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Saturday, October 7, 2006

Myspace Migration: Chemistry & Intimacy in Relationships.. & a Little Yodel

Current mood:productive
Ever been with someone who made you want to belt out "Blue?" Or who could make your heart beat so fast that you could burst into a spontaneous round of yodeling? Ok, maybe the yodeling is more for that geeky Steve guy (you know, the "Did I do that?" dude from TV) - but, you get my point, right? We've all been with that person that just elicited a physical reaction from merely being around them (1). Or can you remember a point in one of your relationships where you had that lightbulb moment of "I really know this person as well, or better, than they know themselves?" Where you felt confident you no longer had to share your every thought because chances are, they already know what you're thinking?

Chemistry and Intimacy - perhaps the two biggest buzz-words in any relationship conversation. Perhaps the two biggest ingredients that people are searching for as they seek out that 'perfect-for-them-relationship.' But, do we really, truly understand the roles that each play in forming and sustaining a relationship ~ and why that's even important? I'd like to subscribe to the theory that there are more of us who misunderstand how chemistry and intimacy play into a relationship, than those who get it. If you want proof, look to the average lifespan of a dating relationship (less than 2.5 years) or the divorce rate (1:2 to 1:3, depending on which survey you look at).

I guess there were a few factors that made this an article that I wanted to write; so, when Cynthia asked, I jumped on it. In my last failed relationship, intimacy was a huge issue. He wanted it; heck, I wanted it... but he wanted it much faster than it was earned. It felt more like a sorts of 'playing house' than a real relationship. A good guy friend of mine is currently trying to figure out why his latest and greatest girlfriend lost her luster. Truly, he says, "she's done nothing wrong.. but, the spark's gone and we're just left with friendship." Hmm. Interesting. Yet another good friend of mine is getting married and the reasons they keep citing sound much more temporal than long-term (it's great that you have great sex, but really, you're not going to spend your whole life in bed). And then there's my own ponderings as I try to navigate the roadmap of relationships. Which potentials should come with 'hazard signs,' which are good 'rest stops,' and how will I know who's the 'final destination?' To really know, I think we first have to better understand chemistry, earned intimacy and their proper place in a relationship.
Chemistry is, if you believe scientists/psychologists, nothing more than the pleasure centers of your brain engaging. It's the same pleasure that you derive from the perfect martini, going down that double diamond slope (assuming you live through it), or eating that scrumptious truffle. From a chemical standpoint, there's no differentation. It's in the psychological that we attach meaning to the dopamine that comes .. and we call it infatuation. In relationships, we use chemistry as the catalyst to build upon.

But what happens when chemistry starts to fade? For many of us, it's enough to say "Well, this person isn't the right person, or I'd still be over the moon and weak at the knees." I suppose, depending on when it fades, you might be right. I read somewhere that initial chemistry (as we know it) lasts about 4 months and then either metasasizes (2) into a deeper relationship/state of being "in-love" or fades out. Should the "in-love" state of being arise, that tends to last about 2 years. Intimacy begins to take shape around the fourth month of most relationships. So, chemistry is intended to be temporal ~ it's supposed to get us through to a point where we can forge a deeper, long-lasting intimacy. Yet, so many of us chase it around by the tail like it's the end-goal. Why? Probably because it feels so good. We feel alive; truly, I think this phase is the stuff that most poetry is made of... my favorite example of this is a saying "Love is friendship set on fire." Ok, I'll buy that - but, how many of us look at the couple who's been married 30 years and see a red-hot romance still aflame? They may very well still love each other, but chances are the fire has smoldered into a more intimate friendship/partnership.

A friend of mine, Chris, and I were discussing this just today as I told him I was a bit stumped on how to connect chemistry and intimacy in this article. We went off on a fantastic bunny-trail that while very interesting, isn't really related to this article. But, he did bring up something that I'm going to paraphrase to drive my point home: Amazing chemistry is something akin to nitroglycerin. It ignites you, but it's very unstable. Therefore, you wouldn't want it to last forever, because you'd live in a perpetual state of flux or impending explosion. There are moments, though, in that chemical state that you'll share with your partner that will live and resonate within you forever. And maybe those are the very moments that will sustain you when chemistry fades and intimacy has long since been established.. during the natural valleys of the intimate relationship, you can look back on those 'peaks of chemistry' and rekindle a spark.

For me, intimacy is the best part of a relationship. I always relate it to the massively oversized, grey terry-cloth sweatshirt I snagged from a boyfriend years ago. It's just comfortable, and it envelops you - making you feel warm and secure. I.love.that.feeling of comfortable. But, it's an earned status. It doesn't start at the beginning of a relationship; the way so many of us wish it would. It takes time to develop; and then over time it develops further still. There are different levels of intimacy and no real rhyme or reason as to when the doorways to each of those levels are opened. There is physical intimacy; which, being somewhat conservative, I tend to think we jump through too quickly. There is an exploration to sex and the psyche that I believe is much more interesting and natural when there's an emotional connection to the person you're having sex with (however, that's another article).

There is historical intimacy where there is the baring of souls and our past, present, and future... and I think really, we do that in stages. As we get to know one another better, we share the experiences that makes us tick and comprises who we are. During this stage, I think, is when we truly become partners and best friends, allowing for the next stage of intimacy to occur. Finally, there is a mental and emotional intimacy that I believe takes quite some time to properly develop. At this stage, we not only know what the other person is thinking (at least a good deal of the time) - we know the 'why' behind it. There is a comfort in that, and a big part of what makes partnerships successful ... we understand each other in a way that transcends most of the other relationships in our lives. That's the stage I think we all want to achieve; and I think in some romantic relationships we never do; which can be hugely frustrating, so I think we tend to want to blame it on something. So, I think quite often, we blame it on a lack of chemistry or points of commonality.
Which brings us back to the circular point of chemistry. We look back to the way we felt in the beginning of the relationship and say, "It's not like that anymore - something must be wrong." And perhaps there is - but, chances are, it's not a "chemical" issue. After all, to quote John Cusak in what has become one of my favorite "Chick-Flicks" of late: "If the magic [chemistry] was there, it means it could be there again..." And it can, just in the different outfit of intimacy. So, unless you come to realize that there is an incompatibility issue (which is entirely plausible), then intimacy, my friends, is most likely the problem. Somewhere between chemical infatuation and the maturation of an intimate relationship, it's likely that the process was short-circuited.

So how do you properly develop an intimate relationship with your partner; how do you give your relationship the best possible chance at success? There are as many theories on how to do that as there probably are clouds in the sky, but there are some general guidelines that seem to be widely accepted among "dating experts," psychologists, relationship therapists, and society-at-large:

1) Take your time. At every stage of building a relationship, timing is important. Take your time when it comes to picking a potential partner. Really get to know the person you're courting; take the time to become friends before you become lovers. One of the fortunate by-products of infatuation is that you want to spend what can be exhorbitant amounts of time together. Take advantage of that! By spending a good deal of time talking together, doing things together, and being around each other a couple of things will occur: you'll really get the opportunity to know the person you're with and you'll allow that very important foundation of friendship to form. I think that so many of us want so much to have a partner, to be in a relationship, to experience intimacy, that we short-circuit this step and try to rush things... which probably kills relationships that could have otherwised survived. There is never a point in a relationship where time together is not important, if not critical. Again, most experts believe that it takes around 15 hours of time spent together interacting (sex and sleep apparently do NOT count) to maintain a healthy relationship. This is harder to achieve than it sounds in today's busy world and many relationships become unsatisfactory/affairs occur largely because the we aren't spending enough time with the person we committed to.

2) Observe, Observe, Observe. Observation is, by and large, not practiced enough in every stage of a relationship. There is a reason we often hear "love is blind." We oft only see what we want to see; quite often that's very different from reality. In the early stages of courtship, give your relationship the best possible start by doing many different kinds of things, in many different settings. See how your potential suitor treats the waitress, how they interact with your beloved pet, what they do at the end of a very hectic/harrowing day of errands, and so on. Early in the relationship, we're good about covering "the big rocks" of religion, general lifestyle philosophies, and the things that are important to us... but, in the end, it's often what we perceive as the minutia that kills us: e.g., "he always left the toilet seat up" or "she gets upset after every football game I watch." Seems silly, but those little things can be symptoms of bigger issues. Take the toilet seat thing: I live in a household of girls. No men live here; so we never have to worry about the status of the toilet seat. I remember seeing this guy who never paid attention to putting the toilet seat back down when he came over. Now, for me, it wasn't a big deal.. but, my daughters were regularly falling in after he'd visit! I remember discussing that with him after the first couple of months of this regularly occuring, and a few hints being dropped. He really didn't get it and never saw the fact that it bothered me as a good enough reason to make a concerted effort to put the toilet seat back down when he was in my home. Little thing, right? But, I saw it as an indicator that respect issues could be an problem. While obviously noone's perfect, and we're all going to have shortcomings and ticks; it made me more aware to really look at the rest of the relationship and pay better attention to the interactions we had in the following weeks. Ultimately, I saw that there were a lot of similar incidents and uncovered a pattern that might have taken months to blow into something big enough to where it could no longer be avoided. Conversely, through observation you can uncover many little postive attributes in your courter that can make you appreciate them all the more, strengthening your newly created connection and moving you along the relationship path.

3) Play it Straight. It is possible that Nike's most popular advertising campaign was "Just Do It." No games, no hidden agendas - just you and the game. The same holds true for relationships - BE YOURSELF. Hopefully through observation you can see that your potential partner is being "themselves," too; however, it is impossible to build a solid, intimate relationship in the face of game playing. First of all, you need to know that you like each other for who you really are - not the mask you're wearing. It's one thing to curb the little bad habits you want to break anyway: in general, not biting your toenails, not picking your nose in front of him, or keeping your car clean so she doesn't see that you normally have a covered back seat. Those are probably all things you should be doing anyway. However, to hide the fact that you smoke is a pretty big deal; denying your active faith (if you are), or pretending that you're not fiscally irresponsible when that's a huge issue you're working through are all examples of game-playing no-nos. While those may not be things you want to place on a huge posterboard pinned to your chest ~ they're material to who you are and will eventually surface, anyway. It's really just easier to be up front in the beginning so that you can build something real. Sounds like common sense; however, you might be suprised by how many people don't know how to play it straight. I remember there was a guy I saw rather regularly for nearly a year before I found out that he had a nicotine addiction. He was a smoker, but for 48 hours before he saw me, he'd dip instead and then scope his mouth out right before he saw me. Why? He knew I didn't like to date smokers and didn't want that to be why we couldn't see each other. He rationalized it as he wanted to quit, anyway, so it was ok that he hid it. Except, eventually, I found a can of that dip stuff in the car we had just purchased for him and thought it was the mechanics, so tossed it. He needed a nicotine fix after we had dinner and couldn't find the can - went bezerk. The jig was up and even though it was probably small on the richter scale of secrets to come out, it really threw me for a loop. How can you have intimacy with someone who keeps secrets? Because, if there's one, surely there's more... right? Maybe not so suprisingly, it was something I was never really able to completely get past; once I knew he had deliberately kept secret something he knew I would have objected to, I always wondered about everything that he said. I never really knew whether I could believe him or not; even long after I forgave that infraction, there was still the residual doubt. Net result? Never achieved those higher levels of intimacy and ultimately the relationship failed.

Of course, even doing these little things won't guarantee that you'll have the intimacy you seek - because in reality, you both have to be on-board and continually working towards building/maintaining a healthy relationship. There are times where you could be doing everything that you know to be right and it still doesn't work out because they have issues. But, even really following those three simple steps will give you a huge advantage on the dating playing field when it comes to developing intimacy, pushing past chemistry while retaining just a little of that yodel-eh-he-hoo.

1. I swear to God, in Heaven, if you send me a message about how you get a physical reaction to my picture or some such nonsense; I will post that email with the link to your page on my next blog so that you can be rediculed for your stupidity.
2. Yes, that word was used deliberately as for many of us, relationships feel like dangerous things!

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