Modern Science and Ancient Wisdom for Living the Good Life


  • The Science of Meditation: 5-day online class, Oct 19-24

    Meditation has been the single most transformative practice I have taken up. It has made me a calmer, less reactive, more thoughtful person. The first thing I do every morning is meditate, and I consider it the most important part of my day.

    For years, I’ve been talking about meditation to whoever would listen. I’ve offered some rudimentary training in it in articles and workshops, and even talked about the science behind it. So I’m thrilled to announce that our friends at the Shambhala Mountain Center are starting a 5-day “Science of Meditation” online course featuring some of the best meditation teachers in the world.

    For someone deep into meditation, the list of teachers reads like the Team USA Basketball team roster: all the superstars in one spot. I am not exaggerating when I say these folks are the best at what they do:

    Anyway, the whole thing is broadcast for your benefit without charge; you may access the recordings up to 48hrs after they’re broadcast. Should you decide to purchase a package of the recordings, I receive a part of the proceeds. And frankly, if I didn’t receive a penny, I would still tell everyone in the world about this. There’s a few millennia worth of wisdom amongst these teachers, and they receive my highest recommendation.

    I’ll be listening to the lectures myself. Whether you’re a long-time meditator looking to deepen your practice, or a novice looking for a right excuse to jump in, you can’t do better than the teachers on the roster for the Science of Meditation Summit. Meditation is the life-changing practice, and I sincerely hope you can join me. Click here to sign up.

  • Wisdom of Women, Pt 3: On self-compassion + best letter of 2016?

    ***ANNOUNCEMENT: I’ll be conducting a LIVE WORKSHOP in San Francisco on Monday October 3 called How to Be a Compelling Speaker: The Art, Science & Practice of Charisma. Whether you’re asking for a raise, presenting in front of a big client, getting a seed round going, defending a PhD or asking someone on a date, there will be turning points in your life when your fate hinges upon the quality of the pitch you make. Do you know what to do to make that pitch great every time? Or are you leaving those crucial turning points to chance? In this live talk/workshop, we will teach you some of the main principles behind being compelling so those presentations go better and better every time you make them. Tickets here.***

    I get a lot of letters from readers. There are common themes to these letters: Why do I behave this way? Why does he do that? Can I trust men? Is a long-term committed relationship even possible? How do I overcome my upbringing and/or religion to find true connection?

    But rarely does a letter hit all of those themes at the same time. Martha, a very thoughtful 30yr old graduate student from Oregon sent me this letter recently. I’m publishing this on the blog not because it has concrete answers to challenges women encounter in their love lives, but because it raises a lot of questions that women commonly ask themselves. Let’s read the letter together (edited for clarity), followed by my comments:

    “Dear Dr Ali — I’m at a stage of serious introspection in life and obsessed about discovering the roots of every decision we make, the unconscious mind. But I tend to come up with philosophical and existential questions that make everything harder. This expands to different areas in life, specifically relationships. Learning that I belong to the anxiously attached category helped me understand the painful break-ups and self-destructive patterns of thinking that followed. Was this just a result of my caretakers’ actions or more than that? I notice the numerous ways we helplessly cling on to different means to feel secure when we don’t have the internal resources to know we will be OK if things go sour. In my life these external resources have been: feeling loved and wanted, and clinging to religious practices.

    Like many others, I didn’t have a great childhood and grew up in a male-dominant family, where submissive qualities were part of being a woman. Along with that, I was exposed to continuous fights over parental infidelity, leading me to lose trust in men.

    In real life, I have never been cheated on but because of my limiting beliefs, my unconscious mind has created this scenario over and over again to protect me in this potential “life-threatening” situation. It’s the one thing that has countless times made me feel powerless and not good enough. No matter how much I learn, my brain doesn’t sync up with today’s reality and let go of the survival mechanism it has produced years ago. I believed that no matter how good you are, you are only one woman and if men need variety, then you’re never good enough on your own.

    Since I was also criticized a lot, I always wanted to be more, which served me well but also with the downside of never being happy with who I was. I also wonder if I lack determination in my decision-making or reactions. I wanted to break the taboo of dating someone from a different socioeconomic status, which is why I started dating my boyfriend Bradley about a year ago.

    I often find myself analyzing everything my partner says, looking for its origin in order to discover the real him:

    • He says a lot of men have extramarital sex that men because they’re evolutionarily wired to reproduce, therefore able to detach emotionally and have sex with someone they don’t love. To me, making love is sacred; it’s where you connect with the one you love at every level and that’s why I can’t be okay with how men feel about it (if this is true).
    • Or the fact that even though he truly loves me, thinks the world of me and would do anything for me, he believes that any relationship will become routine. Whereas I believe that maybe most of us get married for the wrong reasons, and we simply mistakenly label different emotions as love, and so we inevitably would end up not content with our marriage and choose to leave or cheat. I’d like to think that they’re missing real intimacy in life and they use affairs as an outlet to compensate for it. Conclusion: maybe/hopefully loyalty is possible.

    These conversations alarm me and rev up my sympathetic nervous system to withdraw from trusting him in the long run. But then I’m relieved when I occasionally remember that maybe there are others that could love me and want me for life. But then again, I realize that this is still giving authority to external circumstances to keep me content.

    I never fear being left because someone smarter or kinder may come along. I fear being left for a more attractive girl, or simply a different kind of beauty. This may be due to my belief in men’s susceptibility to visual stimulus, or the belief that men need variety when it comes to appearance. To this day, I haven’t figured out if this statement is true or not, or if it is legitimate to expect men to be monogamous and happy at the same time.

    I worry about getting old and losing physical beauty, but at the same time I realize that being a goddess is not a requirement to keep a man loyal. Many men cheat even when they have a goddess at home. What puzzles me is that even though I consider my mother a very beautiful woman (though lacked in other areas) and know that it did not stop my father from cheating, I take physical comments to heart and I worry about losing the field to younger girls. I don’t understand the I tend not to believe in that men can be loyal but yet let them discredit me with the value system I don’t approve of. I also understand that you don’t own the one you love but the fear of being defeated after investing years of trust makes me feel beaten in the contest. I hate being the possessive girl that scares guys away but despite my efforts in hiding this insecurity; it’s been clearly sensed by my partner through non-verbal communication. I wonder if I have unconsciously always gone for the wrong guys to prove myself that men are not trustworthy. I want to be OK on my own, even if no man is ever going to be loyal to me for eternity. I want to stop worrying and being loved to be happy. All my best, Martha”

    Before I comment on the content of this letter, I’d like to observe that the issues that she mentions are extremely common. Heck, it’s exactly the kind of stuff I’ve been hearing since I started doing this stuff. And yet, there is an undertone of self-recrmination to the whole thing, a sense of “What’s wrong with me?!?”

    Well, if some of what Martha brought up resonated with you, raise your hand. See? Lots of raised hands out there. Which brings me to the topic I want to talk about today: self-compassion. Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin is the pioneering researcher of self-compassion. Here’s her definition: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. After all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” She says it comprises three elements, which I quote from Dr Neff’s excellent, resource-rich website:

    1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment. “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
    2. Common humanity vs isolation. “Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.”
    3. Mindfulness vs over-identification. “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

    Now let’s see how we can apply each of these concepts to the challenges the letter brings up.

    The most obvious one is recognizing our common humanity. Right now, as you’re sitting there, you’re probably thinking, “Well, nobody has the kind of problems I have.” Heck, you may even take pride that your problems are unique — no one else could be having them! And you would be wrong. Out there in Oregon, writing these thoughts to me, Martha is probably pretty sure that she is the only person in the world that has this constellation of challenges. And yet, you the reader can probably identify with a bunch of them: trust, loyalty, partnership, sexuality, feeling enough, gender differences.

    Once you realize the rest of the world is also having these issues, it somehow becomes much easier to bear. Reminds me of that line from The Police’s “Message in a Bottle”:

    Walked out this morning
    Don’t believe what I saw
    A hundred billion bottles
    Washed up on the shore
    Seems I’m not alone at being alone
    A hundred billion castaways
    Looking for a home

    That brings us to Principle #1, Self-kindness. Hey, if it’s happening to everyone else, too, might as well go easy on myself. Some folks — especially perfectionists — have somehow internalized that there is virtue in ripping into yourself. Well, there isn’t, so stop it already. Besides, which part of you is ripping into which part of you? Are you slapping yourself in the face with your own hand, or elbowing yourself in the stomach? Do you have any idea how weird that sounds? Stop that now before I call in the shrinks.

    And that brings us to Principle #3, Mindfulness. Look, you’re feeling something. Just go ahead and feel it fully, without letting it be your whole existence and identity. When you allow them to express fully, feelings fade over time. But if you resist them, they persist. So let them be, then let them go.

    Mindfulness is also about being fully present in the moment. This happens to be the antidote to overthinking or rumination, which is what this letter is doing a lot of. Like many of you, Martha is a smart, highly-educated woman. And like many of you, she thinks a lot about things that have never happened and may never happen. Some of these thoughts may turn into worries, which may become anxieties looming large enough to alter your daily behavior.

    For example, Martha talked about infidelity: “In real life, I have never been cheated on but because of my limiting beliefs, my unconscious mind has created this scenario over and over again to protect me in this potential “life-threatening” situation. It’s the one thing that has countless times made me feel powerless and not good enough.”

    Even though she has never been cheated on, there’s this gremlin lurking in the shadows all the time, which diminishes the quality of her life.

    The solution? It’s easy for me to say “stop doing that”, but not terribly effective. What works is to do something else instead. What’s the thing? Gratitude. It’s impossible for anyone to feel sorry for herself and grateful at the same time.

    If you’ve been habitually ruminating and overthinking for, say, your whole life, now is a really good time to change that behavior. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Stop thinking, and solve all your problems.” Here’s what I recommend:

    1. Use the rubber-band technique. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Any time you start to worry, ruminate or overthink, snap yourself so it stings a little. Your brain will very rapidly learn to stop doing the behavior that leads to the snap. You can kick habits like this in less than a week — sometimes in as little as two days. This also works for other habits like complaining, gossiping or eating brownies.
    2. Get yourself a Pavlok. If a rubber band is not fancy enough for you, I recommend this behavioral modification wristband called a Pavlok (combination of “Pavlovian” + “shock”). Instead of just a snap, the Pavlok delivers an actual electric shock to your skin, I kid thee not. It’s a supremely versatile device that can be programmed to buzz, ring or flash, depending on what kind of behavior you want to diminish or reinforce. You can program it to help you get up on time, quit smoking, exercise more, stop biting your nails, or kick a social media habit. The mild shock is definitely unpleasant, so if you’re willing to shock yourself whenever you ruminate or overthink, you’ll be done with that habit in a hurry. It’s about the same price as a single therapy session, but with potentially lifelong utility.
    1. Meditate. I get on this hobbyhorse at least once per post, so might as well tell you again: meditation is a life-changing practice. It not only solves all the problems you have right now, but also all the ones you’ll have in the future. But you won’t even know it, because they won’t be problems any more! I’m only exaggerating a little, folks. Get the Headspace app on your smartphone to get started, or check out one of the dozens posts I’ve written on the topic. Meditation is the ultimate antidote to rumination.

    There’s a lot more we could discuss from this very rich letter, but the points I wanted to make today  were:

    • Your challenges are common. You are not alone. Join the club!
    • Many of those challenges can be overcome through practices like mindfulness, gratitude, self-compassion, and meditation.

    If the letter resonated with you, share your thoughts in the comments.

    All the best, Dr Ali

    PS: For those of you who are in the Bay Area on Mon Oct 3, would love to see you at my live workshop. Please drop by and say hi! And use code “FF” to get the discount for my readers.

    PPS: For those who missed the “How to Connect Deeply” teleclass with Christine Mason on her new book Indivisible, here’s the replay and download link for you:


  • The Wisdom of Women, Part 2: On Connecting Deeply

    Christine Marie Mason is one of the most extraordinary people I know and one of my favorite humans. She has been an entrepreneur, CEO of 6 different companies, BA and MBA graduate from Northwestern University, organizer of nine TEDx events, a yoga teacher, artist, musician, mother of six fantastic kids, grandmother, and most recently, a prison peace mentor. You may also know here from the wise, eloquent and empowering piece “Love Your Body Now” included in The Tao of Dating (Ch 7, p143).

    We met 15 years ago at a yoga retreat, so I thought I knew her pretty well by now. What I did not know was that when Christine was 12, her young mother was murdered and left in a cornfield. Her body wasn’t found for days. She had her first child at 19, then again at 20, and still finished college and the MBA program. Her first husband eventually had a schizophrenic break and ended up losing his job and squandering all their money. Her second husband got cancer, then proceeded to cheat on her in spectacular fashion even while Christine was helping him recuperate.

    These stories of violence, trauma, setback, recovery, triumph, betrayal, even greater setbacks, and the tools she’s been using for overcoming it all and continue growing are some of what Christine shares in her remarkable new personal growth memoir called Indivisible: Coming Home to Our Deep Connection (ebook and paperback), to be released Sept 12.

    Christine’s been kind enough to share the piece below about re-connecting to the body: how she discovered yoga, the initial effect it had on her, and what yoga taught her before she started teaching it.

    I’ll be having a conversation with Christine on Monday, 12 Sept 2016 at 6pm PT/9pm ET entitled “The Art & Science of Deep Connection” and would be thrilled if you could join me. Click here to sign up for the talk, get the call-in number, and receive automatic reminders to make sure you don’t miss it, ’cause I believe it’s going to be most excellent. Here’s the excerpt:

    The Poise of the Soul

    After a particularly long day in this spell of dot-com craziness, I was walking down a crowded street to catch a commuter train, when I saw my old friend Daniel. Daniel always had a ready smile. He was self-contained, a loving husband and father and accomplished professionally—at that time he was CEO of a public company, making all manner of kitchen gadgets.

    That night, he was shining. It looked to me like he had shed layers of himself; he was carrying no burden.

    “What happened to you? You look fantastic!” I exclaimed.

    He responded in an instant. “Yoga happened, and you look terrible. You’re coming with me this Friday.”

    That’s how my “way out” presented itself—as a way in.

    Yoga is sometimes called “Poise of the Soul.” Poise is equilibrium, readiness, balance, steadiness, stability, suspension between states of motion. Poise does not freak out over laundry, talk too much, go 90 miles an hour to make it to a meeting, or accidentally break things due to inattention.

    I went to Daniel’s yoga class. After a great struggling 75 minutes of a vigorous athletic form of structured postures linked together by the breath (we were practicing a form called Ashtanga yoga), the class arrived at Savasana, corpse pose, where we lay on our backs, arms outstretched, palms up, legs extended, letting all of our muscles relax, allowing our bones to sink into the floor, in a sort of half-state between sleeping and waking, a state of deep aware stillness. Through the breathing, the rhythm, the turning inward of yoga—through the not turning to an external thing like whacking a tennis ball or working into the night —I found my first peace in long memory.

    I kept going back to class, initially just for that Savasana.

    Connecting to the Body

    Yoga, as it has been popularized in the west, is often practiced with pumping music. People move fast and sweat and detox. It’s good exercise for the body and mind. But that wasn’t the kind of yoga I encountered that Friday evening. Daniel’s practice was deeply mindful – it made me take notice of things that had never before occurred to me. It was a practice that made me say, “Hmm…I can’t feel my feet. If I can’t feel my own feet, the connection from my brain to my feet isn’t working.” The eventual extension of that thought was this: If the connection between my feet and brain does not work, how am I going to connect to other people?

    Before I found yoga, I couldn’t feel my feet or even spread my toes—they were just down there somewhere. Nor did I know where my organs were in my belly. My insides were like a black hole between my ribcage and my knees. Can you feel where your liver is, unless it is in pain?

    After a while, I found that I could lift my arches and run an energetic current up my shins and thighs and ass and heart and right out the top of my head and back down again. The power I used in previous forms of athletics to release energy was something that could be channeled and leveraged inside of the body, to heal it and balance it, and restore equilibrium and clarity to my whole organism.

    The yoga practice that was handed to me started a new kind of self-inquiry: Am I aware of my breath? Where am I looking? Where are my feet? Are all four corners of my feet on the ground? Are my arches lifted away? Where are my fingers? Are they evenly aligned or evenly spaced? Am I standing tall or leaning forwards or backwards? Where am I in space? How good is my proprioception: the receiving (receptoris) of one’s self (proprius)? Am I aware of my own body’s parts in relationship to each other, to the floor, to the vertical line? What am I actually feeling? What is actually happening? It was a straight line to hyperawareness.

    I began to learn that the body has rising and falling energies, that when it gets certain inputs it releases certain chemicals, that there is a virtuous loop between the actions of the body and the chemicals that are released, and that this cycle is autonomic until we intervene and override it. We can start to use our breathing and our thoughts to restructure which chemicals are getting released from our minds and into our bodies. We can reprogram ourselves, literally. I didn’t know what this meant until I found yoga.

    Once I began, it was rapid-fire study. I went to my first class, and I knew I was going to return. Eventually, I found a connection to divine source on that quiet, meditative, sweaty little mat, something I never quite got in any traditional church. That tiny studio, with a purple Om symbol painted on the wall, above a pizza parlor in the middle of Chicago, curtains blowing in, sirens and car horns below, became a holy place. It was there that I discovered a sense of having a permeable body: my skin was always interacting with the environment, and I was always connected. I was made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe.

    I wanted to go deeper. In 2002, I went on a retreat led by power yoga founder Baron Baptiste. His easygoing introduction to yoga philosophy, musical open laugh, softness, strength, humor and accessibility just made me happy.

    Baron’s yoga was hard – a demanding fast flow, coupled with long holds in deep postures. For example, once we stayed for a full 20 minutes in a hip opener known as frog: Somatic theory says we hold our painful memories in the body, and holding this position for this long had people in the room (women especially), letting go and weeping at all the things held in the groin and hips. I took his teacher training in Tulum, just to keep growing.

    Then I stumbled, or was led, into a month of teacher training in an intense, academic program that honored a deep Indian lineage, with Yogarupa Rod Stryker- and that training has continued apace for the last 15 years – from the yoga of sound, to contact yoga, to extensive breath and tantric energy work, to studying Sanskrit texts – it is an unending investigation. But mostly it’s a living experiment into how to have the happiest and most authentic experience in a human body.

    Who is thinking these thoughts?

    By investigating the body, I began to investigate the mind also, and then even deeper into relationships.

    Once, early on, I was holding a yoga position called side plank for a long time. This position requires the body to form a long, firm, extended board, placing one hand on the floor, the other to the ceiling, and balancing between the side of the bottom foot and the palm of the hand, holding the belly snug and the hips high. It can be rigorous. My arms started shaking; my balance was challenged.

    At that moment the teacher said, “People… you’ve held this position for a long time. I invite you to look at your reaction to that. Are you gritting your teeth and tensing your jaw and toughing it out, even though you’re beyond your capacity? Are you collapsing and quitting because your conditioned mind is telling you it’s too hard, even though you probably could stay longer if you wanted to? Are you feeling proud, or maybe the inverse: inadequate?”

    “However you are meeting this posture on the mat,” he continued, “I guarantee you: That’s how you are meeting your life off the mat. How can you be kind to yourself in this moment, play your edge, and take responsibility for your experience? How much are your own thoughts and reactions responsible for your own suffering?”

    How much? Maybe one hundred percent.

    If side plank was hard, the other big practice, seated meditation, was harder. Sitting still, harboring a quiet mind, initially felt impossible. Even two minutes of meditation felt interminable. Every part of me resisted. It felt unproductive, and wasn’t burning calories. To make it easier, all kinds of techniques were offered: Watch your breath right where it enters and exits the nostrils, imagine a flame, say a mantra. But it was all just practice to do one thing: to notice the workings of the mind, and to let thoughts just pass by. To become a watcher of my own thoughts.

    But if I am watching my thoughts, who is thinking the thoughts? If I am witnessing them, they can’t be the essence of me.  These thoughts must be separately constructed. HEY! I am not my thoughts. And if I am not my thoughts, I can un-identify and manipulate them to a better outcome. Lo and behold, this was true. By watching and stopping unhelpful patterns of thinking, I learned that I could change the day-to-day experience of life in my body.

    I still haven’t met a single person who has been able to overcome really bad wiring without some kind of meditation practice. Well, maybe one person.

    For example, I learned to not judge a rising emotion or thought – just to see it as neutral energy. If all thoughts and actions are only energy, neither positive nor negative, I can transmute it. I can remove the negative element, and just use the energy. If an unsettling thought would arise, I would ask myself, what can I do other than sit here or numb out through work or busyness or sex or distraction? What can I do to not numb out, to really feel and then leverage the emotion? Can I channel it into awareness, creative force, or even just let it pass through me?

    Most of the productivity and creativity in the last decade has been the result of having learned to transmute whatever intense emotion is coming up into an activity or action that is in touch with experience, rather than pushing it away.

    Now, if I have disturbing thoughts, I can choose to be matter of fact: “Here is what it means to be in a human body; these are some of the liabilities.” Or, “I’ve been here before, it will pass.” I can realize, “Oh, that’s just my misperception talking; it is not my highest self.”

    With yoga, the recovery time from these disturbances, delusions and illusions and suffering is shorter.  It takes hardly any time anymore to come back, maybe a minute or two of breathing and —there it is! This is especially useful in navigating the daily kind of potential offenses in traffic or in the supermarket parking lot – is this my best self acting here? Or something else?

    Yoga roots me in a life-giving and life-affirming place, rather than the old soup of pervasive inadequacy. It has made me strong, mentally and physically.

    The yogic ideal is strength and suppleness, being rooted yet able to reach, the perfect combination of grounded and flexible. There is an Indian fable that puts it sweetly: the serpent Ananta, an incarnation of a deity, is coiled up. Resting on his coils is the lord Vishnu—while on the top of Ananta’s head, the Earth is balanced. Ananta is strong enough to support the world, yet soft enough to be a couch for the gods.

    That’s what I aspired to be. Strong like that, and equally soft.

    I started going to class to feel better, and fell in love with the practice, and it gave me back my life.

    Do you know that saying “Lift while you Climb”? That translates into bringing others along with you. Whatever you know, you are obligated to pass on: Those who know must teach. If you know, you owe.

    Teaching yoga, helping one person at a time find the tools and technologies to achieve the Poise of the Soul, is a great gift. I sometimes teach Vinyasa flow classes. Sometimes, I teach extremely stiff people, and witness what it means to grow old without being connected to your body—it is not for the faint of heart. But I also see the relief they get from a single new insight or opening into a joint or the breath. It makes me recall my very first practice, and remember each time a teacher gave me a new posture or an insight. It reawakens gratitude and it gifts me with joyful learning. The teaching and the learning are cyclical, and the look on people’s faces as they come out of Savasana is like Christmas morning for me, every time.

    If you enjoyed what you just read, download a 16-page excerpt at and use this password: DRALI1

    All the best,
    Dr Ali

    PS: Remember that the interview/teleclass with Christine is at 6pm PT/9pm ET on Monday, 12 Sept 2016. Click here to sign up and get automatically reminded of when it happens.

  • The Wisdom of Women, Part 1

    So here’s my secret: even though I wrote this book about women and love, I’m actually not a woman. That whole story I tell about having written the book before my sex-change operation? I made it all up. I’ve been 100% a guy the whoooole time.

    And yet, here I am, dispensing advice to womenfolk on being a better woman. Really? Like there’s a shortage of actual women out there to tell you about this kinda thing? Well, there isn’t. In fact, many of you, my readers, are plenty wise. One of the things I’m really proud of is how incredibly smart and educated my readers are. Even if you ladies don’t let on much, I see all the MAs, PhDs, MDs, CEOs, scientific papers written, books published, and operas sung.

    So I’m going to take this month of community building as an excuse to introduce some of you to one another, and share some of the wisdom you’ve shared with me.

    The Wisdom of Women: Long-Distance Relationships

    Let’s start out with Julie, who left this comment on the blog a little while back. One of the most consistently true findings over the 15 years I’ve been thinking about love & relationships has been this: long-distance relationships are a terrible idea. This has been verified over and over again, to the point that it’s almost like saying “water is wet.” And yet, people still think “No no, our long-distance thing is special” or “My boyfriend is different” or some nonsense like that. Julie has an unusual perspective on all of this:

    “My soon-to-be ex-husband met a woman while they were both working out of state in the same city. He told her he had kids from a previous relationship and lived alone. All the while, he was telling me he missed me and couldn’t wait to get home, I love you, goodnight baby, all those usual things.

    She was in a long distance relationship with him for months before I found out who she was and told her the truth. They had met up a few times for happy, fun, touristy long weekends and Skyped a lot, and this was their “relationship.” Then he lied to her astoundingly about how our marriage had been over for a long time, he wasn’t happy, it was a sexless marriage. It was a very sexually active and enthusiastic physical relationship in our marriage, and we were not fighting or distant. He was a messed up human being inside who was a very good actor.

    My therapist (I got one, after all this) told me, “It doesn’t take a broken marriage to have an affair. It just takes one broken person.” So true. He had been binge drinking on work trips, too, and I never knew. He hadn’t been paying bills from his accounts he told me were being paid. He was a mess across the board. But the kicker is, she believed his lies long-distance and got back together with him. All while he was still lying to her about various things.

    But that’s just it… she so badly wanted to believe in the fantasy of who he was that she refused to see that long distance meant she could never really know him and see what was going on in real life. Meanwhile, I saw the truth come out and kept seeing it because our relationship wasn’t escapism over long weekends, where it’s easy to put your best foot forward all week and then for an hour of skype here and there.

    They eventually broke up, but she still thinks she had some great love with him and even said nobody knows him like she does. After seeing what long distance looked like that way, how easily it all was hidden (whereas I discovered his behavior within two weeks of it starting), I would never advise it to anybody. He had a breakdown in life and the affair was only part of it. He messed up his friends, family, work, and finances at the same time too. Of course long distance can be done. People have made it. But it’s too much fantasy and vacation for so much longer than normally dating somebody would be. Or than seeing a sudden change in a married partner or dating partner locally would likely be. — Julie”

    Such a great letter! Julie’s unusual perspective as the aggrieved wife of a husband cheating on her in a long-distance relationship illustrates a bunch of points how the whole thing’s a fantasy. The other woman has no way of getting to know the cheating husband very well, so she constructs out of whole cloth this whole story about how great he is. The fun, touristy (and probably sex-drenched) weekends together propagate the fantasy, free from any inconvenient real-life notions of whether the guy is a responsible adult who pays bills on time, takes out the trash or doesn’t leave dirty socks lying around.

    Another great letter on the topic of long-distance relationships comes from Marcy. Her perspective is slightly different:

    “My 16-year marriage was born online, states apart. We saw each other every couple of months for days until I moved to be with him and talked obsessively, both sacrificing countless relationships with people who were available locally. Was it worth it? In a way, yes! We have two children and built a relatively stable, often happy, in person life together that has lasted longer than many traditional marriages. But I would likely never do it again.

    Here’s the thing, we DID know each other via phone and text (we didn’t even have video calling then). And we WERE genuinely compatible in the ways we experienced. But, even after confirming what appeared to be our compatibility (in person), in the truth our long distance relationship was still 90% fantasy. Long distance relationships allow you to idealize positive traits for an extended period of time while grossly undervaluing negative traits. The intensity of the sex once you finally see each other, coupled with the future planning, almost guarantees it.

    Our outcome: Sex was intensely magical at a distance, but soon became detached and uncompromising once we saw each other regulary. Sunk costs began playing their part: I’d invested so much in such a high risk relationship (moving states, transferring schools, convincing everyone who knew it was wrong that it was right) that I would not let go. We married and began moving towards a sexless marriage in my late 20s. Now in my mid 30s, we have neither kissed nor had sex in years.

    The excellent “communication” I believed that we were building up to in our long distance relationship was also overblown. You have no idea what someone is doing while it appears that they are deeply engaged in a chat with you. While imagined him laying on his bed staring at his laptop screen in anticipation of my messages, my husband was undoubtedly playing videogames the vast majority of the time we were chatting.

    This became apparent when we moved in together and I realized that he struggled to look at me during conversations or have any serious face-to-face interactions with me at all. In fact, this was one of the greatest downfalls in our marriage. My husband is a gamer and much prefer spending large portions of his free time engaging online friends. This did not change when I moved and is an enormous incompatibility that I downplayed. Playing video games alone is more fun than talking in person (which he hates), or playing with our children (which he dislikes), or even having sex. He also prefers exceptional amounts of emotional distance, evident in seeking a long-distance relationship.

    I have come to believe that people who use placeholder/long-distance relationships are signaling that they are emotionally unavailable and likely to be relationally incompetent in very significant ways. For all the reasons and excuses we made for our online “relationship”, the truth is, we were using each other to prevent the development of potentially loving dynamics with compatible partners close to home. We were not prepared to commit to doing what was necessary to create a truly healthy dynamic and that’s why we were chatting online, closing doors in the first place.”

    Wow! That pretty much summarizes everything that’s bad about long-distance relationships. Marcy is particularly insightful in noting that a LDR is often a “placeholder”, a hedge against real intimacy.

    But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be in a long-distance relationship to create hedges against intimacy. You can be a workaholic or choose a job that has 60% travel. You can insist on having separate hobbies, circles of friends, or vacations. You can be a picky eater so you can’t share meals with people. You can subscribe to a multi-partner lifestyle like polyamory or swinging. If you’re afraid of letting people get to know the real you, your unconscious is going to create all kinds of clever strategies for making sure people don’t get too close. If you find yourself perennially lonely in spite of your best intentions, you may want to think about how you’re unconsciously inflicting it upon yourself.

    Women picking matches for their friends: a new kind of dating app?
    So I’m on record being against using online dating as your primary means of meeting new people. But what if there was an app that let you pick matches for your friends? Would that be more useful?

    Recently I came across such a collaborative matchmaking app. It piqued my interest and thought I’d bring it to your attention. It’s called Spritzr, and it’s an app for friends to play matchmaker. So you get to meet dates that you have friends or interests in common with, as opposed to the stream of randos you see on most dating apps.

    Am I totally convinced this works? Not yet. But it does seems worthy of a closer look. They’re early in their development, and I befriended the founder, who said we could be some of his beta testers. Yay! If you’re interested in being part of this early adopter program, go to and sign up for an account. I’m very curious about how the experiment goes — especially if we stoke the whole app with a bunch of my amazing readers :)

    Next week, I’ll be telling you about the new book by my excellent friend and colleague Christine Marie Mason. She’s written a remarkable new book called Indivisible: Coming Home to Our Deep Connectionand I’ll be sharing some of it with you before it’s even released on Sept 16. Who loves you?

    All the best
    Dr Ali
    PS: The Win Dr Ali’s Kindle Superfan Contest continues. We’ve already got some strong contenders, and I’m going to add some prizes for 2nd place to make things more exciting. Click here for the rules.
  • Dating for Happiness

    A few months ago, I gave a TEDx talk (third one!) at TEDx Echo Park entitled Happiness Engineering: The Five Pillars of Authentic Success. The first of the five pillars is Intimate Relationships. The other four are Life Purpose, Sleep, Mind Management, and Exercise.

    To be fair, the talk is not entirely about dating. Okay, fine, maybe like 20%. But The Tao of Dating has always been about the whole person anyway, because dating brings into play all of who you are. It’s not like someone can date one aspect of you while leaving out the other ones. I mean, it’s possible that there’s some guy out who’s really hankering for a version of you that’s sleep-deprived, out of shape, mentally unbalanced, and dissatisfied at work, but it’s not terribly likely, y’know? Why do you think half the book is about yoga, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude and other happiness practices?

    Win Dr Ali’s Kindle Library: The Tao of Dating Superfan Contest (for the ladies only)

    So the other day I was reading something that said it’s nice to have fans, but it’s great to have a community. So I’m designating this month as Community Building Month. We’re going to start with a contest to find out who the biggest Tao of Dating fans are out there.

    Some of you have listened to the audiobook over 20 times. Some of you have gotten copies of the book for a dozen friends. Some of you have memorized entire passages. Some of you sleep with a copy of it in your pillowcase, even thought it makes the pillow lumpy.

    Well, I’d like to know who you are! Here’s how it works:

    1. Get points for each of the activities below. If you’ve done the activity already (eg written a review), you still get the points.
    2. Tally them up and leave your total in the comments. If you don’t want the post to be searchable, just include your first name. Only I can see your email address, and it will remain anonymous.
    3. Person with the highest points by 11.59pm on 30 Sept 2016 wins the prize.

    The Grand Prize is Kip, my personal Kindle Paperwhite. I have upgraded to a fancier model, so I don’t use Kip anymore. This makes Kip sad, of course, because he still has 217 or so books on him, and he just wants to be held and read — preferably in your bed because well Kip is a guy duh. So basically, the Grand Prize is my personal digital library, which is over $2000 worth of ebooks (mostly nonfiction). Some of the illustrious titles in this library:

    These are all great books, because life is short and i don’t got time to read crappy ones, ya hear? So just to make this clear: you’re winning a whole library of awesomeness. At $8.99 to $14.99 a piece, this is about $2200 worth of ebooks. And the Kindle Paperwhite itself is worth $120, which makes the whole thing worth over $2300. Get crackin’!

    Below is how you score points. In a comment on this blog post with your first name and email, write up your activities and your total points, eg “Read book 14 times, posted GoodReads and iTunes reviews, joined Twitter and Facebook, 150 points total”. Just remember that if you’re in contention to win, you may be asked to verify your points. Here we go:

    • Join me on Facebook or Twitter(@DrAliBinazir): 10 points. Include your username to verify. 20 points for each friend you get to join (include their usernames to verify).
    • 5 points for each time you’ve read or listened to The Tao of Dating (honor system).
    • Watch one of my three TEDx Talks. For verification, give it a thumbs-up and leave a comment: Awaken Creative Genius (10 points), Love and the Empowered Woman (15 points), Happiness Engineering (15 points). 20 more points for each time you share it on social media.
    • Post a review to Goodreads, Apple iTunes, or Audible: 40 points. To verify, paste the URL to the review and the name under which the review is posted. Old reviews under your name still count. Amazon reviews don’t count for this contest, but if you’re moved to write one, I will be forever grateful.
    • Select The Tao of Dating audiobook for a 30-day free trial on Audible: 30 points
    • Each friend you sign up for the Tao of Dating newsletter: 40 points. Have them join via the free audiobook sign-up box in the upper right-hand corner of the blog.
    • If you believe my teachings contributed directly to a relationship, past or present: 30 points. Mention what the specific influence was. Extra 20 points if it resulted in a fulfilling partnership lasting 2+ years.

    That’s all the ways I can think of for now. If I come up with more ways to score points, I will let you know. In the meantime, let’s get to know each other a little better and have some fun with this shall we?

    Good luck, Dr Ali

    PS: Later this week, we’ll have posts written by you, the ladies, and next week, a very special interview with one of my readers/collaborators. Stay tuned…

  • The Friendship Test: Figure Out Who’s Good for You with 5 Simple Questions

    Who are your real friends? Who’s a good partner? Who has your back? Turns out that even scientists have a suprisingly hard time answering these questions. In a study by Alex (Sandy) Pentland and colleagues of the MIT Media Lab, 94% of people who nominated someone as a friend expected to be nominated in return. Hey, I may not know the capital of Mongolia, but I know who my friends are, right? Wrong. Only 53% of the people nominated them back. This means that about half the time, the friendship was one-sided.

    So how can you tell? Is someone who offers to pick you up at the airport your friend? How about the person who invites you to his wedding? Or goes through the trouble of attending yours? What if he doesn’t really care about you but just likes a really good party? Is the person who comes to your wedding but doesn’t take you to the airport still your friend? How can you tell?

    Although you can’t do a lot about reciprocity, you can tell if someone’s good for you or not. That’s why I’ve come up with these 5 criteria by which you can quickly assess any relationship. The answer to each question is binary — yes/no, A or B — so pay attention to the answer that spontaneously arises, before thinking has a chance to interfere with it. Chances are that your gut reaction to these questions is accurate — and very telling about the nature of your relationship with Aubrey. Um, who the hell is Aubrey? He or she is our stand-in for awkward constructs like “he or she”, “this person”, and the singular “they.” Besides, it’s a nice name. Let’s take this Friendship Test and see how you and Aubrey get along.

    1. Do they have your back?

    The first criterion to consider is simple: Does Aubrey fundamentally support you, or cut you down? I almost feel silly explaining this, since it seems self-evident. But friendship and love bias our judgment, and sometimes we find ourselves the recipient of mixed behaviors — sometimes warm but other times cold. How to tell who’s really on our side? Perhaps some examples would be illustrative:

    • When you make a mistake, supportive people empathize with you : “Oh wow, yeah, I missed a deadline last month, too. Totally understand.” Non-supportive people blame and shame you: “Why would you do something stupid like that again?”

    • Supportive folks give space to your aspirations instead of suffocating them instantly, regardless of how hare-brained they seem: “Oh, so you want to move to Berlin and be a penniless conceptual artist? Tell me more.”

    • Supportive people actively look for ways to make your life better. They’ll offer you a ride to the airport, a loan when you’re in dire straits, a bowl of chicken soup when you’re sick. They help to the best of their ability, vs non-supportive people who will only help if it’s convenient or beneficial to them, if at all.

    • Supportive people have your well-being and safety in mind. They will warn you off toxic partners in business and romance, discourage you from pointlessly risky behavior, and look out for you when you’re in a compromised state.

    2. Are you an option or a priority?

    The text comes in at 6pm on Friday: “Hey dude! Sooo sorry not gonna make it tonight. Something came up. Rain check?”

    Whaddya mean not gonna make it? Aubrey was the one who requested your company — on Monday. And now, a cancellation two hours before you’re supposed to meet? What kind of friend is this?

    Nowadays this is an all-too-common occurrence. So common that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given it a name: liquid modernity. This is a society in which no commitment is solid, and everything is provisional: jobs, dwellings, spouses, ideologies. And with the ubiquity of instant electronic communication, all appointments are subject to change until the last minute, lest a better deal pops up.

    You also just know when someone is looking for some company or for your company specifically. So prioritize those who prioritize you. You can still be friends with those who mostly treat you like an option, but you probably shouldn’t bend over backwards to accommodate them in your life.

    3. Do they treat you as a means to an end, or an end in yourself?

    My friend Sasha is smart, interesting, sweet and very pretty. But she has the darndest time making friends. Why? Because she has a famous father, and she never knows whether people want to be friends because of her, or to gain access to her dad.

    Even without a famous relative, we’ve all got some special sauce that someone could be after. Maybe you have cute friends that Aubrey wants to meet. Maybe you work in a theater and have free tickets to shows. Maybe you’re rich or famous yourself, or have friends who throw good parties.

    Although part of friendship is to ask for the occasional favor and share in our abundance, real friends will generally value you for the whole of who you are, and not just the perks. They will treat you as if spending time with you is intrinsically worthwhile, as opposed to a means to some extrinsic goal.

    The frequency and nature of contact is one way of telling whether a friend treats you like an end or a means. Do they only call you when they need something, or do they regularly check up on you and include you in their plans?

    If you don’t like feeling used, there are two things you can do. First is to excise the Users from your life. Second is to stop dancing for your dinner. If you feel someone’s so cool that you need to have Cirque du Soleil tickets every time you request their company, you’re really just setting yourself up to be used. Either they’re grateful for your company just as you are, or the friendship’s just not sustainable in the first place.

    4. Do they add life energy to you or drain you?

    The other day my friend Johnny was visiting from far away. I’ve known Johnny for 15 years and shared lots of experiences with him. I’ve even been to his wedding. And yet, after every one of our meetings, I feel energetically spent. The doctor in me has tried to diagnose this, but you know what? It doesn’t matter why I feel drained. What matters is that it happens every time. And it’s not something I enjoy or anticipate fondly.

    Negativity, complaints, gratuitous attacks on your person (especially attacks disguised as helpful suggestions), being pointlessly demanding, constant requests for attention: these are behaviors that can drain your energy in a hurry. If the purpose of friendship is a flourishing of the soul, this ain’t the formula for it.

    You can still be friends with these energy vampires, especially if they’re essentially well-meaning people who just happen to annoy the crap out of you. But just know that, for your own sanity, you want to minimize their dosage. Instead, choose to spend more time with those who add energy to your life. You know who they are — the ones who point out the butterflies on the roadside, call you with a new joke to tell, and can’t wait to take you to try this new dish. You just feel a little more alive around them, and want to spend more time with them, as well you should. Which brings us to the fifth and final criterion:

    5. Does this person bring out the best or the worst in you?

    If I were to walk by you and say, “Hey, I really like your dress,” chances are you’d smile and return the compliment: “Thanks, you look great, too!” On the other hand, if I were to say, “Hey, watch where you’re going, jerk!”, you’d probably return that favor and say, “Screw you, too!”

    Same person, two very different reactions. Psychologists even have a name for this: the Pygmalion effect. Our interactions have the capability to draw out dramatically different versions of people.

    Similarly, whenever I hang out with my friend Sonia, for some unfathomable reason I find myself complaining about the world, mocking passersby, and being a generally snarky version of me. Whereas when I’m with Gail, I feel my vision expand, my thoughts ennoble and my heart open.

    Again, I’m not quite sure why this happens, but I do notice the consistency of the effect. Sonia brings out the snark; Gail brings out sweet.

    As far as I can tell, the purpose of friendship is the flourishing of the spirit, meaningful fellowship, and interactions that lead to our personal growth. So it makes sense to spend less time with those who make us feel like meaner versions of ourselves, and more time with those who bring out our kindness, generosity, and expansiveness of heart. To that end, we would do well to select for friends who have our back, make us priorities in their lives, treat us like worthy ends in ourselves, and stoke us with more of the energy that allows us to be a force for good in the world.

    All the best, Dr Ali

    PS: Therapy Thursday continues by popular request. If you have an issue that you think could benefit from a one-on-one consult via Skype, send a message to drali at 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.

    PPPS: I will soon be holding a contest in which I give away my personal Kindle reader, along with my digital library of 300 or so books. Stay tuned :)


  • Replay of “Design the Love Life You Want” Webinar

    Thanks to all of you who made it to the live webinar of Design the Love Life You Want. As promised, here’s the replay of the seminar:

    Or you can download the mp3 here (84min, 40Mb). The last 20min is Q&A which you’re welcome to skip.

    In the meantime, my profuse apologies to all of you who signed up way in advance and tried to get on the webinar but couldn’t. This was the first time I was using this software for a live class. What I did not know was the 100 person cap on the webinar capacity. In anticipation of glitches (because that’s what software does), I had put up a conference call number on the welcome page and Facebook, which some of you were able to use. In retrospect, I should have sent the call-in number along with the original mailing. Live and learn.

    Because of the glitch, I’m doing a second call this Thursday, 14 July at 12 noon PT/3pm ET/8pm London to accommodate all the folks who missed the first one, as well as the folks in Europe, Australia and Hawaii who made the request for a live session. Additionally, all offers mentioned on the call will be good until the end of day on Friday. We’ll still use the webinar interface for its ease of sign-up and ability to field questions, so please click here to sign up. But if it gives you any trouble at all on the day of, use the call-in number:

    DATE: Thursday, 14 July 2016, 12 noon PT/3p ET/20.00 London/21.00 Berlin
    Conference line: +1 712 432 3066
    Access code: 667202

    I look forward to catching up with you!

    All the best,
    Dr Ali





  • Webinar: Design the Love Life You Want, Tue 12 July

    Recently I got back from a 3-week trip, during which I read a few life-changing books. One of them was Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. I’m not going to do a full review of the book here – for that, you can either join my Brainiacs Book Club on Facebook or read my personal blog. However, there was one concept in the book that struck me as paramount – especially since I have been teaching it for years without knowing about the science behind it.

    That is the concept of mental representations. Basically, whenever someone excels in any endeavor, a big part of their success involves having a strong mental representation of their target performance. What should this Beethoven piano sonata sound like? What should this dish taste like? Where should my body be positioned as I’m making this high jump?

    As it turns out, the concept of mental representations also extends to the realm of courtship and love. Who are you, really? What kind of partner would you like? What does partnership with him look like? How do you like to be treated in this relationship?

    So on Tuesday, July 12, at 6pm PDT/9pm EDT, I’m holding a no-charge webinar to give you the tools to Design the Love Life You Want. In it, I will cover:

    • Who are you?: Self, identity and values
    • Self-love: the foundation for lasting relationships
    • Finding the Good Guys: Who, Where and How
    • Meeting the Good Guys
    • Attracting Good Guys into your life

    You’ll be getting tons of info you can use immediately, with special application of the science of Peak to your dating life. Sign up for the webinar here. I’ll be doing live Q&A during the call, so be sure to sign up! If there’s enough demand, I might do another earlier time slot more convenient for my European readers.

    This also serves as a preview of what’s coming up in the live cohort for the Project Irresistible course starting July 19 (note new date). If you’ve had it in the back of your mind to do Project Irresistible, or did it before and now want to go through it with a bunch of like-minded folks, join us on Tue July 12 to get in the right frame of mind!

    All the best, Dr Ali

  • What Would the Goddess Do?

    A lot of you wrote in via comment, letter and social media to reflect on the “Should I be miserable, or slightly less miserable” post. Apparently it struck a nerve! Here were some of your reactions:

    “Dr Ali, This post was a true blessing for me today. I can’t thank you enough for you insight, wisdom and humor. It was as if it was written for me on a day I needed it the most. Profound and life-changing.” — Janey

    “Hi Dr Ali. I really love your concept of reframing and your specific, cut-through-the-BS reframe – ‘why am I putting up with this shit’ – is just gold :). Could be applied to so many situations.” — Elle from Australia

    “I thought this was amazing advice: ‘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.’ Thank you!” — Lisa

    See, this is an issue that can’t really be overemphasized. If you haven’t read the article yet, read it now — and send it on to friends whom you think would benefit.

    What happens in a bad relationship is normalization of deviance. Human beings are super adaptable. So if he/she’s less considerate now than when you started out together, it becomes the new normal if you don’t do something about it fast. Next thing you know, you’ll be counting it as a good day when you get yelled at less than 5 times, or when he/she gives you only one physical or emotional black eye.

    NO! The standard should always be: Does this person have my back? Am I growing more as a person in this relationship than I would be out of it? Do I feel like I’m being treated like a goddess or a slave? It’s very easy to tell the difference between a person who geniunely supports you and one who wants to keep you down.

    The problem is that once someone’s got you down, now you’re in fear mode. And when you’re in fear mode, you’re too worried about protecting yourself to think, “Hey, what has this bastard done for me lately?” But that’s exactly what you should be thinking. You deserve and should require to be treated with kindness and dignity, always. No exceptions. What would the goddess do?

    And please, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever you hold sacred: Do NOT ever come and tell me, “Yeah, it’s pretty bad sometimes but when he’s good he’s so good.” Because THAT is the structure of maximum manipulation and sociopathy. The Power of Maybe, of the intermittent irregular reinforcement, of the perpetual uncertainty, is what maximally stimulates the dopamine circuits in your brain and makes you addicted to something that’s detrimental for you. Actually, that was redundant — when is addiction anything but detrimental? Put the crack pipe down and get out of that relationship already.

    Anyway. Let’s get to some new letters now:

    “Dear Dr Ali — I met a great guy while on vacation that I actually have chemistry with, but he lives 2 hours away. Should I forget about it since we don’t live in the same city or do you think I should be open to exploring getting to know each other? I will go back and look at what you’ve said previously on long distance since you may have already addressed this. I was just thinking that 2 hours may be close enough, but I don’t know.” — Julie, 35, San Francisco

    I define “long distance” as “far enough to preclude spontaneity,” and have written many times on the myriad reasons why long-distance relationships suck. By that criterion, 2 hrs = 2 far. The distance just makes everything a much bigger deal. Had a bad day at work? He can’t come over and comfort you, and if he does, now it’s a major investment. Which over time goes in the “you owe me” account. Distance also makes it significantly easier for people to conduct separate lives unbeknownst to the partner. A good way to think about it is that a long-distance relationship is like the specialty store that has that one rare cheese you really like and are willing to trek crosstown for maybe once every month or two. But you’d be a fool to go to the speciality store instead of your local grocery store every week, since the speciality store is more expensive, has less selection, and is freakin’ far.

    This will not play out well in the long run — trust me on this one. Also please don’t think that you’re case is different by virtue of being you. Nope, you are not the exception — that’s just a version of the fundamental attribution error. You also don’t have to let it go, but you do have to put it in its proper place in the dating seriousness continuum, i.e. fun short-term fling subject to availability, a nice lover to have in that city, but not THE lover. Since most women aren’t capable of doing that because of all the pesky bonding chemicals, maybe you should let it go after all.

    Next one is from Ronnie, 58:

    “Hi! I love your book and it’s helping me in my relationship with my boyfriend. A LOT. We started dating seven months ago, shortly after we met. I had been increasingly clingy without realizing what I was doing, and so about two weeks ago, he gently told me that he needed space, and that he still loved me. I almost cried.

    He told me he didn’t want me to come to him anymore unless he let me know he wanted that. We’re in an assisted living place, and we’re the youngest people there! I’m 58 and he’s 53. And we both are in wheelchairs as he is paraplegic and I have an amputation. Goes to show love can be found even in the oddest of places!

    In my panic, I asked him if I could call him, and he made the gesture that I could call him and he would tell me Y or N. And also that I can still call him to tell him anything I want. We have been together every day for seven months, so this has been very hard on me. But I’m doing better, and I credit The Tao of Dating for that. 

    My burning question: Even though he told me I could call him to ask to see him, do you think this is ill-advised for me to do so? Because I called him once, and he said No. Which pretty much killed me. And I haven’t called to ask that anymore. I think it gives him power that’s mine, doesn’t it? Thanks muchly, Ronnie”

    Well, Ronnie, I was about to write you a response along the lines of “holding on loosely”, but you seem to have beat me to the punch! One exercise that can be useful is to consider not the present situation and how you can tweak it a little to fix it, but rather to consider the ideal, target situation you would like to be in. In other words, think “What would the goddess do?” She would not be slightly less needy, or use some other gambit to get the guy to hang out with her. Rather, she would be so self-sufficiently radiant and nourishing that all sentient beings just want to be around her. That’s a long way from needy, and perhaps a better target to aspire to.

    Dr Ali — Thanks for responding so quick! Yes, I agree about the traits of the goddess. I mean, everybody loves to be around me and to hang out with me. I’m a magnet, apparently. It seems like I’ve already been displaying the traits you list in your book; I just wasn’t aware of that on the surface, so to speak.

    So if I’m a magnet for everybody else, then it follows that I’m also a magnet for my BF. And by the way he behaves, this must be true… Thanks for turning around a negative (i.e., not being needy) into a positive (that of aspiring to be self-sufficiently radiant). That’s a terrific way to reframe. :) Blessings, Ronnie

    Look — I know most of you understand the principles that I’m talking about. But it’s one thing to read something and nod your head, another to deeply get it, and yet another to integrate it into your behavior, and yet another to make it a new habit. So if you’ve been doing something the same way for a long time, it’s challenging to change that overnight. Re-training your neurology takes time and my harping on the material week after week until you can’t ever forget it. And maybe an accountability partner. And exercises, and more repetition.

    That’s why I’m launching a LIVE COHORT of Project Irresistible, starting Tuesday, July 5, for 6 weeks. You still get access to the full content of the Project Irresistible online course. And I also assign you to an encouragement partner and do a group coaching call every week.

    And why are we doing this now? Because it’s summer, that’s why. And if that doesn’t make any sense, provide your own excuse — something like, “Y’know, maybe I should take care of this whole love life thing after all.”

    I’ll also be introducing new material from the Happiness Engineering course I’ve been developing. Because here’s the big secret: this whole Tao of Dating thing isn’t just about dating. It’s about your flourishing and fulfillment as a human being. Dating just happens to be something that involves your whole person, so it’s a good place to start.

    Regular price for the course, without coaching calls, is $247. However, I like to reward initiative, and my birthday is coming up mid-month, so I’m offering a super early bird discount for all those who sign up this week (up to June 15): code “SUMMERTIME” gets you $100 off the course, so it’s only $147. And anyone who has ever purchased or participated in Project Irresistible is welcome to join this and future cohorts, so long as you fully commit to the 6 weeks of helping out your partner in the course. Deal? Deal.

    If you’re one of those people like me who want all the details before deciding, click here for the full long-winded course description. In the meantime, here’s what the six weekly sessions will be about:

    Session 1: Who Are You Really, and What Do You Really Want?
    Session 2: Self-Love: The Foundation of All Relationship
    Session 3: Finding Good Guys: Where’s His Natural Habitat?
    Session 4: How to Meet Good Guys– and Have Him Think it Was His Idea All Along
    Session 5: Foolproof Strategies to Attract Good Guys into Your Life
    Session 6: The Secrets for Keeping a Good Guy in Your Life

    Here’s the link to register:  Alright, fine, I want to join the Project Irresistible July 2016 cohort 

    If you’ve read this far, thanks for your attention! Send your questions with subject line “Question” to drali(at) (200 words or less, containing a question regarding what you want). For consultation/therapy requests, put “TT” in the subject line (stands for Therapy Thursdays, but other days can also work).

    All the best,

    Dr Ali

    PS: For those of you who like the principles of The Tao of Dating but find their application elusive because, where, there’s a lot of them to remember, may I recommend the audiobook version. And if it’s the first audiobook you’re getting on Audible as part of a 30-day trial, it’s on them! Bonus.

    PPS: On a more lighthearted note, I write attempts at humor every once in a while. Here’s the latest: For Millennials: The Guide to Using a Telephone, on my personal blog and Huffington Post Humor

  • “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 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.