No Safe Harbor: The Contingencies of Dating


“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
William Faulkner


Most of us live lives rife with contingency plans. The old adage “save for a rainy day”–the act of putting money aside for those to-be expected unexpected car repairs or planning for a retirement that in some cases is decades’ away and you might not be alive to use—isn’t merely limited to acquiring financial security. Contingencies, however, are arguably most apropos when discussing dating. Entropic and reactive, dating is a forum that exemplifies the best and worst of human behavior; an environment where unpredictable is predictable, not unlike Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which states that the more we know about a particle’s location, the less we know about its momentum.

The universal “rule” of dating is not to have any expectations. In my opinion, this consequently presents a seemingly paradoxical rationale of telling yourself it’s best not to have expectations as to how others should behave. But such mentality suggests a need to suppress both conscious and subconscious expectations we have when it comes to courtship, which is inherently contradictory. The very nature of dating is based on prerequisites—appearance, intelligence, professional and economic status, ad nauseam. That said, from the moment you place an ad on a dating site, you’re announcing those qualities you expect to find in a prospective date. Moreover, those you choose to engage with are those who meet such selective criteria and hence satisfy your expectations to some extent.

Yet it’s these baseline “expectations” we often try to deny exist that in turn perpetuate a nagging desire to “keep searching,” even if (or when) we meet someone we’re attracted to and share common interests with. The proverbial devil on your shoulder whispers lamentations such as “What if it doesn’t work out?” and “What if there’s someone ‘better’?” that prompt us to curiously ponder whether there’s another waiting on the flip side of a profile picture whom we might be better matched with—a “backup plan” of sorts. And it’s this mentality that seduces our better judgment and lures us on a quest to search for more, because the uncertainty of what might happen, good or bad, seems more terrifying than disrupting what might turn out to be our good fortune.

Such questions of doubt, coupled with the Pandora’s Box of ridiculous online questionnaires and “About Me” dissertations at our disposal, beget a need to strategize and create a repository of contingencies should our feelings not be reciprocated or if the person we like should leave. And therein lies perhaps most challenging aspect of deciding whether to proceed with getting to know someone–the willingness to commit to the idea of investing in another without allowing the poltergeist-like “what if’s” to dictate the fate of our pursuit and therefore influencing our need to seek out alternative options in the event of a worst-case scenario.

Dating is analogous to economics wherein attraction is a commodity that’s always in great demand.  This “free market” is driven by the desire to experience that electrochemical surge that happens between two people–those rare instances when human magnetism serves as a catalyst and triggers thoughts of what is possible–yet many are unwilling or unable to invest the necessary time, effort, and most importantly, risk, required to build a relationship once they’ve entered the event horizon and the “Big Bang” event has occurred. So although we spend countless hours analyzing in hopes of determining who’s worth the discretionary spending of our emotional currency we’ve saved, oftentimes regardless of how valuable this individual may be, we sacrifice this drive for connection and intimacy by locking these reserves in a vault and clinging to a need for certainty and validation before we’ll even contemplate sharing the entry code with another.

Many of us would choose to throw away even the most statistically favorable of hands in the poker game of attraction rather than having someone we like see our cards and possibly call our bluff.

And even when we meet someone who might be a great “match,” some of us still search, going insofar as to continue wanting to meet others, not per se because we think any of them will be better suited or more attractive or interesting than the person we’ve already met, but because the fear of rejection and/or loss is so great we instinctively convince ourselves that by believing if we “keep our options open,” we’re thus exhibiting control over that of which we often cannot: our emotions.

Therein lies the conundrum—the want to be wanted by the person we want yet wanting to protect ourselves from the possibility of disappointment and rejection. Experience has taught many of us that expressing how we feel in these situations is akin to touching a hot stove and our reaction is a reflexive need to retract reinforced by memories of the phantom “burn” we still experience from the last time we attempted to open our hearts to another and were greeted with something less than what we’d hoped for.

But logic suggests that finding clarity within the murky waters of liking someone amidst the silt of muddy fear isn’t achieved by distraction. Rather, in order to dredge a clear path to visualize the buried chest of possibilities requires that we first tear ourselves loose from the anchor of contingencies and allow ourselves to float to the surface without the weight of a backup plan. Moreover, unlocking this chest can only occur if a person’s willing to dive in and risk the depths of doubt–a pursuit that’s not for the faint of heart.

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