Being that studious, Type-A overachiever-type throughout my life, I waited a long time for my first real relationship. So long, in fact, that I thought I had equipped myself with enough knowledge, and dismissed enough men with toxic tendencies, to choose a good guy.
My first boyfriend post-college was a brilliant businessman with a great sense of humor, and we had so much fun together. He was confident, his interest was sincere and he made time for me from the get-go — despite his packed schedule. I didn’t even think to check myself and ask, “Is this unsafe? Am I investing too quickly?” With him, I thought I could save myself the heartache, fall deep and set myself up for a happily-ever-after that would make even Walt Disney shed a tear and give me a slow clap.
So imagine my shock when he called it off after one month of sunshine and roses. We’d hit milestones like his birthday and meeting his parents. We’d enjoyed Whole Foods shopping trips, tons of laughter, lazy summer days and general blissed-out time together since the very first day. In a crash and a blink, it was dunzo.
Fast forward 24 hours, and we were back on. The day before, he’d blamed the breakup on my trust issues. Now he’d changed the script, saying he was falling for me too fast and was scared of getting hurt. I accepted this storyline, but suddenly it wasn’t safe. I was still living in a whirl of confusion and emotional whiplash prompted by his brief exit, which rocked me into a state of fear.
I’d never imagined that “I really care about you” could go hand-in-hand with “I’m leaving you,” but I now couldn’t stop associating the two seemingly interconnected contradictions. So we reconciled, but we never recovered. We had three more months of ups and downs, breakups and makeups (prompted by me), before the final fracture.
And then, eventually, I started dating again — complete with weird, foreign abandonment issues (no thanks to two still-married parents who still suffocate me with attention). I’d have a really good date, and then I assumed that person would just ghost me. I’d refuse to get invested. Or I’d hold back, even when I was invested. Or I did what my ex did, and I’d bounce whenever I sensed things getting too close, too fast, before the other person had a chance to notice and do the same to me. Like, #winning? Not so much.
I never dreamt the relationship ride would be such a rollercoaster. Heck, I never even thought it’d be a merry-go-round with little dips. Up/down, back/forth, off/on was completely off my radar until it was my reality.
“ADD Nation” and “Disposable Society” are two ways Karla Ivankovich, PhD , an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield, describes the mindset of many 20-somethings. “Millennials only know a life of fast-paced, action-packed days structured with engaging people,” Ivankovich says. “Couple that with mass media, especially social media telling them that they ‘deserve’ better, they know they have options that were not afforded to previous generations. The option to choose and choose often.”
Most millennials’ moms and dads were raised on good old-fashioned values and encouraged to make decisions and then to stick with them. They valued things like loyalty, commitment, hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, says Ivankovich, the current generation, brought up on enticing, surface-level forms of mass communication, has a tendency to look for happiness in what serves them most right now.
With millions of options at our disposal — from hobbies to jobs to suitors — we’ve all been taught to toss anything that isn’t an insta-perfect fit. Problem is, no person with real emotions and real flaws is going to do exactly what we want them to do 100% of the time. You know this. I know this. And yet we constantly forget — and then remember, and then forget — this very basic concept, rolling through an on/off cycle that’s dizzying at best. It is the basic recipe for yo-yo swingin’. “Millennials discard, rapidly, anything that doesn’t work for them,” Ivankovich says. Whoaaa, I think immediately. Harsh much?
Well, okay, kind of true. (We can admit it!) Cultural conditions have actually set us up to fail.
With apps and online dating, everyone’s pool of potential mates has dramatically increased — in theory, anyway. So, we always think we can do one better. According to Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab , this is definitely the “Paradox of Choice” in action.
What’s that all about? Cohen says to think about it like this: You are in a town with only one restaurant. If you decide to go out, you know that you will get some good food, most likely run into some friends, and “have an all-around good time.” Now, erase that mental picture and picture yourself on restaurant row in Manhattan, with an overwhelming number of options. “It is much more challenging to pick a place and definitively know that you are getting the best food,” says Cohen. “Basically, when we are afforded more choice, it can lead to higher levels of anxiety.”
When we have as many choices as we do today, we often have to weigh the pros and cons — and there are always doubts about which option is best, when there are so many to consider. “This leads to dissonance, or uneasiness, and the more important the decision, the greater that dissonance can be,” Cohen says. “In the case of yo-yo dating, people are just flip flopping between alternatives to reduce the tension experienced as a result of doubting their mate choice.”
If you let the tension turn into fear, though, it’s bad news — and the never-ending cycle of on/off, up/down is seriously messing with us, guys. “We are simply reinforcing or conditioning behaviors that are not conducive to sustainability of relationships by encouraging millennials to try on every shoe to see if it fits,” Ivankovich says.
So, what on earth do we do? Cohen says the options are just what she tells her psychology students. “Change your belief or change your behavior.”
Honestly, just because you have moments of doubt does not mean you’ve chosen an incompatible egg. For instance, maybe sometimes he’s not as verbally complimentary as you’d like, and maybe sometimes he does forget to pick up your freaking almond milk on his way over (gah) — but if your current boyfriend is always kind-hearted, super-supportive of your unconventional career path and you can both laugh together until your gut hurts, then what is most important, y’all?
1. Figure out what you really want. You may have to take a hard look at your laundry list of “wants” and find out which of those you actually “need” instead of cutting off someone who isn’t up to snuff on paper. If you want a real relationship, first you need to mold your beliefs about what kind of person can provide it. A chiseled jawline bringing you almond milk does not an awesome relationship make. Just saying.
2. Search for signs of a quality SO. Thankfully, there should be clues of promise all along the path to commitment. You just have to commit to it, says Boston-based dating coach Neely Steinberg . First step? Follow through. “Look for actions over words,” she explains. This person should not just be telling you what you want to hear or saying who they want to really be.”
So, what are the golden qualities? Cohen says that relationship gems are investing; they are spending time, and likely money, getting to know you and showing you that the relationship is important. They are talking about the future; taking you to friends’ weddings, they are mentioning that concert in August they really want to go see with you. They are also identifying; this means that “I” becomes “we,” you are scheduling together and you are considering how your decisions might impact your partner.
3. Communicate and give. When I ask Ivankovich what to look for, she says, “Your partner has to be able to communicate, and not just technologically.” Oh, and remember our bummer, second-nature, self-serving sides? Yeah. That might just cause you to become *totally* blind to what a healthy relationship looks like, says Cohen.
“It is really when both individuals give all they have, without expecting anything in return,” she explains. “Each person is devoting himself or herself to the relationship and the other person for the sheer joy of it… In my opinion, getting something back is just the icing on the cake,” she says. So, if you’re not feelin’ it, maybe you’re focusing a bit too much inward and need to look outward. Don’t forget that, in addition to looking for all the above awesomeness in a partner, you want to be that awesomeness for someone else too.
Maybe you are flat-out choosing crummy options, though, and you need a relationship reset — which is more about you than the individuals you date. Steinberg says that women especially can get addicted to the drama of yo-yos, or, for some weird reason, yo-yos are actually fulfilling a random need. In this way, she says, one or two yo-yo relationships might actually be helpful. “You get a chance, if you’re courageous enough to take it, to examine the ‘whys’ and the ‘whats,’” Steinberg explains. “Why am I attracted to this type of person or relationship? What am I getting from this?”
Steinberg runs down a list of examples: new opportunity to heal old wounds, the limbo is familiar, it’s easier than introspection. And then she nails my very own issue. “Or maybe this type of relationship is a convenient excuse,” she says. “You don’t have to examine your own relationship fears and commit your time, heart, and energy to someone who is relationship-ready, because you’re spending all your time trying to figure out why HE can’t commit?”
I mean, I don’t think… yeah, okay. That’s me.
As an over-analyzer and problem-solver (blame my INTJ nature), it’s much easier for me to “solve” someone than to simply assume they’re going to commit and be there for me — in my mind, that’s when you get blindsided. So I perpetuated an on/off cycle with guys thereafter. I knew I’d never really emotionally invest in a bad boy or wounded artist type as long as they were unsafe, so I chose them to engage with, spending all my energy trying to “fix” them instead of enjoying a legit relationship. You could call that a defense mechanism.
1. Pull yourself out of the yo-yo. Once you understand the scenarios, Steinberg says you have a much better chance of being able to make different, conscious choices with your next relationship. But if you don’t take the time to work on it, you may find yourself in “a never-ending cycle” of up-and-down yo-yos, Steinberg cautions. “Because the psychology is so entrenched,” she says. “A woman becomes more susceptible to believing she’s just not relationship material, or there’s something wrong with her.” Pretty frightening, amiright?
You might just need a shot of self-awareness in order to do the right things to support a relationship. Frankly, better relationships don’t just exist out there, like wild unicorns. Better is built, says Ivankovich. “At some point, everyone, including millennials, searches for a sense of belonging that can’t be found in short-term relationships,” she explains.
2. Get present. Right now. You might swing back to an old flame — “in yo-yo terms, this is like ‘walking the dog,’” Ivankovich says — or you might choose to find someone new and start over, actively doing better. But rather than spending all of your time thinking about if you can do better, try simply being present in your current relationship. “Think about the person that you are currently with,” says Cohen. “If you are able to say with confidence that you are feeling loved, cared for, and fulfilled, you should value what you have. If your answer is no, it is important to find a better relationship and not turn back.”
3. Time for a reboot: You can do it. It’s easy to romanticize relationships when you’ve never had a real, honest-to-goodness, committed bond — I mean, hello! And Ivankovich stresses you have to be up to the challenge for your union to last. “Relationships are hard work, end of story,” says Ivankovich. “You cannot expect something potentially lifelong to only take a partial commitment.”
As for me, I’ve cooled my jets a bit. I’ve tried to stop overanalyzing the crap out of men. I’ve stopped blaming new guys for my ex’s initial exit. I’ve started looking for better potential partners, who have relationship-worthy qualities, instead of broken ones that I can fix up and mold into something I honestly know they’ll never be for me. There are actually more of the good guys than you may think. It’s just hard to see that when you’re whizzing around in the yo-yo.
I’ve also started realizing that people make mistakes, and you can’t be afraid of investing in someone who is rough around the edges. Aren’t we all? Remember: “Perfect” is only the title of a One Direction single, and the love of your life isn’t found, but created — with commitment, patience and teamwork. Now how’s that for romantic?
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(Photos via Getty)