OPINION: The Secret to Dating Differently

Crystal Jackson

Photo byInes Piazzese on Unsplash

There’s a universal truth when it comes to interpersonal interactions. If you change one person’s behavior, you change everything. Family systems theory supports this. We are all impacted by others in subtle ways we often don’t realize. So, if we want to change the game, we have to change the player — and the only player we can genuinely change is ourselves.

Dating is the perfect example. I used to have repeated negative experiences with online dating. They were so similar that I began to believe the game, in this case online dating, was the problem. I didn’t realize that it was my choices influencing the outcomes. If I encountered the same players over and over, I assumed the dating world was inundated with them. I didn’t assume I was overlooking red flags and being drawn to people with those characteristics.

“It’s rare for a toxic person to change their behavior. More often, the only thing that varies is their target and the blame they place. Because some toxic people are difficult to identify, keep in mind that a victim mindset is sometimes a red flag. So, listen when someone talks about their life and circumstances. If the list of people they blame is long… it’s probably only a matter of time before you’re on that list.”
~Steve Maraboli

I couldn’t change any of them. We can never truly change other people. We can only change ourselves. I began to look at my own patterns of behavior. I took a closer look for red flags and began honoring them rather than ignoring them. I listened to my intuition even when it didn’t make sense to anyone else. I was fully present in conversations — listening to what was being said and not projecting what I wanted to hear. I changed the player (myself) and changed the game (my dating experiences).

When we find ourselves repeating patterns at work, in dating, or even in our families, we have to look at ourselves if we want anything to change. No one else is going to come along and fix what’s bothering us. We have to figure out what choices we’re making that keep leading us to the same lessons we’ve never learned.

My last online dating experience wasn’t good. I was benched while someone else pursued another connection. I didn’t enjoy that experience, but I was able to communicate effectively about it. When the first date was canceled because “something came up”, I was clear that I wasn’t interested in a second attempt at a first date. I knew that another option was being considered, and I just didn’t want to be someone’s backup plan. Maybe if he’d met me first, things would have been different, but there’s no way to know for sure. Instead, I accepted what is and moved on.

Even though it wasn’t a great interaction for me, it’s still worlds away from the toxic interactions I used to have. It wasn’t ideal, but it was at least handled maturely. I stopped entertaining the prospective candidates who only recognize flirting when it’s filled with innuendo, and I began talking to people capable of having in-depth conversations. The world of dating did not change. I did.

When an interaction begins to remind me of a past one, I ask myself if there’s something I’m ignoring — a fact I’m choosing to overlook. I’ve gotten better about facing up to the truth even when the fantasy is far more attractive. I don’t toy with partners who aren’t a good fit for me. It’s not kind to me or to them either. I’ve learned to move on and to allow them to move on, too.

How to Change the Player

There are some basic rules for going about this shift in perspective. In no particular order, here are some of the tenets of this philosophy:

Set Priorities

The first thing I had to do was figure out what I wanted — and what I don’t. I do want chemistry, but I want it paired with compatibility. I’m looking for kindness, a sense of humor, shared interests, and similar values. I had to figure out the green flags I was looking for and the red flags I should avoid.

“If something on the inside is telling you that someone isn’t right for you, they’re NOT right for you, no matter how great they might look on paper. When it’s right for you, you will know. And when it’s not — it’s time to go.”
~Mandy Hale

Block Assumptions

I chose to quit a particular narrative — one where I would assume the motivations of another human being. I stopped making assumptions. I stopped judging others. I started acknowledging red flags and heeding them without trashing the other person. I blocked my own assumptions and began to get more curious about my reactions and perspectives. Was dating trash — or was I ignoring red flags and then getting mad when I couldn’t ignore them anymore? When I stopped making assumptions, I stopped blaming other people for my poor experiences.

“The red flags are usually there, you just have to keep your eyes open wider than your heart.”
~April Mae Monterrosa

Embrace Personal Growth

Blah, blah, love yourself. Blah, blah, work on yourself. We’ve heard it all before. My choice to embrace personal growth wasn’t to improve my love life. It was to improve my life. I stopped waiting for a partner to make big life decisions. I decided to create the life I wanted and trust that the right partner will be compatible with it.

Part of embracing personal growth meant doing the hard work that most of us simply don’t want to do. I had to face and feel my feelings. I had to deal with relationships that have never gotten the closure I wanted. I had to face the ways I had caused harm, however unintentionally, and figure out how to be a better person. I had to heal even though the work of healing hurt. I didn’t do any of that as a prerequisite for a relationship. I did it because I needed it for myself — to be a kinder, better person.

“Don’t beat yourself up because you thought the red flags were a cry for help instead of a warning signal.”
~Christine E. Szymanski

Believe in Possibilities

I had to stop telling myself that what I want doesn’t exist. Of course it does. Just because I haven’t found it yet doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It could be a matter of timing. I don’t know, and it’s not for me to know. Even though I’ve been hurt so many times, I still wake up and choose to believe in possibilities. My heart is open to love even though I fear being hurt. Both of those things are true and exist simultaneously. I’m not fearless. I just know that love, when it’s real, is worth it.

“As you remove toxic people from your life, you free up space and emotional energy for positive, healthy relationships.”
~John Mark Green

Be the Change

At the end of the day, I have to live with the choices I make. I can’t complain about the dating culture if I’m contributing negatively to it. I have a responsibility to be the change I want to see. It starts with me. With you. With all of us. We cannot shift a culture when we are unwilling to do anything differently than what we’ve always done before. I’m choosing to date a little differently because I have no interest in learning the same lessons over and over again. Maybe I’ll learn some new ones instead.

“I have to remember it is not love that has hurt me; but someone who could not love me in the right way.”
~R. YS Perez

A True Game Changer

I am not the same person who logged onto online dating for the first time and created an account. That person was freshly divorced and had no idea what she was doing. I hadn’t done any of the healing work. I was just trying to move on and live my life.

Years later, after coming out of a long-term relationship, I was ready to face all the trauma in my life that lived under the surface of every interaction. I was tired of hurting, tired of loving to no avail, and tired of feeling like I was alone and always would be. After months of trauma therapy, I decided to try again — to open myself up to the possibilities.

“Don’t let outside circumstances diminish your inner fire. Adapt, adjust, and keep the romance alive.”
~Steve Maraboli

Nothing changed and everything did. I didn’t get into a new relationship, but I also didn’t have terrible experiences. I got to experience online dating from a fresh perspective. If nothing else, it renewed my hope. It showed me that if you can change the player, you can change the whole game.

Originally published in Change Your Mind Change Your Life

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA

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