Pardon me while I drop something painfully obvious on you:
Dating is complicated.
Now, before you roll your eyes at me and reach for the “back” button on your browser, let me explain where I’m going with this.
The components of dating – where to meet people, how to get to know them off a cold or warm approach the different aspects of attraction, even how to act on dates can seem pants-shittingly intimidating. After all, when you’re socially inexperienced, how are you supposed to keep all of this in mind and talk to your date and still have a good time and secure that next date and and…
Now I understand that trying to absorb and apply all of that information can seem overwhelming and conflicting. In fact, the point Anatomy Lesson and Nerd Role Model articles is to show how everything ties together by providing concrete examples.
Even so, it’s entirely possible to psych yourself out and convince yourself that it’s all too complicated and difficult to keep in mind. So let’s dial things back a little.
One of the best ways to pick up a new skill is to, simply, break it down. Strip out the extraneous parts and just focus on the core. You can work outwards from there as you become more at ease.
So let’s simplify dating a little, shall we?
Catching The Ball Or: Stop Overthinking It
I often compare dating to catching a ball that’s been tossed to you. You watch the ball, you reach up, catch it, maybe through it back. Easy-peasy, right?
Except when you think about it… it’s really not. You’re doing insanely high level math in nanoseconds, in your goddamn head. You’re having to calculate the trajectory of the ball, measure it’s velocity, factor in wind resistance, the parabola of its falling arc relative to your position all in 3D space. Then you have to gauge your own reaction time relative to the ball’s presumed target, position yourself to catch the ball, extend your arm precisely so as to catch it without injuring yourself or swatting the ball out of the way instead and then do all of those calculations in reverse in order to throw it back.
This is the sort of shit NASA needs super-computers for and you’re doing it without even thinking consciously. But when you start thinking about all the complexities involved… suddenly you can’t do it anymore.
Ever want to screw up somebody’s putt on the golf-course? Ask them if they inhale on the backswing. The moment you start overthinking something is the moment you find that you can’t do it.
There are four stages of learning a skill: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence. That is, you’re unaware of what it takes to do something, you’re aware that can’t do it, you know what you need to do but you have to think it through and then finally, being able to do something as naturally as breathing.
It’s like walking; we don’t think about everything it takes to walk – the constantly shifting our balance, spacing our feet etc. because we have achieved unconscious competence. As infants, though we started off unaware that walking was even a thing; we barely had gross motorskills down. But then we started to realize that walking was something we wanted to do… but we didn’t know how. Through practice – pulling ourselves up on things, taking those first few stumbling steps, we started to learn through trial and error. Before too long, we start being able to walk like it ain’t no thing and it becomes a part of our muscle memory. But when you try to intellectualize the process, it makes you all the more conscious of what you’re doing and thus overwhelms you.
Thus the problem with overthinking. By overthinking about that putt, that footstep catching that ball or going on that date1, you’re moving backwards in the skill states.
So in order to avoid overthinking, you want to simplify matters as much as possible.
When it comes to simplifying dating, this means putting your focus on certain key areas – the areas where people fuck up the most often. Master these aspects of dating improvement and you’ll find you’re already ahead of the pack.
If there is one area where the most people seem to screw themselves over in dating, it’s that they let themselves obsess about everything. When you hear “obsession”, the mind often jumps to oneitis – and yes, getting hung up on the belief that this person or that person is The One is going to hold you back in dating. However, it’s more than just about any particular individual. This tendency to obsess shows up in all aspects of dating.
I have lost track of how many people have written to me in a panic, believing that some little detail has totally derailed their date or their relationship. They beat themselves up over the fact that they weren’t absolutely perfect on their first, second or even third date with their particular snugglebunny. They become so focused on the end goal that they believe that anything other than getting 100% is going to condemn them to failure.
Except… that’s not how dating works.
It’s a common misconception that dating is somehow a competition against every person your date has ever gone out with. If you don’t somehow outshine the studliest of the Studly GoodNights in her life then you’re doomed to be given the dreaded LJBF speech and being sent back home alone to cry and masturbate to increasingly fucked up porn.
Here’s the shocking secret: you’re not. Yeah, everybody has a past. Everybody has people they’ve dated before and some of them may or may not be handsomer, richer, taller, better in bed or just all-around better than you in some way shape or form. But your date isn’t with them right now. They’re here. With you. And all you need to do is just be good enough.
Perfection is for pianos, where the slightest flaw or miscalibration can ruin the whole instrument. You’re not dating a piano, you’re dating a person who is just as flawed and fucked up as you are. When you let perfection become the enemy of the good, you end up sabotaging your own progress. Your own expectations make things harder.
When you’re convinced that you’re just one ill-timed sneeze or bad joke away from having your date bail out on you like Maverick ejecting from an F-15, you’re not going to have fun. That, in turn is going to reflect in your behavior – you’re going to be tense and nervous, uptight and hyper-aware of everything. You’re going to make your date tense and uncomfortable because you’re tense and uncomfortable and that in and this can rapidly become an inescapable downward spiral of suck.
So stop worrying about perfection. Embrace that things are going to go wrong or weird. You’re probably going to fart a little too audibly. But that’s ok because your date is likely going to snort when she laughs or accidentally fling her appetizer across the room. You’re going to make a joke that falls flat, your date will inadvertently make a sexual innuendo thats going to sound incredibly obscene and then the waiter is going to bring the wrong entree and both of you are going to have the embarrassing question of “Do you send it back and risk looking high-maintenance or do you just eat something you really didn’t want?”
The key is just to accept that it happened and move on instead of dwelling on it or letting something stupid define the rest of your evening. Here’s your mantra: if you don’t treat it like a big deal, they won’t treat it like a big deal. Shrug, blush a little, move on. There are more important things to worry about.
Even if you’re dating Christina Hendricks or Kerry Washington or Taylor Swift, you don’t have to be some hero from a cheesy romance-novel come to sweep her off her feet and take her on a night that she’s never known. All that you need is for the two of you to have fun together. If she enjoys hanging out with you and the way that she feels when she’s with you, she’s going to want to see you again… even if you spent the last ten minutes with a piece of spinach wedged between your teeth.
Be Outcome Independent
This can seem a little counter-intuitive; after all, the whole point of dating is the outcome.
But then, focusing on that outcome is often the problem in the first place. The idea that “you find love when you’re not looking for it” one of the most annoying non-answers in advice-giving, because it’s so goddamn vague and smugly unhelpful. It sounds like it’s saying one thing – stop trying and then let Fate/God/The Force/whatever do the work for you – but what it’s really saying is that you shouldn’t let yourself get so hung up on the end goal that you let it overwhelm everything else in dating… including actually connecting with the person you’re on a date with.
Dating with an end-goal in mind ends up being a living incarnation of Xeno’s Paradox; you’re always moving forward, but ultimately you’re not getting any closer to where you want to be.
It’s better instead to enjoy the journey rather than constantly trying to see whether or not you’re any closer to your goal, whether that goal is finding your One True Love2 or trying to get more sex. It’s a great way to psych yourself out; if you treat each date as your shot at the big money, you’re setting yourself up with overwhelming expectations that only end up disappointing you. It plays into the scarcity mentality that insists that each “failed” date (for suitably personal definitions of failure) is one step closer to being Forever Alone.
Even when you’re just putting all of your focus on a smaller goal like “getting a second date”, this not only puts an incredible amount of pressure on you – and your date – but you end up focusing on “What do I have to do to get you to go out with me again” instead of “who is this person and what’s cool about them?”
When you’re outcome independent – when you don’t worry about how the night is going to end – then you’re actually liberated to enjoy yourself. You can spend less time worrying about whether there’s a chance at a second date or getting laid tonight or if you’re doing X, Y or Z right and more time just enjoying your time together. Your goal shouldn’t be about trying to figure out whether or not you’re talking to your future spouse (or your future 10 minutes of squishy noises and post-coital cigarettes), it should just be on connecting with them and getting to know them. Flirt just because flirting is fun. Tell stories not because you’re trying to show that you’re long-term relationship material but because sometimes cool shit happens and it’s fun to share that with other people.
It’s part of having an abundance mentality; when you know that there will be others, you’re not so invested in the outcome. When you’re not invested in the outcome, you’re free to relax and take things as they come. If things go well, then great! If the date doesn’t lead anywhere… that’s ok. You still met someone cool and had a good time, maybe even learned a little about yourself that can help you later on. You don’t beat yourself up that you didn’t “get” the girl – whether for sex, another date, or a steady relationship – because hey, you weren’t trying to “get” anything. You met up with someone, you had some drinks and a couple laughs. That sounds like a pretty good night to me.
A word about time. Most people assume that time is linear when in reality it’s a little more wibbly-wobbly….stuff.
Wait. Where’ve I heard that before?
More to the point: the past is over and the future never comes. We are only ever in the “now”.
But so few of us live in the “now”. We spend too much time hung up in the past and letting it bleed into our present or sacrificing our present in the name of some imagined future that may never happen.
Confused? Stick with me for a moment.
We rarely let the past just be the past. We hold on to it, we replay it over and over again, we castigate ourselves for it and sometimes we try to edit it into what we really wanted to happen. Because we hold on to the past so tightly, we let it color our present. We don’t learn from it, mind you; we just drag our old traumas, fears and regrets around with us in our day to day lives, letting them inform everything we do. Had a bad experience with a woman in the past? If you let that experience be the barometer for every interaction you have with a woman from that point on, you’re cheating yourself out of some of the greatest times of your life, simply because you don’t want to let a wound close and fade away.
I should know. I lost several relationships because I kept holding on to old hurts, letting them haunt me like ghosts. I had a bad experience and spent every future relationship always on the lookout for a repeat… which would inevitably happen because focusing on the past is a damn good way to make it happen again. I couldn’t enjoy myself in the moment because I was too afraid of what had happened before. I kept waiting for that shoe to drop and when it did – because my focus on it affected my behavior which in turn affected my girlfriend’s behavior – it only reinforced my obsession with that past fear.
It could be anything: a girlfriend who lied to you and cheated on you. Your old identity as a dateless loser, lurking just under the surface, daring everyone around you to see it and call you a fraud. A girl who broke your heart because she didn’t love you the way you loved her. Anything. Carrying those fossilized hurts and spectral fears with you doesn’t help; it only ever keeps you from appreciating what you have now.
Similarly, obsessing about the future takes you away from the present. It’s an extension of being outcome independent; being overly focused on the future, whether it’s the next date or rest of your lives together leaves you unable to enjoy the present.
It’s an extension of being outcome independent; being overly focused on the future, whether it’s the next date or the rest of your lives together, leaves you unable to enjoy the present. One of my best friends can’t do anything without anticipating every possible thing that’s going to metaphorically bite her in the ass. She likes to “borrow” trouble, even when there isn’t any to be had. Small wonder, then, that most of her relationships are short and turbulent; when you’re always expecting problems, you’ll inevitably find them.
You need to focus on the “now”. You can learn from your past mistakes – the better not to make them again – but let go of them when you do. You can hope for the future, even invest in it, but you need to be willing to let the future take care of itself.
When you’re focused on being present, you’re able to enjoy things as they are. You don’t let yourself worry about all the myriad ways that you’ve done things wrong before. You don’t obsess about what’s going to happen next. You just let yourself be in the moment, taking things as they come. Later on you can do the post-game analysis and figure out how to do things better.
For right now though: There is no future. There is no past. There is only this moment right here, right now and you’re ignoring it.
Learn to embrace your experiences now and you’ll be avoiding one of the single most common sticking points people have in dating.