TLDR: Single and in your late twenties? Mabel shares her stories of realisation and wisdom from navigating the dating world. From opening the door to your heart to understanding the drawbacks of mundane love, this article explores deeper into struggles of dating in the environment which pushes us to find romantic love.
Being single in your late twenties seems to scream that you are broken and bad. It feels like a problem that needs to be fixed.
A life devoid of romantic love is often painted to be imperfect and empty. And although I’ve been happily single and mostly unperturbed by narratives like these, my immunity has been waning the older I get. I feel pressure, shame, and anxiety. Dating used to be fun and exciting, but now it feels like a chore.
Dating leaves us feeling vulnerable, afraid and imperfect.
It is such a courageous thing we do – showing up for complete strangers, opening up to them, and letting them into our lives. No matter how many times I’ve done it, it still scares me. I’m so thankful to have met with nice people and formed genuine connections. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes and probably caused some hurt, but it is also through experiences like these that I learn about myself.
Here are a few things I’ve learned as a twentysomething navigating the dating scene:
Tip 1: Opening the door to your heart
During the dating process, I noticed a lot of self-sabotaging tendencies that emanate from feeling not good enough.
I felt the need to have achieved certain things or look a certain way before I am worthy of romantic love.
I would meet nice guys who show interest, and think to myself: ‘oh, he can’t be interested in me, he’s too good for me’. I would be fearful that they would see my flaws and lose interest.
Using dating apps magnified this feeling of inadequacy. I felt like a two-dimensional, searchable item looking to fit into someone’s dating checklist.
I had to take on society’s demands and live up to its expectations to feel worthy of love.
These feelings of imperfection and deficiency stemming from a strong sense of self could lead to love prone to impurities and more suffering. We could end up being in relationships that don’t serve us, or find a partner for the wrong reasons.
Only when we extend loving-kindness to ourselves can we examine love with a neutral mind, and know when to keep trying or when to end things.
I read renowned Australian monk Ajahn Brahm’s Opening The Door To Your Heart 10 years ago, and I’ve always thought the key message was being kind to others. The story, I realised, was about opening the doors of our hearts to ourselves as well.
You do not have to be perfect, without fault, to give yourself love. If you wait for perfection, it never arrives. We must open the door of our hearts to ourselves, whatever we have done.
Tip 2: Understanding the drawbacks of mundane love
I extended this unreasonable yardstick for worthiness to my partners. After ending things with a few guys, I unwillingly acknowledged that perhaps I’m part of the problem.
The Buddha points out that we suffer due to cravings that arise when we don’t understand ourselves. I unpacked my approach towards dating and saw how easily put off I am by signs of flaws and recognised the ideals and desires I projected onto others.
These are desires not rooted in reality, and I was creating suffering for myself.
Dating apps with their filtering functions and abundance of choice give us the illusion that there is a perfect human being out there. I loved the idea that I would find someone with instant and perfect compatibility.
But the truth is there are no relationships with no conflicts, and we will always have to work through inevitable differences.
Conditioned things are impermanent and unsatisfactory. We and our partners, as unenlightened beings, will always have our own sets of defilements which will render the dating process unsatisfactory at times.
Almost all of us reach dating age with some form of wound or trauma. Perhaps the more space we can allow for the deficiencies of love and the flawed reality of nature, the better chance we’ll have at being good at love.
Suffering ends when ignorance-based cravings end, not when you find ‘true love’.
Tip 3: Knowing what you want and communicating it
When I started using dating apps, I knew I was looking for a committed relationship with someone who shares similar values. So I would swipe left on guys who were looking for something casual, or guys who ‘don’t know yet’ simply because our goals were not aligned.
I believe this saved me a lot of time and heartache. During the dating process, I have found it helpful to communicate these goals and needs.
Don’t assume that they will figure it out on their own, or that they should know these things instinctively.
It is worth investigating what we are looking for in a relationship. Are we hoping to end suffering with love? Are we looking for an antidote to boredom? Are we hoping to gain coarse rewards through this relationship such as sexual pleasure, wealth, social status, or fame? Is this kind of relationship sustainable?
I reflect on these questions quite a bit.
It is when both partners are ethical, of good character, and equal in standard of conduct that they can live together enjoying all the pleasures they desire. (Numbered Discourses 4.53 Living Together). Perhaps we could use this as a guide when dating.
Dating is a skill and something we can learn to be better at through experience. By practising more qualities of metta (the superior kind of love), we can strive to be one who neither suffers from this dating process nor be the cause of others’ suffering.
Be respectful and kind, and treat the other person the way you would like to be treated.
If you’re feeling burnt out from dating, take a break, don’t go through the process mindlessly. Enjoy the beauty of being single.
Reflect on what you’ve learned from previous relationships or dates. Did it teach you something about what you want and don’t want? What are the ideals, desires and expectations that you tend to project onto others?
“… But then the insecurities creep in, and you start with a slight exaggeration. Still you, just a shinier version. But you like it. So, you tweak it just a little more until the real you, which was probably pretty great, to begin with, is unrecognizable.
But here’s the thing. You’re not just fooling yourself. There’s someone else on the other side of that lie falling in love with a version of you that doesn’t exist.
And that’s not fair, because the only way it ends for them is disappointment. And the only way it ends for you is heartbreak. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that love doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be honest.”
[After the movie, everyone probably just goes back to sprucing up their own dating profiles]
For most of us, we are living in a physical world that has two extended worlds:
1) A digital world we create to show the best version of us (including the ideal version we paint for others and ourselves that doesn’t exist) to impress people who don’t matter.
2) And a visceral world we avoid from accepting and embracing; a world of imperfections and mistakes that we beat ourselves into numbing and escaping.
We all seek the perfect partner whose conditions and features tick all our checkboxes. But do they exist? Well, we all know the answer deep inside of our hearts.
I’ve never tried online dating but my recent experience on Bumble and CMB dating platforms gave me a deeper realization especially after watching this never-too-far-from-reality and meaningful movie.
Everyone is trying to make the best impression and show the best side of themselves. In a stereotypical society, everyone tries to play their roles well like a grand theatre. For example, the ‘best’ side for a man could be the money, career and the lady he gets, the lady shows her ‘best’ facial or bodyside (sometimes her backside as the best side). The law of procreation never fails us, isn’t it?
That the man gets the best pool of genes for his offspring while the woman gets the security. Even I fall for that. Damn.
Nothing seems wrong with that. However, when we take away all the shine and glimmer, we are left cold and dark to the side we never dared to face or even have a look at. The side of vulnerability where our deepest fear and darkest history lie; the societal, family and peer expectations or bitter experiences we had while growing up. Acknowledging that we may not be the smartest son that our parents wanted us to be or to get that dream job that everyone talks about, shines a tiny light of growth for us. We step out of our pursuit to be ‘perfect’ and instead shift to be ‘better’.
While seeing things as they truly are exposes our vulnerability wide open, it also gives us a brief moment to gain confidence in who we are.
Without acknowledging our inner vulnerabilities, it is a vicious cycle that people continue covering instead of excavating the reasons for their vulnerabilities that keep their social anxiety escalating.
Even pretty girls and handsome boys that get all the fame and gain fear losing what they have gained at the first place. The eight worldly winds are in play all the time (Pleasure & Pain, Gain & Loss, Praise & Blame, Fame & Disrepute). The girls will ask “What if I lose my beauty as I age?” and the boys are not spared from “What if one day I lose what I’ve built and gained?”
Perhaps, we should come back to knowing and loving ourselves before knowing and loving others.
Perhaps, we should be honest about being ourselves before wanting others to be honest about themselves.
But what if people run away after you show them your vulnerabilities?
Well, I don’t have answers for that.
I’ve tried using the wrong ways, weird ways, not-following-the-sequence ways, you name it. And I still fail. The fact I can write these proves I’ve mustered enough courage to show my vulnerabilities to the world, thanks to this movie.
‘Setting my standards too high’, ‘don’t sacrifice the whole forest because of a tree’ and ‘belum try belum tau’ (Malay for “Never try, never know”) are the usual responses I hear, even for those who are close to me and know me well.
I don’t have answers for that, too. I guess time will tell.
Perhaps, the best way is if I love myself enough, I’ll make decisions that will make myself loved, by myself. Yeah, easier said than done, but let’s learn to do it anyway.
At the end of the day, if we love ourselves enough, I believe we don’t have to find love the hard way. It comes to us the right way.
When using dating apps, pause and ask ourselves if we are creating a profile that portrays the ideal or real versions of ourselves
Reflect on the ways we can share and be comfortable with our vulnerabilities (height, weight, hobbies)
TLDR: It is not uncommon to start any connections/interactions with exchanging expectations, the transactional nature in mind. Have we stopped and asked ourselves, is that helpful in living fulfilling enriching relationships?
“You have changed” – this ran through my mind when my then-boyfriend told me he preferred to spend the weekend apart from each other after long busy weeks at work when we had plans to meet. Little did I know that it marks the beginning of my conscious contemplation of what a ‘life partnership’ constitutes.
Long story short, we spent the final moments of our ‘relationship’ trying to point fingers at each other and wanting to change the other person into the ideal image in our mind.
I was exhausted and felt I have turned into this ugly person (not figuratively, of course 😊) and called it off.
Having been immersed in personal development themes for some time now, I took the subsequent weeks and months to reflect and review. “What was that experience trying to teach me?”, “What have I learnt from it and how will I respond in a more helpful way for the relationship in future?” – these questions were coming up, nudging me to honestly find answers within.
Life Keeps Sending You Messages…Are You Receiving Them?
It is true, life will keep sending the same lessons in one form or another if we did not fully understand the whole message the first time around. Deeper reflection surfaced to me that I was holding onto certain expectations strongly.
The idea that my boyfriend should be caring, consistent with his words and actions, generous – written in ‘the list’ (no joke, I did have a list of 10 qualities of a life partner!).
On the surface, it might seem reasonable to have expectations for someone I consider spending the rest of my life with (or however long it turns out to be). Many relationship experts even encourage both parties to clarify expectations early and regularly to avoid future misalignment or disappointment.
While I am not speaking against these experts, I have now taken another angle to this topic.
Reviewing my experience to date, I realise I have adopted my parents and society’s view that I need to have the career, the spouse and the child(ren) to be considered successful in life (whatnot with my mom’s regular comment of “You are my only worry now, that your brothers have their own families”).
There were rebel days when I challenged my mom with “Is my life purpose only to get married and have children then?” which she had no ready and convincing answer to.
Ticking The Boxes Of Society
Sure, many are happy with ticking these boxes and it is not the intention to reduce those ‘accomplishments’ and make them any less. I too would find joy in simple family life, at the same time I have the inkling there is more to life than just ticking the boxes.
I restarted contemplation practice in silence, coinciding with the Circuit Breaker period which gave much-needed space for such retrospection.
Various thoughts and feelings arose; from questioning my worth as an individual, to swinging moods of wanting to take back my decision – all are valid experiences, though might not be the truth.
I dutifully journal the thoughts that arise during those sessions and find myself acquainted with a friend who nudges me to review my beliefs and expectations on everything. This included the impermanent nature of life, personal relationship expectations.
And the journey begins.. more questions surface “Who’s to say life has to be lived only this way?”, “How can I be sure that my expectations are reasonable?”, “Where have I picked up these beliefs, do I truly believe them?”. With more contemplation, the questions get deeper and more challenging. And I face them one after another as there isn’t much to lose.
Monologues And Realisations
The first realisation arises: this person is not my boyfriend, he is a person of his own – with his habits, preferences and nature of mind. I cannot dictate how he should behave to my liking and not to my disliking.
It was my strong grasping of an image of how he should be that contributed to the arguments and blames. It was almost like I had these monologues in my mind during our interactions – “You do this, that’s why I love you”, “You are like that, and I dislike that part of you”. Although it is part of human experience to have preferences, it does not mean these preferences are the be-all and end-all.
It is okay to have them, it is even more important to be aware of them as they are, preferences – which is also changeable.
The outside world serves as a mirror to me, reflecting the part that I value and dislike of myself. Being clear on my values serves as the lighthouse for life’s journey, though it is not my position to demand that others align to them.
In the case they do have similar values, we might have a great time together! Otherwise, it is an opportunity for me to expand my worldview or even practice being kind to others who are different from me. At the end of the day, there is no need to see me and others as opponents in a battle.
Wanting to be with someone with qualities in the list is probably not as within my control as being someone with those qualities.
And if I need to ask for someone to be a decent human being (there might be judgment here too), he/she is probably not someone whom I want to associate with, at least not for long.
Even more, wanting someone to be a certain way so that I feel pleasure or ‘happy’ is fleeting – like trying to draw on the sandy beach, it will be wiped out by each splash of waves.
That pleasure and happiness will change when (not if) the person changes for whatever reason. As we learn, the nature of life is ever-changing – the impermanence lesson which we are trying to truly understand.
Of course, I have not decoded the mystery of relationships and dare not claim to know even a tiny bit of it. This is my learning so far, and I have felt more peace today with what is than ever before. Who knows, life might consider me receiving the message now and send me another lesson to learn 😊
Understand the difference between grasping on expectations and practising our life values
Embodying values within ourselves, rather than demanding the qualities from others, will bring about a more peaceful state of mind
Whenever there is an inclination to place a source of pleasure on something or someone, pause and ask “is this right action based on right view?”
TLDR: Surviving a long-distance relationship is not easy and some say it’s a work of art. It requires firm conviction with a goal in mind, effective and mindful communication as well as the willingness to compromise.
“Hey, since you are enlisting soon, aren’t you afraid of long-distance relationships (LDR)?”, “You are going to Tekong, how is your relationship going to survive?”
These were the exact words directed to me when I enlisted back in 2016. I am certain I am not the first to receive such comments. As a terribly unromantic person, I had concerns about keeping the relationship going.
Thankfully, despite the distance, my partner and I recently celebrated our 5th anniversary. We have emerged stronger and closer than ever before.
Before sharing my observations, it’s crucial to note that LDR has the disadvantage of being subjective. Hence, no single manual works for everyone.
Nevertheless, I hope my 3 observations provide a brief guide to survive the “apocalyptic nature” of LDR.
1. Sharing Commonalities
It’s a common misconception that sharing commonalities means sharing common interests and hobbies. Of course, when both parties share the same goals, values, interests and hobbies, this alignment ideally benefits any relationship.
What happens when interests diverge? Do relationships naturally break apart due to the lack of shared passions?
The sustenance of a relationship need not be based on shared hobbies. My partner and I are on the opposite ends of many spectra. I am more liberal while she is conservative; she is idealistic while I am pragmatic. Touch is her love language while I prefer to take a step back.
We do not share many common interests. I find her interest in Korean drama stodgy while she sees my interest in books boring. However, we share the common goal of tying the knot. To me, having an end goal in mind is crucial as it sets the relationship’s foundation in place.
With a firm foundation, both parties can erect pillars to grow their relationship.
Just like the black pepper tree that requires a stake to lean on to grow, every relationship would require a pillar with a firm base. This helps in both managing conflict and strengthening communication.
Many conflicts in relationships arise from selfish thinking and rash decisions made without consultation. Working towards the goal of marriage, my partner and I discussed issues ranging from career pathways, education prospects, investment and housing plans, and even which side of the family will look after our future kids.
We thought that if we aligned from the start, there is less chance of being in a rude shock when communication falters. If one individual was prepared for marriage but the partner refused to be tied down, it would end in eventual separation.
In the inevitable ups and downs of a relationship, having a pillar of shared commonalities mitigate squabbles. A firm foundation realigns us back on course if we deviate.
Living in a separate time zone, I often take Singapore’s safety for granted and forget to check if she is back home safely from work. A conflict might arise if there is an assumption of me lacking the effort to show concern.
Now and then, we clash over ‘trivial’ pickings. I would much rather have these ‘trivial’ arguments than have her suspect my intentions when I am abroad. This is because she knows that we have marriage as the end goal.
By doing so, trust is built. We may argue over the ‘processes’ but never the outcome. In turn, she understands that I live by the Buddhist’s 5 precepts and thus has the faith in me to do the right thing.
2. Mindful Communication
Communicating effectively is a crucial aspect of any relationship. The willingness to communicate effectively. At the start, it was difficult. We were both used to the physical presence of one another.
From meeting up and chatting all day to not even chatting at all on some days was tough.
As a result, we fought a lot more. However, we realized what we fought over was not due to the absence of physical presence. What we fought over was the lack of effective communication.
Effective communication entails presenting your views, feelings and values in the way best understood by the receiver. I was not doing that. When we spoke, my replies were often monologue, indirect and anti-climactic. I was merely regurgitating what happened throughout the day and mainly talking about “myself”.
I assumed that sharing my daily overseas routine would keep the conversation going and promote understanding. These assumptions proved to be wrong. While it is instinctively in our nature to talk about ourselves to feel a sense of validation and sympathy, boredom eventually sets in and attention wanders.
Such boredom or agitation is a result of your neural receptors being starved of the attention needed to feel a sense of self-validation.
In simple terms, people don’t always want to listen to everything about you.
My self-esteem was boosted at the expense of my partner and it soon became one-way traffic where our communication was living off the other. There wasn’t an outlet for her to express her daily discontent or the opportunity to talk about “herself”.
Being aware of this, we made the effort to rectify it and that has helped us tremendously in our LDR since. Be mindful of the tendency to unconsciously fall into the “Self-Appreciating trap”. We unintentionally fall for such traps because we are not mindful of our speech. The lack of tack in our speech tends to cause offence, which may gravely affect our relationship.
The Buddhist teachings of the noble eightfold paths include right speech as one of its core tenets. I view right speech as not just abstention from telling lies, slander or abusive language but also mindful speaking.
Being aware of how we speak and what we talk about, clear boundaries are set.
As I hone my mindfulness, I started talking less about myself and presented my partner with opportunities to speak up. Our communication soon improved and became a two-way street.
Moreover, incorporating mindfulness in our everyday speech and actions allowed us to be considerate of one another’s needs.
By practising mindfulness, we have transformed the way my partner and I communicate and have mitigated many potential flashpoints. Until today, even when I am studying abroad, our communication has improved and that boils down to being aware of how we communicate.
3. Put in the Effort & be Willing to Compromise
Humans can be selfish. However, we humans can cooperate too. Each partner can coexist in a relationship but opt to pursue his/her interest. Be it to flaunt the relationship as social status or to be satisfying sexual needs. If one is not putting in the effort into the relationship and is bent on pursuing his/her own “selfish” endeavours, the relationship is unlikely to last.
It takes two hands to clap. For the couple to succeed in a relationship, they must put away their differences, identify potential weaknesses and cooperate to work towards the goal.
If both parties share the same commonalities, then the relationship has a set goal.
However, the outcomes only become real if the process is set in place and acted upon through effort.
Thisinvolves compromising on some of your interests for the relationship. For example, living in different time zones, I had to stay up past midnight and she would wake up early to skype. Although this does not seem like much, it reflects two points in maintaining a healthy LDR:
Firstly, we both share the same commonality and are willing to put in the effort to achieve it. Secondly, that process meant that both parties had to compromise, forgo sleep, etc to keep the relationship growing.
My mentor once mentioned, “Sharing similar hobbies doesn’t necessarily make the relationship work, it’s about you putting in the effort to settle your differences and make sure it works. It’s important to note that every relationship is a collective effort. Both parties must be prepared to put in the effort and willing to sacrifice some short-term interest for longer ones.”
Undergoing an LDR or any relationship for that matter is no easy feat. Our relationship had to overcome numerous obstacles and social stigmas. However, our relative success can be attributed to these 3 takeaways.
These 3 lessons must be seen as complementary to one another and not mutually exclusive. Like me and many others who have gone through LDR, it’s not going to be easy but it is possible if one bears these 3 lessons in mind. In any relationship, it always takes two hands to clap.
Develop commonality in your relationship on how you envision it to be and the dreams you hold together
Practice mindful communication with your partner by avoiding the ‘self-appreciating trap’
Be willing to compromise, even if it means putting your ego & interest aside.