Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Voltairean Perspective on Dating

"The perfect is the enemy of the good".

Voltaire's famous dictum has been interpreted in different ways, but I take it to mean that people can be so focused on achieving perfection that they miss the opportunity to achieve something that may be a little short of perfect but is still good and definitely more within their reach.

I see this all the time in the dating world. The determination to meet the perfect person---or at least someone without certain perceived flaws---drastically shrinks the universe of potential dating partners. People often wind up with no one, when they could have easily improved their chances of meeting someone good.

People do this in different ways. After the unhappy breakup of a marriage or other committed relationship, a lot of us become determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This certainly is understandable, but we often become so fixated on our "ex" that we automatically rule out anyone who even remotely resembles him. It's one thing to disqualify someone because he's an alcoholic or a degenerate gambler, but it's something else entirely to disqualify him because he enjoys a glass of wine with dinner, or stops off at the Indian casino once a month for a couple of hours. And yet personal ads frequently contain all-or-nothing pronouncements ("Don't reply if you're a drinker". "No gamblers, please"). Yes, someone could reply and try to make you understand that he's not a problem drinker or gambler, that he has all the other qualities you're looking for, but why bother? It's easier to move on to the next ad, and dismiss you as someone unduly hung up on that issue.

Other people are not so much fixated on the negatives as they are on the unrealistic positives. The profiles that they put up on the online dating sites are what I call wish-lists-to Santa. The man must be a good-looking, articulate, amusing, affectionate, high-achieving professional, who loves kids and cats, and is committed to social justice and vegan living. The woman must be slim, toned, sexy, smart but not intimidating, accomplished but not averse to cooking, entertaining, or keeping a clean house, and, of course, under 40.

Are there "perfect" people out there? Maybe, but how many of them need to be on dating sites? And even if someone truly is everything you say you want, he or she may well be turned off by what sounds like a lengthy list of non-negotiable demands.

The solution is to be open to possibility. Don't assume there is one---and only one---ideal "type" for you. Don't eliminate people because they remind you of your ex in some superficial way. When you write a dating profile, remember that every single thing you say about the person you hope to meet narrows the number of potential responses. Say more about yourself, and let people decide if they feel attracted enough to you to respond. And realize that even the best of us have our shortcomings and our faults. Perfection is something to aspire to in a spiritual or artistic sense, but it's not something to demand in other people.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Harmony Yes, Uniformity No!

"What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibilities".
(Leo Tolstoy)

I spoke last time about how conflict is an inevitable part of any marriage. So is incompatibility. If there are two married people out there somewhere who are perfectly compatible, I've never met them. But I have met plenty of couples who have done such a good job of minimizing their incompatibilities that everyone who knows them thinks they're perfectly compatible.

I'm speaking, though, of incompatibilities that do not involve values and life goals that are truly fundamental. For example, a person who intensely wants to have children would not be a good match for someone who is dead set against having them, no matter how compatible the couple may be in other ways. If such a couple did marry, whoever "gives in" would harbor so much resentment that any chance of a happy marriage would be doomed.

Religious beliefs are another area where the incompatibility can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome, especially if there are sharp disagreements about which religion the kids should be brought up in. Incompatibilities in the bedroom can also be quite challenging. If one spouse wants sex nearly every day, and the other is happier with once a month, the likelihood of extramarital sex---or at least the temptation to look elsewhere---increases exponentially.

I think, though, that for most couples the incompatibilities are more lifestyle in nature. Over the years, people often find new interests and go off in different directions. One spouse develops a passion for wine, or amateur theater, or ballroom dancing, or yoga, or NASCAR, which the other spouse does not share or perhaps even understand. There's nothing inherently wrong with having different interests, but many people are threatened by differences, or by change; they feel they might lose their spouse unless they become more like him. Or someone becomes so blindly enthusiatic about his new passion that he insists on "converting" his spouse to it, no matter how clear the spouse's reluctance may be.

But dragging your wife to car races, or half-heartedly going along with her to the dance class, rarely works. If a person really doesn't want to be somewhere, they'll inevitably find a way to convey their boredom or even their hostility. Instead of one happy person doing some activity, you have two miserable ones, each engaging in a form of guerrilla warfare that no one will win.

The solution, I think, is to unapologetically pursue your own passions, while encouraging your spouse to pursue his. Try to understand and respect his enthusiasms, even if they don't excite you, and learn to express your own enthusiasm without feeling the need to proselytize. True compatibility involves respecting each other's differences, not artificially denying them. You may be a couple, but each of you is and always will be an individual person. What you should be trying to achieve is harmony, not uniformity. And, you never know, maybe you'll even come to like NASCAR if it's not shoved down your throat.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Argue

"The number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict".
(Diane Sollee)

Unless you're active in the field of marriage education, you've probably never heard of Diane Sollee, but she's someone who deserves to be better known. I frequently turn to her website, http://www.smartmarriages.com/, for updates on marriage research and divorce statistics, and for Diane's own unique insights.

Diane believes---and I agree with her---that it is not only unrealistic but dangerous to think that marriage can be conflict-free. It's unrealistic because conflict is going to arise in any relationship in which people share a home, a bed, a checkbook, a family and an extended family, a past, and (presumably) a future. Even when two people are well-matched and well-intentioned, there will always be words that are misunderstood, motives that are suspect, moods that are unpredictable, and subjects that inevitably lead to arguments. Like it or not, this is normal.

Because conflict is normal, it's dangerous to pretend that is isn't. Avoiding conflict does not make it go away; it only postpones it and ensures that a discussion will turn into an argument, or an argument into a mud-slinging match. Some people are so fearful of conflict that they avoid even pleasant subjects of conversation, for fear that they will somehow deteriorate into a nasty exchange. (Diane uses the example of a New Yorker cartoon of a man and wife at a marriage counselor's office, with the caption, "We never talk anymore. We figured out that that's when we have all our fights").

So, what's the answer? How can we disagree without being disagreeable? At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that you and your spouse adhere to a few basic ground rules:

1. Keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand, not on what happened yesterday, last week, or last year. (As I say in my book, banish the phrases, "You never..." and "You always..." from your vocabulary).
2. Don't intimidate, belittle, insult, or humiliate your spouse, no matter what the offense, no matter how great the provocation. As my old parish priest used to say, "Hate the sin, love the sinner".
3. Don't blame your spouse for things that are largely out of his or her control (e.g., your wife's widowed mother who drives you crazy by calling three times a day because she's lonely).
4. Don't get into arguments after you've had a couple of drinks; they tend to turn ugly in a hurry.
5. Have a sense of proportion and a sense of humility. Write down a list of at least three things you do that your spouse has a legitimate right to complain about. Work on those things as best you can, but think about them before you open your mouth to criticize your spouse about one of his or her failings.
6. If things are still veering out of control, learn to stop and say, "This is stupid. Why are we doing this to each other?" And say it with a smile.

If you want to learn more advanced techniques, Diane's website has lists of workshops and courses all over the country that will help you to become, as she puts it, "relationship smart". But whatever you do, accept that fact that conflicts are normal even in the best of marriages.