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um, why are you proposing to me?

A recent reader of The Modest Milkshake wrote in for some relationship advice. I welcome this (see below to submit yours). Here’s her question:

Dearest Leah, I like what you said about feeling love for someone. Someone is paying attention to me and I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t think I like him back. Help? ” – Leti

Well Leti, as enjoyable as the thought of admiration can be, it can come to us in as many different forms as there are colors in a rainbow. Though these forms of kindness or affection can be helpful in progressing towards a relationship, sometimes we’re left feeling like we may have given someone the wrong impression just by being our kind and friendly-selves. We benefit and grow (sometimes “or grow”) from all types of relationships. The inclination to make an instant determination over whether or not I like someone is one of the things I dislike the most about being single. I don’t like telling someone that I don’t value them. I have also felt like I’ve been proposed to by complete strangers. Someone paying attention to you could lead you down a complicated path, but I don’t think it needs to be a dark one.

People in relationships value kindness from others differently.

While married, the people in our lives come-and-go and go-and-come without us having to make a final decision in the first 30 minutes of whether or not we need or want them with us 24/7 for the rest of forever.  While dating, I sometimes find myself making a final decision before I have even tasted the food we ordered. Alternately, If I was at lunch with an associate- I may notice what I don’t like about him or her, but it doesn’t come up. I can finish my meal without having to resort to bad jokes or stop caring about them just because they aren’t of long-term value to me. Single-hood may not seem to be the ideal realm for expanding our friendships- but it could and should be.

My “Dating Pressure Cooker” analogy might help you build in some realistic expectations as much as it has helped me.

Jedd, Joni and the Pressure Cooker

One sunny day, Jedd tells Joni he likes her. Joni smiles at Jedd and batts her eyelashes a little because she liked the way his dimple held a little extra scruff in it on Tuesdays. He’s always saying such cute things and she knows it. (Heaven forbid I write trashy novels). Anyways, Joni isn’t sure if she likes anything else about him but his looks. Jedd starts bringing her lunch, calling her to say goodnight, texting to say good morning, and asks her out for their second date.  After their first kiss he’s pushing for a change in relationship status on Facebook and wondering about her ring size. Joni feels like she had fun, but she is wondering about dating someone else next weekend. Joni declines the change in status and stops returning calls. Jedd cancels the visit his parents were making to come meet her.

When we rush, pressure, or make decisions too quickly– we are often just in love with our own high-expectations and desired outcomes!

Anyone can tell you they like hiking or walking on the beach, but how much more real is it when you notice how happy they are while you are on an actual hike with them. Though the entire process of getting to know someone can feel kind of messy and confusing, I made a decision that I would try to do a little better to enjoy my future opportunities to get to know someone or to let them have their wish to get to know me. This is what I came up with to take pressure out of dating:

The Circle of Exploration

I'm interested in getting to know you text points to a circle with the word exploration

If you’re interested in getting to know someone better, even way better, take a small step into a “Circle of Exploration”. It’s a good and reasonable step forward. I’m going to tell you first what it’s not: “Hi, we just met”,  followed by 6-10 phone calls a day, wedding planning, unloading all your past experiences and pains, asking for advice on your upcoming custody-related court date.  No-no-no-no-no! I’m not discouraging excitement and hope in the future, just not excitement and hope in a future home that hasn’t even got a foundation poured yet. Think of how long it takes for something to grow. There are good examples of this all around us. It takes a good long season in the sun (and rain) for fruit to grow. Even if you see fruit, it takes months for the ripening process to be complete. You don’t have to take forever in your exploration phases, but you need to be wise and careful.

If there’s one thing I can caution against, from my personal experience, it is assuming that you have spent a lot of time in the circle of exploration before you have even met someone in person.

Phone call get-to-know-you’s are a limited view of the entire person and their personality. I have two real-life personal examples that I’ll share with the hopes of helping you avoid the same awkwardness. Names have been changed to protect the sweet-yet no longer on speed-dial.

The first time he called me the restaurant he owned in South New York was being robbed. In a state of panic he dialed the number I had provided after a few messages back and forth on an online dating site. I immediately offered and encouraged him to hang up and dial the police. Someone else had made the call and the cops were on their way. So, we shot the breeze while he was crouched on the pavement hiding behind a Moped in the front parking lot. He was fun to talk to and I didn’t think we would ever meet. I would tell him about my dating adventures and we would laugh. He told me stories about growing up and we would laugh. One night he told me he had been looking at a photo of me for hours. I suggested he go outside and get some fresh air. Months went by and it just seemed like we were two strangers with the words “single” , “cool” and “bored” in common. There were conversations that I treasured, though I would usually respond to him like he wasn’t really real. I didn’t feel emotionally attached to him. Maybe I was kidding myself.

We planned some pretty good fake-family vacations. We would joke about how wonderful it was to be divorced. Sometimes I would tease him by saying that I was convinced that he was just my mom with a voice-changer trying to keep me company.  “I don’t even know if you’re legit. You could be one of Jabba’s bounty hunters- and that would be a deal breaker!” I would say to try to get him to leave me alone. But the phone calls were fun and he was hard to resist. Months went by.  One day I asked him if he was really just a woman with a low voice who’s cable was turned off and I was just a cheaper option. He told me he was in his SUV and was planning to drive 100 miles an hour for the next 6 hours to come meet me. It took him 8 and a half.

At 4am a complete stranger was at my door and he wanted to come in. Here was a real person. He smelled like a real person. I tried to process it all as quick as I could. It was harder than I thought.

Guys are always better looking in person. I know it’s not always the same experience for men, but this guy looked at me like he had known me for years. What had I done? Could this be what I had been hoping for? We sat quietly and starred at each other. I made french toast and tried to introduce him to my kids. He knew their names. Was I crazy? I knew his kids names too.  Yah, I hadn’t realized that it would all matter. We spent the day golfing and he showed me his ID cards to prove his identity. He was handsome alright. But I felt like a stranger held me in his arms.

Yes really, a tall dark, curly haired handsome stranger was kissing me and I wanted to get out of the car. He leaned back and said, “My friends think I’m crazy but I know you are the one.” He then showed me house plans, told me what price range my choice of ring would be in, and said he had his real estate agent on speed dial and all I had to say was yes.  I played dumb but I sounded dumb. We drove back to my place in silence. He asked if he could stay the night. I told him no and to go get a hotel room. He said, “If I can’t stay the night then I’m driving back tonight.” I stood there and cried quietly. This rejection would mean that I would never see him again. Isn’t this what I had wanted so badly in my first year of being single?  Someone to just show up, propose and swoop me away into the warm sunset? There was no warm sunset. He drove away and I made my kids dinner, climbed into bed alone and cried myself to sleep. I didn’t miss the man that I had met that day, but I missed my phone calls with him.

I wish I didn’t have so many dating stories. Here’s another lesson learned. Bless his heart, Trucker Dude “Dan” liked to call me every-time he was headed out on a three hour drive to Wyoming. We met online. I had access to a picture of a hat and a fish and sunglasses with what I had thought might be a handsome man crouched next to a river and a once sentence self-description, “I’m fun and I like to have fun”. He didn’t seem available to meet in person but his voice and the stories that went with it were entertaining. I humored him because I was bored and had never considered what it would be like to be in a relationship with a man like this. I was finally too curious for my own good. I didn’t want to go down that well traveled road of strange stranger dating. I told him I couldn’t talk to him anymore because I had decided that he wasn’t really a trucker, just another board single man looking for entertainment. Well guess what?

He pulled over on the side of the road that same hour and insisted meeting me at the local Applebee’s. I laughed as I drove up. The restaurant looked ridiculously small with a two trailer semi-truck parked next to it. It could have been a nice discussion (like we had enjoyed on the phone), but instead he unloaded his insecurities–covering the table like all you can eat appetizers. Maybe these were his bad jokes and he wasn’t interested in me. Either way, I didn’t enjoy my meal and I left knowing far far too much about his financial situation, his past marriages, and his reasons for keeping a hat on in a public place. It felt like we were breaking up and we had just met. Hours on the phone can help you get to know little more than how they talk to strangers on the phone. 

When The Exploration Circle is used well, people can opt out at any time and keep the friendship.

Imagine that! The freedom to run into one another without an awkward silence. Even at an awkward singles dance. When there is a mutual decision to move forward, you can then think of it as another great opportunity to enjoy another exploration circle. An opportunity to learn more, share more and explore more without having to draw a straight line from that first smile to the wedding day. Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.43.18 PM

This exploration phase of get-to-know you (and who they really are) is great for you too! You get to share who you are little by little. Instead of being over-eager to tell someone everything about you, allow the questions and awareness to come naturally. Here are a few things you can watch for:

  • What makes them happy?
  • How do they treat people when they are upset?
  • How do they treat you when they are upset at others?
  • How do they treat you when you are upset at others?
  • How do they deal with their ex (Does a non-emergent message, call or email from them ruin the entire night you had planned to enjoy?)
  • How do they talk about their kids?
  • Do they scrape their teeth on their fork or vice versa? (lol just kidding, I mean that could be really hard, but that’s not really the worst thing possible, is it?)
  • Do they listen when you talk about your kids?
  • How do they talk about the future?
  • How do they define good and bad?
  • How do they show they care for you?
  • How do they react when you tell them you are sad about something?
  • How do they respond when you show your care about them?
  • How do they react to a complement from you? (dimples or not)

Not a single one of these questions has a right answer, nor does any one of them have to be a deal breaker.  They can however, definitely tell you a little more about the reality of who they are and who you are when you are around them.  This exploration circle feels good to be inside. It takes time. Get to know someone by who they really are instead of by just reading their profile page in a dating site. Though you can’t always tell whether or not it’s a match made in heaven online, you can find and increase your comfort level through getting to know someone hour by hour, day by day, moment by moment. If you lose track of time and build some great memories in the process then enjoy those happy moments. Be grateful for what gift of sincere kinship you have shared.

Answering this question gave me a smile, thanks Leti! I’m wishing you the best as you discern the value in taking opportunities to get to know those who are hoping to get to know you!

Is there a question you have about post divorce dating or relationships? I’ll give supporting you my best shot. Being single is hard enough- being virtuous and striving for the best we can be – makes it easier. I’m here to cheer us on!

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