Apr 25 2009
It’s Spring and you know what happens. For the next few weeks, in the fields and forests, the birds and the beasts are doing their mating dances. We too, by instinct, perform a mating dance. The human mating dance is called dating.
A mating dance is a way for two creatures to work out whether they are going to have a certain, special relationship, which includes sex; it also includes certain understandings, expectations and obligations. A mating dance is not just matter of whether or not they are agreeing to do The Big It, it is also a matter of how they are going to get along, the Big How. This is the fundamental dynamic in dating.
Mating Dating Negotiating
In the Ken Burns 12 part documentary on jazz, Wynton Marsalis opens the series with this statement: “The real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz was that a group of people could come together and improvise art and can negotiate their agendas and that negotiation is the art.” I was struck by that last phrase, that the negotiation itself is the art. There it is again, the Big How.
In dating also, negotiation itself is the art. It’s not some specific goal or event dinner, sex, vacation plans — that really matters; the goal is to create a process, an ongoing relationship. It’s not what you get, it’s how you get there. Everything is foreplay.
In relationships, process matters. It may even matter more than results. It’s a hard concept. A lot of dating advice is about results, knowing what you want and how to get it. How to get women to do this. How to get men to do that. That’s like working out how you are going to play your solo and never mind what the other person is playing. That’s like being in a conversation with someone who is a brilliant talker and a terrible listener. Those conversations peter out quickly, to coin a phrase.
What happens in a mating dance is that the partners refine the process. They do it by testing and training their partner.
By training, I mean, partners teaching partners what their subtle signals mean. Training is a technical term. A better term than what I’m talking about is this: Teaching each other what to pay attention to. For example, if you can’t listen to a story that is more than four minutes long without having to say something, then you have to teach your partner how to know when to notice you have reached your listening limit. If you are creating an intimate relationship, you are constantly teaching your partner how to get closer to you, constantly communicating by implication this meta-message: Do it this way; this is the way into me.
Tests tell you where teaching what to pay attention to is necessary and whether it is possible. A test is a kind of probe to see how the other person’s psychology works. If I do this, how are you going to deal with that? What if I don’t like something you do, how am I going to let you know. And how are you going to handle that?
It sounds more reasonable than it is. That’s why I call it a mating dance. Animals don’t reason with each other. They just interact until they find a comfortable routine. It’s the same with people. The best guess as to how much communication between people is non-verbal? 70%
Haven’t you ever been struck by the amount of clawing, snarling, scratching and flying of feathers in wild mating dances? Sometimes it looks more like a fight. Is this the dance of love?
Things can get rough in a dating relationship. And no know knows this better than midlife singles. After all, these are the people who have experienced serious relationship failures, who have been left or left, been hurt or hurt someone they loved.
I get annoyed at people who toss around the term as in, “Oh, the trouble with him is that he’s commitment phobic.” Anyone who has been through a divorce and doesn’t have some healthy fear about trying marriage again is naïve.
If there is any single characteristic of midlife singles it’s this one: they are more wary. Their tests are more elaborate. I don’t like to pathologize people for this. Midlife singles all understand in their gut one of the most frightening rules of modern romance: anyone who doesn’t like a relationship can leave. This is because most midlife singles are single because of one or more relationship failures.
Anyone planning on putting his or her whole heart and soul, his or her deepest vulnerabilities on the line knows this only too well. Abandonment hurts; break-ups hurt; and some hurt a lot.
There is a human version of all that snarling and snapping we see in the animal mating dances. People want to know how a potential partner will respond when the going gets rough. If you are considering a long term relationship, you don’t just want to know what the weather is going to be, you want to know something about the climate. This takes time.
Two categories of questions get tested and they don’t get just tested in words. Midlife singles have generally learned by this time that people can say anything. They want to see people revealed through actions.
Category one: What if I hurt you, as I know I can?
What if I tell you in a moment of anger that I hate your fat thighs, or your beer gut, or your body odor, or your bad hair cut, or that ugly shirt you seem to like? What if I just lash out at you for something you’ve said. I know I’ve done that in the past. What if I find myself lusting for someone else and cut you off emotionally? What if I turn out to do some of the cruel things I know I have done to others. Will you overlook them? Will you give me a chance to repair the damage? Are you giving me slack because you are afraid to confront me and how bad will it be when you finally do?
Category two: What if you hurt me, as I know I can be hurt?
What if you start being nicer to someone else than you are to me. What if you take advantage of me in a weak moment. What if I say something that makes you angry and you start picking on me? What if I tell you about my fears and then you lose respect for me? What if I want you to stop yelling at me? Can I trust you to be sensitive?
Panic and Choke.
Basically people are bound to make two kinds of mistakes during all this gut level testing stage. They are going to be either too quick on the trigger and make up their minds prematurely. They’ll have moments of panic. Or they’ll get paralyzed and won’t take any action. They’ll choke.
When people panic, they leap to conclusions, sometimes many different conflicting conclusions, sometimes one stereotyped one. A woman opens her work with me by saying, “There are givers and takers in this world. I’m a giver. Why can’t I find a man who isn’t a taker?” She has a history of getting into relationships and then testing the men in small ways and then, as soon as she finds the slightest sign that he’s a taker, she drops him. Her tests aren’t really tests because they don’t discriminate. Every person gets the same score and she always panics.
People who choke do the opposite. They can’t draw conclusions. The most common form of this is the character played by Carrie Fisher in the movie, When Harry Met Sally. She was in love with a married man and all her friends told her to dump him and she kept saying, “I know, I know.” That was the running joke. She “knew,” but she couldn’t “do.”
The coaching in the testing phase helps people stay connected to the process, reminding them to slow down and think when they are panicking and helps them find a safe way to get more involved when they are frozen. When you are listening to a friend talk about his or her experiences, this is what you have to listen for: are they panicking and going all over the place, and are they tying themselves in knots and not taking any action.
The mating dance lays the ground work for a satisfying long term relationship. Intimate relationships are always negotiating some next step. Those not busy being born are busy dying. (Bob Dylan. )