In the throes of dating or pining after a crush, there can be the all-too-familiar feeling that you’ve been there before. Someone’s profession, hair colour or height might be different from that of an ex, but their fear of commitment, wandering eye or air of unavailability is essentially the same.
When dating, I seem to automatically seek what I’ve already sought: charming pseudo-intellectuals, suggestive and flirtatious, but essentially not interested in me. I chase after half-nothings and loose ends who will keep me occupied, but not attached.
Philosopher and author Alain de Botton believes this destructive dating pattern may be the fault of our feelings. We place too great an emphasis on our instincts or having “that feeling” to guide us to the right person, but that very feeling is not reliable. It is often warped by our experiences, explains de Botton. “We are not merely looking to find love, we are looking for familiarity.”
It seems so many of us can’t be trusted with the matters of our own hearts. But if we can change our exercise or eating habits, can we overhaul our love lives?
I was curious to see if I could tweak my own habitual dating tendencies. Over the span of three months, I had friends, friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends set me up on dates with complete strangers.
Armed with just a name and a phone number, I proceeded to go on more than a dozen dates in cafes, rooftop bars and pubs, the idea being if others chose for me, I’d be jolted out of the experience of dating the same type of man over and over. There was a handful of goodnight kisses, and a smaller proportion of second dates. Dates were peppered with anything from stunted conversations to belly laughs, ending with anything from sexual advances to blunt rejections.
Concluding my experiment in blind dating revealed more to me about how we approach finding love, the falsities society tells us about being single, and the stories we tell ourselves during the search, than I initially imagined.
Lesson 1: Test your assumptions.
A fear of rejection has often led me to pre-empt whether a date will or will not lean in for a kiss, ask me out again, or text the next day. Convinced I could read minds, I’d dutifully cut off a date or a conversation just in time to avoid being rebuffed. I’d tell myself that if it worked a certain way in the past, it was sure to happen like that again.
To shake up this habitual guessing game during the experiment, I started sending out a multiple-choice quiz at the conclusion of each date to find out for sure. While each date knew I was “experimenting” with dating, some were taken aback by my blunt request to know if they wanted to: a) go on a second date; b) be friends; c) have sex; d) none of the above. Others thought it refreshing, and I found it yielded surprising responses.
Following one particular date with an awkward beginning, excellent middle and confusing end, I was certain I wouldn’t receive so much as a response to my survey. To my surprise, he was charmed by the forthright message, keen to meet again, and pleased to have the opportunity to explain his awkwardness at the end of the date.
I learnt that my premonitions were sometimes wrong; I also learnt not to fear rejection. The answer might sting, but it could also delight. You don’t know what someone else is thinking, nor whether that uncertain pause is a sign of impending rejection or simply shyness.
Stop letting previous experiences determine current situations and put yourself out there as if each new date is new, because it is.
Lesson 2: Rejection isn’t personal.
The most terrifying part of rejection isn’t so much the act itself, but how we let it define us. We can take someone declining a second date and turn it into evidence for a major flaw in our character. But just because one person rejects you doesn’t mean that you are destined to be rejected by the remainder of the human species. In fact, it rarely has anything to do with you.
I began to realise that everyone has different things going on in their lives at any one moment, and their own dating habits are shaping their experiences. This freed me up to relax more, because I knew a person’s behaviour on the night we met had little to do with me.
There’s an undetectable, uncontrollable thing that brings two people together – some call it a spark – and a lack of it doesn’t mean you lack remarkable qualities of your own.
Lesson 3: Remember what you want.
More often than not, we can admit that we knew the “spark” wasn’t there to begin with when we’ve been rejected.
I had made a habit on previous dates of waiting to determine my own feelings only after I knew somebody else’s – their admiration providing the validation to slip into a quasi-relationship. But it was always based on someone else’s wants.
When you lose track of how you feel, you ignore that part of you that knew it wasn’t right to begin with. If we can be sure of our own desires and wants first, others no longer have the same hold over us, or ability to disappoint.
Lesson 4: You will be surprised by who is attracted to you.
I don’t have a checklist of attributes a prospective date must have, but I realised I do have a pretty rigid picture of what kind of options I have when it comes to who will date me. The tall, handsome, athletic guy who works in finance is generally not someone I imagine would find me attractive.
Yet attraction is so diverse and fluid, it’s impossible to impose tastes based on questionable assumptions. You don’t know who will be attracted to you. Let go of any narratives or checklists that cling to previous experiences and allow yourself to be surprised.
Lesson 5: First impressions can shift as quickly as they are created.
The idea that you only have seven seconds to make a strong first impression didn’t hold up during the experiment. There were dates whose apparent charisma faded as I sipped the last mouthful of wine in my glass; others who I initially judged as shy and dull who had me in stitches by the end of the date.
A person is more than just an awkward greeting at the start of a date, or a profile on Tinder. If we resist superimposing character traits onto someone based on a few seconds of interaction, we might have the chance to see who they really are.
Lesson 6: Appreciate friendship.
The way society puts romantic love on a pedestal makes the love of friends, family and community seem second-rate in comparison. When we date with the expectation of finding the one great romance with the fairy-tale ending, we tend not to bother with anything “less”, despite the potential for it to be equally enriching.
A bonus in this experiment was developing great friendships that might have been overlooked if the goal had been solely to find love, rather than to overhaul bad habits. Approaching dating with curiosity instead of a fixed goal enabled me to see new possibilities.
In her new book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett puts it this way: “I can’t name the day when I suddenly realised that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.”
I’m starting to appreciate the different guises of love and how friendship can broaden my world, bringing new people and experiences with it.
Lesson 7: Recognise your safety nets.
Part way through the experiment, I found the dates were becoming monotonous. I realised I had been recounting the same crowd-pleasing anecdotes and asking the same sure-fire questions. I was using the experiment as a fallback conversation starter. I’d be overly cerebral instead of attempting awkward flirtatious banter, or conversely I’d be coquettish to avoid a normal conversation about hobbies or where I grew up.
We all have topics we find easy to return to when feeling nervous, but I found that I was hiding behind them on each date, creating a safety net so I didn’t have to show myself.
The experiment itself was a way to remain safe and wear a mask if I had to. But when I did, I short-changed myself, missing an opportunity to get to know someone, and allow them to know me.
Lesson 8: Finding someone you connect with is rare.
Concluding the experiment, the results from my post-date surveys, combined with my own feelings, showed that I’d had a physical and emotional connection with 23 per cent. When it came to a connection akin to what we call love, zero per cent. I did not drive off into the sunset in an intoxicating new relationship at the end of my experiment.
Such odds may seem dismal but, in many ways for the long-term single, it’s comforting to know it’s not your nose, waistline, job or supposed personality flaw that determines your relationship status. It’s just that the odds are slim to begin with. As seemingly easy as it appears for everyone else to find “the one”, it really is quite a rare phenomenon that a person collides with another person at just the right speed and tempo – with life circumstances, attraction, compatibility and readiness all culminating in the “perfect” relationship.
Finding someone to love isn’t akin to finding a job – nor should we all be relentlessly seeking to acquire it as something to “complete” us.
Lesson 9: Focus on actions, not words.
With those dates I did share a physical and emotional connection with, I noticed myself grasping onto even the most threadbare promises of a future. When one said, “I’d love to see you again, if only I wasn’t so busy,” all I’d hear was the part about them loving to see me.
People tell you who they are and what they want, if you listen and watch for it. Actions speak volumes.
Lesson 10: The only survey that counts is your own.
In the Hollywood rom-com script of this experiment, the girl looking for love finally realises that the man was there all along, and the whole experiment was just a farce in order to bring them together. The Hollywood script didn’t play out. Instead, what I discovered was that what was familiar – the disinterested type – wasn’t good for me. I shrugged off all the ones with a fear of commitment, a wandering eye, or air of unavailability, finally understanding I deserve better – from others and myself.
What I realised most profoundly was that the only dating habit to change is the one where I tell myself I’m incomplete without a relationship.
It took 13 dates with complete strangers to show me that I’m not strange for being single – not flawed, not needing to be probed and tested and experimented on to check for defects.
By date 10, I stopped sending the survey and began to ask myself questions. An experiment can’t automatically adjust lifelong habits that keep us tied to the same self-sabotage loop, or limiting thoughts about ourselves, but it can bring our attention to them.
Maybe the real experiment isn’t in becoming who you think you ought to be in order to attract someone else, but in being comfortable with who you actually are – regardless of whether you have a blind date scheduled for Friday night or not. •