The desire to be partnered is something I felt starting when I was a teenager; at age 16 I thought I would be married by the time I was 25 (ha!). I wanted an intimate emotional connection, a relationship built on mutual support and encouragement. This desire led me to engage in a number of relationships some were good, others weren’t, and I have learned a lot along the way. As black women, we are faced with unique dating challenges. There are stereotypes about our physical appearance, our attitudes, and sexual proclivities. There are assumptions that we are desperate to be in relationships and therefore willing to tolerate inappropriate behavior from partners. There are messages from the media that make it seem like black women are not desirable marriage partners or that the reason we are single is because we are too picky. This is a lot to navigate in the search for love.
The way that we date influences our mental health. As I discussed in my last post, breakups can be painful. Also, anyone who’s been in a difficult or unhealthy relationship knows they can take a toll on your mental health. Given the significance dating and romantic relationships are for many black women, discussing how to date in a healthy way is an important aspect of positive mental health. I’m not a dating expert but my personal experiences with dating and my experience counseling single people and doing couples therapy have given me insight into ways that we as black women can date in a healthy way. I hope the following three suggestions for healthy dating will empower you to have positive and uplifting relationships.
Focus on what you want
I used to have a pattern of getting lost in relationships. In the beginning I would be focused on whether or not I liked the person I was dating but as soon as I decided I liked them and wanted a relationship with that person, my attention would turn fully to whether or not the guy liked me. In addition to leading to dating anxiety (I’ll talk about this in a future post), this caused me to lose sight of what I wanted in a relationship and made it hard to determine whether or not the relationship was providing that. In order to avoid losing sight of what you want, it is helpful to have a clear sense of what you are hoping your relationship will look like as you date.
How to: Answer the following questions: do you want a serious or casual commitment right now? What type of relationship dynamic do you prefer (e.g. calm, intense, distant, intimate)? Do you feel comfortable having a sexual relationship without a commitment? How do you want a potential partner to treat you? Use your answers to help you make decisions about the types of relationships you are willing to engage in. It is fine if your answers change over time but try not to change your answers just to fit a potential partner who is not willing to provide what you want (e.g. settling for a relationship without commitment when you want a committed relationship).
Focus on what kind of partner you want to be
In all of our talk about deal breakers and what we want our partners to look like, we often forget to think about what type of partner we want to be. How we treat our partners often influences how they treat us in return, therefore we can be empowered by proactively deciding how we would like to engage in a relationship. We usually start out feeling good about our contribution to a relationship and then as the relationship progresses begin engaging in more negative, reactive behavior as our partner does things that we don’t like. The challenge is to stick to your values as long as you choose to stay in a relationship even when your partner misses the mark.
How to: Take some time to think about what kind of partner you would like to be. Would you like to be a loving partner? If so, how can you show love to your partner in an ongoing way? Would you like to be supportive? Great; what does it look like for you to support your partner? Would you like to be emotionally open? Wonderful; how can you share your emotional experience and create space for your partner to share theirs.
Focus on your growth
Most of us have been in conversations where we complain about our partners; you know the ones where we list everything that our partners do wrong and everything that is wrong with a particular gender. While these conversations can help to relieve frustration, they often distort the reality that in relationships both partners play a role in the problems (exception: in relationships where one-sided physical or emotional violence is at play one partner is usually to blame). It is very easy to focus on what is wrong with the people we are dating and to lose sight of our role in relationship problems. In addition to acknowledging the frustrating things our partners have done, we must also consider our own areas for improvement. Because we can only change ourselves, I believe this is an empowering position to take.
How to: Identify the areas where you can grow as a person. This could be strengthening your ability to show empathy to yourself and others or learning to manage and express your anger more constructively. If you have gotten similar complaints from different partners that may flag something to work on. See if you can start trying out the new behaviors in small ways. For example, if you want to increase your empathy see if you can be curious about a friend’s difficult experience and take time to listen and comfort them.