Inferior equilibria in dating.

I just learned of this new blog by an old friend: I’ve hit that. That makes two friends from the same social circle who have, or have had at one time, dating blogs. (Sadly, I’m not sure what happened to the other… Spam, are you reading?)

Today, she reports on a bizarre interaction with an unfortunately-named sleaze. But, forget the sleazy blow-job bit and focus on the v. insightful stuff at the end:

While The Rules have definitely changed since our parents were dating, there is definitely still an etiquette involved in dating. There’s the rule about how soon you can call a girl after getting her number. How soon you do or do not make jokes about taking trips together. Women know better than to ever even make a joke about their friend’s friend’s second cousin’s upcoming marriage for fear that the guy will think they’re hinting. And when it comes to dropping the “L-word,” yeah.

Of course, mastering this etiquette takes time.

A male friend of mine recently became entangled with a young woman of twenty. She of course committed the very common rookie mistake of falling too quickly too fast and, even more inappropriately and naively, has repeatedly stated her very intense declarations of adoration to my friend.

Now, we’ve all been there. At the beginning of the courtship before you really get to know your paramour (and they’re still projecting their best selves) they of course seem perfect. But we learn after a few heartaches not to trust our intense and irrational infatuation and, most importantly, not to scare the guy by sharing the crazy.

Yes, it sucks. We all want someone we can “be ourself” with. But I think before we get there, before we can be ourself and snore and maybe admit that we don’t like disco as much as we claimed to, we have to first follow the rules and act accordingly. We have to not freak the other person out with our neediness and basic humanness. Dumping such intense realities on a person in a very quick amount of time is scary for both people involved. Take time to get to know each other.

I guess there are do’s and dont’s for both the sexes. Don’t come on too strongly. Don’t say every thing that comes in to your mind, even if it’s true.

The interesting insight here is that we all have to struggle to restrain our tendencies to come on strong. There aren’t especially “needy” people who want to come on strong and non-needy people who don’t. At worse, the “needy” people are those who are unable, unwilling, or uninformed to restrain their — universal! — urges to come on strong. The non-needy have those same urges, but manage to hammer them down.

So if we all have those urges, why can’t we all satisfy them? Why can’t we all just abandon the pretense and come on strong?

Too lazy/busy to think this through right now, but I suspect that game theory will have the answer for this. One of the funny things about strategic situations is the way in which totally content-free behavior can come to serve as a signal permitting all kinds of information and coordination. (Recommended reading: David Lewis’s book on Convention, both of Brian Skyrms’s little books.) Worth thinking about: the extent to which we’re stuck in some kind of sub-optimal signaling equilibrium where giving in to the urge to come on strong stands in for all sorts of negative traits.

There must be a better way to signal that we know social etiquette, have self-control, etc.


40 Responses to “Inferior equilibria in dating.”

  1. Aaron Says:

    There aren’t especially “needy” people who want to come on strong and non-needy people who don’t. At worse, the “needy” people are those who are unable, unwilling, or uninformed to restrain their — universal! — urges to come on strong. The non-needy have those same urges, but manage to hammer them down.

    I disagree.

    Apparently non-needy people really are less needy; they know they can replace new Mr. or Mrs. perfect, and their behaviour demonstrates the fact. There may be exceptions; sought-after people who are clingy, and non-sought-after people who aren’t, but generally the rule applies: clingier and more obsequious people really are more desperate.

    We want to know about the new flame’s desperation for good reason; if they are this clingy towards us, then we could get away with aiming higher.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Aaron, are you talking about behavior or inclinations? My claim only is that we all have the desire to come on strong. It might be that exhibiting strong-coming behavior is indicative of desperation, but that might be because, for example, the sought-after are consciously manipulating their less sought-after partners.

    Fuck if I know. Anyone know any really honest sought-after people to ask? (The two really sought-after people I know tend to get emotionally involved fast, but what can you do with an n of two?)

    Also: why the “apparently?”

    Also, also — your last sentence suggests that there’s something relative about clinginess — otherwise, why should someone’s being clingy toward one indicate that one could do better? If A is clingy toward B, it means only (on the rest of your account) that A is a loser, not that B is not also a loser who can’t do any better. So for your last sentence to work, it must be that A’s clinginess is also dependent on B’s relative superiority. Is that right? Would Jessica Alba be clingy if she had a shot at Barack Obama, for example?

  3. Aaron Says:

    I’m talking about inclinations. More sought after people generally, in my admittedly short experience, really do feel more confident and give less of a shit. But of course there are exceptions.

    UNTIL they meet someone as or more sought-after than they are. (Here I’m thinking about people I’ve observed; I’m not talking about evolutionary psychology or some shit like I am sometimes inclined to do [whether or not you remember].) It is relative.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Oh and the “apparently” was because it seemed you were saying that the appearance of neediness is only that – an appearance.

    …the “needy” people are those who are unable, unwilling, or uninformed to restrain their — universal! — urges to come on strong.

  5. ben wolfson Says:

    So if we all have those urges, why can’t we all satisfy them? Why can’t we all just abandon the pretense and come on strong?

    I suspect that it’s not so much because there’s a reliable if pervertible signal for something in itself desirable present, so much as that one is signalling that one knows how to signal. Vaguely plausible underlying explanantia are then invented—you can’t do this because it means this, or something—which are not really true, but allow the whole pretense to continue as if it were well-founded.

    That you know how to play the game is something you really can signal, by playing the game, but it’s not something that exists apart from it. As can that you know how to play a game more or less similar to the game that the other person is playing or expects you to play.

    By your hypothesis, after all, what playing the game the way it’s to be played couldn’t signal is that you aren’t actually needy!

  6. Uncommon Priors » Blake and others on coming on too strongly. Says:

    [...] after posting about Emily’s insight into the Rules, I stumbled onto the following on-topic fragment by Blake: “The look of love alarms, Because [...]

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, I think that’s pretty much right. So how do we rewrite the rules of the game to make it less costly?

  8. ben wolfson Says:

    IOW, dating is characterized by pervasive Entäusserung.

  9. Paul Gowder Says:


  10. Mike Says:

    So if we all have those urges, why can’t we all satisfy them? Why can’t we all just abandon the pretense and come on strong?

    Why not say that of all “urges”? There are many rules that constrain emotional impulses. Are all of these bad? Just some?

  11. ben wolfson Says:

    Just some.

    That was easy.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    Manifestly just some: the urge to get wasted and start fights is harmful. We ought to supress it. The urge to admit that we love someone when we do: not harmful. We ought not to suppress it.

  13. Mike Says:

    The urge to admit that we love someone when we do: not harmful

    Emotional or erotic love is transitory. Biological fact. So when it wears off (usually six months to 5.5 years), then what?

    There’s more to love than the feeling of love.

    Which is why this stuff is much more complicated than you guys want to admit.

  14. Paul Gowder Says:

    Well, I’m the guy who has been known to deny that love in the traditional sense exists, remember? Regardless of whether we’re talking about a feeling or some other sort of existence out there, surely it isn’t intrinsically harmful (apart from the social meaning we’ve imposed on it) to admit that you have the perception of love for someone.

  15. Mike Says:

    Look, there is this older gay dude who has a dog. We meet at the dog park. It’s obvious that the dude has a thing for me. I ignore it, as our dogs enjoy each other’s company.

    Saying he loves me would end the acquaintanceship.

    Sometimes it’s best to keep your emotions to yourself.

    Now, what if TWO people love EACH other. Well, how do you know? That is the issue. How will I know if she really loves me?

    So you shut up until you can discover this information.

    She is doing the same thing.

    You reach a mutual (or not) discovery.

    Plus, you might not love each other at the same time. What if you fall in love first? If you profess you love and she doesn’t love you too, then what?

    “Oh, but I’ll wait for her!” That is beta and pathetic and no woman wants a lap dog unless she’s a single mom looking for a chump (or, as they say in personal ads, “Real Man”) to pay her bills.

    So often these traditions or The Rules that arise out of cultures actually make sense a priori.

  16. Paul Gowder Says:

    Sure, it’s an emotional and social risk — most good things are emotional and social risks. But why should we layer on top of the prudential reasons to not utter everything that comes into your mind an additional social sanction too?

  17. Mike Says:

    What do you mean by “additional social sanction”?

  18. Paul Gowder Says:

    Imagine two worlds. In world 1, sometimes people emotionally invest in relationships very quickly. Sometimes, that works out — the other party has, or is developing, similar feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    World 2 is like world 1, except that it almost never works out, because even if the other partner has, or is developing, similar feelings, expressing early emotional investment is seen as “needy” or “desperate” and treated as a warning signal causing those similar feelings to go away.

    I submit that the difference between world 2 — the world that we’re in — and world 1 is “additional social sanction.”

  19. Mike Says:

    World 3 – the world we live in. Where people develop feelings at different times, and thus each person must development and gather information before revealing their cards.

    Look, bro, if you fall in love with someone, and s/he falls in love with you: Then there will not be a sanction of one of you says you love the other person “too soon.”

    That is a fact. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I loved her. Then she said she loved me. I dumped her!”

    That’s not how it works.

    The keeping stuff to your vest exists because of asymmetrical emotional development.

  20. Paul Gowder Says:

    But what happens if neither reveals the cards? If one or both are bad at getting or sending signals?

    For that matter, similar points could be made about much earlier stages, like the revelation of basic interest.

    Another complexity: sometimes, someone becomes more interesting because they express their interest in you. At the later stage, sometimes someone’s declaration of love might prompt the other to think “hmm, do I love this person back? Maybe so!” After all, it’s not as if this ridiculous species has very much self-awareness even about our own emotions.

    It all would be so much easier if we could just be honest with one another…

    (lurkers, could you please come out for this one? It would be nice to hear more perspectives on this.)

  21. Aaron Says:

    But what happens if neither reveals the cards? If one or both are bad at getting or sending signals?

    They have a hard time in life, is what happens.

    But generally we send signals while maintaining speech and overt behaviour which accords with our social status. This is very important; we dress shit up and speak in implicature all the time, in and outside of the dating market, because we can maintain an element of plausible deniability. This is desirable, and I would not want it changed; being told “oh no I have to be somewhere on Saturday” is preferable to being told “no I do not like you.”

    It would not be easier if we could all just be honest with each other. There would be no plausible deniability and we would be getting shot down left, right and center. To reiterate my point: asking someone if they would like to come up and see your etchings, only to have them reply, “oh no I have to get home and let the cat out” or some shit is just a lot smoother and more comfortable than:

    “Wanna fuck?”


  22. Paul Gowder Says:

    I would much prefer the “I do not like you” — at least then one need not wonder, interpret, etc. There is nothing more annoying than spending inordinate amounts of time, mental energy, stress, etc. wondering about interactions. “Is this interaction romantic or just platonic?” then, later, “does s/he actually like/love me or is s/he just screwing around/interested in less?” It is maddening to wonder, and more maddening still to find you’ve invested resources in an ambiguous interaction that turned out to not be what you wanted it to be (in either direction).

    The mild unpleasantness that attends being blunt is much, much less ghastly than the endless dances of expectation management that we all have to suffer through now.

    You may object that those with social skills are able to interpret signals for what they are and need not wonder. But to that I say “bullshit.” People are trained to deliberately send disinterest/just screwing around rather than in love signals. Whether that’s done as part of a consciously manipulative “playing hard to get” or just Mike’s holding the cards to the chest, the effect is the same: to make signals unreadable. To make us all miserable.

  23. tobeyola Says:

    The problem with declaring one’s feelings in these fraught, overwhelmingly-positive-feelings situations is not that one’s amour does not like being told that he is loved but, rather, that the suitor typically means more than “I love you. There is this beautiful feeling here and let’s leave it at that.” It’s not like looking at a work of art or hiking to someplace scenic. The suitor wants to lasso the beloved with his declaration of love and impose on his beloved obligations, which the beloved may not be so keen to accept (even if her suitor’s fawning is perfectly acceptable to her). These obligations include but are not limited to (1) first and foremost, responsibility for the suitor’s happiness but not to mention (2) the possibility of a long term relationship and all of those obligations. But I think that what is most unwanted is the responsibility for someone else’s happiness, which is often thrust upon one in these intense situations.

    Love and lust are very powerful. They deserve respect in the same way that the ocean deserves respect, or the sun. I think a world in which people lose this respect (e.g., in world one) is a worse world and possibly an uninhabitable world.

  24. tobeyola Says:

    Paul, re: 10:29, it’s not about efficiency.

  25. Paul Gowder Says:

    Tobey, I guess I’m not really appealing to efficiency so much as the pain of feeling stupid, of dashed hopes — thinking over the times I’ve been involved in this kind of signal-missing situation, I still feel a little blow when I contemplate being on the wanting-more side, and a twinge of guilt when I contemplate being on the wanting-less-and-led-the-other-along side.

    You do make some good points though. I guess I’d say that once the interest/lurve exists, reciprocated or no, one or both partners are influential over the other’s happiness whether they want to look that in the face or not — influential over, but not responsible for — and if it’s uttered, there still influence but no responsibility — the one does nothing wrong by telling the other “sorry, it isn’t mutual,” or “sorry, I don’t want the obligations of a long term relationship.”

    (Is world one really a world where love and lust are not given any respect? Honesty is disrespect? You have been reading Elizabeth Anderson. :-) )

  26. Steve M. Says:

    Let me be the first to express sympathy for introverts who are prone to elaborate romantic fantasy. Some people go around imagining all the ways in which an event might have been fraught with meaning. As I understand it, Paul is saying that, when the desirer’s affections are unwanted, the desired party ought to get it over with, and dispel the illusion. That’s painful, and people don’t like to do it, but it’s much better for the introverted desirer than a few weeks of horrifying wondering, during which the imagination that produced the romantic meaning kicks into overdrive. But why is it at all okay (moral?) for X to expect Y to break his heart, even though it’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience, just because it’s better for him or for her that Y does so? I mean, in the first instance, you can say that the introverted desirer suffers more from not knowing than the desired suffers from breaking the desirer’s heart. But that seems fishy to me. Structurally, it’s a lot like addiction, where a global approach would tell the desirer to cultivate a personality that doesn’t let the imagination run riot at the slightest interaction. It sucks for the introverts (because they don’t want totally to repress the imagination, or romantic spontaneity, which the desired will swear up and down are among the most desirable qualities), but, hey, them’s the breaks.

  27. tobeyola Says:

    I think the wrongness of the situation (desirer desiring ambiguously-reciprocating desired who does not, in fact, reciprocate) consists in the pleasure that the desired takes from the desired’s desiring even when such pleasure is bad for the desired. So, the desired should be upfront about his disinterest because it is wrong for him to enjoy the tainted pleasure of his suitor’s devotion. He should reject the suitor’s affections not because it is bad for the suitor to give them but because it is bad for him to take them.

  28. Paul Gowder Says:

    Will none of my utilitarian commenters (x.trap?) come forward to answer Tobey and Steve? I guess I can play one on TV…

    Actually, I don’t even think I need to play a utilitarian. Because my claim is only that it would be a better world if we all were more honest with one another about our feelings and desires, not that anyone actually has the obligation to bring about that world. And it seems to me that the fact that lots of people get hurt by this ambiguity is enough for that. It’s not a matter of examining the morality of the desired/loved, it’s a matter of lamenting the world in which people suffer.

    Also, Steve, your point seems to require that it only be some special class of introverts who suffer from the problem of wondering and pining. But some of the most extroverted people I know have suffered as a result of confusion about whether a romantic partner loves or is just fucking around w/ him/her, as well as whether or not s/he is desired at all (though the latter tends to be less painful).

    Has anyone reading this not suffered as a result of wondering about ambiguous or mixed signals?

  29. Mike Says:

    the wrongness of the situation (desirer desiring ambiguously-reciprocating desired who does not, in fact, reciprocate) consists in the pleasure that the desired takes from the desired’s desiring even when such pleasure is bad for the desired.

    Well, that is known as leading someone on; and, yes, that’s a problem. Most people seem to think that’s a problem. Is that really what’s being discussed?

    Paul seems to suggest that the minute you develop a feeling for someone, you should just say it. And if the person doesn’t react the “right” way,” then there is a problem.

    Well, people don’t develop the same feelings at the same time. Sometimes you fall in love first; sometimes the other person falls in love first. Sometimes, if you are not yet in love, you might feel freaked out learning the other person loves you.

    Or, you might say, “This person loves me. I don’t want to lead the person on. So I’ll just end it.”

    Respect for a person’s autonomy means giving space. Often this means you don’t say whatever the fuck comes into your head. People just need to keep their cool for a while until there is some symmetry.

    Of course, this entire discussion is contrived. Paul is a hopeless romantic. He wants to rationalize that the world is unfair because he’s not able to profess his love whenever he feels like it.

    More proof that Paul’s a bad Kantian!

  30. Paul Gowder Says:

    I am not a hopeless romantic! Good heavens, I’m an inveterate cynic!

  31. Mike Says:

    But what happens if neither reveals the cards? If one or both are bad at getting or sending signals?

    Then they are fucked – and deservedly so. It’s not like this stuff can’t be learned.

    If signaling were magical or supernatural or some shit, you might have a point. If you’re born short, that’s not your fault when society pays you less money, views you as less competent, etc. That’s a wrong; and people who say that height should be taxed have a point.

    But communication ain’t height. One can become a better communicator.

    I was not a natural communicator. It took me years to get good. I have 100s of books on communication, body language, social psychology, signalling, game, blah, blah, blah. The information is out there.

    I’ll talk to people who belly ache over this shit. My first question is always, “What’s the last book on communication that you read?”

    None! Most people have never read even a single book on basic communication. So why is it an unjust world when their lives suck because they can’t communicate?

    Stuff like this always gives me a laugh riot. Every mother fucker out there thinks he or she is at least a competent communicator. Why do they think this? Well, because they’ve done it for years!

    As the kids say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

    Yet few people will make room for the possibility that, perhaps, simply “doing something” for decades doesn’t mean that you’ve been doing it competently – let alone optimally.

    It’s like my going into Stanford. I think academic writing is bullshit; and that most academic language is designed to create barriers to the truth. So I don’t use it. And it took me years to learn to write in plain language. But I go in, and say, “I can’t write like a scholar! The world is unfair!”

    You’d all say, “Mike, take a course on scholarly writing. There are books on this shit.” Without even blinking, that’s what you’d say!

    Yet when someone says, “Hey, socially challenges people, there’s a whole library on this stuff,” there is objection after objection.

    “Oh, that shit’s not reliable. I shouldn’t have to. Life isn’t fair. We need to imagine a new world where I don’t have to do practice ad things don’t come naturally to be.”

    I wouldn’t take the GMAT without taking a practice exam and a prep course. Yet people with 9999th percentile IQs will go out into the dating world without having read a single book on the subject.

    As if often the answer: The problem is not with the problem. The problem is with you. ;)

  32. tobeyola Says:

    What bothers me most fundamentally about this discussion is the broad assumption that many different people have the possibility to fall deeply in love with each other, as long as certain things go right, e.g., there’s no overly-premature declaration of love and/or social circumstances change such that overly-premature declarations of love don’t end budding romantic entanglements.

    I think this assumption is false: there aren’t large numbers of possible happy matches in the world but really just a few. So the talk about telling-too-soon or falling-in-love -at-different-times rings false to me. I think it’s the worthless (or low worth) relationships that inspire overwhelming initial feelings and, as such, that these feelings are really discountable. They signify little in terms of meaningful interactions with others, though they may be interesting (and may inspire creative projects). In high worth relationships, by contrast, I think that such topsy-turvy feelings don’t occur. Worthy relationships make you feel secure, not insecure, wonderful, nor worried.

    So, debating the prudence of limerence strikes me as kind of a waste of time. There are probably a lot of people that can get you hot and bothered. But that doesn’t mean that you should invest anything in those people, particularly not the hopes of your happiness.

  33. Paul Gowder Says:

    Tobey, I think this is where I get to prove my inveterate cynic status. Because I kind of believe that most people are pretty fungible most of the time. Here’s how “love” happens:

    1) This limerence (a word that makes me nauseated for reasons I’ll remind you of later) business happens, probably as a result of some combination of lust, affinity, and sheer timing; then

    2) With repeated interaction, hormones and the neediness that is our heritage as a species whose issue are born helpless and who are living in a profoundly alienating world in which there are precious few outlets for things like emotional intimacy kicks in, such that we become attached to one another, have experiences of distress at the possibility of separation, etc.; then, depending on how cynical you are, one of the following stages happens

    3a — non-cynical version) This attachment develops further into taking the partner’s good for one’s own, developing a genuine appreciation for the quirks of one’s partner, etc. This is called “love.”

    3b — cynical version) Cognitive dissonance reduction kicks in, and we convince ourselves that these feelings of attachment and need represent something noble and beautiful because we’re unable to recognize that it’s just a projection of our own desires. This is called “love.”

    Either way, when both partners perform one’s preferred version of 3 in a communicative fashion, it’s called a loving relationship.

    With this model of “love,” high-worth relationships aren’t something you find, they’re something you create out of the dross of the world. (Just think of the arranged marriages, in societies that still have them, that turn out OK. I sometimes wonder if we ought to bring arranged marriages back.)

    Mike, you make it sound so easy… but there’s a big difference between fields of advice-giving in which there are thousands of hucksters promoting their latest self-help book, and fields of advice-giving at which there are recognized experts with techniques that reliably produce good results and few-to-no liars muddying the waters.

  34. Steve M. Says:

    I would not describe that as cynical, inveterate or otherwise. If fact, if you stripped it of its misanthropic tone, there are hippies who’d approve.

  35. Paul Gowder Says:

    That is only one of the many ways in which I resemble a filthy hippie.

  36. Aaron Says:

    Not following from any comment in particular apart from, perhaps, a comment of Mike’s which included,

    Well, people don’t develop the same feelings at the same time. Sometimes you fall in love first; sometimes the other person falls in love first. Sometimes, if you are not yet in love, you might feel freaked out learning the other person loves you.

    Recently-ish I was involved with someone who I liked. (You’d hope.) In the first week of hanging out she told me like five times that she likes me and really likes me. I didn’t like that.

    I did like her, however. But the reason I didn’t like her telling me that was because I felt like I had to tell her back, although I didn’t. The reason I didn’t tell her back was because telling her might have been leading her on; this early on I may feel like I like her, but how did I know the next week I wouldn’t find out she had some weird, deeply ingrained personality defect which would totally turn me off? (Turns out she did – narcissism, har har, although it only turned me on, unfortunately.)

    So that might be why a lot of us don’t want to divulge too much too early; you’re kind of committing yourself without knowing exactly who you’re committing yourself too.

  37. Paul Gowder Says:

    Let’s toss another complication in here. Not all “coming on too strongly” comes in the form of dramatic declarations of love. It might also come in the form of, e.g., wanting to spend an unusual amount of time with the other, buying gifts, etc. — things that don’t demand a reciprocal utterance from the other, but might nonetheless read as “needy.”

  38. Aaron Says:

    Same thing. It would be silly to give ANY overly needy signals when there’s a good chance that in the very near future you might abandon the person since you are still only getting to know them.

    If you, say, text message a person with “Hey how’s your day going? blah blah blah,” 25 times a day, every day, and then the next week find out that you don’t like them because they have some strange thing about them you didn’t notice at first, then ending the interaction is going to be a much bigger deal.

    “But I thought all those text messages meant something?!”

  39. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thinking over your narcissistic friend a little, Aaron, I wonder if what happened wasn’t actually an example of good communication skills on her part: by telling you that she liked you, she prompted the reciprocal utterance if you really were firm in your liking her. By your silence, she got the information she was looking for. Needy statements: useful…

  40. Aaron Says:

    No but I think my reason for not reciprocating (even though I felt the same way) was a very good one, don’t you? I didn’t want to divulge too much so early in case I found out in the near future that I don’t want to pursue anything with her.

    There is an initial “getting to know each other” phase, and getting clingy with each other prematurely propels it in to a full blown relationship. And that just isn’t wise, given that you don’t know the person as well as you’d like to and you’re still kind of deciding if you want to be with them. (Your heart, of course, has decided; but your brain has not.)

    (And for the record, I’m pretty sure the narcissism thing wasn’t just a response of hers to my coldness or anything, because I can see you wondering about that; she told me quite early on that she’d cheated on her previous boyfriend three times without remorse, and that she thinks she’s incapable of fidelity because she just finds it hard to care about other people’s feelings. That, of course, completely turned me on. *Sigh*.)

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