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Advice – I have no idea how to date.

I was single for 4 years since I moved cities for a job after graduating college. Since my field is very competitive, and with not many women, I decided to put my dating life on hold and focus on my career.

I have no regrets as to that decision and I am now professionally established and doing quite well.

I have however been working from home since March for obvious reasons and suddenly I realised that I was lonely. I live with two close friends and while we spend a lot of time together, it felt like something was missing.

Like everyone at home, I decided to download a dating app and try my hand at it.

Enter Peter (26M). By all means, the perfect partner: we have similar interests, make the same dumb jokes, and he is both brilliant and attractive.

We have been dating for a little over 3 months now, my friends love him, I get along with his friends and it’s all going great except- I am not feeling it. He often talks about the future and my immediate reaction tends to be just freeze up, pipe up a platitude and smoothly change the topic.

When this first started, I thought I wanted something casual and in the now, and we were on the same page but I feel like that might have changed for him after seeing how well we click?

For me though, I still have trouble being vulnerable around him, and instead of excitement, I feel increasing amounts of dread before every date.

On Sunday evening, he confessed to loving me and I told him that while I wasn’t at love yet, I did like him and he said that was enough for him for now.

I know I should break up with him before it gets any more serious and I hurt him, but at the same time I am terrified: if I can’t love someone like him, am I going to find love outside of this relationship? Should I settle for this camaraderie?

Lily, Reddit.
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Dear Lily,

I am a big fan of Brene Brown’s work.

I’ve referenced her work once or twice on this column. I often recommend her podcasts – Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead – to others who want to learn more about what she has to offer. At the end of each podcast episode, Brene Brown asks her guests a series of rapid-fire questions that start with this question.

“Fill in the blank: Vulnerability is ….”

Recently, she had President Obama who answered, without hesitation, “Inevitable. Be open to it.” And Lily, I think this advice would be remiss if I don’t echo the same sentiment to you.

Part of what makes dating so thrilling and scary at the same time is that becoming vulnerable is an essential part of dating. If dating was a book, vulnerability would be the very binding that holds all the pages together. It is through the vulnerabilities shared that we weave together and bind our histories in a relationship. For some, shared vulnerability can look like making impactful life decisions together. For others, it can look like being open and honest with each other about sensitive topics. And for your partner Peter, his acknowledgment of his deep adoration for you as a person could have been another vulnerable thread to weave into your history together.

And let’s talk more about that concept – a history together.

Each person in a relationship comes with our own respective personal histories – narratives that we each tell ourselves which define who we are as individuals. It could be as simple as characterizing yourself as a poor picker of fruits, enforced through series of bad experiences with spoilage. Or it can be as complex as repeat behavioral patterns found in our partners.

As I was reading through your initial post, I gathered that you are quite adept at acknowledging your own context and making quick decisions based on your desires. That ability is reflected in your decision to pursue your career. It is also in your decision to start dating three months ago. And your interpersonal assessment even extend to those around you – specifically in the ways you can assess how Peter fits into your life and how your friends feel about him. You have even had the clairvoyance to pick out your own avoidant patterns whenever Peter brings up what your relationship might look like in the future.

Then I wondered what type of stories that you might tell about yourself, beyond what you’ve already shared in this incredibly brief history of you. You say you initially wanted something more casual. But I am curious if that was in response to the absence you felt when you first started dating or if it was a learned one you adapted through your history with Peter.

So let’s go back and ask ourselves the same question that Brene Brown asked Obama: Vulnerability is _____.

There was a point in my life when my answer to that question would have been “terrifying.” I was gripped with the insecurity and anxiety about the folks I was dating. It made me rigid and held me tight until I could no longer bear the weight of the insecurities and anxieties. And so, I found myself going through relationships against a checklist of flags. I asked myself the same exact questions you did. I wondered that if I couldn’t make it work with this particular partner, I just couldn’t see how I could make it work with someone else.

At some point, I realized how that process made me feel and started investing more of myself into my relationships. That meant I had to make myself more available to not just sharing my own vulnerability with others but to respond when others shared their vulnerabilities with me. At that point, my answer to the question changed to “empowering.”

And Lily, that particular reflection has made all the difference in my relationships.

Ask yourself what factors contribute to your hesitance to be vulnerable around Peter. Perhaps you’ve had some bad past dating experiences that conditioned you to associate vulnerability as something to be avoided. It could also be a reflection of your male-dominated career where vulnerability is seen as a weakness. Or perhaps your experience with vulnerability has deeper roots in your childhood or adolescent experiences. Try to dig deeper and see why your perception of vulnerability is so intertwined with fear and avoidance.

Vulnerability is the main way we build our marbles of trust.

It does sort of become a catch-22 when you think about the feedback loop of trust building. You need to be vulnerable in order to build trust. But you can’t trust enough to be vulnerable. If we define trust as a basic building block of relationships, we need to be mindful in the way we build on trust through our relationship experiences and shared vulnerability.

Perhaps a good starting point is to openly discuss with Peter how you sometimes freeze up when the topic of your relationship’s future comes up. You can use this discussion to assess and accomplish three different goals.

First goal is to create a safe and secure space for yourself. For me personally, I have found that it is easiest for me to get comfortable when I am surrounded by softness – such as blankets, bare skin, and compassion – and the people I trust – such as lovers, close friends, and family. The contextual clues that allow you to be comfortable in your vulnerability might look different than mine. In your head, visualize a mental and physical space that brings you safety and comfort. And do your best to bring that vision into reality. Even if your first attempt isn’t perfect, it’ll get you closer in your next attempt.

Second goal is to set some expectations. You can do this by drawing a basic idea around how you think this conversation is going to go. Anxiety will likely have some say on perpetuating your internalized dread. But anxiety is not the only feeling that needs to have a say. Sometimes, it can be as simple as saying out loud “This conversation is going to make me feel very vulnerable”, either to yourself before the conversation or as a preface to the conversation with Peter.

The last and the most important goal is to measure the trust building. Spoken words have power. Stating out loud “This conversation made me feel closer to you” can feel a bit sentimental. But it is very meaningful to communicate how intense the conversation felt and make space for reflection & reciprocation as well.

I will leave you off with this final thought.

There is a big misconception in modern dating. And it is that you should love and care for your partner to the exact same way that your partner loves and cares for you.

This perception is flawed because it incorrectly assumes equality. As we talked about, each of us come with our own respective histories that determine who we are as individuals. As such, we harness different characteristics and present our care and affection in unique ways.

This misconception is one of the reasons why there is such a heavy weight and burden around the words I Love You in the western culture, because a non-immediate reciprocation is considered a red flag.

The truth is that different people love in different ways. And to expect that you should care for Peter in the same exact way that Peter cares for you might be misguided and unfair. Instead of immediately jumping to a breakup, it might be more beneficial for you to first reflect on the quality of the relationship from your own perspective, isolated from how Peter perceives his relationship with you. Because even if this particular relationship doesn’t stand the test of time, this exercise will help with your next one.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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