And An Expert Says…

Elana Katz, family therapist and divorce mediator on faculty at the Ackerman Institute.

Internet dating creates a lot of opportunity, but it can also turn the idea of netting a partner into something like fishing: after you’ve caught your fish, you’ve pretty much accomplished your goal. From a relational point of view, “catching the fish” is only the first frame in life’s board game. After that, there’s so much more. What will you both continue to bring to the relationship, how will you negotiate difference, will the connection become rewarding, exciting?

The Internet comes at a time when our culture is about “getting the best” and “being the best” — and it feeds that drive. If someone’s insecure about their standing, then the right arm-candy, the right dollar amount, can signal both to themselves and the world that they’ve arrived at a particular level of success.

How many times have you heard this exchange? “I’ve met someone terrific.” “Great. What does he do?” I long for the day when the response, instead, is: “What’s he like? How does he treat you? What’s the connection feel like?” There’s nothing wrong with trying to find someone accomplished, but there isn’t going to be someone “perfect” who solves all of your life’s issues. Instead, a good relationship will be about mutual support: two people negotiating their own life journeys while also bringing out the best in one another and building an intimate connection. It doesn’t mean “perfection,” it means a healthy way to deal with what’s not “perfect.”

In our culture, we know how to write the copy for The New York Times wedding pages, but we don’t have much experience describing what really warms our heart, what it really takes to build a relationship. It’s mind-boggling, really — you wouldn’t plunk someone behind the wheel of a car and say, “You’ll figure it out,” yet we send people off to couple with only the most superficial understanding of what it’s about. Our expectations for relationships are so much higher than in the past, but we haven’t built in a mechanism to learn how to get there.

There’s also a biochemistry to falling in love: you have butterflies, you can’t eat, you listen to songs, everything is amazing. Our bodies are wired for this phase to fade out at between eight and 18 months, and to shift to a more nurturing love. But people who are dating don’t know this, and when the sizzle goes out, they start to think, “This guy forgets to call, he didn’t bring home the newspaper. I’m with the wrong person.” Instead, you want to be thinking, “How am I going to build this? Do I like what’s developing?”

In many parts of the Jewish community, there is still a deeply held value (especially for women) that we need to find our way to a loving relationship. It’s considered an accomplishment: for ourselves, for our families, for our community. The community brings pressure — but also real commitment — to this search. I know many single Jewish women who, at around age 40, start carrying around this urgent question: “What went wrong here?”

There’s a huge contradiction in the community. On the one hand, Jews promote marrying — so you would expect to see a lot of traditional configuration — but on the other, there are huge chunks of the population where it’s simply not happening. That’s contradictory input, and people can’t begin to work on this issue, never mind solve it, if it hasn’t been articulated.

There are gender issues. We talk “paradigm changes,” but we’re not fully living them. I hear stories from men, “She was only interested in finding out how much money I make, what I could do for her.” Their take- away experience is that someone will be using them, exhibiting too much interest in their platinum credit card. Some men are scanning for this — they had a bad divorce, say — it worries them. Men are people, too. We need to approach them — and they, us — more thoughtfully. One woman told me that on her first JDate date she said something complimentary to her date, and he almost dropped his fork. He couldn’t recall the last time a date had complimented him. Men are anxious, too — they want a pleasant evening with someone who takes some care with them.

Women’s e-dating experiences can be greatly enhanced if they approach Internet dating intelligently, with intentionality, with a shaping hand. We have to know when to hold’em and when to fold’em. We might say online, “I would never live outside of San Francisco. I would never date someone with kids,” but the specificity only captures you at one point in time. In the context of a relationship that’s really nurturing, that potentiates both partners’ growth and connection — you can experience yourself as surprisingly flexible. A man who was only interested in women who worked part-time found himself cheering for his girlfriend’s promotion at work, even though that meant a lot of travel.

When all goes well, there’s a balance, there are roots and wings. It’s not only what goes on between you, what you give each other, but also how you applaud each other as adults going out into the world.

– as told to Susan Schnur