DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: 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)?
DEAR ORGANIC CHEMISTRY: 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.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)