Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
Why Dating Advice Sucks
Not my usual thing. I’m procrastinating on a more serious post. Happy Tuesday! :)
I like to ask a lot of questions on Twitter. I’m surprised more people with large followings don’t use it for this purpose - I greatly enjoy the responses I receive, and usually learn from them too. I’ll occasionally share some of the discussion on Substack, and any related thoughts or questions that spring forth from it.
Last week I asked about dating.
Judging from profile pictures, it seemed to me that people were either a little too optimistic or a little too self-deprecating - rare were the “8s” that actually qualified as such, even rarer the “2s and 3s” that could be reasonably described that way (although the latter usually did not have profile pictures with their own faces, so it is difficult to make as solid of a judgment there).
Anyways, the second part of the question related to advice for finding love. I was judging to see whether a certain kind of response would correlate with how people rated their own attractiveness. Would more attractive people, who presumably have to “work” less at love, give less useful advice? As far as I could tell, not particularly. Most advice seemed equally useless.
The most common answer was a variation of “be yourself”. I think there is merit here, but not directly. What people seem to mean by this is “relax, don’t try to overcompensate in an attempt to impress someone”. In other words, don’t be Date Mike. But how? For the self-conscious, this advice can actually create another layer of over-analyzing (“Am I being too fake?? Can they tell I’m not relaxed? What would the real me want??”). Like telling someone to “calm down” when they are angry, it can induce the exact opposite behavior in those who really need to hear it.
Other responses appeared to contradict each other. For example, “work on yourself” vs. “love yourself”. Well, which is it? (And I realize that both can have value at the same time - but from the perspective of someone who struggles with love, I imagine it is frustrating to see superfically incongruous lessons stated with equal convinction).
Advice across the web doesn’t appear to be much better. Here are my thoughts on why the dating discourse sucks.
For one thing, the fundamentals of attraction are fairly constant and obvious, which is boring, but the specifics are conditional and contingent on a hundred other things - making them hard to grasp and even harder to put into practice. Meanwhile, we can’t prove the success of one strategy over another very easily (when it comes to lasting love, at least), which is why we can argue about it forever, and let the discussion bleed into our politics, culture, worldviews.
Some more possible distortions:
Dating advice givers are incentivized to console. This is to be expected - finding love is a tricky business, rejection is painful, and it is pleasant to hear some self-serving falsehoods. Massaging the truth can also help boost confidence, which actually might be helpful, albeit indirectly. Meanwhile, people who provide realistic, honest advice tend to be less liked, and can be punished for it in some contexts. Truth hurts sometimes, nowhere more than in the highly personal realm of love. A form of consoling is highly visible in extremely ideological contexts, where a convenient villain is introduced (feminists/cishet males/religious people) without whose meddling romance would be easy, rewarding, and fun, and partners plentiful.
It is too easy to be problematic. To some people, “get in shape” sounds a lot like fat-phobia, and gendered advice is inherently sexist. The real problem, of course, is that attraction is problematic. Lust is inherently discriminatory, objectifying, and deeply sexist (and abelist! And ageist!). And while many desire to be lusted after and work to achieve “fuckability”, we tend to find it unreasonable (even, cruel) to be rejected for that same reason.
Too many dissatisfied weirdos are involved. People who don’t have trouble with love and sex don’t spend too much time talking about it, meanwhile people who are suffering talk about it a lot (which can easily turn into resentment of the opposite sex). They create bubbles of discourse in which bad advice fueled by grievance is imparted to others, creating a cycle of failure.
Culture war does its thing. Values have a lot to do with sex, which means politics does too, and sadly the poison-pill that is the culture war often joins in. Pop feminism is the elephant in the room here - as the official ideology of the elite-class it dominates mainstream public discourse without any real challenge. As a nasty consequence, redpill/PUA ideologies gain covert acceptance among men - creating two parallel but contradictory streams of thought and behavior.
Beyond the more superficial aspects of culture war, it really is something that involves fundamental values. I was surprised, for example, to see this response:
I might have said the exact opposite!
But it is difficult to have someone reject what is important to you entirely - not in the least because as social creatures we desire some amount of external validation for our life choices - particularly the hard ones that demand the sacrifice of one thing for another.
Dating apps and websites are creating a false map of reality. As their mechanics produce behavior that is not replicated in real life, or can be misleading in other ways, dating sites confuse the debate. “Everyone knows”, for example, that reaching 6’ is a significant qualification for men (all a man has to do to test this is to alter his height from 5’11” to 6’ on a site to see the difference in matches). Of course in the real world, this is a largely arbitrary number - 5’11 guy will not be treated noticeably differently by women. On dating apps, however, men must optimize their profiles to beat the filters, while women might presume that such strict specifications have meaningfully improved their chances of finding someone they are attracted to and can love. Dating apps are good for people who are good at marketing themselves and useful for people who are looking for casual sex - they are not great for everyone else.
Not to mention, the cynic in me doubts the intentions of app creators. Are they incentivized to actually help you find love, or are they incentivized to keep you there as long as possible? The latter might mean being helpful enough to provide some matches, but it might be best if it was not a lasting union.
The dating app Hinge utilizes this very cleverly in their marketing, calling themselves “The Dating App Designed to Be Deleted”. To drive the point home, they even feature a cute furry app mascot, “Hingie”, who is depicted as meeting a gruesome demise with every successful pairing.
No doubt we can trust Hingie. Why would he lie to us?
If you asked me (and only one of you did, ha), I think useful advice is as actionable and precise as possible.
Many people who struggle with finding romance could make some changes to be more physically attractive. To most people, I would say (in order of ease): Bathe regularly, get a haircut that suits you, dress like an adult (go to a tailor!), workout regularly and eat well. For men, I would stress the hygiene part (remember, for god’s sake, that women have a better sense of smell than you). For women, I would stress the eating well part (overweight women are punished much more severely than overweight men) and add “learn how to do simple makeup” to the list.
Some advice focuses on making other changes to be “high value” - like making more money if male, and maximizing appearance if female. Although both offend my politics, I don’t doubt they help and won’t argue with reality. As a woman, I do what I can about my appearance, and try not to resent men too much for their hard-wired instincts (if only they can forgive me for my own!).
But a lot of people I know who struggle with dating don’t have issues with any of that. Perhaps my bubble is a particularly high-value one: many singles I know are attractive, financially-stable, and interesting. What they struggle with is getting out of their own heads.
Overanalyzing, overcompensating - all of that is an absorption of the self (yes, obsessive insecurity is a form of self-absorption). Date Mike is obsessed with his image - he is so focused on trying to force his date on viewing him a certain way that he neglects her actual needs entirely. He doesn’t think about her as a real person with needs of her own, he thinks about her as an object to manipulate. Although Date Mike is portrayed as a douche - in real life many self-conscious men put on the same persona.
A female friend of mine sabotages her relationships regularly in a similar way. She desperately desires to be desired, and so projects an alter-ego of an unattainable woman. She brags about what other men have done for her, how much she makes and how well she dresses - all to signal her value in the market-place. And all those things are true! She does dress well, she does make a lot of money, men do perform absurd acts of service for her. But due to the way she goes about signaling her value - bragging - she also adds another signal: self-absorption.
The result is that her strategy to elevate herself often makes the men who court her feel bad about who they are - that they are not enough. And any strategy of increasing one’s status by diminishing that of your potential partner is a recipe for resentment and failure. (In reality, I should add, she is not a selfish person. But her dating strategy is certainly self-oriented, and as a result, she doesn’t achieve lasting success with decent, high-value men).
The most charismatic, magnetic people I know all have the quality of making others feel important, cherished, understood. Their orientation in a social situation is outwards. I think the question that is neglected in dating advice is “how does one best love others”? How does one become worthy of love - not just desire - but love?
And because I like practical advice, I’ll do what I can to turn this into actionable changes in behavior:
Meditate - learn to be present, to get out of your own head. Over-analysis is social death, but more importantly, it gets in the way of you enjoying the world as it is.
When entering a social situation, stop and breathe. Look around the room and try to see the people around you as they would wish to be seen, and be sympathetic to those desires. Make it your mission to orient yourself around them - to enjoy their presence, to discover their depths, to give them joy.
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