A family friend once made a comment about his 20-something daughter’s relationship prospects that struck me as amusingly profound when applied to the current dating landscape: “They come, they go. … I don’t get attached.”
Truth, amiright? You shouldn’t get attached.
At least not right away. I have heard more tales of ghosting than I can possibly count. I have also heard plenty of stories about an ex emerging from Breakup Island to reconcile, sending the it-was-going-so-great new prospect right back on the next ferry. With social media, daters are more occupied than ever. They’re easily distracted, lured into the past, and enticed with new options all the time. With app culture, it’s best to assume your date is also dating other people. My mantra for daters is simple: Keep standards high but expectations low.
However, sometimes, single men and women … well, ya know … you hope. You hope too soon. It’s happened to everyone, usually when you meet some random stranger for dinner and bam! After dozens of ho-hum encounters, you have a ~great~ first date.
The conversation is amazing, easily flowing between deep and light topics — and the witty banter is dripping with chemistry. You can’t help but thank your lucky stars because this person is also even better-looking than the pictures. And has a personality? AND seems really into it? Gah. Gold! (Or so you think.)
Dinner becomes drinks, and drinks turn into a late-night walk around town, which ends in a perfect first kiss. Pretty soon, it’s been five or six hours and you really need to wake up for work the next day, so your date walks you home. You part ways saying that you’ll touch base tomorrow. Which you fully intend to do.
By objective and subjective measures, you did everything right. Everything. And you’re a pretty good read of chemistry: It was there. The only problem? That person cannot be found the next day. You text. Maybe you text again. Or call. They’re just gone. Poof!
The chemistry-and-poof phenomenon can happen after one date or several. It can also happen to men or women — although, typically, women lament the issue to me more often than men. I think guys are more easily able to shrug off the disappearing act after one, two, or three dates, which is the best attitude to have these days.
But I always feel terrible when someone recounts this type of experience to me, because they’re always crazy-disappointed — and I know how mind-boggling and frustrating it is to feel like a date went so well and come away with nothing. Women ask me all the time: Why did Mr. Sparks just up and disappear like that??
Well, I have some simple insight you’ve probably never thought about.
It’s been really interesting to sit in the interviewer’s chair while researching my book, listening to interviewees on the opposite side of this phenomenon — the person who went “poof.” Mr. Sparks. These guys typically know they disappoint a lot of women — and they really do feel bad about it, especially as they get older and have more self-knowledge about their effect on others. For a long time, though, they’re not fully aware of the mechanisms in play.
One guy, in particular, I want to highlight — let’s call him Shane. When I conducted my interview, he was in his late 20s, successful, and happily settled into a long-term relationship with a woman he first met way back in college. But before they got together, he was single for a good chunk of years … and increasingly wary about how he should be approaching women to test the waters of attraction and compatibility. “There is some deception to it,” he said. “I never really liked dating.”
See, Shane was great on paper. Good job, educated, nice-looking, respectful. He also had a unique skill set: He was charming, and he’d also learned the ins and outs of the social contract. He’d gone on a lot of dates, grown into himself, and was generally confident. So, by his mid-20s, guess what?
Shane had just gotten really good at dating. A lot of women liked him right off the bat.
Creating chemistry is part gift, part art form — just like learning to pitch in baseball or learning to sing on key. You can strengthen your skills at pitching or singing, but someone naturally talented will have a leg up. Same goes for dating; someone naturally skilled at picking up on social nuances and “what others want” will have the ability to create attraction with more people. This is a really weird, tricky thing to be “good” at, according to Shane.
Shane confessed to putting on his “best performance” on every early date — even if his head or heart wasn’t fully in it. “I didn’t want to be a letdown,” he said. But he usually was, inevitably, eventually. When it came time to pull the plug, or he sensed the other person was more into it than he was, there was always anxiety … because he’d still be letting someone down.
Shane also wasn’t alone. I met plenty of men (and some women) who were gifted in the art of chemistry. It’s just the right blend of people skills, intuition, and conforming to another person’s expected ideal that creates that perfect storm of a human. I also started to see a fairly common pattern in their dating lives.
They saw a lot of really emotional reactions as they’d try to break things off with those they were dating for even a short time … to the point where some of them just started ghosting to avoid that fate. (Or, they’d intend to be upfront and honest but then chicken out as the time came near and they feared dramatic backlash.) These emotional reactions clue them in that they must have been doing something wrong. But they didn’t know what exactly.
Eventually, they figured it out: I think I’m pretty good at this chemistry thing. A lot of them were uneasy about it. They shouldn’t purposely have bad dates and show an obvious lack of interest … should they?
I’m not here to tell the Shanes of the world how to date. I’d preach honesty and authenticity to all daters, whether they’re looking for a relationship or just a quick diversion. Don’t promise things you don’t plan to deliver. However, here’s the takeaway for the vast majority of non-Shane-like people who’ve experienced the chemistry-and-poof phenomenon:
Enjoy chemistry. It’s fun. Flirting is part of dating, and dating is how we eventually find love. Some people are good at it; others are great at it. So, realize that there are Shanes out there who may create a great first-date atmosphere … and then peace out on you. It happens.
I know it sucks, but let him go. It was never going anywhere. It isn’t personal. Your great match is still coming, so keep looking ahead. And next time you meet Mr. Sparks and have a great first date? Don’t forget: Some people are just really good at dating. All single daters will meet a Shane or two in their lifetime. So, chill out. See where it goes, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Keep your options open. Don’t dwell on a single good date, just like you wouldn’t dwell on a single bad one.
Lastly, I will say this over and over again, until the day I stop writing about love. The best indicator of someone’s interest in you is not how much chemistry you feel. It’s how consistent they are about staying in your life and on your radar. Remember that.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column will appear on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.