Ask Dr. Nerdlove

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Thank you for all you’ve written and done over the years, which has done wonders for my confidence. I’m 29, with no real relationship experience to speak of, but I’ve finally started a real dating life. That said, I’m still figuring out what I want in a partner, and I was wondering if you could speak to one aspect that’s been bothering me.

This weekend, I went on a pre-date at a coffeehouse with a girl I met online – let’s call her “Maxine.” I enjoyed our initial texts; she was genuinely interested in my profile and seemed bright and kind. Our talk over coffee was pleasant, and though we enjoyed sharing pictures of our dogs, there was no spark. At one point I mentioned that I don’t watch much TV these days, at which point she asked “So as a millennial, what do you do for your entertainment life if you don’t binge-watch Netflix?”

We kept the conversation up for almost an hour after my confession, but I knew that date had reached a dead-end. I don’t think the question was a joke; Maxine implied that she watches Netflix plenty. For starters, I did not appreciate being stereotyped (by someone of my own generation, nonetheless), nor do I feel obligated to structure my entertainment choices around a Silicon Valley giant. More to the point, her question reflects a concerning trend I’ve observed in online dating profiles: so many of them are dull carbon copies of the stereotypical millennial. Perhaps even the entitled millennial. On Coffee Meets Bagel, for instance, the most common entries I see in the “I like” section are probably: food, travel, and yes, binge-watching Netflix.

I like good food as much as anyone but we need food to survive, so to name it as your favorite thing is redundant. Most of us only have time to travel a couple times a year if that, and there may be plenty of great stuff on Netflix / Hulu / Amazon but most of it just doesn’t interest me now. The answers to my date’s above question are instead: I photograph stuff with a DSLR, play video games, read literature, and go to the symphony. Naturally, I’m looking for someone who can appreciate and respect those activities. They don’t need to pursue those same activities themselves – that would be boring – but I definitely lean towards the intellectual type. Not an arrogant overachiever, just someone smart and passionate about her own intellectual or artistic pursuits. Those troves of profiles – with no interests beyond food, once-a-year travel, and streaming – are not an encouraging sign. Even Maxine, who is clearly intelligent and put care into her profile, turned out to be a disappointment.

My question is: have I set my standards too high, and am I in fact searching for a girl to fit an impossible template rather than just accepting people as they are? If so, how can I recast my ideas about what I want in a date, and if not, is it rude to be more direct? For example, one of my closest friends (“Carly”) explicitly stated in her old profile that she would only date men with a Master’s degree or equivalent levels of education, or higher. This was not a hard rule, but a way to increase the odds of connecting with someone smart. She met her husband online and they now have a beautiful 8-month-old. Like her, I now want to tread the thin line that separates the snobs from, well, people who think my interests are unsexy or don’t care. I just don’t want to come off as a snob myself while doing so, because that seems to be a weakness of mine. For reference, when I was crafting my own CMB profile, I considered writing that I would appreciate if my date could hold a conversation without abusing “like” as a filler word. Carly was sympathetic but dissuaded me.

I have several friends with similarly arcane interests who have had trouble forming relationships, and so I think any advice you can offer would benefit them as well. Looking forward to hearing back!

– Born in the Wrong Century

DEAR BORN IN THE WRONG CENTURY: There are two things going on here.

The first is a basic flaw in online dating. Dating apps definitely have their uses. They make it easy to meet people you might not encounter otherwise, at a pace that you’re comfortable with. They’re also marvelously convenient. After all, where else can you find a date for Saturday night in your pajamas?

(How they got into your pajamas in the first place is between you and them.)

But at the same time, as easy as it is to filter your potential dates, it’s possible to over-filter. One of the problems with online dating is that we’re not built for it. We aren’t attracted to lists of features, we’re attracted to people. As the sage once said, attraction isn’t brains, children, it’s blood; blood screaming at you to work it’s will. Someone may be perfect for you on paper, but they aren’t right for you in person. You get false positives because you only see one aspect of them. You didn’t see the thousands of minuscule cues that dictate whether you’re interested in them, ranging from their smell to the timbre of their voice to the way they treat the bar staff.

And by that same token, you can miss out on people who you’re compatible with because they didn’t list things the right way on their profile or because you dismissed them out of hand when you wouldn’t have if you’d met in person.

Which leads us to the second, larger issue.

I think your biggest problem BitWC is that you’re committing some of the same sins that you’re accusing others of. You’re stereotyping people just as you feel like they’re doing to you. The difference is that you’re using them as a way of separating yourself from others, while your date was using them as a way of trying to find commonalities between the two of you. After all, considering that the number of people who consume media on their tablets, phones and laptops, it’s not unreasonable to assume that someone her age was likely to use Netflix instead of Comcast.

But let’s focus on what you said about the most common phrases in online dating profiles.

You’re not wrong in that just about everyone talks about loving travel or watching shows on Netflix. In fact, that’s something I’ve advised people to avoid doing; it’s better to talk about places you’ve been or want to go to instead of just saying you love travel.

But the fact that they don’t express it in a more appealing way – or that they share a common interest – doesn’t make them basic or unintelligent. The problem here is less in how they phrased things and more in how you’re interpreting them.

Take using “like” as a filler. If you listen to a lot of podcasts, you’ll quickly see how many people — smart, articulate people — say “like”, “um” and “ah” as vocal filler. It’s not because they’re unintelligent, it’s because it’s a sort of verbal pause. It’s a way of letting the brain catch up with the mouth. It also is a way of signalling to the other person or people in the conversation that they’re still going; they’re only pausing to think. And so the other parties know to keep listening instead of ramping up to talk.

Once you stop making assumptions about people because of common morphemes or interests, the easier it becomes to connect with them.

Yes, for example, food is a necessity. It’s near the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But the fact that it’s something that we all need doesn’t mean that people don’t love it. For some, food is simply fuel. For others, food is communion. They may derive comfort from eating. They may love the sensual pleasure of particular kinds of food, in the preparation or the consumption.

Food may have a special memory for them or a particular meaning. Or they may simply think that food’s delicious and who doesn’t love to live deliciously?

And then there’s the fact that food and dining is a uniquely communal experience. It’s one that is almost universally tied to hospitality and togetherness. Whether it’s family dinners, sharing a meal on a date or gathering for a celebration, food is a universal experience, something that brings us all together.

The same goes for binge-watching Netflix; in a very real way, it’s become a communal activity. Shows that hit big — Marvel’s Netflix shows, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Great British Bake-Off, true crime documentaries like The Keepers and so forth —  become part of the national conversation. Keeping up with those shows is a way of creating an instant connection with both your peers and strangers. And don’t forget that part of why binge watching is so common is that it’s actively encouraged by streaming services. Shows are now filmed and released with an eye towards watching them in one or a few sittings. Each episode ends and the next starts within five seconds. It’s a deliberate feedback loop designed to keep you engaged.

(And let’s also keep in mind that in this economy, Netflix may be their main access to pop culture. When going to the movies can cost upwards of $20 per person before you even factor in snacks or parking, streaming services are a reasonably priced alternative).

Now none of this means that you have to love these things in order to date. Nor does it mean that you have to drop your standards. You’re welcome to set your must-haves to whatever level you want. But, as with your friend who decided she wanted to only date people with post-graduate degrees, you have to accept that the higher you set your standards, the smaller your dating pool gets. People with Masters’ degrees (for example) are going to be thinner on the ground than someone with a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree after all.

(And anyone who’s dealt with academia can tell you: degrees don’t mean you’re smart.)

With that having been said, you also a have to recognize that when you’re dismissing people out of hand for having common interests, you’re not giving them the same courtesy that you’re asking of them. You say they don’t have to share your interests, but they have to at least respect them. The same goes with you. If you want someone who can appreciate your love of photography and reading, then you need to be willing to extend the same to their interests.

If you want somebody who will try to engage with you about why you love your passions, then do the same for them. Model for them the behavior you’d like to see. Show them how you’d like them to approach your interests by demonstrating curiosity about theirs. Instead of assuming things about them because they have common interests, see if you can connect with them about why they love the things they do. Just because they binge Netflix doesn’t mean that they’re mindlessly consuming it. Just because they love food doesn’t mean that they’re just shoving Bachelor Chow into their faces. Hone in on the passion and the reasoning behind it.

If they binge shows on streaming services, then why those shows? Is it the characters and their relationships? Is it the way the plot is structured? If they love travel, then why? Where do they love to go? What motivates them and what would their dream vacation be?

If you look beyond your assumptions about what their interests mean, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that they have intellectual curiosity and ambition that you didn’t expect.

Does this mean that they’re all going to be compatible with you? Not necessarily. Dating is a numbers game, after all. But by not dismissing people out of hand, you’re not needlessly cutting out people who may not be perfect for you on paper… but might be great for you if you look a little deeper. And when you give them the courtesy of looking beyond the surface, you encourage them to do the same for you.

Good luck.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time reader, first time advice asker. So I’m 39, a few months shy of the big 4-0, and looking to rejoin the social world and dating scene. I say rejoin because about four years my clinical depression and anxiety combined to make me such a paranoid wreck that I was afraid to go to work because I thought I’d get fired. Naturally I got fired after not showing up, then slowly had me car repo’d and nearly evicted from my apartment (my parents settled with the landlord). So at 35 I had to move in with my parents (in Florida, which is a whole other thing), a horrifying blow to my self esteem, not to mention that my mother and I have a better relationship when we live in separate states than under the same roof. Depression and no health insurance and such stress led me to substance abuse and more fights with my mother (who doesn’t always believe that mental illness is a real thing, something that’s sabotaged alot of my attempts at self improvement).

Things started to look up when after a year and a half I was approved for SSDI (federal disability), which gave me a (not that large) monthly check and more importantly, Medicare insurance which meant psychiatrist and therapist. I got just enough self respect for myself that after another fight with my mother, I up and ran away (actually was scheduled to visit a friend out of state and just never went back home, friend was nice enough to rent me a room for a year). Now through a relative, I’m renting a small house in a not so great neighborhood at reduced rent in exchange for maintenance on it. I’m seeing a good therapist and my medication regimen is … resolving itself. I feel ready to rejoin the world at large as part of my journey to becoming a real adult (back to a job and self sufficiency).

My problem is that I am still on disability and you never realize how often people ask “what do you do” in conversations. Aside from the financial restrictions, there is a lot of stigma around people on welfare (being a white male magically deflects alot but not all of it). It makes my mental illness front and center, whereas in my previous life, I could deflect until I actually thought that a date might lead to more dates. I’m not ashamed of my mental illness, but alot of people are thrown off by it, have strange assumptions about it or just assume I’m faking for the disability (they seriously do not understand how meager it is, or what an ordeal it is to get).

TL;DR question: How would you advise this topic be addressed, or even more general advice for someone in my situation?

Dating While Disabled

DEAR DATING WHILE DISABLED: First of all, DWD, I suggest you go read my advice to Sandy Ravage from a few weeks back, who also wanted to know about how to date while having a mental illness. I’ll tell you the same thing I told him: as a general rule, I believe that the more your condition will affect your relationship together, the sooner you should disclose it. However, if it’s something that isn’t going to be immediately apparent, then in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with holding off a little so that the other person gets a chance to know you as an individual, rather than as whatever image pops in their mind when they hear words like “disability”.

But let’s take a moment to talk about the practical side of things. The fact that you’re on disability isn’t shameful, nor should you be ashamed of it. One of the things that makes this country great — and hearing people dismiss it makes me grind my teeth in frustration — is how we care for people who are otherwise disadvantaged or may need a hand. The fact that we have services that let you get the help you need and live a life with independence and dignity is a testimony to the dream of America.

Unfortunately, people are people and assholes are gonna ass. So there will be people who’ll look down on you for being on disability.

And frankly forget those people. They’re doing you a favor by filtering themselves out of your dating pool. The last thing you need is to waste a nanosecond wondering about how to get the approval of a judgmental asshat.

Here’s the thing: you are more than your job — or your lack thereof. When someone asks you what you do, you don’t necessarily need to tell them “oh, I’m unemployed”. Presumably you have things that you love — hobbies, interests, passions that you pursue regularly. Any of those are a perfectly valid answer to the question of “what do you do”. It may not be how you make your living, but they define you more thoroughly and more accurately than whether or not you have an office job or take part in the gig economy.

Now, if someone starts getting especially curious or wants to know what you do for a living, you can be a bit evasive. You can tell them you have various income streams, you do odd jobs, you work as a handyman (which is, strictly speaking, true) until you feel like they’re someone you can safely open up to. If they’re someone who’s going to judge you about issues that are out of your control… well, then they don’t need the whole story, do they?

But I want you to remember the other thing I told Sandy Ravage. Never let somebody else’s dismissal of your health or your disability get you down. The fact that you’re on disability isn’t a mark of shame, it’s a sign that you’re a goddamn fighter. You have faced a crisis that has broken people and destroyed lives. Yet not only did you survive, but you recovered. You got out of a horrible situation and fought tooth and nail to get the help and resources you need. And while your life may not be wine and roses, you have dragged yourself out of Hell by your fingernails and rebuilt your life and sanity with your bare hands.

That is something you should be proud of. It’s a testimony to your strength, your grit and your resilience. And anyone who’s worth dating will recognize that instead of falling for Calvinist bulls

t and assuming that your situation is the result of weakness or moral failure.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com)

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