It’s Complicated: Why Relationships and Dating Can Be So Hard

When you think about it, despite feeling difficult, the problems people struggle with in dating sound pretty trivial.

For instance, we have been walking and talking our entire lives, yet walking up to an attractive person and opening our mouths to say “Hi,” can feel impossibly complex to us. People have been using a phone since they were children, yet given the agony some go through just to dial a person’s phone number, you’d think they were being waterboarded. Most of us have kissed someone before and we’ve seen hundreds of movies and instances in real life of other people kissing, yet we still stare dreamily into the object of our affection’s eyes hour after hour, telling ourselves we can never find the “right moment” to do it.

Why? It sounds simple, but why is it so hard?

We build businesses, write novels, scale mountains, help strangers and friends alike through difficult times, tackle the thorniest of the world’s social ills — and yet, when we come face-to-face with someone we find attractive, our hearts race and our minds are sent reeling. And we stall.

Dating advice often compares improving one’s dating life to improving at some practical skill, such as playing piano or learning a foreign language. Sure, there are some overlapping principles, but it’s hard to imagine most people trembling with anxiety every time they sit in front of the keyboard. And I’ve never met someone who became depressed for a week after failing to conjugate a verb correctly. They’re not the same.

Generally speaking, if someone practices piano daily for two years, they will eventually become quite competent at it. Yet many people spend most of their lives with one romantic failure after another.

Why?

What is it about this one area of life that the most basic actions can feel impossible, that repetitive behavior often leads to little or no change, and that our psychological defense mechanisms run rampant trying to convince us to not pursue what we want?

Why dating and not, say, skiing? Or even our careers? Why is it that a person can conquer the corporate ladder, become a militant CEO, demanding and receiving the respect and admiration of hundreds of brilliant minds, and then flounder through a simple dinner date with a beautiful stranger?

Our Emotional Maps

As children, none of us get 100% of our needs met. This is true of you. It’s true of me. It’s true of everyone. The degree of which our needs aren’t met varies widely, and the nature of how our needs are unfulfilled differs as well. But it’s the sad truth about growing up: we’ve all got baggage. And some of us have a lot of it. Whether it is a parent who didn’t hold us enough, who didn’t feed us regularly enough, a father who wasn’t around often, a mother who left us and moved away, being forced to move from school to school as a child and never having friends — all of these experiences leave their mark as a series of micro-traumas that shape and define us.

The nature and depth of these traumas imprint themselves onto our unconscious and become the map of how we experience love, intimacy and sex throughout our lives.

If mom was over-protective and dad was never around, that will form part of our map for love and intimacy. If we were manipulated or tormented by our siblings and peers, that will imprint itself as part of our self-image. If mom was an alcoholic and dad was screwing around with other women, it will stay with us. If our first girlfriend/boyfriend died in a car accident or dad beat us because he caught us masturbating — well, you get the point. These imprints will not only affect, but define, all of our future romantic and sexual relationships as adults.

You and I and everyone else have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Out of those thousands, multiple hundreds easily met our physical criteria for a mate. Yet out of those hundreds, we fall in love with a very few. Only a handful we meet in our entire lives ever grab us on that gut-level, where we lose all rationality and control and lay awake at night thinking about them.

It’s often not the one we expected to fall for either. One might be perfect on paper. Another potential lover might have a great sense of humor and they’re amazing in bed. But sometimes there’s the one we can’t stop thinking about, the one we involuntarily keep going back to over and over and over again.

Psychologists believe that romantic love occurs when our unconscious becomes exposed to someone who matches the archetype of parental love we experienced growing up, someone whose behavior matches our emotional map for intimacy. Our unconscious is always seeking to return to the unconditional nurturing we received as children, and to re-process and heal the traumas we suffered.

In short, our unconscious is wired to seek out romantic interests who it believes will fulfill our unfulfilled emotional needs, to fill in the gaps of the love and nurturing we missed out on as kids. This is why the people we fall in love with almost always resemble our parents on an emotional level.

Hence why people who are madly in love say to each other, “you complete me,” or refer to each other as their “better half.” It’s also why couples in the throes of new love often act like children around one another. Their unconscious mind can’t differentiate between the love they’re receiving from their girlfriend/boyfriend and the love they once received as a child from their parents.

This is also why dating and relationships are so painful and difficult for so many of us, particularly if we had strained familial relationships growing up. Unlike playing the piano or learning a language, our dating and sex lives are inextricably bound to our emotional needs, and when we get into potentially intimate or sexual situations, these experiences rub up against our prior traumas causing us anxiety, neuroticism, stress and pain.

So that someone rejecting you isn’t just rejecting you — instead, to your unconscious, you’re reliving every time your mother rejected you or turned down your need for affection.

That irrational fear you feel when it comes time to take your clothes off in front of someone new isn’t just the nervousness of the moment, but every time you were punished for sexual thoughts or feelings growing up.

Don’t believe me? Think about this. Someone no-shows for a regular business meeting with you. How do you feel? Annoyed likely. Maybe a tad disrespected. But chances are you get over it quickly, and by the time you get home and are watching TV, you don’t even remember it even happened.

Now, imagine someone you are extremely attracted to no-shows for a date. How do you feel? If you’re like most people who struggle in this area of their life, you feel like shit. Like you just got used and lead on and shat on.

Why? Because being flaked on rubs up against your unconscious fear of abandonment, fear that nobody loves you and that you’re going to be alone forever. Ouch.

Maybe you freak out and call them and leave angry voicemails. Maybe you continue to call them weeks or months later, getting blown off over and over again, feeling worse and worse each time. Or maybe you just get depressed and mope about it on Facebook or some dating forum.

Every irrational fear, emotional outburst or insecurity you have in your dating life is an imprint on your emotional map from your relationships growing up.

It’s why you’re terrified to go for the first kiss. It’s why you freeze up when it comes time to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know or tell someone you just met how you feel about them. It’s why you clam up every time you go to bed with someone new or you freeze and get uncomfortable when it’s time to open up and share yourself with somebody.

The list goes on and on.

All of these issues have deep-seated roots in your unconscious, your unfulfilled emotional needs and traumas.

Disassociating From Our Emotions

A common way we bypass dealing with the emotional stress involved in dating is by disassociating our emotions from intimacy and sex. If we shut off our need for intimacy and connection, then our sexual actions no longer rub up against our emotional maps and we can greatly diminish the neediness and anxiety we once felt while still reaping the superficial benefits. It takes time and practice, but once disassociated from our emotions, we can enjoy the sex and validation of dating without concerns for intimacy, connection, and in some cases, ethics.

Here are common ways we disassociate dating from their emotions:

  • Objectification. Objectifying someone is when you see them only for a specific purpose and don’t see them as fully integrated human beings. You can objectify people as sex objects, professional work objects, social objects, or none of the above. You might objectify someone for sex, status or influence. But objectification is ultimately disastrous for one’s own emotional health, not to mention one’s relationships.
  • Sexism. Viewing the other sex as inferior or inherently evil/inept is a sure way to redirect one’s emotional problems outward onto a population at large rather than dealing with them yourself. Without fail, men who treat and view women as some inferior “other,” are more often than not projecting their own anger and insecurities onto the women they meet rather than dealing with them. The same goes for women.
  • Manipulation and games. By engaging in games and manipulation, we withhold our true intentions and identities, and therefore we withhold our emotional maps as well. With these tactics, the aim is to get someone to fall for the perception we create rather than who we really are, greatly reducing the risk of digging up the buried emotional scars of past relationships.
  • Overuse of humor, teasing, bantering. A classic strategy of distraction. Not that jokes or teasing are always bad, but an interaction of nothing but jokes and teasing is a means to communicate without saying anything important, to enjoy yourselves without actually do anything, and to feel like you know each other without actually knowing a thing. This is most typical of English-speaking cultures — men and women, straight and gay — as they tend to use sarcasm and teasing as a means to imply affection rather than actually showing it.
  • Stripclubs, prostitution, pornography. A way to experience one’s sexuality vicariously through an empty, idealized vessel, whether it’s on a screen, a stage, or running you $100 an hour.

Generally, the more resentment one is harboring, the more one objectifies others. People who had turbulent relationships with their parents, or were abandoned in a previous relationship, or tormented and teased when growing up — these people will likely find it much easier and more enticing to objectify and measure their sex lives than to confront their demons and overcome their emotional scars with the people they become involved with.

Most of us have, at one point or another, disassociated our emotions and objectified someone (or entire groups of people) for whatever reasons. I will say, however, that there’s a lot of social pressure on men, particularly straight men, to ignore their emotions, particularly “weak” emotions such as a need for intimacy and love. It’s more socially acceptable for men to objectify their sex lives and boast about it. Whether you think that’s right or wrong or doesn’t matter, it is how it is.

Confronting Your Issues and Winning

Disassociating from your emotional needs is the easy way out. It requires only external effort and some superficial beliefs. Working through your issues and resolving them requires far more blood, sweat and tears. Most people aren’t willing to dig deep and put in the effort, but it yields far greater and more permanent results.

1) The biggest misconception when it comes to working through an excess of emotional baggage is that these feelings ever completely go away. Research and brain imaging studies indicate that fears, anxieties, traumas, etc. are imprinted on our brains in similar ways that our physical habits are. Just like you’ve developed a habit of brushing your teeth every time you wake up, you have emotional habits of getting sad or angry any time you feel abandoned or unwanted.

The way to change is not by removing these feelings or anxieties altogether, but rather consciously replacing them with higher order behaviors and feelings.

This can only be accomplished through taking action. There is no other way. You cannot rewire your responses in healthy ways and confront your insecurities if you aren’t out there actively pushing up against them. Trying to do so is like trying to learn how to shoot free throws left-handed without ever actually touching a basketball. It just doesn’t work.

If you have a habit of flipping out and leaving angry voicemails every time someone doesn’t call you back, you don’t get rid of the anger, but rather channel that anger into a better and healthier activity, like say, going to the gym, or painting a picture, or punching a punching bag.

2) Anxieties can be overcome through utilizing implementation intentions and progressive desensitization. For instance, if you get nervous in social situations and have a hard time meeting new people, take baby steps to start engaging in more social interactions. Practice saying hello to a few strangers until it becomes comfortable. Then maybe ask some random people how their day is going after you say hello. Then try to start some conversations with people throughout your day — at the gym, at the park, at work, or wherever. Then, challenge yourself to do these same things with people you find attractive.

The key is to do it incrementally. Setting the stakes too high, too early will just reinforce your anxiety when you fail to meet your lofty expectations. Again, baby steps.

I have entire online courses that deal with meeting and connecting with new people.

Obviously this takes time and requires consistently facing situations which make you uncomfortable, but that’s the idea. You must overlay old emotional habits of fear and anxiety with healthier ones like excitement and assertiveness. Mentally train yourself so that any time you feel anxiety, you force yourself to do it anyway.

3) The final step — once you’ve learned to channel your negative emotions in constructive ways, once you’ve eaten away at your anxieties and are able to often act despite them — is to come clean with people you date about your needs and start screening based on them.

For instance, I’ve always had a fear of commitment and needed a woman who was comfortable giving me space and some freedom. Not only do I openly share this with women I get involved with now, but I actively screen for women with these traits.

Ultimately, your emotional needs will only be fully met in a loving and conscious relationship with someone who you can trust and work together with – and not just your emotional issues, but hers as well. We unconsciously seek out romantic partners in order to fulfill our unfulfilled childhood needs, and to do so cannot be completely done alone.

This is the reason that honesty and vulnerability are so powerful for creating high-quality interactions – the practice of being upfront about your desires and flaws will naturally screen for those who best suit you and connect with you.

This kind of authenticity changes the whole dynamic of dating. Instead of chasing and pursuing or wishing and hoping, you focus on consistently improving yourself and presenting that self to the beautiful strangers of the world. The right ones will pay attention and stay. And whether you spend a night or a year with them, this enhanced level of intimacy and mutual vulnerability will help heal your emotional wounds, help you become more confident and secure in your relationships and ultimately, overcome much of the pain and stress of that accompanies sex and intimacy.

An Invitation for Change

I invite you to take some time and think about what your emotional hang ups are in this area of your life, where they probably come from, and how you could overcome them in an open and honest way.

As an example, I grew up in a broken family where all members isolated themselves and we seldom communicated our emotions. As a result, I became highly sensitive to confrontation and any negative emotions of others. I became the consummate Nice Guy and for years struggled to assert myself in my relationships and around women. In fact, I objectified my sex life quite a bit and adopted some narcissistic behaviors in order to push me through some of these insecurities.

My fear of commitment is undoubtedly rooted in my parents’ divorce, and my knee jerk reaction for years was to run away any time a woman attempted to get close to me. I slowly eroded that fear by opening myself up to intimate opportunities little by little over a long period of time. I was incapable of becoming intimate with a woman unless I had an escape route (i.e., she had a boyfriend, or I was going to move to another city soon, etc.).

Spending all of my adolescence living alone with my mother has made me particularly sensitive to female affection, and like a smoker rationalizing reasons to smoke one last cigarette, I have often rationalized myself into intimate and sexual situations with women who I perhaps should not have been with or didn’t actually like as much as I thought I did.

This is my emotional map — at least part of it. These are the hang ups and issues that I’ve battled and slowly beaten back with years of active effort. These are the realities that I express openly and seek out the proper women who can handle them.

What are yours?

[Cover Illustration Credit: Robin Huzell]

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