Dating for Women: Fulfillment, commitment, exclusivity and societal norms

This is a reader’s response to the article “How to decipher what men really mean: principles for handling casual relationships.” If you haven’t read it yet, no big deal, but it’s available via the newsletter, which you can subscribe to in the left-hand box over there  <–

Dear Dr. Benzer,

Some helpful and thought-provoking points below. I’m very impressed. I’ve written a few questions in response. Sorta rhetorical but if you have any thoughts, I’d be very interested to hear them….
You say “Now it’s possible that your long-term fulfillment is in having a committed relationship with a man that’s heading towards marriage.”

If fulfillment is a feeling, not an idea, then how do know an idea will really fulfill you – if you’ve never felt it?

Let’s say that filet mignon is marriage, or a committed relationship. How do you know that filet mignon is right for you? You can deduce that you might enjoy it, based on the precedent set by your species in the form of millions of happily married or committed couples eating filet mignon, but until you’ve finally chomped down into that first supposedly succulent bite, how can you know if if that’s what you should be aiming for? I *think* I am very happy eating my Independence-flavored ice cream. BUT it’s hard to fully enjoy it when society tells me I should be trying to get myself some filet mignon.

You also say “But if you *are* cool with dating around and having fun, then go ahead and be cool with it.”

Dating around – traditionally, women aren’t supposed to date/sleep around just for fun. Society tells me, my religion has told me, health reasons tell me, and therefore I tell myself, that I will be a lesser woman if I do this. If you’re going to be marched through the fiery gates of hell for something, best to avoid it. If you’re going to die a miserably death from an STD, best avoid it. If you’re going to be talked about in hushed, sympathetic voices by your friends for being single the rest of your life, best avoid it.

How do I get to a point where I’m ‘cool’ with just dating (does this mean ‘sleeping’ ?) around, when my sources tell me I should want otherwise? I recently ruined a relationship and scared the guy away by trying to force commitment before we were ready for it – I knew we weren’t ready for it, but I asked for exclusivity because that’s what I felt I should do (or…maybe it’s really what I wanted but I don’t want to admit that to myself). In reality, it shouldn’t have mattered – we were both quite enjoying the ice cream…and I ruined the flavor with talk of filet mignon.
– Suzie E. from D.C.

Well, Suzie. Thanks for writing in. Your letter brings up a lot of questions, and I’ll see if I can address each one individually.

You say “Now it’s possible that your long-term fulfillment is in having a committed relationship with a man that’s heading towards marriage.”
If fulfillment is a feeling, not an idea, then how do know an idea will really fulfill you – if you’ve never felt it?

Suzie, that’s very well put, and exactly the point. The only guide for fulfillment is how you feel. Things like companionship, warmth, love, someone to cuddle with, someone to share brunch with — these evoke fulfillment-related feelings. They’re a little different for each person. As the passage said, it’s possible that a long-term committed relationship is fulfilling for you. It’s also possible that it’s not. Find out what works for you.

If you like your independence-flavored ice cream, by all means continue. At the same time, life is a never-ending process of growth. You’re either growing, or you’re dying (with stasis another form of dying). Growth means expanding beyond your comfort zone, because everything you want is outside of your comfort zone — otherwise you’d already have it and wouldn’t want it. I discuss this on page 159 of The Tao of Dating for Women, and it’s one of big themes of the book.

Some of the greatest pleasures in life — like sushi, alcohol and sex — are acquired tastes (i.e. most people aren’t crazy about them on the first try). Unless you try them, you’ll never know about these potential sources of fulfillment.

At the same time, marriage ain’t no panacea, and if it were that great, over 50% of people wouldn’t bail from it partway through.

You also say “But if you *are* cool with dating around and having fun, then go ahead and be cool with it.”

Dating around – traditionally, women aren’t supposed to date/sleep around just for fun. Society tells me, my religion has told me, health reasons tell me, and therefore I tell myself, that I will be a lesser woman if I do this. If you’re going to be marched through the fiery gates of hell for something, best to avoid it. If you’re going to die a miserably death from an STD, best avoid it. If you’re going to be talked about in hushed, sympathetic voices by your friends for being single the rest of your life, best avoid it.

First of all, dating around is whatever it means to you, not anyone else. You can date three guys at the same time and not sleep with any or all of them — it’s up to you. What’s always true is that you get better at something the more you do it. The more you date, the better you figure out what fits in your life, what you want, who’s compatible with you, what you will and will not tolerate, where your fulfillment lies.

Fulfillment is not about society being cool with you. It’s about you being cool with you. Accept you, and the rest will follow. Chapter 30 of the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation):

The Master does her job
And then stops.
She understands that the universe
Is forever out of control,
And that trying to dominate events
Goes against the current of the Tao.
Because she believes in herself,
She doesn’t try to convince others.
Because she is content with himself,
She doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because she accepts herself,
The whole world accepts her.

‘Society’ does not exist; it’s a mental construct. It’s a bunch of opinions, all going around in different directions that end up canceling each other out, leaving you with net nothing. But if you focus on a particular sector of it — eg NPR vs Fox — then that’s what you hear as ‘society’. You get more of what you focus on, so if you focus on the darkness, that’s what you get. If you focus more on the joy, the sacred communion, the opportunity for growth, you’ll get more of that.

So let go of the cacophonous voices — society, family, so-called ‘friends’ — and figure out what YOU want. What makes you happy, Suzie? From one human being to another, I’ll say you probably enjoy good companionship, stimulating conversation, hot sex, feeling the world through your senses, sharing your compassion, being cared for, caring for those you love, etc. As long as you’re not in it to hurt yourself or hurt others, there’s no judgment.

I recently ruined a relationship and scared the guy away by trying to force commitment before we were ready for it – I knew we weren’t ready for it, but I asked for exclusivity because that’s what I felt I should do (or…maybe it’s really what I wanted but I don’t want to admit that to myself). In reality, it shouldn’t have mattered – we were both quite enjoying the ice cream…and I ruined the flavor with talk of filet mignon.

Fulfillment is a feeling above all. It’s not a person, and it’s not a concept. That’s another one of the central themes of The Tao of Dating for Women — so important that it gets established in the very first chapter. To trade the feeling for the concept is to trade ice cream for a picture of ice cream, real food for a menu of food.

Now if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you want to get married soon and this isn’t the right guy and you don’t have time to waste, then by all means move on. But if that’s not on the agenda and you’re both having fun, then nobody loses by continuing to enjoy one another’s company.

This commitment issue is a slightly different topic from the rest of the letter, but here’s the thing: freedom to a man is life. Asking for (or forcing) commitment or exclusivity is just a euphemism for restricting his freedom and imprisoning him. You may ‘get’ a guy that way and may think you’ve ‘won’ in the process. But all you’ve got in fact is a reluctant prisoner. And that’s not going to be a very fun person to be around in the long run.

I refer you to Chapter 36 of the Tao Te Ching:

If you want to shrink something,
You must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
You must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
You must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
Of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

You can never win by asking a guy for commitment. You can’t win by demanding exclusivity. There are two things you can do, however.
You can say, hey, look — I really like you, I enjoy your company, and if we’re going to continue, I just need to know that it’s just you and me, because that’s the kind of environment that I can really flourish in and make a relationship grow and go deep. If that’s not your dish, I totally understand, and good luck to you, kid.

A guy totally gets that, and if he’s really into you, he’ll do some hard thinking. And if he’s not that into you, you find out immediately and cut your losses. Either way, you win.

You can also be the kind of woman who is so loving, so compassionate, so elevating, so supportive, so amazing in the sack, so all-around awesome that he wouldn’t even want to be with anyone else. And then, the thing that you wanted to take will be offered to you. That is the way of the Tao: it looks like effortless grace on the surface (“Oh look, every guy just falls for her”) with a backing of deep wisdom and hard work.

Thanks for your attention. There are entire chapters devoted to some of these concepts in The Tao of Dating for Women, and you can get your own copy this week.

3 Comments on “Dating for Women: Fulfillment, commitment, exclusivity and societal norms”

  1. Jacqueline

    Love the article. But not sure if you are being sarcastic in the last paragraph. You can be the most amazing person but if the other one is not ready, nothing will make them ready or make the perfect fit.

  2. Vivian

    Hello Ali
    I have really Dr. Ali, I have really enjoyed your writing. Here is curbside. what if the person I am with is not sure about the concept of a marriage in the long run? I am enjoying the fulfillment I get from my current boyfriend of 3 yrs but the problem is we are doing long distance (2 hr away) and that is currently going to be a 3 year long distance stint. I am willing to do it for 3 yrs if marriage is in the horizon. but he still does not know.. he does not know if he wants to get married or even have kids. on one hand, I see the concept of enjoying his company and not worry about the future, but on the other – I’m not sure how long I can stay in the relationship if we are not sure where the “destination” of our relationship is. maybe it’s the 3 years of long distance on top of that? any advice?
    thanks

  3. ksy

    Where can I find the “How to decipher what men really mean: principles for handling casual relationships” article? Thanks.

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