The majority of dating advice subtly guides us away from true intimacy. In its superficial fixation on looks, games and gimmicks, such advice sparks insecurity and encourages unkindness toward ourselves and others. According to exciting research, there’s a wiser and more effective path to love–and it’s not about looks or games.
This is the first in a series of occasional posts using research findings to help frame a path to love based on the true skills of intimacy. In this post we will reconsider one of the most central--and most damaging–myths in the world of dating: the belief that immediate physical attraction trumps all in the search for love. In 1985 evolutionary psychologist David Buss conducted an extensive study of the traits people rate as most important in finding a mate, and his finding was clear. The quality people valued most in a potential mate was not physical attractiveness. Nor was it wit, self-confidence, strength, wealth or youthful appearance. The number one trait people sought in a mate was kindness and understanding.
We would be fooling ourselves to pretend that physical attraction isn’t tremendously important in our choice of a mate. But if kindness and understanding are anywhere near as important as Buss’ research indicates, then we’ve been terribly misguided. How many recent popular articles have you read that give primacy to the skills of kindness in dating? Not many, I imagine. Yet we’re deluged by articles on building a better body, dressing better or playing games to attract a mate. In truth, singles and dating culture frequently encourages–and sculpts–behaviors that are the very opposite of kindness and understanding.
The search for lasting love is a central life-task for most adults. Research proves–dramatically–that the quality of our spousal relationship profoundly effects the quality of our lives. Yet much of our training in finding love seems to have been developed by a team of anxious adolescents. It’s not as though physical attraction isn’t important–it’s an absolute essential for most of us. But physical attraction is a much more complex and malleable thing than we’ve been led to believe, and the role of instant physical attraction in finding lasting, healthy love has been vastly overemphasized. In fact, Arthur Aron, one of the most renowned researchers in the field of attraction and love, states that multiple lines of research strongly suggest that people who are highly attractive are no more likely to find love than people who are of average attractiveness.
How can we use these findings to change the way we approach dating? I have found that the key lies in the development of two essential and interconnected skills, which together form the foundation of wiser dating. The first skill is to learn to develop our own qualities of kindness and understanding. The second is to become highly discriminating in our dating life; only choosing people who live by these same values. Together, these skills represent perhaps the most powerful way to change the course of our search for love.
Develop kindness and understanding
In the land of dating, we’ve been taught that cool trumps kind. This concept is not only misguided; it is the fast-track path to emotional pain. In this age of online meeting, the modern dating call has become “Next!” We scroll through countless profiles, looking almost exclusively for photos of people who represent our exact type. With eagle eyes, we look for immediate physical attraction, and relentlessly judge ourselves and others according to how well everyone matches our personal checklist. Why has no one told us that kindness and understanding are two of the greatest aphrodisiacs that exist? (We’ll explore important research on this in future posts.) In your next dating experience, see what it’s like to practice just a bit more kindness, understanding and generosity, and see if that changes both your inner state and the actual quality of your date. Chances are great that it will.
Become more discriminating about these qualities in people you date.
Many people live by principles of kindness and understanding, but are still deeply unfulfilled in their relationship lives. One common reason is that they have not learned that they have the right to require the same from a partner. If we choose to live by these principles, it is urgently important that we develop the complementary skill of discrimination. For example:
How does she treat clerks, restaurant servers, and people who are, for whatever reason, vulnerable?
How does he treat the people who matter most to you?
How much does she consider the needs of others?
Does he try to listen to your feelings with care and interest?
Does she have an innate generosity of spirit (This is not the same thing as being romantically demonstrative)
Usually, you’ll know in a relatively short period of time if your date is someone who truly cares about these qualities. If so, you’ve got something to celebrate. If not, I recommend that you seriously consider moving on. It’s your future you’re protecting.
Daphne was a 40-year-old woman who had been mostly single for almost two decades. She was in spectacular shape, and very pretty. One of her core beliefs was that the more physically attractive she was, the greater her chances of finding love. She had no problem getting dates with handsome and highly accomplished men. She was very successful in the singles scene, but not at all successful in the thing that mattered most to her: finding real love.
It was only when she learned to reveal her innate quailities of kindness and generosity, and to choose only those people who gave the same back, that the entire tenor of her dating life began to change. She feels that this change in her approach is the reason why she met, noticed, and fell in love with her partner, who, after six years, continues to inspire her with his innate decency and generosity of spirit.
When we commit to these two changes in our dating life, we have the opportunity to change our entire romantic future. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and in the lives of many of my clients and workshop participants.
This is powerful news. It means the more we learn the skills of authentic intimacy, the more desirable we become. It means those extra pounds might not matter as much as your open heart. That simply showing more warmth and interest on your next date might pay off better than all those extra hours spent in pursuit of six-pack abs. It’s also not surprising that kindness is the quality that, according to Aron, is most likely to keep love alive in a relationship.
Practice kindness and understanding. And choose those who are doing the same. This may be the simplest path to success in your search for love. Spread the word; it’s a science-backed message which can change your romantic future–and make your life a much happier one.
© 2014 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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