On the one hand, the prospect of a first date fills the heart and head with a sense of possibility. On the other hand, it carries a wallop of dread, usually based on experience. The process of getting to know someone can be complicated. If you’ve been on a string of dates with someone who once seemed promising but became less so, or if you’ve just discovered that the person you’ve been seeing for the past six months isn’t who you thought he or she was, maybe it’s time to take a look at the advice science has to offer.
Following are five insights into dating based on research which may help you navigate the waters more easily and help you to pay more attention to important dynamics. (While this post has been written with dating in mind, these tips in general are useful can be helpful any time you meet someone new.)
1. Humor is tricky.
We’re all attracted to people with a good sense of humor. Wit is a mood-lifter and a day brightener, and laughter creates a sense of intimacy and camaraderie. But humor can also be an effective disguise for insecure people who are actually avoidant of relationships but use humor consistently on first dates, as the work of Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh and Chris R. Fraley showed.
Pay attention to whether humor is deflecting your attention from what your date is really like. If you’re beginning to feel as though you’re at a comedy club, watch out. And keep in mind that a secure person—someone with stable self-regard, who prizes close connection and intimacy—doesn’t need to be a continuous laugh riot, but someone who needs to convince you of his or her desire for connection does.
2. Sharing needs boundaries.
Being on a first or second date with someone who’s uncommunicative is no fun, but science knows that too much self-revelation in the initial stages of dating can actually be a red flag. Insecure and anxious people are much more likely to share a great deal of information on a first encounter and do a lot of talking, without making you feel that they are hogging the stage. How they behave may look like openness and honesty at first blush but it really isn’t; they are needy and preoccupied with themselves, and their sharing has to do with them, not you. Similarly, anxious individuals may seem more interesting than the other people you’ve met recently—their stories may be more captivating and dramatic than those of stable and secure types—and that may also have you thinking that they are more attractive. Alas, it won’t be long until the bloom is off the rose; as the researchers write, “It is only later, as relationships are established, that anxiety often becomes a nuisance for partners.”
3. Focus on how a story’s told.
You don’t need research to figure out that someone who talks about himself or herself non-stop for 45 minutes without asking you a single question, or whose every anecdote can be summarized, “Look at me, I'm wonderful!” probably isn’t a good candidate for the long haul. But how can you judge other dates by their stories? Many women and men regard the first and second dates as fact-finding missions, which is a lousy approach because you’ll be likely to miss the nuances of fuller stories. (Of course, if all your date is doing is reciting facts, you already know it’s going to be time to head for the exit soon.)
Listen to both the content of a story and the way it’s told. How a person tells a story and how coherent the narrative is—especially if it involves a pivotal life event—can tell you a lot about his or her personality, character traits, and orientation toward relationships. Ask yourself the following questions as you listen: Is this person reflective by nature? Is he or she trying to make sense of experience or just being a reporter? Is the story an effort to tell you something or is he or she just trying to impress you?
Keep the over-sharing of anxious people in mind as well.
4. Pay attention to disclosure style.
One of the things research has found is that personality traits which can move a relationship along in its initial stages may also prove to be the source of its eventual unraveling. William B. Swann and his colleagues call this the “precarious couple effect,” and their study called “Tempting Today, Troubling Tomorrow” explored what happens when two potential partners have different styles of disclosure. At one end of the spectrum is the uninhibited or blurting style; on the other, the verbally inhibited style. The blurter tends to put every thought and feeling into words pronto and without hesitation; the inhibited person tends to hang back, processing, before he or she speaks. The inhibited may also speak slowly, in contrast to the blurter as well.
The problem is that the combination of these two opposite styles in partners facilitates the early stages of relationships but creates real problems in the long-term. The researchers found that when it was the male who was inhibited, women initially tended not to mind—they interpreted the behavior as a sign of a good and attentive listener which, in turn, tended to facilitate attributing other positive characteristics (patience, kindness, etc.) to him as well. Of course, down the road, being slow to speak or react can look and feel like unresponsiveness or withdrawal. And while a man might be initially attracted by a woman’s loquaciousness because it signals openness and eagerness, the researchers found that ultimately he will withdraw from such a partner, especially if she is both voluble and critical and he feels he can’t get a word in edgewise.
So it’s important to pay attention to the content of your communication with your date and the style of communication. In long-term relationships, couples with very different disclosure styles may be unable to resolve conflicts effectively or maintain a real dialogue.
5. Factor in truthiness.
It’s been found that 81 percent of people lie on their online dating profiles, most often about their age, height, weight, and earning power—and that doesn’t include Photoshopping. In their study “Lying to Get a Date,” Wade C. Rowatt and his co-authors found that the more physically attractive a prospective date was, the more willing both men and women were to lie to get their attention. People were less inclined to lie to meet less attractive potential partners but happy to dissemble about their own appearance, personality, income, past relationship outcomes, and career skills for someone cute. It’s noteworthy that there were no gender differences in this finding.
Other research has found that 46 percent of men and 35 percent of women overall admitted to lying in order to get a date. That doesn’t mean that you will end up on a date with a liar but depending on your gender, the chances are good that you will encounter a fair amount of "truthiness."
When you’ve just started to date, it’s not so much the lie itself you're being told—unless it's something essential, such as lying about being single or convicted of a crime—as the motivation for telling it. In his study of deception in romantic relationships—in which the subjects had to be dating for at least four months—Tim Cole looked at both the primary reasons people lie as well as the effect of those deceptions on the state of relationships. He found that people lie to avoid a partner’s disapproval and make themselves look better; sometimes this can be an act of omission or a whitewashing of the truth (telling someone you dropped out of school instead of flunking out, or being vague about the circumstances that led to becoming unemployed), or an outright lie or fabrication. While these deceptions may help make the person more attractive at the beginning of the relationship—and keep a date from being judgmental—chances are that, at some point, the truth will come out.
The most interesting part of Cole’s study concerned avoidants who lie for different reasons. Avoidants are people who appear to want to be in a relationship, but don't really want intimacy at all. Cole surmises that deception gives the avoidant control over the boundaries in the relationship—he or she knows, given the lie, that there’s a real limit to how close they actually are—and makes him or her feel autonomous. This is the kind of liar who can cause a secure person a great deal of heartache in the long term.
6. Try to have fun.
This isn’t drawn from research, but: Lighten up! If it’s a lousy date, it’s just an hour or two of your life. Practice does make perfect and if you paid attention to the five guidelines above, you may have learned something important about what you really want in a partner.
The people pictured are models, not examples.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2014
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Brumbaugh, Claudia Chloe and R. Chris Fraley, “Adult Attachment and Dating Strategies: How Do Insecure People Attract Mates?” Personal Relationships (2010), 17, 599-614.
Swann, William B. Jr, Jennifer Guinn Sellers, and Katie Larsen McClarity, “Tempting Today, Troubling Tomorrow: The Roots of the Precarious Couple,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (January 2006), vol.31, no1,93-103. (January 2006), vol.31, no1,93-103.
Rowatt, Wade C. Michael Cunningham, and Perri Druen, “Lying to Get a Date: The Effect of Facial Physical Attractiveness on the Willingness to Deceive Prospective Dating Partners,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (1999), vol. 16, no.2, 209-223.
Cole, Tim, “Lying to the One You Love: The Use of Deception in Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2001), vol, 186)1), 107-129.