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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Landmines Everywhere

Is that your leg over there on the other side if the room?

You stepped in something, didn’t even see it coming but it all just blew up. Debris everywhere.
On the surface it was a harmless (though slightly rude) comment about the state of my tub. You said “Looks like your shower could use a little bleach.” It caught me off guard; I didn’t realize right away that you had hit a trigger.
Oh but you did! Boy did you ever.

By the time you left a few hours later I was feeling slightly off about this whole thing but couldn’t pinpoint why. I thought it was because we’d seen each other three times in barely over a week. That’s kind of a lot for me, maybe I just needed some space. The next morning though I was restless, edgy & anxious. I went for a run, trying to avoid the panic that was setting in. I ran until I was out of time but it was my fastest five miles maybe ever. It’s good to know I can still out run the demons. I hadn’t realized they were still giving chase; they’ve been quiet for some time now.
It was something but not quite enough. After work I didn’t go home. I didn’t want to be alone in my head. It was still a little messy in there. Not quite okay, feeling a little off, but I couldn’t put my finger on the source of this sudden angst. So I hit the Self-destruct button. Hard. Drinks. Flirting with strangers. 3 am drunk texts to the wrong person and all that implies. It wasn’t smart. Sometimes I’m not smart. I panicked. After a slap on the ass and a “thanks for the good time..no,no don’t get up I’ll just see myself out” I walked home, tired but at least able to breath.

Why? Did I just need to prove to myself that I wasn’t cornered? Then it hit me, like a ton of bricks, like Wylie Coyote’s anvil falling from the sky: that comment, the one about the grime in my bathtub, it was all a little too familiar. You said That needs to be cleaned (and maybe it does). It might have been a simple observation but I heard “You’re not enough. You need to be better.” the same way I’d heard it for years back in another life. In the subtle digs and little bits of criticism slipped in an otherwise innocent conversation, in the undermining of everything positive that had transpired, in the blatant accusations that I was always doing something wrong and falling short just by being who I am because, well, it was never enough.

I knew there would be some murky waters and hidden dangers getting back into this whole dating with the prospect of a relationship thing. I thought I was ready for that. I’d done some scouting and prepared myself, stayed vigilant but still this one caught me off guard. Even as the body parts were flying as the explosion ripped through the ambiance I couldn’t tell what it was. Now, though, that one’s been found. It’s marked and identified. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Key to Happiness is Low Expectations.

said Barry Scwartz (His actual wording is “The secret to happiness is low expectations.”).
I kind of thought I said it first, that it was an original idea of my very own. Turns out Solomon (ya know, the biblical guy) was right when he said “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Or something to that effect.
So this guy Barry Schwartz has a whole book about low expectations leading to higher levels of happiness. I haven’t read it but I did watch his TED talk about the book which is called “The Paradox of Choice”. It frames the concept of low expectations contributing to happiness in the context of choices; I came to this conclusion based more on my interactions with people.

Another way I’ve phrased it, to myself, is “The key to not being disappointed is low expectations.”
This idea is one I developed over the past couple years of life experiences. After being let down, stood up, blown off, and generally disappointed with people it occurred to me over and over that if I expect less from people I won’t be disappointed and angry when they aren’t there for me or don’t follow through with what they say they’re going to do. They would merely live up to my expectations of them.
Maybe this sounds cynical or pessimistic. I won’t deny being a little cynical at times but I think , in this case, I’m just being realistic.

Think about a movie that has gotten a lot of media hype. The reviews are great, the ratings are high. You go to see it with high expectations. Chances are you are going to be disappointed. Your preconceived ideas of what the movie should be lead to a less than satisfactory experience when you actually get around to see the movie.
Now think of the last movie you saw that you just didn’t expect that much from.
You weren’t disappointed were you? Chances are it was either exactly as bad as you expected it to be or you were pleasantly surprised. You thought it was going to be terrible and ,hey, it really wasn’t that bad…maybe it was even good. The blogger Ladygoogoogaga gives a pretty hilarious example of this.

An experience I had Last Mother’s Day shows the relationship between expectations and happiness and how it played out in my life.
I work every other weekend and my kids are with their dad on the weekends I work. Last year I worked Mother’s Day weekend but my ex-husband oh so generously let me take the kids for the day on Mother’s Day. I went straight from working a twelve hour night shift to his house to pick up the kids.
I just wanted to see my kids and have a nice Mother’s Day with them. You know, like in all the Hallmark commercials, full of smiles, sunshine, and happiness.
I knew they were alone so I called to tell them I was on my way. When I arrived they were not ready to leave. A couple of them were in a less than good mood, maybe they had been fighting with each other like siblings do. I was a little annoyed. My daughter and second to youngest son said “Happy Mother’s Day” and my daughter had made me a card. That was nice.
My oldest two gave me attitude.
That was not.
When we got back to my house the kids made me lunch…because I told them to. Then we all sat down to a rather grouchy meal.
At that point I remember thinking “I thought this would be a nice day, I should’ve just slept.” I was expecting to be appreciated and to enjoy time with my kids. That is the point of the day right? Most my kids are old enough to know and do something about this.
A little later that day my eight year old son told me that their dad had told them they “would probably have a new step-mom by this time next year” in reference to the woman he’d been dating for a month. Happy fucking Mother’s Day to me!
Here’s the thing, I was super tired. My kids were tired and probably having a bad weekend. Expecting a pleasant and lovely day was unrealistic and not especially fair to them. If I was more in touch with reality that day I would not have been so disappointed.

Here’s another example. There was this guy I would go out with from time to time. He always said nice things and really seemed to enjoy our time together. We’d make plans to go out and he’d say he was looking forward to it. Then five out of six times he would cancel on me. Sometimes the day before. Once or twice I would be on my way to meet him and he’d call or text with something that had come up. Each time I would be frustrated and upset. But every few weeks I’d make plans with him again. Most of the time I ended up alone, upset, and extremely disappointed.
This went on for a few months.
I let this go on for a few months.
I don’t think he was lying to me or making up excuses because he didn’t want to see me. I just think he had a lot of family drama to deal with and didn’t realize how much he was letting me down.
Obviously he was not a reliable person but I kept expecting him to be.
We all know at least one person like that.
We also all know or have had interactions with someone who is just a jerk.
I know everyone is a jerk or behaves badly once in a while; that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about individuals who make a habit of it. They repeatedly treat people close to them badly. They’re inherently selfish and can be pretty mean. Hopefully you’re not close to someone like that. It’s not a fun place to be. But if someone has been a jerk to you or treated you badly over and over again chances are high that they will treat you badly in the future. Expecting them to suddenly be or act differently is unrealistic and is only setting yourself up to be treated badly.
It’s like expecting Eminem to release a kid friendly album. It’s just not going to happen; that’s not who he is. He even says it in one of the songs on his latest album, “Everyone knows you are just an asshole” (referring to himself).
He’s not going to change. He’s going to be what he is and what he’s shown himself to be.

image

To expect anything different would be silly.

I’m not by any means saying you should settle for or allow yourself to be treated badly.
I’m not saying you need to lower your standards in life.
Not at all.
Have standards. Have high standards. You deserve to be respected, to be treated with dignity.
Every human being does.
But you should have realistic expectations for people. There are no perfect people especially in relationships. If you’re waiting for prince charming or that perfect woman, guess what.
You will always be disappointed.

image

Life isn't a fairy tale, you're not Snow White.

Having unobtainable ideals will guarantee that no one will live up to them. You are setting yourself up to be unhappy either with the person you do find or because you just can’t find anyone good enough.
People are who they are; you can’t change them but you can change your expectations for them and be less disappointed. If you have to lower your expectations too much then maybe that isn’t a person you should have in your life.

A conversation between my co-blogger(and friend and co-worker) and myself last night summed up the point I’m trying to make. The question was asked “What one person, dead or alive, would you have coffee with if you had the chance?”
I said Batman.
image

She said her great-grandfather.
She knew him and admired him when she was very young and he was very old.
She said she’d like the chance to get to actually know who he was as a person. My response was “But what if you find out that he was a douche bag?” Yeah, I know, real mature language.
But what if you found out that someone you admired as a young child was not nice or not the person you had thought they were? Not only would you feel let down and disappointed, but the cherished memories you had of that person would also be ruined. It would be a major disillusionment.
She said that No, she wouldn’t be disillusioned or admire him any less because she “wouldn’t expect him to be anything less than human.”
How she remembered him would still make him the person he was to her.
Basically our conversation boiled down to this:
It is unfair to other people and especially to ourselves to expect people to be anything other than who they are.
Lower your expectations and you will not be disappointed.
Maybe it’ll even allow you to be happy.