Limerence

I’ve found myself speaking a lot recently about the early stages of courtship. We are all fascinated with this period. We love asking couples how they met, and we love telling others our own story. We remember the bliss of those first months, filled with the thrill of new love, dampened by nothing at all. These early months, which we like to call falling in love, really have nothing to do with love, and that’s the part I’ve found myself explaining. It seems to fascinate everyone. So pull up a chair, boys and girls, and listen to my tale.

When first we meet someone new and our eyes lock across a crowded room, our attraction signals a myriad of chemical reactions. Biology claims dominance and we embark on a set of behaviours as old as primordial ooze. These are quite unconscious, although some part of us registers the signals. The pupils of our eyes dilate, for instance, which makes us appear more interested and interesting. The tilt of our head changes, as do inflections in our voice. We get high on attraction….actually, we get high on chemical endorphins triggered by our attraction, but that sounds so much less romantic, doesn’t it? And we love romance.

If our initial encounter goes well and we see this captivating person again, we continue to feel as if we’re floating on air. The mixture of desire and uncertainty makes a heady cocktail, and our sexual urges impel us to get and stay closer to our new object of desire. We are fascinated by everything they say, insatiable hearing their life stories and telling them our own. We can’t believe our luck at finding such a perfect person. We can think of nothing else. We become deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid. Our feet barely touch the floor. Our enchanted grins alert the world that we are ‘falling in love.’ Never before have we found such a match. Never before has the romance been more sweet, the anticipation more electric, or the sex hotter. We seem to agree on everything, and our few differences are all complementary. Perfectly mated, we are.

This intoxication marks the beginning of almost all of our romantic endeavors. Each time we make love, each time we gaze into each other’s eyes and melt with emotion, each time the excitement of sex bonds us again, we feel closer and more fulfilled. Surely, we vow, this love will never fade.

But there’s the rub….fade it does. The first six to eighteen months of a relationship are defined by what Dr. Dorothy Tennov called limerence (Love and Limerence, 1979), and what social scientists are now calling NRE (new relationship energy). While we are drunk with fascination, we spend as much time as possible with our new love. We learn all we can and judge how that knowledge melds with our own lives. Our rose coloured glasses distort our view, it’s true, but though we maximize the good news and minimize the bad, we still filter the evidence as to the fit of our new couplehood. If the fit is good, we continue on; if not, we break up.

It is at this point, if we continue, that we begin to see the beloved as a real person, another imperfect human being. Our vision becomes clearer and we see them warts and all. We weigh what we can forgive. We decide if we are amused or annoyed by their foibles. We decide how well we can accommodate our differences, and how well our commonalities mesh. We feel less compelled to spend every minute in bed making love, because now we are drawn to venture out into the world together, to announce our union, to establish our circle of mutual friends and to recontact our friends we’ve ignored for the past months. Life becomes more normal, more daily, and our original heat cools to an abiding and comforting warmth. Eventually, we realize this other person has built an irreplaceable nest in our heart, and we joyously fold our lives into each others.

THAT’s love. It offers it’s own rewards and sports its own features. As limerence burns itself out, love builds on itself and becomes stronger as our intimacies grow. Limerence is the magnet that pulls us together while love is the glue that keeps us so.

Too often we mistake NRE for love, and our society promotes that confusion. If, as time passes and we learn that our ‘limerent other’ isn’t nearly as funny, bright, or sexy as we originally imagined, we are filled with disappointment and long for the good old days when the sun always shone on us and everything was effortless and perfect. We bemoan the fact that ‘love’ has betrayed us, when actually we just consumed all the available limerence.

Or our long term relationship hits bumps and we miss those uncomplicated, heady months. We believe that the two people who danced so seamlessly could not now feel such pain at exercising our different selves. We need to realize that limerence/NRE, as beautiful and unforgettable as it was, lacked the substance we have now developed. Like childhood and adulthood, each stage is necessary and different, each has value, and each brings great gifts. The trick is to recognize each for what it really is and not try to make it anything else.

The Tao of Personals

Each new year opens full of promise and possibilities. For many of us, our resolutions include finding a lover. Aside from living in a culture that embraces couples, our biological inclination is to mate. Even if we prefer being single, we long for friendly companionship and gratifying sex.

How do we go about finding a significant other?

There are many ways to meet new people, the Personals ads being one of the most direct and pragmatic. When I suggest this route to my unhappily single clients, they often respond that it’s “unromantic”. Let’s talk about that.

Personal ads are, let’s face it, ads. We are advertising ourselves and soliciting our perfect match. It is a business transaction. Many of us are quite unused to defining ourselves in terms of marketable attributes; in fact, we tend to put ourselves down, concentrating on our failures rather than our features. Composing a personals ad requires our taking inventory of our favourable aspects and listing them boldly. We need to morph our modesty into assertiveness and pride, so that we can sell ourselves well. It is a marvellous exercise in self-esteem!

Then there’s asking for what we want, another underdeveloped social skill, and an exercise in self-awareness and critical thinking. We believe (it’s that romance myth) that if you really, really love me, you’ll just know what I want. Mind reading is not a human skill. We need to hone our comfort about being truthful when expressing what we want, confident that our requests will be acknowledged and, hopefully, honoured. Direct requests make for so much less confusion and disappointment. Still, we sometimes feel anxious being candid, accustomed as we are to being socially coy when it comes to dating.

And just what is it we are seeking? What is important to you in a relationship? What are your primary values? How would you define your lifestyle? Are you looking for a date, a mate, or a tennis partner? Your ad will change, of course, depending on your target audience. If you are seeking a sexual partner, at what point do you identify your sexual preferences? How important are looks, education, class, race, age, temperament, hobbies and passions to you? Must you share everything, or are you the independent sort? Do you crave similarity or difference? How would you like your new lover to present to the world? What would really thrill and excite you? Answer these questions before penning your ad, and try to draw an accurate picture of the person you are looking for. If the readers of your ad recognize themselves in your description, they will be encouraged to reply, and your new suitor will have already passed through a number of your own chosen ‘filters’. A well-written ad will garner you the best response. It is really quite an efficient system.

When we meet, we evaluate our sexual attraction. That chemistry is the magic that either is there or is not. When we spark, we fill with anticipation and optimism. When we don’t, we sometimes try to pretend it doesn’t matter, that perhaps that part will grow in time. Possible, but uncommon. It takes care and attention to maintain the sexual heat in a relationship past the limerence phase (Kephra, link to this article, too, please). We need all the initial electricity we can get to establish our sexual rhythms firmly in our new relationship. Trust your sense of attraction; it is a biologically implanted tool that serves us well.

Then there’s that swoony, heady feeling we so love when we meet an attractive person and they reciprocate. Romance is the behaviour that follows. It is not romantic to play hard-to-get; it is self-defeating. Courtly behaviour thrills some of us and bores others. Determine your style, but be willing to experiment. The early days of an affair are filled with exuberance, experimentation, and adventure. Indulge in it! Play! But do not mistake this bliss for love, which takes far longer to develop. Assess and reassess the path this new alliance is taking. Be willing to say goodbye if your ‘must haves’ are not met. Moreover, be flexible about the inevitable differences you will discover. The exquisite attention romance delivers can turn our brains to mush. As long as we continue to check critically as we progress from casual to serious dating, we can fully embrace the heady delight of newfound ‘love’.

Personals ads provide a pond in which to fish. They encourage us to present ourselves in our best light and to define our goals. Many happy couples have met online. It’s a working system. Consider this medium to help move you along the courtship path.

From “Hello” to “Good Morning”

The subject of courtship is vast. We’re all interested in it, and few of us feel equipped to do it with grace. It’s exciting…and it’s scary. We know some things about the courtship process. It has a certain number of steps, which differ depending on whose research your using (today we’ll use mine), and starts with ‘hello’…first meeting…and progresses through a ‘getting to know you’ stage to the pivotal point of being sexual together, which we call ‘consummation.’ Of course courtship continues…hopefully forever, but here I want to talk about the early part of the process because it is so important…and where we all start.

Every relationship begins with “hello”, in one form or another. We rarely know when we’re going to meet someone new, nor do we know where that new relationship will go. This is one of the exciting aspects of dating. When we are open to opportunity, all sorts of surprises are in store! We are easily intimidated by courtship. We hear warnings like, “You won’t find anyone special until you quit looking.” Hogwash! It’s fairy-tale thinking: that if you just sleepwalk through life, waiting for your prince (or princess) to come, that your passivity will be rewarded with happily-everafter. The truth is we have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it, and we spend far more Saturday nights in our jammies…alone… waiting for a knock on our door than if we are out there having fun and keeping our eyes open.

Another trap we can easily fall into is going to some place loaded with potentials rather than going somewhere where we know we will have a good time. If you’re lousy at drinking and loud music gives you a headache, quit frequenting the bars. If you don’t ‘get’ poetry, stay away from the slams. If you were born lacking a sporty gene, leave that locker room. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy doing? What do I do just because it makes me happy?” That’s where you want to hang out, and that’s also where you’ll find others who share your interests.

“That’s it? Just show up?” you ask? Adopting an attitude of watchful waiting is a fundamental step in the process. It pays to set up for success, as well. Consider your forays out into the social world as chances. If you want to win, you have to play. Moreover, you want to play smart to increase your odds. So before you head out, stop and evaluate your presentation. Brush your teeth, and your hair. Are you clothes clean? Do you look good? If in doubt, change something and check the mirror again. Would you notice you? Now I’m not suggesting that you be a fashion slave, just that you be intentional about what you communicate about yourself to others. After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

When we first meet someone, eye contact is our first connection. We make a jillion assumptions about people based on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with truth. Does this person remind you of someone you like….or don’t? Are they part of one of your groups, or are they different from you? Are you physically attracted to them? Although sometimes we grow to appreciate someone’s looks as we come to love them, initial attraction is the norm. It immediately puts that person in a different category. Sexual attraction is a compelling force. If they share the reaction, sparks fly and pheromones permeate the air. We (stereotypically) become coquettish (if we’re female) or grandiose (if male). We revert unconsciously and somewhat uncontrollably to our ancestral selves, complete with biologically determined courtship dance routines. For those of you intrigued by this fascinating topic, find Sex Signals by Tim Perper, books by Helen Fisher, author of The First Sex, The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior, and Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce, or find a copy of Desmond Morris’s unfortunately titled Manwatching, in which there we are in all our animalistic, evolutionarily-charged predictability.

Now that we’ve made eye contact with someone we’re attracted to, and they seem interested in us, too, what happens next? Then we need to speak. It doesn’t matter much what we say, though witty opening lines can be attention-getting and remembered. On the other hand, smarmy comes on turn people off. There are a number of books available to smooth this part of the process. A book I heartily recommend is Carol Queen’s Exhibitionism for the Shy, a guide to how to become socially graceful and confident.

So now you’re eyes have met, you’re pretty sure you’re mutually attracted, and you’ve begun a conversation. Let’s assume you find talking smooth and enjoyable. Awkward pauses are non-existent. You’re starting to feel a bit confident, and a bit aroused. You realize you’re thinking sexual thought about this person. When you’ve spent enough time to validate the mutuality of this attraction, move the two of you to another location. It doesn’t have to be to different province, or even building, but carve yourselves out of the group you’ve been in and geographically establish yourselves as a couple having a private conversation. This step isn’t mandatory, and is sometimes impossible, but it tends to move the process along more quickly and symbolically changes the dynamic.

Now it’s time for goal clarification. You’ve gathered a lot of information so far. You have chemistry, and you converse easily. Where would you like this go? At this point, you have a lot of power to decide what’s going to happen next. Are you looking for someone with whom to play tennis? A lover? A mate? Of course each of these has different criteria. Do you know what you’re your various criteria are? Making a list of attributes and ranking them according to priority can help avoid regrettable choices when hormones and opportunity combine to muddy our thinking.

You know the old chestnut: You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the handsome prince. Don’t think every frog is a prince. The concept of soul mates is fairytale thinking again. On a planet of billions of people, there is certainly more than one perfect mate for each of us. More likely, there are hundreds of others with whom we could happily couple. The problem is that there are probably hundreds of thousands with whom we would be mismatched. The trick is sorting the two piles accurately. Think critically. Don’t let the stars in your eyes blind you.

But let’s suppose that you have consciously assessed this person and decided he or she is worth risking a romantic encounter. You know that, whatever else may be in store, you are sexually interested. Now is not the time to become mute and to wait for sex to “just happen.” Bring up the topic of sex. You don’t have to be a boor or a bulldozer; innuendo and flirtation are easily decoded by a mutually-interested companion. Still, if sex is what you want, you need to communicate that clearly. Then you are ready to make a direct approach. Touch your new friend. I’m not suggesting you grab ass….after all, you are hoping to establish a mutually-respectful encounter. But making physical contact will give you lots of information about how this new partner responds to you. When you place your hand on his or her shoulder as you laugh at a joke, for instance, does s/he lean in to you, pull back, or remain stationary? Read the body language. After all, you’ve made no binding commitment yet. If you are seeking a responsive lover, pay attention to what kind of response you get from touch. It’s an important indicator of what may lie ahead.

The next step is establishing a specific date. Suggest spending time together doing an activity that you’ve already determined interests you both. Even going to a movie together will work, although sitting in a dark public place silently staring at a screen precludes conversation and further opportunity to assess whether this is, indeed, the direction you want to go. Regardless, build in time together after the event. Go somewhere private and comfortable and plan the main event. Talk about the kind of touching you like. Ask the same questions of your partner. Be specific. It doesn’t have to be unromantic. Not speaking about our sexual preferences is another part of the “spontaneous sex” myth, when we believe that owning our desire sullies it. Simply not true. Sex is play for adults. If you’re adult enough to be involved, then be adult enough to be proud and determined about your decision. It can be very sexy, indeed, to listen to your about-to-be-lover tell you what really gets his or her mojo going. Ditto telling your sexual penchants. And it takes a lot of the awkwardness out of the first encounter. If you hear that your new sexual friend swoons to having his/her neck kissed, you’re guaranteed at least one move that will make you look like a sensitive and generous lover. The more information shared, the better the sex will be. This is NOT the time to stumble with shyness. Now is the time to embrace the moment, and your partner, and dive into mutual delight.

Coupling really is quite simple, once we get past the temptation to play games and avoid responsibility for our own actions. Remember, though, that a successful sexual encounter doesn’t guarantee a successful relationship or, for that matter, any further relationship at all. Do not confuse lust with love, which takes a loooong time to grow. What we are talking about here is only the first steps on that uncertain journey.

Dating is where the frog-kissing comes in. Just as every relationship begins with hello, each ends in goodbye, whether that’s tomorrow morning or when we are parted by death. Grab hold now and have the most fun you can. Appreciate every minute. Make wonderful memories.

Dating Post-Divorce

Originally published on DrKoop.com

When we are newly single (again, sigh), the thought of re-entering the world of dating may seem daunting at best. Still, most of us couple again, and this is accomplished by experimenting with new suitors until we find a compatible ‘fit’. What do we need to know to be able to put closure to our past relationship(s) and learn skills to establish healthy new ones? We need clear communication, sex-positive attitudes, and a solid understanding of courtship patterns. What are the prerequisites for assimilating those skills?

The first is grief resolution, for with the acceptance of closure of the old relationship comes a more honest perspective about its structure, providing clearer insight into the dynamics of its formation, maintenance and, finally, dissolution. This information protects us from recreating an unrewarding dyad. Also, grief can immobilize us and contribute to a negative self definition. Grieving can prolong the caring support of friends and forestall attempts to make new social contacts. We need to be sensitive to the point at which our grief has done its job and we are ready to move on.

Another prerequisite is a healthy self esteem, without which the grief-stricken believe we are deserving of our pain. Until we feel entitled to happiness, it remains elusive. A positive outlook (and in-look) takes time and work, and is well worth the effort.

It is also necessary to address cultural norms and deeply held societal beliefs. Although many know and understand that monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage can be a myth and a snare, we are handicapped by the expectation that everyone must have someone, and that being single is less and married
more. This belief is often unconscious. Considering alternative relationship styles (like dating) helps us decide what is most appropriate for us personally at any given time, in any given situation. Dating is more than just practice for the ‘real thing’; it is valuable in its own right.

A positive body image is necessary as well. A society which reveres beauty yet abhors vanity can immobilize us, as we cannot respond to such a conundrum. Even supermodels worry about their appearance. When we
understand that no one measures up, we can let go of our overbearing standards. As we learn to accept ourselves and our personal presentation, we receive support for our efforts. This in turn helps to alleviate the depression inherent in separation.

We also require knowledge. Forming new relationships requires that we consider the role of sexuality in our lives. Accurate and non-judgmental sex education levels the gender-defined playing field. It is frightening to consider the world of dating with the specter of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted infections augmenting society’s sex-negative messages. Bruised by the pain of separation and ‘rusty’ regarding social and sexual skills, it is rare for us to emerge from couple-hood without appropriate trepidation about re-entering ‘the market’. We must find current, accurate information about safe sex, so that when a sexual opportunity presents itself, we can be informed about if and how we want to respond, our decisions based on personal satisfaction and responsibility rather than on fear.

Once we feel confident that we have put to rest our old relationships, processed our grief, and updated our social and sexual knowledge bases, it’s time to start thinking about the possibility of dating. Of course this will feel risky – everything new does. But opportunity rides on risk, and so long as we pay attention to our innermost feelings and keep focused on our goal of inviting new chances to interact with others, we can trust that we will take care of ourselves. In fact, dating can be marvelous fun. And the longer we date, as with anything else, the better we get at it.

The Nature of Dating and Aging

– Originally published on DrKoop.com

When we are in high school (maybe even junior high) many of us are terribly interested in the dating scene. Having a date on Saturday night boosts our status in our social circles, and we feel like we fit in, like we belong. Being teenagers, our school environment provides plenty of opportunity to meet potential dating candidates. The dating sea is full of fish, and the scent of adolescent curiosity permeates high school hallways. We approach dating with a carefree attitude, accepting it as a natural part of our passage through our teens. Sometimes our most serious considerations seem to be whether one of us has a driver’s license and access to a car, and the other has an older, sympathetic sibling who might be bribed into getting us beer. Dating is pretty simple, though with peaking hormone levels, unrelenting emotionality, and fledgling social skills, it can seem daunting.

Since we don’t get taught dating skills, we learn by observing how others do it, and our models are often our peers, equally unskilled and inexperienced. Rare indeed is the family in which our parents share dating tips with us. Lucky are those surrounded by older siblings and extended family members from whom we can pick up dating data just by hanging around and keeping our ears open, ever discreet lest we get dismissed for being too young to hear about that stuff.

And of course that stuff is sex. As preteens, we watch the pre-date rituals of shaving, grooming, dressing. We marvel at the excitement. We may even get to hear about the event the next morning. But we don’t very often hear about any sex that might have happened, other than a vague, “….and then we did it.” It can feel like when we were younger, trying to figure out where babies come from.

When it is our turn to start dating, we enter the arena sometimes frightened, often curious, usually ignorant. We experiment and blunder, learning by doing. We are torn between anticipation, trepidation, and longing. Eventually someone catches our eye and our body responds. We become aware of wanting to touch them, to have them touch us.

Now sexual negotiation begins. What we know, and how skilled we are at knowing what we want and how to ask for it, affects the course of our future interactions. We become, thankfully, more graceful with practice, but unfortunately (and commonly) not before we have hurt or been hurt.

One of the problems with our society’s sink-or-swim philosophy is that we struggle with figuring out what we are looking for, and of course even that target keeps moving. Attraction, affection, and lust get all wound up together and we use each to justify the others. We know how good touching feels, but we also understand the social, emotional, and physical consequences of touching too much. The double standard of boys’ being encouraged to ‘score’ and girls’ messages to be seductive but not seduced keeps us all a little off balance and unable to speak honestly about our short- and long-term goals regarding our sexual behaviour. Now we are either supported, or abandoned, by the sexual and interpersonal information we’ve garnered along the way.

If we know how to find accurate information we can get most of our questions answered. And if we are confident and secure that we can make mistakes and still be embraced by our families and/or our friends, we can ask even the dumbest questions, and ask for help before we make mistakes. Without that kind of back-up, we soon realize what a treacherous world it can be. Decisions are hard, and consequences big.

We need all the help we can get.

Ups and Downs of Dating

– Originally published on DrKoop.com

I met Emily while riding the bus and, as sometimes happens in those anonymous, brief encounters, she shared with me a snapshot of her life. She was eagerly awaiting the arrival of her boyfriend who had been away for several months. They were both nearing thirty and contemplating a deeper commitment, and she was flushed with anticipation. Her happy story warmed me, and I wished her well as she left the bus. I may never have seen her again.

Two weeks later, however, we met again. This time she had a very different, though equally intriguing, story to tell. It seems her boyfriend had stood her up. He just didn’t arrive at the airport…..nor did he call. I asked if she was frantic that he was hurt (surely he must be unconscious to treat his loved one in this fashion!). No, she said, she had verified his good health. He’d last been seen moving on, but not in her direction. I was unsure how to react. Poor Emily. But Emily looked great. She’d gotten her hair colored, bought a few new outfits, and soldiered on. She was as animated as my first impression had suggested, and she seemed almost cavalier about what some would view as a dagger in the heart. How was this so?

And Emily shared her philosophy with me.

She explained that, while she had certainly known a few dark nights of the soul, she knew simultaneously that her dream was shattered, and that she had sorely misjudged this man. There was nothing that could be done to make it better, no way to excuse such behavior. Therefore, she reasoned, she could be thankful that the need to end this relationship was so obvious, so clear, and so final. Her grief had cut through her hot and fast. She accepted it but did not give it a home. She howled her rage and her hurt at the moon, then greeted the day with determination to keep things in a positive perspective.

Her story made me think about the value of dating.

Emily had wallowed, considered, and regrouped, all in short order. How had she managed that? One important factor was that she had never surrendered her independence in her dating relationship. She had her own place, her own job, her own money. She had been voluntarily bonded with her boyfriend, but was not bound to him. Consequently, when her frog became, alas, nothing but a frog, she was able to make a sensible, though painful, decision to leave. I am heartened that at least some young women are using such good sense in navigating the sometimes treacherous world of dating.

Perhaps we are making better choices all around regarding interpersonal relationships. More of us may have learned how to value ourselves sufficiently to be happy and single simultaneously. When we find someone who arouses our interest, we are better able to assess them from a perspective of ‘want’ rather than ‘need.’ We can mutually enjoy each other as we learn our compatibilities, commonalties, and differences. Independence buys the courage to risk romance. How many fewer divorces might we have if we dated more and married less? If breakups were considered not as failures but as successful attempts at filtering out those with whom we could not maintain happiness, would not our eventual choices of ‘keepers’ be guided by wisdom, self-confidence, and experience?

Emily was clear that she wanted, eventually, a loving, committed marriage. With the skills she has developed, and her sunny disposition, more suitors are surely on her horizon. Lucky and wise will be the man who recognizes her value. She symbolizes, I hope, the sensibility and sensitivity of Generation X.