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I was recently interviewed in an article in New York Magazine, ‘Is His Boyfriend Muscle Out of Shape?‘ It was written by a guy who forgot how to be a boyfriend in his later years, even though he felt he wanted to settle down. When I suggested he practice more boyfriend behaviors during dating, he said this felt a tad dishonest.  Was this because he thought that romance and love should just come naturally, I wondered? I decided to extend the exercise analogy to explain my position further, so here are 7 reasons why dating is a practice sport:

  1. You Must Push Past Your Comfort Zone.  In weight lifting you need to break down your muscles before building them back up. This may feel irritating and uncomfortable. In dating, you may want to text and sit home alone drinking beer. But, a long talk with a woman that you may want to spend your life with requires practice. This skill will make your relationship stronger, and it’ll help you attain your long-term goal.
  2. You Can’t Just Want It, You Must Take Action.  Just like you can sit there imagining the perfect body, you can also tell yourself you’re ready for marriage and committed love… but do nothing about it.  And while inner readiness is part of this, you won’t get results without doing the reps. For daters this means getting out there, both physically and emotionally. It means making time to really get to know someone and making them an important part of your life and routine. It means opening up new parts of yourself and extending yourself more. Love is a verb, not an idea.
  3. You Begin with the End in Mind.  Someone once told me that she pictures how good her body will look while she’s working out. This supplants the immediate discomfort with the greater reward of the long-term goal. The immediate annoyance of having to go out or make compromises when you don’t want to pales when you visualize your life partner and all the benefits that partnership can bring.  Think of the actions you need to take to get there. The psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung once said, “We are not what happened to us, we are what we wish to become.”
  4. You Have to Recognize Excuses, and Learn to Challenge Them.  Create phrases that affirm who you want to be instead. Most of us blame the weather, feeling ill or tired for not making it to the gym.  Sometimes there are internal reasons like, ‘I’ll never be an athlete’ or ‘I can’t lift weights.’ The same thing happens in dating. These thoughts can include, ‘I’m too set in my ways,’ ‘Women won’t like the real me’ or ‘I’ll get hurt.’  If your goal is to make it to a committed relationship, work through limited notions of who you are and mitigate life’s contingencies (like the weather or tiredness during workouts) or they’ll stop you every time. For example, in regards to dating, start telling yourself, ‘I can learn and change to improve my relationships’ or ‘The right person will love me as I am and will work with me.’ If you need more help with this, see a therapist to work through your emotional fears or limitations.
  5. You Can Learn from What Isn’t Working.  You can’t do the same thing and expect different results.  If I went to the gym each day and did two jumping jacks and ate a Snickers bar I couldn’t be mad that I didn’t lose weight or gain muscle. In dating (and life) we learn more from our mistakes than from what we are doing right. So if texting doesn’t make my dates feel intimate, I can pick up the phone and surprise them with a card or planning a thoughtful outing. As you discover what works, you move into new territory and develop greater intimacy. This may feel fake at first because it’s not already you. But psychologist William James found that if you ‘act as if’ you’re happy by smiling, after a while you begin to feel that way.
  6. It Helps to Learn from Successful Athletes (or Daters).  Author Anthony Robbins writes a lot about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and suggests that if you want to learn golf, you should study the things Tiger Woods did to become a pro. Similarly, most good boyfriends exhibit certain core qualities: trustworthiness, attentiveness, romantic, knowing how to be a good friend, empathy, interested in learning about their girlfriend, etc.  The key is to study what works in a healthy relationship and how you want to be so that you can practice those skills.  In my first book, ‘Dating from the Inside Out’ I mention that you can practice dating skills you lack in any relationship. For example, if you’re a pleaser, practice making requests to your friends and this skill may carry over into your dating life. If you’re shy, practice sharing more about yourself in general. You get the idea.
  7. You Need to Face What Scares You Most.  It’s what we don’t know about ourselves that directs our lives. If we are afraid of sexual attention, we may avoid the gym or getting in shape. Likewise, in dating, there may be a deep rooted fear of being criticized, abandoned or lied to that keeps you sabotaging your relationships. When this is the case, you can date unlimited people without changing your potential to sabotage things. Here you need to practice facing your pain and fear. Ask yourself if there’s a payoff to being alone and what you’re trying to avoid by doing so. In the case of exercise, is there another way you can learn to deal with sexual interest? Can you improve your ability to choose non-critical partners and to create trusting relationships? It’s only when we face our fears that we have more choices.

I imagine this all sounds like a lot of work. Maybe you think dating shouldn’t be something you have to do—like exercise. I remember when I used to speak at The Learning Annex ,daters would say they hated dating and just wanted to get married. They didn’t like it when I said, ‘You think dating is work? Wait till you get married!’  We are always using our muscles and building a path towards our imagined future. Today half of marriages end in divorce and a third are unhappy. Research shows that when unhappy married couples stayed together 5 years they reported being happier. Was this the practice effect? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice is “the magic number of greatness.” How long to become masters of ourselves? I’ll tell you when I get there, but from the yardstick of my day job, I can tell you that dating is one of the many paths to self-mastery and the ability to love more fully, and so practice, we must.

Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman is a psychologist and writer. She wrote the upcoming, “The Book of Sacred Baths,” being published by Llewellyn and is the author of “Dating from the Inside Out” and “When Mars Women Date.” She has a private practice in Manhattan and does date coaching by phone. Learn more at DrPauletteSherman.com.

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