I'm getting too much information!
October 25, 2007 6:41 PM   Subscribe

I am studying to become a psychologist with a sub-specialty in interpersonal relations. I am 30 and single for the first time in 11 years. With everything I learn about relationships I feel a little more disheartened. Now I'm starting to feel at a loss. The things I learn about attraction I think about applying to any potential mate. I feel like I would be cheating in doing so.

The heuristics I'm learning about attraction, relationships, and commitment make me feel like I will have a hard time getting into another serious relationship. I know realistically this isn't true. I am intelligent, definitely attractive, and at this point- a woman who knows exactly what she is looking for. Help me reconcile my academic knowledge about relationships, my past personal experience, and my future prospects. Part of me is starting to get scared that I will become a 30-something cat lady who is too involved in academia to find love. I know this is irrational. Please help me figure out how to set this all right in my mind.
posted by MayNicholas to Human Relations (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Let love find you. It will knock your socks (and everything else) off. No time for intellectualizing then.
posted by pammo at 6:46 PM on October 25, 2007

I feel like I'll be a cat lady who is too involved in academics to find love too. And so do all the other women in my cohort. Maybe join Phinished?
posted by k8t at 6:56 PM on October 25, 2007

One of the most popular articles in the NYTimes in all of last year was What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage in which the reporter discusses her experience applying animal training techniques to her husband. The moral was that her husband responded well, he knew what she was doing, he didn't mind, he did it back to her, and their relationship flourished.

Everyone benefits from relationships that work, and technology (including the technology of the social sciences) can help with that. Just remember that you are not an exception, you are a human being and respond to the same rules as everyone else, for both success and failure. Be willing to choose success, do the work, accept the compromises, and you'll get it.
posted by alms at 7:06 PM on October 25, 2007 [5 favorites]

I understand exactly where you are coming from. I also often feel disheartened by the negative experiences I've seen and experienced. I sometimes feel like AskMe is destoying my faith in the human race.

But the fact is that the very negative stories, the ones that scare us the most, are outliers. It turns out that every time I've had my heart broken, I've gotten back on the saddle again.

The thing is that the fallacy of vividness makes it hard for us to believe that love can happen for us again. We are so acquainted with our current situation and our occasional feelings of isolation that we forget that there were huge swaths of time where we were with someone. This is especially true at the end of a relationship, where one is suddenly confronted with feelings of being alone for the first time. Things that were made easier by the presence of a partner are suddenly harder than before. But these reminders do not constitute a map of your reality for years to come. They are what is happening now.

I have no reason to doubt your self-analysis of your attractiveness. Your question reflects a thoughtful mind. But love is a lot more than that. It is being open to everything that comes along with being emotionally, sexually and physically with someone--that includes getting hurt. Mostly it is a crap shoot that works best with volume dealing and knowing when to take chances. The vast majority of your love relationships will end. But this does not mean that the good stuff that happens before isn't worth the effort.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:14 PM on October 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm trying (and somewhat failing) to grasp your question/problem. I get that you're worried about winding up alone and lonely, and I totally understand and relate. But I'm not sure I get how your career/studies figures into it.

I'm not crazy about armchair psychologists in general, and in this case -- in view of your expertise -- I feel really odd saying this: but are you sure your concerns aren't smoke screens for deeper, more simple concerns? You sound a bit like young Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" claiming that he's depressed because "the universe is expanding"? People don't tend to REALLY get depressed over things like this. They get depressed because they think they're unattractive, too stupid, too smart... Or because, in the past, they've been abandoned or abused too many times.

But I'll take you at your word: so you're learning that there are buttons you can push to attract someone. So what? That's not the only way to attract someone -- or even the best way. Those buttons can help you INITIALLY attract someone, but they tend to lead to short-term relationships.

You know what would attract me? If we went out and had a really awesome conversation! I don't think there are heuristics to an awesome conversation.

Or by saying your "academic knowledge of relationships" worries you, do you mean your knowledge of how many end unhappily? If so, you're like a doctor getting depressed because he knows how many people get skin cancer. True, he does know this. But he also knows -- better than many non-doctors -- how to prevent skin cancer (and yet still have fun in the sun).

If two-out-of-three marriages end in divorce, then one-out-of-three doesn't. You're in an excellent position to be in that successful one third.
posted by grumblebee at 7:15 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I guess a more appropriate way to phrase my thoughts would be...

The more I learn, the less I know.

I find it invigorating to learn about what works and what doesn't. I find it disheartening to learn that with such clear research and proof, so few relationships actually work.

I just need to learn how to draw the line between what I learn, and how it actually applies to real life. That's what I need to understand, how to reconcile the two.
posted by MayNicholas at 7:27 PM on October 25, 2007

Cats need love, too.

Honestly, you are doing too much navel contemplation. Just live your life. Don't worry about "cheating" by applying any book knowledge to any potential relationship because they are all unique and have their own flow. You couldn't really manipulate it if you tried, at least not for very long.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2007

The intellectual part of this sounds like every med student I've known in 40 years. When they glance up from their course work, research, and internship, they see symptoms of terrible illnesses or genetic defects in themselves and all around them. "Exercise!" "More vitamin E!" they tell themselves (and me!) Fortunately, these med students work through to competency--so they don't obsess, don't rush to judgment, can actually heal some problems, and can refer some puzzles to specialists. Can you envision some progress analogous to my med student friends?
posted by gregoreo at 7:37 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah in my abnormal psych class our professor warned us of med student syndrome. I never thought I would fall victim in a relationship course...
posted by MayNicholas at 7:48 PM on October 25, 2007

MayNicholas, I'm in a long-term relationship (going on 14 years) and here's what's worked for me (and many LTR couples I've met):

1) Starting off as friends. (I was friends with my wife a year before we even started dating.)

2) Playing together. I don't mean sex games, and I don't really mean chess, either. I mean opening up and being like children. Being silly together, making mud pies together, etc. Play without purpose other than play. I can never leave my wife, because no one be her knows who Ooglezortis the Pa is, and the idea of having to explain it to someone esle (along with all the complex Ooglezortis mythology) is too wearisome to imagine.

3) Forgiveness. I remember asking myself what I'd do if my wife had an affair and realizing that though I'd be hurt and angry and jealous, I'd forgive her and stay with her. (I'm not a doormat. I wouldn't stay in a relationship with a constant cheater.)

4) Commitment. My goal is to make it work. If it's not working, I'll spend a long time framing it as something that we can fix before I give up. I don't mean HOPING it will get fixed. I mean actively working to fix it. Compromising, communicating, couples therapy if necessary.

5) Letting go of a romantic notion of relationships. That's not as bad as it sounds. I don't mean letting go of The Romance. I mean (a) recognizing that a relationship is as much about taking out the trash as it is about candlelight dinners. And (b) thinking of a relationship as something you have to constantly work at.

That's not necessarily bad, either. For me, it means -- when things are going well -- spending part of my day thinking, "what nice thing have I done for my wife, lately?"

There's no Happily Ever After. You can't just coast. I think THAT'S the big lesson of psychotherapy (and life). Yup, life's work. Get over it and do the work. It's worth it!

6) Ignore data from relationships you had before your late 20s. I'm generalizing, of course, but in my experience, most people mature enough to be able to handle a LTR in their late 20s. (If I had to pick an age, I'd say 28).

Did ten boyfriends dump you when you were 16 through 22? That's too bad, but it's not a datapoint for this period of your life.

The late 20s guys aren't like those guys. And you're not like a 19-year-old girl.

Put all that stuff into the recycle bin and reboot.

Honestly, I think 50% of the reason my marriage has lasted is because I didn't get married until I was almost 30. Had I married at 22 -- and I probably would have, given the chance -- I wouldn't have been ready to follow the steps above, and the marriage would have failed.
posted by grumblebee at 7:55 PM on October 25, 2007 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Grumblebee- I was in the relationship that you describe for 11 years. It wasn't headed towards marriage so I ended it. I know how to have a sucessful LTR, but it started when we were 19 so we had no long term expectations at that time. When my needs changed and his didn't, despite our good times, I couldn't remain there.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:02 PM on October 25, 2007

so few relationships actually work

There are two ways I'm inclined to respond to this, depending how you mean it:
1. Well, duh. (You already knew this before you started - it's rare to find someone you would want to marry, and rarer still to find the couple that's still perfectly happy after 50 years of marriage. No big news here. Everyone knows this, and yet we still seek the imperfect love that we can have.)
2. What do you mean "work"? (Do you mean give a few years of more-or-less good times, capped with some bad times at the end? There are lots of relationships that do this. Do you mean give 50 years without any serious personality conflict? Not many relationships do this, but that's not a reason to despair.)

In short, take a reality check. Think of all the people you know. Sure, some have had seriously shitty relationships. But most have probably had relationships that were good for them in some ways, maybe not so great in others, etc... this is life, and you knew that before you took this course. People are highly imperfect, and so are relationships. You haven't thought "I never want to befriend anyone again, since people are so imperfect", right?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:10 PM on October 25, 2007

I know how to have a successful LTR

I'll bow out if you ask me too. Maybe I'm just being dense. (It's been known to happen.

But if you know how to do it, what's the problem? Finding the right person to do it with? You didn't mention that in your post. So what IS the problem? If you know how to do it, WORK to find a partner and do it.
posted by grumblebee at 8:14 PM on October 25, 2007

Response by poster: No, don't bow out-

I guess I'm worried about finding someone else at 30- which is irrational, I know. I have no idea how to go about it with a 19 credit course load and near full time job. I'm way older than my classmates, only have one friend who has introduced me to a couple of prospects- but they would be only on the casual potential level.

These courses make me slightly gun shy on the success rate. Once again- irrational, I know.

Just looking for how to not over think this, not get discouraged so soon, and how to balance the search with my adademic pursuit...
posted by MayNicholas at 8:28 PM on October 25, 2007

I just read your question to my wife. She suggested that your concern is that, now that you "know so much," you'll be unable to just go with a new relationship in a romantic way. That you'll start analyzing it without trying to or wanting to, and you'll wind up feeling like you and your boyfriend and lab rats rather than two people in love. Is that it?

If so, I don't think you have anything to worry about. I'm a theatre director, and I'm sometimes scare that if I go see a play, I'll get too wrapped up in the lighting and staging and mechanics to enjoy myself. Surprise, surprise! When the story is good, I forget all about that stuff and enjoy it like anyone else.

And when I DO find myself thinking about the lights, it's generally because the play is bad.

So if you're in a relationship -- a relationship packed with conversation and sex and fighting and taking out the trash -- if you find yourself constantly thinking about it clinically, it's probably a sign that the relationship is bad. Someone without your training would do the same thing. They might not think about the relationship in clinical terms, but they'd think about baseball (or whatever) while their partner was kissing them.
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Funny you should say that- I used to be in television production and when I have to watch vidoes for class I usually catch myself analyzing the lighting and background!

But I think your wife may have hit it right on.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:40 PM on October 25, 2007

I guess I'm worried about finding someone else at 30- which is irrational, I know. I have no idea how to go about it with a 19 credit course load and near full time job.

Thank you! In that last post, you sounded like a real person with real (normal) concerns. I'm a little worried that I'm only seeing what I want to see (maybe the "my knowledge of psychology" stuff really IS important, and I just don't get it).

I totally relate to you. When I was younger, I felt like my life would be over if I didn't find Ms. Right before I was 20 ... and then 21 ... and then 25...

And, like you, I went back to school. Everyone around me was years younger than me, and I had no interest in dating way younger women.

I can say two things that may help:

1) If you realize that the guy you want isn't going to bump into you on campus, WORK to find him. Yeah, you have a huge course-load. Too bad, you can do it anyway. People hold down two jobs and go to school. It's amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.

If there are no Mr. Rights on campus, go off campus. Volunteer, use Craigslist, etc.

2) Having finally achieved that relationship I always wanted, the past is now wiped away. I was so lonely for so many years. Now I can barely remember what those years felt like. And that made me realize something: it sucks to be alone, but that doesn't mean -- when I am alone -- that it makes sense to catastrophise about Being Alone Forever.

Let's say that -- God forbid -- my wife dies tomorrow. And lets say that I don't find another mate for 20 years. That will be horrible, and I'm not going to make light of it. But in 20 years -- at 60 -- when I do find a mate, I'll be so happy!

When people are partner-less for a long time, they sometimes make the mistake of believing that that's their fate. I think sometimes they do this because, painful as it is, it SETTLES something. At least you can say, "that's who I am: they person without a mate."

I grappled with this in therapy. I actually went in to therapy and said, "I'm here because I want to learn how to be happy alone." But my therapist turned the tables on me and said, "you don't have to settle for being alone." And I actually fought this for a long time.

Truth is, you'll probably find someone soon. (How long will you be in college? I know it's your whole life now, but once you're out, you'll have a different life with older people in it.) But if you don't, you'll find someone later. Eventually -- if you don't decide it's your fate to be alone -- you WILL find someone. The odds (if you stay in the game) are way in your favor. And when you find someone, your loneliness will be wiped out.
posted by grumblebee at 8:42 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]

Funny you should say that- I used to be in television production and when I have to watch vidoes for class I usually catch myself analyzing the lighting and background!

But are they really great, really compelling videos? I bet you have movies/shows that you watch where you don't do this -- at least not all the time. Shows that really stab you in heart.
posted by grumblebee at 8:44 PM on October 25, 2007

Response by poster: I do this with all reality shows and bad documentary films.

I'll be in school for the next 7-8 years, so probably why I'm a little disheartened by the process.

I'm making a way bigger deal out of all this than it actually is and I know it. Right now it is too soon to lump myself into the crazy cat lady genre. I have only been out of the LTR for 3 months, but it was ending way before I moved away (see my previous posts if you want the full long winded version). I am really just missing someone to share everything with and learning the failure rates makes my heart hurt a little.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:53 PM on October 25, 2007

Med student syndrome is one side of the coin, but on the other side of that is the story of the cobbler's children

Understanding a problem intellectually and being able to advise others is in no way comparable to living through the same problems.

When you fall in love again, nothing you've learned is going to make you love that person less, and the next time someone breaks your heart, nothing you've learned will dampen the sting.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:48 PM on October 25, 2007

MayNicholas: I don't have the psychotherapy background but I can definitely relate to the loss of hope in love. I've been alone a long time (a fact about which I feel I've posted ad nauseam) and at 32 and after being heartbroken over people I've wanted who didn't want me, I find it increasingly difficult to believe I will have love in my life again. The grace *and* curse being that we forget how much it sucks to be hurt or rejected and do the same damn thing over and over again, because it's our instinct. I'm hurting over someone I wanted who doesn't want me, but I know I'll just do the same again down the road. I guess I just hope it eventually pays off.

grumblebee: When people are partner-less for a long time, they sometimes make the mistake of believing that that's their fate. I think sometimes they do this because, painful as it is, it SETTLES something. At least you can say, "that's who I am: they person without a mate."

I grappled with this in therapy. I actually went in to therapy and said, "I'm here because I want to learn how to be happy alone." But my therapist turned the tables on me and said, "you don't have to settle for being alone." And I actually fought this for a long time.

I appreciate that you said this, but I find it hard to swallow. That's because when you are single for a long time, and you confide in friends about being lonely, the only thing anyone will ever say is that you have to learn to accept being alone, that you have to live for yourself, etc etc and etc. This has been my experience for years. It's frustrating because when you're alone that's the imperative, for obvious reasons.

I've never had anyone tell me that I shouldn't accept it. Do you mind if I ask where the therapist went with that idea? Because it is, as you know, after a certain interval it is very, very hard to imagine being loved again.
posted by loiseau at 11:04 PM on October 25, 2007

Take a vacation from your head and your intellect.


Pammo nailed it in the first reply - and no amount of intellectual discussion is going to help.

Worrying about becoming a "cat lady" makes you a self fulfilling-prophecy :)

I'd rather worry about pseudo-falling in love with someone else who would provide you with intellectual argument unwittingly fueling your fears and re-affirming your insecurities and mistaking that exchange as significant emotional interaction; eventually you'd realise and recognise all that would be left for you to do would be to make that cat purchase.

Take a vacation from your head and your intellect :)

loiseau; That last line really hurts - but don't forget, your finding it hard " to imagine being loved again" has no relation to someone else finding you stunningly attractive and wanting to spend the rest of their life with you.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:52 AM on October 26, 2007

I am 30 and single for the first time in 11 years...

...I was in the relationship that you describe for 11 years... [i.e., friends, playful, committed, forgiving, grounded...]

...I have only been out of the LTR for 3 months...

MayNicholas, if you're feeling disheartened and worried and hopeless, remind yourself that you're JUST out of a serious 11-year relationship. If you were counseling someone in your situation, I bet you'd feel a lot of patience for her emotions, but also some perspective that those emotions were probably wrapped up in the recent end of her relationship. Try to apply that same patience and perspective to yourself. When you've had a little time to get over the end of your last relationship, your prospects for your next one may not feel so bleak. Then you may have to work to meet people, and that may be a challenge with your studies and work and statistically-based doubts, but it won't be unsurmountable.
posted by daisyace at 4:58 AM on October 26, 2007

I appreciate that you said this, but I find it hard to swallow... I've never had anyone tell me that I shouldn't accept it. Do you mind if I ask where the therapist went with that idea? Because it is, as you know, after a certain interval it is very, very hard to imagine being loved again.

It was the best thing my therapist did for me. And it was also the toughest part of therapy for me.

I had decided that no girl would ever go out with me because I was ugly, and I specifically went to therapy to learn how to cope with the "fact" that I was going to be alone for the rest of my life.

So the first thing my therapist said was, "I'm not going to help you with that, because there's no reason you need HAVE to be alone FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE." Then she said, "let's figure out why you're alone NOW."

I said, "I know why I'm alone. I'm alone because I'm not physically attractive to women."

She said, "I doubt that. First of all, you're not ugly as-far-as I'm concerned. Second, even if you were, you've see plain and ugly men partnered with beautiful women before, haven't you?"

"Yes," I admitted.

"Okay, so then you even an ugly man doesn't NECESSARILY have to be alone FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE. Even if he insists on only dating really beautiful women. You're not alone because you're ugly. Let's deal with the reasons why you are alone."

And we did that for many weeks, though the first few weeks were mostly spent by me refusing to drop the "ugly" thing.

What I ultimately learned was something really important and really hard. I had some big problems with my personality, and I was avoiding fixing them by deciding that my only problem was that I was ugly.

It took me a long time to buy that, because it was so painful to feel like I was ugly. I didn't WANT to be ugly. If I was going to make up a problem, why would I make up one that was so painful?

Because ugliness is not something you can fix. It's really painful to think you're The Elephant Man (and sometimes I really felt that my ugliness was that extreme), but it's something that's "just a fact" and, since it's "just a fact," there's no point in working on it. So I was off the hook. And since God had dealt me an unfair hand, I felt than instead of trying to better myself, I was justified in whining and complaining about my "fate."

My therapist got me to drop all this and deal with my personality problems. And that was REALLY hard work. To be honest, I didn't even complete that work in therapy. I was so scared to tackle it, I quit therapy and -- a few years later -- worked a lot of stuff out on my own. But if it wasn't for therapy, I'd probably still be "the ugly guy" wallowing in self-pity.

I DO think it's very important to learn how to cope WHILE you're alone, and my therapist agreed with this. All that stuff people always say -- get hobbies, throw yourself into things, etc. -- is great advice. But all that has nothing to do with deciding that you're fated to be single forever. Which is what had done. I had gotten to a point where a woman could have taken off all her clothes and said, "take me NOW!" and I would have found a way to misinterpret her actions. (Most likely, I would have thought she was playing a cruel joke on "the ugly guy.")

Some of MayNicholas "cat lady" stuff reminded me of the kind of stuff I used to say.
posted by grumblebee at 5:55 AM on October 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

You've never been alone, and I think you should be for a while. I said this the first time you posted about breaking up with your boyfriend a while back. Do not think about dating right now. Turn down offers of dates. Don't pursue relationships. I think that you should not even think about dating until you've been single for at least six months, preferably a year. Get comfortable being by yourself. Learn what it's like to keep your own counsel and take care of yourself and be a single adult, because you've never done that.

I suspect that at least some of your anxiety about being able to be in a relationship given your field of study actually has nothing to do with your field of study and everything to do with anxiety about relationships. Your last relationship was a trainwreck. You were dating a guy who didn't support your goals and dreams, with whom you were incompatible in a lot of fundamental ways, and with whom you had a long messy breakup that really hurt you. That would make anyone gun shy, and I think it's making you look for reasons that your next relationship won't work.

Your best bet right now is to stop thinking about relationships. Just take that option off the table. Focus on school, on making platonic friends, and on building a life for yourself as an independent adult. Once you're more comfortable in your own skin, I think you'll feel a lot of this anxiety about relationships melt away. And try not to worry that you're running out of time to find love. First of all, it's not true. But second of all, it's better for you to take this "personal growth" time now than to worry for the rest of your life that you're going to foul up every relationship you start because there's something wrong with you.
posted by decathecting at 7:47 AM on October 26, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to every one replied. I'm not going to mark a best answer on this one since I feel that every one of you has offered some great insight. It probably really is just anxiety, not my studies that are freaking me out.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:22 AM on October 26, 2007

grumblebee: your last comment above is probably the single best thing I've read on AskMe.

MayNicholas: Another point is that school can be really demanding, especially when moving to a new city where you don't have a network. Do take decathecting's advice, and make a priority of building your new network of friends and activities outside school (even in very demanding programs, you surely have one afternoon a week to do some socializing with people outside your program). Good luck; finding your feet and your "life" in a new place is hard and terribly lonely, but remember that it's temporary.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:47 PM on October 26, 2007

Thanks for the compliment, LobsterMitten. There's better stuff out there, but if it helps, I'm happy.
posted by grumblebee at 1:52 PM on October 26, 2007

I may have missed it, but I didn't see anyone suggest that you find a cat man. You have interests outside of school just keep pursuing them and the relationships will occur. What you do with them: be friends first is the best advice possible.
When you're ready for a permanent relationship i would recommend Gottman as a guideline for keeping things functional for the long term.
posted by ptm at 3:30 AM on October 27, 2007

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