that we have cognitive biases that blind us to our own shortcomings, and as a therapist I can tell you that people are horrendous at self-reportage. Like, totally inaccurate, all the time.

    Why? Because well over 99% of your brain’s functioning happens outside of your consciousness. This means that by definition, you don’t have conscious access to what’s really happening in your brain. It’s all about the unconscious.

    Oh, and then there are the guys who will say anything to get into your good graces – or your pants. But you already knew that.

    Now I’m going to overemphasize this point until it gets burned into your consciousness forever, because it is unbelievably important. In fact, the main reason I wrote The Tao of Dating was because I had a darling friend who believed the phrase “I promise I’ll never give you another black eye” more than the actual black eye the guy had given her. And who kept on taking him back and financially supporting him even though he continued to physically abuse her.

    Oh nononononono we can’t let that be you. So you will pay very close attention to what a guy does, and take anything he says with a boulder of salt. Look for actions, not words. Actions, not words. Actions, not words. A thousand times: actions, not words.

    So what are some actions that show he’s truly interested? Having been that interested guy often, here are some things that come to mind:

    1) He calls you and asks you out to spend real, grown-up time together. He’s risking rejection, which means he’s investing ego. He’s agreeing to spend money and time on you, which is more investment.

    2) He does what he says, when he says he’ll do it. Whether it’s to call you, have coffee with you, do you a favor or send you something, watch how he handles his promises. If he handles them poorly during courtship when he’s supposedly putting his best foot forward, he’ll be far worse when he’s in a relationship with you.

    3) He treats you as if your company is a worthy goal in itself, and not just a means to some other end. Guys will request your company for any number of reasons – avoid being lonely, try to get you in bed, or just to hang out. As we already discussed, the question to ask yourself: is he just asking for company, or my company specifically?

    In the early phases of courtship, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Generally speaking, the more planning and risk it involves for the guy, the more serious he is about you. It’s one thing when I ask a woman two weeks in advance to come with me to the sold-out SF Symphony Beethoven extravaganza. It’s another when I ask her if she can join me for a show tomorrow ‘cause I got two comp tickets.

    Mind you, we’re not saying spontaneity is bad; heck, it’s something sorely lacking from most overplanned modern lives. However, if all you’re getting from a guy is spontaneity, that’s a pattern worth noting. You need to figure out if he’s really interested but bad at planning, or just casually interested.

    Once again, the quality of attention during the date tends to be a good indicator of his interest level. If he’s focused on you the whole time, he’s into you. If he’s flirting with the waitress and getting other women’s numbers, he’s probably just there for a good time.

    You are not a potted plant: tiger power vs. flower power

    Now we get to the fun part: the things you can do to get accurate information about where you stand.

    First, I’d like to make a distinction between flower power and tiger power. Flowers don’t have a lot of power. Sometimes they have fancy colors and aromas to attract pollinators, but for the most part they just sit there and look pretty.

    Tigers, on the other hand, are the apex land predators. They roam the range of their vast territory and go for whatever they want, without apology or hesitation.

    Both flower and tiger power are effective in their own way, and everyone has both kinds of power. You just want to make sure that you’re using the right kind of power to get the result that you want.

    Now, if there’s one overarching principle to the Tao of Dating, it’s that you are not a potted plant. Women run families, corporations, states and entire countries. So it does not make sense to be a passive bystander to your own love life. Right now is always a great time to take control.

    But here’s the thing: too much tiger power tends to scare off men. And guys like to hunt, so you must let them be the hunter. They’re just not used to being chased.

    So you will get a little clever. Asking a question like “So why haven’t you kissed me yet?” is tiger power, because you’re taking action. At the same time, you’re stepping back and allowing him to step into his own tiger power.

    Perhaps even more important than asking the question to make sure you get the frame right. So keep it light. If you get all serious on the boy and go “Umm, I’ve been pining for you since the dawn of time and don’t think I can breathe much longer without you” and proceed to faint, you may qualify for a job re-enacting romance novels, but you will scare off the boy. Permanently.

    On the other hand, if you do it all in the name of banter and fun, and you playfully ask him, “Are you shy or something? ‘Cause I know you’re into me, but you haven’t made a move yet. Or if you’re feeling feisty: “Dude, what the hell is wrong with you? You were lying down next to me on a blanket for two hours and didn’t even try to kiss me! Am I ugly? Are you secretly gay? I mean, it’s totally fine if you want to be my GBF, but I just need to know.”

    Why is this powerful? Humor opens up the conversational field, allowing all parties to share their feelings in a safer context. But even more important, you are subtly taking control of the situation instead of just waiting around. At the same time, you are passing the baton to him to take action.

    Create the environment that favors your outcome

    People’s behavior is context-dependent. So if the guy’s interested but shy, or on the fence for whatever reason, here are some ideas for creating an environment conducive to a more romantic interaction.

    How do I know these work? Because wily women have used them on me, that’s how. Pick one depending on your level of interest and boldness:

    • Propose to watch a movie at your place or his. Snuggling on the couch during a movie is completely natural, and a well-known way to not watch the movie at all. (Not that you asked, but the movie in question was L.A. Confidential, and I still haven’t seen it.)

    • Invite him over to your place for dinner. Most guys understand this as a sign of definite interest. If he accepts the invitation, you’re 95% of the way there. Wine helps.

    • Grab your shoulder or your back, and with a pained look on your face say, “I’ve got this terrible knot in my back – could you be kind enough to work on it for a minute?” You probably know what to do from there.

    • Invite him to the beach. Relaxing and frolicking in the sun with minimal clothing is one of the best ways of getting out of your heads and into your bodies. Playing in the water and applying sunscreen to one another are time-honored ways of getting physical.

    • Take a yoga class together. For a zillion reasons, exercising together is generally a good idea. But especially after a yoga class, everyone’s inside their bodies and super chilled out, making physical interaction much easier.

    • Take an acroyoga class together. Acroyoga has taken off all over the world, so you should be able to find a class where you are. It’s basically a full-body contact sport in which you periodically collapse into each other’s arms. It’s also fun. If this doesn’t work in getting romance going, you can safely give up, ’cause nothing will.

    What’s worked for you?

    Awright then! That should give you a few tools for figuring out if a guy has romantic interest in you. Now here’s the thing: I’m just one guy here, but there are thousands of you reading this. And you have the advantage of being actual women! So do you have a tool or technique that you have used successfully to suss out a guy’s interest in you? Then please share it in the comments ASAP! Let’s make this as useful a resource for other women as possible.

    One more thing: I have a little favor to ask you. Are you on Goodreads? If so, could you be kind enough to put The Tao of Dating on your bookshelf and give it a rating once it’s there? For those who aren’t on Goodreads, it’s a fantastic site for book lovers, where you can discover new books and share libraries, reading lists and reviews with friends. It’s also a great tool for authors to reach their audience. It’s particularly important for a book to be on readers’ shelves, because that’s how Goodreads determines whether a book can get promoted on there. This is how I pay the bills, so I would be immensely grateful for your help. Let’s see if we can put the book on a few thousand shelves!

    Continue To Article

  • How to Meet Men During the Holidays: 3 tips + free webinar

    The holiday season is upon us, which means that many of you will be going to a bunch of holiday parties. This is an excellent time to get out and make new friends. And by friends, I mean people you’d want to date. If you don’t believe me that December is the best month to meet people, believe the US Census Bureau: the most babies are born in August, followed by September and July. Which means that people were engaging in lineage-perpetuating activities nine months before, which brings us to… ah yes, December and November.

    This letter asks about how you actually do it — y’know, get a guy’s number under combat conditions and stuff:

    “I’m still working my way through the modules of Project Irresistible and will need to listen to them once or twice more to really grasp some of the information presented. I really enjoyed the classes and feel that I am seeing some results already. Joined yoga which I realized I had missed as part of my routine and going out more often.

    Quick situation I wanted to run by you: I was picking up my dry cleaning and there was this good looking guy there. We were the only two in the store. While the person was getting my dry cleaning, I did the smiling eye contact with good intention thing, and then he came over and we started a conversation back and forth about how good a dry cleaning place it is and how fast and reasonably priced they are.
    I couldn’t figure out how to shift the conversation to something else. I got my dry cleaning and smiled at the guy and left.

    Any suggestions? The situation didn’t lend itself to compliments (I don’t think) since I couldn’t figure out how to shift the conversation. Should it have been something like – “I love coming here but sometimes it’s a little far with traffic. Do you live or work close by?” That’s the only thing I could think of in retrospect. Thank you, Christine”

    Great question, Christine! A lot of what I write is about mindset and being your best self. But sometimes, you just straight up need some techniques that work. This is one of those times. 

    In the big city with people constantly in motion, it can be challenging to make a connection. That’s what the 3 C’s emphasize: Conversation-friendliness, Community, and Continuity. You want to be able to have a meaningful exchange of sufficient length in a safe context such that you can follow up with the person later.

    But sometimes, moments arise where there’s a quick connection, but not enough time for the conversation to develop to the point where you can comfortably exchange information, even when it’s very clear that the attraction is mutual.

    Now the dry cleaners is a great venue because the people there are likely to be local (good for Community), affluent, and probably gainfully employed. This is the realm of grownups. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of Continuity — people grab their stuff and take off, with little time for a full conversation.

    That’s why you have to be prepared. A few ways of doing that:

    1) Have a business card ready. This cuts out the middleman of fumbling for phones, or pen and paper. It also conveys that you’re a serious person, with job and income and titles and all that glorious adult stuff. All you have to say is, “Hey, I’d love to continue this conversation sometime. Let’s keep in touch. Do you have a card?” Then get yours out. If he doesn’t have one, jot his info down and be on your merry way. You don’t need an excuse or an explanation — you are a woman. The attention you just gave him probably made his day. And if not, that’s useful information, too.

    2) Have a Container Event ready, or make one up right on the spot. I have a Bookswap Brunch that I do once a month or so, where people bring books to swap with each other while having a tasty brunch. It’s a great community builder, allowing me to add new people to my circle of friends in a casual, fun setting. It also gives me an eminently plausible excuse for getting people’s contact info.

    If you’re hosting an event, throwing a party or going to a show that you have extra tickets to, there’s your opportunity to recruit anyone to your cause. “Hey, are you free Thursday night? Because I’ve got us some Cirque du Soleil tickets.” Yes please!

    3) Be spontaneous. If it’s lunchtime, or you have time for a coffee, why not ask him to join you right then and there: “Hey, I was about to grab lunch next door — would you like to continue this conversation there?” One of my best relationships started that way, and maybe yours will, too.

    FREE WEBINAR: HOW TO MEET MEN DURING THE HOLIDAYS

    Now this topic happens to be one of the most common that women ask me about. So to address the question more thoroughly, I’m going to hold a no-charge 1-hr webinar on Tue 13 Dec 2016 on this very topic. Capacity for the webinar is only 100 people, so if you want to be on, I would recommend that you click on this link right now and sign up. Nothing to lose; much joy, potential partnership, wedding ceremonies, rugrats, and massive private school and college bills to gain :)

    San Francisco Bay Area: UNDERSTANDING MEN Live Lecture + Q&A Mon 5 Dec 6.30-8pm

    On the morning of November 9, perhaps you were one of the millions of women who woke up wondering, “How come so many guys voted for someone who clearly disrespects women?” Or, even more puzzling, “How come so many women voted for a guy who disrespects women?” (Hint: If you were rejoicing on Nov 9, this talk is probably not aimed at you.)

    In this short lecture + Q&A on Mon 5 Dec, I’ll be talking about what this election revealed about male-female dynamics:

    • How men really feel about dating strong, smart, accomplished women like yourself
    • How does a woman’s vote for an avowed sexist reflect in her love life?
    • Is there a central glitch in the human mate-selection operating system, and if so, how is it showing up in your life?
    • Male & female insecurity, and what you can do about it

    The talk is brand new with material I’ve never published before, drawing upon the Tao of Dating books for men and women, 14 years studying love lives, and answering over 5000 letters. I’ll be talking about some uneasy truths that I hope will enlighten and challenge your view of the world. Note that if you are a guy and/or voted for the disrespectful guy, this talk will probably be tough to take.

    It’s also been over 2 years since I’ve done a live event like this in San Francisco, so it’s about time! Would love to see you if you’re in the Bay Area already, and if not, please tell your friends who are.  I’ll do a 30-45min lecture, followed by open Q&A (about anything love-related, not just the topic of the day). It will basically be like a live version of the blog, so bring your questions! It’s like therapy, only cheaper and more fun. The room is smallish, so if you want a seat, get your tickets quick — there are about 19 left. I’ll also have copies of the book on sale to sign.

    Look forward to seeing you soon, Dr Ali

    Continue To Article

  • Resources for Resilience

    I understand that many of you had a rough week.

    You saw a candidate who routinely insulted minorities, immigrants, handicapped people, and LGBT folks become President-elect of the nation. You saw a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women win the highest office in the land. And you saw friends, family, and fellow Americans disregard all of that ugliness and vote for him anyway.

    If in the past week you have felt less safe; disrespected as a woman; in despair about the state of democracy; worried about the future of your self and country – I hear you.

    So I’m having free office hours tomorrow Wed 16 Nov from 12 noon-2pm PT/3pm-5pm ET. If you want to talk about stuff, just call 213 444 6826. If I’m talking to someone else, leave a message and I’ll call you back.

    In the meantime, even though something very strange has happened, worry is not going to help. The world keeps turning, and frankly it needs you. So if you are not feeling tip-top, here are some ways to improve your resilience and bounce back, pronto:

    1) Move. There is nothing that changes your mood more reliably than exercise. So get out of the house and move – go for a run, do yoga, take an exercise class, or just enjoy a long walk. Even if you really, really don’t feel like it and it requires a crane to get you out of the house, just do it. You’ll thank you for it.

    2) Reconnect. We humans are hypersocial creatures. And yet, as books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone show, the sense of community in America has been eroding over the years. Singles living alone are now the biggest demographic group in America, and nothing about the 6 million year history of hominin evolution prepared us for living by ourselves. So get together with people. Organize a movie night, go watch sports together in a bar, go dancing, have a dinner party. Good company is healing.

    3) Listen to music. If you’ve noticed that music has mood-altering qualities, it’s because it does. It’s like a fast-acting, totally legal drug. Which also explains why so many repressive cultures ban music (think the Taliban or fundamentalist Iran). So grab your smartphone, fire up your Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music or Pandora, and listen to some seriously uplifting tunes. If said tunes make you dance, even better (see #1 above). Here’s a list of a hundred or so songs that never fail to get me jammin’.

    Classical music is particularly powerful for me. Some pieces that get me going when I need to scrape myself off the floor: Brahms Piano Concerto #1 (more on the kickass empowering and passionate side of things rather than just cheery); Mendelssohn Symphony #4, “Italian” (relentless exuberance); Beethoven Symphony #6 “Pastoral” and #7.

    4) Meditate. Sit. Yeah, just close your eyes and sit. And don’t do anything else. That’s basically what meditation is. For extra credit, do your best to clear your mind of thoughts. You do this by focusing on something other than random thoughts – say, the sensation of breath as it goes through your nostrils. Repeating an internal sounds also helps you focus. You can say “calm” as you inhale, and “mind” as you exhale. Mantra is the fancy Sanskrit name for this, and some religious organizations charge $5000+ for giving you one. Which is bananas. Just email me a beer instead.

    5) Practice mindfulness. Wait, I thought we just talked about meditation, didn’t we? Ah. Meditation is a form of mindfulness, but not the same thing. Mindfulness is something that doesn’t require that you sit or close your eyes. You can practice it all the time. It just means you’re paying attention to this present moment instead of the past or the future. Because, if you really think about it, all of your problems reside in the past or the future. Right now – this tiny sliver of a second constituting the present moment – is frankly too narrow to contain any problems.

    Mindfulness means that if you’re washing dishes, do that and only that. Feel the warmth of the water, the hardness of the plates, the slipperiness of the suds. Hear the sounds of splashing water, and the squeak of sponge on dish. If you’re walking, feel your footfalls. Which part of your foot hits the ground first? Which one is next? How do your legs feel as they alternately support and swing? What are your arms doing?

    As you do this, you may notice something: this moment in time is always fundamentally okay. If you’re reading this now, chances are you’ve got a roof over your head, you’re in reasonably good health, you’re fed, you’ve got friends and family who care. And then the next moment in time – still pretty good. And the next one? Yup. String together enough of these mindful moments, and you get whole days, months and years. This way, you can get through anything.

    6) Serve. One of the best ways to cheer yourself up is to help cheer other people up. Hey, why do you think I do this stuff? So call up a friend, offer to listen, go deliver a hug in person, send them this list, and otherwise make yourself useful.

    7) Be grateful. Let’s try an experiment: think of something you’re grateful for. Could be your family, your health, your car that gets you around. Now notice that while you’re feeling gratitude, it’s impossible to feel demanding, slighted, indignant or otherwise grumpy. I mean, you’re here! On Earth! With free gravity keeping you from being flung into space, free atmosphere giving you oxygen courtesy of plants, and a magnetic field and ozone layer that deflect cosmic and UV rays so we don’t get baked. Pretty sweet, eh?

    So go ahead and grab a piece of paper, and write down 3 things you’re super grateful for. Meditate on them, and deeply appreciate them in your life for 30sec each. Then go on with the rest of your day. Science shows that making this a daily or even weekly practice has measurable benefits for your long-term happiness. This really should have been at the top of the list; thanks to eagle-eyed reader Maria for bringing it to my attention.

    SF: THE TAO OF DATING AND LOVE, MON NOV 28

    All of the things I just mentioned are free and available to you right now. If you’d prefer to buy a ticket and you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’re in luck. Because I’m doing one of my rare live events in a couple of weeks! The Tao of Dating and Love will be on the evening of Mon Nov 28. I’ll do a short (30-45min) lecture followed by Q&A. Tickets are cheap. And if you’re not in the neighborhood, tell your friends who are! Would be great to see them.

    WORLDWIDE: OPEN OFFICE HOURS WED 16 NOV, 12NOON-2PM PT

    As I already mentioned, for those not local to SF, I’ll have Open Office Hours tomorrow, Wed Nov 16, 12pm-2pm PT/3pm-5pm ET. Just call 213 444-6826. If I’m free, I’ll pick up; if I’m talking to someone else, I’ll call you back. Simple.

    PROJECT IRRESISTIBLE: NEW LIVE COHORT

    I’m starting a new live cohort of Project Irresistible two weeks from now on Tue 29 Nov. Why? Because it’s the holiday season, when a woman’s thoughts turn to love and “Who should I take to the office party?” and “Whom will be making out with at midnight on New Year’s Eve?” Most people have a lot on their plate during the holiday season (literally and figuratively), but they’re also going to a lot of social events. Moreover, everyone’s in a sunny holiday mood (read: slightly tipsy and/or desperate). Translation: This is a really good time to meet new people. Why do you think the most number of kids are born in August? Because people are hooking up left and right during the holidays, that’s why.

    Anyway, there are 6 sessions in total. We’re going to do 4 sessions before the New Year, which should get you in excellent shape to capitalize on all the social happenings. The remaining 2 sessions will be in 2017. If you join in the next 48hrs, you get $100 off with code “FALL100”. After that, it’s a $75 discount.

    And remember, the course is evergreen. All the material is online, and you can come back to it as often as you want, and join a live cohort whenever I have one. So if you’ve been meaning to get your love life in shape and find some warm, kind, steady, and fulfilling partnership, now is a really good time to sign up to refine your skills.

    STILL MOPING?

    Hey, I hear ya. Things were probably rough even before they got rougher! We live in uncertain times. But guess what: as the ever-wise Jack Kornfield brought to our attention in his talk at Spirit Rock last night, any human who has ever lived has lived in uncertain times! None of this is entirely new. And you know what? You’re ready to handle whatever comes your way. I have faith in you.

    And just so you can have even more faith in yourself, here are two resources straight from my secret stash that have been very useful to me:

    • The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have, by Mark Nepo. This is a daybook. You get an essay for every calendar day. For example, for May 1, it’s entitled “Burying and Planting: The culmination of one love, one dream, one self, is the anonymous seed of the next.”

    Mark Nepo has been through a lot (cancer, divorce etc). As a result, he always writes from a place of deep vulnerability. He also writes beautifully. No wonder Oprah went gaga over his book when she found out about it in 2010. You will, too, so get yourself the paperback gift edition for a mere $11 (or the ebook) and put it on your bedstand. You’ll be glad you did.

    • Reverend Dr Michael Bernard Beckwith speaks on Wed evenings and Sun mornings at the Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles. You can either watch the livestream or go to watch from the archives right now for no charge (perhaps the Nov 9 service will be of interest; lecture starts around 51:00). He is one industrial-strength wallop of inspiration and the best living orator I know. The services are spiritually-oriented and non-denominational. I think of it as church for people who don’t usually go to church.

    There are some recurring themes to his messages: you have the power to think independently of circumstance; you have a gift, and the world is waiting for it. Yet somehow, every time it feels as if he’s directly addressing you and the challenge you’re having right now. Oprah has also recently discovered Rev Michael and had him featured on Super Soul Sunday. Rev Michael was a pivotal part of starting my writing career 11 years ago. He is an extraordinarily helpful resource in times of trouble or joy.

    And if you have a go-to resource that you’d like to share with the rest of the Tao of Dating community, please write it down here in the comments! Whether it’s running, knitting, playing with your pet, a particular book or poem, I’d personally love to hear about it, and I’m sure the rest of the readers could benefit from it, too.

    All the best, Dr Ali

    Continue To Article

  • “Should I be miserable, or slightly less miserable?”: The Framing Problem

    A great letter about an all-too-common issue: do you stay in a mediocre relationship, or stick around to acknowledge your partner’s efforts at self-improvement, in hope that things maaaybe get better:

    Dear Dr Ali — My on/off partner of 4.5 years (with breaks) has a very avoidant attachment style, manifesting through extreme workaholic behaviour, using work to put distance between us. His work is stressful which exacerbates the issues. I have left the relationship twice. I am generally secure, with a very close, supportive family and friends network, but under this type of stress I become quite anxious. I’ve left whenever I realised I was persistently unhappy and ultimately feel alone within the relationship.

    We have an 8 year relationship as creative partners and are currently still working together (sporadically, not everyday). Our working relationship is great, I’d say because he feels safe and not threatened by intimacy. We are always happy to see each other.

    Both times I have left, he has reached out to try again. This time he started therapy to address these problems and in a few months there has been a significant acknowledgement of issues but no change so far. We love each other but I am worried that his underlying issues are so deep, he will never be able to commit to a relationship in a way that will make us both happy.

    Do you think it is possible for a strongly avoidant person to smooth off those edges and feel happy and fulfilled in a relationship rather than trapped and panicky (especially during the stressful times in life)? Ages are 38 and 40. Thanks, Cleo

    This kind of question comes up a lot, and it’s an example of what’s called the framing problem. See, Cleo, the correct question here is not “Can this person who has been making me feel anxious, unhappy and alone for 4.5 years with whom I’ve already broken up twice suddenly change and become the warm, caring person who fulfills all my relationship needs for the next umpteen years?” but rather, “Why am I putting up with this shit?” The real choice is between the mediocre-to-toxic relationship you’re having right now, vs the mutually nurturing and nourishing relationship that you could have with any of the millions of men that you haven’t broken up with twice yet.

    What you’re asking me is, “Hey doc. I just got this hot dog, and it fell in the sand. Should I just eat it, or is it possible for me to pick out all the grit and maybe wash it and then have a soggy mess that’s almost edible again and maybe a little less gritty, so I don’t have to throw it away?” If you have 5 bucks in your pocket, I’d say go get another hot dog, toss the other one and never think about it again.

    This type of thinking is very common, Cleo. The problem is with the framing: should I keep a miserable relationship, or a slightly less miserable relationship. It’s a false choice. You can also have a great relationship. Just not with this guy. I’m guessing that right about now, you’re getting a pretty unified chorus of friends and family saying that you deserve better. Maybe it’s time to listen to that.

    The reason this comes up so often is because of the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve written about this before in Chapter 5 of The Tao of Dating (ebook, paperback, and audiobook), “Understanding Men, Understanding Yourself”, p93:

    The Slot-Machine Theory of Human Behavior
    “Let’s say you’re in Las Vegas, and you’ve decided to play a slot machine. You put in a coin, pull the lever, and – nothing. Well, that’s fine – you weren’t expecting to win immediately anyway. So you put in another coin and – nothing again. In fact, nothing is the most likely outcome every time. Funny that.

    But before you know it, you’ve sunk quite a few coins in this machine. Now you’re thinking, “I’m invested; I can’t just quit now! I’ve fattened this thing up – it’s going to pay off any second now! Jackpot City!”

    The fact remains that the most likely outcome of your next pull (and the next, and the next, and the next) is still nothing. And that likelihood does not change whether you put in one coin or 10,000 coins before this pull.

    Psychologists have noticed that one of the reasons why this happens (and why casinos are making a mint) is that the human mind grasps poorly the concept of sunk costs. Those first 100 coins that you put into the machine are gone forever, and they have no bearing upon the outcome of the next pull of the lever. People tend to mistake the sunk cost for an investment, which has an expectation of future payoff commensurate with the investment. A sunk cost, on the other hand, is just plain gone.

    The way this concept plays out in a bad relationship is that the aggrieved party thinks that she has invested two years dating a jerk, so she can’t just throw that investment away. Besides, through her efforts, he might reform and thereby reward her with the jackpot she’s been working on all along.

    Well, there is no way to retrieve or throw away those two years – they’re gone for good. They are sunk costs. And the jackpot isn’t coming. Just as in playing a slot machine, the best policy once you realize you’re in a sunk cost situation is to cut and run and immediately stop your losses. The sooner a woman leaves behind the jerk, the sooner she’s opening her life to the arrival of a guy (perhaps even a Good Guy) who can be a catalyst for fulfillment.” [end of excerpt]

    Your question once again brings up the central question of relationships: What do you want, Cleo? Do you want an on-again, off-again relationship that stresses you out? Because that’s what you’re signing up for by staying with him. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and the past behavior has not been promising.

    It’s nice that you say you love him, but your mission in this life is to be your most radiant, giving, generous, creative self so you can give your gift to the world, not to have it drained out of you by one person. This man does not sound like the kind of person who as a partner can catalyze your greatness. As such, staying with him would be an act of selfishness. You have a much bigger mandate than having to deal with his issues. Be strong and move on so you can open the door to the right partner who’s been waiting for you for a long time now. And if that means being alone for a little while, that’s still a better spot than what you’re describing right now.

    Please recall that I wrote The Tao of Dating because a friend of mine told me she was dating with a man who lived under her roof paying no rent and beating her up. That was a really clear case of someone being in the wrong relationship, because he was physically abusing her. But sometimes the violence isn’t so obvious because it’s occurring emotionally.

    All relationships go through ups and downs, but please be mindful of what the overall arc of the relationship is. Does it go down, then go up again, with a general upward trajectory? Or does it go down, and then stay down till you get used to the new normal, then go down again? There’s a term for this in decision science: normalization of deviance. And if you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can sometimes be hard to tell if you’re compromising too much in a relationship.

    So here are some ways of finding out whether what you’re putting up with is normal relationship fluctuations or a toxic relationship:

    Are your friends worried about you? Do they often express concern about the state of your relationship? Do they ever say things like “He’s not good for you” or “Y’know, have you considered dating someone else?” If so, you may be in a toxic relationship.

    Do you find yourself apologizing a lot in the relationship? Like you’re always walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off?  The whole point of relationship is for two people to support each other, not to create an atmosphere of fear. There are plenty of dark alleyways you can walk down in the sketchy parts of the city to make you feel unsafe. Why construct one in your own home?

    Do you have a history of staying in bad relationships? If so, your idea of “normal” may be skewed such that you’re willing to put up with a lot more crap than you should.

    Do you feel that you’re flourishing as a person in this relationship? This is the absolute criterion that doesn’t even need the rest of them. If the answer is no, it’s time to think about why that’s the case.

    If you don’t feel psychologically safe on a day-to-day basis in your relationship, it’s really time to move on. Things like love, growth and joy only have room to happen when the parasympathetic nervous system and the mind and body feel safe. When your mind is in threat response mode, it just never gets past that. If that describes you, call on a trusted friend or counselor to discuss how you can extricate yourself from the situation.

    Speaking of flourishing — I’ve got a little something for you. On Tue May 31 at 6pm PT/9pm ET, I’m giving a free teleclass called “Happiness Engineering: The Five Pillars of Authentic Success.” Sign up for it here and I’ll send you a reminder for when it’s happening.

    All the best,
    Dr Ali

    PS: By popular request, Therapy Thursdays continues. If you have an issue that you think could benefit from a one-on-one consult via Skype, send a message to drali at taoofdating.com with “TT” in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. There are 3 appointment slots per week, and they happen on Thursdays and Fridays.

    PPS: If you don’t have it already, you can get The Tao of Dating audibook for free when you sign up for a 30-day trial with Audible.

    Continue To Article

  • Video Mailbag #2: Self-Sabotage 101

    Sometimes I get a letter from you ladies so rich with nuance, implication and dysfunction that I realize it would take me hours to write a response covering everything I want to say.

    That’s when I resort to this newfangled technology called “video”, and bang out a response in 10min instead of 10hrs. This means now you also get to stare at my mug to get your answer, so hey, enjoy :)

    Two news items first: I’m putting the finishing touches on a digital version of “Project Irresistible”, the 6-week teleclass that I’ve been running periodically to bring the principles of The Tao of Dating into your life and behavior. ‘Cause, let’s face it, if we actually learned everything we read in books, we’d all be hyper-successful super-geniuses by now with perfect lives, right?

    Well, it don’t work that way. One thing I learned in med school was that route of administration matters. So a well-designed course, with audio and written material and exercises, can make a big difference. More about it on Monday.

    Second, thanks for all your feedback on the Tao of Dating Cover Redesign Contest. Your votes so far have been very helpful, but even more so — your comments! Such aesthetes in our midst, but of course. Your taste matters, because lord knows I ain’t going to be reading this book — you ladies are. So chime in, cast your vote, and expound on your thinking here.

    Now let’s set the scene for this letter: our heroine, whom we shall call Gilda, gets together with this guy who was going through a divorce. Except that he gets back together with his wife, leaving Gilda high and dry. But then, he separates from his wife again, and comes crawling back to Gilda. They get together again, and — you guessed it — dude goes back to his wife, leaving Gilda a very sad camper. Except that now he’s finalized the divorce, and guess who he just called? Ay crud. So Gilda asks me: “What should I do, Doc?” Well, what do you think ladies? And before you get all judgey on her — you’d never think like this yourself, right? Here we go:

    Continue To Article

  • Mailbag: On Leaving Toxic Relationships

    Last week, I received a rash of letters about bad relationships. Like, really, really bad relationships. I feel like these kinds of relationships are a little bit like cockroaches: for every one that you see, there are 70 that you don’t. Which makes me dread how many more of you must be in these kinds of relationships without telling me — or anyone else. Speak up! First, let’s get to this first letter here. After responding to all of the “I’m Stuck with Toxic Boy and Don’t Know What to Do” letters personally, I felt this one was representative of the batch:

    Dr Ali, I have been dating a man for the past 9 years on and off. He is 44 years old, divorced and still lives with his mother. He hangs out with his loser friends to smoke weed and drink alcohol. He hardly spends time with me when I confront him about the lack of time. All he tells me is that I complain about it too much and that I need to respect him and give him loyalty.

    His comments make me resent him, so on and off, I block him from my phone. What I heard from an ex is that the times we are not together he was sleeping around and dating other women. In our last break up, he started dating another woman a week after breaking up with me. A month later, he proposed to her and moved in with that woman. He never did anything like that with me.

    What bothers me is that he is trying to get back with me while he is still engaged to the other chick. I still love him but I feel disgusted and used. How do I let go of a loser who gave me crumbs of time?

    Resentfully, Bree

    Oh my. The only thing that’s missing here is “He also just recently got out of jail for a few felony charges and tends to beat me with a baseball bat for sport. And wants me to join his cult.” I mean, we all have different limits of tolerance, but it seems as if (more…)

    Continue To Article

  • “Who would ever want me?”: On being lovable

    Hello, ladies and the occasional curious gentleman. Noah’s Flood has hit Northern California with full force, and I volunteered to be part of the crew that collects pairs of animals for the ark. The problem is that I really can’t tell the difference between, say, a boy armadillo and a girl armadillo. So if certain species end up going extinct in the near future, you didn’t hear about any of this. Deal? Deal.

    In other news, I’ve been doing some research on my ongoing project called Happiness Engineering. In the course of my readings, I’ve come across a bunch of interesting research emphasizing the importance of vulnerability, compassion, self-compassion and mindfulness. In my last article, I covered some of those topics. This being the hammer that the world has provided me for the foreseeable future, I’ll be looking at the letters you send me as the perfect nails for said hammer. Case in point, we have one from Cori, a 44-year old widow with 4 kids who just started dating again:

    After being married for years, my husband died of cancer, and I started dating again. I’m 44; the new guy is divorced. After dating for a while, the new guy says he wants to marry me. But after getting to know him for over year now, I’ve noticed that has a bad temper. He calls me names when he gets mad, like “jackass” – who even uses that anymore?! – and slams the phone down etc. Gets mad at me a lot. Told him it’s not fun anymore and I’m not okay with anger issues. He offered to change. I declined the offer. He argues that he is committed, dependable, and loving and I bring out the anger by doing stupid shit basically. I told him no go – husband of many years never called me a name, ever.

    Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids? I meet tons of men. I’m super sexual. Get hit on plenty but his point is they all just want sex, not love. I’d rather be alone! But do you think people change?! I really don’t. I feel pretty liberated by making my own choices and not allowing myself to settle…

    Anyway. As always just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know (online anyway). Hope your love life is going better than mine. — Cori

    Dear Cori – I’d say you’re pretty smart, too, since saying stuff like “Just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know” is exactly the way to motivate me :)

    Your letter brings up a bunch of interesting points. First off, because you’re so smart and fabulous, here’s what I would say: trust yourself. You don’t like the anger. Your late husband never called you a bad name the whole time you were together. Clearly this is something you don’t want to tolerate, and really nobody should. You already have clear boundaries, and he’s obviously violating them. He could be a trillionaire who’s a typhoon in the sack, but if he has a habit of pooping on the breakfast table, then you can’t be with him. Uncontrolled anger is like pooping on the breakfast table, except that it can happen unpredictably at any time, anywhere, not just at mealtime. His blaming it on you because you supposedly do “stupid shit” is BULLSHIT, emotionally manipulative and inexcusable. A grown man is responsible for his own behavior.

    Now this line from the letter was quite telling:

    “Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids?”

    Let me translate that into what it’s actually saying:

    “Since I’m just a widow burdened with 4 kids, I should hold on to any guy who would give me the time of day. I mean, when will I ever get another chance? Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ me?”

    Well, Cori, I don’t know. Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ you?

    And ladies — before you think that somehow this is a problem unique to Cori, please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a version of this go through YOUR mind, ahem:

    “Who would want to be with me with my oversize thighs / stringy hair / pot belly / C on my report card / chronic disease / neat-freak tendencies / crappy job / ugly neighborhood / weird family / shitty car / funny-looking feet / dwarf stature / beanpole height / asymmetrical boobs / annoyingly high voice / funny accent / other perfectly common no-big-deal issue which I will nevertheless unconsciously use as a barrier to intimacy?”   

    Now, I haven’t met you, so it doesn’t make sense for me to sit here and boost your ego by singing your praises. What I can do, however, is to tell you how you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are enough.

    See, I get hundreds of letters from you ladies every year. And you all think you have this one special problem that’s specific to you and you alone.

    Well, I’ve got news for ya. All of you have one problem and one problem alone, and it’s pretty much the same for all of you. And I’ve said before, it is this question:

    AM I LOVABLE?

    That’s pretty much it. Everything else boils down to that, as I mentioned in my last article. Am I worthy of love? Am I pulling my weight on this planet? Is there any good reason why people should like me, want to spend time with me and be nice to me?

    Luckily, the answers to those questions are entirely in your hands. Here are three things you can do such that you know that you’ve done your part in being, like, totally lovable:

    1) Am I being vulnerable?

    What’s the most lovable thing in the world? An infant, a kitten or a puppy would qualify. So cute! So adorable!

    And so completely useless. I mean, what can a baby do? Not much besides pee, poop, and make nipples sore. And yet, because it’s also perfectly defenseless, everyone adores it.

    Now, granted, there are also some deep evolutionary mechanisms at work assuring that we find wrinkly, pudgy, smoosh-faced, income- and sleep-annihilating babies adorable, otherwise the human race just wouldn’t propagate.

    Nevertheless, it’s still true that lovability is directly proportional to vulnerability. One thing we all know for sure: perfectionism, the polar opposite of vulnerability, is distinctly non-cuddly and just plain unattractive. So if you’re trying to attract men, what may work even better than trying to come off as a hypercompetent, fiercely independent overachiever is this: a little bit of emotional self-disclosure.

    Admit that sometimes things are tough. That you wish you had more support, more close company that you could share experiences with. That you miss your dad who passed away 6 years ago, and that you wish he could have met his grandkids. That all the responsibility of being a powerful woman weighs you down sometimes. That the scar from the surgery still hurts. That you gave up your childhood dream of being a classical cellist for a corporate job. Emotional self-disclosure of pain or imperfection like these make you more vulnerable, and therefore more approachable and lovable.

    Vulnerability brings out the protective and nurturing instincts of a man – his noblest aspects. Perfectionism, on the other hand, brings out his competitive instincts. Which one would you prefer? Would you rather fight or be cherished? Your choice.

    At the same time, “vulnerable” means “more subject to harm.” So make sure the person you’re making yourself vulnerable to is the right audience for it. Last thing you want is some brute who’ll attack you just when you’ve exposed your soft underbelly.

    Also, make sure that vulnerability is the spice, rather than the whole dish. If you’re perpetually talking about the pain in your life, that’s not vulnerability – that’s just whining. This is not about dumping your woes on people. This is about discreetly making yourself vulnerable, in measured doses, to someone you like.

    2) Am I being self-compassionate?

    Generally speaking, people can only love you to the extent that you love yourself. So – how much do you love yourself? If you’re constantly putting yourself down and telling yourself how much of an idiot you are, then you’re probably going to end up with someone who agrees with you or worse.

    Why? Because you’re going to reject out of hand any guy who likes you more than you like yourself. “What could he possibly see in me? He’s either crazy, deluded or faking it.” That would be funny if it weren’t true of so many people I know.

    The antidote to this is a healthy sense of self-compassion (which apparently is different from self-esteem, but that’s a story for a different day). According to Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas in Austin, who pioneered the field and wrote the book on self-compassion (full delightful title: Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) there are 3 components to it:

    a) Self-kindness, meaning that we are gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Basically, when you flub, be as nice to yourself as you would be to others. Simple.

    b) Recognizing our common humanity, meaning that we feel connected to others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. This is what I was talking about earlier in the article when I said all of you have the same am-I-lovable problem. You’re not alone in being alone, as the immortal bard Sting put it in the song Message in a Bottle.

    c) Mindfulness, meaning that we remain aware of our pain but keep that observation in perspective, rather than ignoring the pain or exaggerating it.

    Practice self-compassion, and the beast of low self-worth is likely to go on a very long vacation.

    3) Am I being loving?

    If you’re being vulnerable and self-compassionate, that’s a great start. But being loving is also an active, outward-directed thing. So this is third part of doing your homework so you know that you are totally, completely, 100% worthy of love involves building up other people in addition to not tearing yourself down. Some ways of being loving:

    • Being a catalyst for others’ growth
    • Habitually making folks feel like a million bucks
    • Expressing your appreciation of people
    • Being focused more on giving than taking (while still looking out for yourself, ahem – no doormats or martyrs, please)
    • Valuing people as ends in themselves, not as means to some other end
    • Saying more positive things than negative things (3:1 ratio at least)

    The good news is this is all under your control. You can choose to be vulnerable. You can choose to be loving. And when you do, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are worthy of love.

    But wait! There’s more. There’s a side benefit to all of this. As a result of all of these practices, e.g. making others feel like a million bucks, YOU’RE going to feel like a million bucks, too! Scientists have shown that all of this stuff that you do – raising people up, sharing of yourself, being giving – has a direct, positive effect on you. It makes you feel good!

    So to go back to Cori’s original question: Who would want to date a 44-year old woman with 4 kids? Who’s gonna love you, girl?

    Well, if you’re doing the stuff that we just talked about, the answer is legions of guys – assuming they have some sense in them. At the same time, the work of vulnerability, self-compassion and being loving is its own reward. How’s that for a win-win?

    So go forth and live it up. Make someone’s day — especially your own. I’ve gotta put on my rain gear and catch some armadilloes for now, but I fully expect to hear back on how it went for you when I’m back.

    Best, Dr Ali

    PS: As you may know, the audiobook of The Tao of Dating for Women is now available on Audible and Amazon. Audible has a deal where you can get it for free. And if you’re one of the first people to put up a review of it on Audible.com, I will hook you up with a free download code to send to a friend. I have 15 gift codes left, so hurry! Once your review is published, send me an email with “AUDIBLE REVIEW” in the subject and the link to your review, and I shall hook you up with the goods.

    Continue To Article

  • How to get over a breakup

    This month, no fewer than three of my friends have pressed me into service as a breakup counselor. And if three of them are actually telling me about it, that means there are another 300 out there who are not.

    So in the interest of helping out all of those suffering in silence now or in the future, I’m compiling a list of interventions that many have found useful in handling such matters of the heart. Let’s start with the non-negotiable one first:

    1) Break contact completely.

    We’ve all heard of drugged-out celebrities going to rehab, but ever wonder what actually happens there? The first thing rehab does is to keep the patient away from his drug of choice. His brain’s been so lit up by his habit that neuronal receptors for the drug are now screaming for another fix like a million hungry chicks.

    Well, your ex-lover operates on your brain just like that drug, so now you need to detox, too. You need to give your (more…)

    Continue To Article

  • If you think you’re in an abusive relationship, read this NOW

    Recently I read a moving, sobering article about a great woman who was stuck in an abusive relationship.

    I couldn’t believe what I read.  Here was a super-smart woman — a doctor, in fact — who was letting a man beat her up, literally and figuratively, for five YEARS.

    At various points, he kicked her, choked her, and even held a gun to her head.  Dr Karen E Johnson was fearing for her life.  And yet she still stayed with him.

    The pattern is a familiar one: he was ‘romantic’, made breakfast in bed, said sweet nothings to her, and did all kinds of other nonsense that sucked Dr Karen in and kept her with him.

    Let me make it clear: men should be the protectors and providers for women — not their attackers.  Any kind of physical violence means you need to get out.  IMMEDIATELY.

    I don’t know what it takes for a smart woman to wake up, realize that it’s not okay for a guy to raise a hand on her EVER, and walk out.  Or call the police.

    The statistic I heard was that it takes 5 attempts before a woman finally leaves her abuser for good.  And it almost always takes outside help — from a friend, family member, therapist, social worker, concerned neighbor.

    Whatever it takes, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT.  You have my full permission and support to break out of this.  To get you started, here’s an excellent article about the signs to look for BEFORE a guy gets abusive.  It’s well-researched and very insightful:

    Tell Somebody: 10 Surprising Signs You’re Dating an Abusive Guy by Liz Brody, Editor-at-Large of Glamour Magazine

    And here’s the link to Dr Karen E Johson’s website, where she has two free ebooks, Five Ways to Find Out if You’re In an Abusive Relationship and 5 Ways to Take Your Power Back: DrKarenEJohnson.com

    Here are some excerpts from her article ‘Secrets and Lies’ (more…)

    Continue To Article