“She’s fun and pretty.” My friend turned his phone around to show me the girl he’d been dating for a few weeks.
I could tell by his tone it wasn’t going well —
“But?” I asked.
“It’s complicated. She’s got a lot of issues.”
My friend’s a nice guy. He’s worked hard on himself — on his own personal development and emotional maturity — and he’s ready to find the one. Sound anything like you? Unfortunately, not every lovely girl or guy you meet is going to be ready for a relationship.
Three dating dynamics to avoid:
Relationships can fall into unhealthy patterns, even if you’re both wonderful people.
1. The rescue effort
Another friend of mine, Jessica, seems to draw in people with issues too. Her last boyfriend, Josh, was no different.
"He doesn't mean to offend people. He's just really struggling," she said when a group of us were out for a girls' night.
She looked drained already and they'd only been together a few weeks. Josh had a number of issues and they spent long hours talking through them. Like a lot of kind, empathetic rescuers, Jessica is a great listener with a huge heart. She could see the good things about Josh and felt sorry for him. She didn't mean to fall into a rescue role--it just happened. After a few months she realised what was happening and ended it.
The "rescue effort" is chaotic, sad, addicted, or needs help, and you’re the knight in shining armor. Both men and women can fall into the rescuer role. It’s tempting to see someone who’s vulnerable and want to help them, especially if you’re a nice person, like my friend.
If they had you to protect, support, and listen to their problems, things would get better, right? Maybe, but probably not.
It’s important when we enter into a relationship, that we come in as two autonomous people — individuals who take responsibility for ourselves, and are not unhealthily dependent on others. We can support each other through hard times, of course! But that’s a two way deal. In this dynamic you are always the rescuer.
Psychologist Mary C. Lamia Ph.D., calls this White Knight Syndrome and it leads to emotionally unhealthy relationships and disappointment.
Emotionally healthy relationships are not based around one partner trying to save the other.
2. The sparring partner
Kirsten and Tim had a ton of sexual chemistry. Their relationship felt like dynamite but not always in a good way. They were either getting it on and having a great time, or yelling at each other. Kirsten liked things her way and Tim started to feel like nothing he did was ever quite right. If everything was going well on a date, it seemed like Kirsten went out of her way to start a fight. It was exciting, they often had passionate make-up sessions, but it was hardly ever peaceful.
Some people say that sparring with your partner is a positive thing. Maybe in the boxing ring it would be, but if your partner constantly finds reasons to start a fight it doesn’t feel positive.
Often your friends and family aren’t happy about this relationship dynamic either. Constant conflict is hard to cover up and, unless you’re good at putting on a happy face, your inner circle can see you’re not having fun.
Successful relationships need more positive interactions than negative ones. Relationship researchers at the Gottman Institute say at least a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones is ideal. One negative interaction makes such a big impact on your relationship that you need five positive ones to make up for it.
A little touch on your back as you cook dinner. A “thank you” when you bring her a coffee. A smile across the room… Positive interactions don’t need to be grand gestures but they’re important.
Negative interactions are unavoidable. We can’t eliminate conflict altogether, that would be unrealistic, but most of the time that you spend with your partner should be enjoyable.
If you’re having a lot of conflict this early on in your relationship, don’t expect it to get better with time.
3. The project
They like you! Great. But…there are lots of things about you they want to change. Who you are right now is not quite good enough, but it’s okay — they know they can fix you! You’re their project and they want to shape you into the man or woman they know you can be.
I recently watched a reality show where one couple were very off-and-on. The girlfriend wanted to make it work, but her partner had a few conditions. He was an attractive, fit, successful guy--the kind of guy lots of people want to date--but he was constantly "nicely" hinting at things she should change to improve herself. He made comments about her diet and thought she needed to exercise more (even though she already ate well, exercised, and was a healthy-looking person). He slipped little pieces of advice about how she could do better at work, achieve more, into their conversations. He even gave her a gift of a cosmetic surgery voucher saying, "Just if you want to use it. You don't HAVE to." It was clear he saw her as a project and it was affecting her self-esteem. I was relieved when she left him at the end of the show!
Sure, we should all grow and improve. According to self determination theory in psychology, focusing on self-improvement goals can lead you to a better happier life. Mastering things you are interested in, or that make you feel more in control of your life and fulfilled is important. But are you really happy with your partner setting those goals for you?
Respectful partners support each other in their efforts to change and grow into better people, but they like how their partner is right now. They don’t try to change or fix them.
People tell us who they are with their actions and behavior, but we can be too blinded by attraction to see it. The early stages of love (lust and attraction) limit our ability to think clearly.
Take a good look at how your interactions have been this week. Ask yourself for honest answers:
- Are your interactions hard work, draining, full of conflict and negative?
- Do you feel energized or exhausted after spending time with your date?
- Are you rescuing?
- Are you hoping things will change?
- Do you want to be with this person long term if it carries on like this?
How your relationship is right now is a good predictor of how it will be in ten years. Sometimes the necessary and best thing to do, is let a person go.