Relationship goals: when to invest in relationship growth vs separation

Yesterday I spent my day coaching 7 different young adults through completely different stages of their relationship development.  All of them have proven to be tremendously capable in their chosen professional field.  Even in the teetering tech market of Silicon Vally they’ve earned impressive merit based raises, gifted pricy vacations abroad with company funds, landed on prestigious lists like Forbes Top 30 under 30, deemed essential in corporate leadership, and set trends in the startup world of the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of them are navigating the perilous task of determining who to invest in for a long term romantic partnership.  These are people prone to approaching goals with a steely pace and scrupulous plan for a high success rate.  Yet interpersonal relationship development and decision making doesn’t easily succumb to this style of problem solving.  How does one successfully determine when to invest in relationship growth versus separation, especially in the face of elusive feelings like ‘attraction, chemistry and connection’?  How much compatibility is enough?  How much compromise is too much?   This article aims to offer some guiding points to lead you in your decision towards continuing in the relationship or breaking things off with the hopes of finding a better fit.

  • Predetermine what matters most in ANY sort of close, long term relationship.  Do this exercise.  Pretend you’re searching for a new platonic best friend, based on what has proven to be the most essential qualities you’ve enjoyed in other close friendships.  Make a list of top 5 descriptive traits you believe would be most important for the friendship to be awesome.  I asked people with various types of personalities to share this with me, in order to get a sense of what people prioritize when they decide to invest in growing a relationship.  I was actually surprised by what some people said! (I won’t list any here because I think it’s more effective to create your list without external influences.)  Now ask yourself ‘How can I find out if this person has enough of my 5 most valued traits?  What will I look for? How long will it take?  Does this person demonstrate these traits consistently with me as well as other key people in their life, or are they sporadic?’  Are the qualities on my list part of how I’ve identified and maintained ‘chemistry’ with people in the past?  If you find yourself dating someone who doesn’t exhibit these qualities consistently with you, chances are it’s just not going to work.
  • Is there considerable evidence that this person adds measurable value to your life right now?  I ask this because many people decide to invest in relationships based on factors they believe will be valuable at some future point.  Nothing is wrong with considering things like compatible achievement/financial goals, similar hypothetical timelines for marriage, or believing someone would make an amazing parent.  The problem with this focus is that people lose track of evaluating how much they actually enjoy the relationship in the here and now.  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office stating “my problem is that I tend to date two different kinds of people; one is super hot and we have great physical chemistry but not a lot in common/we can’t stand each other outside the bedroom, and the other one has a lot of what I want in a life partner but I’m just not as attracted to them physically.”  Choices, choices people!  Here’s the bottom line.  If someone doesn’t currently hold your interest enough for you to exclusively focus on them on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’re going to be so focused on an upgrade it’s bound to fail!  It does not matter that their potential is great, or the timing is off, etc.  Move on.  But accept this:
  • THERE IS NO HOLY GRAIL of a partner.  It doesn’t even matter how much of a catch you are (tragically!)  Don’t believe me?  Do this: find an older person who describes their early relationship as having exactly the experience you’ve always wanted- that feeling of butterflies and fireworks going off, sitting and daydreaming about when you get to spend time alone with them again, listening to them talk in awe of how amazing/intelligent/funny/interesting they are, doing stuff with them is so easy and fun, the physical attraction is there, ‘this is THE ONE’ feeling is there, the feeling is mutual, etc. etc.  Even when this whole ‘madly in love’ experience remains unwavering for years between two people, they will STILL tell you that eventually the honeymoon phase does end (You’ve heard this before.  Still, you long to be impervious to this truth, so you avoid it by chasing new honeymoons with different people).  So this is when the hard work of committed relationship compromise begins, in order for you to enjoy the reality of a long-term relationship beyond the honeymoon phase.

Now if you’ve managed to make a connection with someone to even consider any of the above questions, you’re off to a decent start.  These days in the dating world it’s a challenge to even get beyond the right swipe of a dating app, let alone past the cutting room floor of a first date/hang out session.  Think about how you want to address the idea of investing in this next period of relationship evaluation.

  • Clarify the deal of commitment.  Even though these conversations are awkward, if avoid it you’ll have no idea if investing more of your time makes sense.  First figure out what you want.  Would you prefer if the two of you are only dating each other in this next phase?  Or dating other people but sexually exclusive?  Do you know if marriage is something they want for themselves, and if so, how soon do they imagine being ready for marriage?
  • Spend time thinking about where you are and are not willing to compromise. The other person may need more time to feel it out.  Many people operate under the belief that “compatible” people start out wanting commitment changes to happen at exactly the same time.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, some people just need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.  It is your job however, to decide whether the discrepancies that exist between the two of you are just too big to establish and maintain a fulfilling relationship.  How you ask?
  • Notice the patterns that exist between you:  Are routinely important habits in their life persistently difficult for you to bear?  Do you see a feasible way for you to accept these things, even if they never change?  Can you communicate while problem-solving without spiraling into attack or stonewalling mode with each other?  Do you set each other off in consistently destructive ways?  Is the emotional toll of engaging in this relationship negatively impacting other important areas of your life such as your ability to work effectively in your chosen path?  Are you able to maintain the relationships you’ve determined are important to you while you’re dating this person?
  • Make a clear decision about the relationship for a specific period of time and execute towards that plan, rather than spending days or even months going back and forth about whether to stay in the relationship.  ‘Should I end this relationship?  Yesterday I struggled with thinking I should, but today I feel like I want to make things work.’  This type of deliberation can be paralyzing and spiral into even bigger problems, like anxiety and depression, which exacerbate the situation.  You’re not going to move forward in either your relationship or personally if you remain plagued with indecisiveness.  By not committing to a concrete plan, you are not actively working to gain resolution.  The irony of staying in a relationship with one foot out the door is that you neither benefit from the comfort of intimacy nor gain the necessary closure for moving on with your life.
  • Accept that even the happiest couples have perpetual problems.  Manage conflict with the understanding that not all problems can be permanently solved.  If I learned anything from studying the work of John Gottman (the leading expert on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations) it was this- you are setting yourself up for failure if you approach all your relationship problems  with the expectation of permanent resolution.  Perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle habits, and can lead to gridlock when attempts to communicate and compromise fail.
  • Learn to practice effective conflict management.  Enlist emotional intelligence skills and aim to avoid toxic communication styles.  Create a system of shared meaning in your relationship that fosters collaboration and friendship in order to bypass power struggles.  What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but establishing a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem without it tearing down the relationship.

If all else fails, seek professional help to help you figure out how to effectively invest the time and effort necessary for building and maintaining a healthy relationship.  Work through your breakup story if that’s the route you take, but move on so you can benefit from the invaluable rewards of love and intimacy.

 

Dr.Villarreal on Forum with Michael Kransy

Forum with Michael Kransy of KQED, NPR Public Radio welcomed Dr. Christina Villarreal as a guest speaker and mental health expert on the episode Moving On After a Break Up … And Why It’s Too Painful for Some of Us on February 12, 2016.  With host Mina Kim:  A new Stanford study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin uncovers why some people have more trouble recovering from breakups than others.  Listen to the entire episode here.

 

 

greenroom
Dr. Christina Villarreal in The Green Room @ KQED San Francisco

Millennials Do It Their Way: Optimizing Casual Sex So Everyone Wins

Read between the lines.
If reading between the lines isn’t working for you, try speaking up and being direct!

Millennials coming of age experience in the United States has been uniquely influenced by their access to the free, unlimited sexual content widely available on the internet.  This access has served not only as a resource for their sexual curiosity and consumption, but as a primary resource for easily connecting to people who share their sexual preferences on the dating sites of the moment.  Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University analyzed data from a survey of more than 33,000 adults in the U.S. to measure the country’s shifting sexual landscape.  The data revealed that Millennials were the most likely generation to acknowledge having casual sex; 45 percent of them said they had slept with someone other than a boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse during their late teens or 20s.  Overall, adult acceptance of premarital sex increased from 42 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2012, an all-time high.  “Americans are spending more of their lifetime unmarried, so they have more opportunities to engage in sex with more partners, and less reason to disapprove of non-marital sex” reports Twenge.  She opines that increasingly permissive attitudes toward sex are a sign of the rise of individualism in America.  She explains “when a culture places more emphasis on the needs of the self and less on social rules, more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality are the almost inevitable result.”

More and more young adults are supporting the current trend in sexual decision-making, where commitment and emotional connection are seen as unnecessary precursors to first time sexual encounters with others.  In theory, this allows people to get their sexual needs met, while minimizing the emotional risks and responsibilities associated with interpersonal intimacy.  In my practice as an executive/personal coach in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s relatively common practice for both men and women to report having sex with someone they’ve just met.  Based on this first sexual encounter, they may choose not to see them again, may establish a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement, or opt to get to know them on a deeper, emotional level through dating if a romantic relationship is something they’re seeking.  In most cases there’s a trial and error period, as people who are still very new to each other attempt to communicate their sexual preferences and get their needs met.  Millennials’ prolific use of texting as a primary form of communication, habit of avoiding vulnerabilityawkward interpersonal exchanges, and peer conflict can all contribute to frequent misunderstandings and rapid start/stops within their sexual encounters, regardless of what the end goal may be.  In some cases, getting stuck in a pattern of ineffective/unsatisfying sexual encounters can lead to anxiety, depression and an over-reliance on recreational substances.

As a coach and mental health expert I help people develop and practice the necessary skills for optimizing their new sexual experiences and increase their ability to find, establish and maintain satisfying relationships.  This article aims to provide some practical guidelines for optimizing the outcomes of your casual sex encounters while dating, and insightful tips for decoding the opposite sex along the way.

Men seeking sexual encounters with women:

  • Adopt an early communication style that encourages a positive response from women.  What does that mean? Skip the crude humor in online and text exchanges- chances are, you’re likely only entertaining yourself (or infamously landing yourself in one those Buzzfeed Tinder Fail lists) and that’s not the point is it?  Humor is fine, and can be a good initial approach online, but seriously, a little goes a long way.  Increase your odds of getting a genuine response from women by taking yourself out of the dregs of online dating wasteland- try telling an original, funny story about yourself, relate to something personal on a woman’s profile, or at minimum, send a quick hello with your array of pics to see if what you have going on is of interest to her.  Have a friend (preferably female) screen your online pics.  It may seem trivial, but poorly chosen pics can make or break your online dating success.
  • Once you’re corresponding consistently with someone, be proactive and suggest a specific plan to get together.  While this seems like a no-brainer, a lot of guys fail to get the ball rolling while they have a woman’s attention.  Comedian Aziz Ansari conducted focus groups with hundreds of people for his new book Modern Romance, getting intimate details on why people have problems with dating.  He shares “The lack of clarity over whether the meet-up is even an actual date frustrates both sexes to no end, but since it’s usually the guys initiating, this is a clear area where men can step it up.” So guys, to optimize your chances of establishing a sexual encounter, strike while the iron is hot.  While you’re keeping someone around as a text buddy, someone else is closing the deal as her new sex partner by making specific plans.  It might be entertaining and easy to have an assortment of women to text and exchange photos with, but these women will eventually fade you out of the picture for someone they know in real life.
  • Be sincere and honest about what your ideal arrangement is right now.  Just because you’re wanting to keep things casual doesn’t mean you’re decreasing your chances for sexual opportunities with women.  There are plenty of women who are open to keeping things casual too!  Plenty.  It doesn’t make sense to allude to wanting a more committed relationship if you actually don’t- doing so only increases the odds of introducing drama I’m sure you’d rather avoid.  Women can absolutely relate to wanting to experience an array of people before settling into a committed relationship, and understand you may be in a stage of your life where you’re prioritizing other life goals above romantic relationships.  In short, aim for integrity when you engage with someone in pursuit of sex.  Establishing this mutual understanding up front will create a space where both of you can focus on what you’re actually there for- sexual pleasure.
  • Real talk: If you aren’t asking what you can do to help a woman achieve orgasm and/or paying close attention to figuring out what she enjoys (and spending more than a little time doing this) it’s safe to guess you’re coming up short in bed.  Which of course, is your choice.  Just consider that when a woman finally does come along that you actually care about pleasing (even if it’s years and countless women from now), you likely still won’t have much of a clue about how to get her off (especially if you’re a fan of male produced porn).  There’s a good chance you’ll pale in comparison to other guys she’s been with, which is not a good look if you want to become that person’s significant other/favorite sexual partner.  If that’s not enough motivation, consider this:  when a woman reaches full sexual attraction to a sex partner she is going to be much more agreeable and feel more confident about trying new things for the sake of her partner’s pleasure.  That sexual fantasy you’ve had since the 8th grade?  That could go down if you play your cards right. #Thankmelater

Women seeking sexual encounters with men:

Speak Up Clearly and Consistently To Avoid Confusion.  Taking a meek approach in communicating your sexual preferences is going to seriously set back your sexual pleasure (and possibly compromise your sexual safety). Remind yourself:  Men cannot read your mind (and your subtle non-verbals can go unnoticed) because men and women are culturally socialized to communicate in different styles.  Be direct with your words and your actions about what you like and what you don’t like. Think about it: when men engage sexually, most do a pretty good job of getting their sexual needs met.  Porn and sex in movies perpetuate the myth that men do exactly what women love during sex (and women are supposed love it, regardless of how ridiculous it is!)

Set The Pace:  Literally and Figuratively.  Figuring out a sexual pace that feels good between two people comes from familiarity and predictability, neither of which have been established when you’ve only recently met someone.  So in addition to communicating openly, take the time to find a pace that works for both of you. Try not to approach sex like it’s fast food eaten at 2 am after staying out all night- which is usually on a whim, followed by almost instant regret.  Take your time and do it right– these SOS Band song lyrics were a hit for a reason!

STOP FAKING IT IN BED.  Really.  Pretending that you enjoy things during sex that you don’t is synonymous with digging your own sexual grave.  Take one for the team, and stop sending guys the wrong message that what they are doing sexually is awesome when you know that it’s not.  Funny but true story:  A 25 year-old attractive Asian woman I’m coaching tells me “So I met this guy randomly, and after we talked and hung out for a while, we eventually decide to go back to his place where we end up having sex.  Right away he starts fingering me with way too much force, to the point where it’s actually hurting me and I’m going numb from it!  So I stop him and say ‘hey when you touch me like that it hurts’ and he looks at me and says a little defensively “ok well… some women like it like that.”  She deadpans, “Christina I had to break it to him… “Um NO.  NO ONE likes it like that!”  We both had a good laugh at her candor in the moment.  I could not have been more proud of her for speaking up for herself!

Stop filtering and dismissing guys so quickly- be optimistic about seeing if you can develop good sexual chemistry with guys who don’t fit your bill. These days, you can swipe right to meet guys using more filters than your favorite photo editing app offers- you can specify height, body type, education level, location, age, etc. One of the most common complaints I get from women is that they rarely feel attracted enough to guys to even see them a first or second time.  But who you think will be attracted to sexually may not be a good match in real life.  Scientists working with Match.com found that we are horrible at knowing what we want; the kind of partner people said they wanted often didn’t match up with what they were actually interested in long term.  What works well for predicting good first dates doesn’t tell us much about the long-term success of a couple let alone their sexual chemistry.  Psychologists like Robert B. Zajonc explains, “while we are initially attracted to people by their physical appearance and traits we can quickly recognize, the things that make us more attracted to someone are their deeper, more personal qualities, which come out only during sustained interactions” – the “mere exposure effect” is repeated exposure to a stimulus which tends to enhance one’s feelings toward it.

This last point applies to anyone and everyone seeking sexual or romantic connections of any and all kinds:

Do Not Let FOMO Take Over.  You’ve read about, you’ve experienced it, you’re sick of hearing about how Millennials are  responsible for amplifying this toxic trend in a digital era.  That said, I’ve seen far too many people spend endless amounts of time spinning their wheels, agonizing over not meeting/dating enough people they find interest in.  A billion and one first dates later, still…nothing.  Begin to rethink what this could mean…maybe this isn’t the strategy that is going unearth the person who gets you excited and holds your attention.  Switch it up, peel your eyes away from your phone, pull your earbuds out and take a look around you.  Make eye contact and smile, maybe even say hi to the person next to you- this could be your first moment together of many better ones to come.

 

Dr. Christina Villarreal’s Focus on Women’s Sexual Health, Empowerment & Wellness

15 years ago, I completed my doctoral dissertation examining cultural and gender influences of sexual risk behavior among Latino women. For the past 10 years in my clinical practice, I’ve enjoyed helping women embrace their sexuality, overcome obstacles to safe sex practices, and empower themselves for a lifetime of sexual wellness. I’ve served as a Relationship Expert on social media websites like GuysAskGirls.com, and written a range of articles on sex, dating and relationships, with media publications and interviews in popular media sites such as techcrunch.  This week I orchestrated what turned out to be an amazing workshop for nearly 40 women on Navigating Sex, Relationships, and Dating in San Francisco. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to do this important work. Thank you to all those that participated, there will be more to come!  In the coming weeks I will be recruiting a diverse group of men in various stages of their dating life and relationship experience- from single to married.  These men will form an expert panel for an open Q & A session for an audience of Bay Area women who’d like to better understand why guys do what they do!  I will facilitate an honest and respectful dialogue that will surely be insightful, informative and instrumental in improving dating and relationship experiences for all.

Here are a few candid snapshots from the event on May 27th, 2015, we had a great time!

Hosting my first workshop on Women's Sexual Health and Wellness
Hosting my first workshop on Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness
With Rebecca Alvarez of Bodyfeminina- she is a Sexual Wellness Expert and Women's Sexual Health researcher
With Rebecca Alvarez of Bodyfeminina- she is a Sexual Wellness Expert and Women’s Sexual Health researcher
With Dr. Lina Hannigan, a Clinical Health Psychologist practicing in the Bay Area, SF.
With Dr. Lina Hannigan, a Clinical Health Psychologist practicing in the Bay Area, SF.

Is Lightweight Stalking on Social Media a Relationship Killer? Stop in 3 Easy Steps.

How often do you keep tabs on the person you're dating online?
How often do you keep tabs on the person you’re dating online?

Have you ever wondered how much checking someone’s status updates/tweets/photo uploads is normal/harmless, and when does re-checking their online activity become problematic?  Most of us have caught ourselves clicking through someone’s social media activity because we have reason to be naturally curious  about them- maybe the person is someone we want to meet, or just started dating and want to know more about them.  Other times we might scroll through our partner’s online activity as a way to check their daily mood, as counterintuitive as that may sound (since you likely see them or at least communicate with them regularly in person).  Today’s prolific use of social media gives us an alternative glimpse into our partner’s emotional status and social exchanges that we may not otherwise pick up on.  Even if someone’s online persona is carefully constructed for public consumption, having access to their online activity gives us an opportunity to interpret the meaning of their coming and goings, even their level of intimacy with others.  If this person is an ex-romantic partner this may be all we have to go on- even if all we see is their profile picture and friend list, this information can still provide a rough approximation of their current situation. This dilemma recently became a topic of conversation in my coaching practice, where helping people improve their emotional intelligence is a common goal throughout the work that I do.  Victoria, a bright and accomplished 24 year-old woman shared with me that constantly checking her boyfriend’s social media activity and online communication with his ex is taking a hard toll on her mood and relationship functioning. Me: “Have you ever talked to your boyfriend about what you see on his social media sites?  That you’re concerned about who he’s interacting with online?” Her: “HELL NO! The last thing I want to do is come across as the person that I actually am- the type of person who stalks people online to see what they’re up to, and compare their successes to mine.” Checking people’s online activity, or ‘lightweight stalking‘ if you will, can run deep.  We start out taking a quick glimpse at our partner’s tweet/Instagram pic of the day, only to find their ex decided to comment suggestively.  It’s too easy to then check out our partner’s ex-boyfriend/girlfriend’s Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, etc (because dammit they have a public profile just begging to be explored).  So begins the comparisons.  Do they seem happier/sadder now? Does their taste in fashion/music/politics demonstrate that I’m a more tasteful/intelligent person?  Is he/she in better shape than me?  Our self-esteem may start to wane the more we compare ourselves to them.  We end up heading into an emotional tailspin trying to interpret their ‘Vaguebooking‘ habit on Facebook.  We’re left wondering if they’re pining for their old relationship.  Do they want to rekindle things?  Will they/have they tried?  If trust hasn’t been well established in our relationship, we might become irrationally suspicious by mistrusting and/or questioning our partner for no substantial reason.  Suddenly we’re starting arguments that undermine the health of our relationship.

FML.

Dr. Tara C. Marshall, Ph.D., explores online post-breakup fixations in her research article Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth.  Results based on the responses of 464 participants revealed that one-half to two-thirds of people have made contact with an ex-romantic partner through Facebook, and that over half admit to having looked through an ex’s photos to find pictures of them with a new romantic partner.  Findings from this study suggest that keeping tabs on an ex through social media is associated with poorer emotional recovery and personal growth following a breakup. Therefore, avoiding exposure to ex-partners, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart.

Solution:  Put Yourself on a Stalking Diet

  1. Do not allow yourself to stalk during the time of day when you know you are the most emotionally vulnerable and/or have unlimited time to comb through the internet for new postings.  For many people this is late at night.  Give yourself an 8 pm stalking curfew!!!  Most likely after 8 pm, you’ll engage in other things that will bring your mood back to a normal, and you’ll be in a less anxious place before you sleep.
  2. If you know you’re not ready to quit cold turkey, put some “stalking hours” in place, like office hours, if you will.  You’re only allowed to check on those you stalk between 2-4 pm, for example.  That way if you find yourself curious about your ex at midnight (especially likely if you’ve been out drinking), you can rest assured you’ll have a chance to stalk to your heart’s content, just postponed a little.  Chances are, you won’t have that same aching (likely misguided) curiosity during the logical hours of the next afternoon.
  3. Delete the social media app(s) that you use the most during your sleuthing for one week.  This will allow you to see how much you actually miss compulsively scrolling through that particular social media site.  You might discover that the cost of missing out (FOMO) is not creating as much emotional damage as stalking does.
  • And if all else fails…
If all else fails…