It’s not the chase, it’s the intermittent reinforcement.

I briefly mentioned (in my exasperated rant about yet anther ghosting) that I have once again entered the dark and mysteriously alluring world of online dating, this time with an altered approach. For one I’m on a different site than last time (no more bottom feeders at POF for this girl…I’ve moved on to the (still free) illustrious pool of somewhat eligible bachelors matched to me via the very loose algorithms of OK Cupid.). And for two, I’m more interested in and open to an actual relationship this go round. Shocking, I know. It kind of snuck up on me too but I’ve realized I feel sort of…maybe..almost ready for a regular other person in my life. Whatever that means.

However, just because that’s what I think I  want right now does not mean it’s what I’ve gotten. While there does seem to be more candidates on this site, the dates I’ve been on have not been so different. There’s been the FriendZone guy (decent, easy to get along with, interesting but no chemistry), the boring guy (super available, not a lot going on in his life, nice but…nice), and, the one that seems to click, the Ghoster.

It’s the last one that gets me every time.

He’s fun, interesting, and makes me laugh, even gets my sense of humor. He meshes. Usually there’s something that makes me hesitant at first but a  few dates in and I start thinking “This has potential.” And then it happens. As soon as I start leaning towards wanting him around and feeling optimistic, he “Ghosts”. Dude just drops off the face of the earth never to be heard from again. I’ve experienced this a few times. And every time I’m infuriated.

But then it happens again.

Sometimes there are signs. He texts a little less or seems less engaged. Little things like that. I should be able to recognize the warning signs by now. And I sort of do. The problem is the warning signs make me want the dude more… I thought I just really liked the chase (in a lot of ways I am more like a stereotypical guy than girl. Seriously, don’t buy me flowers…give me beer and a burger and I’m a happy camper.) But then one day, in a somewhat frustrating but still rewarding texting situation with a friend, a light bulb dinged in my head saying:

“Intermittent reinforcement”!

See, this guy and I have a mostly texting based friendship. Occasionally we’ll talk about meeting up for a random adventure. And it has actually happened. Twice. In three years. Sometimes, okay maybe more than sometimes, I’ll randomly text him and he won’t respond. But then sometimes he does. Once in a while he’ll even text me out of the blue. I’m always super excited and kind of happy about it. This pattern has gone on for a while now, over a year (I’m almost embarrassed to admit). Little spurts of fun attention with spans of mostly being ignored or getting short answers in between.

Intermittent reinforcement.

I’ve taken a couple psychology classes (Or I’ve taken a psychology class a couple of times. Whatever. Basically the same thing.) and I remember B.F. Skinner and his rats.

Skinner, an early behavioral psychologist, studied rats and their response to reward based stimulus. He talked about operant conditioning and stuff. (Here’s the Wikipedia page to prove it.) One of the things that this Skinner dude found, way back before the middle of the 20th century, was that intermittent reinforcement was way more effective than continuous reinforcement. Meaning when we consistently get a positive (or negative) result from our actions it isn’t as exciting and, well, rewarding as when we only get that same result once in a while. We thrive off the unpredictability of the prize, it makes us crazy for more and drives us to increase the behavior for even just the chance of getting the reward.

In rat studies this looks like the rat getting a food prize every time it pulls the right lever versus only some of the time. The rat who only gets a prize some of the time will pull that damn lever over and over and over again. Think gambling and slot machines here. It’s exponentially more exciting and rewarding because we’re surprised when we get the reward and addicted to the possibility of getting a reward next time when we don’t. It’s a very effective training tool.

So what do rats and reinforcement have to do with dating?

Everything! Getting a response or attention from a person only some of the time instead of every time we try makes us want to try to get that person’s attention even more. Anyone who had done any online dating can probably give antedotal evidence of this. 

So I realized that I was engaged in a pattern of intermittent reinforcement with Fickle Texting guy. The fact that he didn’t respond every time, or even regularly, made me want interaction with him even more. When he did actually respond and interact it was like all the cherries lined up on the slot machine. Excitement and win ! When there was no response it was annoying and frustrating but I was still drawn to texting him again at random. Because he might respond. The possibulity was there. As soon as I recognized this dynamic with Fickle Texting Guy (I’m slow sometimes but eventually I get it.) I started to notice it other places in my life too, specifically in some of my past dating experiences.

Heck, I’ve been on the receiving AND the giving end of intermittent reinforcement.

I think we all have and that’s not necessarily unhealthy. At the beginning, in moderation, it’s part of what builds attraction. But, and this is a big butt, it can very easily become unhealthy and even feed into abusive relationship dynamics. Continued intermittent reinforcement basically gives one person control of the interaction pace and lends itself to a craving in the other person that goes largely unsatisfied. Again, think gambling addiction here. It’s the same thing.

SO now that I’m aware of this thing, what do I do with this it? 

Do I try to “hook” a guy using intermittent reinforcement? It does sound like a fun social experiment. But what kind of a relationship dynamic would that foster? And what kind of guy would I catch with that?

Seeking out guys who don’t engage in imtermittent reinforcement seems like a better idea. I mean, I’ve already proven to be good at finding the guy who is going to run away, probably after the next shiny thing. Identifying patterns of intermittent reinforcement early could be a good way to weed out the Ghosters before the disappearing act begins. This is something I’m going to mull over and keep in mind as I message new guys online and continue to try and find one who will not only stick around, but who I also actually want around. 

As for the guy who only responds to texts sometimes, it’s been about a month since I’ve restarted the intermittent reinforcement cycle and I’m not all that interested in doing so. Maybe knowing really is half the battle.

 

 

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Good Ol’ Fashioned Angry

I’m feeling a little angry today. And yesterday. And maybe the day before that, it’s been quietly building for a little while now, lying in wait for the perfect moment to sneak up on me and yell “Boo!” It found its moment, that good old fashioned anger that used to simmer just below the surface back in the good ol’days when everything was in a tumultuous state of turmoil. It’s been relatively peaceful for a bit so I guess I was due for a good bout of repressed anger rearing its ugly  but all too familiar head. It’s not like it used to be, though, with no rhyme or reason to it. There’s reason. But I’m not going to make it rhyme.

The old patterns are back and mounds of frustration with them. Largely because there is literally nothing I can do about it now, nothing at all. I’ve exhausted all my resources and gotten no where. Like a dog chasing its tail, I’m all worn out but have gotten no where. A very expensive no where, thousands of dollars in legal fees, days spent in court, a year of insane stress crushing down on me. Very expensive indeed, a lot spent on a whole lot of nothing.

Round and about we went going no where, getting nothing but dizzy. And then it ended in a fizzle of stupid admonishments and court ordered counseling. All that and nothing to show, back to square one. Or negative zero. There were a few brief months of playing nice because you thought you’d won. I sure felt like I had lost so why not? Maybe you did. I’m pretty sure we’re all losers here though. And now it’s back to the basics, no new reality just the same old shit and bad behavior. The same guilt, spread thick, to manipulate and damage the kids. The same games, punishing me by not bringing them to their end of season awards banquet. The upset kid going to school and telling his teacher, as he fights back tears, that he won’t be going to middle school camp because it’s his dad’s week and his dad was making him feel bad about going to camp because his dad had plans for his birthday. The kid’s birthday. The kid who now feels guilty about going to camp with his classmates and friends because it happens to fall on his birthday. (But don’t tell my mom because then she’ll be mad at my dad.) The same kid who just now texts me from his brother’s phone to ask me to bring his camp stuff, clothes blankets, and all because it’s too much for his dad and step-mom to pack and prep these basic needs for the kids. Even though he’s at their house. But “Hey mom can you bring my stuff…Because my dad said since you signed me up that  you have to provide.”

It’s bullshit. It’s fucking bullshit, that’s what it is. What kind of asshole does this to his kids?

So, yeah, I’m a little angry again. I’m ranting and raving, shaking my fist at the sky. Trying hard not to let it seep from my pores. Trying not to let it dominate my life and steel my joy. Because there is joy to be had. Even with no good answers, no solution, just an awareness that this is the way things are. What can you do? Be the change you want to see? There is no fucking change! This is the perma state of life, your burden to bear, kids, and mine. The thing that will eventually fuck you up and already has me. All I can do is balance, and try not to eff you all up even more. Be steady, be calm and kind even when I’m writhing inside with a white hot anger. Good luck with that! Deep breath in, deep breath out. Punch the bag, this is why you have it, go for a run. One foot in front of the other, go go go…

Don’t Explain

Communication in relationships is hard. Even if you love (and maybe still like) the other person it’s challenging to communicate effectively on a day to day basis in a way that doesn’t build and foster resentment. Trying to communicate with someone you don’t live with anymore, don’t love anymore, and don’t even really like much is exponentially more difficult especially after you’ve gone round and about in the court system a couple of times. Unfortunately it’s also often necessary when kids are involved. And there’s no shortage of things you have to communicate about when you’re trying to co-parent.

Recently my ex-husband and I started attending “communications therapy”. It’s been almost three years since the finalization of our divorce and we basically communicate as little as possible. The pattern goes like this: Something happens or is coming up that (legally or logistically) requires us to coordinate or agree in some capacity, I email him, he ignores said email, whatever needs to be handled gets closer, I resend the email or email asking if he’s going to answer, he (finally) responds with as few actual answers as possible. Typically he’ll throw in an insult, snide comment, or ridiculous statement about me as a person or parent and half answer what ever needed to be addressed. If there’s something from his end that needs to be conveyed he usually tells the kids to tell me or talk to me about whatever. This pattern sucks and accomplishes nothing but frustration. On top of that it often puts the kids in the uncomfortable role of go-between.

Even though this communications therapy isn’t something either of us chose or was super excited about, it’s clearly something we can benefit from. I’m a little bit skeptical about how helpful it’ll be, mostly because my ex is very minimal in his participation, but it’s worth a try. And also it’s court ordered so there’s that.

We’ve had three sessions so far.

The emerging theme is that we somehow need to break the cycle of mutual distrust that feeds our dysfunctional communication. The problem is that neither of us is going to take the first step. We’re in a Mexican stand-off. But if nothing changes then…well, nothing changes. The therapist made the suggestion of stripping our communication down to the bare minimum for now. Exchange only the information necessary. Exasperated, I told her that that’s what I’ve been doing. I pulled up our most recent email exchange on my phone to illustrate my point.

“Look”, I said “this is what it is, when, how much, and why it needs to happen.”

At which point she stopped me saying that even the Why is too much right now. We’re not there yet. I was a little baffled. I think it showed on my face. It just makes sense to me to tell why whatever thing that’s going on actually needs attention. It’s part of the basic facts, at least in my mind it is. Why is important! It’s what makes it all make sense.

The therapist continued, saying when I start explaining why he might be thinking “Oh great, here she goes again. Nag nag nag, blah blah blah.” and then he stops hearing what I’m saying. The door of communication is closed. The why, my explanation, she said, might be a trigger for him. It’s part of the cycle that clearly needs to be broken.

This blew my mind a little. Something as basic as that was a trigger? That?!? That’s what gets his panties in a twist?

He didn’t respond but it made perfect sense. Years and years of communication dynamics with this guy who’s now basically a stranger but I still know so well came into focus. I could see it. Explaining. This was a thing that put him on the defense. This?!?

Back when we were dating and first married my ex-husband used to call me “Little Miss Know It All”. He meant it in an entirely endearing, condescending way. He always felt like I was trying to show off how smart I am and how much I know. Ironically I really don’t think I’m all that smart. I’m like Carry from The Incredibles…”Half the time I don’t even know what anyone is talking about.”

I do, however, have a tendency to try to explain myself. Until this therapist pointed it out to me I never even really noticed it. I mean, obviously I’m wordy. Even when I attempt to be succinct it’s a challenge. But I really did think I was just giving him the basics in these emails. Now I catch myself doing it frequently. When talking to my kids’ teachers or the school, in conversation with other parents, in the presentations for my lab class (it’s especially unhelpful in science writing where brevity is paramount), I hear myself giving reasons, almost excuses, telling why for everything. It’s like I feel like I have to justify and defend what I’m saying even when it’s something as basic as calling the school about a sick kid. Now that I notice it it’s driving me a little crazy.

The most ironic thing about this being a factor in our broken communication cycle is that this problem, my habit of explaining myself, was at very least perpetuated by the relationship dynamic of our marriage if not created by it. When dealing with my then husband I often felt the need to explain the why, to make excuses and justify myself to him. It was part of the tiptoeing process that dealing with him often required. The why served a purpose. But now it’s causing problems. Probably it always has, I’m just now able to identify that.

Self-awareness isn’t really my strong suit. I’m at least self aware enough to be aware of that. When I looked at the problem of communicating with my ex I could not say what I was doing wrong. Not because I think I’m so right all the time, but because I really could not tell what my part of the problem was.

Part of me is relieved to know what I can change to improve things and, hopefully, ease some of the discomfort of communicating with my ex-husband. A small par t of me is irritated though. Because I have to change to accommodate him. Again. I’m the one who needs to solve the problem. I need to adapt and change around him…even though he’s probably more of the problem than I am. Why is this on me? Why is it my responsibility to fix the problem? Why am the problem? All the bullshit he deals out and I’m the problem???

I’m not. Not really. But. I’m the one sitting here trying to solve the problem.  My choices are change or don’t. But if nothing changes then Nothing Changes. What’s worth more, digging my heels in on a matter of principal or adapting my communication style to more effectively communicate? To me it’s a slippery slope. A steep downhill with loose gravel. Yes, this one thing is not a big deal. But a lot of little deals equal a big deal. Where is the line? I’m pretty sure it’s written in invisible ink so you can’t see it until you’ve already crossed it.

Relationships are a series of compromises, of changing who you are to accommodate the other person so that you can co-exist and grow together. In a good, healthy relationship both people are actively and continuously changing and it makes things better. But there’s always the risk that this growth, this changing, won’t be balanced and that you will be the one doing the brunt of the leg work. The tough part about navigating a post-divorce relationship (well, one of the many tough parts) is that you already know this isn’t going to be a balanced, healthy relationship. That’s probably how you ended up divorced in the first place. But you are the only person you can change, you are the only one who you have control over, you can only determine your own actions, reactions, and behaviors… if you want something to change in your post-divorce interactions, you have to be the one to make the change happen.

So, here’s to putting on the adult pants (even though you’d prefer not to wear pants). Here’s to self awareness and changing. Here’s to baby steps towards a more functional co-parenting post-divorce relationship.

 

 

It’s 6 a.m. and Adele is on the radio.

Word to the wise, don’t listen to Adele at six in the morning after being up all night. Especially not this one and especially not on the third long night of work in a row…

It’s a lesson I learned the hard way this morning. All I needed was some sound to help pass the time in those few painful hours on the overnight shift where there’s not much to do and the drowse starts creeping in. I got more than I bargained for today though. Between her beautiful, sadly nostalgic songs and someone else’s bad divorce diatribe that I happened to read I started thinking about how things used to be. Not in a happy, the way things once were as viewed through rose colored glasses kind of way either. Some things can’t be viewed through rosy lenses even ten plus years later.

I’ve been working on writing my personal statement for the dental school application. Trying to find words to describe what I went through to get where I am and what it’s taught me is a challenge. Doing so in 4500 characters or less (including spaces) an even bigger one. If you haven’t noticed, being concise is not a strength of mine.This morning I started thinking about the semester I took the first organic chemistry and anatomy and physiology. There had to be another class or two in there as well but I don’t remember what. Maybe a math. Probably. Maybe that was the same semester I took online International Cinema; now that was a cool class. I don’t remember though, all I recall is that those two tough courses, both with labs, were on the same day.

At that time I had four young kids ages two, four, five or six, and seven. Two were in school already, two not. I took the younger ones with me to school and they went to the low-cost on campus childcare center while I was in class. That was two days a week. One of those two was my Very Long Day. I’d leave our crowded apartment with all four kids sometime before 8am to take the older two to school then sit in traffic on 23 stressing about whether or not I’d be able to find parking, get the other two checked in at the daycare, and be in class on time. Anatomy and Physiology lecture was first. Lab followed that and then maybe the ambiguous math class. After that I had a two hour break where I’d pick up the younger two from daycare and take them to my parents’ house about fifteen minutes from campus. I’d meet my husband there with the older two kids so he could go to work for the night. There was just enough time to decompress with my kids for a few minutes, make sure a parent or sibling was watching the four of them, and head back to school for organic chemistry lecture and lab. Four hours of organic chemistry that would end between 9 & 10 pm after which I’d head back to my parents to collect the kids and drive the forty-five minutes back home. There was a song by Blake Shelton that was getting a lot of radio play around that time called Home. I swear every week around 11:00pm on whichever day that was it would come on the radio just as my overly tired two year old who was fighting off sleep in his car seat would wake up and start crying that he wanted to be home.  As we were exiting the freeway just minutes from our beds, Blake Shelton would be crooning “I wanna go hoome..” and my exhausted baby would crying that he just wanted his home. Me too buddy, me too.

I remember sometime that same semester finding a small notebook my then-husband had used as a journal. I didn’t realize what it was until I had read things that couldn’t be unread. There are some things that can never be unseen, never unknown once they’re known. He had written in his tiny, neat handwriting that some guys at work had teased him about me trying to go to dental school so I could leave him and he was pretty sure that’s what was going on. I was pursuing a career in dentistry so I could mercilessly leave his sorry ass behind.  I was going to get through school and dump him. He was sure of it. It was a one-two punch to the gut for me. What do you even do with that kind of information? How do you carry on knowing that this person you’ve been married to for six or seven years now thinks you’re just using him to get through school and the you’re going to discard him like a dirty used glove, that he thinks you’re not only capable of that but most definitely planning on it? I’m not sure, you just kind of do. That doesn’t make it better.

If a picture is worth a thousand words what is a song worth? Ten million?

I reminisced about all this and a little more at six o’clock this morning and then thought about my feeble attempts to convey who I am, where I’ve come from, and why the powers that be should let me into their elite dental school. So far the few thousand words I’ve pounded out seem flat and dull on the paper…well, the computer screen. Some stories need to be told, I’m not sure this is one of them. There’s a right way to do this, ideal words to write,  but at six a.m. when Adele is playing on the radio all I see is the sadness.

The Trap

A couple weeks ago on a Thursday afternoon I got caught in a trap. It’s a common one. Usually I’m on alert for these types of things but for some reason that day I wasn’t. Maybe because it was sunny and I wasn’t ready for the week to end. Maybe I was tired; my youngest has been having a hard time going to sleep lately so I’ve had a hard time getting to sleep.
Who really knows. It just snuck up on me and I walked right into it in the form of ten dollar pizza. Usually a pizza is just a pizza. Sometimes it’s not; sometimes it’s guilt.
Yup, that’s right, guilt.
Divorced parenting guilt.
It’s like regular parenting guilt only a little more intense, a little stronger.
As if regular parenting guilt wasn’t enough. You know they always blame the mom right?
Anyhow, it was Thursday, switch day, and sunny. As usual my week with the kids passed too quickly. They go to their dad’s for the week just before dinner time, my kids. Shiny New Step-Mom would probably have dinner waiting for them. I bought pizza anyhow. It was only ten bucks but it was ten bucks I didn’t really have to throw away.
I threw it away anyhow.

This past Saturday I fell into that same trap. In my defense it was dressed differently and I have poor facial recognition skills. It may have looked different but it was the same trap.
A friend of my daughter’s called. They had an extra ticket to the friend’s dance recital. It was a busy day already and we were tightly booked between a run in the morning and plans in the afternoon. But this was a long time friend, she switched schools last year, and they hadn’t seen each other in a while. So I made it work.
It was frustrating. I don’t know why I did it. I ran around, a little bit late, a lot stressed, and made it work so my daughter could see her friend. As I was doing it I told myself how stupid it was, saying yes when I knew I should’ve said no. I thought of how we seemed to always be running late, how our friends would be waiting for us at the U-pick strawberry farm that was a much farther drive for them than it was for us. How rude! I hate being rude (unless I’m actually trying to be rude which is almost never). I thought about all the time I spend running kids to friends’ houses and how that cuts into my already limited time with them. There is NEVER enough. Then I remembered my daughter needed to go ride her pony because I had failed to get her out to ride the day before. Well that just wasn’t going to happen now.
Layer upon layer of frustration!
But they don’t get to see their friends when they’re with their dad, my kids.
So I always make it work. I say yes when I should say no.
Why? I just do.
Probably the guilt again.

Then there’s the classic bedtime trap. I’m pretty sure all parents are familiar with this one.
As I mentioned my youngest has been having bedtime troubles. He’s four and I’m pretty sure he hates our week on/week off parenting time schedule almost as much as I do but no one listens to four year olds.
Last night was typical. It was late, after 10:30, and he had been “in bed” for about an hour. We had read four stories, he had played on my phone, he asked for his usual snack (which he never wants at the beginning of bedtime when I offer it to him), calm music was playing, the room was dark with the requisite closet light on, the fan was blowing directly on him: conditions were perfect but sleep was not happening. It was knocking on the door but the little bastard just wouldn’t let it in. He was fighting it hard core and ,let me tell you, that boy can fight!
Around 11:00 he played the “lay down with me, mommy” card.
Like I said, a classic trap.
They’re so close to sleep when they look up at you with the heavy eyelids they’re struggling to keep open and ask in their sweet, sleepy little voice. You know it’ll only take a moment of cuddling next to them in bed to tip them over the edge. But you also know THIS IS A TRAP!
Not only will they be asleep in moments, so will you. You’d lay next to them “for just a minute” and wake up hours later groggy and disoriented.
I could not afford to fall in this trap last night. I still needed to go grocery shopping. Like really needed to go grocery shopping.
Yes, at eleven o’clock at night. That’s how it goes sometimes.

empty fridge
Just in case you thought I had my shit together.

Guilt, that wily beast who so cleverly disguises itself, is hiding in everyday activities and occurrences strategically located at the top of a slippery slope.
It’s not the guilt itself that’s the real problem; everyone steps in the guilt trap now and again. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t.
The real problem comes when you stumble onto the hornets nest guilt has laid in your path on a regular basis. When you gradually and suddenly find yourself frustrated, angry, and unhappy because guilt is running your life. That’s the thing of it, you have to pay attention or guilt will sneak up on you like it did on me. Before you know it guilt will be dictating your decisions and controlling your day to day life.
And, guess what, your day to day life…that’s it.
That IS your life.

What’s the point of it, all these emotions? Guilt, anger, fear, whatever.
Some people say you have a choice, you choose what you feel. I don’t buy that. I don’t want to be angry. Fear holds me back. And guilt, guilt is just annoying. If I had a choice I wouldn’t encounter these emotions and life would be grand. It just doesn’t work that way though.
We feel what we feel. It’s a chemical thing.
That’s not to say we don’t have any choices or that we can or should let our emotions dictate our lives. Let’s not get crazy here, people. Wile we may not choose what feelings wash over us we do have a choice as to what we do with those emotions. Guilt is no exception.

The other day the ice cream truck was driving through the neighborhood for the first time this summer. I gave my son two dollars and told him to get something for himself and his younger brother. A few minutes later, with popsicles in hand, the two boys brought me back a dollar. I commented that they could’ve gotten their two older brothers popsicles as well. My son felt pretty bad about it. I didn’t think it was a big deal.
A few hours later at bedtime my son brought it up again; he felt so bad for not getting the other two boys popsicles. In an attempt to reassure him that the popsicle thing really wasn’t a big deal I gave my so some advice that maybe I needed to hear too.
“When you make a mistake in life learn from it then let it go and move on.”

So now that I’ve encountered a couple of guilt traps in the past couple weeks I’m on high alert. Hopefully I’ll take my own advice: learn something and move on.
Maybe that should be my new motto.