I’ve never been in a relationship and I’m scared that I have no experience and may not find anyone. Help!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m going to be 20 years old but I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They will only let me date after I’ve graduated and started working. But I’m scared because by the time I graduate, I would have no experience and I may not be able to find anyone. Help!

Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now. You’re not going to lose out on anything.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggages into subsequent relationships. And these emotional baggages can affect your ability to trust and love well. So this is the opposite of Pokemon – you don’t gotta catch them emotional baggages!

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that right now, many people your age are saying on social media that you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your partner or future spouse (i.e. that they will leave you if you cannot perform). This is utter rubbish!

You can learn to be better with your spouse over time. And it becomes a means for developing greater intimacy and closeness with each other because, in that very moment, you both are learning how to communicate about something so sensitive, and so very intimate with each other while being so very vulnerable.

In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at a more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or figure out how to pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve.

In fact, and contrary to popular belief, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with honest communication with their partners because it takes a lot of humility to accept that the techniques they’ve “mastered” may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over not having any experience. You will acquire all the experience you need when you finally get into a relationship.

In the meantime, the experiences you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn such things.

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

A student asked:

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

I have two advice to give:

(1) First, don’t rush into one because it’ll force you to settle on the first person who likes you, and you’ll rationalise and make exceptions on why you should stick to that person even if the person displays many red flags, or if you feel that you’re both incompatible. So please don’t do this to yourself. There are so many people who are unhappily married because they did just that.

(2) Secondly, there’s no such thing as a soul mate or a partner who’s perfect enough that there’s no need to put in effort to understand or be understood. Relationships are hard work, and the bulk of that hard work comes in the form of communicating each others’ expectations, needs, and wants; and learning how to manage differences.

Every problem and difference can be ironed out through open and calm communication. The hard part is learning how to communicate effectively with each other and to be patient with each other about it.

And you must never be complacent that you’ve figured out the art of communication. Why? Because people change over time. We’re not static. And so our needs, wants, and desires will also change with. So too will the the communicative needs and communicative methods change over time.

You know communication has broken down when one party says to the other in frustration, “You’ve become a different person.” They’ve failed to update each other’s idea of who they are through communication.

There is no issue that cannot be talked about or shouldn’t be talked about. So please learn to talk about difficult matters openly, honestly, patiently, and in a non-accusatory, non-aggressive method. This will help ensure the health of the relationship. And overall, you’ll learn to become a better human person as you know how best to effectively communicate with other people.

How do I confess my love to someone?

A student asked me:

How do I confess my love to someone?

This question is lacking context. Do you mean to confess: (1) to someone you like from afar whom you’ve not gone on with? Or (2) to someone whom you’ve been hanging out with quite a lot?

If the context is (1), please, don’t confess. It’s creepy as hell. It’s also a sure way to lose that someone. It’s not even love since you haven’t spent enough time with that person. It’s only an infatuation. You can’t love someone you don’t know well enough. You should at least ask to hang out with that person regularly and be in regular contact with that person.

If the context is (2), the question is, how long have you been with that person and have you dropped hints of interest thus far? Most people have an internal clock in their mind/heart about deciding whether that person is relationship-worthy before friend-zoning them.

So let’s say you’ve been hanging out for a year, and nothing happened, no interest, no hints whatsoever, that person might have concluded that you’re not interested in him/her and moved on. Or, if you’ve done something that’s a huge deal-breaker, e.g. very whiney, too clingy, or some other reason, then the person would have concluded that you are not relationship-worthy and moved on. You can sense when this has happened if the person displays less interest in you. Doesn’t text so regularly, or not so keen to hang out like before. Basically, the person is avoiding you but just being nice by responding to you from time to time. If you get the sense the person is avoiding you, don’t confess. It’ll make things super awkward.

But let’s say things are going great, and the person isn’t avoiding you. Then you can start dropping hints of interests. Do things together that are slightly more date-like, e.g. visiting more romantic places, etc. Whatever it is, don’t go overboard. You can also start talking about relationships in general. It’s also a good way to get a better gauge if the person is indeed interested in you.

Suppose you’ve done all that and the signs are going well, then you can declare your interest. Personally, I don’t like to say “confess my love,” because at this stage, you still don’t know the person well enough to say “I love you” with full sincerity. But I leave that to you. Some people prefer a more organic approach where they just gradually shift into holding hands, or talk about relations and in the spur of the moment decided to clarify whether they like each other and want to go steady.

Some people prefer something more romantic. Like a romantic surprise whether they confess over a meal. If you are the nervous type, it helps to write it on a card or something for the person to read. In my case, I wrote something like, “I really like you and I love hanging out with you so much, and I’m wondering if you’d like to take this friendship to the next level?” And then I clipped the note on my cat (ok, it’s not really my cat, it was a stray cat that owned me and came to my home every day). That was quite a cute thing to do.

I’ll leave you to decide what works better for you. I didn’t want to say too much because you should do what is in line with who you are. Don’t do stuff other people did in the hopes that it’s like some magic formula. There’s no model answer for these sorts of things.

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship? I’m not good looking, not smart, and I’m not even rich. I can’t give a promising future to the girl I like.

I think it’s normal to find imperfections in ourselves and think that we’re not good enough. But we must remember that that’s just how we feel about ourselves, and that’s not usually how other people think about us.

Our looks and our intellect are who we are. These are things that are beyond our control. To some degree, you can improve on it, but you can’t do very much. So it’s not fair to yourself to use looks/intellect as a gauge of relationship readiness, because even ugly and stupid people can still be in happy relationships. There are many around, but we often don’t take notice of them because we tend to pay more attention to the good looking ones, or the very successful/famous ones.

There are two guys whom I know. I don’t respect them very much because they lack integrity. They are fugly as hell, and dumb as f***. And I know that if I were a woman, I sure as hell wouldn’t date them. Yet for the life of me, they are able to attract a lot of women (they’re both cheating on their girlfriends, which is why I don’t respect them). The point I’m making in sharing this is to emphasise that looks and intellect really don’t matter. It’s really an open market, and no matter how good-looking or fugly; or clever or stupid you may be, there will always be people who will be attracted to you.

As an aside… One thing most students don’t realise is when someone of the opposite sex is attracted to you. It’s easy to miss subtle signs. I know this, because when I was a student, I too was oblivious to the fact that some girls were interested in me. Now, that I’m so much older, and as a teacher, I can see how obvious it is. In class, I can see who’s interested in who, and I can see how one party can be so totally clueless about it. So many missed opportunities. Seriously… You don’t need Tinder. Just come for class. Haha!

Ok, back to the question… As for wealth, you don’t need to be rich. You just need to be financially stable because financial instability is the number one reason for divorce in Singapore. It’s hard for couples to trust and love each other when they are in survival mode, struggling to make ends meet. As a student, it is still within your power to be financially stable. It’s not about having a high paying job. It’s about being disciplined with your spending and spending within your means, and of course, saving and investing the rest of the money that you have.

Many couples sabotage their marriages by over-spending on their wedding, honeymoon, and housing. It’s nice to live in a condo or some matured estate. But if it means taking on a huge mortgage that puts stress on the both of you, that’s unwise. Every day you’ll worry about not having enough money to pay the bills.

So in short, you shouldn’t be using looks, intellect, and finances as indicators of preparedness or readiness for a relationship. Looks and intellect especially, are very bad indicators since you can’t do anything about these qualities. So what then should you use to gauge that you’re prepared or ready?

The answer is emotional maturity.

How do you handle conflicts? How do you handle the shit that life throws at you? How do you handle difficult people and difficult situations? If your answer to these questions is: rage quit, or run away by not facing up to the problem, or drown it out through alcohol or whatever poison you use to forget your problems, then you are not emotionally mature enough to handle a relationship. It’s important to learn to develop yourself by interacting and working with more people, either through CCAs or taking your group projects more seriously.

You may have noticed that some of your friends in relationships may display these traits of emotional immaturity. They may have many happy moments, but that is not the real indicator of whether the relationship is healthy. The true test of a relationship is when conflict arises. This typically happens once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has ended (about 18 months). A lot of break-ups happen after the honeymoon phase because emotionally immature people don’t know how to sustain/maintain a relationship once all the wonderfully exciting feelings aren’t that strong anymore (the strong feelings don’t last long if you aren’t aware of this, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain the feelings, and this exercise is an important aspect of a long-term healthy relationship). And so they become more easily agitated by their partners. Conflicts and disagreements arise more easily. And unfortunately, emotionally immature people do not know how to handle this well. This causes a great deal of hurt and pain to both parties. Usually, such relationships won’t last long. And they’ll just move on with their emotional baggage to cause yet more hurt and pain to someone else.

So focus on developing your people skills. Learn how to manage and handle difficult situations and difficult people. Learn how to develop deep and meaningful friendships with people. It will help you mature as a stable person and become a strong pillar of support to your future partner. And as you do your thing with confidence, you’ll eventually find someone you like, and that someone who will like you in return.

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other.

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other. In other words, where the other party struggles to keep up with his/her partner.

I’m going to be very realist about this matter. I know some people like to say that as long as you have good chemistry or love each other, these kinds of differences don’t matter. This is not true. Some things matter a hell lot to certain individuals. And no matter how much we’d like to believe that we are secure and magnanimous individuals, we do have our own personal needs, and we do have some insecurities that cannot be easily ignored.

So it really depends on what the gap is, and whether it is something that either party values greatly or either party is very insecure about. Yes, a lot of these problems can be mitigated with communication. But depending on what the gap is, and who you and your partner are, it can affect the relationship. So it’s best that we don’t pretend it’s not a problem or hope that it’ll magically go away.

Let me share with you a story (well, two stories) to illustrate the point: I happen to personally know the first person in the world to receive a PhD in Computer Science (I met him a couple of times over the course of my work). He passed away at the age of 86 in 2015, and I was sent on a work trip with another professor to Michigan where we would comb through his archives and digitise his unpublished works for publication. Let’s call him H (just to keep him semi-anonymous so this won’t show up on search engines).

The professor who went with me was a close personal friend of H. And she made it a point to visit H’s family, and I tagged along. During the conversations we had with his family, I learnt that he had an amicable divorce with his first wife. They loved each other a lot. H valued intellectual discussions greatly, and it was something that he enjoyed doing with people a lot. But there was a huge intellectual gap between him and his first wife, and he was unable to talk to her about his work (which also happened to be his passion). That was a huge strain to the relationship because he could not share his passion, his love, with the person he loved. They broke up in the end, but they remained as friends until they passed away.

I’ll be very honest and tell you that I have a similar problem with my wife. I’m not as passionate as H was to talk about his research. But when I did my Masters, my wife could not understand a single thing I was doing. She wanted to be the supportive wife to be able to talk to me about my work. She was able to do that when I worked on my Honours thesis, but she struggled to comprehend everything I was doing for my Masters. This made her feel very insecure and worried that she’d be left behind as I continue to advance intellectually.

Personally, I don’t value talking about my research the same way as H, but it does continue to bother my wife a lot, and that is one major source of her insecurity (it doesn’t bother me since it’s not a priority for me), especially with the fact that I’ll be doing a PhD soon. And there is really nothing I can do to help with her insecurity on this matter. It’s her personal battle, and one that she has to sort out on her own. (I’ve already done all I can on my part. This is a problem that she has to overcome on her own, but it is a personal struggle and not one that can go away easily.)

What’s the moral of the story: It’s NOT that you need someone to be equal to you in every way. No. There are many professors who are happily married to people who do not possess a Masters or PhD. Similarly, there are many happily married couples where one spouse is earning far more/less money than the other, or holds an appointment more prestigious than the other. It’s not an issue for these marriages because they don’t value those things enough to be a point of contention, or it just happens to be an issue that none of them are insecure about.

The big “gap” – whether education, or money, or status – will be a problem EITHER (1) if one party values one thing which the other isn’t able to adequately satisfy (e.g. in the case of H wanting to share his intellectual passion with his first wife) OR (2) one party feels extremely insecure because of the gap (e.g. my wife freaking out that she cannot catch up with me as I continue to advance in my education).

So, please be sure to communicate regularly with your partner about these things so that you both have an understanding of what you value or what will make the other insecure. This is not a one-time conversation. Sometimes we just don’t know what we value or worry about until the actual situation presents itself.

How do I reject someone politely?

A student asked:

How do I reject someone politely?

Rejection is tough. I do admire your courage in wanting to reject politely instead of ghosting people (which seems to be the trend nowadays).

Personally, I think ghosting people is a really mean thing to do. It takes great courage to step out of one’s comfort zones and risk losing the friendship in order to confess his/her interest. Ghosting just increases the anxieties and worries in that person. I don’t think it’s fair to torture someone who went out of his/her way to tell you that he/she likes you. I think the least we should do, if we’re not interested in entering into a relationship with that person, is to give that person a reply and allow for that person to have some closure.

What I recommend doing is this: Thank the person for finding the courage to confess because it is not easy for that person to do that. Acknowledge the effort the person made. Then, tell the person that you have to turn him/her down and be honest with the reason. And make it clear that there’s no chance in winning you over in the future, because some people think that you may be undecided now, and all they have to do is to work harder at it.

I know some of you may be struggling to figure out what to say. So, here are some samples you can model your rejection after. Please don’t copy word for word – other students are reading this, and there’s a chance the person you reject might have seen this and knows that you plagiarised from me. So please word your rejection in your own special way. Don’t send this as a text. This should be something you say to the person either face-to-face or at the very least, over a call or something.

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. So here goes. While I do enjoy spending time with you, I am not attracted to you the way you are attracted to me. It’s not because of what you have done or haven’t do. It’s just the way things are. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I just can’t see us in a relationship. You’re a great friend, and I prefer if we remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. Ok, I know this will feel awkward, so if you like, I’ll give you some space to process this. Know that I value our friendship and so I won’t be avoiding you. I do hope we can continue our friendship the way it was.”

OR

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. I want you to know that being in a relationship is not my number one priority right now. I have no interest in being in one, and I don’t want to rush into one. I think you’re a great person, and I think the best we can be is to remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. I know this may feel awkward because you have confessed your feelings to me, so I’ll give you some space to process this. Just know that I won’t be avoiding you because I do see you as a friend and would like to continue our friendship the way it was.”

Whatever it is, don’t send mixed signals like hugging the person, or texting the person more than usual just because you feel guilty for rejecting him/her.

Allow the person to have time and space to process the feelings and move on. You may occasionally have to deal with the person still wanting to try. Whatever it is, stand your ground and don’t ghost the person. It’s an important life skill you need to learn for the working world too (it comes in handy when you have to deal with superiors/colleagues/clients who pester you to do things you don’t like to do – you can’t ghost them, so you need to learn how to be tactful yet assertive).

Another student asked a follow-up question on the same topic:

I’ve recently been getting many texts from someone of the opposite gender who tries too hard at continuing the conversation. I’m really not interested in conversing with that person. However, I do feel bad for ignoring (or not replying to) that person, so I’ll always end up replying to those messages out of courtesy. Are there any ways to show signs of disinterest in order to prevent any possibilities of leading anyone on without ghosting him/her?

Since it’s pretty recent, it’ll take a while for that person to get the message. Don’t always reply immediately. You can wait a couple of hours before you reply. Keep the replies short, as long messages can be interpreted that he/she has found a topic you are interested in, and that person may try to sustain the conversation with that topic.

If you keep getting a lot of messages, you can say that you’re busy with something and can’t read/reply. I know a friend who just shuts conversations with people by saying she needs to sleep early and wishes the person good night. You don’t need to explain yourself to other people for these kinds of things. You don’t owe anyone an explanation either. The person will eventually get the idea.

I once met a lady who wears a fake engagement ring. She shared with me how she wears that as a signal to stop creepy guys from going after her (they see the ring, think she’s attached and they don’t bother).

Now, you’re probably a student, so engagement rings and stuff are out of the question. But the idea applies: If you are being chased by someone who doesn’t know you very well, you can just say that you are already interested in someone or something like that. Just drop it somewhere in your conversation. “Oh, speaking of McDonalds, my crush to posted on IG that he just bought a happy meal. So cute. I’m looking forward to having a happy meal with him soon!”

This is even easier when you do it online. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. So you don’t need to say very much. This will be a very strong signal to the person that you aren’t interested and he/she will back off.

Hope that helps!

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone? I’m very scared to come across as too clingy from the start.

Oh, I know how intimidating that can feel!

I think my best advice is to treat that person the same way you would treat your friends. Just because you feel something for that someone, doesn’t mean you go out of your way to do very special things. If both of you haven’t reached a point where the friendship/relationship has grown closer, doing very special couple-ish things at the start can come across as cringeworthy and awkward.

Now the reason why I say you should handle that person the same way you would treat your friends is because that is how you really are when you interact with others. If you change your manner of interaction just for that person, expectations will be set that you are that other person (which you are not). And it can and will be tiring pretending to be that someone that you’re not. So it’s better to be accepted and loved for who you are, rather than to have that someone accept and love a pretence of yourself.

At all times, get a grip on yourself and don’t cave in to desperation or impatience. That’s when we say or do stupid things that will make that person feel uncomfortable. You need to do your best to be calm and confident about it (even if deep down you don’t feel that way).

If you reach a point where both of you are interacting with each other daily with excitement, try to upgrade the friendship to that of a closer friend. Friendships deepen not because of the frequency or quantity of conversations, but from the quality of conversations. Having heart-to-heart talks are good in getting to know people on a closer level and to establish closer bonds. But be careful not to become overly whiny in your heart-to-heart talks about issues. I know some people who degrade heart-to-heart talks into whining sessions about every small problem in their lives, and it becomes a really bad habit (and bad friend) where all they can ever talk about are their problems. It’s more important to engage in active listening so that you can better understand that person (and maybe evaluate whether that person has potential to be a partner and future spouse).

At the end of the day, conversations can only go so far. What you want is to have shared experiences on a variety of matters (applies to friendships too). So don’t just be texting/calling the person only. I know it’s hard to meet up and do fun stuff during this COVID-19 pandemic, but you can always find interesting and creative things to do, so no excuses! Find common projects to work on. Stuff that both of you like to do, or even better, stuff that both of you want to do but have never done before. Do fun stuff, and have fun!

The key is you both want to feel comfortable hanging out with each other, comfortable doing things together, comfortable talking to each other.

Once you find that you are doing these things on a regular basis, it’s a really good sign that the person has strong interest in you too. You can drop your hints of interest (although if the person is perceptive, that person probably can tell from your body language anyway). I don’t want to tell you what to do, because what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I guess the rule is: Don’t be creepy, and don’t be desperate.

(Personally, I don’t like the rubbish in magazines that tell people to play hard to get. That is just awful advice that advocates manipulation and mind games. I think the only time this may work is if you are interacting with someone who gives off a player vibe or has been going for lots of casual flings. So it might be a test of sincerity. But if that person is already giving off player vibes, it’s a red flag. And I would seriously reconsider. So… Be warned~)

If there’s no hesitation or aversion from the other party, or if that person is smiling like an idiot non-stop at you all the time, then you know all is going well, and you can start preparing to confess. Don’t rush or pressure yourself or the other person. And try not to do overly romantic stuff because it can be very overwhelming for that person (unless you know that person wants that sort of stuff).

You want to give that person the time and space to think and respond to. Some people can’t say yes immediately (not because they don’t like you, but because they are daunted by the idea of taking it to the next level). So if they feel very pressured, they may instantly say no (and regret it) because they can’t handle the pressure. So give them time and space (unless of course you are super sure, and maybe the other party has already been quite explicit in expressing interest in you).

So, all the best and have courage! Let me know when you are successfully attached. If we can meet, I want to congratulate the both of you in person (I really mean it!). :D

What’s your take on platonic love vs. romantic love?

A student asked:

What’s your take platonic love vs. romantic love? To you, how are they different?

The modern sense of Platonic love is very different from how Plato intended it in his writings. Plato talks about Vulgar Eros, or an attraction to physical beauty. And he says that it is an important stepping stone to transcending the Vulgar Eros in order to attain Divine Eros (what we think of as Platonic love), which is an attraction to the conceptual form of beauty as beauty. This may not make sense to the modern reader. So let me put it simply as this: You know how sometimes we can be so amazed or intrigued by an idea that we feel a great attraction to it, or an excitement to learn more about it? That’s sorta like the experience of Divine Eros.

There is some fuzziness to our modern understanding of what Platonic love is. We can all agree it means that two people are very close but they don’t want to be in each other’s pants. Some people like think of Platonic love as the love between siblings. But I have a problem with this because it erases the subtle nuance between close-like-siblings and close-like-partners-who-don’t-want-to-shag, and conflate the two as if they are one and the same. Furthermore, the Greeks already have a word for such sibling-to-sibling love (even for friends who are close like siblings). It’s called “philia.”

Eros on the other hand is a very passionate kind of love. There is attraction, and there is desire for union. If I were to go with the spirit of Plato’s idea of Divine Eros, I would say that for our modern understanding of Platonic love, it probably has to be an attraction of minds. Just as how physical Vulgar Eros draws us to desire physical union with another; this transcended Divine Eros of Platonic Love is a love that draws us to want intellectual intimacy with another person. It is an attraction to a person’s beautiful mind, or the ideas that the person has to share. It is an attraction that compels you to seek a special kind of union – a union of minds through the intellectual intercourse of dialogue.

I believe this kind of union is very intimate because if you do believe that our minds and our souls are one and the same, then the intercourse of ideas is not just a union of minds, but a union of souls that gives birth to a new concept, a new idea. And ideas are eternal.

Sadly, this intimacy is rare. It’s not something we can just do with anyone. Most of the time, if you’re the brainy kind, it’s very one-sided. You’re just talking away, and the other person is just pretending to listen, going, “Uh-huh…”

So yeah… True Platonic love – in the sense I described above – is hard to find.

Thanks for the question. I had a lot of fun reading up to figure out what my thoughts on the matter are. :)

Do you have any thoughts on love and relationships in general?

A student wrote to me:

Sometimes it seems like others are finding love so easily, whereby the person they like is also single and/or just so happens to like them back. For me, such incidences of fate have never materialised and I wonder how some just have it so easy. No real question, just wondering. Do you have any thoughts on these sentiments/love in general.

Here’s my reply:

I totally feel you! I was once in your shoes for a very long time. I had been friend-zoned a couple of times, and on one occasion, I confessed to a girl, and she rejected me on the grounds that I’m of a different socio-economic class (that was so WTH!).

Looking back, I realised now that I had missed the subtle advances of some girls back in my teenage/young adult life. I was just totally oblivious to it. I think a lot of us are oblivious to noticing the subtle advances of others.

Well, to be fair, confessing and taking the friendship to the next level is a high stakes game. Both guys and girls are incredibly afraid and anxious about it: What if I get rejected, what then becomes of this friendship? And because both parties are often so afraid, none dare to make any obvious moves for fear of rejection.

So let me share with you an advice I got when I was in NS, and it is advice that helped me a lot. If you are interested in a person, but unsure whether that person likes you, treat every non-negative response as a sign that he/she is interested in you. If you ask the person to hang out with you and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If you said you wanted to initiate a phone call and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If the person messages you or initiates outings, even better – that’s a really really good sign of interest! Over time, the more you think this way, the more confident you will become around that person. And confidence is an incredibly charming and attractive quality.

Nothing screams – “MARRY ME AND GENERATE SPAWNLINGS WITH ME!!!!!” – more than confidence. You can be fugly as hell but if you have confidence as great as Mount Everest, people will still be incredibly attracted to you. This statement is true for both males and females. If you don’t believe me, when COVID is over and we don’t need to wear masks anymore, go sit at a cafe and watch the world go by, i.e. people watching. There’s a lot of unattractive people who are very much in loving relationships. You might wonder how that’s possible, or disapprove of their coupling because it looks like a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. But hey, they’re happy because all they need is that one person to be attracted to them: their partner.

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

A student asked me (because it’s an anonymous Q&A platform):

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

Here’s what I wrote in response to this question:

No. The fact that this question is even conceivable is revealing of two major problems with our culture today:

(1) Almost everything is hyper sexualised and romanticised. It’s very revealing in our culture, e.g. close friendships between men are now characterised as “bromance.” I really hate that nowadays, there’s even a term to refer to colleagues of the opposite sex who work closely together – “work spouse.”

And, (2) many people don’t know how to develop intimate non-sexualised friendships these days (regardless of the gender of the friend). So many of us don’t question what it means to be a friend, or how to be a friend. Maybe it’s shyness or social awkwardness; maybe it’s because of past hurts due to bad friendships; maybe social media is screwing up the way we relate to others. Nonetheless, what’s scary is that more and more people these days are reporting that they find it difficult to have a heart-to-heart talk with someone.

And because many people have not had the opportunity to experience close friendships, of the intimacy of deep heart-to-heart exchanges, that it becomes so easy to confuse that experience of an intimate bond as sexual attraction.

(1) really gets in the way of (2): This hyper-romanticisation and hyper-sexualisation of things around us really gets in the way of us forming intimate friendships, or even just friendships for that matter. I find it very worrying that in today’s world, you can be nice to someone out of the goodness of your heart, and that person can misinterpret your actions as flirting.

However, I wouldn’t attribute (1) as the cause of (2). I think that the inability to form intimate non-sexualised friendships is due to a lack of exemplary role models. I don’t know when it happened but many parents have stopped being role models and educators to their children. They outsourced it to teachers in schools. But few teachers actually bother enough to be role models to their students (because to them, it’s just a job, not a calling).

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for asking! :)

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

A student asked me:

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

I’m happy to share this because I think there are some good life lessons from this:

No, she’s my second girlfriend actually. But we both agreed that we really dislike the first a lot. Lol…

I learnt many things about relationships from the first by way of negative example. Back then, I was driven by a very romanticised idea about the qualities that the ideal girlfriend would have. When I was still very young and naive, my criteria comprised wholly of very superficial qualities about what a person does, rather than about the person herself (of course, no matter what age we are, we’d like to believe that we are very critical and rational about our decisions).

So what was the major lesson? That a person who meets all our idealistic criteria may not necessarily be the person who can make you happy. It was very dissonant for me to discover that certain ideals that we hold may not actually make us happy once we encounter concrete particular instantiations of them. The things that we like in other people are simultaneously double-edge swords that can one day make us miserable, and compel feelings of indignation for the other. So… To put it in a more familiar slogan: Be careful what you wish for.

While I certainly didn’t like the experience at all, it did made me wiser about relationships. Since then, I’ve been extra cautious about ideals and romanticisations. Not just about relationships, but about the way I work with people. Ideals and romanticisations, while no doubt lofty and definitely feel-good, can blind us from perceiving people and situations as they are.

How did you know your wife was the one?

A student sent me this question:

How did you know your wife was the one?

Here’s my reply:

To be honest, I don’t. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is the perfect one or a soul mate. These are very dangerous ideas because, every real concrete person will always fall short when compared to the perfection of the abstract ideal. The person you have might be beautiful, but there will always be someone more beautiful. The person you have might be inspiring, but there will always be someone more inspiring. (On a side note, this is the same problem whenever you ask yourself whether you are happy. You could be happy, but when you compare your concrete experience with the abstract and perfect ideal, your experience of happiness will appear to fall short.) So if we are unaware of this, we’d be forever chasing an impossible dream of the perfect partner.

I do have some minimum requirements: (1) Must have mutual affection and attraction; (2) Can click well and talk about anything like best friends; (3) Are actually the best of friends; (4) Can still love me when I am most unlovable; (5) Inspires/Encourages me to be a better version of myself; (6) Is willing to fight with you and for you.

If someone satisfies that criteria, I would resolve and commit my existence to that person, as I have done with my wife.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow this set of requirements. It’s your life and your relationship. But I want to talk a bit more about (3) and (5).

On (3): From time to time, I hear people say, “You shouldn’t form romantic relationships with friends, that you should only date strangers outside your social circle. Friends are friends, and love is love.” And I have come across some people who do that to their spouses (they’re rarely happy). They confide in their best friends more than their spouse. I find that to be one of the worst advice for long-term relationships. Your partner is supposed to be someone whom you share your most intimate self – who you really are in your state of vulnerability, in good times and in bad. And that requires a great deal of trust and friendship. You can’t even get there in a romantic relationship if you don’t even have that trust to begin with.

On (5): I want to be clear that what I mean here is that the other person makes you want to improve yourself. The other shouldn’t try to change you or boss you around to become a better person like you are some personal pet project. That robs you of your autonomy as you improve as a person. You change not because you actually want to, but because you are forced to. And that creates the conditions for great resentment that will manifest itself eventually. What you want is someone who gives you the reason to fight hard to be a better version of yourself every day BECAUSE you know that it would make your partner happy and benefit him/her in the relationship.

A Preface to Philosophy

Here’s something I wrote about Philosophy which I am quite passionate about. It’s meant as an introductory paragraph for another document:

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, begins with wonder. This is a wonder of all the amazing and beautiful things about life. So great is that wonder of life that it sets the lover of wisdom on a quest to curiously seek out the answers to the important questions of life. In that quest for answers, nothing is taken for granted, no stone is left unturned. Everything is challenged and questioned for the sake of gaining insight into the very things that truly matter, which ironically, have been most neglected by everyone else. But when that lover of wisdom begins asking questions, the philosopher soon realises that it is the process of finding answers to those tough questions that are more exciting than the answers themselves. Such is the joy of philosophy, where lovers of wisdom burn with a fiery passion to discover and unravel the mysteries of life. Such is the way of the philosopher.

Love (愛)

Here’s my second try of the word, 愛 (love). This time, I’m using a calligraphy brush instead of the calligraphy marker.

There’s a more authentic feel to it when using a brush. It’s not easy getting the strokes right, but it takes a lot of practice. I think it might be a good idea to buy an instructional book on calligraphy. Saw one the other day, but it was terribly costly. Hmmm… I’m sure there are more affordable alternatives out there.

Love (愛)

ai

Just wrote this with my brand new calligraphy marker. It’s like a 毛笔 (maobi, calligraphy brush) but it’s a marker with a brush-tip.

My all-time favourite chinese word is 愛 (ai, love). I don’t like the simplified version. The traditional one is the most meaningful of all.

愛 (love) is made up of three words:

  • 受 (to receive)
  • 心 (the heart)
  • 夊 (to walk slowly)

Therefore, to love (愛), is to receive the heart of one’s beloved and to walk slowly with her. Beautiful!