In 2005, I left my corporate job at the elite management consulting firm McMisery & Company to write books and dispense advice to receptive individuals instead of soulless corporations. Ten years later, the market for dubious advice continues to grow, and I manage to still put bread on the table by sneaking in some sensible stuff amidst the din out there.
Now, after reading thousands of your letters and meeting with hundreds of you in person, I can’t help but notice certain big trends about how humans relate to each other. And I’m feeling like writing a few articles about these trends. For the past six years, I’ve been mostly writing for women, so today, I’m going to talk about that perennial conundrum: what women want.
Thus far, I’ve come up with 5 Big Observations. Today, I’ll list them all, but only talk about the first one, lest this article turn into an epic novel. And I also have two pieces of good news for you at the end, so stay tuned. Here are the Five Big Observations:
- Of all the people in the world, sometimes those least concerned about what women want seem to be women themselves.
- Sometimes it’s okay not to be sure about what you want.
- Having a good sense of your own boundaries, norms, and permissions is much better than total cluelessness.
- What you really want is much simpler than you think, and pretty much the same as what everyone else wants.
- There’s basically only one question everyone asks me when it comes to love and relationships: “Am I lovable? Am I enough?”
So, let’s open up the first can of worms:
Observation #1: Of all the people in the world, sometimes those least concerned about what women want seem to be women themselves.
Of the thousands of letters I’ve received from women asking for dating advice, I can recall maybe one in which a woman actually articulated the outcome she wanted out of the deal. Most letters go something like this:
Hey Dr Ali love your book have read it 14 times and bought it for three dozen of my friends you’re the best! So there’s this guy I like. What should I do? Sincerely, Your Biggest Fan
I’m kidding of course – none of your letters ever run less than 5000 words. They usually start with an account of your ancestors in Sumer, as all good stories should, and end with the full transcript of every text message you’ve sent this guy you like (this has happened before, so I’m not totally joking here), his dreamy brown eyes, and what your girlfriend’s girlfriends pets think about him.
But there’s hardly ever a question about what you really want – the outcome vis à vis this hunk of studmuffin manliness, the thing that would actually move you closer towards long-term fulfillment, joy and happiness. Or at least a damn good roll in the hay.
And so, after ten years of doing this, I’ve realized that it’s my job to remind you of what you really want. It’s actually simpler than you think. But you’ve got to wonder why so many women aren’t clear on what they want. (Guys, on the other hand, tend to be pretty clear: “How can I get her in bed?”)
Turns out that in article, I’m going to mostly talk about why women don’t articulate what they want; in future pieces, I’ll spend more time on the what part. Here’s what I believe is going on:
A) Prioritizing conscious over unconscious needs.
Most of our behavior is driven by unconscious needs, which by definition you aren’t aware of, or write off as trivial when you do become aware of them. Instead, we tend to give priority to our conscious needs. Pretty much all modern humans do this, so it’s not something limited to women or guys.
What most people think as their “self” is their conscious mind, which constitutes a tiny fraction of 1% of your brain’s activity at any moment in time.
What’s really running the show, however, is your unconscious mind. Not only is it taking care of your body’s basic functions, e.g. keeping your heartbeat, breathing and gut regulated; scanning the environment for danger; kicking you into flight, fight or freeze when things get scary. But it also has this patchwork of on-demand adaptive responses you have been putting together ever since you were a wee tot.
Remember that time in summer when you were 5 years old at Disneyland and waiting in line for the Mattherhorn and it was too hot and people were pressing against you and you couldn’t see your parents for 30 minutes and you lost your lollipop and aaaaaauuuuugh? Well, that’s why you’re not big on going to crowded places these days.
That was an example of a phobia. It’s an unconscious behavior laid down as an adaptive response that saved your butt once – then stayed there forever without getting erased, even long after it’s no longer useful.
Very inconvenient, especially if you like going to places where there are human, like concerts and parties and the entire freakin’ planet.
We also have cognitive biases, heuristics, and habits running most of our behavior. We’re not full automatons yet, but it’s getting pretty darn close. Just notice how your mind and body react next time your phone rings and buzzes with a new text message. Your attention gets diverted from whatever you’re doing, and you lunge for your phone before any conscious thought has a chance to intervene.
The core unconscious need is for safety. If you don’t feel safe, all nonessential functions, especially the emotional part of your brain, shut down and you can’t properly connect with other humans until the threat passes. So if you have chronic anxiety, or generally have a tough time trusting men because of scary things that happened in the past, you will have a difficult time making an emotional connection with guys (aka “dating”).
Once we feel safe, then we can attend to our other unconscious needs, like community, self-expression, significance, self-actualization, service, and love.
But what does it mean to prioritize conscious over unconscious needs? It means you think you need a fancier job title, bigger paycheck or cooler handbag to make you happy. But it’s really that other, less tangible stuff that really matters. Attend to those first.
B) Prioritizing the needs of others before your own.
Let’s say your friend needs a ride to the airport. Let’s say you totally want to give her a ride, but your car has a flat tire. Would you be doing her a favor if you gave her a ride? No. You need to fix the flat first.
As far as I can tell, our purpose in life is to be a vehicle of service to the world. And before you can do that, you need to take care of you first. This is why the airplane announcement says that in the case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before you put it on your kid, because you’ll be in no shape to help others if you’re a comatose lump of meat.
So if you prioritize the wants and needs of your partner over your own in relationships, you may never even get around to figuring out what you want. This is a setup for unhappiness and certain destruction of the universe.
Why is this? It seems as if women are wired to behave in a more relational and collectively-oriented manner – in short, more altruistically. I remember a study by Emily Amanatullah and Michael Morris cited in Adam Grant’s outstanding book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success about how women consistently got 17-20% less than men when negotiating their own salaries. However, once the women were asked to negotiate on behalf of a friend, the gap disappeared.
So figure out what you want, and take care of that first. Why? Because when mama’s happier, everybody’s happier. And you’re taking care of you first not because you’re a selfish beast, but because that enables you to take better care of everyone else. See what we did there? So take care of you first. The universe thanks you for not destroying it.
C) Lack of connection with one’s own feelings.
For years, I’ve been harping on how modern men and women have been turned into floating heads, swimming in a sea of data and thought but disconnected from their bodies and feelings.
That’s still true, and being exacerbated by our overreliance on technology. And if most of us are information workers spending most of our days manipulating symbols in exchange for other symbols that can eventually be exchanged for life-sustaining resources, one could argue that living in our heads is essential to our survival. And, hey, with a little meditation, yoga and dance, you can get back into your body and familiarize yourself with your feelings again. Right?
Except that in a lot of cases, it’s not that simple. In my clinical work and research, I’ve found that there is a subset of the population that has very limited access to their own feelings. I’m talking about the victims of trauma and abuse, and they comprise as much as a third of the population, according to Dr Bessel van der Kolk’s magisterial The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (hardcover and ebook).
Here’s what happens in simplified terms. In trauma victims, the amygdala, which is like the smoke alarm of the brain, is on constant high alert. It’s screaming “danger, danger” all the time, even when there isn’t any. This state of high alert short-circuits the emotional part of the brain so these people literally can’t feel their own somatic feelings.
How bad is it? With one patient, I would squeeze her forearm, then ask her to describe where I was touching her and how much pressure she was feeling. Simple, right? But not for her. It took her about two minutes to be able to come up with any words at all to describe the location and quality of the feeling. Even then, the words came out with considerable effort.
If you can’t feel your feelings, then you don’t know what you want. If you don’t know what you want, then you’ll make bad decisions or settle for what you can get. Unless you can get back to feeling again, you will continue to make bad decisions. Some patients even resort to drugs, sex, self-cutting and extreme behavior to get some feeling back, which merely perpetuates the vicious cycle of bad decisions.
Another problem is that when you can’t feel your feelings, you can’t feel other people’s feelings either. All of us are wired with an emotional wi-fi called mirror neurons to feel our fellow men and women. If you can’t feel you, then you can’t feel others. With the wi-fi down, your sense of empathy is impaired, and you just can’t connect well with other people, and your relationships are not going to work out in the long term.
If you fall down and break a leg and get around on a wheelchair, everyone knows something’s wrong. This activates people’s empathy circuits, bringing you into the warm embrace of the community, speeding your healing.
But if someone has an internal injury that cannot be seen by the naked eye – like post-traumatic stress disorder – that person’s walking around for years without getting any empathy at all. In fact, people are going to wonder why that cat is so aloof, so socially awkward, so just plain weird. People will keep their distance. Ironically, now the person who most needs acceptance and empathy, who is just as disabled as the guy in the wheelchair, is now the least likely to get it.
If that describes you, then there’s no amount of mere information or understanding that will fix your love life (a discussion for another time). The emotional circuitry needs repair, and your most pressing task is to get it back in gear. Get a hold of the van der Kolk book and Dr Dan Siegel’s phenomenal Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (paperback and ebook). A big part of overcoming trauma involves getting back into your body. Some things that seem to help: yoga, meditation, neurofeedback (through a therapist), dance.
There are probably legions of other reasons why women don’t clearly express their wants and needs – things like centuries of systematic repression, weird child-rearing, and religion. But the three I went through above are three you can actually do something about, which is why I mentioned them.
Whew. Anyway, that was a lot. So, to summarize: over the years, I’ve noticed that most women don’t address directly what they want in a relationship. This may be because of prioritizing conscious needs over deeper unconscious ones, an overly altruistic mindset, and the repercussions of trauma and abuse.
In future articles, I’ll address the other four observations, and maybe even get around to talking about what I believe women really want, deep down inside.
Now, I know that, as much as we love to improve ourselves, implementing new teachings into your life is challenging. And it’s one thing to understand a concept and another one entirely to actually change your behavior. I should know this, because I read and write self-help books for a living, and it’s pretty clear that I’m not a trillionaire with a perfect life yet.
So the first bit of good news is that I’ve created a tool to make change easier for you. It’s called Project Irresistible. It’s the same concepts from The Tao of Dating that you already know and love, but now in an online course format, stretched out over 6-8 weeks (or longer if you wish — it’s all self-paced). You’ll also connect with a Facebook group of fellow students to encourage you on your journey. I’ve been waiting on fixing one last tiny sticking point with the registration, but I think you ladies have waited long enough, so I’m not going to let perfect be the enemy of good. The course is now officially open.
So go forth and register! Regular registration is $247. To get the early-bird discount of $100 for being one of the first 100 people to register for the course, enter EARLYBIRD as the coupon code. Moreover, if you are one of the earlybirds, you’ll get to participate in the live course free of charge whenever it happens.
And for the other piece of news: thanks to your votes in the design contest, I selected a new book cover design for The Tao of Dating! It looks something like this, and I sincerely hope it’s an improvement over the prior design:
I’m a little skeptical about the white-on-white aspect of it, but you voted for it, and I’m gonna trust your good taste for now, ladies.
I’ll be responding to some more of your letters soon, so stay posted. Guidelines for letters: under 200 words; containing a question about what outcome you want; include your location and the ages of the relevant parties.
In the meantime, this article is about a controversial issue, and I know you have some opinions, so do contribute your comments and thoughts below. Why do you think women are reticent about what they want? Or maybe they’re not reticent at all? What’s your experience been?
To your greater growth and healing,
Hi Dr.Ali, your book was the first thing I read when I began my quest for healthy and more fulfilling relationships. I love the lessons you teach and I highly recommend your book to friends!! Now, almost a year later I am a completely different person with a fantastic relationship – with myself. I’m closer to being ready for one with a great man than I have ever been. I have done a lot of mind body work with Dr. Kim D’eramo as well, to clear some of what you talk about in this article. I just wanted to thank you for setting me off in the right direction on this journey!! Happy 10 years Xo
What a fantastic article. It gave me great insight to my love life.
I am a 46 year old widow that had a fantastic marriage. I have been single 5 years. I feel happy, independent, and personally fulfilled.
I have been on a hundreds of dates and had multiple short relationships in the past 4 years. I seem to attract some wonderful guys and then discard them a few months later for trivial reasons. I just realized I have difficulty feeling an emotional connection with men.
I have been telling myself the right one hasn’t come along. I choose to enjoy my moments with each guy, and move on to the next when things start getting serious.
This article put some perspective on what is happening…Fear at the unconscious level.
Watching a 40 year old man being devoured by cancer in 6 months was traumatic. I avoid falling in love to minimize the risk of experiencing deep emotional pain again.
Thanks for the wake up call… I have a choice to make.
Choice A-Embrace the terrific life I already have with a loving family and friends as a single women.
Choice B- confront my unconscious behaviors and have everything in choice A, plus a loving life long partner.