Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dating Uncertainty

Over at Moxie's blog is a discussion of one-liners people use to either lie about their lack of interest or to maintain something casual without commitment. In the comments section, one of our regular readers here, Goldie, said the following:

Can I ask a newbie question? Is “I didn’t feel an emotional connection” the same thing as the above mentioned “I just don’t think we clicked romantically”? It’s not just me that didn’t get it – every one of my married girlfriends that I’ve shown this to had the same reaction, “WTH is this supposed to mean?” Is that another variation on “I didn’t find you attractive?”

Gosh, I just tell people “I don’t think we’ll work out as a couple” or “I don’t think we’re a good enough match”. And then I really do remain friends. Old school?

So, I highlighted this because I have often used a variant of the first like - "I didn't feel enough of a connection" - in e-mails after first dates. And I think I have also used some variant of the "didn't click romantically" line as well. Both of these phrases seem fairly clear to me, but I suppose how you write or say the rest of the response probably makes some difference.

Goldie later mentions that her question stemmed from a situation where a guy told her one of those lines and then proceeded to ask her out the next day. Then, after they saw each other again, the guy repeated the line, suggesting he wasn't interested. Sounds confusing doesn't it?

Although there could be slimy motives behind all of this, I'm guessing that this guy simply failed to handle his uncertainty well. Instead of spending the time to go on a few dates, and assess the potential, this guy chose instead to constantly broadcast his swings in interest. This is a direct path to headaches, nausea, and ultimately, remaining alone. And it's completely unnecessary.

It's actually been quite rare that I have felt a strong enough spark on a first date with someone that I didn't leave the date with some doubts or uncertainty. In our speed obsessed, instant gratification culture, these doubts and uncertainties are usually taken as direct evidence that it's time to move on. However, the way I see it, having some uncertainty is fairly normal and there are plenty of happy couples out there whose first few dates didn't break the hot and sexy bank.

The thing is that if you're dating to find someone for the long haul, it's really important to develop some patience, and to learn to withhold certain cards until you've spent more time with someone.

Perhaps Goldie's guy was always going to have mixed feelings about her. That happens. But if this was the case, he could have handled the whole thing better.

Specifically, he could have sat on the uncertainty for 2-3 dates, and then made a decision about whether to continue dating her or not.

Here's how it can be acted out.

If he decides to stop seeing her, he can use the same kind of phrase to end it, but maybe add something about not wanting to go out again. I tend to think that it's so much better to end time with someone with clarity, rather than leaving a door open with confusing messages. Which is why I think it's worth taking more time if you don't know, so you aren't sitting around weeks later thinking "What if?"

Now, if some uncertainty still remains, but Goldie's guy decides to keep dating her anyway, it's probably best to keep sitting on that uncertainty instead of broadcasting it. I say this figuring that the scales that case are tipped enough in her favor that he actually wants to see if they have a future together.

Perhaps this sounds like lying, but the reality often is that until you've spent significant time with someone, it's hard not to have some uncertainty, questions, or doubts about the relationship's long term potential. In fact, I'd argue that if you don't have a little bit of uncertainty for awhile, you're probably living in a fantasy land.

And yet, if the relationship develops, those initial uncertainties, questions, and doubts tend to go away. Because much of it had to do with not knowing how someone would react under difficult circumstances, or whether some behavior or another was an anomaly or a problematic pattern.

Note that I'm speaking here to beginnings. Which is different from having doubts and uncertainties about a relationship several months, or years into it.

What do you think? Does this ring true to you? Or do you disagree with something I said here?


  1. I think it's definitely true that folks should expect to have doubts or uncertainties after just one date. It's just a couple of hours in someone's company, after all - how much info about a person can you realistically gain from a single experience like that? To get a realistic picture and feel confident in an assessment of them, it helps to see them in more than one context, for sure.

    I think there's a difference between "not sure yet" and just "not sure". I think being honest that it takes me time to get to know someone is fair, because it sets proper expectations as opposed to unrealistic ones; that's "not sure yet", and implies, "let's go on another date and see". It does ask a person to invest more time and emotional energy in finding out, which is a drawback in today's fast-paced dating pool where it seems like people want to know straight away so they can chase after the next item on the conveyor belt.

    But saying "I'm not feeling the chemistry" or variants of that theme, is saying "this is only so-so, I am not sure because I suspect I can do better". And that's a very off-putting message to send if you want to keep dating someone in the meantime!

    Incidentally, a lot of the one-liners on that list, I wouldn't recognise as meaning "it's over", and would blithely use with their literal meanings!

  2. "I think there's a difference between "not sure yet" and just "not sure"."

    This makes sense. I think a lot of folks rush these two together, and then decide that it's just not enough. After a few hours with someone.

    Kind of wacky if you ask me.

  3. LOL I'm famous now!
    I will email you :)
    Got to cook Thxgiving dinner now, but will re-read your post more carefully later - a lot of good info for me there. Thanks!!

  4. PS. I am with you both in that, when I was out dating, I almost never counted the first date against people. It had to be really really bad for me to say I didn't want a second. It's the first time seeing each other in person, both of us are nervous, so of course things will be misunderstood and feet will be inserted in mouths.

    I tended to cut people a lot of slack on first dates. Unfortunately, not all of them returned the favor.

  5. Me again... because I'd rather procrastinate and carefully re-read Nathan's post than clean and cook :) Very good post. Agree with every word. In addition to what I just said about first dates not counting, you take it further and say that the first several dates are the time to get to know each other and work through the uncertainty. I like this approach. If and when I'm out dating again, I will certainly use it.

    BTW the person I'm seeing now, I wasn't certain about for the first, maybe, oh 4-5 dates. If I had been in my usual speed-dating mode, I'd have probably ended it, and missed out on a great connection with a very cool guy :)

    As for my particular situation, it was bad all around. A lot worse than I can share on a public blog. I never knew people in my age group and my social circle could do these things to others -- something you'd expect from a high school or college kid, not a middle-aged man :( It was a valuable learning experience, though. I took a lot away from it. Changed my approach to dating, and, to some extent, to life in general. I hope I'm a better person now because of it.

    One question for you though, Nathan - if this is the approach you take, then how come you still have to send the "no connection" emails after first dates? With the attitude you describe above, when you give a person the benefit of the doubt not just on first, but on the first several dates, what has to happen on your first date for you to tell her there was no connection?

  6. "With the attitude you describe above, when you give a person the benefit of the doubt not just on first, but on the first several dates, what has to happen on your first date for you to tell her there was no connection?"

    Well, some of those e-mails are sent after a few dates. Because it's true that I often will go on second or third dates if there's interest in doing so.

    I did have two first dates over the past two or three months that just fell flat. With one, it seemed like we had nothing left to say to each other. And the other was fairly unpleasant - I actually felt kind of upset after the date, which never happens. She seemed to be judging people frequently, and really didn't make any effort to listen to what I had to say about anything.

    Those kind of dates are maybe 20% of my overall experience. With the vast majority, I'm open to going out again.

  7. But how does it work after several dates if you believe in "not broadcasting your uncertainty"? What do you do to prevent it from looking to the other side as "everything was well, then out of the blue he says there's never been any connection"?

    PS. I emailed you the details, FWIW. In case you got an email yesterday from a random woman whose name isn't Goldie, that's mine :)

  8. "But how does it work after several dates if you believe in "not broadcasting your uncertainty"? What do you do to prevent it from looking to the other side as "everything was well, then out of the blue he says there's never been any connection"?"

    Well, you're definitely hitting on the challenging part here, one I might not have a complete answer for to be honest.

    Here are a few thoughts. I think we are always broadcasting to some degree - much of it being non-verbal in nature. So, one of the reasons I'm often writing about developing your attention skills is to pick up more of that non-verbal stuff. Because odds are, if you see more of what the other person is actually doing in your presence, then the less likely someone's decision will appear out of the blue.

    As far as the not broadcasting I'm talking about above, it's probably more about speaking in a manner that crystalizes a situation. Maybe I'm feeling unclear about what's happening. And my body language is currently inconsistent because of that. But once you put specific labels on it, the other person will have a harder time thinking otherwise. In other words, if I say "I don't feel an emotional connection with you" today, even if something happens to change that tomorrow or a month from now, you'll probably remember what I said today - and have a hard time letting it go.

    It's kind of like when people get a diagnosis from a doctor. Even if they come back later and say they made a mistake, the original diagnosis is often difficult to let go of. Sometimes, the body starts to heal, but the mind still hangs on to the story about illness X long after the fact.

    So, I guess I'm trying to advocate for less rushing to make definite statements that doom a relationship.

    But your questions point to the other side of the coin - which is figuring out ways to maintain honesty with another. Which is important to me as well.

    So, maybe one way to deal with this is to say things like "I'm not sure what's happening between us yet, but I want to spend more time with you." Some people might be ok with this kind of thing, while others might take it as a weak form of rejection.

    That's where it gets tricky to me. And where I tend to think it's most helpful that people learn to read the non-verbals better, so that they aren't caught off guard as much.

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