Life’s a series of rooms. We move through them with varying speed: in some rooms we spend a short time, in others a long time, and sometimes we don’t move on at all.
Once we reach adulthood, we close the doors to the childish rooms forever, which is not to say we can’t be child-like from time to time. Being innocent and fun – if only in a stylized way – is a sweet element in many of our lives. But as self-control, motives, understanding and responsibility change in our teens and twenties, we close successive doors behind us as we walk into new rooms. No-one really adequately explains this at the time, but we use code words like “growing up” or “maturing” as shorthand.
I was struck yesterday when a colleague explained that he was spending the afternoon with his girlfriend’s parents. Now this guy is in his thirties, an upright citizen (as far as I know) and a hard-worker, but it turns out the woman I thought was his wife is not so: she’s just a shack-up honey.
The problem with a couple opening the door to the shack-up room is that it has one big entrance door, and only a tiny mouse-door out. That mouse-door is the only one that takes both of them forward in life, but it’s difficult to squeeze through. In most cases, both of these people will move backwards out of the door through which they came into the room, returning to the point at which they decided to co-habit a residence.
Yes, people do go on to succeed long-term in shack-ups, but couples so-based are mostly a kind of silent killer. With a limited time on this planet making a decision that stops the normal progression of life is both wasteful and destructive. Yes, justifying the decision to shack-up is relatively simple, an exercise in which I have indulged myself, but the reasons are oftentimes shallow, reflecting a deficit of some kind in the individuals or the relationship itself.
Why would we deliberately walk into a room that will simultaneously decrease our chances of seeing the fullness of life as an individual and reduce the likelihood of the relationship fulfilling its possibility?
The dating playbook suggests following the same steps to acquaint ourselves with someone new, no matter how we meet someone. Oftentimes the only difference lies in the speed with which we transition from strangers to…well, to something else.
First, the physical attraction, which we know takes seconds.
Second, we look for more subtle physical cues, like speech, hand movements, tics (if any), gait, eye contact and so on.
Thirdly we begin to observe behavioral traits such as social adaptability, listening skills, the ability to empathize, acceptance of flattery, ability to follow implied statements, reaction to irony; all the nuances of language, whether literal or otherwise.
This progression happens on first dates after discovery on a sex-matching site or after months of coy consideration at work. It’s the reason we want to make a good impression on a first date, because the cliché happens to be true: that first impression sticks. It matters not whether we’re looking for a hook-up or marriage, the pattern remains the same and resulting judgement takes only a few minutes.
As an automatic process, we’re unlikely to change it, so I guess it must work. But it is only a beginning.
The mess we create goes far beyond our own back yard. Take this article, for example. While the clarity of thought about, and acknowledgement of – how shall I put this? – the shortcomings of current youthful coupling practice are little short of brilliant, the fact of them remains frightening.
From the author’s description, real dating is merging with cyber-dating to create some hellish version of romantic relationships. Gone are the virtues of delayed gratification, anticipation, wonder, attention, mutuality and respect. Replacing them are the digital delights of personal pleasure, immediate gratification, easy attachment and dis-attachment and limited responsibility.
Figuring out how we found ourselves in this dead-ender version of life is relatively easy; extricating people might prove rather more tricky.
Coupling tends to be the triumph of muddling through rather than the success of a solid plan. I wonder why that is, and do following generations need to be likewise hobbled? Here’s a quick sweep through the ideas.
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Hope springs eternal if you’re single because experience tells us that we never know who will turn up in our lives. Chance, luck, fortune, happenstance, kismet, fate – whatever you call it, finding a surprise is one of those knowable unknowns, made all the more fun by their randomness.
The one caveat to this idea is that to meet new people we have to be out in the world, because online encounters are not meetings: they’re something, but not of the same importance as breathing the same air.
When someone new arrives in our lives we instantly and involuntarily evaluate how they might fit in. Could they be a prospect? Am I attracted to them? Why? Are they attracted to me? Am I reading the signals correctly? Am I creating something here that doesn’t exist? How might this work in the future? Are they A one?
The uncertainty is the essence of the excitement, the discovery the fuel of pursuit.