Living Your Life: Romantic Relationships & Dating

Dating. Another topic that I was completely in the dark about. Along with friendships, romance and intimacy were so far from my ideas of what a healthy relationship was, that I’m amazed I found anybody to share my time and experiences with. But, as I was taught to develop my friendships via poor role modeling, something I went over in my last post, I used the same rubric for my romantic relationships. Only instead of seeking approval by being popular or seen as in charge, I was taught that sex appeal was the most important attribute of any relationship. This is unhealthy. Though at the time I didn’t know any better. Or any other way of being in relationship. So what were the working parts of a romantic relationship as defined by my upbringing?

Can We be Romantically Involved if We’re Struggling to Feel Accepted?

So I chased an impossible standard that was laid out for me. On based on looking the part. Like Brad Pitt’s character from “Fight Club”. Looking back at how I was in romantic relationships, I’m not sure what it was that I was seeking outside of approval. I had an unrealistic image of what I thought I should be, and no guidance or understanding of how to get to where I thought I should be. And I wasn’t even sure where I wanted to be. Most of the time I think I was just chasing a feeling. Comfortably numb, as Pink Floyd aptly described it.

And if I wasn’t getting the connection and intimacy that are the product of healthy relationships, does that mean my partners were also void of these experiences? Or was it a one sided phenomenon? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But my ex-wife told me before we split up that she had felt safe with me. This was strange, because I felt unsafe most of the time. So maybe it was a one sided experience. What I do know for sure is that I had problems feeling intimate and close in relationships. Especially with romantic partners.

Sex & Intimacy: How do We Feel Belonging?

And I suppose some of my understanding comes from a question of perspective. What does intimacy mean to different people? Maybe most importantly, what does intimacy mean to me? One popular dating app I am currently using, uses this as a question for matching purposes: “does intimacy mean sex”. For me, the answer is definitely no. Though that’s what it has meant for me in the past. It’s an aspect of intimacy for sure, but the way the question is worded suggests you can only be intimate with those you are having sex with. And that seems too close to confusing sex for love to me. Especially being raised by a family whose number one value was sex appeal. This feels like the set up for a form of conditional love.

Learning Intimacy

So what did I do to over come these doubts blocking me from feeling intimate in my relationships? It took a lot of feeling uncomfortable in my relationships. Also trusting that I would eventually feel a sense of comfort and ease in them again. It wasn’t easy and it’s something I’m still working on. But it’s also something that I can feel myself getting stronger in. And I’ve seen a noticeable differences in my moods and relationships.

I started by first, reaching out to the people I know. This may seem obvious for those who have healthy relationships. But for those who have been in abusive or conditional ones, it can be a daunting task. To open up to another human and not knowing what to expect. I’m currently using a couple of dating apps and one way I’ve been reaching out is through sending messages to people I feel I would match well with.

Just the act of letting someone know you are interested is the first and most important step. The environment I grew up in was a very cold one. We learned to hold back our emotions and feelings of affection for one another. We did this as a way to punish or keep the other person wanting what they can’t have. By making it seem as though our regard was unobtainable or conditional, we left the other person wanting or needing us. This was how we felt value. But the older I get, the more I realize that this is most likely due to being too scared to open up and be our emotional and vulnerable selves around one another. The feelings of being unlovable were too painful to expose to one another. So we hid our feelings and felt ashamed of who we were seen as.

Seeking Unhealthy Relationships

And these were the types of romantic relationships I sought. Where sex appeal was the most important attribute and a relationship that I didn’t have to be responsible for myself in. Either for myself or for my partner. I wasn’t looking out for my partner because I felt as though I had to be constantly guarded to protect myself. I’d later find out that I was hyper vigilant due to the trauma I experienced in my childhood. This is something I feel terrible about now, but while I was in relationship, I had no idea this was happening. Only that everybody was a potential threat. Especially those closest to me.

And that’s not to say that there weren’t times where I felt intimate. But these times were not a priority to me in my relationships. I was mostly seeking pleasure. The way I would drink to numb feelings that were too raw and to feel good in the moment. These were the ways I was in relationship, because it was what was shown to me. To change my way of being in relationship, from something I used to give me pleasure to reciprocal appreciation of each other, I had to start accepting the people in my life, myself included, for who they are.

Being Strong in Who You Are, Not as Who Others Think You Should be

Now I no longer look to fit an image of how I think my life should look. In order to live up to someone else’s ideal relationship. Or change myself to be accepted by others. I’m making decisions based on who I feel I am. But getting to know yourself takes some digging. There was a lot of different voices from my past trying to strong arm me into believing I wasn’t good enough just being me. And even worse were the voices of my past abusers. Telling me their projected images of who they thought I was. This mostly came in the form of toxically masculine standards. And their ideals of what it means to be a man.

I took these old and unhealthy messages into my relationships. Trying to live up to the pre-approved standards that were laid out for me. Ones I had adopted as my own. But spoiler alert, they didn’t work. And more importantly, they didn’t suit who I was. I thought I needed to be loud, in charge and have strong opinions. To be in control of every situation and never show weakness. I needed to be hard in order to be the “man” I thought I was supposed to be.

This lead to me being unable to experience my emotions. This ultimately was what lead to me being unable to understand and seek out qualities of intimacy and tenderness in my relationships. Also the major reason my relationships failed. I was incapable of responding to my own and my partners emotional needs with tenderness. The walls I had built around my emotions, to keep others out, were just too thick.

Shifting Values & a New Type of Partner

Now that I’ve learned from my past mistakes, I’m viewing looking for a partner in a different light. My values shifted. Instead of looking for a woman whom is attractive and has sex appeal, I’m looking for someone who is loving and caring first. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be physically attracted to the woman I eventually fall in love with. Only that the quality and ability for us to connect in a loving way is more important than how she looks in a pair of underwear.

One of the habits I’ve been doing to change the ways in which I think of and view relationships is, I’ve created a values list. This is a list of attributes in a partner that I value. Some examples are, loving, caring, kind, beautiful, loyal, creative, adventurous and sexy. Notice that being attractive is still on the list, only this time it isn’t the foundation of what I’m looking for in a partner. Being loving, caring and kind precede beauty. But attraction is still important in a match. Only now I have a healthier perspective of where it is as a priority.

Making Better Choices

As I’ve said above, I’ve been on a few dating sites and have developed a few habits around when and how often I use them. I’ve recently listened to a podcast called “Deeply Human“. The first episode was on dating and the host of the podcast was interviewing a doctor who studied the process of making decisions. He said that if we are given too many decisions, then we have a difficult time keeping choices in perspective. We tend to take the best qualities of each potential match, then compare them to who we are looking at. The result being that the more potential matches we look at, the more likely they are to not add up. The conglomerate ideal we’ve mashed together from disparate parts wins out.

Go Slow, It’s not a Race

With this in mind, I’ve begun to pair down the amount of potential matches I’m looking at in a given session. The doctor on the podcast suggests to only look at between five and eight potential matches. I’ve also limited myself to messaging only three potential matches at a time. This way I’m reaching out while also giving each match the attention they deserve without feeling overwhelmed.

And it makes sense to put some boundaries around this area of my life as well. I know that if bring an unreasonable amount of intensity to dating, then I’ll end up feeling desperate, Also as though I’ll never find someone to be with. This is a scary and vulnerable place to be. So slowing down helps to keep my values and priorities in focus while I’m looking for a partner. Win, win.

Confidence While Dating

It also helps with self confidence in dating as well. The more profiles you read, the more you can’t help but to compare yourself to those your looking to match with. It’s kind of like the social media effect. Where you are constantly comparing yourself to the very best of what your friends are posting. And maybe feeling as though you’re coming up short.

The same goes for dating apps. Everybody wants to show the most amazing aspects of their personality, lifestyle and careers. If we look at the positive self projections of others for long enough, we may feel like we’re not good enough for them. Not adding up. And we all have our things. Nobody’s perfect. Slowing down is also good for keeping some much needed perspective in an environment where everybody is trying to sell their best selves.

These are the habits that I’ve come to cultivate while looking for a partner. I’m sure it’ll look a little different for everybody. But it’s good to have a foundation. To know what your looking for. And hopefully, when you do meet the one that’s right for you, you’ll recognize them for who they are in what you’re looking for. And one last bit of advice for those in the dating world, be persistent. The road may not be easy, but I believe there’s someone out there for everybody. Peace : ) good luck and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Dates?” by .::RMT::. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Updated: 10/22/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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