• Tue, Jun 14 2011

Bullish Life: Keep Your Love Life From Ruining Your Actual Life

I had never seen an episode of “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” until last night, when Hulu was sadly devoid of any new episodes of 30 Rock. It was the episode wherein Bentley (douchenozzle contestant) called Ashley (bachelorette) “an ugly duckling” and promised to make her cry, just before hoping his hair looked okay.

Following the breakup and Bentley’s departure from the house, Ashley climbs into bed, crying hysterically. She said something about being in love with him. My man-friend laughed. “That’s ridiculous! After two dates or something? How long has she known that guy?”

Well, yes. But, well… how much time have you wasted over some guy you went on two dates with? I’ve probably wasted weeks of my life on guys I went on two dates with. I mean, I could’ve been smoking cholera-laced cigarettes and lost less of my limited time on earth. Sometimes those two dates are really good dates. Sometimes those two dates occur on the tail end of two dates with some other guy who didn’t work out as planned, and that’s four dates, and then there you are, wasting precious brain cells that could have been used to learn search engine optimization or digits of pi.

I pointed out that, yes, Ashley is a wet blanket extraordinaire, but also that, as the Bachelorette, she has had absolutely nothing to do all day but think about all the guys she’s dating. I mean, normal people would have to go to work, or might have some lady friends to distract them, or might even have access to a book!

I was thinking about the situation addressed in last week’s Bullish Life: Breaking Free from Terrible Situations when Ashley proceeded to demonstrate several of the many unfortunate consequences of relationship obsession. I also had an enlightening talk when I was recently a guest speaker at a university (see Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College) and had a chance to speak with a college student who had been drafted to drive me around.

She was a delight: super ambitious but also very nice. We chatted about college and careers and guys over twenty miles of freeway, when I said, “When I was in college, I skipped all kinds of classes to be with guys. I’d tell myself that it was okay because, in the end, relationships are what really matters.”

She said, “Oh my god, I thought I was the only one!”

She told me a story about a boyfriend who always tried to get her to skip class to go to the beach (“That’s a really time consuming hobby!” I said — going to the beach seriously takes at least four hours), and another boyfriend she sacrificed academics for back in high school: “I actually thought I was going to marry that guy or something.”

So, if you thought you were the only one: you’re in good company. I probably lost a good 0.5 from my GPA due to my collegiate dating and dating-analysis regimen (and the word “dating” does put a bit of a whitewash on what happens in college, doesn’t it?)

I have since effected a near-total recovery from obsessing over relationships, probably due to developing a better theory of mind than I had once had, and also not having the hormonal balance of a 20 year old woman (see Bullish: What Egg Donation Taught Me About Being a Dude). A friend’s mother once commented that life was much easier after menopause, as she “no longer felt the need to be loved.” That certainly would make life a lot easier, no?

I do love the word “gentlewoman” (see Bullish: How To Run Your Career Like A Gentlewoman and Bullish: How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman). So here are a few principles for running your love life like a gentlewoman.

Don’t spend more time thinking about a guy than he is spending thinking about you.

It really doesn’t matter what kind of thoughts you’re thinking. Whether they are loved-up musings that proceed from your cerebellum as fully-wrought villanelles or they are fantasies of vengeance, you’re giving up more mental real estate than he is. Nothing in life means much if your mental real estate isn’t your own.

If you think you can’t control your thoughts, then you are at a serious disadvantage in every area of life. Every one. From running your career to remembering to exercise to not eating entire pints of ice cream and regretting it to not letting an insult, a catcall, or some downright bullying derail your entire day. I’m sure you’ve read somewhere about the marshmallow test; there is nothing more important than mental discipline. It makes you more money (on good days, I can plan an article in my head, on the subway, and write it later with moderate faithfulness to my original plans) and gives you the ability not to do things you know will not be kind to your future self.

Know what your goal is going into a situation.

Tony Robbins once said something I thought sounded crazy — that every encounter should have a goal. I mean, coffee with a friend? Seeing Bridesmaids? Do we always have to have goals?

But how often have you had a day off during which you didn’t plan anything and consequently didn’t enjoy yourself very much? How often have you shown up to lunch with a friend preoccupied about something else? Robbins suggested that one possible goal of having lunch with a friend could be to make that friend feel good about something. Um … argue with that.

I’ve thought about this often since then. If I am reading a magazine on the subway right up to the point when I meet up with someone, then the first experience that person has with me is of my slightly disorienting mental shift from reading-mode to social-mode. A few minutes of preparation, and I could’ve been set with all the appropriate solicitous questions: “Have you figured out how your novel’s going to end yet?” Etc. These things are genuine, but it still takes a moment to get to that mental space.

For the happily committed, social goals might be of the “make so-and-so feel nice” variety, but for those in questionable romantic situations (Does some dude like me as much as I like him? Are we even monogamous?), don’t just let encounters “happen” to you, leaving you with the same questions you had before. Have a goal: to find out if we are actually in a monogamous relationship, for instance.

If it feels weird to have an agenda, well, you can adopt a version of a fine policy for talking about others: don’t say anything behind someone’s back that you wouldn’t say to his or her face. Similarly, don’t have a goal that you wouldn’t unashamedly admit to if asked. It is perfectly reasonable to go on a date with the intent of finding out whether your date is seeing other people, or how often you might expect to communicate with one another over the next week, such that you do not wait and wonder.

Don’t let unknown elements distract you from known elements.

By which I mean that the probability that any particular guy will be around for forty years is extremely low. The probability that you will have to go to work for the next forty years is extremely high.

So, it would be illogical to allow your romantic life to compromise your career and goals until those probabilities change in a way demonstrable other than by your intuition, which is often tremendously unreliable once sex is involved. If a guy has not said that he intends to spend the next forty years with you, then he almost certainly does not intend to spend the next forty years with you. He may come around, but in the meantime, it would be good for you to cleverly make as much money as possible and open up your options for the future.

I wrote in Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career or Bank Account about avoiding men who are financial sinkholes. But the world is, of course, full of all kinds of perfectly decent men as well. Even in those cases, it is important to keep things in perspective. If he really is that great, he does not want you being distracted from being good at your job because you are wondering what he thinks about you.

Whether you are looking for a nice husband or trying to booty call as many male models as you can before your twenty-fifth birthday hits, there is a law of diminishing returns for time spent contemplating romantic relationships when you are not actually with the person in question.

Once you’ve thought once about what this person has said and done most recently and made a decision about what you want to do, further speculation is an absolute waste of your time. You cannot read minds. Except you sort of can read the mind of your future self, who really wants you to set her up with a great career, place to live, and group of friends, all of which you have a lot more actual control over than anything for which other people’s romantic feelings are a necessary precondition.

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  • Eve

    Well said, Jen. I think that one definition of a good relationship is one that frees up mental energy rather than draining it.

  • Geraldine

    So true! I feel like every time I’m single I get this amazing motivation to do things but when I am seeing someone all of my energy goes into thinking about them/getting ready for dates/being on dates/thinking about the previous date. And it is all subconscious, so I only notice it once I have broken up with them and am instantly doing things like planning websites .

  • http://www.PokerAceNYC.com Dominique

    I love the point you made towards the end – I’ve made a motto out of it. “You cannot worry about things you cannot control.” It’s freed up so much of my mental energy. It’s much easier said than done, I know, but just having it in mind is immensely helpful. (And of course I completely agree with always having some kind of goal. How else do you know whether you’ve wasted your time or not?)

  • cy

    Liked the article alot.
    One thing I do not agree with is this: “A friend’s mother once commented that life was much easier after menopause, as she “no longer felt the need to be loved.” I am living life after menopause and this, in my opionion, is not true-but crazy, and silly! I am married to my college sweetheart now for 35 years. I feel the same about love as I always did. It is my top priority. If anything I am more emotional and need more and give more at this point in my life in the love department. I don’t believe we dry up and become a human prune. Wierd, but my hormones feel like I am 20! You are as old as you let yourself be.
    I loved when you said “If you think you can’t control your thoughts, then you are at a serious disadvantage in every area of life.” and about mental discipline. SO TRUE!
    Some great things to think about.

  • Sam

    Great, great, great, great article.. So applicable to my life as a college student. Brings me back down to earth.

  • Em

    Ah yuss! This is why I read your articles, to remind me to not be a retard every day. Totally needed this. May print out and read each morning. You should write a summarised list of mantras for the young woman to keep us on the right track.

    e.g

    1. Ruthlessly slice fun that is not fun out of your life
    2. Think about guy problems once, decide solution, write down goal and then STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.
    etc

  • Karen

    *sigh* where was this article when I was in college? so much time wasted…

  • “M”

    ” If he really is that great, he does not want you being distracted from
    being good at your job because you are wondering what he thinks about
    you.”

    It’s been my experience — after doing a *lot* of dating – that there are a lot of men who do want almost exactly that. I think men are heavily socialized to want women who are willing to act against their own best interests, in what appears to be the men’s favor.

    (It doesn’t seem to occur to men like this that they might actually be shooting themselves in the foot if they’re actively looking for a life partner … but I came to this article having read through several articles starting with the one about the extent to which men believe they’re being “logical” when they’re really being emotional, aggressive rant-machines.)