I want to tell you some harsh truths about dating. Truths that, when you understand them, will explain why dating can be a nightmare. However, once you’re able to face those truths, you’ll find that dating will actually be simpler and more enjoyable.
And the key to understanding them starts with gambling and religious pigeons.
OK, I freely admit this sounds like I’ve had a stroke, but trust me, it will all make sense in a second.
So here’s your first harsh truth: dating isn’t nearly as difficult or as complicated as people think it is. The reason why it can be a shitstorm of Michael Bay proportions is because… well, because of people. The single biggest reason why folks would rather look into recreational dentistry than get back on the dating scene is because of the way people aren’t honest about dating. And this is a truth that crosses sexuality and gender lines; gay, pan or straight, cis or trans, guys, gals and non-binary pals… damn near everyone isn’t honest about dating. Not with others and — more often — not with themselves.
That’s not to say that people are maliciously lying. It’s more that folks don’t like admitting the truth to themselves. It’s easier to take comfort in the fictions we tell ourselves than to face the truth. Even when those lies are actually contributing to making dating a miserable experience.
Accepting these truths — and they’re not the ones you think — will change how you approach dating. And this will make dating that much easier, less stressful and more satisfying.
#1: You’re Addicted To The Illusion of Control
So let’s talk about those pigeons for a moment. In 1947, behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner tested the concept of operant conditioning in part by taking hungry pigeons and putting them in boxes. Each group had a mechanism that the pigeons could operate. In the control box, when the mechanism was pressed, food would be delivered. In the other box, the button wouldn’t actually deliver food. The timing of the food was completely at random; pellets might be delivered when the button was pressed, it might not. Other times, pellets would just be dropped into the box.
But the pigeons didn’t realize it was completely random. They, like humans, try to assign meaning and order to chaos. And so, they would start to adopt behaviors that they were performing when food pellets were dropped into the box. If the food was delivered when they spun in circles, they’d spin in circles in hopes that this would bring more food. If they were hopping up and down when they got food, they’d hop. And if the behaviors didn’t work, they’d combine behaviors in hopes of summoning the food.
This ultimately ended up with what amounted to religion in pigeons as they created increasingly elaborate rituals to appease the Food Gods and starting internecine wars with the apostate crows who realized the whole thing was bullshit and taught each other break into the machines instead.
Of course this sounds absurd; what the hell do Skinner boxes and superstitious pigeons have to do with harsh dating truths? Well, it’s the attempt to impose order on chaos, to find meaning in what seems meaningless. And it comes down to a simple truth: people don’t like feeling like they’re out of control. It bothers them, especially when they feel like it’s something that they should have influence over. If they don’t have actual control over something, they’ll try to find something that gives the illusion of influence… even if it doesn’t actually work.
That’s why the harsh truth is that you need to recognize is how little control you actually have when it comes to dating. People like to approach dating as though it were a formula or a game of poker — do X, Y and Z in order and you’ll “win”. If you pay enough attention and play the “right” way, you’ll beat everyone else and win the pot. This belief is the foundation of about 90% of dating advice. The Rules, Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady, Mystery Method, Real Social Dynamics… these are all founded on the idea that if you play the game correctly, you’ll win. Behave in this particular way, don’t act in this other way and you will get what you want.
The particularly sinister ones will promise something akin to mind control or changing someone’s entire personality. The whole premise of The Rules and Think Like A Man, for example, is that if you behave in specific ways and follow explicit rules, you’ll compel a guy to stop fucking around and settle down. PUA schools teach similar techniques, treating human interaction like a flowchart of if-then statements and advocating methods of persuasion based on high-pressure sales tactics. Particularly shitty ones that line up with the Red Pill philosophy will actually encourage the same sort of manipulative and coercive behaviors that abusers use to keep their victims in line.
The problem is how little of this advice actually works. Some of it is based on inaccurate ideas about male and female sexuality, some of it is based around increasingly outdated gender roles and a whole lot of it is just straight magical thinking — about as reliable as pigeons spinning in circles to get more food. A lot of pick-up artists invented their techniques out of whole cloth, very much like those pigeons. Mystery et. al would discuss what they tried, focus on things that worked once or twice and decided that these were rules of the universe.
In reality, a lot of successes came despite their techniques; they would frequently end up being at least partially right, but for all the wrong reasons. Like a kid floundering his way through Algebra II, they got the right answer almost by accident; the way they got there simply doesn’t work.
But the benefit of those rules and flowcharts is that they provide the illusion of control. This, admittedly, can have its benefits; for someone who doesn’t have much social experience or suffers from social anxiety, having rules to follow is helpful. In a way, they’re like training wheels on a bicycle; they help you practice and give you a little confidence boost while you’re trying to learn how to ride. But they aren’t guarantees.
The issue is that dating isn’t a program, where you can run the code, input the correct data and get the results you want. Nor is it poker. Dating is blackjack. Through careful play, you can increase your odds of success and tilt things in your favor. However, you can’t guarantee success because there’re other people involved and you can’t control for that. It has nothing to do with logic or biology or attraction switches, nor does it have anything to do with looking like an MCU Chris. It has everything to do with the vagaries and peculiarities of life.
People have preferences and interests that are going to be incredibly diverse and impossible to control for. While there’re many things that are broadly appealing — good hygiene, confidence, kindness and assertiveness, emotional intelligence and such — there are so many influences on what decides who we do and don’t date that you can’t cover all of them. And even if you could, that wouldn’t guarantee you success. As Dita Von Teese famously said: you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, but there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches. You could run into someone who is looking for a guy who has your exact specifications, but the day you met them was the day they discovered their ex had been cheating on them for years and they really can’t stand the idea of dating right now.
Hell, they may well be really into you but aren’t in a place where they’re able to act on that attraction.
This is part of why dating is a numbers game; random chance is always going to be a factor. You have to be comfortable with discomfort and not being in complete control. But at the same time: when you take this on board, it’s incredibly freeing. After all, if you did have complete control, it means that every failure is a judgement on you. Instead, you can de-universalize and de-personalize the times that things don’t work out. It’s not always because of things you did; you’re able to try again and do better next time. It also means that failure isn’t permanent; you may have had bad luck the first time you met that sexy cure for loneliness, but the next time you run into them, different factors are in play.
Just as importantly though: you want to maximize your chances where you can. That means putting yourself out there and meet people; you can’t just hope that the universe will drop someone at your front door or that someone else will do the hard work for you. Good luck isn’t random chance taken personally, it’s the residue of planning and preparation and putting yourself in the position to take maximum advantage of circumstances when they present themselves to you.
In fact, while we’re on that topic…
#2: You’re Focusing On The Wrong Stats
While we’re talking about the illusion of control and maximizing your odds, let’s talk about how that plays into attraction.
For as long as people have been meeting and mating, there has been oceans of ink spilled about why we fuck who we fuck and who we’d probably rather be fucking given the chance. This is an argument that’s older than steam and nearly as old as dirt; Thag, Grunt and Klonk sat around fires after a long day of hunting megatheriums and avoiding terror birds to argue about why Qulp was going to choose them instead of the other guys.
Fast forward 50,000 years and we’re still having these arguments. The only difference is what qualities we insist make someone choose this guy instead of that guy.
The ur-example is, of course, the classic “looks vs. personality” debate; do women pick guys based on looks, or does having the right personality make the difference? Hold onto that, I’ll be coming back to it in a second.
This debate continues to rage, because, more often than not, people are completely wrong about why folks choose the partners they choose. More often than not, folks are arguing from their belief about what women want, rather than from actually, y’know, talking to women. In fact, more often than not, they’re basing their arguments on what other men say that women want, rather than what women say.
This closed loop of information tends to manifest in a lot of different ways. PUAs and evolutionary psychology fans, for example, argue about the existence of innate “attraction switches”, desires shaped by evolution that work on the almost subliminal level. Strange, then, how these tend to mirror “classic” ideas about relationships, gender roles and dating, rather than actual current behavior. The concept of attraction switches doesn’t follow evolution so much as people retrofitting choices that were influenced by culture and laws at the time with the imprimatur of science.
Consider how often those attraction switches tend to be very focused on European behaviors and attitudes. The attraction switch of “a good provider”, for example, ignores literal centuries of American and European history when women weren’t permitted to own property or control their own finances. Marrying someone who was a good provider was a necessity for survival. In cultures where women had more control over their own finances — or where communal sharing was the rule — they didn’t choose partners based on income or earning potential.
Similarly, you can’t talk about attraction without someone showing up from the incel or incel-adjacent communities to argue that women only date jacked dudes who are six feet tall at the minimum. Considering that according to the CDC, the average height of the American male is approximately 5’7″, and that only 14.5% of American men are over 6 feet tall… that would imply that most Americans aren’t having sex and the human race is heading for an extinction event. However, their ideas about what women want is based on what their peers think. And since they and their peers lock themselves in increasingly insular and closed online communities, the amplification effect pushes them to go to more and more extremes until they convince themselves that the only person getting laid is — I shit you not — GigaChad.
There are enough people who get so obsessed over who and what body types women are attracted to that they will show up to argue with women who point out that, no, they don’t want Chris Hemsworth/Pine/Evans. In moments of maximum hilarity and minimum self-awareness, many of them will insist that they’re more open-minded about body types than women are.
Some guy on Reddit is complaining that all women want their male partners to look like Marlon Brando when “less than 10% of the male population” has a body like him. This guy’s mind’s gonna be blown when he finds out about the bodily standards that women are held to!
— Kate Sloan (she/her) (@Girly_Juice) June 8, 2021
Now to be clear: physical good looks certainly help. Nobody denies this. But not only does what’s considered “good looking” change with the times, they’re not the end-all/be-all of attraction. In fact — as has been pointed out many times before — attractiveness is a measure of presentation, not the Phrenology 2.0 mess that the incels invented. A good hair cut, basic hygiene and well-fitting clothes will transform you without changing your features.
It’s also true that physical looks can affect first impressions. Studies have found that there’s a strong general consensus of attractiveness when you first meet someone. However, despite what pop culture has taught us, very few people start relationships with someone they’ve just met. Most relationships start after we get to know someone. And at that point, people’s ideas of who is attractive and who isn’t diverge sharply. Women — like men — like a very wide range of bodies and types, and those vary from person to person. But being somebody’s type isn’t it either.
Attraction is about how you make people feel, emotionally. Being able to make people feel good trumps just about everything else, especially when it comes to committed relationships. The reason why women consistently rate a sense of humor so highly is because of what it says about the man. Being funny requires emotional intelligence, confidence and social awareness, and making people laugh makes them feel good. Similarly, personal warmth, authenticity, vulnerability, kindness and genuine interest makes people feel wanted, validated and understood. Confidence and reliability make people feel secure and supported. And, of course, the more people have fun when you’re around, the more they want you to stick around.
This is what’s known as The Reward Theory of Attraction — people instinctively prioritize relationships that make them feel good. When you make people feel good, they want to spend more time with you, rather than with someone else. This is why you’re better off spending your time working on your charisma, not your strength. Being jacked is great to look at, but charisma is what makes people respond to you. Nobody is so good looking that people put up with shitty behavior or attitudes from them. It doesn’t matter that you could bounce a quarter off Chris Evans’ abs; people respond to him because he’s a human golden retriever.
This is why so many folks who are convinced that they’re ugly — when they’re actually average at worst — struggle. It’s not because of their looks, but because their attitude is fucking awful. Nobody wants to hang around the human equivalent of a rain cloud, no matter how many Wednesday Addams fantasies they have.
And honestly, my nerds: it’s not as though Black Isle, Obsidian, BioWare and Bethesda haven’t spent decades teaching us that Charisma is the instant win stat. Sure, strength may help on damage and endurance, but I don’t see the barbarian convincing the main villain to just shoot himself in the head and skipping the boss fight entirely.
#3: Your Problems Are In Your Head (But Not In The Way You Think)
This truth is one of the hardest to accept: a lot of what is holding you back from dating is all in your head.
This isn’t to say that your problems aren’t real. Your frustration and your struggles are very real and valid. However, you’re actually the source of many of those frustrations. And not in the way you think.
In fact, thinking is usually the problem. Specifically: you’ve let your thinking twist you up in ways that don’t actually match reality. In fact, a lot of times, people who are struggling with dating are actually struggling against issues that only exist in their own head. One of the downsides of us having these big sexy brains is that our brains can’t tell the difference between reality and what we imagine. When we craft negative scenarios in our imaginations, our brains respond to them as though they were real. When we imagine the women of our dreams rejecting us — because why wouldn’t she? — we actually feel the pain of rejection. And the more we focus on those imagined worst-case scenarios, the more we carve a groove into our heads until we treat them as lived experiences. We are, quite literally, hurting our own feelings.
Because our brains treat our thoughts as objective reality, it’s very easy for our thoughts to get twisted and twist our view of the world accordingly. We get in the habit of treating these beliefs as being laws of the universe, instead of assumptions and mistaken beliefs. But because we give these twisted thoughts validity, we allow them to shape how we respond to the world.
One excellent example of twisted thinking is jumping to conclusions: you leap to a specific (negative) belief when you have no actual reason to believe this. The most common example of this — one that I see all the time — is the idea of value. A man looks at a gorgeous woman and assumes that she would never be attracted to him. After all, look at her! She clearly has more social value than he does. His talking to her is just a waste of her time. She doesn’t want him, and why should she? There are so many other, higher-value men around; she clearly wants one of them.
But how does he know this? This is a total stranger — someone he’s never met before in his life. He knows literally nothing about her other than the fact that she’s attractive. He is basing his entire self-worth on assumptions — assumptions about who she is, what she values and who she is attracted to. In this situation, he is quite literally rejecting himself, because he’s responding to a scenario that only exists in his head. And because he has created this negative scenario in his head, he interprets everything in that light. She looked over and looked away; she’s clearly repulsed by him. She laughed; she’s clearly laughing at him. Is she? Who knows… because he certainly doesn’t. He’s ascribing a narrative to her that he has no evidence for, just his own imagination.
This belief manifests in other ways too; men who feel like they have to impress women they’re attracted to are displaying that same sort of twisted thinking. They know nothing about her, but they’re assigning values and beliefs to her that have no basis in reality. As a result, they’re putting themselves in a position of feeling like they have to supplicate to her, rather than being confident in themselves. It undermines their own sense of self-worth and puts them in a position of needing her validation and approval, rather than asking whether she’s worth their time.
Magnification is another common form of twisted thinking. People assume that their most negative quality — whether looks or personality — is so significant that it can be seen from space. Meanwhile their positive qualities are unimportant or, worse, non-existent. People fall into this mode of thinking for a number of reasons — most commonly because they have 24/7 access to their own thoughts and feelings. Living in your own head means that when you dwell on your “worst” qualities, you give them more importance. You are so familiar with yourself that you zero in on the things you see as “the worst”. This includes everything from the way you snort when you laugh to whether your nose is slightly off-center.
You discount your positive qualities because you are so familiar with them that you don’t find them remarkable or even terribly interesting. Doesn’t everyone drop everything to pull their friend out of a burning fire?
In reality, however, your flaws — such as they are — are far less important than you think. Most people would never notice them unless they were studying you like the Zapruder film — and that’s assuming that they would even care. Similarly, more people than you realize see your positive qualities and admire them. More folks than you know wonder how you don’t recognize how awesome you are. They’re positively mystified that you think you’re trash.
We talk a lot about the value of mindfulness… but one of the things to be mindful of is, well, your own mind. Specifically, what your mind is telling you and why. Once you realize how much your own brain can lie to you, it’s important to watch for signs that you’re letting your own thoughts get twisted and sabotage your success. It’s just as important to interrogate those thoughts and challenge them. How many ways do you let your own thoughts drag you down? How often do you leap to conclusions with no evidence other than bad feelings?
Cory Doctorow shared pages from David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook on his Tumblr account, and it’s well worth a look. The more you challenge your own twisted, incorrect thoughts, the more obstacles you remove from your life. This, in turn, decreases the ways that dating can stress you out and helps you get out of your own damn way.
And while we’re on the topic…
#4: Love Is A Battlefield (Because Nobody Is Listening to Each Other)
When we talk about how awful dating can be, the number one topic people complain about are dating apps. If you listen to… pretty much anyone, really, you would think that Tinder, Hinge and Bumble are mere days away from being hauled to the Hague for crimes against humanity.
And in fairness: they’re not wrong. Dating apps, especially ones with swipe-based mechanics can be maddening. But this isn’t because women “have too many options” or because Tinder means “only Chads get dates”. It’s because men and women are using those apps in completely contradictory ways. A study on how men and women use Tinder found that men swipe right on vastly more profiles than women do, but send far fewer messages. In fact, men — in order to maximize their chances of matching — will swipe on as many women as possible and then decide who they’re interested in after they match. Women, on the other hand, swipe selectively; they only match with people they’re at least somewhat interested in. However, once they match, the men they match with either don’t send a message or send messages with 12 characters or less.
Not words. Characters. Including spaces and periods.
So you get a situation where men who feel like they don’t get enough matches, attempt to match as broadly as possible and decide afterwards who they’re interested in. Women, because of the deluge of attention, choose only the profiles they’re legitimately interested in. But then either they find that their match didn’t actually like them, or their message is shorter than the average tweet.
You couldn’t design a better system for driving people mad if you tried.
And yet, if you listen to people, you would think that this was deliberate. Men — believing that women get all of the benefits of dating apps and none of the drawbacks — insist that they are forced to use apps this way because women have too many options. Women, on the other hand, either end up with inboxes full of disembodied dicks, crude come-ons and guys who put no effort in whatsoever, or deafening silence. But the meme that women just have to sit back and wait for the dick to come rolling in persists, convincing men that they’re somehow being cheated out of…something.
The same goes for dates, relationships and casual hook-ups. Men buy into the idea that women don’t like sex and/or control exclusive access to it and therefore set “the market value” of sex. Women, on the other hand, pass on sex they would like to have, in part because they find that the potential risks are too high. After all, who wants to go home with a dude for mediocre sex and then get called a slut afterwards because… she had sex with a guy who wanted to have sex with her.
And of course, it doesn’t help that we still live in a culture that insists that men are enhanced by sex while women are devalued by it, that teaches us that men will lie to get sex while women will lie to get relationships and nobody is actually listening to what the people trying to date actually have to say.
As a result, we’ve created a culture that turns sex and dating into an antagonistic exercise. Under the best of circumstances, we end up with scenarios where men and women are approaching dating in opposing manners and relying more on the modern equivalent of Just-So stories to explain what the other side is doing. Under the worst of circumstances, we have assholes whose shitty behavior means everyone else has their guard up and never feels like they can be honest or vulnerable… which dating requires.
(And to be fair, while this antagonism is primarily directed by men, there are groups of women out there who peddle in antagonistic and counterproductive “advice”. They’re smaller and have less overall impact, but they do exist. And, hell, books like The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You are still in print.)
Part of the problem is that, frankly, most folks are working from received “wisdom” that bears little actual resemblance to reality. People are frequently responding to the men and women in their heads, built out of their own beliefs, rather than the reality. What little research they do often involves looking to Reddit in order to cherry pick responses from a community that is already a non-representative sample. It’s easy to look to r/askreddit and focus on the answers that validate your pre-existing beliefs. A common example of this would be questions about casual sex and one-night stands — pulling responses from women saying “Well, yes, if I were to go home with a stranger I would choose Kit Harrington” and treating this as a thesis statement on all women rather than an individual answering a hypothetical question.
And to make matters worse, these conflicts make it that much harder for people to be honest — with themselves and with their potential dates — about what they’re looking for. Because they’re put in opposition of one another, men and women both feel as though they have to play games — always make sure that you keep the upper hand, don’t be too eager, don’t be too interested and don’t “give it up” before you get what you want… for suitably variable definitions of “it”.
One of the best things men can do if they want to be more successful at dating is to actually listen to women’s stories and experiences when it comes to dating. Understanding women’s perspectives and experiences makes it much easier to recognize disconnects and crossed wires. Jenna Birch’s book The Love Gap, for example, is a great example of this. It explores common conflicts in how men and women approach dating and why everyone ends up frustrated.
(Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the book)
Being more empathetic and willing to listen, rather than getting defensive and insisting on your own internal narrative, will go much, much farther towards helping you connect with people you actually want to date.
And it means you don’t end up having weirdly defensive arguments with women about how attractive GigaChad is…
#5: You Have To Do The Work
So this truth is simultaneously the most obvious, but hardest to follow. One of the reasons why dating can be a raging dumpster fire is that dating takes work. You have to put in the effort to make yourself appealing to others, you have to put yourself out there and you have to actually make the effort to meet people.
And a lot of folks don’t want to.
Now in fairness: it can feel daunting. It can feel like a lot of work. And it can be almost absurdly intimidating. But the harsh truth is that there is no getting around having to put in the effort. In a very real way, it’s not that different from the effort it takes to be a viable job candidate. You have to build up the skills that employers want, send out resumes, go to interviews and advocate for your own interests. This can be a long, frustrating experience, and it’s entirely understandable that it leaves people feeling drained and despairing. It can seem even more maddening when folks who have put in less effort or who have advantages you don’t seem to coast by effortlessly. How, exactly, is this fair?
Well… it isn’t. But then again, fairness never enters into it. It’s more or less impossible to impose “fairness” when it comes to attraction and relationships. You can’t mandate that everyone be given the same chance, simply because feelings don’t work like that.
(And honestly, most folks who talk about fairness in dating mean fair to them. They rarely think of what fairness to other people would look like until its pointed out that true fairness would mean their having to date people that they’re not attracted to, or even actively repulsed by.)
As I said: dating is a numbers game. If you want to maximize your chances of meeting compatible women, you have to find ways to meet more people in general. This doesn’t have to mean going to bars and clubs until you reek of cigarette smoke and your ears ring with constant tinnitus from the sound systems. You can find organizations to join, go to meetups and interest groups for hobbies and passions you enjoy, take classes or find mixers. Improving your social skills can mean deliberate practice, or it can mean pursuing hobbies or classes that would teach those skills. Improv classes, public speaking, partnered dancing, acting classes… these all help you sharpen your social skills in ways that don’t necessarily feel like practicing. Similarly, volunteering for jobs that require being social can help force you out of your shell and eliminate any approach anxiety through sheer exposure.
The exact mechanism you use to build those skills doesn’t matter. The best method to improve your social skills is the method you’ll actually use, regularly. Just as getting fit doesn’t automatically mean going to the gym, being more social doesn’t automatically mean going out and doing a thousand approaches. It means doing the things that get you out and talking to people, regardless of what they are. If the “traditional” methods scare or intimidate you, then think outside the box. Look for ways that you can work on those aspects of yourself that you can and will actually follow. If it means taking acting classes and pretending to be a tourist until you feel comfortable talking to folks then hey, go for it.
But it has to be your choice and it has to be something you can stick to.
Similarly, it doesn’t mean you have to become an entirely different person. An introvert doesn’t need to transform themselves into an extrovert. They just need to be the best, most polished version of themselves, the version of you that your ideal date would brag about to friends.
The hardest part is always at the beginning. You’re overcoming that emotional inertia, forcing motion into joints that haven’t moved in years, pulling yourself out of the quagmire and moving forward. But those improvements build on one another. Each step gets easier and the next step gets easier still. The key is to recognize that putting in the work — even when it’s draining, even when it’s scary — is an investment. The time you spend now pays dividends down the line, often sooner than you realize.
But none of it can happen until you make it happen. It’s like the sage says:
It’s time, it’s time to align your body with your mind, it’s hero time
‘Coz when you start to doubt yourself the real world will eat you alive!
And you know it’s true!
I’m talking to you: hero time starts right now! Yeah, hero time, yeah,
Time to shine, hey, hero time!