Relationships and dating

Besides our need for food, water, warmth, and shelter, there is no desire sobasic as our wish to have loving relationships with other people. In fact, numerous scientific studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between goodhealth and maintaining close relationships--and even just interacting in a positive way with other people. Infants deprived of relating to their mothersor other caretakers often fail to thrive, drawing in on themselves and beginning a downward spiral that can result in maladjustment, severe neuroses, andeven death. Thus, finding and nurturing positive relationships is a key stepwe can take to ensure health and well-being. Paradoxically, however, doing socan also be one of the most difficult, complex, and frustrating human experiences. To make matters worse, many people have an unconscious (and erroneous)expectation that once they find their "perfect" mate, life with them will beblissful, easy, and completely fulfilling.

Most of us take for granted our first relationships--those with our mothers.Ideally, our mothers give us a sense of security, unconditional love, praise,encouragement, and guidance, in addition to fulfilling the multitude of physical requirements that a baby has everyday. Our fathers may provide us with those things as well, but because we are carried inside our mothers and listento their hearts beat for months before they begin feeding us from their ownbodies, we usually have a special bond with them. Rarely, though, will thingsever again be so simple.

In many societies, first-born infants frequently enjoy a period of time in which their parents focus exclusively on them, their needs, and their every whim and facial gesture. The baby is the center of that small universe and, notunreasonably, comes to expect that life will always be so. Should its parentsdecide to have other children, however, this idyllic scene rapidly yields toone that reflects real life much more accurately. Now, for the first time, the first-born child feels that he or she must compete with the new sibling for the parents' attention. Perhaps for the first time, the child realizes thatthe world is not entirely dedicated to meeting his or her needs. There is frustration, anger, resentment, jealousy, and hurt, perhaps even alongside blossoming feelings of love for the new brother or sister. This conflicting flareof emotions is often what serves as our introduction to the world of human relationships.

For most people, adolescence is another time of dramatic change in how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. For instance, the emphasis begins to shift from looking at peers as potential friends to suddenly noticing their sexual attractiveness and wondering whether to ask them for a date or to acceptsuch an offer. The insecurity and surging hormones of adolescence combine tomake these first romantic relationships intense, sometimes frightening, andalways exhilarating. Yet they serve an important purpose: to give us our first lessons in the trials and rewards of establishing commitment to and involvement with a nonfamily member in a romantic context.


The primary training ground for learning about how to initiate and maintain intimate relationships is the social ritual known as dating. Although this practice varies widely according to country, religion, and other factors, the basic purpose is usually the same--to allow two people to get to know each other, with a view toward possibly establishing a romantic relationship. This relationship may or may not include sex, but it will likely include a degree ofintimacy in the form of talking about "everything" for hours on end, touchingand caressing, and looking deep into each other's eyes with no thought of the passing time. Such absorption in another person, and to have someone so absorbed in us, is what many people yearn for and search for over and over againdespite numerous failed romances and even marriages. Dating remains the mostcommon avenue for finding potential partners to fulfill this basic human need.

Although dating can be nerve-wracking, many people look forward to dates witha sense of excitement and hope as well. Some wonder, "Will this person be the one for me?" Others hope only for a night or two of noncommittal sex beforemoving on to the next romantic encounter. Of course, such widely varying outlooks frequently result in hurt feelings and misunderstandings--especially when sex enters into the picture.

In general, there are considerable differences in how men and women react tothe issue of sex. For instance, many women will only have sex with a man oncethey have decided to enter into a longstanding relationship. Conversely, many men seem to be more interested in having sex than in establishing a committed relationship. According to numerous sociological and biological studies, these gender tendencies suggest that women are evolutionarily programmed to beconcerned with finding a mate who will stay with her and care for her and her offspring, while men are programmed to want to distribute their genes as widely as possible. This large difference in how men and women view sex is bound to cause problems in how they relate to each other.

The discrepancy is often highly visible in the dating process. Despite the women's liberation movement that started in the 1960s and the steps toward professional and personal equality that women have taken since then, there remains evidential support for the stereotype of the groping male and the reluctantfemale. In regard to dating, one of the problems is the persistence of the social rituals, stemming from the stereotypical role of the male as aggressorand provider, that the man should ask the woman out and then pay for whateverthe date consists of, rather than vice versa. This sets up a dynamic that one study has called an "exchange system," in which the man often expects the woman to have sex with him to compensate him for his time and money. These rituals breed resentment in the male, who may feel that he spent something for nothing, and in the female, who understandably dislikes being expected to trade her sexual favors for a dinner or other form of "payment."

Thus, dating can come to feel like an endless game played between the defensive, sexually vulnerable female and the aggressive, sexually exploitative male. In addition, there are all the other games people often play while dating,such as misrepresenting themselves, pretending to enjoy themselves, or tryingto gain the upper hand in the new relationship, that make dating an ordeal for some people. Also, insecurity and nervousness can make the social ritual anightmare some would rather forgo, even if it means being alone. For these reasons, many people seek the comparative shelter of marriage as quickly as possible, although this, ostensibly, is the ultimate goal of dating anyway. Yetother people enjoy dating and find meeting new people this way to be exciting and productive.

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Dating

For homosexuals and bisexuals, dating and its attendant challenges can be even more complicated. There are many myths surrounding the topic of gay and bisexual dating that even gay and bisexual people still believe. For instance, many gay men remain convinced that a long-term, monogamous relationship is impossible for them. This is based on the stereotype of the gay men as a sexualpredator who wants nothing more than quick sex with no strings attached. While it is true that many gay men, like many heterosexual men, avoid intimacy and expressing their emotions and so resort to sex and sexuality as their primary means of communication, it is inaccurate to say that they cannot commit toa partner for the long term. One of the reasons for the perpetuation of thismyth is that gay couples in long-term relationships are more likely to be secret, since they are also more likely to be older and to have grown up in a time when homosexuality was even more frowned upon than it is at the start ofthe 21st century. Also, many gay men who relieve themselves of their burden of secrecy by "coming out" (openly realizing and revealing their sexual nature) feel such sudden freedom that they may tend to go overboard in expressing their sexuality. They may run through a series of sex partners in rapid succession, lending support, at least in others' eyes, to the stereotype of the hypersexual gay male. Newly "out" women may engage in such excessive behavior aswell, although this seems to happen to a lesser degree.

Another myth about gays and lesbians that makes dating worrisome concerns theissue of gender identification. Along with heterosexuals, many homosexuals believe that they must take either the traditional female or male role in a relationship, and that therefore they must confine their search for a partner to people who seem to embody their gender complement. In reality, however, homosexuals are just as varied as heterosexuals in exhibiting the characteristics that we consider stereotypically masculine or feminine.

In terms of dating as a means of finding a life partner, though, it does appear that homosexual women have a somewhat better chance of success than homosexual men. For instance, records show that lesbians register more same-partnermarriages, while most statistical reports indicate that more lesbians are inlong-term relationships than gay men. Frequency of sex in lesbian relationships can also be problematic, because many women are socially programmed to bepassive recipients of sexual overtures, rather than initiators of contact. Finding and committing to an appropriate partner is difficult for people of all sexual orientations. The 49% divorce rate for heterosexual couples in 1989is ample evidence of that fact, and suggests that there is nothing inherent in heterosexuality itself that guarantees the health or longevity of a relationship.

The Power Struggle

Whether a couple is heterosexual or homosexual, many experts feel that the biggest, potentially most divisive issue they will have to face is power, or control. This struggle frequently comes up as the initial glow of romance begins to fade--reality and everyday aspects of life start to intrude on the new couple's briefly insulated microcosm. Power issues commonly center on two mainareas: money and sex. In a heterosexual relationship, the man will often make more money than the female. Since earning money confers power because it can buy necessary goods and services, the woman will feel less powerful--even if she spends her time in such valuable, though unpaid, pursuits as raising the couple's children and caring for the home. She may even feel guilty about spending her husband's money, which can lead to strong resentment of her perceived role as the less powerful partner. Resentment oftentimes leads to a power struggle over sex, where the person who perceives him- or herself as the less powerful person will withhold sex as a way to increase control. This generates other problems, since sex is an important means of communicating intimacy and love.

The Fear of Intimacy

Intimacy is another area where couples often get into trouble. The main reason for this seems to be that many people are terrified of becoming very closeto another person, thus letting someone else see the "real" them, because they are afraid of being vulnerable, hurt, and rejected. This is one of the paradoxes of close relationships--that what we most want (intimacy) is what we most fear. It is not unusual for people to go through multiple marriages to avoid becoming truly intimate with a partner, all the while mourning that they cannot seem to find the right person with whom to share their lives. These people, in effect, reject their partners before (they imagine) their partners can reject them. Granted, many people merely make poor choices when finding a mate, but the fear of intimacy is a powerful force that can prevent otherwisepromising relationships from reaching their full potential.

As mentioned above, men have a special handicap in the area of intimacy thatrequires them to work even harder to maintain a quality relationship, whetherheterosexual or homosexual. Frequently encouraged from birth to be stoic and"tough," men often have a hard time even identifying their feelings, much less being able to express them openly and effectively with a partner. This expression is essential to intimacy, since an accurate understanding of our partner's feelings helps us know what is going well in the relationship and whatneeds work.

One barrier to intimacy that seems to apply especially to women is the tendency to believe, unconsciously or not, that their partners should somehow "justknow" what they need, want, or mean without their having to explain or be specific. This may be a product of the "perfect relationship" myth, in which people expect that once they have settled down with a partner, life will be idyllic and trouble free without any effort at all. In reality, relationships are hard work, though immensely rewarding. Taking responsibility for communicating what you need, want, or mean is one of the keys to a healthy relationshipand helps partners avoid misunderstanding and disappointment.

Intimacy has become even easier to avoid since the Internet has come into widespread use. While there is no disputing that the Internet has made communication much more convenient and, some would argue, more effective, there is ample evidence that it is also changing how we relate to each other. For example, some people use the Internet as an excuse to spend long periods of time away from their significant others, even while in the same room. It has also become possible to "communicate" extensively online, spending hours e-mailing or"talking" in chat rooms and discussion forums where the intrinsic anonymityand personal distance make many people feel safer and more confident. Peopleeven look for dates online, perhaps starting friendships or romances via e-mail--all from the safety of their own homes and offices. Personality, appearance, social skills--all the traditional criteria so crucial to that all-important first date--are virtually irrelevant in the world of electronic communication if one can craft a witty, appealing e-mail. Unless the correspondents decide to meet in person, they need never become vulnerable or intimate with each other.

Communication Differences

In addition to the issues surrounding intimacy, there is some debate about whether men and women have different ways of communicating, and, if so, whetherthis makes their love relationships even more problematic. The title of author John Gray's book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, exemplifies the common feeling that the sexes' communication methods are polar opposites. The fact that this book almost immediately became a bestseller when it came out in 1992 suggests that people are bothered enough by gender communication differences to want to learn how the "other half" thinks. Another book, Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand, about how men and women arepractically members of different cultures and suffer all the communication problems characteristic of such a situation, was a number-one bestseller in 1990. It continues to be popular as a tool for couples and others who want to improve communication with the opposite sex.

How We Choose Our Partners

The majority of people are vitally interested in finding, maintaining, and improving their primary love relationships. This leads many to buy "self-help"books such as those mentioned above, to join discussion groups, or to seek individual or couples therapy. In all of these resources, there is likely to beextensive analysis of what attracted the two people to each other in the first place. For instance, some psychological theories suggest that people onlychoose mates who are similar to their own parents, i.e., a woman will choosea man who reminds her, usually subconsciously, of her father, while a man islikely to choose a woman very like his mother. The reasoning behind this theory is that people are far more comfortable aligning themselves with somethingfamiliar, even if that paradigm is unhealthy or patently damaging. In this scenario, a woman might choose to marry a man who is not affectionate toward her because that was her experience with her father, even though the experience was hurtful and detrimental. In fact, the original psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, believed that when two lovers talk, their conversation actually involves four people.

In addition, most experts feel that the quality of our romantic relationshipsas adults depends on how we experienced and perceived our parent's relationships as children. If two people whose respective parents were distant with each other meet and fall in love, their manner with each other is likely also to be distant. On the other hand, conflict can occur when one member of the couple had parents who were loving and affectionate with each other, while theother's were bitter and solitary; each person will have different expectations of what it means to be married.

People enter into relationships for all kinds of bad reasons. They may believe that opposites attract, and although while this may be true, it rarely forms the basis of lasting relationships. They may feel attracted to someone whoseems to need their help in some way, drawing on the ancient human desire tobe needed, although the appeal of "rescuing" or "fixing" someone is nothing to base a relationship on. They may feel that they should be with a certain person because he or she is handsome or beautiful, makes a lot of money, or hasmany important friends, although such criteria are seldom good indicators ofa person's value. Some people settle for someone they are less than happy with because they feel they may never do any better.

Relationships are complex, living organisms that require much care and attention. Whether romantic or not, they are essential to living a fulfilling, healthy life. Although they sometimes cause grief, anger, frustration, and anxiety, they also represent important avenues for growth and can bring the most rewarding human experiences.

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