November 13, 2013

KUSSMAN: Mind Games and Mixed Messages

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With all the rules and red-tape we create for ourselves in romance, I find it truly amazing that any two people can hold each other’s interest long enough to date.  I’ve seen other people successfully enter relationships with ease, but, for whatever reason, it has never been that simple for me.

When I asked my housemate Jess how she got involved with her boyfriend of three years, she recounted a straightforward, no-frills story: They met, they liked what they found and they never looked back.  As I listened, I began to wonder what I’ve been doing wrong all of this time. Could it really be that easy?

My own haphazard efforts at romance have been characterized by over-analysis, a constant struggle to play it cool and a lifetime supply of mixed messages. Occasionally, fed up with the mind games, I have thrown caution to the wind, only to end up kicking myself when my love interest ran for the hills. Too often, attraction has felt like a losing battle.

So, when couples make it look easy, I have to wonder: Are these people more well-adjusted than I am?  Less afraid of commitment? Are they settling? Or are they just lucky?

Then, a few weekends ago, I had a moment of clarity. I had just been out with a guy whom I was only passively interested in, but who I perceived to be interested in me.  As the night progressed, I decided that we didn’t have much chemistry. But, as I mentally prepared myself to subtly discourage his advances, he surprised me by making none. In turn, I surprised myself by feeling — for lack of a better word — rejected, even though I didn’t necessarily think we were a good match.

As I tossed and turned in bed that night, I found myself wondering why he hadn’t made a move. I replayed the evening in my mind: Had I been obnoxiously drunk? Had I offended him in some way? Had I said something that could have been misconstrued as rude?  Worst of all, had I come off as boring?  Before I knew it, I was meticulously picking apart an evening with someone I would have previously thought nothing of. Was it possible that I was into this guy after all?

That’s when it hit me. If I was thinking about this guy more now, it wasn’t because he had suddenly become a better match for me.  It was because he was sending me mixed messages that were confusing me and forcing me to ruminate.

I know I’m not the only one who has fallen into this trap. Our minds are naturally inclined to identify patterns and organize things into schema. When faced with mixed messages or circumstances that defy our expectations (i.e. someone not contacting us after a date we think went fairly well), we struggle to make sense of them. That is why we get so hung up on people who confuse us: Mixed messages create mental preoccupation.  What we easily forget is that mental preoccupation does not equal compatibility. Nor does it signify anything about the character of the person we are thinking about.

I began to understand that the reason attraction often feels like a game to us is because we sometimes treat prospects like puzzles: If we can figure them out, we put them back on the shelf and move on to the next one. If we can’t figure them out, we become frustrated, preoccupied. It sits in our minds, making us uneasy.

The problem is that while games and mixed messages can spark intrigue, they create attraction only in the most artificial sense. And while it is natural to become preoccupied with the chase, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the challenge and confusion makes the object of our affection any more valuable (or makes us any less worthy of real romance).

The truth is, the chase — whether it lasts two years or two hours — will end eventually.  The real test is one that exists independently of the chase: Is there chemistry? When we finally solve the puzzle, do we like what we see?  If so, maybe then it can be simple.