Dish Readers on Romance

by Conor Friedersdorf

Thanks for all the e-mail on "Dating and Deception." Before I put forth new thoughts, let me clarify that while I do think it is deceptive to clean an always messy living room before a first date -- that it is "apt to give a false impression of reality" -- I don't think there is anything wrong with doing so, especially because by general consensus there is no expectation of transparency in that situation.

Even if you disagree with my assessment, it is nevertheless generally true that we consider some kinds of deception or artifice okay in dating, abhor other kinds, and lack a consensus about where to draw the line. That interests me, and it's useful to probe what the appropriate metric is for making determinations on these matters.

I'd now like to air a bunch of disparate thoughts sent in by readers. I'll begin with a happy story of deception:

My sophomore year of college, my roommate Eric said "Tom, I think Laura likes you." Around the same time he told Laura, "Laura, I think Tom likes you." To this day it's unclear what his motives were. He and Laura were best friends at the time but their friendship was weakening. I knew Laura but I was going out with someone else. That was 1987, Laura and I started dating soon afterwards and have been married for fifteen years now and are still head over heels in love. Go figure.

Several readers wrote to note that relationships which began in low-level deceptions about age, income or occupation ended in happy marriages. Sonja writes:

I wanted to comment on checking out a woman's Facebook page to find out her favorite poem. When I read that I was totally creeped out. How can that be put in the same category as wearing makeup and cleaning the living room? I think it bugs me because it gets close to stalking territory.

It occurs to me that digital sleuthing is an area where people have strong disagreements about what's acceptable. Is a look at a first date's Facebook page or Google history close to stalking? Or due diligence before you go out with a stranger? Luckily the big differences on this question are likely to be generational, but I suspect that especially in relationships with an age gap, these rapidly changing etiquette questions could cause trouble. Incidentally, I agree that pretending to coincidentally like a woman's favorite poem is kind of creepy. On the other hand, seeing via Facebook that her favorite flower is the lily, and choosing them the first time you bring her flowers? Seems like fair game. Matt writes:

What a crazy subject, man. What is or is not okay in dating is the subject of more hypocrisy than anything else in life, even politics. What's morally acceptable? In my experience, whatever it is that preserves or substantiates someone's already held opinion of the person in question. As you alluded to, if John Doe's good friend does it he probably won't think it's inexcusable, but if some other person does it to John's good friend, it's a crime against nature.

I once had a female friend go on a rant to me about a mutual friend of ours that had confessed he had a crush on her, her calling it a betrayal of their friendship and complaining that men can't think about women without wanting to have sex with them and how it disgusted her. Now the fact that she was ranting to another male and obviously excluding me from the guilty party (men) was not the real hypocrisy of the moment. The real hypocrisy was the fact that I was driving her to meet up with another mutual friend who she had a crush on and was hoping to hook up with that night. You never mind someone making a pass at you when you want him or her to.

Time and again I've watched as people that I know are guilty of indiscretions with the opposite sex have held forth with great indignation against someone else who has just done the very same thing. I try to tell people, "judge not lest ye be judged", because no one is innocent in dating.

I don't like what pickup artists do, but in my experience they're only getting away with it because the women involved, on some level, want it to happen. I don't know how much to blame the scumbag guy for that. As far as taking the advice of a pickup artist, I always try to advise people that if what you want is a romantic relationship, you shouldn't listen to someone who uses contempt of the opposite sex as his or her shield for pursuing the narrow goal of instant gratification.

Heather speculates about a sexual orientation divide:

I have a suspicion that the idea of approaching dating as "gaming" likely plays out differently among straight folks than queers. Not because they're any less moral but because anyone who has gone through the experience of coming out has viscerally learned that pretending to be something you are not doesn't ever achieve the thing you are really after: to be genuinely cared for and desired as your self.

I know it's popular for straight dudes to talk about dating as "gaming" and that "being direct" doesn't work with straight women. I heard these complaints from my straight male friends when they were dating. I don't see them applying this "philosophy" though now that they are married. Nothing undermines a relationship more than dishonesty.

Vapor writes:

I was a guy who did pretty well with girls in college, having been an athlete, in a fraternity, and having a pretty wide social circle through my school.  All of that had an expiration date of my leaving school and moving away, and I'd never approached a strange girl in my life.  Had no idea how to do it.  Despite a wide social circle I was an introvert around strangers.

When I started studying dating, I saw a lot of advice that I used to do naturally, but didn't any more now that I was a little nervous and on unfamiliar ground.  And now that I remembered them, I did them again.  And started succeeding again.  And doing better than I did when I was doing things naturally, because I'd actually approach girls I wouldn't have in school.  I wasn't tossing out pretend insults.  I was eliminating needy behavior, making an effort to get to know women, and I wasn't being afraid to express interest that wasn't platonic.

When you talk to guys who are experts who teach this stuff (I don't claim to be one), not random bloggers or guys with an ebook who gives bombastic quotes, there is not a whole lot there to call deceptive.  I know one minister who learned this stuff and got married.  I'm Catholic, and while I certainly have my faults that might make me a bad one, they don't come from how I talk to women I'm interested in or want to get to know.

D. has his own code:

I've thought a lot about this stuff - particularly with regard to relationships in which more or less all I want is sex. I don't believe I'm a saint for doing so, but I have begun doing something I believe is rare for males: stopping soon before sex or its approximates happens - for example, after a kiss in an empty apartment - and making a speech that goes something like this: "I just want to make sure that you know that I don't have deep serious feelings, and I don't think I'm interested in anything serious. I'm just very attracted to you. If you want to quit now, we can quit."

It sometimes seems a bit ludicrous. But...without that disclosure, I feel as if the sex has been stolen. Unless it has come about in a situation in which commitment is absolutely obviously impossible or undesired - say, with a stranger on the last night of a trip to Cancun, or after a "hey babe, wanna have some fun tonight?" pickup line - It has been earned via deception; the woman, in almost all cases - or at least, like, 75 percent of cases - has been led to believe the man has long- or medium-term intentions he does not have. Thus, the "consent" obtained is illegitimate, just like the consent obtained by a phone company that led you to believe it would provide service for a year and then stopped doing so after six months is illegitimate. 

In short: this type of denial of consent is certainly not akin to rape, but it's also bad.

One thing I'm struck by in these discussions is the degree to which different people adopt ethical codes and approaches of their own, many of them highly nontraditional. You never get that impression watching the movies or even reading most novels. But it seems to be the reality of how people approach dating in particular.

Finally, Catherine has a possible revue stream for The Atlantic:

...speaking of dating, I think the Dish should have singles mixers.  Seriously.  In all urban areas.  It'd be a fantastic way to meet people who are from all political points of view but at least I'd know the guys are smart.

I'm not kidding.  I would die to go to that singles mixer.

I'll post once more on this subject to address reader e-mail on "the neg," or the technique of strategically criticizing women you're trying to pick up.