It turns out that many of these “rules,” all of which are true, sometimes contradict each other
I’ve been dating for a long time and I’m noticing that the thing I end up breaking up over is the thing I didn’t like on the first date. Everyone tells me that I can’t say no after a single date; relationships take time, and I shouldn’t make snap judgments. So I turn myself into a pretzel to convince myself that I’m okay with whatever is bothering me, but in the end, that’s the eventual deal breaker. If I already have an intuition about something in the beginning, can’t I just trust myself?
Trust My Gut
Dear Trust My Gut,
Sometimes I think doing the right thing isn’t so hard. What’s hard is knowing what the right thing is. Your question has a similar flavor. As you mentioned, when you’re dating, many pithy cliches and truisms get thrown at you: “Trust your gut.” “Things take time.” And my favorite one, which I’ve been throwing around a lot lately: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” (Maya Angelou)
Here’s the thing: They’re all true!
You listen to all the podcasts and speak to all the mentors so you’ll know the “right” thing to do. But then it turns out that many of these “rules,” all of which are true, sometimes contradict each other.
At this point, to quote Dr. Seuss, you might no longer know
Whether this one was that one… or that one was this one
Or which one was what one… or what one was who. (The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss)
Perhaps if we look more closely at the tidbits of advice, we can see which applies where and whether they can be reconciled to actually be meaningful.
Let’s start with “trust your gut.” In neurobiology, feelings such as sadness, anger, nervousness, fear, and joy can be felt in the gut (e.g., “I feel sick to my stomach”). When a mentor or coach enjoins you to trust your gut, what they’re asking you to do is turn down the volume on your intellect and tune into your instincts, which are much more closely aligned with and attuned to danger. We use the term “danger” here loosely, to connote both actual danger and the sense that something isn’t right for you (e.g., a hashkafic misfit).
When the amygdala senses fear, it will manifest itself in a visceral gut reaction, not in a well-executed dissertation. Something will feel “off.” You can only analyze what’s off if you allow yourself to experience the “off.” Very often, as soon as a feeling comes up, we immediately jump in to rationalize it or explain it away, when really that feeling deserves some respect and acknowledgment. We need to sit with it for a bit and see where it takes us.
Let’s go with a real-life example. You’re out at Ocean Place, and as your date is amicably walking along, someone accidentally bumps up against him. Your date continues talking but you see him stiffen and involuntarily grimace. You come home having had great conversation and a lot of laughs, but you’re uncomfortable and have no idea why. Trusting your gut would mean sitting with that discomfort and seeing what comes up for you. With some time, and possibly guidance, you might identify that this boy feels condescending. And eventually you might see that the seed of that fear was sown when you saw his unconscious reaction to being brushed against.
What do you do with that information? “Trust your gut” does not mean that you have to nix this boy. It means that you felt something, that you felt it for a reason, and that you don’t want to dismiss that feeling. Store that information and see how it plays out, but don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Then, when you’re trying to figure out if this is a fit, you bring it in as part of the equation in the context of everything else you’ve learned about him.
Contrast this with the following scenario. You’ve gone out with a nice guy three times but you’re not “feeling anything.” Everything lines up, but the emotions are just not there. If there’s nothing pulling you toward “Run!” you may be advised to “give it some time,” to let the relationship blossom.
In the first scenario, there’s a feeling and the potential for “danger.” In the second, there’s an absence of emotion and no threat of malevolence. Both these factors are significant. Hashem gives us emotions as tools for life and in both cases, they have diametric but equally useful purposes. The presence of fear alerts us to danger and suggests we disconnect. The absence of emotion alerts us to a need for more connection for this relationship to be viable. Both the declaratives are accurate; the wisdom lies in knowing which to apply when.
Where does intuition play into all of this? Intuition is defined as “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” As you practice the skills of observation and analysis, your mind will kick in with muscle memory. (Think about how you drove when you first got your license — hands tightly gripping the wheel, looking back and forth three times before you turn — versus how you drive ten years later: easing to a stop, taking a quick glance, and making the turn.) When you’ve dated long enough, many of the mechanical skills of analyzing every date will already be embedded in your psyche.
You may already be an expert at knowing which subtleties translate into irreconcilable differences and which gut feelings turn into insurmountable obstacles. You are allowed to trust yourself. There may be circumstances in which you require a little more clarification and you take the time to gain it, but sometimes you just know. And that’s okay. You get to know and you get to make your decision from that knowing.
Disclaimer: Sometimes intuition gets confused with unprocessed issues. What feels like a protection might actually be an unconscious defense popping up, and you may need therapeutic guidance to differentiate between the two.
In sum, trusting your gut is a process through which you believe and respect the information your body gives you about a situation. Giving things time is the process by which you allow a harmless situation to unfold to see if potential could still develop. Intuition is the hard-won skill of being able to know which one you’re facing.
To answer your question, if the thing you see on the first date evokes a gut feeling that you’re confident identifying as problematic, you don’t need to drag out the process. If it evokes a lack of excitement but is objectively safe, then give it a shot to see if anything can evolve. After a long enough time dating, trust that you’ll know the difference.
I hope this helps!
Sara Eisemann, LMSW, ACSW, is a licensed social worker and a dating mentor. She lectures on topics related to relationships, personal development, authenticity, and growth. She welcomes questions, comments, feedback, and interaction at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 809)
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