At 25, I knew far less than I thought I did about dating and relationships. This news will not come as a surprise to many of the young women I dated in my 20s.
Neither will it be a surprise that in the context of a discussion of a “regret free” life, the subject of bad dates/relationships inevitably bubbles up.
“I stayed in that relationship too long…” “I wish I had the nerve to ask her out…” “And that was the last time I drank tequila after midnight…”
Despite the risk of regret, we press on in pursuit of that next great love. The reason being: great romantic relationships are the foundation of an extraordinary life. They are one dimension of our life through which we have the ability to meet all of our basic human needs – Certainty, Excitement, Significance, Connection, Growth and Contribution – at a very high, sustained, level.
To this point, one of my favorite pieces of research is the “Grant Study” – a longitudinal study following the lives of 268 Harvard undergrads from the early 1940s. These kids were the “best of the best” – considered superlative in every way. [Though most participants remained anonymous, it was revealed, following his death, that John F. Kennedy was a “Grant man.”] For 70 years, researchers tracked every aspect of these lives – physical, emotional, spiritual – through regular surveys and interviews. Finally, in 2008, the lead researcher declared that the only difference between the lives of the very sad and the very successful, was the quality of their relationships with other people.
The opposite of a quality relationship is a tactical relationship – e.g. when a relationship (or the avoidance of relationship) is used tactically, to fill a gap/plug a hole in your life. Regret is inevitable in this situation – you end up getting hurt, or hurting someone else. Three common examples of this phenomenon that I hear from my coaching clients:
- One Night Stands: Quick shot of Significance (I got picked up at a bar!), Excitement (I didn’t even know his name!) and Connection (physical, nothing more). But what do you feel the next morning? Anger (I can’t believe I just did that…), Indecision (is he going to call?), Embarrassment (I am better than that) and, paradoxically, a heightened sense of Loneliness.
- I Only Date “Beautiful” People: If you can find one who will have you, Significance (Yup, she’s with me!), Certainty (my work may be unfulfilling, but I’m still dating the prettiest girl in the bar…) and Connection (text message from your friend: we’ve got to hang out! I want to hear stories!) may follow. But what happens a few weeks later, following your 5th or 6th uninspired dinner conversation? Boredom, Embarrassment and, as above, the heightened sense of Loneliness you feel just before you break things off.
- No Dating: To some, nothing brings a greater sense of Certainty than staying in on a Friday night without a date. Significance is easy to find too – you’ve got too much work to have a relationship, right? “No time for love right now.” (My Capitol Hill friends have seen this a time or two). And, paradoxically, this self-imposed celibacy can be a great source of Connection, as well. How? When you go to bed at night thinking about how badly you would like to have someone in your life, you are connecting with yourself at a frighteningly deep level. The alternative? A relationship that blows your hair back…waking up every day with next to a person you can’t imagine life without: Certainty, Connection, Significance at levels you’ve never experienced before…
A great relationship can – and will – blow your hair back; psychologically speaking: it can and will meet all of your needs at a high level. The key to finding one is to attract a variety of people to you, and then choose a romantic partner who aligns – at the intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical levels – with who you are and what you want (Note: This is another manifestation of Regret Free Life decision-making; success presupposes that you know who you are and what you want).
Below, a couple of practical, Regret Free ideas on how to apply this in practice.
- Have a good bar pitch. Nobody meets in a bar, right? No – that’s what guys and girls who are too afraid to approach members of the opposite sex tell themselves after coming home empty handed 5 hours, $50 bucks and 10 Miller Lites/ 5 RBVs later. That said, the initial “Hey, my name’s…” can take a little courage so when you finally get her attention, you’ve got to make it count. The key is a good “bar pitch.” The bar pitch is your story, your vision, of the world you want to live in. It’s an introduction to you and an invitation to join you – on the extraordinary life you aspire to lead. It has to be a clear, sincere, and compelling reflection of who you are and what you want. It won’t appeal to every guy or girl you meet – if it does it’s not unique enough – but the more people you meet, the more likely you will be to find someone who shares, and complements, that vision.
- Have a great first date. You need a “go-to” first date. A great time that reinforces your bar pitch; giving your date further visibility into the kind of person you are, and the kind of life you want to lead. Forget dinner and a movie. All that tells her is that you lack the creativity and energy to 1) come up with an original/authentic first date and 2) maintain an engaging discussion for the balance of the date. You need a first date that highlights who you are and the things you most like to do – and do well. It’s not about showing off; it’s about letting them see your “best self.” Again, if this image is clear and compelling, you will find someone who shares and complements it. Note: this advice is as much for gals as for guys.
- Have a “first love.” In my 20s I used to tell friends that I fully expected “lightning to strike” – in other words, the woman of my dreams would enter my life like a lightning bolt; I would know immediately that she was “the one.” And, as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened – but it was for me, not for her. My future wife wouldn’t give me the time of day for 3 months! When we did finally start dating I realized why – she had a million other things going on in her life: other passions, hobbies and interests that she prioritized at the same level as her romantic relationships. I was hooked from the start. As a general rule, if you want to find a lasting and rewarding romantic love, you have to love something else first. It doesn’t matter what it is – running, reading, painting, stamp collecting, whatever. The benchmark: something that you would do whether you have a boyfriend/girlfriend or not; something that you do enough to do well. If you are reading this right now and saying to yourself: “I don’t really have a ‘first love’…” then consider this a warning. Find one. And then allow yourself enough time to pursue, and get good at, it.
The presence of this “first love” creates a foundation for two critical components of any long and happy relationships:
- Shared activity. Any relationship that is going to meet your needs over time requires it (meeting needs of Excitement, Growth and Connection, among others). A good example: One of my favorite things is whitewater kayaking – a popular sport here in DC. My wife (girlfriend at the time) saw my enthusiasm for it and decided to give it a try. She took a lesson, and when I came back a couple hours later I found her soaking wet…but smiling ear-to-ear. I loved her that little bit more that day.
- A precedent for adventure. The shared activity you ultimately settle on needn’t be your “first love” or hers. Most important is that you establish, as a foundation of the relationship, that you will have the kind of adventure / excitement in your life as a couple, as you did as single people. Sarah and I finished our SCUBA certification recently and are making plans for a kite-surfing camp this summer. These are two passions that we didn’t have before we met, but are pursuing together. The relationship gets stronger with each new adventure.
As always, here’s a few perspectives from some smart 30-somethings on dating /relationships in your 20s…
- “Playing the game” is bullshit. Approaching situations honestly and transparently is [almost always] the best option. In business and love – make known what you are trying to achieve. The opposition knows anyway. [Note: my wife disagrees with this advice!]
- Find a partner that is more than just “fun.” We all want somebody who is going to be there when we lose a job, when our parents die, when life throws us curve balls. If the person you are dating isn’t capable of being there for you in those times, cut them loose.
- Don’t get married or have children till your later twenties at the earliest.
- Unless you’re going to get married, don’t get involved in personal relationships at the office
- Do not invest in relationships that have no future. For most people, your dating life is about finding a mate. We all know when the person we’re dating is not “the one.” Stay friends and move on.
- An old rancher once told me, “Never tighten a wire gate so tight that your wife can’t open it.”