Social skills as mating display
June 2, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

So I was listening to the most recent Dan Savage podcast, and one of the questions stuck with me.

A woman met a man, got his card, and a few weeks later sent him an erotic story she had written about him. She wondered if this was "too forward." Dan's answer was that this is not so much about being too forward but more about showing poor judgment, and that something like writing slash fiction about your partner is something you might hold back on for several months, until you know each other quite a lot better.

Dan pointed out that one of the things that people look for in partners is good judgment.

I would not have made the same mistake this woman made, but listening to the call I realized that I have probably hurt some of my potential relationships by going from 0-60 in terms of intimacy. Making it past the 3rd date is so unusual and exciting, I have to like someone SO much for that, that I am ready to bare my soul in a way that might seem normal for a 17-year old but for a 30-something might come across as clueless, lacking dating skills, needy or inappropriate.

So: what do you see as the boundaries of intimacy as a relationship progresses? What things do you hold back on until the 3rd date, the 3rd month, the 6th month?

(For reference, I am 30-something but have had no long term relationships for reasons that are not clear to me. Actually maybe I should have written this question as "what did your 17-year old self not know about relationships" because god only knows what else I don't know.)
posted by bunderful to Human Relations (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The timelines for this are going to be very different for everyone. But a really easy way to gauge comfortableness in intimacy is just give a little bit more than the other person does and if they reciprocate, it's cool to just give a bit more. It's in the pacing. If they don't, you've just overstepped a tiny bit and no one is weirded out. Remember intimacy is not a race, it's a journey that happens together.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:34 AM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Brent's answer is predicated on knowing how much "a little bit" is, though :) The rule of thumb I use is to ask myself if I would be comfortable hearing what I'm about to say, were the positions reversed. Also, being honest about this while situation is an option! "I like you a lot, and I'm really feeling like I can share things with you. I don't want to cross lines or be weird about it or seem needy, though, so..."

People can usually tell when other people feel awkward and overthinky, so letting them know what you're over thinking is a pretty good way to reassure them that you're not focusing on something they're feeling self conscious about.
posted by Fraxas at 9:43 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

There will always be disagreements/differences in taste about how much you should reveal of yourself, at what point. Anything that seems like unburdening or sharing problems is probably too much during the first few dates. But in my opinion, you should be avoiding that almost automatically anyway, by being more interested in the other person and what they have to say about themselves.

The Savage example is different because the woman didn't just share too much; she crossed the new guy's boundaries. Writing an erotic story about someone you don't know very well is way overstepping. That is, surely all kinds of people write all kinds of things based on brief encounters, but they usually know not to show what they have written to just anybody. In general, let people have their privacy. Even if you Google someone after the first date (lots of people do) don't assume they are going to want to talk about whatever it is that you find.

Put it this way: if my date tells me too much about themselves, I'm just going to think they are too self-centered or naive or enthusiastic, or whatever they were too much about. If they've written an erotic story about me after one date, and can't see why it would bother me that they show it to me, I'm going to find that at least a little scary.
posted by BibiRose at 9:47 AM on June 2, 2013

Best answer: It might be worth thinking about characteristics that make you YOU and rating them in terms of how intimate they are or aren't. You can build some sort of hierarchy and slowly go down the hierarchy as your partner asks you questions and reveals things in the same general level of hierarchy. Do this on paper, and take a little time to do it. It might give you a better feel for how these things work.

For example, things that you do with other people (e.g. where you work, your hobbies, movies, where you went to school) might be at the outer-most circle, then one level down might be opinions about movies, books, *really general* political issues, your opinions of your chosen field of work, etc.. Next level might be family (how many siblings, if parents are still around, etc.) and other opinions about things. You get closer and closer to the "core", which are things that might be potentially embarrassing or might make you vulnerable (e.g. sexual preferences or kinks, relationships with family members that fall outside the norm, past relationships, controversial opinions, events or traits that you've worked hard to overcome or deal with.)

As you converse with your partner, they reveal things to you that might be in the same "circle." They might then go down a circle and express an opinion on a movie or restaurant, and then you can do the same. Or, they might not ("Yeah I saw that movie.") and you can probe, ("What did you think about it?" "I thought it was brilliant, did you like it?") back and forth through the layers. This might happen over a series fo dates or meeting, or heck, even through the course of a long-term relationship.

You might inadvertently jump a layer or two, but if your conversational partner avoids answering or changes the topic, you can apologize and move on. No need to make it a big thing. The trick is to keep track of what your dating partner is sharing with you. If it's on the same level, probe to the next. Or, they might take it to the next level, and then it's up to you to decide if you're comfortable sharing that level of information.

Have you thought about taking dancing lessons? It requires two people to anticipate and cooperate in a very intimate way in order to achieve something. The nice thing is that it's non-verbal and it's structured and sanctioned (by the group and/or dancing instructor). It might be a good way to get a feel of that "back and forth" you need to have for intimacy to progress at its own pace.
posted by absquatulate at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

Do you have a partnered female friend (or male friend with a sympathetic and trustworthy female partner)? Your description of yourself sounds like a good friend of mine who was always frustrated that he couldn't get past a couple of dates because he very badly wanted to find a girlfriend, get married, have kids, and was starting to feel like there was an expiration date, but he came on SO STRONG. I was constantly telling him, "NO, THAT THING YOU JUST DID IS CREEPY!" and he'd be like, "No it isn't! It's charming!"

Anyway, I think you should run the specifics past a heterosexual female friend who is safely partnered and who knows you and who can say, "Yeah, we all think your LARPing is awesome but you should maybe hold that back for six dates or so until she knows that you're not a man-child," or "Mmmmm, I think maybe you shouldn't have started bringing up your kids' names on the second date. Good to talk about how you might want to have kids, bad to talk about your specific kid-having plans."

These kinds of questions are hard to answer without knowing the context of who you are and how you present, but this is exactly what good friends are for. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (Eyebrows, I'm not sure but I think you may have thought I was male. I'm actually female.)
posted by bunderful at 10:05 AM on June 2, 2013

Making it past the 3rd date is so unusual and exciting, I have to like someone SO much for that, that I am ready to bare my soul in a way that might seem normal for a 17-year old but for a 30-something might come across as clueless

Part of being an adult is learning that having feelings isn't a mandate to express them. I mean, I'm all for honesty - "It's rare for me to gel with someone past the third date, I really like you and I'm enjoying the time we spend together" is one thing, but "We've been on three days and now I want you to know ALL THE THINGS about me because I'm dreaming of being TOGETHER FOREVER!" is another.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:06 AM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, sorry, because I was thinking of my friend who is male who has the same problem. Flip genders! Find a male friend to run this all past!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2013

So, here's the thing about going from 0 to 60, and why that is often cause for alarm: we just met, and things may feel super-comfortable, natural, easy, and with sparks spontaneously generating from the chemical reaction going off between us. All the lights are green. But if one or both parties floor it, it's not necessarily a matter of coming across as needy or inappropriate: it is simply that we do not really know one another yet.

So if you start expressing powerful feelings for me right away, that's flattering, but also alarming because you do not really know me. How can I believe or trust that what you are feeling is really about me? How much of this is just compatible pheromones? Is there something about me that reminds you of a certain ideal you may have in mind, and how close do I really come to that? For both our sakes it is better to slow down a bit. There will be time enough to see if those initial feelings can be supported by the reality of you and me.
posted by fikri at 10:17 AM on June 2, 2013 [23 favorites]

I think you should run the specifics past a heterosexual female friend who is safely partnered

I think this advice works now that we know you are female, OP. The reason is the disconnect between what people say they want and what their behavior indicates they actually want.

I think avoiding oversharing is good advice for this matter and in general. I do not care to count how many times I have met someone for the first time and they blurt out that they have X mental illness or some other dreadfully personal matter that is far too inappropriate for a first time meeting. Remarkably, I suspect that such people think highly of themselves for being so "honest".

The woman who called the show was too forward and showed poor judgment. The way that she showed poor judgment was by being too forward. Unfortunately, there is no list to answer the question of "What things do you hold back on until the 3rd date, the 3rd month, the 6th month?" anymore than there is a list of things to say in a conversation. You have to be able to read the room. But, this is not something that you can be taught by reading this thread. It will only come with actual practice in social interaction.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:19 AM on June 2, 2013

I agree with the good judgement thing. Attraction is a balance between being interesting enough without veering into crazy. Little moments of poor judgement, especially earlier on, get extrapolated into "oh my god, this person does not react well". We want to trust our partners, and when they show momentary bad judgement, we fear that they will freak out in a crisis. IMHO.
posted by gjc at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think the important skill is not so much boundaries in general but being able to figure out what your partner's boundaries are specifically. I went on a few dates with one guy I met online, and in those 3 dates I found out all about what psychiatric drugs he took, about his 3 psych hospital stays including details of one of them, and that he had accidentally shot himself in the leg(then in a different conversation he said he wanted to take me to the shooting range)

It was way too much for me to process and I ended up ending it after he freaked out when I spent the night on the 3rd date but didn't sleep with him. Other than the over-sharing I liked him, but I didn't sleep with him because I just couldn't bring myself to cross the physical boundary when I was still processing so much mental stuff that I felt like I had been bombarded with. I even told him this when I told him it wasn't going to work out for me and he didn't seem to get it or even try to understand.

OTOH there have been several threads on here(and other places) about people who like that sort of over-sharing and are looking for exactly that type of person. This guy had a lot of trouble with dating because he obviously couldn't figure out boundaries of the people he was trying to date...
posted by fromageball at 11:02 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm that kind of person who blurts out my visits to the psychiatrist the first time meeting someone. Maybe they put up with it because they wanted sex or something. It's because I lacked a lot of normal experience with people(most of my encounters in life have been awkward), so I didn't know how to act. It's not a matter of intimacy and feeling comfortable sometimes. It's just a matter of lack of social skills. Plus some people have a harder time sharing things with people they've known for a long time and want to start fresh and be honest with a new person before they get to the point where it feels awkward and they have an idea of you that is not really you (in the way that you might not tell your family or long term friends things that seem out of character). Usually, nothing goes beyond that, so I've learned not to do that as much.

From what I've observed, the people I've done that with have gone on to find people they're serious with and take it very slow with them. The feeling of people knowing all of you too fast isn't even that great because then what's left to learn about? The process doesn't feel that organic. It feels weird when I've said a lot about myself but don't know much about the other person. But then I know some people who get pretty crazy together in the beginning and stay together for a while, but they probably feel the same way about it so it works. I think it's just different for everyone, but generally refrain because you can always hold back, but can't take back what you say. Just scope out how the other person is. I think some people can be closer in some areas, like sex for example, than say, emotional issues. Someone might not mind a dirty letter early on but doesn't want to hear about the pills you take right away.
posted by wholecornandsalt at 11:48 AM on June 2, 2013

Can't agree more with Fikri--when someone really really likes me right away, I find it disturbing because I feel that there's no way they can really be liking ME; it's more that they are trying to fit me into some idea they have of the perfect person.

This can be really off-putting, because I know later on they will realize that I'm actually a real person, not the "someone" they've been dreaming of.
posted by exceptinsects at 12:38 PM on June 2, 2013 [19 favorites]

It's an interesting question! One thing you might think about is whether or not you have a wide range of healthy, platonic relationships with people in your life - from polite acquaintances to intimate close friends. If the answer is no (if, say, you only have a handful of friends you've known since childhood) then maybe you need to work, more generally, on negotiating appropriate personal boundaries. Meanwhile, if the answer is yes, then this is a romance-specific problem.

If it's the latter, then here's my take: artificially "holding back" and keeping to a schedule you've planned out before you had even started dating is a bad idea. You'll feel unnatural and stifled and as though you have to hide your true feelings while you wait for the other person to catch up to you, which is kind of humiliating.

Instead, I think you should come at this from a different perspective. True intimacy takes time to develop. It takes a long time to get to know someone well enough that you can be sure that they're the person you want to be with more than anyone else in the world (which is, in a way, what it means to enter into a monogamous relationship). So, before you make that commitment, you want to gather a lot of evidence about them and get to know them really well. If, after three dates, you think you know someone well enough to enter into a committed relationship with them, you are almost certainly in error. Possibly reasons for making this mistake include:

1. You are confusing lust with love. It is certainly possible to know you're really attracted to someone after 3 dates (or 5 minutes) so that rush of intensity that accompanies desire might be blinding you to how much you actually know about that person.

2. You aren't confident that you will find someone right for you, or you're really inexperienced at dating. "This person seems to like me okay, he's not ugly, and I don't hate his personality!" is not enough of a reason for entering a committed relationship, but after a dry spell, it can seem that way. Date more and work on your overall confidence levels, and this impulse will go away.

3. You think you know the person better than you do. Fikri, above, nailed it: Is there something about me that reminds you of a certain ideal you may have in mind, and how close do I really come to that? God, this happens so, so much, and the realization that someone is doing this to you is actually really brutal. Try really hard not to idealize the people you're dating, or try to slot them into a 'type' you have in your head. Not only will you slow down on the rush to commitment, but the connections you build with them will be a hundred times more honest.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

If someone did to me what that woman in the podcast did to that man, I'd feel emotionally molested. Too forward, my ass. She was jerking off on his psyche.

I agree with DarlingBri's approach of restraint. It's respectful toward the other person, and respectful toward yourself. It may sound odd, but being professional about it is not a bad way to go. Meaning, in the early days of getting to know someone, behave as you would with new colleagues.

There is something about people who conduct themselves with restrained passion -- you can sense the depth of feeling and ardor, but they don't emote and gush and babble -- that I find so impressive. It's what would make me want to go on a third date.

But horses for courses.
posted by nacho fries at 12:57 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this might be the gist of the issue: "Making it past the 3rd date is so unusual and exciting, I have to like someone SO much for that".

I can relate because out of 1000 people there maybe is 1 that I find interesting. When I meet them, obviously the conversation will be a different one than with a person-that-is-not-interesting. It might be not logical but on an emotional level it just feels right.
It has nothing to do with an "idea of the perfect person", more with the excitement to find a rare connection (platonic or romantic).
posted by travelwithcats at 1:20 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I feel I've misdirected my question a bit. And actually it might have been completely the wrong question.

It seems I've come across as someone who is quick to say things like "I like you!" and "I want to have babies!" which is absolutely not the case. However, I might mention the pills I'm taking, or having had cancer and not think much of it. Or I might be the one to bring up something kinky and slow to get the hint that my partner is not comfortable.

Reading the responses I wonder I actually am not being emotionally open enough - I don't think I've ever told anyone I liked them or talked about what I wanted from a relationship.
posted by bunderful at 1:35 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pills you're taking = not within the first three months, unless it has something to do with food you can't eat, and your new partner is cooking.

Being a cancer survivor = definitely cool to mention on the first date.

Kink/fetish = definitely not something to mention until you and your partner are sexually involved, and even then, maybe not for a little while.

So, there's an extreme variance of things in even the details you mentioned.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:39 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Reading the responses I wonder I actually am not being emotionally open enough - I don't think I've ever told anyone I liked them or talked about what I wanted from a relationship.

Bingo. These are both, I believe, pretty key to cultivating relationships with no bullshit game playing and with successful outcomes.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

This might be an interesting exercise - go to and watch First Dates With Toby "a series that takes us on a journey of ill-fated first dates". Each episode is less than 10 minutes long. Sometimes the date goes sour because of Toby, sometimes because of the other person, and sometimes they both show bad judgement. See if you can analyze what goes wrong and pick up on any social clues.
Dating is hard. I don't know anyone who thought they were good at it.
posted by LiverOdor at 7:36 PM on June 3, 2013

Being a cancer survivor = definitely cool to mention on the first date.

Although I'd definitely watch your date's reaction to judge how much sharing to do about that. I've actually experienced someone pouring out her entire breast cancer history to me, a total stranger, during an elevator ride.
posted by telophase at 11:42 AM on June 4, 2013

Response by poster: I was surprised at that answer - cancer is definitely not a first date conversation IMO. I thought I had brought it up too early on the 5th or 6th date.
posted by bunderful at 7:27 PM on June 4, 2013

I think appropriate time to share is somewhat based on your emotional distance and what you are sharing for.

So if being a cancer survivor is something that is currently emotionally fraught for you, you are more likely to bring it up at times and in ways that jar, and it's good to be more careful with it. Not many things have inherent intimacy, but things can be intimate to you, and it's appropriate to treat them with respect and caution.

A big thing to beware of is demanding more from the other person than is fair to the relationship. If something is fraught for you, your conversation about it is more likely to be validation-seeking than if it's not, for example. And after 3 dates, who is this person to be in a position of giving you affirmation/validation on very deep seated things?

There are some relationships that shoot straight to very high levels of intimacy and of course as long as both people are into it, that's no one else's problem (though might still be a warning signal for possible codependency or exploitation).

I agree with the poster above who recommended making sure that you have a rich and full friendship life. That is really the best protection against dangerous territory with new romantic partners (either putting on or accepting inappropriate demands). Also being really okay with yourself.

When you have those things in place, it's okay to let your freak flag fly, as they say, because you will be able to find friends and partners that are more compatible with you. On the other hand, without those things, you are in danger of doing the opposite, ending up with people who are not actually compatible values or interests-wise, but who just have or exploit poor boundaries.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:48 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older What do you wish you'd known when buying a...   |   Trans and moving: Chicago or Seattle? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.