Responding to Curveballs in the Dating Process?

Power up your dating experiences by identifying your blind spots before swiping.

Posted Dec 22, 2020

The dating scene in New York City has been a mixture of romance, excitement, surprise, disappointment, and sometimes distress. It is, after all, a love experiment.

These days, it seems that the majority of dating happens via online dating apps. According to the survey conducted by Pew Research Center in October, 2019, roughly 48 percent of Americans who are 18-29 and 38 percent between 30-49 have used online dating apps. While I listen to people share their dating stories, I often find myself wondering if it might be helpful for them to identify potential blind spots before they start swiping? In the actual on-the-ground dating experience, it is likely that curveballs will be thrown by a potential love interest. By this I mean, information and experience that defies our expectations. Yet in a swipe-right/swipe-left culture, we are often compelled to respond to a possible match right on spot! In this blog post, I examine some dating experiences and share insights that will help people better prepare for curveballs as they open themselves up to new love.

Curveball or wild card? Cute love candidate but not my usual type?

Kelly identifies herself as White American and she is in her late 20s. She has been dating online for the last three months and has been meeting men who are “intelligent, funny, and athletic.” She is coming to realize that, in this, they share some central characteristics possessed by her ex-boyfriends.

Although she is attracted to these guys (“they are my type”), she recently met someone who does not fit her “usual type” and has found herself attracted to him. Tim is five years older than Kelly, and this is unprecedented and “a big deal” to her. Kelly describes Tim as charming, intelligent, thoughtful, and well-established. She is attracted to the fact that Tim is calm, grounded, and that he treats her with thoughtfulness.

Kelly has been on eight dates with Tim and is wondering if this is going to turn into something special. She wants to keep seeing Tim but is cautious. After taking a breath, Kelly says, “I am not sure, and I am scared.”

Behind the uncertainty and fear

“In the past,” says Kelly, “I usually became friends with the guys I’d wind up with prior to beginning a romantic relationship. So there was already some form of familiarity with them when things got more serious. But I feel like things are happening differently with Tim. He is thoughtful and understanding, yes. As I am talking about this, I realized I have very strict ideas about my romantic interests. I always believed that a boyfriend should be intelligent, funny, athletic, and around my age. I don’t know why other qualities like being calm, thoughtful, and kind, never ended up on my list?” 

Her own assumption of whom she should date was informed by her history

Kelly says that she always cherished the friendships that she established with her boyfriends. She dated her most recent ex-boyfriend for three years but they broke up because he moved away for graduate school. She now has a chance to question how strong that relationship really was considering neither she nor he even attempted to maintain the relationship in a form of long-distance. “Why?” she wonders. 

“When I think about it,” Kelly answers, “There seemed to be some sort of unspoken mutual agreement that we won’t bring up emotional issues with each other. I was OK with that. So OK that I let him leave without a fuss or fight. But now that I am dating someone like Tim, it makes me wonder why I was OK with the arrangement I had with my ex. And that was the pattern for my other relationships as well.”

Kelly admits that she felt powerful when she had a good distance from her ex. “I felt more in control when I did not need much from my ex. I could take care of myself and be on my own. I appreciated the relationship I had with him but reliance, particularly needing and wanting anything from him emotionally felt like it was a sign of weakness or fraud. But I am questioning now why I had so much pride in not allowing myself to need him. I think I was fearful of being rejected or denied were I to reveal that I needed him at all. I wouldn’t allow myself to rely on him, or our relationship, at all.”

Another curveball?

Kelly and I continued to talk about another aspect of dating Tim. Tim is not shy about asking her out, which is a very new kind of dating experience for Kelly. “I realized that I am not expecting much from the other men that I am seeing. They are not very clear about wanting to see me. I am OK with that. Maybe too OK. When I’m OK, I can allow myself to believe that it is me who is keeping a distance from these men. But Tim is not shy about texting me and asking me out on a date. I even say to myself, ‘What’s wrong with him? He is so open about his intention.’” 

I ask Kelly to reflect on what this means to her. She says that she always hid her emotions in the friendship that she had with her ex. It seems more clear that this is the reason why her relationship with her ex fell apart when he left for graduate school. She believed that she accepted certain limitations of her relationship with her ex. “Maybe not. Maybe I believed that I was accepting my ex’s needs more than I accepted my own wishes. But in not letting my ex see me, the part that really wanted to be seen but was afraid, I never really challenged myself to be fully in that relationship.”

Letting go of fear and learning to flirt from the place of empowerment

Although it does not come naturally to her, Kelly says that she is reciprocating Tim’s open communication. Kelly often feels that she has no clue how to respond to Tim. When asked about whether she flirts with Tim, she says it is a great challenge to flirt with him.

I validate her feelings and suggest that perhaps it is the feeling of challenge and risk that allow her to communicate and acknowledge her own interest in Tim. Could it be that by allowing herself to feel uncomfortable and at risk, she is communicating her willingness—to herself and Tim—to be fully in this relationship?

She is owning her own desires and feelings towards Tim. I think that is a form of empowerment for her. And in this, it looks like she is breaking the relational pattern of using friendship to hide from the risks of a romantic relationship. She now much more consciously is able to own her desire, her needs, and her wishes in a genuinely reciprocal romance.

I think about how many of us have already well-etched patterns that follow us into our dating experience well before we download the apps? Does that actually limit us instead of guiding us toward opening a new door to us? So often things don’t go as we planned in online dating. With some understanding of our history and patterns that we want to break, we can find a hidden treasure—in someone else, and in ourselves.

The more we talked, the more Kelly acknowledged that she wants to keep seeing Tim. He is a wildcard for Kelly. As I listen to Kelly talk about potentially forming a deeper romantic relationship with Tim, I think about the book, Standing in the Space written by Dr. Philip Bromberg. Bromberg addresses how different people bring different parts of themselves into relationships via their unique wiring.

So if you are dating online, you might want to consider saying “yes” to that person you don’t normally consider. Maybe this includes saying yes to the fun, challenging interaction you might have with a person. Maybe letting yourself be bewildered by some gesture—someone—unexpected is an entrée to that special connection that you never knew existed before.