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:
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.