Doctor’s Note: this column was originally published on 9/18/17
It’s not a stretch to say that dating is something of a contact sport. Signing up for it means that you’re accepting that you might get hurt. Opening yourself up to people means being willing to risk a broken heart. No matter how carefully you plan or how much you try to protect yourself, eventually you’re going to have to learn to deal with pain and rejection. Sometimes you see it bearing down on you like a freight train. Other times it sneaks up on you and hits you square in the ghoulies.
But while pain may be inevitable, suffering is optional. You may not be able to avoid getting hurt, but you can avoid unnecessary pain. . And the cold truth is: a lot of suffering in the dating process is self-inflicted. One of the keys to dating without getting a broken heart is to understand how to protect yourself, emotionally.
Want to Prevent a Broken Heart? Avoid Overinvestment
The single biggest cause for a broken heart is that the person who’s currently heartbroken has emotionally overinvested in someone. Most heartbreak stories – especially from people who aren’t the most socially experienced – tend to come early in the relationship. Incredibly early. Occasionally in the first few weeks. In some cases, in days.
It’s surprisingly easy to do. In the early days of meeting someone, they’re functionally a blank slate. You know nothing about them but what’s on the surface. Mix that with the early stages of limerence and it doesn’t take much to project any number of romantic fantasies on them. The more experienced have learned – usually the hard way – not to do this. The less experienced, on the other hand, tend to dive head first into this trap.
In fact, this tendency towards throw caution to the wind and put all your emotional eggs in one metaphorical basket is a key component to Nice Guy behavior and why men supposedly get caught in The Friend Zone. They find someone they think is amazing and then start to focus their attention on them, exclusively. At a time when you should still be getting to know one another and trying to see if you’re remotely compatible for one another, they tend to decide that she is The One – with capital letters – and then begin to invest her with terrible and awesome importance in their lives.
This is, needless to say, a great way to invite heartbreak into your life. Even among the most socially skilled, dating is a numbers game. You’re going to run into more people that you don’t work with than you do. Throwing yourself into a relationship – or even the hope of a relationship – with reckless abandon makes for great romance novels and shitty poetry… but it also means that you’re far more likely to end up with a broken heart when it doesn’t work out. It’s legitimately sad when someone you like may not like you back. It’s a damned shame when you may have found someone awesome, but it’s the right person at the wrong time in their life. Or, for that matter, when there comes a point where one of you realizes that the two of you can’t work.
But when you’ve decided this person is your One True Love, you’ve ratcheted things up just how much this is going to mess you up.
Of course, part of what makes overinvestment such a bad idea isn’t just the emotional damage it does to you. When you’ve made someone – again, someone you barely know – that important to your life, you’re putting tremendous pressure on them.
In a very real way, you’re telling them you expect the same level of investment from them. This, for most people, is a danger sign. At best, it’s an indication that you have low emotional intelligence and aren’t going to make a great partner. You’re far more likely to be a needy clinger than someone who’s going to be an amazing good time.
At worst… well, there’s a reason why love-bombing is a warning sign.
Regardless, however, of which signal you end up sending, what you are doing is upping the odds that you’re going to get shot down. That, in turns means that you’ve made a broken heart far more likely.
So how do you avoid this?
One of the most common reasons why people overinvest in someone is that they wait too long to make their move.
This is especially true for Nice Guys and dudes in The Friend Zone – particularly when the object of their affection already has a boyfriend. They spend time and emotional capital trying to capture their crush’s heart… without ever actually standing up and asking them out on a date. However it doesn’t just happen with hopeless romantics who fetishize unrequited love. It’s a regular frustrating feature of online dating as well; you spend days – sometimes even weeks – talking to someone without actually moving the conversation from the app to in person.
Now this behavior is entirely understandable. A lot of dudes are risk-averse. Like many people, they want to make dating as painless an experience as possible and so they try to minimize the chances of getting rejected. To that end, they want to make, absolutely, positively sure that if they ask someone out, she’ll say yes.
The problem is that this is literally impossible. No matter how much you might want to try to min-max dating, it just doesn’t work like that. There is always going to be a risk, even when you do everything “perfectly”.
Some people may like you but not in the way you’d hope. Others may think you’re just OK. Still others… well, they’re never going to like you no matter what you do.
However, in waiting… and waiting… and waiting… you end up creating the circumstances where overinvestment is almost inevitable. You spend so much time focused on this one person – reading their tea-leaves, trying to see if they’re into you or not – that you almost have to inflate their importance to you. After all, you wouldn’t spend so much time trying to win over just anyone would you? Worse, the longer you wait, the harder it is to recognize that you’re stuck in a bad situation. The sunk-cost fallacy kicks in and leaves you feeling like you have to pursue this because otherwise you’ve wasted all that time for nothing.
But the irony in waiting for perfection is that they’re actually making things worse.
The most obvious case is that while you may be waiting for the perfect moment… they aren’t. Even if they are interested in you, they aren’t going to wait for you to make up your damn mind and make a move. And while you may be great, if you never ask them out, they’re almost certainly going to go for the person who did.
If you want to avoid a broken heart, you need to make your move early. Ask them on a date – not “to hang out”, not to “get together” but an honest-to-God romantic rendezvous. Ask early, get your answer and then move on.
Yes, it’ll sting. Rejection can hurt. But the brief pain of “this person I barely know turned me down” is far less than “I’ve spent months trying to win you over why won’t you love meeeeee?”
Develop An Abundance Mentality
Part of why people end up hung up on one particular person – so much so that they’ll spend months pursuing them straight into the jaws of heartbreak – is because they’ve convinced themselves that this person is the stop between them and eternal bachelorhood. They are frequently convinced that there’s a shortage of eligible singles out there and that every rejection is one step closer to being the last one. Because there won’t be any more people.
This is part of what’s popularly known as a scarcity mentality and leads people to cling like lovesick koalas to the next person to catch their fancy. If each person who turns them down is one further step down the road of eternal singledom, then they’re going to see each person as their last chance and respond accordingly. It means that they’re going to take longer to make their move. They’re going to invest even more heavily than they might otherwise – after all, their crush is now the sole bearer of all their hopes and dreams. And of course, they’re going to take rejection even harder, because it means that hey now hey now the dream is over.
Problem is: it’s all bullshit.
There are literally millions of amazing women in the world… if you actually look. One of the classic reasons for a scarcity mentality is the unwillingness to open yourself up to possibilities. Many men who are stuck with a scarcity mentality tend to have an extremely narrow definition of “datable” women. It becomes all too easy to dismiss anyone who doesn’t measure up precisely or to overlook a woman for any number of reasons. As many of my readers have put it: one of the reason so many men think there aren’t any women who could like them is because they treat the women around them like shrubbery.
It isn’t a matter of looks; part of the reason why guys focus on that one “perfect” person is that they don’t believe anyone else could have the same collection of stats. And it may be true that you aren’t going to find someone exactly the same as her. But the fact that someone else may not share your exact love of 90s era Nintendo games doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have the things that would make her an amazing partner for you. They may not have the same bra size, the same hair color, the same quirky way of tilting her head, but she’ll have other qualities that are going to make her special and perfect in your mind.
It might be the way she hums 80s New Wave songs to herself when she’s thinking. It might be the way that you turn around and find that she’s brought you a cup of coffee in your favorite mug before you even realized you were tired. You might find yourself trying new foods or taking chances you never believed you had the guts to try, just because her passion inspires you.
But if you’ve written off the entire population for not being your Lupita N’yongo clone, you’re never going to find her.
The more you recognize and accept that you have options, the easier it is to not invest so heavily from the jump. You won’t fear rejection so much that you won’t dare risk it. One rejection will sting; there’s no getting around that. But it will also mean that this is just one person who doesn’t dig you and now you’re in a position to find someone who does.
Take People At Their Word
The surest ways that people – men especially – set themselves up for heartbreak is that they don’t listen to what their (potential) partners say.
Call it the 500 Days of Summer problem. People interpret what someone says through what they want to hear. Their erstwhile paramour may be saying “I don’t want a boyfriend right now”, but what they hear is “change my mind.”
There’s nothing like trying to start a relationship based on the premise that you know what someone wants better than they do. Now, I get it: you want them in the worst way. You want to believe that you are the x-factor in their life, the thing they didn’t know they were missing. You want to be the person who is so amazing that they realize that no they do want to be exclusive with someone.
Guys stuck in The Friend Zone pull this on the regular as well. They assign hidden meaning to “I’m not ready to date anyone” or “I’m taking time off from dating,” to keep hope alive.
They want to believe that there is still an opening if they can just make it through the trench, avoid all the enemy fighters and drop that proton torpedo directly down the exhaust vent.
(Then they get blown out of space because they’re Biggs Darklighter and Luke Skywalker gets to make the shot instead and I think this metaphor got away from me somewhere.)
Other times, it’s a case of trying to push someone further along or faster than they want. People don’t progress to the various stages of a relationship at the same speed. You may be ready to settle down immediately, but she isn’t ready to plan for more than the next weekend. Trying to assign any meaning to “I’m just not ready yet” is a way to try to force the process.
But at the end of the day: you’re trying to force what you want from someone out of nothing. And that’s not how shit works. People are usually pretty clear about where they are and what they want. Someone who says that they aren’t ready for commitment isn’t asking for you to prove your worth; they’re telling you they aren’t ready for commitment.
When you ignore what someone says for your own interpretation, you begin to act on those beliefs. But belief, no matter how firmly held, doesn’t change the facts on the ground. All you’re doing is getting ready for the hob-nailed boots of reality to come stomp a muddy hole in your dreams. Now you’re left crying and broken hearted and wondering where it all went wrong.
Now to be fair: there are times when lines of communication get crossed. Someone who legitimately only wants a friends-with-benefits relationship may be sending conflicting signals without realizing it. It’s understandable that you were confused when someone who said they don’t want commitment starts playing house with you in the labyrinths of Ikea. These are times when it’s best to use your words and try to clarify things, instead of making assumptions.
If you want to avoid having your heart broken, especially from someone you’ve only just started dating, then you need to take what they say at face value.
Don’t Get Lost In Your Relationship
Part of why break ups hurt so much is that we frequently let ourselves get lost in the rush of being part of a couple. It becomes a central part of our identity. We become less of an individual than half of an and (ChloeandMax) or a cutesy shipping portmanteau (Pricefield).
You may have seen this play out amongst your friends. Hell, you may have gone through it yourself. Someone gets into a new relationship and suddenly they are as inseparable as co-dependent conjoined twins. Now the only time they (or you) see people is recover from a heartbreak as a couple. Their entire lives become absorbed by the relationship and they wouldn’t have it any other way. But when that relationship goes the way of all things, they’re shattered. Destroyed. They’re the ones who take far longer to because… well without being half of an and, who are you?
While it’s true that, as a couple we’re part of a whole, we’re still individuals too. But when we neglect that individuality, we increase the likelihood of a broken heart. When you make your relationship the core of who you are, it defines you. You lose touch with the things that were important to you, the things that give you strength and comfort and feed your soul. That disconnect means that you will lean more and more heavily on your relationship – too heavily at times. Especially in the early days.
This is why it’s important to maintain your independence and your own life, even when you’re nipple-deep in limerence. Not only do your friends and interests keep you grounded, but they maintain your sense of self. You don’t become so caught up in the thrill of that new relationship energy that you let your brain dissolve. You have natural brakes that keep the love train from plowing through your life and leaving you with nothing if and when things end.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that you should hold yourself back in your relationships. You do need to invest in your relationship and your partner. But you don’t want to invest everything, nor do you want to do it so early.
Protecting yourself from a broken heart isn’t about not feeling. It’s not about being “in control”, or dictating terms. It’s simply about learning how to love wisely as much as well.