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.

On Falling – Part 1

Falling in love is frightening. He fills me with equal measures of liquid, contented joy and rigid, icy fear.

I feel myself becoming more and more enamoured, closer to him, investing more fully in him as every day passes. I feel myself falling into belief, the fluttering hope building and swelling like a wave of possibility that crashes over me day and night.

I miss him fiercely when we are apart, though in comparison with previous lovers during this past five years post-marriage, that time is measured only in days rather than weeks.

We see each other in every spare block of hours, me still careful not to expect too much and him, conversely, wanting to make up for lost time and immerse himself in me.

He calls me ‘my love’ and whispers caressing words with adoration and desire. He makes me feel like a goddess and that is somehow right, and yet deeply alien, as if I haven’t yet cast off my ash-and-memory wings that tie me to the earthly plain of my bitter lived experience.

“What we could be
if we stopped carrying
the remains
of who we were.”
– Tyler Knott Gregson

We talk rapturously of our time ahead, both certain in our brimming hearts and entangled bodies that there will be a future, that we have days and months and years to explore each other, to revel in unknown discoveries and unshed tears and acres of togetherness.

Touch binds us at all times – if not the stroking of each other’s skins or limbs, it is the sweet memory of bonding, of sexual ecstasy, of lips locked and tongues tickling.

We talk of the past with fearless, open minds ready to accept anything. I have no qualms about sharing my innermost experiences and painful memories, for they are dusted by the times gone and do not taint our future.

I want to hear every thought he ever had, vicariously sense past yearnings so that I can learn him bone by bone. I want no stone uncovered, no nook left shadowy and no centimetre of his skin untouched.

I am slower to reveal myself, but I am learning to trust, and yield to his gentle questions, his genuine interest and his tactile exploration. He can have my body and do with it what he wishes; I can’t get enough of his touch and I hunger for it day and night. But my mind and spirit? That is yet to be unearthed and mined for wealth, trauma and unidentified pockets of golden bliss.

I thought my unnamed dread was banished or resolved – freed – but then a misread text message brought it back in full heart-stopping, breath-holding glory.

“I’m sorry for the past month,” he says and I read it as a Goodbye, as a feeble apology for cracking my healing heart apart with a badly timed axe blow.

All is explained moments later – he is sorry that, because of his children, he can’t be with me 24 hours a day – but those 10 minutes stretched as a painted gauzy veil between me and my fledgling trust.

My whole body froze and I sensed the fingers of dread clutch me in every part of my body. I felt humiliation rise like a gorge in my throat. The whole of me went into brief shock, like a microsleep at the wheel of my car, while I waited for an explanation of what he meant.

Half expected to read I’m sorry I’ve lied to you but I’ve changed my mind I’m still in love with my ex-wife I’ve met someone else I never meant to get this involved in just over a month I’m afraid and I really can’t give you everything I thought I was falling in love with you but I was wrong goodbye.

But no.

Instead my Good Man explains that he feels bad that he hasn’t been as flexible as he would have liked. That he’s crazy for me, that he doesn’t stop thinking of me…more sweet words of adoration and desire than I can take in.

I let the relief wash over me. I recognise the reaction for what it is – rogue past experiences, memories flooding back, betrayals exposed and hope retreating.

But I won’t let my past sully my future. I am a new woman unshackled and free to live my best life. I want a fresh start with my Good Man, and I am taking it with both hands holding tightly.