Single by choice, or by design?
May 26, 2002
There's a new sport in the dating world: "extreme whining." Contestants lament, "There's nobody out there to date," and my favorite complaint, "Everyone I end up with is either a psycho or a loser."
Their problem is always "out there," leaving the responsibility for solving it to someone else. Why not ask, "If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?"
This could be another battle cry for the lovelorn, but it's also the title of a book by Susan Page, just reissued in paperback with an update for the electronic age. A title like that may kill book sales unless you ask for a head-sized paper bag to go with your purchase.
In her book, Page apologizes for a title that makes it sound as if "there is something wrong with being single by choice," then sheds some light on why great people who say they want a partner may remain on the single track. Many of us harbor what her first chapter describes as "Hidden Ambivalence."
That ambivalence causes many single people to subtly sabotage their own success with potential mates. You'd think that it would be easy to recognize a good thing when it's available, but we may not actually want what we say we want.
An old roommate described this phenomenon as human nature. If we're single, even if we're happy about it, part of us wants a mate to share our happiness with. And when partnered, we want the freedom we enjoyed when untethered. It's the relationship version of "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence."
My friend "Eagle" (like the bald kind, he jokes) says he's great at relationships. He can capture a woman's attention and heart quite easily. But then that ambivalence kicks in. Instead of going through with a healthy and growing relationship, he bails out.
"Going back on the prowl," as he calls it, is much easier than sticking it out and making a genuine long-term commitment. By not risking heartbreak, he prevents a union from becoming stagnant or confining and cools the closeness that comes from reaching the next level of bonding and trust.
Ambivalence is a relationship landmine. It can lead to us superficially dismissing perfectly decent people because they don't meet our exacting list of standards. The beer-belly guy thinks he should date a supermodel, for example, or the woman with 8,000 priorities wants a man who will drop everything just for her. Although we require perfection from others, we don't expect that our own "flaws" should pose any problems.
We may also mistakenly believe that love will just "happen when it happens." This fantasy may work in great romance novels, but in real life this passivity usually nets you zilch.
The flip side of passivity is staying overly busy. If you cram your schedule full with work, friends, family and activities, you may not leave room for another to come in. Who wants to compete that hard for your time and attention?
Dr. Phil McGraw, the relationship guru famous for his "Oprah" appearances, recommends putting your love life on "Priority Status" rather than leaving it on a back burner. Adopting his advice, if you seek a successful relationship, actively pursue your goal.
That may require some attitudinal changes, especially if you are covertly ambivalent. If you are desperate for a relationship, or harbor anger and resentment, others will spot those emotions like a highway flare.
I tried several electronic dating match-ups, and I remember thinking on the way to meet my final selection, "This is the last one!" Do you think he sensed my defiance or lived up to my ridiculous "prove you're worthy of my time" standard? As a friend vividly pointed out, I may have gotten in my own way on that one.
Some of us have mastered the art of driving through life with the brakes on. But we'd reach our goals a lot faster if we changed tactics.
Let's try dropping our defenses a little. Let others in. Risk. Smile. Be vulnerable. And use our brains. Don't get walked on or used, but be open to real opportunity. The subtitle of Page's book is "Ten Strategies That Will Change Your Love Life Forever." I liked "Learning to Say Yes." We've mastered the art of saying no to salespeople, children, colleagues and charities. It's often our autopilot response to anything new.
Eagle identified three steps that would move his relationships past the initial stages. One is "being less selfish." Though he likes the spotlight, he realizes that a good match should be "about us rather than about me."
He also needs to "have more faith in the human condition," he says. Trust in another is an essential base for a solid relationship.
His third step toward a stronger relationship? "The thing I need to move to the next level," he says, "is a brunette." Uh, do you see me running to the Clairol department?