Friday, October 18, 2013

The 40 Days of Dating Experience

I stumbled upon it at the most opportune time possible. It was one of the first sessions of my interactive design class and we were looking at websites to determine what it was about their content that made them engaging, what we gravitated toward on a page and what kept us reading.

The page was The Great Discontent. The content that made it engaging was a picture of Timothy Goodman, who despite being depicted in a static photograph had a really visceral energy about him. The content I gravitated toward was a description of who this guy [Goodman] was. And what kept me reading were the words "40 Days of Dating."

It's not that I'm all for gossip and cheesy girly things. I don't necessarily see the word "date" and immediately find myself clicking through page after page. But when I took a quick look at the project Goodman (who is a designer living in New York) did with another designer, Jessica Walsh, I realized it was more than the typical romantic meet-cute or couple's blog. It was all about frankness and honesty, coming to terms with personal issues and trying to solve them.

And though I fancy myself a strong independent woman, I can't get away from the fact that I, along with most of the human race I presume, have problems - in relationships and in life - that I have to work through. And if "40 Days of Dating" could be one thing to get me through my period of grieving and self-loathing, then that was a step in the right direction.

So I set off reading. On my iPad at lunch, on my laptop before class, on my phone as I walked around campus. It was something to look forward to - something to make reading interesting again.

Because in the same way that my blog functions as a space for me to think and share thoughts, however rambly and emotional, the entries of the "40 Days of Dating" project were all about personal reflection and working out thoughts through text. And I found that fascinating and engaging. It was almost as cathartic as writing for myself.

As the story began, it was light and frothy. The anxiety about dating for 40 days was minimal, the excitement was apparent. But tension mounted quickly, just as it often does in relationships when you've gotten past the initial spark and just started to figure out what the troublesome quirks are in the significant other that you just can't quite come to terms with. Since our protagonists knew each other before the experiment started, it wasn't unexpected that these discoveries happened earlier rather than later. However the experiment went on, and through the dramatic turns for the best and the worst, I read with a heavy and hopeful heart.

I don't know what it was I wanted out of it, exactly. Did I want them to stay together so I would believe in the reality of true love? Did I want them to break up to prove that relationships are combustible for people other than me? I don't think it was either of these things, though arguments could be made for both.

What I think it was that made "40 Days" such an important read for me is that it involved a situation that I've been dealing with consistently the past few years. Essentially, I saw myself in what I read.

Once I got to a certain point in the project, I began to really identify with Jessica. She writes about being an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test (of which I am one too). She likes to avoid  confrontation despite that fact that she feels strongly (oh boy, do I know). She appreciates clarity and frankness (it's the best). She is also the type to hope for a life with someone she can count on (yup).

While these character traits are not too unusual in themselves, the INFJ personality type is alleged to be the most rare of all types (making up one percent of people). And as someone who has struggled with understanding and being understood by others, it came as no surprise to me that I could connect so well with this girl on a page whom I'd never met simply on the basis of us having the same result on the Myers-Briggs test.

Timothy, a name that has other connotations for me that I need not bring up in detail, was an incredibly strong foil to Jessica's personality. A serial dater and a spontaneous, jazz- and basketball-loving individual, this guy wasn't unlike the people I often find myself dating. He seemed to have a mysterious side (though it was laid out very early on that his family life was unusual as he was raised without a father), but with all his youthful vigor, energy and life experience, there was something soulful and fascinating about him. He had a lot of things to say and he wasn't afraid to say them. And even though I wasn't actually dating this man, I felt like I was - through his storytelling and through Jessica's. And he made sense to me - as much as he could. Because I've dated a Tim before.

But as much as I felt like I knew Timothy from reading his entries on the "40 Days of Dating" page, he was more of an enigma than Jessie ever was (though she is the one who is called an enigma during the course of the experiment), because I simply couldn't understand his variety of feelings and his convictions despite lack of assurance.

At times, Timothy teetered between feeling absolutely gung-ho about the relationship to completely unenthusiastic. He would say he loved Jessica, but then follow-up by saying he didn't think they worked as a couple and that things felt awkward.

These were feelings I couldn't reconcile, and I realized in time that this is part of the root of my own problems in relationships - and the problems of many. Often times our beliefs that a relationship is steady come from a desire to make things work. We feel a deep longing to find a kindred spirit and we search for it in that special someone. But then, as we're looking for the same confidence in our spirit, some unsightly reality kicks us in the head and tells us "Oh, you wanted this to work out? Well, I have another plan." And we have no choice but to follow.

I like to think I'm immune to the power of my subconscious in this area. That if I love something, I could stick with it no matter the circumstances. I can weather the storm.

Well, maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. Like Jessica, I think of myself as the type of person who likes to keep relationships together. But I also think that's part of our personality type. We never want to hurt anyone, and in trying to keep everything copacetic, we don't see our own desires crumbling around us.

INFJs are supposed to be intuitive, but sometimes I feel like my intuition leads me down the wrong path because it doesn't often take my long-term needs into account. It's all about wants - wanting to make other people happy, wanting to be happy myself (at least in the short term), wanting to maintain and never lose what I have.

But that's impractical.

At the very end of "40 Days of Dating," I was actually stunned to read how Timothy and Jessica parted ways. I had known from early on that they wouldn't work out (I think it had been spoiled for me somewhere when I was reading through articles about the experiment), but seeing it play out was even more intense than I could have imagined.

Because it spawned out of seemingly nothing. A little built up tension here, a little misplaced comment there and suddenly it all blew up before our eyes.

That's true of most relationships, isn't it? The problems get pent up, and we sort of see them in our periphery. We try to address them, but we never fully get there. And if we never totally figure out how to work through our problems, then we let them consume us until one day BAM! (and not in the Emeril sense of the word).

Suddenly, there's a bunch of confetti falling through the air and all that's left are two deflated balloons where hearts once stood.

Obviously this isn't true of all relationships. As I have heard, there are some romances that stay kindled for years and years. But for all the great, steady couples there are, there are many more that break apart in what I assume is an eerily similar fashion.

It was this reminder that really struck me. When I've been broken up with - most notably several months ago - I've felt so alone. I've been so alone. Wallowing in my own grief, I didn't even know who to turn to. No friends want to hear you ramble on about your ex-boyfriend whom you love but who doesn't love you back. You can't keep troubling your family over these things.

For me, that's why "40 Days of Dating" exists. In the case of Tim and Jessie,  it was a way of working through their problems. But for me, it was the one working method to actually turn into the spectator instead of the participant. I could look at a relationship not unlike one I've had myself, see its faults, recognize why I needed out and embrace the feeling of being understood by someone who doesn't even know me.

Everyone may not have the same connection to this experiment that I did. Certainly, INFJs are not common, thus most people won't identify with Jessica. ENFJs (like Tim) are probably more common, but whether or not they'd be drawn to this kind of writing is beyond me since I don't know all that much about how they think.

Whatever the case, it is clear that "40 Days of Dating" has resonated with many people, not just me. And I'm glad for that. Because unlike many other things I read, these few entries on a webpage in a corner of the internet forced me to see that I'm not alone and that there's nothing wrong with me - something I need to remind myself of more often.

So I'm thankful that on that fateful day in my interactive design class, I happened to be brought to The Great Discontent. And I'm glad that after glancing at the page, I decided to find out more about what this whole shtick was about. And it's great to know that beyond the "40 Days of Dating" site, there will be an empire of storytelling - from a book to a movie and who knows what else. Because this is a story that deserves to be told. It's not one that will move any mountains, necessarily, but for those among us who are hopeless or helpless romantics, it will bring clarity to something we can't seem to wrap our heads around:

Love isn't by the books. A relationship that falls apart isn't the be all, end all. What we really need is to be with people who understand us - even if they are just words on a page. What speaks to us is what matters. I was lucky enough to have these 40 days pop out at me, screaming and begging to be seen. And I did. And I'm happier as a result.

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