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Relationships • Dating

Being Honest on a Date

A powerful instinct when we meet someone we’re attracted to is to try to please them – and we naturally assume that the best way we might do this is to indicate repeatedly how aligned we are with their views and choices on all matters great and small.

On an early date, when they happen to mention that they love dancing, we will therefore signal that of course we love clubs as well. Or when they explain how boring they find museums, we will hide that on a trip to Berlin last year, we spent a whole fascinating day in the galleries of the Altes Museum. 

We may not state direct falsehoods but we will stretch and bend the truth to its limits so as to create an impression of near-total alignment. Our will-to-please can reach a peak around sex: we naturally can’t risk introducing them to the actual byways of our erotic imagination. We just claim to want – by miracle – exactly what they want.

Along the way, it rarely occurs to us that they might be performing some of the same rigmarole for us, that they might also be adjusting their self-presentation in subtle but powerful ways to fit in with what they take to be our preferences and values. There’s a tragi-comic aspect to our deepening mutual attraction. Two decent people are trying to be as nice as they can. No one is setting out to deceive and yet, gradually, a set of hugely misleading and dangerous ideas about who each person really is, are getting established. 

Our overwhelming will-to-please can inspire us to move in together and later to marry. And then – inevitably – the prolonged, intimate scrutiny that coupledom brings will reveal the scale of our mistaken expectations. In a sequence of disillusioning stages, we will each be saddened, disappointed and shocked to discover who we have ended up with. There will be recriminations, rows and fragile reconciliations until, in the end one or other party comes to the grim, but still surprising conclusion that we were never compatible. 

Or we may stick at it with growing misery. We will face a life-time of holidays that never involve the museum visits we crave. We will have to resign ourselves to never having had the kind of sex we want. Or, even more grievously, we will eventually embark on a furtive life; we will seek out the moments when they’re away to pursue needs we’ve pretended not to have. Until one day our double-life is exposed – and we will drown in bitterness, fury and sorrow.

Yet the origin of such nightmares was only ever a hugely touching, but painfully flawed and risky, devotion to being an easy match. We wanted to be simple; and yet we have ended up with a very complicated mess. 

A genuinely simpler approach is to be somewhat complex from the start. When dancing comes up, the sensible lover should immediately describe their loathing of the activity; when the museum theme is raised, they should frankly evoke their passion. When it comes to their routines and tastes, they should dare to mention their pleasure in a very well-wiped kitchen work-top or explain what it means to them to be awake in the early hours, when the world is still sleeping and their mind is at its most adventurous. 

There is no need to be brazen or demanding. And there is no requirement that our date agree or even stick around beyond dessert (or the main course). Some will run away and should. 

In order to disclose our truths, we need a basic sense of acceptability, we must know that we are not perfect but that we are not for that matter wholly abject or shameful. Our attitude to the kitchen might be a little excessive without being delusional. Our very early rising might be unconventional, but it’s perfectly sane – all things considered. Around sex, we know that a preference might be statistically unusual without lapsing into evil. Our inner conviction that our oddities are essentially reasonable allows us to present ourselves to another person without fear or defensiveness. 

Our candour then arms us with the right to ask the other to reveal – with similar honesty – what may be individual and difficult about their own characters. If they insist that they are really very simple and ‘easy’, we are allowed to be gently but firmly sceptical. They are a human being, and to be human is to be complicated. It cannot possibly be true that they exist without significant quirks. The problem with any potential partner is rarely that they are too weird, but that they haven’t come to terms with their distinctiveness or found a language in which to introduce others to who they are in a way that may be plausibly understood and accepted.

Being straightforward on dates is in the end a mechanism for two people to fast-forward time – and to spare themselves agony in the process. We should know that a polished surface isn’t a true picture of who anyone can be. Only once our mutual complexities have been outlined can we sense, with enormous relief, that we are in the presence of a fellow mature and pleasingly direct individual. We will have the simpler relationships we desire, when we can dare to reveal and accommodate the actual complexities of human nature.

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