Playing the Dating Game – Uber Cool vs Vulnerability and Self-Disclosure

Apparently, the need to love is hardwired into our brains. A doco I watched about the intriguing 36 Questions experiment, argued that the chemicals our love-starved brains release are linked with the drives for hunger and water. They are not ‘next level’ cognitive or emotional, but far deeper and closer to our unsophisticated core.

If we look at modern-age dating, mating and relating in this light, what can we make of this hard-wired need? In this article, I wrote about the vital importance of touch and intimacy in our lives, qualities so often absent for vast populations of people. Just look at the inhabitants of aged care institutions.

The search for love, connection and relationships is often confused as a search for sex and touch. Sometimes we need one or the other, but often we need both.

Is it becoming increasingly hard to find the deeper connection behind the tactile? The depth behind the facile? The second, third, fifth or sixth date?

Judging by the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the times explored by so many bloggers, books and articles I’m encountering) it makes me wonder where we’re heading.

Heather Havrilesky from the Ask Polly series run by The Cut raises the ‘casually dismissive’ norm that has infiltrated our screens, our entertainment and our urban ‘tough guy’ lives. She zones in on the damage it does to authenticity and human interaction. I’m going to quote her in full, because to me it rings so powerful and true:

“We live in a casually dismissive world. Careless indifference is the reigning tone of our deny-your-feelings, fake-chill-your-way-through-everything culture.

“Obviously, there are pragmatic reasons for keeping things on a surface level most of the time. It would be dicey to dive into everyone’s deeper issues at every juncture. But let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that the eternal imperative to make every goddamn thing under the sun light and breezy at all costs or be branded as a nutjob forever is a regular source of irritation and pain for many of us.

“That said, here we are. We can’t single-handedly incite a tonal shift. Because the problem… is a baked-in feature of our society, that it’s somehow more acceptable to appear careless or forgetful or to outright lie than it is to be invested, to have a functioning long-term memory, and to ask for accountability from those who’ve wronged you.”

Wow, I feel like I have so much in common with Heather! I have rallied against this ‘careless indifference’ my whole life. Right from my idealistic teen self, I vibrated with intensity, with a desperate desire to see the unseen, to get under the skin and ‘speak the truth’.

Now that I’m older, and maybe wiser, I realise there are many truths, but often a scarcity of people willing to admit to any.

About four years ago when I was new-ish to this modern dating thing, I ran my own irate campaign for accountability from someone I met online who hurt me deeply. It didn’t get me anywhere, not even an apology.

Now, it seems, the concept of vulnerability, of investing in anything very much – let alone the notion of ‘truth’ – seems very old-fashioned.

bleeding heart

This includes investing in an idea or a dream, investing in a person or a relationship. Investing in a career or a sport is still socially acceptable, but otherwise? I get the feeling that when someone behaves like a selfish, insensitive arse, we’re supposed to just sigh and say “Oh well. Next.”

We’re supposed to be bulletproof, invulnerable to pain, disappointment – jaded perhaps, but still uber-cool about it all. Their loss, move along, you dodged a bullet and so it goes. Yes, we need to be resilient and strong because every adult knows that life is not fair. If you can’t roll with the punches to some extent, you probably won’t get back up.

But where does it end? Sometimes I just can’t make sense of people’s behaviour in this dating game, can’t see their motivations – worst of all, I can’t see how they justify their behaviour to themselves, even if not to others.

So, to the 36 Questions popularised by the New York Times – what’s that about?

Columnist Mandy Len Catron writes of her experience on a date that focused on these questions to induce feelings of love, “They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?” But they quickly became probing.”

For me, here she hits the nail on the head: “The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months.”

This is fascinating on two levels.

Firstly, because the exercise (or experiment by psychologist, Arthur Aron, in 1997), gradually relaxes us into revealing more and more of ourselves to a willing listener – perhaps throwing caution to the winds as we are lulled into a what could be a false sense of security?

Or, it could be argued, that both parties are equally revealing their inner-most beliefs, if they’re being authentic and not flippant or untruthful. The questions and the process are intense, diverse and – for someone like me – fascinating.

Secondly, it’s interesting because it sounds a whole lot like the online dating scenario.

Modern dating that begins online with a stranger creates all the right emotional conditions to escalate attraction. It ramps up our fantasy/hope switch, and is embedded in a heady, ‘auctioneering’ style environment of ill-considered decisions and false scarcity to create an unrealistic faux intimacy. Fake – the whole lot of it. It’s just not sustainable or real.

When combined with physical attraction, this fake intimacy can be a potent mix of ‘fantasy pheromones’ and a tender hopefulness. Intimacy is built and maintained in the ‘hyper-reality’ of initial online liaisons in a number of ways: the showering or steady drip-feeding of compliments, attention, and the sheer amount of time spent ‘chatting’ with someone.

The dating site mindset and cunning interface between psychology and technology was engineered to play – simultaneously – to our deepest fears (“I’ll never find love! I’ll always be alone! Nobody loves me!) and to our wildest dreams (“Love in abundance! Everybody wants me! I might actually be happy one day!).

Psychologist Arthur Aron says in his original article, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure.”

His original experiment matched strangers who had a basic ideological similarity, and gave them the expectation that the other party would like them. His intent was not to induce ‘love’ or begin an ongoing relationship, but to create a “temporary feeling of closeness” – a feeling of interconnectedness or intimacy.

This is remarkably similar to OK Cupid’s historical foundation as The Spark personality quiz including the four-variable Myers-Briggs style Match Test. The site offers users an apparently endless list of questions to answer and the ability to compare each potential partner against a similarity/compatibility score. The question is whether, in such an artificial, digital (rather than face-to-face) environment, a high-percentage match (eg, over 90%) counts for anything. (

In my experience, it does not. Interestingly, that was the conclusion drawn by the doco I mentioned at the start. It decided that the visual-led reactions we have on dating sites are so superficial as to be useless when it comes to genuine compatibility and capacity for love between individuals. As Stella Grey of the wonderful Mid-Life, Ex-Wife fame puts it, “Compatibility can’t actually be predicted by science.”

In my early days giving anything and everything a go in online dating, I favoured OK Cupid as having a more intellectual and therefore valuable core than other sites.

This was also because I placed far too much worth on the MBTI in dating, therefore giving undue weight to aspects like site-calculated compatibility. I’ve read so many accounts of women who rank extremely highly with male prospects (over 95% compatibility), and yet time and again, they are ignored or rejected for the eyecandy response (let’s say the Barbie-figured blonde 26-year-old hotly pursued by the divorced forty-something, balding executive looking to upgrade to a new model.)

Cliché I know, but statistically (even if not always) true.

But back to the New York Times writer’s own social experiment in a bar with an acquaintance. “I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I liked learning things about him even more,” she says.

She talks about the kind of accelerated intimacy she remembers from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend. “We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative,” she suggests.

She recounts what made her most uncomfortable about the whole experience. The questionnaire asks for ‘alternate sharing’ of five compliments each (‘positive characteristics’), not once, but twice. This might be a tall order for two strangers.
The idea here is that, by sharing such intimacies, we’re incorporating others into our sense of self. Len Catron explains, “Saying things like, ‘I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,’ makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.”

The original study also created intimacy and connection through eye contact. I remember a piece of performance art in a gallery room that contained two chairs facing each other, two metres apart. In walked two people, known to the other but estranged – perhaps brothers, parent and child, or long-lost friends. The resulting five minutes of sustained eye contact made such an impression on me that I vowed to try it with my long-term lover at the time. We never did.

“I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me,” says Len Catron. Her experience is her own, and I suspect that everyone would have their own unique take on how prolonged eye contact made them feel.

Many of us – not all, but a sizeable chunk – spend our adult years looking for or living in self-defining or life-defining relationships.

Dating sites make billions out of this very primal human need to couple up, reproduce (or not), or experience closeness poly-style. We’re social mammals, everyone knows, our lives are supposed to revolve around meeting and mating – and maybe even raising a family.

I like the way The New York Times writer puts it when she says, “Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed. But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action.”

She likens the best qualities about the 36 Questions study as the right environment to nurture the good feelings. True, we can’t choose who we will love and who will love us in return. We can’t order up the person of our dreams or create a mate out of convenience. Science tells us that biology matters, she says. Our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes.

But if trust and intimacy are the petri dish that love needs in order to thrive, that’s a two-way street.

Yes, if we find someone who is offering those qualities, by engaging in the 36 Questions type of exercise we might heighten, or even create, romantic feelings that could lead to a significant relationship.

But the opposite point is also true: If we never allow or encounter trust and intimacy in this often duplicitous, guarded modern dating world, if we’re never prepared to reveal our true selves – to be ‘seen’ – then genuine love and relationships may never even have the chance to flourish.

Without the nourishing soil, the plant cannot take hold and grow.

Len Catron’s story has a happy ending. She and her newly made friend fell in love. “Love didn’t happen to us,” she says. “We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”


PS: Writing this article has inspired me to buy Modern Love, Revised and Updated, True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption – the most popular, provocative, and unforgettable essays from the past 15 years of the New York Times ‘Modern Love’ column.

Are We Addicted To Hope?

Oh, what promises abound in the world of online dating!

Behind every miniature digital face is an opportunity, the potential for thrilling heart connection, laughter-filled friendships, amazing sex, or D&Ms while strolling along a riverbank.

It can feel overwhelming, like being stuck in a supermarket with endless aisles and too much choice. But don’t be misled by this illusion of variety. Most of what’s on offer is not worth a cent. It’s facile, duplicitous, fake in every sense. To get to the genuine gold it requires a lot of digging. This can be very time consuming and before long, you can find your daily life subsumed by messaging, checking for messages or scrolling through a multitude of faces or profiles. This all takes its toll.

And yet the allure of potential is what often keeps us coming back for more.

Addictive and ‘hyper-real’

Chatting to people on dating apps can easily become addictive and ‘hyper-real’. This ‘blog is in some ways a chronicle of that addiction, and my very first online liaison was the perfect example. I’m almost embarrassed to recount this story because I was such a newbie and so totally clueless.

I’d just uploaded one profile picture on Skout, together with a very brief personal description. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but I know it was brief. As a professional copywriter it was probably meant to be intriguing and succinct, but I was new to the self-marketing business and so it probably didn’t tick any of the key boxes.

However, my phone had been pinging all afternoon at work, so that evening I sat down to go through the prospects.

There was a clear standout that weekend, and I was caught unawares by the arresting power of someone else’s desire.

He spent the entire Saturday and most of Sunday messaging me and of course I was eager to respond. He was almost 20 years my junior and wearing my rose-tinted glasses, I thought he was gorgeous. A little rough round the edges, but sexy, passionate, tall and manly, but shy and more than a little awkward. This was all fine, because he was the first!

There was no one to compare him with, no benchmark of normality and no holding back either!

The banter and the sexual tension built steadily over the 48 hours and by the Sunday evening, I was firmly ‘besotted’ by this 32-year-old mechanic. By now, we were messaging constantly between 7.00 in the morning and 9.00 at night (his bedtime). He was well behaved as he learnt early that I didn’t tolerate boundary crossing. I compared myself to a nervous wild pony, whinnying with excitement but flighty and skittish. (He loved this analogy). So there were no dickpics or semi-naked sexting, just bonding, innuendo and by the Monday, blatant desire barely concealing our yearning.

I say ‘yearning’ because, back then, I was fresh meat, and also pretty fresh out of a long marriage, so it was all new and sexy as hell. As for him, I think he was desperate to forget being jilted and sexually betrayed by his ex, as well as keen for a good old-fashioned root (to use his lingo). There seemed to be a heavy emotional component too, but who knows how genuine that was?

By the end of Day 5, the UST (unresolved sexual tension) was almost at fever pitch. We decided to meet on Sunday. That day, it felt like the most important event on my annual calendar, and after some last-minute child-minding problems, I arrived at our destination: a quiet part of the botanic gardens in my city.

Botanic garden archway

I’ll be blunt – it was a shock. He didn’t exactly look like his photos, but only because he’d taken no care whatsoever in his appearance. Sure, he was the same size and age, but in the cold hard light of day, he didn’t look as attractive.

His photos hadn’t revealed his food-infested teeth, bad breath, two-week old stubble nor his unwashed body odour and daggy tracky dacks. Then there was his body language and manner – this was the man who’d been lusting and groaning about me, as well as painting optimistic pictures of the relationship we’d have. He could barely meet my eye, and seemed aloof and embarrassed. Lesson number one – to use his phrase – it’s easy to be a keyboard warrior. It’s a lot harder face to face to manifest the false persona you’ve created.

Being the people person I am and especially as a communications professional, I managed to slowly squeeze a stilted sort of conversation out of him over the three hours we spent together. It was abundantly clear that his reclusive, real-life personality was nothing like the confident, sexy man I’d expected. To his credit (um, I guess?), he did grope me and tried to stick his hands down my pants.

So, it was also blindingly obvious that we were totally unsuited. You might not be surprised when I tell you that I didn’t run a mile or ‘ghost’ him, newbie that I was. Instead, in the hours following this first meeting, I examined my feelings of being duped, being sold a bum deal – that I’d fallen (however lamely and superficially) for someone who didn’t exist.

The fantasy I’d developed over just that one week (or approximately 98 hours) had such a strong hold on me that even when he turned brutish and nasty a few days later, I still held onto a half-baked notion that we could somehow make it work.

It should have been a salutary lesson but it was not one I learned quickly.

This build-up of intimacy online can happen quite suddenly and if we’re honest, unrealistically. We all know deep in our sensible selves that you can’t start chatting with someone and understand them deeply, trust them with your life or want to shack up with them forever after.

In my first year on the dating apps, I kept being sucked into this dynamic over and over again, but I couldn’t see it. Even after I recognised the dangers, it was difficult to stop repeating the pattern. I gave men a chance when I should have politely declined. I was blind to their glaringly obvious faults and fixated on the idea that playing the field meant exploring EVERY opportunity I could get. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration but you get my point? I’m a lot wiser to my weaknesses now.

After only a couple of days messaging intensely, it’s possible or even likely that a ‘false intimacy’ develops.

When combined with physical attraction, it can be a potent mix of ‘fantasy pheromones’ and a tender hopefulness that so many of us carry within. This is risky territory.

Intimacy is built and maintained in the ‘hyper-reality’ of initial online liaisons in a number of ways: the showering or steady drip-feeding of compliments, attention, and the sheer amount of time spent ‘chatting’ with someone. It’s good advice to be wary of these tactics, as narcissists and psychopaths use them to do real damage. Love bombing is now a thing.

“Romance, real romance – being courted and wooed on screen and in messages and letters – is a thing difficult to say no to,” writes Stella Grey of The Guardian in her column about looking for love at age 50.

“It’s especially difficult when you are sad. It’s easy to fall for someone over email. Things can accelerate way too fast, especially if you’re both accelerators. What is difficult is following through into life. The closer email conversation brought us, the more risk there was that a real encounter would be the beginning of a big letdown.”

I’m still a bit obsessed about what this social media-enhanced experience of ‘relationships’ in the 21st Century means. I read everything I come across, I lap up other people’s stories or roll my eyes in knowing agreement. I share the highs and lows and I feel their pain. After all, I’ve been there. I think we can all benefit from sharing and getting the word out about what the traps are here in the online dating world.

I’m reminded time and time again that finding like-minded people is not easy.

Authentic, mentally healthy men and women who are prepared to open their hearts are rare and precious. Finding people with common interests, compatible free time and a relationship status that works with mine is also a challenge.

And that’s another whole new topic!


PS – This story is one I’ve revisited and revised from the early archives of this blog, back when I had just a few scattered visitors. If you’re a new reader, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.