Last fall I started seeing a client, we’ll call her Tracy, who recently went through a devastating break up. Tracy was dating a handsome, successful start-up entrepreneur named Tom. Initially he texted regularly, he took her out to dinner, and, in an attempt to learn more about her interests, even attended yoga classes with her on the weekends. The attraction was strong and they quickly became intimate.
But after a few months of dating, Tom’s attitude and behavior began to shift. He became distant. Tom texted less often and seemed overly consumed by work. When Tracy confronted Tom he said the relationship was going too fast. Tom communicated that his current priority was work and he felt pressured and overwhelmed by her needs. Then he ended the relationship.
Tracy was confused and heart-broken. The end came seemingly out of the blue for her. It was as if they were having two completely different experiences. Tracy thought that they were moving toward a committed relationship. How could she have been so off-base, she wondered? I worked with Tracy to reflect on how much she really knew Tom. Had the couple really communicated about their relationship before becoming intimate?
What she discovered was that she felt euphoric when she thought about him, but she didn’t feel calm and safe. Tracy was almost addicted to how she felt when she was with Tom. This common experience can be traced back to a wily neurotransmitter called dopamine, which plays a major role in physical attraction. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that stimulates reward-motivated behavior, evoking euphoria, and stimulating passion. Great! you say. Unfortunately, relationships based on chemical addictions (even natural ones) rarely work out without a huge helping of honest communication.
Unfortunately, relationships based on chemical addictions (even natural ones) rarely work out without a huge helping of honest communication.
We have such high hopes when we enter a relationship. And when it ends abruptly, we are left feeling confused and hurt. Tracy wanted Tom to be available for something long-term, yet ignored the important signals that he was not able to commit. Here are a few signs that it’s dopamine—not reciprocally passionate love—that has you coming back for more (possibly setting you for an abrupt break-up):
- They’re mysterious. If you use this phrase to describe someone you’re dating, it’s probably a sign that they aren’t ready to own a fair share of the connection. Having to pull information out of someone can be an exciting game until serious questions arise, then it’s anything but cute. True connection happens when both people are vulnerable and exposed.
- You feel anxious. If you feel lost or empty when you’re not with them, it’s a good sign that dopamine is at work, not love. Relationships should bring out your best strongest self.
- You want to win them over. If you secretly enjoy chasing this person and hope to win their affection, this is most likely dopamine. You might have fun along the way, but don’t confuse this with a shared “leaning into” relationship.
I know, I just described three quarters of the relationships out there. But, take heart! There are steps you can take to mindfully navigate the dating world. Here are a few tips that might help you enjoy your next date, rather than fret over it.
Six Mindful Tips for Navigating the Dating World
- Recognize that openness is different than honesty
Anyone can answer honestly to a question you ask directly. Openness is about being transparent, in that you willingly share your thoughts and feelings. The capacity for open communication is key to intimacy and bonding required for a long-term relationship.
- Communicating is about valuing your self-expression
You should be less concerned about whether your date “gets” you and more interested in whether you “get” yourself. What is it you’re really looking for in a date? There is no wrong answer. And the best answer is the honest one. Being open about what you want can make you feel vulnerable, so be kind to yourself when you discover what you value in a date.
- Listen to your inner voice
If you’re sitting across the table from someone and your subconscious is telling you that your brand of “openness” will be a turn off for this person, then listen to that inner voice. This is especially hard when you’re attracted to someone you sense isn’t looking for the same things as you. But those are the moments when it’s most important to be vulnerable and admit what you really want. Better to figure out that you aren’t a match now (regardless of how attracted you are to them) then after a few dates (and more of yourself invested).
- Be present with “what is” in the moment
Do you indulge in “fantasy dating?” Fantasy dating sounds like it should be a reality TV show, but it’s when we get carried away in a false narrative. We imagine the romantic vacations that we will take, the kisses, the sex, the awesome friends they might have. Or, it can work in the opposite way too: we judge them harshly based on their social media posts before we even meet in person. I often ask my clients, “Are you in love with the actual person or who you imagine them to be?” It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer sometimes.
- Try this “Sitting Across the Table and Noticing” practice:
Feel your feet on the floor (connection to ground), take a deep breath, notice any body sensations and feelings. Welcome your feelings and sensations. Explore accepting “what is.” Now take notice of your date. Do they appear present and engaged in the conversation? What do you notice about them? Do you feel curious to know more about who they are?
- Communicate your thoughts without blame
If you notice that your date is frowning, you’re mind could interpret that to mean that they don’t like you. This is an interpretation and story that you are creating. It’s not real. You don’t know what their behavior means exactly. So, all you can do is stay with observable facts and check it out with your date. Say something like, “I notice you’re frowning and I am wondering if you’re upset with me?” Keep it clean and hope that your date is interested in receiving feedback. If not, this person is probably not relationship ready.
And most of all remember: we are all wired for love. We just have to be honest with ourselves about what we want in order to find it. Good luck out there!