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.

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities?

A student asked:

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities, e.g. introvert and extrovert?

This is not true at all. But I want to highlight a problem with this belief. No matter how similar a couple may be, it’s always the differences (no matter how minute) that will catch the couple’s attention. Similarities don’t draw attention because they look quite ordinary to us. They don’t have the potential to cause conflict. And so we can go by for weeks, months, and even years not realising just how crazy similar we may be.

But differences catch our attention like a thorn in our side. So it’ll always look like a pairing of opposite personalities, regardless of how similar a couple may be.

What makes a relationship work is open and honest communication. Don’t keep secrets, don’t hide your feelings about things, try to make it easier for your partner to want to discuss difficult topics. You need to be able to do this if you want the relationship to work.

Why am I saying this? Because our differences will tend to be the point of contention in many aspects of the relationship. If we don’t learn to manage our differences amicably, then there will be problems with the relationship.

Avoiding these problems due to differences won’t help any of you at all. The relationship will stagnate on the appearance of it seeming to work when there are deeper problems waiting to be addressed. It’s a ticking time bomb if difficulty or conflictive issues are left undiscussed for a long time. Eventually, some event will trigger a huge argument, and often times, one side will say something that s/he can never take back. And that would fatally wound the relationship, perhaps in ways that you both won’t be able to recover.

Do looks matter in a relationship?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do looks matter in a relationship?

The answer is no. I’ve seen unattractive and even fugly people in happy long-term relationships.

There is a lot of truth in the story, “Beauty and the Beast”: if you spend a very long amount of time with someone, even if that person is ugly as hell (like a beast), you will eventually see the beauty in that person, and grow attracted to him/her.

Unless one is a narcissist who only wants to parade his/her trophy girlfriend/boyfriend, people are more likely to want a long-term relationship with a less attractive person with a good personality, than an attractive person with a bad personality.

Realistically, as the years go by, everyone will age and look unattractive anyway. So what will keep the relationship going is the personality.

Also, in a relationship, your partner will pervade many aspects of your life. Looks don’t matter here. What matters is the partner’s personality and character. Someone with an awful personality will negatively affect you 24/7. So don’t be superficial and be attracted to only good looks. Think of the long-term.

A marriage is supposed to be a friendship taken to a whole new level. A good personality helps with that. Lastly, don’t just focus on your potential partner. You should also work to improve yourself so that you also have a good personality. Otherwise, you’ll benefit from the relationship while your partner suffers. That wouldn’t be fair.

If looks don’t matter. What does? What really matters in developing a good and healthy relationship is the quality of communication and the shared memories and experiences. If you have the soft skills to do this, you will definitely be more attractive to other people. So learn to be patient and kind, learn to be a good listener and a good communicator.

Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

A student asked me a question about relationships, but I’m reframing the question a bit here:

Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

Dependency is never a good thing.

Here is something marriage counsellors will often tell you: “A healthy relationship is one where two whole individuals come together to enrich each other. An unhealthy relationship is one where two non-whole individuals come together expecting the other (or the relationship) to make them whole.”

What I mean by a whole/wholesome individual is minimally, one who is able to love himself or herself.

I think it is part of the struggle of the human experience to go through phases of disliking or hating who we are. I suppose it’s an important process of discovering more about we who are and what we want out of life. There can be no end to the amount of imperfections we can find within ourselves. We are saturated with imperfections at every nook and cranny of our being. And it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of self-disgust at every imperfection.

The Japanese have a concept in their aesthetic philosophy known as “wabi-sabi,” which is a cultivated ability of appreciating beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. And I do think that that is a very powerful idea to embrace, to be able to look at our imperfections in their full glory and learn to see beauty in that.

Allow me to digress a bit into this. One of the most fascinating things I’ve learnt about visual art is that you need to add imperfections either as noise in digital art, or “imperfect” brush strokes or seemingly “unmatching” colours to the canvas to increase the level of realism and beauty in a picture. If you didn’t do that, the image looks too clean, almost like a cartoon. In a similar way, I do like to think of my own imperfections as contributing to the aesthetic quality of who I am.

Why is this important in a relationship? Because if we don’t know how to love ourselves, we outsource the love of ourselves to an external party, and become entirely dependent on the other person to make us feel whole, and with it comes the insecurity of losing that wholeness. It often gets confused with the insecurity of losing the person who can make us feel loved and wholesome, and depending on the individual that insecurity may manifest itself in different ways: either sacrificing far too much of yourself or who you are just to please the partner in the hopes that the partner will stay; and/or, attempting to manipulate and control the partner in the hopes that the partner never leaves your grasp.

These are things I am sharing from personal experience. Because I was once in a relationship with someone who could not love herself. She was very dependent in the relationship, and thus was very clingy and fearful of losing me to the extent that I was emotionally manipulated into giving up a lot of my friendships and personal hobbies and interests much to my own personal detriment. And in many ways, I too am to blame for this, because I should have stood my ground. But I think at some point, I also forgot how to love myself and prioritised the relationship as if it would make me whole and wholesome, that I was willing to give up all these things that mattered so dearly to me. In the end, we gave up so much, we sacrificed so much of who we once were for the sake of preserving the relationship, that we both became empty shells of who we used to be.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t be dependent on your partner to feel loved and whole. And don’t be dependent on the relationship either. It is our lives and it is really up to us to make ourselves feel loved and whole. Relationships are meant to enrich us. Relationships are not meant to save us from ourselves. So don’t ever prioritise your partner or the relationship at the expense of giving up who you are.

But even if we make such mistakes, that’s ok. It’s normal to make such mistakes. Even I made such a mistake. I guess it’s an important learning experience, perhaps it’s an important experience for our own growth and development. Humanity seems to repeat this mistake again and again, and we know this because stories like these are recorded even in the earliest of writings. The history of humanity is filled with many stories of heartbreaks, miseries, and regretful sacrifices people made for the sake of one’s partners or the relationship.

We just have to learn to love ourselves so that we can be better and kinder to ourselves, our friends, and our partners.

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.

My girlfriend got pregnant, and we’re both still studying in university. What do you suggest we do?

An anxious student wrote to me, asking:

My girlfriend got pregnant, and we’re both still studying in university. What do you suggest we do?

I can imagine this must be a really anxious time for both you and her. Please make yourself wholly available to her and support her in this time of need. Let her know that you are someone she can count on as a pillar of strength and support. And if either of you need someone older to talk to, feel free to reach out to me. You can talk to me without fear of judgement, alright? :)

Many people tend to conflate wanting to “get rid of the problem” with the idea that it means “getting rid of the pregnancy.” That is not true, and that choice has its own risks and consequences that will affect her much more than it will affect you.

First thing’s first: don’t rush to solve the situation so quickly. The stress and anxiety can lead to a lot of bad mistakes that will haunt you both for life. I want you to know that there are three possible options you can explore: (1) keeping the baby and raising the child; (2) giving the child up for adoption to couples who can’t conceive and desperately want a child; (3) terminating the pregnancy.

I think one of the issues people worry about is the shame and fear of what’s going to happen. I want you to know that we are living in a very modern and understanding society. Both of your families may care enough that you have to deal with shame. BUT in the bigger scheme of things, events like this happen so often, it doesn’t really surprise anyone these days (I know too many stories of it happening left, right, centre). So I want you to know that it’s not shameful at all. Just so you know, I’m not judging. It’s just one of those things that happens.

Let me tell you a story… Every year during Chinese New Year, my cousin would bring his super hot girlfriend over. He got married eventually (I didn’t attend the wedding). The following Chinese New Year, he brought his wife and baby over. The wife looked very different. So I remarked to my mother how amazed I was that the lack of make-up could make someone look so incredibly different, since she didn’t look anything like the pretty person I remember in the years past. My mother then told me that that woman was a different one from the girl we had seen in the previous years. It was a shotgun marriage. Whoops!

Anyway… Accidents happen. Life happens. And we should just hold our heads high and learn to handle what life throws at us. That’s how we grow. In some cases, it’s lemons. In some cases, it’s a pregnancy.

Let me discuss some options to consider. It’s important you both make the decision together as a couple:

If you both are still unsure about having a future together, DO NOT rush into a marriage or force yourselves to raise the child together. It doesn’t end well. There are many single-parents because of reasons like this. And the one who has to suffer most is usually the mother as she will end up raising the child all on her own.

In such a situation, I personally would strongly recommend carrying the pregnancy to term and giving it up for adoption. There are so many couples in Singapore who try so hard to conceive but they can’t. They have a strong desire to have a child, but they are afflicted with the inability to conceive. That puts tremendous stress on them and it does strain their relationship. You have no idea how much good you can do for such couples, and you can use this as an opportunity to bring joy to another home. At least one great and wonderful good can come out of this incident. I really think this will be most worthwhile.

Fortunately, because of the pandemic, it’s going to be 100% e-learning for most modules this and next probably next semester. So you both can go through the pregnancy without attracting much attention.

Of course, if you both are sure you want to be together in marriage later on in life, then I think it’s worth thinking about keeping the baby. Don’t stress over the finances. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You might initially meet with parental disapprovals, but usually when the baby comes, their attitudes will change. I must stress that this is the usual case. If you both have dysfunctional families, then it may make it more challenging to raise a child under such conditions.

Regardless, it can and will be tough having to juggle studies and a baby at the same time. BUT, I want you to know that it’s very possible to have a happy and functional family. I know a friend who had a shotgun marriage during their undergraduate days. They both graduated since and they are still happily married after 10+ years, with more kids added to the collection. What’s important for this to work out is to get wide social support. Not just from your immediate families, but from friends, and other older people. You’ll be surprised to discover how many supportive friends you’ll have in uni. And like I have said before, come talk to me if you need to. We can figure something out together. :)

The last option to consider will be the termination of the pregnancy. It seems like the easiest option to get out of a difficult situation. But there is a really high risk that your girlfriend will have to live with the guilt and emotional baggage of termination for the rest of her life. There is also the risk that her physical health/fertility may be compromised too (there’s always a risk with such procedures). Many people have gone through this without much thought, and it does come back to haunt them later in their lives. So I don’t like to recommend this as an option. And please don’t take this option lightly.

All options are difficult. There is no easy answer. Your parents will get upset for sure. But you will definitely discover that you will have many supportive friends who will help both of you out. Whatever is it, please don’t abandon your girlfriend when she needs you most right now. She needs you. So be there fore here.

And whatever it is, it’s important to make the decision together on what to do with the pregnancy. It is a joint responsibility.

If you need someone older to talk to, or if you need help getting the necessary social support or whatever, don’t be afraid to come talk to me. We’ll figure something out together.

Take care!

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 think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

A student asked:

Do you think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

I’m not an expert in this, so I won’t say much about it.

The funny thing about relationships is that we only consider the relationship a success when the relationship ends with at least one party passing away.

If a couple is together for very long, we say we are inspired by them but we know that shit can happen any time to rock the relationship. What I can tell you is that I know one or two old couples who have gone through a break up, and later reunited for years already. Is this successful? I leave you to decide.

While it is not impossible to make the relationship work again, there are many challenges due to past hurts. But I think one problem that can arise is if either party (or both) expect it to be a return to the good ol’ days. Those belong to the past and cannot be recovered. Like a piece of wood that had a nail jammed into it and later removed, the wood will have a hole. That is the indelible mark done to the relationship. You can mend it, but it won’t be the same once again. You both have to accept this as the new normal of the relationship. Expectations of returning 100% to the good ol’ days can potentially hurt the relationship.

What’s essential is open and honest communication, and the willing effort of both sides to want to make it work. Just be careful not to sacrifice so much of yourselves for each other that you end up becoming someone that you’re not – an empty shell of who you once were. Just as much as we want to spend time with each other, we need to give ourselves time and space to be ourselves.

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

On Personal Relationships and the Hedgehog’s Dilemma

Human beings are like hedgehogs. We want to love and be loved. Yet, whenever we get too close to each other, we end up hurting and being hurt by the other. There is perhaps nothing worst than being hurt by the ones you love, or hurting the ones you love.

Sometimes the hurt can be so bad that it seems best not to grow close to people. Yet, we desire to be close to others. But the fear of hurting/being hurt is enough to prevent us from doing anything at all. And so, we often find ourselves living a life of contradiction – of yearning for closeness yet shunning away from it. At the end of the day, we hurt ourselves even more as a result of this internal conflict.

But we think it is alright to live like this. Why? Because we sometimes think like this: It is better to hurt myself than to hurt others or be hurt others. At least the hurt which I inflict towards myself is less painful than the hurt which comes from the ones I love.

We have all been wounded at some point of our life. Nobody has gone through life unscarred. At some point, we have been betrayed, backstabbed, disappointed, ignored, insulted, teased, and even rejected by family and friends. How could they do something like that? They’re supposed to love me, right? They do love me, don’t they?

That is what the hedgehog’s dilemma is about: We meet someone for the first time. Not knowing whether or not we will be accepted or rejected by the other, we try to look good. After being accepted for some time by the other, we begin to feel comfortable and relaxed, slowly and slowly, we begin to remove the mask and show bits of our true self. Yet, like the hedgehog, our true selves are, unfortunately, full of spikes. But the mask functions as a shield covering our spikes so that no one will be hurt. It also covers our vulnerable selves so that we won’t be hurt either. But as we begin to grow closer, we begin to slowly remove that mask to reveal our true selves. We expose our vulnerabilities and expose the sharp spikes which could hurt someone.

And so, there will come a point in time where we get too close to each other and our spikes come into contact, thereby wounding each other in that dangerous embrace of friendship.

A friend of mine commented that the name, “hedgehog’s dilemma”, is quite a misnomer. Hedgehogs don’t get injured when they come close to each other because they know how to withdraw their spikes when coming in contact with their own kind.

If that is the case, can we still consider ourselves analogous to hedgehogs? Oh yes! Definitely! We are very clumsy hedgehogs: Firstly, we don’t realise we have spikes until we have wounded and have been wounded. Secondly, even when we know about our spikes, we have difficulties controlling them. Thirdly, sometimes we can be so absent-minded that we can forget that our spikes are out.

But just like the hedgehogs, we can learn not to hurt and be hurt by learning how to master our spikes. Unfortunately, this learning requires the courage of enduring some hurts from each other until we get the hang of it.

This is why the best and closest of friendships are those where both parties have survived a really terrible conflict. There will always be a point in any relationship where the other begins acting like a retard, annoying the crap out of you, and/or pissing you off as if he/she had been paid to do it (or has an axe to grind). This is the point where the mask has been removed and the spikes have come out. This is the point where we begin to hurt and be hurt by the other.

Unfortunately, sometimes, some of us cannot endure it any longer, and the relationship ends. However, when we begin to accept that he/she has these spikes, and there’s very little we can do about it, that is when we begin to learn how to avoid being hurt by the other, and avoid hurting the other despite the closeness. That period of conflict is the learning stage. Once both have learnt it well, the storm dissipates and both are able to grow closer together.

Of course, periods of conflict will arise time and time again. That is part of the package in being a “hedgehog”. As we grow closer than before, we need to learn how to master our spikes in such new situations of closeness.

Such mastery of our spikes gives us the ability to develop long-lasting relationships with people. We can be comfortable being ourselves with such people. There is no need to wear protective masks, nor do we have difficulties embracing them without hurting/being hurt.

It is interesting to note that traditional Christian marriages never wish couples a “happy marriage”. Instead, the Church wishes them that they may remain as “one flesh”. In Chinese culture, one concept central to the culture is 和 (he), which means unity, harmony, and even happiness. I’m sure other religions and cultures have something similar to say.

Nonetheless, the point is this: since ancient times, people have recognised the problem of the hedgehog’s dilemma. People have known (since ancient times) that a happy relationship free from hurt is not a real relationship – it is either a fantasy or there’s no closeness at all. There is no happy marriage or friendship where no one gets hurt. People will hurt one another. It is an unavoidable thing in life.

The goal in any human relationship is to learn how to be so close as to become like “one flesh”. It is this harmony and unity that is a pre-requisite to happiness. Once we have learnt how to handle hurts are we then able to develop close and happy friendships.

Love is not just about loving the good parts of the other. It is also about loving the person’s spikes. These spikes are part of our being. We too have a deep desire for people to love us and our spikes. It’s easy to love the nice side of people. But a lot of effort is required to love those spikes. That is why we really appreciate the people who can love us despite seeing our ugly side. But it’s not just for the effort alone. We appreciate such love because such love embraces our whole self – not just a part, not just the mask – but a love which embraces the very core of our being.

But we’re all in a deadlock waiting for someone to do that to us. Everybody’s waiting.

So, to put an end to the deadlock, allow me to get the ball rolling by saying: Thank you for being my friend. I may have experienced, or have yet to experience your spikey side. But rest assured, I may initially be shocked, annoyed, and even hurt – but that will not mean an end to the friendship. I accept you and will still love you as my friend regardless. And I apologise for the hurts which my own spikes may have caused. We just need time to learn.

Let us, with courage, strive for deeper, closer friendships!