Dating and the Hard-to-Get Strategy

Why your hard-to-get strategy can make it harder for you to get a partner

Posted May 26, 2018

Years ago, when I left my job as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis to move back to Israel, I decided to keep my car until only a few days before departure. As the day of departure approached, I put the car on the market at about 30% less of its market value to secure a fast sale. But quite surprisingly there was hardly any interest. The very few people who called for details seemed very concerned about the car’s mechanical state; one even called me a crook accusing me of trying to sell a “lemon”. When I changed the ad raising the price to merely 5% below its market value the car was gone within a day.

Many of us may feel uncomfortable with the idea that our love life, to an extent, operates under the same rules and forces that apply in the market. But the truth is that mating is a market and many of the insights that can be gained about standard markets are also relevant for the mating market. The basic insight of my car sale story is that people tend to confuse low prices with low quality, i.e., they tend to confuse “easy to get” with “no one wants it.” This is precisely why our intuition tells us to use the “hard to get strategy” when dating.

Sarah Winstton/Flikr
Source: Sarah Winstton/Flikr

Indeed, insisting on wanting to see your partner on a daily basis starting immediately after the first or second date is a wrong way to start a relationship. It would indicate desperation, dependency and a sense that what you really needs in your life is “a life”. All in all it will make it harder for your partner to decide that he/she should  be falling in love with you (and falling in love does require a decision!).

But daters often overdo with the hard-to-get strategy: disappearing for weeks after a successful date, showing indifference to signals of intimacy by their partner and sometimes even fabricating a behavior that I call “romantic Alzheimer's” “…Jeff who? Oh yeah, now I remember we had a date three weeks ago…”  

Such behavior is often an expression of self-protection, where the dater prepares an alibi in a way of convincing oneself, and one’s surrounding, that he/she wasn’t really interested in the relationship. This helps dealing with the disappointment and the loss of face when the other party says “no.” But way more often such a behavior is purely strategic and serves as a signal that says: “I am such a hot commodity on the dating market. You’ll have to work harder to have a chance”

Regardless of the reason, if exaggerated, the hard-to-get strategy can be detrimental to your dating.  Going back to my car-sale story, I concede that raising its price from 30% below the market price to merely 5% below changed buyers’ perception about it and allowed me to sell it fast. But what would have happened had I tagged my 8-year-old Ford with the price tag of a 1-year-old Mercedes? Would the hard-to-get strategy have worked equally well? I doubt it!

More importantly, dating markets do have special features that make them very different from standard markets. In the used-car market, once you sell your car you are unlikely to ever see the buyer again. In the dating market, however, if the deal eventually materializes you will keep seeing the buyer on a daily basis for at least 10 hours a day, hopefully through your entire life! In the second-hand market, if the seller seemed nasty, the car could still be OK. In the dating market, the buyer is actually buying the seller—OK, both parties are buyers and sellers, selling themselves and buying each other both at the same time.   

A radical hard-to-get behavior may impinge on what kind of person you are more than on how popular you are. As your potential partner, I might conclude that while you are so popular, you are simply not my type of person. I may also conclude that while you’re exactly my type of person, further dating with you is a waste of time and emotional resources, as you show hardly any interest in me.

The success or failure of the hard-to-get strategy depends not only on its volume but also on what you put in it. Not being available to meet up as often as your partner might wish is OK, but showing aversion or indifference to your partner’s expressions of intimacy is a deal-breaker and relationship killer. As your potential partner, I can look forward to seeing you more often when the relationship gets more serious, but if I sense that my expressions of intimacy do not  really move you, then it is just not my day and clearly not my date.