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Dating Maze #366: Long Distance Expectations

September 2, 2012 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

After two months of long distance dating, I’m bored and restless. Should I keep trying to make it work?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I’m a 28-year-old woman and have had a string of dating attempts that never amounted to much. Now I worry that I can no longer trust my own judgment when it comes to dating and relationships.

For the past two months, I‘ve been dating someone who lives several hundred miles away. We spoke on the phone before meeting, and then each of us traveled part-way for our first date. That date went well – we had things to talk about and I was attracted to him, even though he doesn't have the "look" I usually go for and he mumbles.

After that meeting, we began to "chat" almost daily through Skype, sometimes for a few hours at a time. I know this is not the same as meeting in person, but I was bothered that the conversations were dragging at times.

Eventually, we got back together in the same city for a weekend. We ended up spending 8 hours together on Saturday, and to be honest, it was a little much. I still found the mumbling hard to understand sometimes, and what had previously attracted me physically was starting to wear off.

We went to the zoo on Sunday, but I was mostly bored and got tired of walking around with him. We didn't have that much to say, and we had differing opinions on some issues. I keep wondering what that will mean for us in the long term. On the other hand, he did something very thoughtful, and he felt comfortable telling me something personal. Even though I didn't really feel the chemistry, these gestures kept me from breaking things off.

I also worry about breaking it off because maybe my expectations are too high. On the other hand, his mumbling isn't going to go away, and his viewpoints are probably not going to change.

I don't want to string him along, but I'm afraid of ending it. I don't trust my opinions anymore, because I've found something wrong with almost every guy I've dated. Even though most of those reasons were valid, I worry that there might be something wrong with me!

Do I have unrealistic expectations? I've always thought that when I find the right guy the attraction would come, I'd feel more sure about it. Is this something I should give more time for? Shouldn’t I be feeling more at this point in our dating? Mutual friends of ours recently became engaged after knowing each other for two months! I’m feeling real anxiety about all of this, and I usually take high anxiety as a sign something’s wrong and end things. Now I wonder if I’m misinterpreting things. What do you suggest I do?


Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc. Rosie and Sherry's Answer

Dear Naomi,

It seems that you are having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. You are grappling with three challenges: 1) not knowing what to expect from a developing relationship in general, 2) not knowing what to expect from a long distance dating situation, and 3) difficulty managing the effects that anxiety has on your dating. We'll try to address each of them.

It seems to us that, like many other daters, you don't know what to expect in the early stages of a courtship, and as a result you expect too much. Many wonderful relationships begin very slowly. You hope this won't be the case for you, and it would be much easier on your nerves if you just "knew" early on that someone was right for you. But since we can't know in advance how this will ultimately turn out, we begin to have feelings of, "There's no reason why I shouldn't go out again and give this more time.”

A long second date is a sure recipe for ambivalence and doubt.

Because you're not sure what to expect, you've also quite innocently done a few things to sabotage what might be a promising courtship. You've compared yourself to a couple who became engaged after dating for two months, even though their situations, temperaments and life experiences are very different than yours. At an arbitrary point in the dating process, you expected a level of comfort and flowing conversation with someone you don't know that well. And your second date was way too long – a sure recipe for ambivalence and doubt. All of these have dampened the excitement and positive feelings you had when you first met.

The fact that you and the man you're seeing are "geographically challenged" has added to your confusion. When daters live a distance apart, they often have to deal with complicated logistics to arrange dates, and may go for weeks without a face-to-face meeting. This means that the relationship will develop a different – often slower – momentum than if they were local. If they don't understand this, they could easily feel disappointed by the pace of things.

In the beginning, you did exactly what we recommend: begin with a few phone calls and emails to find out some more about each other. From the outset, both of you expected to travel, and you each showed flexibility by meeting part-way. And you had a good attitude about your first date, treating it as an ice-breaker – a chance to see what each other looks like in person and get a preliminary sense of personalities and way of relating. It was a good first date – good conversation, some attraction, and each of you wanting to continue and see what would happen.

If you had lived close to each other, you might have started to go out twice a week for a few hours at a time. Instead, you had 3-hour Skype dates – and that was a mistake. At this early stage, video or telephone dates shouldn't last more than 60-90 minutes, because you don't know each other well enough to keep up a flowing conversation, and there isn't any scenery, food or activity to fill up some of the time. That's why your conversations had some lags. You can't expect your feelings of connection to develop at the same rate as it would if this was in person.

The two of you wisely arranged for a second "visit" within several weeks of your first meeting. You needed more face-to-face meetings in order to get a better sense of each other. Unfortunately, you fell into a common long-distance-dating trap. You wanted to maximize your time together, and you had an 8-hour second date, during which time you didn't do much more than talk.

Without down time to process your experiences, it can overload your system.

Long dates with a planned activity (such as a scenic drive and picnic, hike, or day at the amusement park) are a good idea when two people have been dating for many weeks, have started to like each other, and have a history on which they can build conversations. However, they are not a good idea early on, and the daters are bound to feel bored and disappointed, and might begin finding fault with the other person.

It doesn't surprise us that your outing at the zoo the next day didn't go well, because you'd already overdone it. Like many women, you needed "down time" to process your experiences, and because you didn't have it, it overloaded your "system." You began to feel ambivalent, wondered if you were really attracted, and magnified things you didn't like about him. (Ironically, this man may have felt energized by all of your time together, probably because he processed his thoughts and feelings in the moment.)

Finding Solutions

What we usually suggest for this type of weekend situation is to spread two or three 3-hour dates over a period of two days. One can be a meal together and a short walk. Each of the other two dates should preferably center around an activity. This will give you the down time you needed to process your experiences, and will let you see how you interact with each other in different situations.

Long-distance dating can have another negative effect. When two people go through time and expense to see each other for a second round, they tend to want to feel a stronger outcome than "It was okay." Daters who live in the same city may be willing to go on a number of dates to build an emotional connection, and many times their patience will pay off. It's harder to be patient when you live hundreds of miles away and have to plan another long trip – when you don't yet have a sense of chemistry or emotional connection. But, since the momentum of a long-distance courtship takes more time to develop, you need that patience.

Instead of running away when anxiety spikes, explore why you feel anxious.

You mentioned that your anxiety flared up when you were dating, and assumed this was "sign" that something wasn't right. By running way as soon as your anxiety level spikes, instead of exploring why you feel anxious, you may lose a potentially good relationship.

Anxiety can also cause you to over-analyze and over-think many of the small details and nuances of what’s transpiring – and then you dwell on them excessively. You can't see the man you are dating as a whole person who has many good points as well as some imperfections, if you spend a lot of time and energy worrying about many of the small issues that may not matter so much in the overall scheme of things. This kind of over-thinking is often the death-knell for a promising relationship. (Trees and forest again.)

Here’s an analogy that may make what's happening easier to understand: If you’ve ever baked a cake, you may have been tempted to lick the batter while preparing the recipe. If you lick it as you added each ingredient, trying to imagine what the cake would taste when it was finished, you'll be discouraged by the taste, texture, smell and look of the concoction. If you decide to throw out the batter before finishing to add the other ingredients, you'll never have known how delicious the cake would taste once it was baked. Focusing on small details at the early stage of the dating process is a lot like tasting cake batter after each ingredient is added – you don't know what will develop between the two of you and you may be discouraged from ever finding out.

Dating Maze 339 suggests a few techniques that are generally helpful for reducing anxiety levels.

Moving Forward

We hope this helps you understand why you feel so confused about your relationship and are questioning your own judgment. Our next suggestion may help you develop the clarity you seek in order to know what to do. It can also help you stop over-thinking and over-analyzing each conversation, email, and face-to-face date.

For a video date, try playing an online board game.

We suggest a version of what we call a "dating diet." Try "dating" each other on Skype video chat for one hour, twice a week. In between, you can exchange a daily text or email saying "hi," while sharing a little something about your day. Try to make the dates center around an activity, like an online board game or word game. Take turns telling each other a made-up fairy-tale, or reading an entertaining short story. Be creative – get materials for a craft item (try a Sukkah decoration or Rosh Hashanah cards) that you can each do on the Skype video date. These are good ways to see different sides of each other and take the pressure off of having to come up with great conversation.

Let the interactive dates continue when you see each other in person again, hopefully within a few weeks. Think of bowling or paddle boating, play a board game, food shopping together, cooking a meal, painting ceramics – any activities that you can do together. Think of one new thing you'd like to learn about each other at each date, and introduce the topic into your conversation. This mix of shared activity and talk will help you build a history of shared experiences.

There's another critical feature of the "Dating Diet": During the diet period, don't allow yourself to think about what you said or did, what he said or did, or what it means. Don't try to evaluate how you feel or what you think about him or the relationship.

When the month is up, the first question to ask yourself is, "What has changed between us since I started this diet?" Hopefully, because you haven't clouded your mind with worry and over-thinking, you'll be able to answer that question clearly. If you feel a connection, have started to like him, and find your attraction to him has grown, you can speak with him about moving things forward. If things haven't moved in a positive direction, you can tell yourself that you made a good effort, and end things confidently.

All this can be done with the guidance of a dating mentor.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry

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