Dating is a funny thing. In theory, it means two people mutually sharing their authentic selves to see if their values, goals, and personalities align enough to make a long-term relationship viable. However, that’s not even fucking close to what people are out here doing.
If we’re not doing that, what exactly are we doing? What are the driving forces in our relationships? What’s at stake when we date?
I’d like to answer these questions and explain the pitfalls of dating that no one seems to be talking about. This should help prevent you from flailing about in the dating pool, playing patty-cake with scumbags, building a life with someone you don’t even like that much, or staying way too long in a relationship you hope is gonna get better.
What Makes Us Feel Good
When our needs are unmet we feel terrible, and when they’re satisfied we feel fantastic. Simple enough, but profound if you’ve never considered the relationship between feelings and needs. This would be a straightforward recipe for happiness if the vast majority of the populace had any idea what their needs are.
Unfortunately, there are more people who know algebra than people with demonstrable knowledge of their fundamental human needs. If that strikes you as gross negligence or a stark failure of humanity (and I hope it does), check out my article Do You Even Know What Your Needs Are?
Now, lucky for our species, humans have an instinctual drive to satisfy our needs. This means you can be dumb as a bowl of yogurt and still know in your DNA that you need love and belonging. On paper, this seems like a nice safety feature of the homo sapiens. But in practice, it means people will compulsively do all kinds of mindless, underhanded, and destructive things to get their needs met.
Why Dating Is So Scary
The two greatest universal human fears are fear of not being good enough and fear of not being loved. So naturally, dating is a place we are likely to have enough visceral terror to completely separate from reality and do all kinds of wild shit.
They say love is blind, but I’ve got another take on it. I think fear of not being loved is what drives our blindly insane relationship behaviors.
Real love, in my opinion, is seeing clearly as fuck and acting from a place of choice rather than inexplicable compulsion.
If you objectively compare a commonplace “falling in love” experience to a trauma response, you may be appalled by the similarities. Self-abandonment, dissociation, obsession, vivid sensory experiences, endocrine response, physiological changes… it’s all there.
And that shit is startling.
Dating Is Inherently Dishonest
Because love and belonging are irreducible human needs, because we are all afraid on some level of not being good enough, and because everyone has their own insecurities, triggers, and coping mechanisms, dating is innately biased as hell. And the stakes are high.
You will never meet someone on a first date. You’re meeting their representative. It may be that you eventually get to know them over time, but it’s equally plausible that they never share their full, authentic self with you. It all depends on each partner’s capacity for vulnerability, which is often a product of childhood trauma.
The result is a dating game of sorts, and we could all benefit by taking a good look at how this game works.
Putting on the dog. Leading with the good foot. Bringing your A-game. Whatever you wanna call it. Most people don’t roll outta bed lookin all peezy and show up to a first date hungover and stank. In fact, quite the opposite is true. People tend to polish all their trophies and leave them in the front window during the early stages of relationships. They’re usually on their best behavior and make every attempt to display their fullest potential.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to strut your stuff and flex on a new person, but I think we all need to know this dog and pony show can’t last forever. Yeah, it’s fun. Enjoy it. But if you think that magical ass unicorn performance is literally who that person is, you’re gonna be real upset, talkin bout, “Baby, why you actin funny?”, “You changed,” or “Can’t we go back to how things were in the beginning?”
The truth is, they didn’t change at all. They just stopped running their ad campaign after you elected them to office.
Yes, we sometimes fall in the love with the idea of someone. But it’s also true that they often participate in convincing us of that idea.
Do you see? It’s a game you are both playing, whether you like it or not. And once you realize it’s a game, you don’t have to feel so victimized by people anymore. There’s a strong chance they have no idea what they’re doing anyway.
Because everyone implicitly knows that having our needs met feels good, what usually happens in dating should come as no surprise.
I’m gonna give you attention, affection, appreciation, acceptance, validation, connection, belonging, safety, security, excitement, playfulness, physical and emotional wellbeing. I’m gonna meet the SHIT out of your needs! So hard, in fact, that you will automatically feel fucking splendid. Floating on a cloud. Glowing. Giggling. Marinating in rapturous delight.
And you’re gonna associate all those wonderful feelings with ME! Mwahahahahaaaaaaa…
Then, not only are you gonna love me (#winning), but I’ll feel pretty damn good about myself for making you feel that way (#morewinning).
Ok, I didn’t mean for that maniacal laugh to make it sound so evil and malicious. The point is, making someone fall in love with you isn’t all that hard if you know what you’re doing.
And I hope you find that statement at least mildly terrifying.
Like I said, it’s involuntary manipulation most of the time. I really believe that. When you take the biological imperatives of love and belonging, mix in the existential fear of not getting those things, and perhaps sprinkle a little childhood trauma and shitty parenting on top, you’ve got the perfect recipe for someone willing to go to any length to get your love. By any means necessary.
When It Becomes Dangerous
If you’ve got a modicum of self-respect, healthy community and positive influences, a little self-awareness, mental health, and enough maturity to take decent care of yourself, you’re not at high risk of being preyed upon by these emotional interlopers.
However, if any of these things are missing, and particularly if you have poor boundaries and chronically unmet needs, you’re basically tied to a rock at low tide and it’s just a matter of time before the sharks get you.
If you lack self-esteem, boundaries, self-care, or emotional awareness (common effect of childhood trauma, btw), it’s distressingly easy for someone to insert themselves into your life and quickly assume the role of best thing that ever happened to you.
But there’s a big difference between being swept off your feet and having the ground snatched out from under you.
To be fair, that person might honestly think they’re doing you a favor. And you might even feel the same way. But it’s a hostage crisis with a dangerous power differential. Unsustainable at best. Soul-crushing at its worst.
Why People Attract Terrible Partners
If you catch yourself pondering, “Why do I always attract shitty people,” I want you to hear me loud and clear right now. It’s because something interfered with your emotional development and you’re walking around with unresolved relational trauma that you probably can’t see because it tends to occupy the very seat of your consciousness.
Basically, you’re in the deep end of the dating pool and don’t know that you don’t know how to swim. That’s why you keep getting brutally rescued from drowning by people you didn’t pick. No one “chooses” from a position of powerlessness.
You’ve gotta heal and become a whole human being who doesn’t desperately need someone to complete you, fix you, meet all your needs, or fulfill a healing fantasy. Certainly not easy work, but 100% doable.
Read The 4 Pillars of Healing and Growth for some practical tips to get started. I’ve also got ninety articles in my blog as of this publication, most of which are dedicated to exactly this work. Have a look. Also, I cannot overemphasize the power of working with a trauma-informed coach or therapist. I highly recommend it.