Morning ramblings from a guy who knows little about the subject matter

“I don’t think, honestly, that we’re an animal built to be happy.  We’re an animal that was built to reproduce.  I think the happiness we find, we make.” ~ Helen Fisher, neuroscientist

I just saw a snarky video by Rebecca Watson titled “Dating Advice”.  I lol’d.  It reminded me of one of my favorite TAM talks by Helen Fisher, one of the world’s most revered authorities on the neuroscience of love.

But it got me thinking.  As somebody generally inexperienced in dating, especially compared to my atheistic peers so far as I can tell, I found myself disappointed in Rebecca’s video because I was wanting actual dating advice.

So I got to thinking about what, specifically, I wanted advice on.  It wasn’t on how to get dates or even how to have a good date.  I figure as long as you’re being yourself and you’re with somebody with similar interests, the date will be pretty keen without a whole lot of external strategy.  What I wanted advice on was how to make it hurt less – how to keep it from destroying the friendships I care about, as anything involving feelings of attachment is wont to do.

Is the solution not to become attached; to simply enjoy somebody’s company without actually needing them in your life, such that if they vanished tomorrow you’d be unmoved?  I used to think so.  I’ve spoken with Greta Christina, who I’m pretty sure has more insight on love than Shakespeare, about this subject.  Through our chats, I have reached the conclusion that attachment is part of the human condition both beautiful and grotesque.  It’s not about whether or not the attachment we feel is uplifting or destructive; it’s what we are, and we must simply learn to manage it.

So how can we manage attachment?  How do we build a safety net for our potentially hazardous, albeit thrilling, emotions?  I’ve thought about it all morning and, in my apprenticed opinion, it seems it all comes down to an idea so incomplex it can be reduced to three syllables: be honest.  If you care about somebody, tell them the truth frequently and in full.  So much of the agony of relationships/dating seems to come from mixed signals; the times when we’re faced with the choice of believing somebody’s actions or somebody’s words, and the words are less convincing.  Having to guess and deduce a person’s position in dating causes greater suffering and more personal culpability than unpleasant, but truthful knowledge.  Where there is honest disclosure, the grief of ambiguity is impossible.

Sometimes a relationship is over for one of the participants.  However, rather than end the relationship the disinterested person continues on, hoping to not hurt their partner.  Over time they build resentment, possibly even becoming angry that they are bound by their compassion to a situation they no longer wish to be a part of.  Perhaps they look at all the other people they could be dating if not for their self-imposed emotional shackle, and come to dislike their partner for not being somebody else, not realizing the entire time that the truth really could set them free.  It is important to note that in life we do not always get the choice between making somebody happy or hurting them.  Sometimes the choice is between hurting someone we care about and hurting them more.  If your goal is to never hurt your partner, you run the risk of driving both parties into a deeper hurt down the road, even if you have the best intentions.  If we’re honest without spite, we’ll have the fortitude to hurt the people we date/love as little as possible.

Honesty will keep those we care about, but for whom we have no romantic interest, from dedicating resources and time into a possible dating relationship that will never happen.  Stringing somebody along is cruel, and can only be done through unclarified, unspoken, or deceptive communication.

Also, if we’re candid with those we’re dating, can we ever really say we’ve hurt someone?  Sure, people will be hurt if we don’t reciprocate their feelings or if we are done with a relationship when they’re not, but if we fulfill our duty to be explicit with where we stand, what can be blamed but the pitilessness of the universe when half the relationship is hurt?

If we care about somebody then it seems the noblest, most tender thing we should give them, and the minimum we should give them, is not ourselves, but our honesty.  Dishonesty in dating is the apogee if both selfishness and brutality.  It is the opposite of love.

What advice on dating would you give?  Teach me something.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • dr b

    “I’m happy to offer any insight I have into women. If I ever have any, I’ll be sure to let you know” – Captain Picard.

  • http://xeroankh.blogspot.com xero ankh

    completely agree. the best thing to do is to be honest and communicate.

  • http://illinissa.com Ed Clint

    As an honest person, I can tell you honesty is often useless in dating. Of course you should never string anyone along or be deliberately misleading about your intentions. But women, at least, seem programmed to assume everything you do is a lie until about 6 months after the wedding.

    I’ve had several very difficult conversations end with me, exasperated, saying “I told you all of this months ago, from the start” and hearing back “I didn’t believe you”.

    So guys, feel free to lie as much as you like in the beginning. The truth, whatever it is, can probably just screw you up. Tell them you’re a lion-tamer/stunt pilot. That’s what it says on my new business cards. We’re all so guarded and cynical, it won’t make any difference anyway.

  • Andora

    “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”

  • http://writefelice.blogspot.com Felice

    First of all, Andora: YES.

    I have to wholeheartedly agree, JT. I had to learn all of these basics the hard way, which is probably the right way to learn them. I THOUGHT I had already learned this, and so I’d be the Relationship Master. And it seemed that way in my first relationship for a long time, and it worked really well, actually. But it’s surprising how, even when I WAS very, very honest, both of us were, and I thought I was being completely honest, I really was lying to myself and my partner in the things that mattered once. Some very painful and unexpected things had to happen for me to realize it and finally do what I really wanted. And it turned out pretty good for me; now I’ve learned how to better implement what I already knew was the right thing to do.

    So I’d only caution that honesty probably IS the most important thing in relationships, be they close friendships, casual dating, or even marriages. BUT even knowing that, and learning it through experience, it’s impossible for us to practice it always and have perfect relationships. If we’re lucky, we can have relationships that work REALLY well and make us really fucking happy. But we’re very imperfect, and so we’re going to mess up plenty and sometimes our relationships will suffer for it, in awful ways sometimes. That’s probably just common sense, but I hope it isn’t patronizing. :)

  • http://writefelice.blogspot.com Felice

    whoops, i meant “I really was lying to myself and my partner in the things that mattered MOST.” sorry >_>

  • http://www.sbsoapbox.blogspot.com/ Susi

    100% honesty definitely. For me, not being in the dating scene so long, I would tell you that it’s important to see dating for it actually is – a time to get to know a person or people to figure out who you really want to commit to in a serious relationship. When I was younger, I didn’t ‘date’ well because as soon as a man asked me out, it was a relationship. Took me a while to learn that it wasn’t and I was worth more than what they thought of me.

  • jannypie

    JT, you’re absolutely right that honesty is the core of any good, functional relationship- psychologists and advice columnists alike have stated this for decades. I don’t really agree with the conclusion you draw at the end, that if you are honest you can say you never hurt someone. However, your question about getting involved without getting hurt is something that is central to nearly all human relationships (at least among people who do not have personality disorders). And that is just the thing: you can’t open your heart to someone without the possibility of hurt. That is why love is so scary, and yet so rewarding when you meet someone who takes your vulnerability and cherishes it, and returns it with theirs. That trusting connection is what romantics all over the world dream about.

    One thing that this post about honesty doesn’t take into account, though, is that people are not perfect, and neither is communication. I think that relationships absolutely must have honesty, and also an understanding and forgiveness when you yourself or the other person makes a mistake. Absolutely no one is perfect. For one, there are countless situations where hurt could develop and it isn’t at all because of someone being consciously dishonest. Perhaps one person’s feelings change, but they don’t even recognize it until it has so changed their behavior that they have caused hurt in the relationship. Hind-sight is 20-20 for a reason: so often it simply just takes time for someone to be able to look back at the whole of a period of time and say, “Oh, I see now that I felt such-and-such a way. But in the moment, I couldn’t see that.” And secondly, mis-communication, mis-interpretations and just plain poor interpersonal skills can and do cause confusion in relationships, without either person being actively dishonest. Yes, you mention that the honesty must be clear and straightforward, but you might think you’re being that way and actually giving all kinds of mixed signals anyway. For example, a guy might be incredibly flirtatious as a personality trait but not actually interested in a female friend. He may indicate verbally that they are just friends, but not realize that his actions are giving her other information. 90% of all communication is non-verbal, so all a person must realize that their actions and their words don’t always send the same messages. And, again, people are not perfect, and may often not know this about themselves. In addition, people change. Maybe the guy starts out saying he wants to only be friends, but gradually grows to have feelings. Are they being intentionally dishonest? Not at all. Is the other person at fault for “mis-interpreting”? Not at all. They’re not perfect either, they can’t read their friend’s mind. It’s just human nature.

    And so in an ideal world, yes, it would be great if you said “I want this and this and this from our relationship and I feel this and this way” and the other person responded in kind, and you both had clear knowledge and it worked out perfectly. But people are imperfect, communication is imperfect, and there has to be a little forgiveness when, even despite your best efforts, hurt happens.

    Which brings me back to opening yourself up to hurt. You say here, and have told me in person, that you at least if not currently feel that your stance on relationships is that of “enjoying their company without needing them” and then at any point where that enjoyment is not the same, you move on. There is a word for that kind of relationship: friendship. Maybe friends with sex, but that description is only on the level of friends. There is no deeper emotional connection. That kind of cautious protection of your heart is totally understandable. We as a society get hurt. It happens. And very, very often, the personal reaction or conclusion to that is to wall yourself off. To find a level of interaction that meets some of your needs, but keeps that essential “you” safely kept away.

    Nobody likes to get hurt.

    And so they remain, isolated in their hearts. For some people, that’s okay. They are okay with that level of sharing, and really don’t feel the need for anything else. If that’s how you are, then be okay with it, and find someone who also is the same way with themselves. Plenty of couples live completely happy in this mutual connection. I, personally, cannot do that, but it’s okay for others. For those of us who like the emotional connection though, we have to have the courage to open up.

    It’s scary as hell. And people make mistakes. And yes, you are likely to get hurt. For people like that, you can’t be so afraid of hurt that you never take a chance. You have take chances on people. To do that, takes a mix of self-awareness, bravery, infinite patience, acceptance, pickiness, and, yes, honesty. You have to know that the vast majority of people you meet just won’t meet your needs. You have to know that you are putting yourself out there with the risk of getting hurt, and be okay with it. When you do get hurt, you have to not bottle it up or build resentment or anger about it. You feel the hurt, learn what you can from the situation, grow and know better for the next time, and then you let it go. You don’t take it on to the next relationship and let it build, but really let it go. You have to be very careful about who you decide to let in. Know them very, very well. Take all the time you need. Yes, you may invest a lot of time and then decide that person isn’t for you. But that’s what it takes. Know this and be patient. You also have to be genuinely looking for someone worthwhile. You can’t be looking for some superficial idea of the perfect person for you, “Oh here is someone gorgeous and smart and funny, they are just right for me!” You have to REALLY know yourself and what is going to make you happy, and not get distracted with “nice-enoughs”. There is a surprising amount of really good people in the world, nice-enoughs, with whom you can spend a goodly amount of time and quite enjoy yourself. Those types of relationships have a higher risk of hurt, however, because they overlook the not-quite-rightnesses, which have a habit of becoming serious issues later on.

    I know that this got to be kind of long, but I’m sharing because you asked in such a way that made me think you at least consider having a deeper relationship at times. It’s not about thinking there’s “that one special person” or soul-mates, it’s not about being co-dependent and “needing” another person on an unhealthy level, or about being hooked on that “in love” feeling and bouncing recklessly through lives, leaving broken hearts and tears. It’s about opening your inner person up to another, risking their judgement, risking their dislike, showing all the little bits and pieces of who you are, and not having it judged or disliked or mocked, but having you loved for every little bit. Having someone take your trust and cherish it and protect it. And you doing the same in return, creating a bond that is deeper than friendship or friendship-with-sex or anything else you could attain while keeping yourself protected from hurt. Is it guaranteed to last forever? Not at all. It may change or grow or die or fade. Don’t lose yourself completely in it. If that happens, have the strength of mind to know you can roll all those bits back up and move on again. That’s a level of self-assuredness that will keep you from co-dependency you need anyway. But the capacity for that level of depth in a relationship is one of the things that makes us most human. It’s completely unique to the people involved, because no other person is exactly you, or them. It will never be replicated in just the same way. It is special. And that is why it is love.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Paul Adams

    As someone who’s been married and had a couple of serious long-term relationships beside that, my best advice is this. Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with, and embark upon a lengthy relationship with, a fundamentalist Christian who is in every way except the glaringly obvious one your absolute ideal partner. Biggest mistake I ever made, still reeling from it.

    Aside from that I do believe that honesty is paramount. If you feel you can’t be 100% honest with someone then maybe they’re not really for you. Also, the vast majority of relationships do end and this hurts. A lot. Love is the greatest thing around but its sudden removal is worse than any drug withdrawal. Be prepared for this! I’m not even thinking about women again for a long time cause I can’t take another round just yet…

  • http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/indexExp_111189.htm Jeffrey Eldred

    Honesty is very important.

    My other piece of advice would be to give your heart away to people. I think you do this very well, actually, but I think the more we do it the better our lives are. I’ve learned that if I let myself love someone, let myself enjoy their company, and let myself grow attached than I can survive the fall out if it goes sour. Knowing that I gave it my best shot lets me recover from a break-up, because I know that there is nothing that person has left to teach me. And falling deeply for someone also shows me how attached I can grow to people and makes me confident I can do it again.

    You don’t know it yet, JT, but I very much suspect your biggest problem will be picking between all the girls who would love to have you.

  • http://kirkaug.com kirkaug

    Very good JT. Sounds like you have the key figured out.

    Whenever someone tells me that they cannot find anyone and they have tried everything, I tell them that their problem is trying. Usually “trying” to find a mate means not being oneself. The best advice I can give these people is to do what they do and live their lives as they enjoy living. That is the only way to find a relationship that you want to be in long term. It is all about honesty.

  • http://episcopalianplanetearth.blogspot.com/ Mario

    Dear JT,

    I agree with one of the last comments: “to give your heart away..”

    Also, I always say “live in the moment”. And I don’t mean that tomorrow does not matter (a common misunderstanding) but that tomorrow does not exist, yet.

    Honesty is important, but you must do it now.
    Communication is important, but you must do it now.

    Do what I believe you already do: enjoy every moment of life, so enjoy every moment with her to the fullest, from one to the other. From the quiet night chatting over coffee or wine, to the crazy yet fun stuff! And true, the next moment your heart may be broken (God I know how that feels *sigh*) but perhaps the next moment will lead to wonderful possibilities :)

    I have found that the more risk you take, for sure it can break you. But I have also found that the more risk you take it can blow you away. Look at me! I once took the risk of leaving my beloved island (huge, huge risk) to another place with a different language, a different culture, etc. But among the painful moments since then, there are so many wonderful moments; one of those moments took the “shape” of my little girl, and in the present moment with the wonderful woman in my life now :)

    And if it works be ready to accept her as she is, no more, no less. That way you will not fall into the trap of seeing in her an image of you. She is simply “ella”, her. And of course, may she also accept you as you are.

    Oh right, sense of humor is always important. But you already know that, Señor Ebehard ;)


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