I is for Intimacy in Isolation

Some days online dating feels impossible. It’s strange enough, perusing potential partners like so many shiny toys in the Sears catalog. These days, I feel estranged from even myself after 14 months in relative isolation. How can I possibly bring my full person to a relationship if I feel like I’m losing my grasp on who I am?

As humans we rely on others to mirror ourselves back to us. Those smiles from the barista, the attention from the grocery clerk, the smiles and nods from casual acquaintances that we used to get throughout the course of our days all serve to remind us that we are okay, that we are seen, valued, known, important.

We are not getting much mirroring these days. Even now, as we are out and about more, we still have masks. We can’t see smiles or subtle shifts in expression. For those who live alone (like me), we have limited reflections. Those who live with their partners or families probably feel trapped in the same recurring roles—parent, spouse, cook, caretaker, a Zoom square in a field of Zoom squares.

Granted, I have not been as isolated as some—I spent the first five months of the pandemic alone at home with only a couple of others “in my pod.” And, two of my best friends were trapped on the east coast until June, while several friends of a certain age understandably pulled far inside their shells, shutting out most of the world, and many still remain there, unsure what the vaccines mean in the long run.

Once I started dating in July, I kept it appropriately socially distanced—kayaking, getting together outdoors—for a while. But when I started seeing someone seriously, we didn’t stay isolated from one another for long. We both worked at home, alone and felt safe enough to be close. By August I had reached the limits of my tolerance for isolation. I needed hugs and touch, kisses and hand holding. Someone to embrace in the morning. That intimacy certainly made a difference. For a bit.

Don’t rely on a broken mirror for an accurate reflection

But the isolation had taken a toll, and it definitely made dating weird. I’d not dated in 20 years, and here I found myself meeting virtual strangers and relying on them for mirroring. After years of circulating comfortably amongst a wide circle of people, suddenly, I was primarily with one person who didn’t really know me or my world fully. 

No longer could I get the reliable feedback I’d come to rely on from my people—my primary mirror became someone who I’d known only a few weeks. In The Before Times, I would have had both the familiar old as well the new reflections. In The Before Times, my people would have gotten to know the woman I was dating as well and could have given me informed feedback. I may not have lost myself as I did. I may not have relied so heavily on a broken mirror.

A good friend often reminds me that we can’t know what we don’t know. Once we know better, we can do better. As I continue to forge new relationships out of the thin ether that is the internet, I must remember that I am known and loved by many, even if we’ve not seen much of each other this past year. I must remember that the reflections I get back may not be completely accurate. I must not lose myself in my quest for intimacy during isolation.

E is for Expectations, Enthusiasm, and Exuberance

If there is a perfect metaphor for how I have been showing up in my online dating life, it would be Tigger. I am Tigger. Tigger is me in a new relationship: bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!  Check out this clip of Tigger meeting the other creatures from the 100 Acre Wood for the first time.

It’s me! I show up with high expectations, unbounded enthusiasm, and what is possibly an excess of exuberance.

This approach did not work well for me in my first serious online dating relationship (hereby referred to as MFSODR) last summer. Partly because she didn’t have a good background in all things Pooh-related and could not fully appreciate my metaphor, but primarily because we had extremely opposite attachment styles. My anxiety showed up in an orange and black striped outfit, cute ears and a penchant for being noticed. The more I bounced, the more she backed away, like Rabbit into her hole.

In fact, this afternoon I had a conversation with another online dater, and our talk has me rethinking an earlier and ongoing conflict MFSODR and I had about boundaries:  She thought I had none. I couldn’t understand why she was so defended. I wore my heart on my sleeve, but I’m not sure I ever caught more than a flash of hers.

So, maybe it is too much to expect someone I hardly know to meet the Tigger in me so soon. Further conversations with women I’ve met online indicate as much.

“I think you’ll find that most women on here (the dating site), have extreme boundaries,” my new friend said after I’d explained my tendencies toward Tiggerness. “I think you’re going to find it rough going.”

But why must I dampen my newly rediscovered enthusiasm? Why should I hide my exuberance or lower my expectations? Maybe I shouldn’t.

Human beings are wired for connection. We are meant to be in relationship. Perhaps, we have taken our fear of dependence too far and have idealized those who don’t get too attached, those who seem to source internal validation effortlessly. In short, we need one another. We need intimacy, to truly show up for one another as wholly ourselves.

I spend my days counseling folks to show up as their authentic selves, to be vulnerable, to reach toward rather than turn from.

There are enough scary things out there—we shouldn’t fear showing up exuberantly for those with whom we desire closeness.

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is Tiggers are wonderful things
Their tops are made out of rubber
Their bottoms are made out of springs
They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun
But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is I’m the only one

Tiggers are cuddly fellas
Tiggers are awfully sweet
Everyone el-us is jealous
That’s why I repeat and repeat

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is Tiggers are marvelous chaps
They’re loaded with vim and with vigor
They love to leap in your laps
They’re jumpy, bumpy, clumpy, thumpy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun
But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is I’m the only one
I’m the only—

Ouch…