I hate to break it to you, but when it comes to dating, I think we may be doing it wrong. Let me explain.
Laura, a 32-year-old CEO of a high-powered tech company, walks into my office and immediately starts to cry. She is bereft because she cannot find love. After a painful breakup in her late 20’s, Laura promised herself she would go on at least two dates a week to maximize her chances of finally meeting the right man. Though she applies herself rigorously to “husband hunting” as if it were a second job, she explains that no matter how hard she tries, nothing seems to work: “It’s like I’m numb – There’s just no spark with any of these guys. What’s wrong with me?” To add insult to injury, her mother thinks she is just being too picky and has spent the last month researching places for Laura to freeze her eggs in order to avoid a “geriatric pregnancy.”
Laura is not that unlike Kyle, a 27-year-old musician who came into treatment stating that despite being a healthy young man, he is having trouble maintaining an erection. Half of his nights are spent hustling at gigs, while the other half are spent hustling on apps to get dates, wooing women into bed only to frustratingly find himself unable to perform: “I don’t know what happens. It’s like I get too in my head or something and then I can’t feel anything anymore.” Exhausted, Kyle states that at this point, he puts just as much pressure on himself to date as he does to perform on stage. When asked if he would consider slowing down and limiting himself to one date a week, he explained he felt he had to maintain his pace because this is the “prime of his life” and if he doesn’t meet someone now, he likely never will.
As a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York, I specialize in helping people navigate the challenges of dating in our modern-day romantic landscape. Consequently, my practice is full of Lauras and Kyles. And don’t get me wrong, I also see Lauras who have difficultly orgasming or becoming aroused, and Kyles who are searching fruitlessly for their romantic ideal. Either way, the issue remains the same:
With love just one swipe away, we have become convinced that our romantic fate lies squarely in our hands – literally – and that meeting “our person” predominantly depends on how hard we are willing to work to find them.
While there is truth to this statement in that the search for love requires some effort – we do indeed have to put ourselves out there – we may have overestimated just how much effort is required. For example, many of us now feel that if we are not on multiple apps at a time, swiping before bed, swiping while in the bathroom, sliding into people’s DMs, and arranging multiple dates with strangers each week, then we may as well resign ourselves to a sad, lonely life with our sole companion an emotional support dog (who has to love us because we feed him), living for the occasional psychic reading in which we are told, yet again, that love is just around the corner.
So, the pressure is on.
But here’s the rub; love is not entirely in our control. And finding it does not directly correlate with how hard we search. In fact, the more we think love is up to us, the more aggressively we hunt, play the “numbers game,” and strategize, all of which paradoxically inhibit feeling. And love is a feeling. It is a natural, emotional process felt in our bodies.
But when it comes to finding love in the modern day, I fear most of us have left our bodies and unwittingly begun to mirror online dating sites by becoming robotic, rather than romantic, in our quest. In short, we’ve gamified love and so often play to the point of diminishing returns.
To provide you with a simpler example of how this works, let’s look at sneezing. Have you ever wondered why the moment you pause and say, “Wait, I’m going to sneeze!” you don’t? The same is true of sexual arousal and love. When we anticipate, plan, or even worse, try to “figure out” a felt experience, we shift from being present in our bodies and move into our minds, which can stop the flow of a natural process in its tracks. And for human beings, loving is not only a natural process, but it is the most fundamental natural process. Evolutionarily, love – including attachment, connection, and procreation – is the only reason we as a species have survived. Rather than stepping back and allowing ourselves to be driven by this age-old process, millennials (surprise, surprise) have decided to take the wheel. The problem is, we don’t actually know the way. Instead of sitting with the unknown, we’ve made up directions and clung to them desperately in the hopes we’ll eventually arrive at our destination. However, when it comes to this sort of terrain, we’d almost be better off driving with our eyes closed; as the Doc in Back to the Future said, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
There are no directions. There are no checklists. There’s no “to do” when it comes to love, there’s only “to feel” and feeling cannot be predetermined, it cannot be forced. It arises when we move from our heads into our hearts, stay present, and let go; when we drop our typical millennial, achievement-driven style and instead, remember, the only thing truly in our control is our ability to surrender.
The next time you’re feeling “behind in love” and your first impulse is to try to catch up, work harder, and put more pressure on yourself, it may be worth taking a different approach. It’s as if love were a pea on your plate you repeatedly tried to stab with a fork, but kept missing. Perhaps it’s time to try a spoon. So, perhaps it’s time to let go of timelines and remind yourself on a daily basis that romance is non-linear, that it is not a step-by-step process in which it takes “x” amount of time to fall; it only takes one spark to start a fire. Perhaps it’s time to return to your body, to surrender to the more painful feelings associated with being alone, like longing, loneliness, and frustration, so that you can more readily surrender to the magic of love when it comes your way. And lastly, perhaps it’s time to give up on how hard you’ve been searching and realize that you do not have to do all of the work yourself. After all, your partner is out there, looking for you too.
*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect patient anonymity.
Dr. Jordana Jacobs is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City specializing in love and loss. Her approach is integrative, combining psychodynamic and existential therapy into her treatment of patients. Dr. Jacobs’ training at Memorial Sloan Kettering working with terminally ill cancer patients, her studies in Northern India, and her Vipassana meditation practice inspired her research on the complex relationship between death awareness and love. Her dissertation, entitled “Till Death do us Part: The Effect of Mortality Salience on Satisfaction in Long-term Romantic Relationships” specifically explored the ways in which priming for death has the potential to increase intimacy in partnerships. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Jacobs now gives talks and leads meditations aimed towards helping people accept inevitable mortality so that they are able to live and love more fully.