science of us

I Want Everyone to Stop Following This Terrible Piece of Dating Advice

Photo: Janis Engel/EyeEm/Getty Images

Last fall, I picked up a guy in the park while walking a friend’s dog for a story about how dogs are the ultimate wingmen. None of the other dogs I’d walked for the story pulled through — but Mookie, a dashing Australian Shepherd, caught me the attention of a guy I’ll call Paul, a cute yoga instructor with a man bun and a good smile. We exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet.

Paul and I texted back and forth over the next week or so, eventually putting some time on the calendar to get to know each other without Mookie yanking me with his leash. Our first date attempt fell through when my phone died the night before, leaving me unable to confirm our coffee. But our second attempt stuck, and we planned to meet at a restaurant downtown in a few days.

And then, the night before we were set to go out, I got a text message that has become eerily familiar. In it, Paul let me know that he was really excited to meet me, but that he didn’t really know what he was looking for right now. He wasn’t sure he was open to a romantic relationship, but he still really wanted to meet me to see where things went.

The air immediately went out of my sails.  It wasn’t like I’d imagined running away into the sunset with Paul, but this guy was basically rejecting me before he even got to know me. He was laying down an excuse as to why he was going to bail on me emotionally in a few months.

I decided not to meet Paul after that text, and when I recounted the story to my then-coworker, she exclaimed that she’d heard it before. “It’s like someone told men to be upfront, and they’ve taken it to the hundredth degree,” she said.

That’s probably true. It feels like as online dating has evolved, and women have become more vocal about what we want, men have become ever-so-slightly more transparent. I appreciate a guy who tells me that he doesn’t want a relationship, or that he just wants a fuckbuddy. It clearly defines his expectations, which saves me from later frantically text my friends asking “what is he looking for?!”

But there’s something more sinister than that happening when someone sends a “I just don’t know what I’m looking for” text before even having a first date. It allows you to keep a foot in each scenario. It isn’t defining your expectations — it’s relinquishing your responsibility over my feelings. If things work out, then that’s great. But if they don’t? Well, you gave me some kind of warning beforehand, right?

“Most people who are about to go on a first date don’t know what they want from that specific person,” says Rachel Sussman, a couples counselor and licensed clinical social worker. “That’s the whole point of going on a first date — to let things play out and see how they go. But you should have an idea of what you’re looking for in general before you join Tinder or ask someone for their number.” In other words, if you don’t know whether you want a relationship or just a friends-with-benefits situation, figure it out before you start swiping.

“[That statement] also assumes that the woman is looking for an instant connection with the guy she’s about to go out with,” says Sussman. “It’s just a major red flag to be receiving that text before you’ve even met the guy.” It’s like hailing a cab, only to have the driver roll down the window and be like “Uh, well, I’m not really sure if I’m picking up passengers at the moment. But let’s just drive around and see what happens? I’ll probably drop you off somewhere that isn’t where you want to be, though. At least I warned you.”

I know why I’m on dating apps and taking men’s numbers: I want a relationship. But I don’t necessarily want a relationship with every guy I go out with. I do this crazy thing — I get to know them and figure out if I they’re someone I want to be in a relationship with. I don’t throw up arbitrary emotional roadblocks. I go in, I figure out if we click, and I take it from there.

“It’s silly to think that you’re going to have a relationship with everyone you date,” Sussman says. “But it’s important to know what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you’re just being a jerk.” So if you’re confused about it, maybe go talk to someone to work through your issues with emotional intimacy. Don’t give your number out to some cute girl in the park — even if she’s got an adorable dog as her wingman.

I Want Everyone to Stop Following This Awful Dating Advice