Of what are we afraid? Podcast #68

Fear is a natural part of being alive: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of simply being wrong, and – most tellingly – fear of being unlovable. Our reaction to this fundamental expression of mortality and imperfection will affect our romantic and coupling lives in many ways. Kregg and I toss it around in this week’s Halloween podcast.

What is coupling success? Podcast #67

First SightFailure is a state we all recognize as an uncomfortable, vaguely distasteful, sigh-inducing and ultimately inevitable piece of life’s puzzle.

But what does success look like? Is there an easy standard against which we can measure ourselves, or do we have to collect a bag of nuances to proclaim triumph? Kregg and I talk our way to a successful conclusion.

I Am Not A Smartphone

I blame the iPhone.

The iPhone is at the peak of the techno/design pyramid, which is an enormous pile of man-made goods that began accumulating with mass-produced buttons in the English midlands 250 years ago. Along the way we added shoes, guns, lights, Model-T Fords, washing machines and air-conditioners, and now the whole lot is capped with the smartphone. This is the history of the industrial revolution and consumerism.

And what, you might ask, does this have to do with dating? Fair question, Hortense, and the answer’s pretty simple: quality. The stuff we buy today is enormously durable, well-designed, thoughtfully manufactured and aesthetically pleasing. Everything from automobiles to bed-sheets are of a quality unimaginable even fifty years ago, which is the problem.

Perfection is the problem. Although we’re not there yet, we’re closing in on making universally flawless things, stuff that works right out of the box, machines that are intuitive, long-lasting and work with each other. Yes, there’s still a lot of junk around, but that’s because perfection costs, and folks will compromise quality if they don’t have enough dosh.

People, however, are just the same as we were 250 years ago.  We are not user-friendly. We’re all quirky; none of us exactly fits the technical description; few of us are consistent throughout a day, let alone a lifetime, and even fewer come within hundreds of miles of perfection.

That’s the iPhone dilemma. When we use an iPhone we (reasonably) expect consistently high technical and emotional feedback. When we are with people, that expectation leaks into our thinking, with predictable results.


We call it “the dance” or “playing hard to get” or something similar, and it’s an under-examined part of coupling discovery. A specific term for it would be nice so that we know just what we’re talking about, but I can’t think of one.

Perhaps we could think of it as surface tension, in the same way as water in a glass sticks slightly at the edges, the meniscus. It’s still water, but there is a definite boundary where the water meets air and the side of the glass.

In our case, part of the attraction of someone is the need to fight for them, or, if not exactly fight, then work at convincing them to conform to our vision of their affection. We want this person to be as attracted to us as we (think) we are to them. The oddity is that we don’t always want it to be immediate and complete; a little effort and time and salesmanship gives us a pride of ownership, that, like surface tension, keeps us glued together.

Think of it as the kind of camaraderie created by shared difficult experiences, such as in sport, business and war. Bonding is more piquant with adversity, which makes me think that a little difficulty in relationships might be the best way to make them stick.

Risky Business

We never know what’s going to happen. Over a large sample-size we might get things right, but in coupling that matters only to society.

As individuals, being right or wrong, having expectations confirmed or denied, or watching our circumstances improve or decline is intensely personal. Lives change forever based on our choices.

This is why, in my opinion, dating and coupling often feels more intense than it otherwise should. Viscerally we know that the people we choose to be in our lives, in our hearts and psyches, can literally make or break us, in the sense that we must invest an enormous amount of ego in that person to make it work well. If it doesn’t go well it can get messy. Choosing wisely is very important.

The difficulty is that so few of us have any kind of training in making that kind of decision. We go about it in the same way that a seventeen-year-old makes their first automobile purchase: with a limited budget, shopping amongst the clunkers. Cars will come and go in our lifetimes; people tend to stick, for good or not.

Risk is the question here. As animals, we’re horrible at assessing risk, and more so when it comes to coupling. Mating is our biological imperative, but that represents a tiny minority of the time and energy we spend pursuing each other.  The reproductive instinct within us all works against intelligent risk assessment.

The good news is that we’re pretty darned resilient. One bad choice won’t ding us too badly, and we’re often better off for it. But keeping those bad choices away from big life events – like marriage – is worth the effort, and ensuring the next generation survives to be better at the game might just be our biggest priority.