Change How You Date and Make it Stick

A new year reminds us of time’s passage, and for many of us brings with it the question: “What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?* It can be a potent time to evaluate, plan and (gulp) yes, even change.

The flip of numbers on a calendar can invite us to picture mistakes and regrets as behind us, and the year’s path ahead as fresh, open, unsullied. Yet, how many of the resolutions set for a new year are actually achieved? According to research, only 8 – 9%.

So how do you make a change in the way you date and stick to it? A lot of us who have been dating for a while realize that we’re repeating behaviors that we’re not happy about. What makes it possible for us to dissolve an old pattern? How do we see ourselves through a process of change, with all its ups and downs, to the point where we can finally reap the benefits of our hard work?

While there are multiple approaches that a woman can take to improve her romantic life, one of the most critical is understanding the source of limiting patterns and strengthening self-compassion. Over the years, my clients have found this to be key to ‘staying in the game of change’ through the inevitable moments of discouragement, fear or confusion.

Have you ever helped a child get back on track when s/he was feeling discouraged? Replay your gentle, patient and encouraging tone of voice. Practice using it on yourself. Consistently. This is the voice of self-compassion.

What I’ve seen help women the most maintain this loving attitude is understanding the forces that shaped the pattern they’re trying to change.

Let’s take a look at a client of mine who wanted to be more selective about who she’d date a second time. She felt impatient when she caught herself making excuses for, or “wasting time” with, men who weren’t right for her. Aware that she gave men more than a fair chance, she nonetheless continued to overlook serious mismatches on things she cared about, like education, humor, cultural interests, politics, and even on what mattered most to her, reliability. She had a long list of exes as proof that her compromises hadn’t turned any dubious matches into good ones. But it was still hard to say “no” when a man showed interest.

The stickiness of her habit was all the more frustrating because she recognized its limits. She was convinced that “trying to make it work” with unsuitable men was actually selling herself short.

But the pattern didn’t really start to change until she understood why it was so hard for her to let go of a possible partner. The inconsistent love she got as a child had created a scarcity consciousness, which dictated that she’d better ‘take what she could get,’ since it might not come again, and couldn’t be counted on to last.

She began to see how this early experience of love caused her to settle for less than what she wanted, and helped to reframe her family’s dynamics as only one of many versions of love.  Finally, she saw how her empathy and imagination, which helped her manage her parents erratic style, now worked against her, making it easy to invent stories in her head about why a man who couldn’t meet her needs was a good match.

She’s been able to make important progress. She now hears herself when she starts excusing behaviors that don’t work for her, and ends the relationship if her date isn’t able to shift in response to her feedback.

She spends less time weaving stories about who the men might be, and more time trying to understand the source of the problem. She’s exchanged time in her head for more time in the moment; saying what she thinks, feels and needs to her date, as appropriate to the situation. She puts her attention on his behavior and responsiveness instead of projecting what he might be capable of in the future.

But sometimes it’s still hard for her to say “no” to a second date she knows won’t amount to much. She can get angry and discouraged that she hasn’t ‘kicked the habit’ yet. She’s underway with her transition to a different way of dating, but hasn’t yet put her new practices into action every time. Does this sound familiar?

In my experience, this is how most of us undergo change. We build the muscle bit by bit, through practice, falling short, correcting course, trying again, getting feedback from real-world experiments which slowly strengthen our new skill. Over time we change our sense of what’s possible. All the while, we must keep circling back to check in with where we are in the process, and not be our own worst critic.

If you find yourself in the admirable quest to improve your dating life, you are also likely to find yourself in the common, human place of needing time and practice to get it right. Sometimes we label this “failure”. I think it’s more accurate to call it growth.

Here are ways in which you, like my client, can keep on track to change the way you date and overcome the moments of disappointment or frustration that you may encounter.

  • Talk to yourself with empathy. Remind yourself of the reasons that making this change is hard.
  • Give yourself credit for being proactive in remaking your romantic life.
  • Reframe “failure.” Think of it as merely part of the process.
  • Allow yourself to have whatever feelings you are having, instead of blaming yourself for it. Letting yourself have these feelings without judgment actually allows them to dissipate sooner.

And then, feelings sorted and soothed, you can return your focus to the dating shifts you want to make. It’s possible to shift even the most stubborn patterns.

Consider that your hard-to-break habits started for a good reason, and were likely devised by a much younger you, who was doing the best she could in a situation she couldn’t control. Sustain a practice of compassion towards yourself. That loving kindness will not only support your changes, but radiate outward to everyone you meet – including your future partner who will be drawn to your capacity to love, a love that begins with yourself.

I encourage you to try this approach to building your own stamina so that you can achieve the personal changes you want to make this year.

*Paraphrased from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

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