A young, attractive woman comes into my office and shares her story with me. “So this guy and I were hanging out for about 3 months last Fall. We never talked about what we were doing as far as commitment was concerned, but we were having sex regularly, and hanging out sometimes too; he’d make dinner or breakfast if I was staying over, we’d go on outings, go out for drinks. Then I started to feel like the whole thing was so unpredictable. A week or more would go by and I wouldn’t hear from him at all. I told him “I don’t want to do this anymore” without an explanation; he didn’t ask for one and we broke things off. We didn’t communicate at all for several months. Then one day I get a late night text from him like no time had passed, and here we are, randomly ‘hanging out’ again, but less often than before. He said “Do you want to go back to what we were doing before?” I was like “What were doing before?!” This is the problem doc! Neither one of us is willing to admit to our feelings or expectations!” She says with exasperation,
“All we ever do is have sex and hang out, it’s not a real relationship!”
I said to her (jokingly) “But that’s what people in real relationships do, what’s the problem?” We have a good laugh, and then get to the business of figuring out how to plan for and navigate productive communication that feels safe for her to execute.
A major trend I see among heterosexual millennials in my coaching practice is a shortage of clear communication while dating, and discomfort discussing relationship commitment. While some prefer to avoid commitment, others who want a committed relationship find that first conversation awkward and difficult, and end up avoiding it altogether. Perhaps because societally we’re transitioning away from assuming stereotypical gender roles when it comes to dating. Men are telling me they no longer want to to carry the whole burden of “putting it out there” first. They don’t feel as comfortable saying “I want us to be exclusive” first because they fear rejection. They may not know how many other guys the woman is dating, and no one wants to be played for a fool. So they hedge their emotions, and their communication style reflects that. Many women are playing it safe too, by sticking to traditional gender rules that dictate “the guys needs to put it out there first, or risk looking like you’re chasing, or appearing clingy.” They end up hedging their emotions and communication style too.
If you placed a spy camera in my coaching office, you’d see that on both ends, everyone seems to be struggling with transitioning into a committed relationship these days.
People are just “hanging out” (which is code for seeing each other randomly, maybe having sex and maybe doing recreational things together, but with no communicated commitment.) Under these ambiguous terms, no one wants to be the first one to say “I’m not seeing anyone else” because it can reflect a lack of options, weakening their image of desirability to the other person. “Choice overload” is making a heavy impact on current dating culture, sidelining those that would prefer to have a committed relationship.
It’s not uncommon for people’s online dating profiles to stay perpetually active on Tinder, Hinge, The League (insert latest and greatest dating app.) How do we know this? Their push notifications still flash on their phones during their dates. I’m certain Emily Post, Online Dating Etiquette 101 would frown upon this! I’ve heard more than a few people say to me “Oh I see their dating push notifications going off on their mobile while we’re hanging out, I just ignore it. My profiles are still up too.” For some, this makes sense, because they prefer to keep casually dating; others are still figuring out which personality styles mesh well with their own. For them, it can feel like a never-ending cycle of musical chairs that leaves them feeling confused and pretty miserable over time.
How to avoid uncertainty and miscommunication while dating and make headway:
- Aim to be more specific and up front about your ideal situation. As painful as it might sound, it’s better to be brutally honest with yourself and the people you’re meeting online about what you’re interested in getting from dating right now, and give examples of what would be ideal, versus NOT ideal. By putting it out there up front (writing it on your dating profile AND being clear about it in person) it feels less like a personal rejection because the other person may want something different from their dating experience, rather than not wanting you, specifically. Example 1: “I’m hoping to find a consistent connection with one person, and avoid randomly ‘hanging out’ with someone without any commitment for months on end.” Example 2: “I’m enjoying meeting and spending time with different people on a regular basis right now, and don’t have plans for commitment beyond that.”
- If you’re in an ambiguous dating situation and want to establish clarity, ask yourself ‘what have I got to lose if I express my feelings about wanting more/less commitment?’ I know, I know. You want to save face. Avoid rejection, avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or risk ending a decent mutual understanding. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen after broaching this difficult conversation? You feel badly for a while? If you’re already in an ambiguous situation and want clarity, chances are you’re feeling badly already- and it’s taking up more of your thoughts than you’d care to admit. If by putting it out there, you end up losing what have with this person, remind yourself you’re no longer wasting time in a relationship that wasn’t going where you wanted it to.
- If dating is feeling like more work than fun, take a break. Dating for the sake of finding a committed relationship can be exhausting, and hard on the ego. If you’re feeling burned out, you’re better off spending your time doing things that bring you joy, and seeing people who you already know and like. So spend a few weekends doing things that refresh your mood, you’ll have interesting things to talk about when you DO go back to dating. No, you’re not losing time or missing out. You’ll be in a better, more positive frame of mind to act sincerely rather than skeptically when someone good finally does comes along.
Dr. Christina Villarreal is a mental health expert, executive/personal coach, entrepreneur and educator practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. For professional inquiries visit her website at www.drchristinavillarreal.com