Dating is already an endeavor of vulnerability, humility and, at times, humiliation.
For single people in Asheville, it can also be a challenge.
Inquire about the dating scene here and stories of frustration are guaranteed. Being a popular tourism destination means that the attractive guy at the concert or cute woman at the brewery might only be visiting from out of town for the night. Many people in Asheville are transplants, and the social networks that lead to organic connections might not be deep. And residents have a wide breadth of political, sexual and even dietary differences that can be tricky to reconcile.
Navigating the specific challenges of dating in Asheville doesn’t need to create so much pain and frustration, however. Amber Lavin of True Nature Counseling and Coaching, who is trained as an associate life coach with the International Coaching Federation, encourages her clients to practice mindful dating, which she says “simply means slowing down.” Mindful dating “means taking a break from the casual ‘swipe right or left culture’ and … thinking about what you truly want in a partner and reflecting on patterns and habits that may be keeping you from finding that person,” Lavin explains.
Xpress spoke with four relationship experts about strategies for dating with intention, learning about oneself first and having clarity about one’s own wants and needs.
Cultivate self-knowledge and self-awareness
Dating mindfully means first looking inward and being realistic about your wants, needs and abilities, rather than approaching dates with a laundry list of qualities a potential lover should fulfill.
“I talk to a lot of people about getting to know themselves,” explains Jenny Shealy, a licensed clinical social worker. “People are constantly thinking of dating as what they are looking for, which is only one aspect of it. … The more you know yourself, the better your chances of finding someone who fits with yourself.”
Ionsul Ferrin, a coach who is trained in the modalities of nonviolent communication and authentic relating, works with clients on developing “self-intimacy,” which she says requires a “self-awareness so that we can be honest with ourselves and others about how we tend to act and react.” Being mindful of reactions and the triggers to those reactions — for example, how one handles rejection — is vital. Ferrin advocates “befriending … our nervous systems, so that when we get hijacked by intense emotions, we can be more intentional about how we choose to respond.”
Ferrin says she also coaches clients on the cultivation of self-love, developing a resilience to shame and establishing firm boundaries. (“Leaky boundaries … breed resentment,” she says.) These are all skills that together form a basis of self-intimacy, she explains.
Camaraderie helps the experience feel less isolating. For the past year, Lavin has hosted a six-week mindful dating support group with six-10 women — intentionally small to maintain intimacy within the group. “Each week we focus on a different topic to create an intentional and mindful dating life,” she explains, adding that they do meditation, writing prompts and “a deep dive talk” each week about an aspect of mindful dating.
Identify expectations about relationships
Models of relationships, be they positive or negative, primarily come from caregivers and the media, says Christina Morelli, a dating and relationship coach who hosts workshops. As a result, people can have widely differing expectations for relationships; for example, that arguing all the time is normal, or never arguing at all is normal, or that relationships should only be between two people, or that monogamy is restrictive and impossible. “Relationships are complex and nuanced and require a lot of self-awareness and effort to undo what is unconsciously indoctrinated,” Morelli explains.
For two years, Morelli has hosted workshops on how to create what she calls “relationship blueprints,” which seek to clarify what relationship goals an individual might have. “For singles, the intent is to create a relationship blueprint that works for you before you jump into a relationship, increasing the chances of finding the right partner,” she explains.
For some individuals who are dating, this may mean recalibrating expectations. “Specific to Asheville, I find there is a large gap of values and beliefs,” Morelli continues. “There are many who identify as very liberal and many who identify as very conservative. I don’t mean this from a political aspect but from a ‘how relationships should be’ aspect.”
These polarities and the lack of middle ground “makes it more difficult for people to find compatible partners in the area because that makes a small city even smaller when we think about finding someone with similar relational values and desires,” Morelli says.
Improve your communication skills
It’s a cliché that healthy relationships rely on good communication. Alas, it’s a cliché because it’s true.
Ferrin coaches clients on “conscious communication,” which she describes as “intentionally chosen communication that serves to improve the quality of all our relationships.” Conscious communication depends on developing self-intimacy, being mindful of reactions and developing boundaries.
Just as individuals are shaped by the expectations for relationships that have been modeled for them, “default ways of communicating” are learned from caregivers and culture, explains Ferrin. “Unfortunately, those ways often don’t support the kind of love and connection that we really want,” she continues. “They’re frequently based in judgment and blame, especially when it comes to navigating conflict.”
For example, Ferrin says she was raised in a family with “a lot of ugly conflict and emotional violence,” and her parents divorced when she was a teen. Years later, Ferrin witnessed those patterns of conflict reemerging in her own marriage. She wanted to model more mindful communication and conflict resolution for her children. “I sought out nonviolent communication in my 20s out of a desire to do things differently than my parents did,” she says. “And it totally changed my life.”
Effective communication also requires active listening, says Ferrin. Active listening is not just about pausing in a conversation to let the other person talk; it means communicating so both individuals feel heard and validated. Active listening can be practiced even before going on a first date.
Figure out what feels right
Asheville is supposedly a city with liberal and accepting beliefs around gender identity and sexuality. But that isn’t actually everyone’s personal experience.
“There is a lot of shame that comes up [around sexuality],” explains Shealy, who is also a certified sex therapist. Some of the shame she encounters in clients is rooted in “religious upbringing,” she says. “A big part of a lot of people’s history is trying to figure out how their own sexuality fits into how they were raised in a church, how that fits into dating, what feels OK or where they feel shameful about what they might want,” Shealy continues. Such issues do come up “a lot more [in Asheville] than when I was in California,” she adds.
Additionally, having sex is not a part of everyone’s experience of dating. There are people who are aromantic (not having romantic feelings) or asexual (not having sexual feelings), who also need to communicate their needs and strive to have their needs met.
There are also individuals for whom mindful dating means realizing that opting out of dating is the best decision.
“We can look at connection in different ways than what we’ve been taught — that people are happiest if they have this romantic, sexual relationship,” Shealy says. “We get a lot of needs met socially through friendships. … We can find other ways to connect with people in ways that feel right.”
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