Despite all my efforts, my dating life has been awfully devoid of romantic connections, and I have an inkling that I might be creating that problem for myself. Maybe you can help clarify things.
Some background: I’m male and 27. I used to be a shy kid in school, had few (but mostly close) friends. The very idea of opening up to someone romantically was scary and embarrassing. Having blossomed at university, I found what I’d like to think of as my true self. I’m a lot more outgoing and charismatic than back then. Finding friends has become easy and I have a bunch of interesting and social hobbies. And about five years ago, I started dipping my toes in the dating pool and conquering my fear of vulnerability. Huzzah!
Fast forward to now: I’ve gone on first dates with almost 60 women, most of whom I got to know through Tinder and OKCupid. Rarely was there a second date, which I understand is somewhat par for the course online. And exactly twice has there been a connection that was more than “kind of a nice person, but nah”. In both cases, things fizzled out around date three. That, frankly, is frustrating.
One of the conclusions I’ve drawn is that while I think I can play the online dating game fairly well (i.e. find people to go on first dates with), it doesn’t feel fulfilling. The whole experience is just more interesting and intense IRL. That I can work with. But conclusion #2 stumps me: I think have a hard time flirting.
On the one hand, I find it hard to show romantic interest in someone, in particular in groups. “What if everyone sees I might be into her?!” On the other hand, I tend to question my interest. I often wonder how much interest I should have in someone in order to ask her out. What do I need to feel or think about her in order to get physically close? Sure, she’s interesting and I like looking at her – but is that enough to warrant the occasional light touch here and there? I have a hunch that since I don’t overtly/physically flirt in these situations, the women I’m on dates with never get a chance to actually feel if they are, in turn, attracted to me. So it looks like we’re not attracted to each other (or we’re both unsure) but we might hit it off if I just took that leap.
Does that make sense? If so, what can I do apart from making the steadfast resolution to flirt physically (and then chicken out)?
You nailed it on the first try, OC: you’re not flirting.
One of the things that makes dating more than a little maddening is how often we’re given precisely the WRONG advice. The UR example of bad advice is “just be yourself”, which sounds reasonable — don’t pretend to be someone you’re not just to be liked — but doesn’t actually help because… well, what about when “being yourself” is exactly the problem?
Just as importantly is the distressing idea that taking an active hand in building a connection with other people is bad or artificial. Men especially are prone to being taught that social fluency — and dating especially — is a binary: either you’re naturally good with women or you aren’t. And if you attempt to learn how to improve your ability to connect with people you’re romantically interested in, then you’re either a loser or a shady manipulator. The idea that people can learn how to flirt, how to build chemistry and forge connections with people is seen as the mark of the conman, the grifter or the pick-up artist and is to be seen with suspicion at best.
It creates a world where we’re supposed to do as little as possible to improve our odds. We passively drift through our lives, expecting fate to do the heavy lifting for us; if it’s “real” or “meant to be” then it’ll happen. If not… well, what can you do?
The problem with this outlook is that it creates scenarios where folks miss out on potentially amazing connections and relationships because they’re stuck in a moment of paralysis; you’re waiting for lightning to strike and generate that chemistry for you instead of taking control of the process and making things happen. It creates these weird moments where we’re lost in our own heads, trying to determine whether or not we should be doing something because what if, what if, what if.
That’s where you’re at currently, OC: you’re stuck in your own head with a bad case of analysis paralysis, trying to figure out whether you should be taking active control or just letting things happen on their own. You need to take a more active hand in your own love life.
The first step towards this is getting out of this mindset that your liking someone or being attracted to them is somehow negative, shameful or puts you at a disadvantage. This “oh no, what if they know I like them” sort of mindset is something you expect in 10 and 11 year olds who’re still working past the “girls/boys are icky” stages or being afraid of being teased for liking the popular girl in high-school. It’s not something that’s helpful or productive in a grown-ass adult. It’s even less helpful when it gets framed as “the one who cares least, wins”. You need to own your desire and your interest and be willing to communicate it to others. That, after all, is the whole point of flirting: it’s a way of telling someone that you like them in ways that are fun and interesting.
Here’s the thing: one of the things that women hate about dating is the ambiguity and the games. There’re few things more frustrating than trying to read the tea leaves and figure out what it meant when someone did X, Y or Z. Someone who’s fairly straight forward with their attraction and can express it in a clear and charismatic manner? That person’s a goddamn prize. Think of it as clearing away the barriers to connection and helping draw people out of their shell; after all, women on first and second can be just as nervous and unsure as you are. By taking charge and clear the path for them that lets them relax and open up and express themselves enthusiastically, you’re giving them a gift.
The next step is to stop overthinking everything. By trying to gauge your interest — whether you’ve hit the “OK to ask her out” level of attraction — you’re making everything far more complicated than it actually needs to be. It’s much simpler than that: do you find them attractive and interesting? Would you like to know more about them and see if they’ve got more going for them than what’s on the surface? Then ask them out on a date and find out.
Flirting isn’t about meeting some minimum threshold before you can start expressing interest. Flirting is about communication and connection, building interest and attraction through the cultivation of sexual and emotional chemistry. It’s about finding the potential for the two of you, then using that potential as a foundation and building something together.
But none of that can happen until you make it clear that what you’re looking for is a relationship — whether that relationship is for the next thirty years or the next thirty minutes. So if you want someone to know you’re into them, you’re gonna have to show them.
Someone’s gotta make the first move. May as well be you.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and it made my entire 21 years of life make absolute sense. I don’t want you to have an image in your head of some introverted monotone robot (in my experience that’s just a caricature of an aspie).
In my case, I want you to picture a skinny literature student with floppy hair and eccentric dress sense who has a close group of friends, loves going to parties, was heavily involved in his university’s drama society (on the committee and directing two self-written plays), everyone likes, everyone somehow thinks is an absolute comic genius, but has never had anything close to a romantic relationship, or even a deep one-on-one connection.
This is going to get quite rambly – I’m sorry in advance.
Quite frankly, I think of myself like a clown. I’m a spectacle people admire from a distance and have fun with. Everyone likes me, but no one wants anything to do with me outside a pleasant conversation (and even then, I tend to be the one having to start those conversations).
But I do start those conversations – I try to be that outgoing person. At parties when me and my friends don’t know anyone, they’ll rely on me to waltz up to a random group and introduce everyone. Unable to navigate nuanced social mechanisms, I just bulldoze through in the hopes it works (something like “Hi! I don’t know anyone here. Who are you?”). It works just fine for parties, but in my experience it won’t allow me to build a connection.
Because flirting is all about subtly, right? Well that’s beyond me. My idea of flirting is seeing a girl I’m interested in, starting a conversation … and then usually end up lecturing her about the finer points of Godzilla (I say ‘lecture’, but I’m not so conversationally clueless that I’m not letting her speak or listening to her – I’m not an idiot). This is a tiny exaggeration obviously; I don’t literally suddenly start talking about Godzilla, but I always end up talking about silly things that don’t matter (Godzilla, Fun Facts that I’m not even sure are true but have repeated so much anyway, the beauty of the Yu-Gi-Oh GX dub, etc). Well, again, that’s still a slight exaggeration: I do also still talk about more normal things like the other person’s life and interests, but it never builds to anything. To put it simply, I can *only* do small-talk. But people like talking to me: they laugh at my jokes, admire my quirkiness, seemingly enjoy my company … but that’s it. Like I say, I’m just a clown.
I’ve tried Tinder. On the blue-moon occasion I get a match, nothing ever develops. This is despite the fact that I think I have some great pictures and am (although realistically speaking, a niche taste) not unattractive.
Even when it comes to friendships, I have no goddamn clue what I’m doing. I have a fantastic close-knit group of friends who I adore and who care about me, yada-yada. But I can’t help but feel I’m only friends with them because we live together, and I definitely think of them as being much closer with each other than any one of them is to me.
I try to keep my head up. I’m only 21. I’ve just graduated uni and my whole life is ahead of me. But at the same time, I don’t want to be a clown. Or rather, I don’t want to be just a clown. I want to be a clown people don’t just like being around but want to be around. A clown people would choose first, a clown who has one person they know better than anyone else does. Or even just a clown people want to fuck, quite frankly.
Sorry with the rambliness. But does a person with my neurological condition have any hope of interacting with people like a normal human being? (Rhetorical question obviously; intellectually I know it’s possible, but intuitively I struggle to understand how.)
Let’s start with the last question first, HP: Yes, clearly you’re capable of interacting with people like someone who’s neurotypical or without causing a fuss. I mean, you have a tight-knit group of friends, you have a lot of hobbies and interest that keep you social and your friends rely on you to actually start interactions with other folks. You’re able to get through your day like everyone else. Clearly: you’re not having problems where you’re not able to interact with mainstream society.
But that’s not the question you’re asking. The question you’re asking is: “is being neuroatypical going to prevent you from being in relationships?” And again: the answer is no. I mean, I know far too many people on the spectrum of all genders who are happily partnered up to one degree or another. Being autistic doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to being single or unlovable.
Nor, for that matter, is the issue that you can’t be subtle. Yes, some styles of flirting can be subtle. Hell, some can be so subtle that folks have no goddamn clue whether they’re being flirted with. But other styles of flirting can be as subtle as a brick to the head. As I’ve said many times before — including to Organic Chemistry above you — flirting is just the way you tell someone you’re interested in them. For some, this is all about the wordplay and banter. For others, it’s like being a much-less creepy and touchy Pepe LePew. That’s not the issue you’re having.
The main issue that you’re not really connecting with people. The clue here is in the way you describe yourself: as a big clown who makes people laugh and plows through the awkward like a bulldozer.
A lot of folks who can make people laugh often have a hard time going from there to building the sorts of romantic or personal connections with other people. It’s very easy to just keep going for that laugh and those good feelings… but at that point, you’re not flirting, you’re putting on a performance, not connecting with them. I suspect that, like a lot of folks, once you realized that you could make people laugh, you came to over-rely on that. After all, women do like men who can make them laugh. The problem, though, is that you have to be careful how you use it. It becomes far too easy to end up putting on a performance instead of connecting with people.
This is something I actually had an issue with in my early days; I got too good at making people laugh (and too reliant on pre-scripted routines) that people didn’t feel like I was flirting with them, they thought I was workshopping a bit for the next open mic night at Capitol City Comedy. That can put people off, especially when they were expecting a conversation, not a Night at the Improv.
That’s a big part of your issue: you don’t turn it off or turn it down. Not that enthusiasm is bad or that having passion is bad, or that you’re passionate about things other people aren’t. Passion is great, intensity can be great; most people don’t have passion in their lives. However, it’s possible to be too intense to a point that it’s overwhelming. It’s not just a case of “My Godzilla facts: let me show you them” (and trust me, I’ve got a good friend who’s got you beat on the Godzilla fandom), it’s that it sounds like you tend to be at a 10 and they need you at a 3. It’s very easy to end up with far too much of a good thing, especially in a flirting context. Robin Williams was one of the funniest people to ever walk the earth, period, but he would be exhausting if he was going full-tilt boogie at all times. It can be hard to have a conversation with someone if it becomes the equivalent of trying to drink from the firehose every time you get spun up.
You may not be cracking jokes all the time, but if you have just two settings with one being “normal but uninterested” and the other being This One Goes To 11, then folks are going to have a hard time feeling like they’re getting to know the real you. So you need to put some practice into learning how to turn the dial back a little. Passion is great, having interests in geeky shit is great. But going into either wacky clown or lecture modes makes it hard to really connect with people and jokes can quickly become a shield against intimacy.
And it’s entirely possible that this is a defense mechanism as much as part of your being on the spectrum. Connecting with people and building attraction means building emotional intimacy; that requires being open and vulnerable. It can be scary to do that, especially if you have a difficult time with gauging how much is appropriate and how much is too much. But keeping that shield up through the performative clowning keeps them from connecting to you at all beyond a very surface level, which isn’t what you want.
I think the best thing for you will to be practicing dialing back the Pagliacci act and letting people see beyond the grease paint. It can be hard, especially if you have issues with grasping social nuances, but it can be learned. It will mean having to take risks and be willing to make mistakes as you try to find the lines between “appropriate” and “too much”. But if you’re willing to be brave, to take chances and to learn from them? Then you’ll start finding the ways that you can incorporate your humor and gifts for making people laugh into connecting with people and becoming the person they want to get to know well.
And then you won’t have to be the clown that’s crying on the inside.