Hello all you fiery bed-crows of the internet! Welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, the only dating column that's Del Toro tested, Kojima approved.
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This week, we're going to be talking about what it takes to make that connection with a special someone. What does it take to go from "nice" to "niiiiiiice"? And when you do find that special snugglebutt of your dreams, what do you do when it turns out they still have someone else? Do you tearfully confess your feelings in the rain as the orchestra swells in the background? Or do you swallow that shit and take it to your grave?
Strap yourself in and let's see about making you drift compatible.
I was wondering if you could help me understand something that seems to plague my love life these days and maybe some of your other readers as well.
"You're a really great guy, but..."
This is a line I hear so frequently these days that it has really started to get to me. It is a rejection that usually comes up on a second or third date and no further explanation is ever given, even when I politely and calmly ask for one.
I've had plenty of relationship experience ranging from "uhh what was your name again?" one nighters, to an engagement and a few other long term serious type ones. Going strictly off of what women have said to me, I'm a good date, smart, funny, interesting, successful, good looking, good in bed, considerate, sweet and so on. On paper I'm delivering most things on a stereotypical want list of guy qualities but I can't seem to figure out what I'm doing wrong.
My last relationship lasted about a year, ended nine or 10 months ago and was pretty toxic. She saw how much I'm willing to put into a relationship and really ran amok with it. It was easy for her to keep manipulating me into giving more and more by feigning dissatisfaction, and admitted to doing just that. I did my thing and got over it but since then I've been shot down more times than a slow plane over enemy territory.
There mostly aren't any problems for me in securing a first date. I really like dates so I try and make it fun and nice and have a good time and it usually goes pretty well. After that it all seems to go pear shaped regardless of how well the first one went, if we slept together, how the time between dates goes or any other factor I can think of. Maybe it's all a heart breaking coincidence?
Heck the following date or two usually seem pretty good also, until a suddenly sad looking girl turns to me, loads up her 88mm guns and unleashes a full load of "you're a really great guy but..." flak right into the belly of my heart shaped aeroplane. Frankly I'm beginning to feel dejected and am starting to lose hope in dating.
It would be so much easier if it was "I don't see this going anywhere" or "I don't think you're right for me" or even "piss off loser!" but no, it always seems to be "You're a really great guy, but..."
But what Doc?
- Really Great But
Here's the thing about being good on paper, RGB: It only works on paper. Logically you may be a great option, but as anyone at the bar at 1AM can tell you, good old fashioned lust has nothing to do with logic. To quote the sage: "Love isn't brains, children. It's blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will."
So, here's what's going on. The fact that you get the first date means that you present well. You give good first impression, which is important; it's how you get your foot in the door.
But the first date… is pleasant. That's OK, but not great. It's the second date that's killing you.
The problem that you — and many other people — are having is that while you may be great on paper and a genuinely nice person, you're not exciting them. There's no passion, no spark, nothing that stirs the loins and sets the imagination on fire with visions of things involving chocolate syrup.
See, the first date is going well enough that they decide to give you a chance on the second to see if it was just first-date jitters and maybe there's something there that will grow. By the second, they have their answer. And that answer is "nope, probably not."
The reason why nobody is giving you an explanation is that you can't really explain chemistry to another person. Either they don't have the necessary vocabulary outside of "I'm just not feeling it," or they just don't want to say, "Look, the truth is I just don't really want to fuck you." And even if they thought your ego could take the ways you're not sending the blood to their squishy bits, giving you a detailed list of "this is what turns me on" isn't going to fix things. You had your shot, it didn't work, life's too short and they're moving on.
Now the good news is, this is eminently fixable… if you're willing to put in the work.
The first step is to work on yourself. The reason why nice guys (but not Nice Guys) get the "You're a really great guy BUT" speech is because… they're boring. They're exciting as dry toast. You can be pleasant to look at or fun to spend time with, but unless you have that oomph, then nothing is going to happen.
So you have to start by finding your swagger. Your cool. Your je ne se quois that makes hearts pound and bits tingle. This can actually take many forms because people aren't a monolith. The folks who drool over Chadwick Boseman as T'challa are going to be into different things than the people who feel their hearts skip a beat when Travis Fimmel gives them The Look as Ragnar. Matt Smith's adorkable passion and energy as The Doctor is going to appeal to people in ways that Stephen Amell's brooding doesn't.
So start by finding the thing that gives you your oomph, in a way suits your personality. Don't worry about be broadly appealing, be intensely appealing to fewer people.
The other thing is you need to do better on dates. Most dates are pleasant affairs and that's actually bad. Pleasant is nice, and nice is boring. You want exciting dates, energetic dates, dates that get people's hearts pumping and the electrical impulses darting all over the place. Anything that gets your circulatory system aroused gets the rest of you aroused, and that transfers to how people feel about you.
Humans are very bad at understanding why we feel the way we do. We feel the physical sensations and backfill the reason for them; it's called The Misattribution of Arousal. When we're excited, we tend to attribute those feelings to the people we're with rather than the events causing them. So a pleasant but unexciting dinner leads to feeling pleasant but unexcited about the person you're dining with. The thrill of, say, racing go-karts, or the enjoyable burn in your muscles after a good walk, on the other hand, makes us feel differently about our date. A little competitive skee-ball or pool makes for a better date than just drinks. A walk in the park or going dancing is more arousing than dinner and a movie. That excitement, that energy helps build chemistry. They're also more fun, which triggers what's known as The Reward Theory of Attraction — the way we prioritise relationships with the people who make us feel good in their presence.
The last thing I suggest is that, on your dates, don't stick to safe or pleasant topics. Date conversations tend to fall to what I call the Applebee's Effect. You're discussing where you want to go to dinner, but you don't necessarily want to advocate for what you really want because you don't want to be selfish. Meanwhile, the other person is feeling the same way. One of you ends suggesting Applebee's and you both end up choosing it as an acceptable compromise, despite the fact that neither of you actually wants to eat there.
So while getting-to-know-you questions about jobs and growing up are OK, getting deep into questions about passion or politics, when you first fell in love or what your dream holiday is like is far more meaningful. You get to know the person on a deeper, more honest level, and that increases that sense of connection between the two of you. It's riskier, true… but it also means that you're getting to the real person, not the polished facade we all put up when we start to get to know people.
TL;DR: You aren't inspiring passion or excitement in your dates. The more you build that, the less you'll hear "you're great, but…" and the more you'll hear "your great butt".
I need someone to tell me I'm being an idiot.
I met this guy my second year of grad school when we randomly got assigned as officemates; we immediately hit it off and became best friends. At the time we were both in several-year relationships left over from university that had turned long distance when we moved away for grad school, but I'd begun doubting mine. I still related to my then-boyfriend on a deep level, but I'd come to the point where I was thinking about staying together forever or moving on, and I was pretty sure I didn't respect him enough for the former option.
Against that background I distinctly remember a bus ride which my new friend and I coincidentally both took to New York to see our SOs that first semester. We'd both brought work to do but ended up just talking about life, ethics, politics, culture, everything. It convinced me that I'd settled for my then-boyfriend — that there really were people out there I liked even more, and it wasn't just the inevitable doubt you get in every relationship. I broke up with him a couple months later with great excitement for the brilliant new people I'd be going out with.
But... it's been just over three years since then and no one else has appeared. My social circle is still populated by people who are either paired up or (as is tragically common in science) profoundly undateable. I tried going out to new events to meet new people, which didn't work, and I briefly tried online dating but it seemed really superficial and I just found everyone on it annoying.
Now, as a scientist, I know that our perceptions are often inaccurate, and so I wonder if I'm just seeing everyone else as unappealing because I'm carrying a torch for my friend. He's still dating the same girl from university, but in the past he's told me that he doesn't want to marry her and he's said specifically that the main reason they were still together was that he knew she'd be devastated if they broke up. (I've seen them together, and he's the only thing she ever thinks about aside from work. When she comes to visit she works all the time in his apartment instead of going out. I've tried getting to know her better but that's all she does!) But then, if he actually wanted to leave her and go out with me he would have done it by now, right? Isn't that the end of the story right there?
Every time I decide what to do I talk myself out of it within a day. It's driving me crazy. On the one hand, I like this guy so much that I feel like I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't at least just ASK, and we still routinely stay up till 2 or 3AM talking to each other, even when we're on opposite sides of the world. But on the other hand he's made his will clear by sticking with this other girl and it wouldn't be fair of me to drag him into my internal meltdown; I'd also be absolutely devastated to lose him as a friend.
This stubborn vestige of hope is just pure, idiotic self-indulgence, isn't it? I just have to (somehow) get over it, right? Or, wait, maybe I need to stop overthinking everything and just do the experiment to know the truth? Arg! Help!
You know, I find the idea of "I have this crush on someone and I must confess it" kind of interesting, in an anthropological way. It's become something of a staple in pop-culture that if you feel a certain way about somebody, it must be brought out in the open because… well, to be perfectly honest, most of the time in fiction, confessing your true feelings leads to tears, recrimination, walking away then dramatically turning around for sloppy make-outs in slow-mo.
Which is great for TV and movies, but doesn't happen quite as often in real life. Grand romantic gestures make for great drama, but the reality of it rarely works out the way we hope… mostly because we expect the rewards without the consequences.
This, incidentally, is why I'm of the "if you're interested in someone, act on it early on" school of flirting. It's a lot easier to say, "Oh, cool, you're not into me, so we'll be friends instead," and mean it when you've been holding onto that attraction for 30 minutes instead of 30 months.
But I digress. Let's talk about your situation, TL. You're a scientist, so you know that we're creatures of our environment. Our day to day situation directly filters how we perceive the world. And that, I suspect, is contributing to your situation with Office Bae.
You're in grad school, which is a pressure cooker situation. Your degree is the centre of a singularity, and most of life is going to be just at the edge of the event-horizon. You are, by necessity, spending 99 per cent of your time in that environment, with other people who're in the same circumstances as you. That makes it much harder to meet people who share your interests. You have a graduate program to finish! Can they relate to that? Can they understand how that changes your priorities?
Meanwhile, you've got this guy. This fucking guy. He's cute. You two get along. You have oodles of chemistry… and he's the person you're spending your every waking moment with. One of the things that influences who we fall in love with and marry is proximity. Part of why actors fall in love with their co-stars is because they spend every waking minute with them. Like you do with the sweetie in the office suite.
This, I suspect, is the bigger problem than the fact that you're carrying a torch for him. Yeah, it can be hard to develop feelings for other folks when you've got a crush on somebody, but it's virtually impossible when you're almost never not around him. You don't really have any room to get some perspective or to give other people a shake. Grad school limits your dating pool, and this guy limits your field of view. I would be willing to wager decent money that once you are able to get some metaphorical distance, you may find that he's fun and attractive, but not necessarily the Alpha and Omega of your heart and pants.
But that's in the future. We're talking about the here and now. What do you do about these inconvenient feelings you have? Should you confess how you feel?
Well… game them out a little. What do you expect your confession to do? Why is it important to get it off your chest? Obviously, you hope that it's going to make him realise he has a thing for you too, he's going to dump his girlfriend, sweep everything off the desks in your office and then it's all Showtime Late Night.
But is that likely to happen? Leave his relationship out of the equation for a moment; it's a separate issue. He can have a shitty relationship without also wanting to fuck you instead of her. How does he behave with you? Yeah, you guys talk a lot… but is it strictly platonic talk or is there a sexual edge to it? Does he touch you in ways that a friend doesn't? Does he flirt with you, even mildly or awkwardly? Does he make joking-but-not-really references about the two of you? Have there been moments where, if one of you had just moved even a micrometre, you would have ended up kissing?
Or is it just that you two have an intense emotional but ultimately platonic connection? Because if he isn't giving those "if it weren't for my shitty relationship, I'd be over all over you like a lab experiment with poor safety protocols" moments, the odds are higher that he may like you but not like you like you.
Some other questions to ask: If he doesn't like you the way you hope, are you going to be able to power through the initial awkward? Is he? Is his girlfriend going to make things difficult if he tells her?
These are the calculations you need to make if you're going to confess your feelings for him. It may feel good to get it out in the open, but it may also invite unnecessary drama into your life. If those are risks you're willing to take, and you're sure enough about your and his emotional intelligence being high enough to get you through the awkward? Fuck it, roll those dice and see.
But I think you're setting yourself up for heartbreak that you could avoid otherwise, and when you have some space and perspective, you'll look back on this as a fun flirtation but that was never meant to be.
If nothing else, it could be some great romance novel fodder. Make grad-school the next 50 Shades.
How did you find your swagger? Did have a steamy grad-school affair? Did your dramatic love-confession work for you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And meanwhile, we'll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
Ask Dr Nerdlove is Kotaku's fortnightly advice column for matters of the heart, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr NerdLove and the Dr NerdLove podcast. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove. Dr Nerdlove is not really a doctor.