Mindful online dating improves nervous system regulation.
Dee Wagner, MS, LPC, BC-DMT
Is it possible that online dating can be a path toward mindfulness? Of course, anything can be a path toward mindfulness. Is online dating more of a path than, say, noticing the taste of food as we chew?
Online dating stirs up intense physical sensations more than food flavors or holding a difficult yoga pose because our relationships trigger feelings from infancy when life existed as a hurricane of unregulated nerve firings. If we imagine we are searching for the one, our expectancy can be laced with life/death nervous system responses left over from birth.
Once we are born, there is only one person that can satisfy our biological imperative to reconnect to the body from which we disconnected. In romance, we may be looking for the one, but there are many possible partners who could pair with any person.
Online dating is hyped-up dating, with its purposeful searching, quick surges of hopefulness and frequent disappointments. And, of course, online dating can lead to sex and we don’t even need to name the sensations possible with the stimulation of our anatomical parts containing the highest concentration of nerve endings.
Each online dating encounter is like time in the relationship gym. We have an opportunity to flex, work-out, and train our interactive muscles, so to speak. As we improve our relationship skills, the part of our bodies that we are actually working with is our nervous system.
Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation, explains that we have a part of our parasympathetic nervous system that can help us navigate our relationships. He calls this part our social engagement system.
If we are not using our social engagement system, we are using one of the two other parts of our nervous system. We are either using our sympathetic response that moves us into fight/flight or the part of our parasympathetic response that move us into a kind of shut-down that is often called freeze, or faint.
Since our social engagement system helps us navigate relationships, how can we better access that system? Mindfulness. In the relationship gym of online dating, we can feel sensations akin to fight/flight or freeze/faint and watch those sensations come and go, noticing when we are not in the life-threatening danger that the sensations suggest.
What is the key? As every person who pursues mindfulness would guess, the key is balance. Harmony means balance but to people who pursue mindfulness practices, the word can imply more peacefulness than is useful in the balance required for healthy romantic relating. Healthy relationships balance peacefulness and playfulness.
On a continuum between tranquility and chaos, we all have our growing edge. Some of us must constantly cultivate peacefulness to come to any sort of middle ground between peace and pull-your-hair-out fight/flight anxiety. Others of us find it too tempting as we move toward peacefulness to drop into the shut-down kind of oblivion that characterizes freeze/faint and so we need to challenge ourselves to play safe but stimulating games.
Often we hear people saying they are tired of playing games in their dating experiences. But what we are learning these days about our nervous system explains that games are good as long as they are not gladiator games. How can we help ourselves find this kind of safe play?
We can witness our attempts at manipulating our partners. If it feels playful such as when we are trying to lure our partner to the front of the net while we land our beach badminton shuttle in the back corner of the sand court, we’re probably in safe territory. If it feels like we are trying to shove a lifeguard under water in order to get our head to air because we are drowning, we’re probably using the biology we ideally reserve for life-threatening situations.
Because online dating can trigger unhealthy nervous system responses, it is a great arena in which to practice mindfulness. As we learn to tolerate the intense sensations that intimate relating can arouse, we can sense when the intensity is only rough and tumble play and that we are safe. We can stay sane and stay in the game of relating in romance and every encounter with those who people our lives.