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Why Modern Dating Feels So Awkward

You probably know the “spark.” It shows up in countless romantic comedies, and occasionally in post-date debriefs with annoyingly lovestruck friends. It’s the instant chemistry, the “butterflies,” the heady rush—the mysterious feeling that someone is just right for you. It’s also not exactly a realistic expectation.

Disillusionment in the spark didn’t just recently begin, but lately it’s been gaining momentum. Dating coaches and scholars alike have warned that even if you don’t feel a fizzy excitement when you first meet someone, you might still end up falling for them. Perhaps they’re nervous or tired in the initial encounter; perhaps you just haven’t realized what makes them great. If you are drawn to someone off the bat, it could be because they feel familiar, Kevin Lewis, a UC San Diego sociologist, told me. Maybe they remind you of an ex, variations of whom you seem to keep dating. Maybe, as Logan Ury, a behavioral scientist for Hinge and the author of How to Not Die Alone, argues bluntly, a spark just means the other person is hot or charming. Slow burns, evidently, are in. First impressions—and their attendant misperceptions—are out.

Some critics have even offered an alternative principle: If on the first date you don’t succeed, try again, and again, and again. In fact, keep dating someone until you feel absolutely certain that,  even with all of the good-faith effort in the world, you could not grow to love them. Aleeza Ben Shalom, the matchmaker star of Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking, sums it up: “Date ’em ’til you hate ’em.”

To be fair, Ben Shalom’s slogan probably isn’t meant to be taken to its literal extreme. And of course, people can grow on you. But if you don’t believe in the spark, and you also don’t want to go on infinite mediocre dates waiting to taste the bitter pill of true hatred, some questions remain: How many meetups before you can throw in the towel on a new romantic prospect? If you shouldn’t be swayed by your emotions, how do you know who you like? On either end of the spectrum, the advice can feel unsatisfying. And to some degree, that’s not just because love is complex and the search for it can be grueling. It’s because dating as we know it is a uniquely modern and incredibly awkward phenomenon—and it tends to turn courtship into a series of ultimatums.

“Date ’em ’til you hate ’em” has something to it—particularly “if your goal is to get into a relationship, come hell or high water,” Paul Eastwick, a UC Davis psychologist who studies romantic compatibility, told me. For one thing, studies suggest that time and familiarity can grow attraction. According to the law of “propinquity,” the more frequently you interact with someone, the more you tend to like them (whether as a friend or a flame). The “sunk-cost fallacy” also applies: Once you’ve invested hours and what might seem like half your life savings into dimly lit cocktail bars, you’re motivated to feel that the prize was worth the price.

In one of Eastwick’s studies, a class of students all privately rated one another’s attractiveness. (This is my actual nightmare.) At first, the students’ judgments largely aligned—they generally agreed on who was more or less attractive. But by the end of the semester, when students rated one another again, the rankings were far more variable. “As you get to know someone, you develop a unique sense of attraction with that person based on your cumulative experiences,” Samantha Joel, a psychologist at Western University, in Canada, who researches romantic decision making, told me. The same idea holds up when you study people who are actually dating. “When relationships form fast, they sort pretty dramatically along, say, something like physical attractiveness,” Eastwick told me. That effect becomes less pronounced when people have longer to become acquainted. With more time, essentially, you might assess people on less superficial and more meaningful grounds. That’s bad news for the spark.

And yet, neither Eastwick nor Joel nor any of the other researchers I spoke with was a fan of the advice to “date ’em ’til you hate ’em.” They agreed that you generally need some time to get to know someone. But people already tend to give potential mates ample chances, Joel told me; in fact, they’re commonly too eager to ignore signs of incompatibility. “Our decision-making tendencies seem to be very calibrated toward getting in a relationship,” she said. And the longer you’re seeing someone, the harder it usually is to end things—so making people doubt their own early hesitations might be unwise. “I think it’s great advice for winding up in a relationship,” she told me. “I’m not convinced it’s good advice for winding up in a good relationship.”

Daters have a dilemma, then: They shouldn’t depend on the spark, because initial attractions really can be misleading. But they also shouldn’t force themselves ceaselessly forward against their instincts. And it’s not realistic, researchers told me, to override that instinct with logic and only consider who makes a good partner on paper; relationships require some emotional connection, and what makes that connection form and last isn’t yet totally clear to psychologists anyway. When I asked Joel how people typically decide whether to try one more date, she took a long pause. “Honestly, I’ve been studying this topic for more than a decade,” she told me. “And the answer I want to give you is vibes.”

The problem is that, in modern dating, gauging vibes is not a casual process. Before dating apps, relationships tended to form between people who were already socially connected. Until about the 19th century, partners in many cultures typically came from families that knew each other (and matched the partners up). In the U.S., even when dating became more of an individual journey over the past century or so, people most commonly dated their friends and acquaintances, and usually had plenty of open-ended time to get a sense of each other. As Lewis told me, knowing people in common gives you more information about each other and increases trust; you’re less likely to treat a date poorly if your social circle will hear about it later.

But in recent decades, and especially in the online-dating era, more and more people have sought love with strangers. Romance has become something that, in its early stages, is separate from the rest of one’s life: You take time from hanging out with friends and family in order to essentially interview someone for a role. You ask them about their job, their interests, their cultural taste—all while trying to assess who they are and how you feel about that. And after every date, you have a decision to make: Are they worth seeing again? Rather than, say, running into someone at a party and having another low-stakes chat, you might think: Did I have enough fun with this person? Do we have enough in common? Can I see myself growing old with them? Why did they eat the last fry without even asking me if I wanted it?

The dater is thus consistently forced into difficult decision points. If they feel that they need more data, they’ll have to spend more time and energy to get it. If they determine that the connection wasn’t strong enough, they may never see this person again, and likely forfeit any chance to change their mind later. Both the “spark” and “date ’em ’til you hate ’em” are convenient shorthands that try to help people choose a path. But they don’t make the underlying conundrum feel any less daunting.

Eastwick thinks that people looking for a partner could benefit from focusing not on setting up dates, but on meeting new people generally—a promising recipe, he said, for finding someone along the way. “Salsa classes still exist,” he assured. “Kickball leagues still exist.” And yet, there are likely many people who, like me, would sooner commit here and now to dying alone than look for love in a kickball league. I’m happy for anyone who’s up for that, but society can’t just go back to the old dating world. We have to find a way forward in this one.

My sources told me that, in reality, both the spark and “date ’em ’til you hate ’em” are a little bit true: You need to have some degree of natural chemistry, but you also need some patience to develop it. The right partner will offer the thrill of possibility but also the sturdiness of familiarity.

If you get to the inevitable fork in the road—give up on a new person or give them another chance—you can listen to your gut; you have no obligation to slog ahead. But perhaps you can still look for the promises of both possibility and familiarity, just in subtler forms. That sensation might feel less like a spark and more like a soft glow, maybe the kind that comes from noticing a genuinely good listener. Perhaps it’d generate a welcome curiosity about who this person is and what more time with them may look like.

The next date could lead nowhere, and that’s okay too. But it might eventually lead you to feel a sparklike, cheesy giddiness. At that point, with some luck and some persistence, you may reach a truly coveted milestone: the point at which you don’t need to stop and evaluate after every date—because you already know exactly how you feel.

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