My partner and I had an excellent first date. Perfect, in fact – so perfect that I almost declined a second one.
I’d been down that road before. First dates are my jam. My friends sometimes joke about the “Noah Effect,” wherein people whom I’ve barely met become deeply, passionately convinced that I am their perfect lover. Despite (or perhaps because of) my extreme awkwardness and propensity for over-sharing, people keep deciding that they really, really like me after one or two conversations.
“Boo hoo, you’re likable. How is that a problem?”
Being likable is not a problem. Everyone is likable; some of us just make better first impressions. What I’ve realized, however, is that I am compulsively likable. I care deeply about how people – especially romantic prospects – view me, and when I first meet people I cannot stop myself from turning into Fantasy Noah: the version of me that has all of the good stuff and none of the bad. I want so badly to make a good impression that I forget to make a real one.
I think I do this because (like many people) I spent most of my childhood feeling ugly, awkward, and annoying. Even though I’m happy in my body and personality these days, I still feel the need to prove myself whenever I meet somebody new. And when I succeed, when people actually fall for me, the pressure does not dissipate but rather increases. The emotional high I feel when I realize that somebody actually thinks I might be fun to talk to, date, or sleep with encourages me to posture myself even more intensely.
Spending all of this energy on likability stops me from actually gauging whether or not I’m compatible with the person across the table from me. When I’m this invested in making a good impression, I forget that the purpose of dating is to be choosey, not to be chosen. If you operate under the assumption that every date is an audition, you forfeit your own right to say, “This person might not be a good match.” On the flipside, you’re also obscuring your date’s ability to read you correctly and make a mature, informed choice about whether to move forward with the relationship.
It’s not only ugly ducklings and odd-ones-out who contend with this issue, though. Everyone is told from a young age that they (or their partners) are a good “catch” and that they should “lock down” a relationship or “snag” a partner using their “wiles.” This language is scary; it suggests that the only way to find partnership is to trick somebody into it.
Is it any surprise, then, that so many of us wind up hurt and confused by our exes, wondering why we ever chose to date them in the first place? In many cases, though, we didn’t choose to date them; they chose to date us, and we were just grateful to be chosen. Or maybe both of us felt chosen and neither of us did the choosing; that’s possible, too. No matter the configuration, relationships that start this way are fertile ground for insecurity, jealousy, and paranoia, because at least one partner is apt to feel like like an impostor the entire time, just waiting to be “found out” as ugly, unloveable, or boring. Paradoxically, it’s those niggling insecurities that are most likely to damage a relationship.
How do we find love when we can’t stop pretending? My answer so far has been to ween myself off of the need to be adored. I spend more time alone now, seeking out my passions, learning to feel strong in myself. I try to approach people with generosity and openness, but also with a level of self-respect that necessitates holding them at arm’s length until I decide it’s okay for me to dive in deeper. I don’t do this because I’m suspicious or afraid, but because I need distance in order to see the full picture. I want to appreciate them for who they are, not who I want them to be. And I want them to do the same for me.
After that first date with my partner, I spent the day trying to figure out if I actually liked him for who he was. I came to the conclusion that I thought I did but needed more information to decide. We arranged an impromptu second date that day, and it was just as good as the first. I arrived home to an adulatory text message and sat there, looking at it for a bit, feeling strangely upset. On the one hand, it felt like victory. He liked me, a lot. I’d left a good impression. On the other hand…
I texted him back and told him that I was uncomfortable being complimented so much – not because I didn’t like him, but because I associated that level of attention and affection with past negative relationships. I felt a pit form in my stomach as I hit “send,” expecting him to lose interest when he realized that I was scarred, or flawed, or damaged in a way that I hadn’t previously let on.
He took a little bit to respond: “That makes sense to me! Is there a way I can be nice to you without making you feel uncomfortable?”
An unfamiliar sensation washed over me. It wasn’t attraction, exactly, and definitely not love – too subtle, too comfortable, too calm. Perhaps… I don’t know…