Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
I’m messaging Jack (not his real name) because Paloma thinks we’d be compatible. He’s a podcaster and a freelance writer, two qualities in a potential date that aren’t altogether surprising given my propensity to gravitate toward other journalists, musicians, and the chronically underemployed. I’m confident Palo knows my type.
Paloma and I have been friends for a few years, and there’s no one I trust more with a dating app than her, which is why I’m letting her pick my suitors on a platform called Wingman. The free app lets friends sort through profiles of other singles to choose the ones they deem an appropriate match for their uncoupled pals. The wingmen, like Paloma, post testimonials on their friend’s profiles, a brief advertisement for why other wingmen should recommend this person as a good fit for the buddy they’re swiping on behalf of.
“She’s kinda weird ’cause she doesn’t like pizza or bread,” Paloma wrote on mine, “so please keep that in mind when you take her on a date.” Maybe not the most alluring of all my qualities, but at least it saves me the trouble of having to explain myself when someone suggests grabbing food at a sandwich place.
Ultimately, each single has to approve of the match before gaining access to the chat function, so my friends couldn’t actually set me up with anyone I really wasn’t into. But just getting to that point — through the act of relinquishing most of the romantic control to the people who know me best — was a little thrilling.
And, surprisingly, it wasn’t really anxiety-inducing to lose that control. “We trust our friends — and sometimes we trust our friends more than we trust our romantic partners,” says Ebony Utley, a communications professor at California State University, Long Beach, who studies intimacy. “In a good friend is a model with what you want in a romantic relationship.”
While matchmakers probably aren’t consciously searching for people with similar personalities to their own, they do have unique insight into the traits that are best suited for you. For example, Diana, my best friend since high school and another one of my digital wingmen, uses the app to screen out musicians, my typical go-to type. According to her, the ideal match for me would likely be “the complete opposite of the person you typically try to date,” she says. “If they meet that criteria, then we’re already at a good starting point.”
Colin, another wingman, echoes the sentiment: “The dudes you have gone on dates with are generally shitty people. At least it seems like they are,” he says. “They lack confidence and don’t really know what they want.” These are all things I’m aware of, yet I haven’t done much to remedy.
Maybe it’s time to listen to my friends. Research has shown that in some ways, outsiders may have more insight into who we are than we do ourselves. In a 2011 paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologists pointed out that “others sometimes see aspects of our personality that we are blind to.” In part, that’s due to our own internal biases; we also tend to suffer from information overload, given that we’ve lived our histories — but our friends haven’t, making them more clear-eyed when it comes to picking out salient information. Other research has shown that the closer we are to someone, the more accurately they can understand our tastes and reasoning.
Friendship naturally fosters a matchmaking dynamic, too. One 2009 study, for example, found that friends consistently promoted the romantic endeavors of their pals by being an active wingman and shutting out undesirable pursuers. And the benefits of matchmaking are twofold: not only does the matchee get the support of their friends, the wingman actually gets a sense of reward upon moderating a connection.
In fact, a wingman might actually make better choices for a friend than they would picking out a match for themselves. “If two people have money and they have to buy something for themselves or the other person, they’re going to make better choices for the other person,” explains Moran Cerf, a neuroscience and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management. “Some would say they’re more caring when they think of others. We’re more reckless with ourselves. There’s arguments for we’re less emotional when we’re not in the situation, we’re able to look at different barometers, we’re less pressured. It’s coming back to the same idea that we’re thinking differently when we’re thinking about others.”
Which, I have to say, has come in pretty handy — the criteria that Paloma, Diana, and Colin told me they used to determine who’d be a suitable match for me helped to illuminate my own blind spots. And because our dating styles differ, it made my network more effective in pointing out where I’ve gone wrong. “We look at different things in a person or assess people differently,” Diana points out. Where I’m impulsive and immediate (and a bit shallow), she tends to get to know a person well to determine if he’s romance-worthy.
“We tend to focus on specific features,” Cerf agrees. “We get locked in and ignore the big picture. We fixate on, how funny is he? How good-looking is he? And your best girlfriend would focus on things that are more broad. I think in that sense, we’re overcoming a process that’s not necessarily good for us.”
But before I completely surrender my love life to the people who know me best, Utley gives me a piece of advice: asking my friends to help with a more targeted approach to matchmaking. Since there’s a lot of pressure on the wingman to make a worthy date suggestion — they’ve got skin in the game now, too — she recommends putting the feelers out in a way that’s not unlike job networking. “If you say, ‘Hey I’m looking for a job as a graphic designer, your friends would be like, ‘Cool,’” Utley says. “It’s completely different than ‘Will you set me up?’” Instead, I should make a note of a specific quality or hobby: Do you know anyone who’s into rock climbing? This makes the whittling-down option more streamlined.
Even though dating apps have given us what seems like an endless amount of options — though having too many choices could prevent us from making any decision at all — turning to our closest confidantes shows the human touch is best when it comes to love. They know you better than an algorithm, after all. And even if none of my wingman matches have turned into anything yet, there’s comfort in being able to turn to a team of people who know me better than I know myself.