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Navigating the Dating Scene

Navigating the Dating Scene

Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
January 23, 2006

The world of dating can be exhilarating and life-affirming, with the anticipation of our finding a loving, caring counterpart who will validate our needs, demonstrate interest in knowing us, and share time, experiences, affection, and intimacy. Yet for others, we envision dating with trepidation -- anticipating a certain inability to adequately gauge the character of a partner, such that we fear becoming too emotionally connected, too trusting, and "in too deep" -- only to ultimately be left by our partner. Indeed, some degree of "risk" is always involved in dating; for clearly, we must enter into a relationship and get connected to a partner in order to evaluate the "potential match". But for many of us, it is precisely the issue of getting "in too deep" - both emotionally and physically, that makes the potential risk of an ultimate break-up so distressing. 

How do we avoid our emotions taking off too quickly in the early stages of dating so we can lessen the severity of loss in the event that incompatibilities emerge that encourage one partner or the other to leave the relationship? The answer lies in part in understanding what exactly infatuation is and isn't - and how to moderate its tendencies, thereby enabling us to get to know and evaluate our partner more comprehensively before moving too quickly towards sexual intimacy and/or hasty pronouncements of commitment. 

While infatuation differs from sexual attraction (the former can be felt with only one person at a time, while sexual attraction can be felt towards, and acted upon with more than one person at a time), both tend to interfere with our conscientiously learning about our partner. The excitatory sensations associated with infatuation often propel us quickly toward sexual intimacy - something that is further encouraged by our culture's powerful messages (mainly through popular media), espousing sexual gratification. Both infatuation and sexual activity involve the release of potent neurotransmitters that bathe our psyches with powerful, exhilarating side effects. And so, we receive a one-two punch of chemical information - a veritable love potion, that often confuses us into thinking that we have found true love. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that we tend to downplay the importance of discriminatorily paying attention to information gathering about our partner ("head knowledge") that indeed might signal significant incompatibilities. And yet, it is precisely this head knowledge that we must attend to. For the information infatuation yields ultimately bears no resemblance whatsoever to true, lasting love. Rather, it simply suggests chemical compatibility - or what is commonly called "chemistry". 

Significant brain research in recent years has shed light on the "biology of infatuation." It appears that in the early stages of attraction, three powerful neurotransmitters -- phenylethylamine (with qualities similar to amphetamines), dopamine, and norepinephrine, flood the brain's neural network, causing an overwhelming sense of euphoria. Familiar excitatory side effects associated with this euphoria include a highly positive (bordering on exultant) outlook, increased energy, an expansive spirit, a decreased need for sleep, and decreased appetite. The intensity and expansiveness of mood accounts for the phenomenon of our seemingly "losing our heads" in the throes of passionate infatuation, and exhibiting behaviors we would otherwise deem distressing such as risking work deadlines to spend time with our partner, cutting corners on sleep and work preparation, last-minute altering of plans with close friends and/or family -- and even cheating on our spouse in affair instances. 

Bathed in this "love cocktail" of powerful neurotransmitters, the amygdala, the brain's inhibition center, is rendered ineffectual. And so, it becomes easy for us to deduce that we have found "our true soul-mate" just days into a relationship, and that no one on earth could possibly have experienced anything as powerful as what we are experiencing. Yet, feelings of rapturous, romantic love, borne of the release of these powerful neurotransmitters, are indeed felt the world over. 

In fact, research is now positing that the chemistry of infatuation may be based on the universal principle of survival of the species. It appears that the human lymphocyte antigen (HLA), part of the DNA structure, works in the service of the immune system to detect disease. Our HLA seems to propel us towards a partner with a differing HLA - in an attempt to provide our offspring the most comprehensive and robust immunity against the widest array of diseases. So the chemistry involved in initial mate attraction may actually be a physiological response sent by the brain. The mechanism with which the brain deciphers HLA appears to be through scent - specifically body odor. And so, perhaps the most-underrated of our five senses, the sense of smell, may be instrumental in the powerful initial attraction that draws partners together in romantic coupling- all in the "less sexy" service of species survival! 

What this brain research implies is the very sobering fact that it is possible to feel potent, euphoric chemistry towards a totally unsuitable long-term mate -- someone who in short time we may deem "a jerk." For infatuation appears to be about chemical information pure and simple. It is primarily about bringing together two biologically suited individuals. And it does not in any way predict a successful long-term relationship. 

The practical implications of the above findings are that during the initial early stages of a relationship, we need to "keep our heads" - devoting systematic attention to learning about our partner. While we cannot stop (nor would we want to!) the euphoric feelings that infatuation unleashes, we must try not to read too much into them. We must slow down sexual bonding and prematurely fantasizing about a future with our partner in order to enable ourselves to focus on getting a comprehensive read on his or her personality traits, belief systems, and lifestyle preferences. In other words, amidst the wonderful, dizzying effects of infatuation's potent chemical release, we must inject some sobering conversation about real issues into the equation! 

So, what should we be attending to as we try to get to know our partner? Below is a sampling of the kinds of important questions worth exploring. 

  • How does he handle his emotions? 

  • How spiritual is she; and how does her spirituality impact the fabric of her day-to-day life? 

  • How does he think about and handle money? 

  • What is her overall sex drive like (apart from what she experiences in the beginning of relationships?) 

  • Is he comfortable expressing affection? And if so, how does he prefer to do so - through words, through affectionate touching, in public? 

  • Does she enjoy sports, attending sports events, theater, museum-going? 

  • Does he like pets? 

  • Is she interested in having children? If so, how many? 

  • What does he feel strongly about (politics, religion, his work, making money, volunteer work, etc.) - and how does that impact his day-to-day life? 

  • Does she drink? If so, how often? 

  • Does he find it important to have time alone, or with friends apart from me? 

  • How important is her job; and does it tend to keep her occupied well into the evening? 

  • Does he enjoy travel in general, foreign travel, spending time at the ocean, adventure vacations, touring vacations, relaxing vacations? 

  • What is her relationship to her family of origin? And how often does she spend time with them, call them on the phone, go to them for advice? 

In addition to exploring such questions, it is important to examine communication skills. How defensive is she? When we disagree, is he interested in working collaboratively towards a solution "in the gray area" - or is he always advocating for his own point-of-view? Does she speak to me in a non-aggressive, non-scornful tone - even when we are struggling with different points-of-view? Does he invalidate my feelings, or does he work to understand them? One reason that communication skills are so important is that differences in compatibility and belief systems do not have to be "deal-breakers" in partner selection. Partners may have very different preferences and styles, for example. But if they can come to some accommodation that speaks to each of their needs and preferences, such differences can add spice to the relationship, rather than erode it. 

Over time, if there is an open-ness to exploring important relationship questions, each partner should arrive at an accumulation of knowledge that provides a dependable measure by which to evaluate the other. If we like the overall image that emerges, we should feel increasingly secure in demonstrating higher levels of emotional bonding and commitment (words and gestures of love) and physical bonding (sexual intimacy). If, on the other hand, we are not satisfied with the information we are gleaning about our partner, it will be important not to surge ahead with words of love and/or physical bonding that bear no resemblance to the quality of "head knowledge" we are accumulating.

Essentially, we want to keep the elements of emotional bonding, physical/sexual bonding, and information gathering in a sort of "developmental sync" - not allowing the first two to get too far ahead of the third. For not only is satisfaction in the compatibility/likeability category that which will ultimately sustain us long after the initial glorious bliss of infatuation wears off. But focused attention to information gathering early in a relationship will lessen the potential of our getting "in too deep" too quickly with a partner, as we embrace the world of dating. 

A final note: Partners may find it "unwieldy" to pursue exploratory conversations regarding compatibilities, preferences, and the like on their own. Or they may not feel disciplined enough to regularly initiate such discussions. In such instances, several sessions of couple therapy may provide a helpful forum for systematically exploring important areas of compatibility with the aid of a counselor - one hour at a time.

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