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How to Date

Dating was tough before COVID. Now, it can be even more confusing. Join Caleb Gunning and I as we talk about some of the psychological hacks to make dating more fun and more productive. You can find him online here.


Bryn: The process of figuring out if you want to be in a relationship with someone is really complex. There are a lot of ways that we choose our partners, both consciously and unconsciously, and statistically we know that who we choose has a huge impact on every facet of life. From career to happiness, to physical health.

From a psychological perspective, there are a lot of things that I really wish people knew as they are dating or beginning a relationship, and so today I’m talking to psychotherapist, Caleb Gunning, who works with individuals and couples as they navigate dating. We’ll explore making the most of dating during COVID indicators of a relationship with potential and the how-tos of dating. I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plumb-Line, a podcast on mental wellness.

Bryn: Hi Caleb.

Caleb: Hey Bryn, thanks so much for having me.


Bryn: Thank you for joining me. A big theme that I’ve seen amongst friends and clients lately has been the struggle of dating during COVID. Could we start there? What trends are you seeing?


Caleb: Dating is already a fairly difficult topic to navigate and then throw in a global pandemic and it can feel impossible. To my knowledge, I don’t think there’s too many preexisting guides out there that tell us how to tackle something like this. The trends are probably going to differ depending on the state of the virus in your region and a variety of other relational subcategories, maybe such as your age or your culture, or even your relational structure. Like if you’re practicing monogamy or non-monogamy.


In my practice I’m finding that many of my clients trying to navigate singleness right now are responding in a myriad of different ways. Some of them have completely hit the pause button on finding love altogether. I’m thinking about what New York City’s Health Department sent out, and they had a topic on sex and the coronavirus, and one of their official pieces of advice was you are your safest sex partner. Which I think is pretty telling on how difficult it is to date right now. Some other trends that I’m seeing in my practice is that people are moving towards online dating almost like never before, like that the stats are breaking records.


We’re also seeing that it can feel like there’s too many options, which results in a form of almost paralysis and being able to make a decision to really go for that person that you’re starting to feel might be a good fit, and lastly, when I’m thinking about some of the trends, I’m thinking about this idea of when we’re online, we’re scrolling or swiping, and it’s so easy to start just to almost put a comparison lens on, and it leads us to start to view people as a product rather than individual people for us to really get to know.


Bryn: So, keeping that maybe somewhat depressing piece of information in mind, let’s start with the prerequisites of dating. So, I think there’s a lot of pop psychology truisms about dating that just aren’t true. Could you speak to that?


Caleb: There’s lots of messages up there, whether that you need to be a certain age to really be out in the world of dating. There might be messages around finding your soulmate or having that one special person who exists in the world for only you. I am thinking about messages that I’ve heard around; love is all you need and if you just really love this person really well, everything will fall into place. Sometimes it’s easy for us to adopt almost a message that we see in movies around like a relationship will fix everything.


If I could only meet that special person, then everything in my life will fall into place and unfortunately what comes with that is that we start to put so much pressure on this relationship. It’s like this relationship already has a job and it needs to show up like a Knight in shining armour to be able to make our lives more magically okay. On the flip side, I’m thinking of other messages that I’ve heard, like you need to learn to take care of yourself before you can really love someone.


You need to be the best version of yourself, but if I could challenge that, I think that we heal in relationships. That we only really learn to love by engaging in love and in relationship with other people, and so, so often sometimes these messages that we’re hearing, there’s not a lot of room for the gray pieces inside of it.


Bryn: One of the things that I think is really important as I’m talking to people about considering dating is also the idea of self-knowledge or self-awareness, and building off of your point about that idea of, you have to love yourself first, before you can love another person.What I do think is important is being aware of what is important on an emotional level for you.


So, you know, some people really need more alone time or more processing time than others. Some people need more connections, some people need more conversation, some people need more touch, and so I think it’s really helpful to know what your emotional must haves are, and then as you get to know someone, I think that should be actually part of the process of sharing and learning.


So does the person respond well when you express the way that you approach relationships or the things that you need, and do you feel like you can incorporate or collaborate with them to make sure that their needs are getting met as well. What do you think people should know about someone before meeting in person? So obviously besides whether they interest you or not?


Caleb: Well,I think you said something really important that there’s something highly valuable about being able to know yourself and to be able to know what you are really looking for. That just helps set us up to be able to have healthy relationships when it comes to answering the question around, what do I need to know? I’m not really sure I have a great list of here are your, how-tos.


I think what I often invite my clients to consider is how does my nervous system feel with this person face-to-face or actually in-person with them? What is my body saying? How does my energy vibe with this person’s energy? I think it can be such an important part of really trying to figure out are we compatible on the other side of all this information that I’ve received online, looking at your profile and messaging back and forth?


Bryn: Yeah. I mean, that’s really about attraction. I mean the importance of attraction.


Caleb: Yeah.


Bryn: I mean, what do we know about how attraction works?


Caleb: I think there is a plethora of research on what happens to our brains and our bodies when we start to connect with someone who seems appealing. Falling in love is a neuro-biological and psychological process, which maybe doesn’t really sound that all that sexy. One part of your brain is almost responsible for how we conceptualize what we might want. So, it’s the part of her brain that says, I want my partner’s personality traits to be like this, or it’s the parts of your brain that have the hopes or the future or the expectations of how they might treat you or even what type of job this ideal person could have.


The other part of your brain is more responsible for the neurochemical reactions in the release of hormones that occur when an attractive person enters your gaze. This is not really something that we are able to consciously control. It’s the release of testosterone and estrogen and dopamine, serotonin, and a variety of other neurochemical reactions that take place in our bodies that lead us to be interested and excited, and perhaps even nervous around these new, exciting people. It’s almost like nature’s way of intoxicating you so that you really go for it when you meet someone who might be attractive.


Sometimes what happens is that our brains and our bodies are pulled towards people that are not always relationally compatible with us, almost like these two parts don’t always align and so, like I was saying earlier, I think there’s something really important about being able to sit in the present. What’s difficult about this is that sometimes our brains and our bodies are pulled towards people that we are not always relationally compatible with.


Like I was saying earlier, that’s why it’s important for us to really sit in the presence of this other person to see how are we vibing with each other? Does the part of my brain that has this list perhaps of my ideal wants really fit with how I’m actually experiencing you in the moment and vice versa.Does how I’m feeling about you and how perhaps attractive or cute you might be actually fit with what I’m really looking for in life.


Bryn: You’re reminding me of that classic, or maybe my classic therapy question, which is kind of about asking how old a certain feeling is to someone. So, kind of what I’m getting at there is that attraction specifically is a combination of what is familiar and what is new for us. I think sometimes what happens specifically with attraction is someone can remind us of our past. So, you know, a past partner or a significant person, like, you know, a parent and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, but the important thing to keep in mind as we meet people is that sometimes it can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


So, an example that I can think of is if a person reminds you of, you know, your reserved and quiet ex, and that’s something that works for you, that’s fabulous, but if it triggers anxiety in you, then that might be something to explore, or it might be that this person isn’t necessarily the best fit for you. So, I think that really relates to what you’re saying, which is you can’t really know unless you’ve met someone in person.


Caleb: Totally.I think there’s something so important about being able to be face to face in a room with someone and to see how are we working in this moment? Maybe I could ask you a question if that’s okay. I’m wondering, like, what do you think the psychological hacks per se, perhaps could be of a good first date?


Bryn: You know, I’m talking isn’t necessarily how people connect best and so I think, you know, when we think about the classic first date, you know, meeting up for coffee and I’m thinking, this is kind of psyc101 one piece here, but I’m thinking about something called the misattribution error, which plays a really big role, I think, in attraction and excitement in dating, and so in studies, what this is or the studies that this was founded on, a study associate would stand at the end of a bridge, so either one that was really solid and comforting, or the end of a swinging bridge that was quite scary to be on, and then unsuspecting study participants rated the same associate as more attractive when they had just stepped off the swinging bridge.


Then when they stepped off a bridge that didn’t create the same sort of physical stress. So, what this means is that when our heart races or when our palms sweat, or our blood pressure increases, we attribute that physiological arousal to whatever is most obvious to us.


So, in this case, it was the attractive stranger instead of the real cause, which is the bridge in this case, and so bringing this back to the idea of a first date, I think for people, especially for people who don’t feel immediately comfortable with talking, especially talking about themselves, I actually think that doing something that involves distraction or involvement or problem solving is a really great way to get to know someone without it feeling stressful. Dating in some ways is just about figuring out whether you can be a good team together and I think that’s something that should be incorporated even from the first date.


Caleb: Yeah, and there’s something, I think there’s something empowering about being on the same team with someone where in my brain, when I hear you talk about being on the same team, I think being on a team together is the perfect image to think about when it comes to dating. Being on a team, I think it’s something in my mind that can provide such a sense of safety when we are working together and working together, it requires us to have, in some ways, a handling of our own experience.


An awareness of what’s going on for me, what is it that I really need while also being aware and attempting to almost take care of the moves or the positions of the other team members. Some examples maybe that come to my mind in the context dating is checking in and almost doing a body scan of in the moment on the day, what is it that my body is saying right now? Am I feeling nervous?How can I attend to my nerves in that moment, maybe by taking a deep breath or just giving myself permission to say, it’s okay, that I’m nervous in this moment.


Something, I often tell a lot of my clients when they feel triggered or activated in a moment is to use the idea of narrating, and it’s the idea of being able to name our experience that’s going on. So, an example could be simply just saying, hey, I’m feeling really anxious right now, and it allows us to label and kind of send it into the universe instead of having it all trapped all inside of us. When I think about being there for that other person on that date, maybe they’re sending nervous, maybe there’s a sense of quietness or restlessness. This might just be adjusting the topic or changing the scenery.


It doesn’t really have to be all that obvious to them, but there’s a sense of consciousness of what might be going on for them. In the world of psychology, we might use the word attunement. How am I attuning to my needs and how am I tuning to your needs? Or how am I attuning to what’s really happening for me and how am I tuning to what I think might be happening for you?


Bryn: What I think is so important about that is that that can even be happening from the first date. So, it doesn’t even matter if this is someone who you’re never going to see again. I still think it is practicing that attuning is actually a really important thing and is in some ways, it’s sort of about how we take care of everyone that we interact with, whether it be a potential partner or whether it’s a friend or a family member that we’re talking to.


Caleb: It shows up everywhere.


Bryn: Yeah, and Caleb, I know something that you talk a lot about is vetting a potential partner. Could you talk about that a bit?


Caleb: Specifically, in this climate, people are turning to online, which it really is almost the opposite of how things used to be, where perhaps historically people would meet through family members or people within their social ties, and so it can be really easy to fall in love with these people on the other side of a city or the other side of a province or state or country, and not really have the people in your life know or get to know, or really be able to give you some feedback.


So, what I often encourage people to consider is what does my social network think about this person? Specifically, the people that I really love and trust to give me good advice, what do they think about our relationship when they see us interact? Do they think that there’s any red flags?


The reason why I say this is, if we think about the neurobiological process that happens to us during dating with the surge of hormones and neurochemical reactions happening in her body, we can feel intoxicated and we can completely miss all the different ways that we may not work, and also the ways that we could work when we think about the triggering of fear and anxieties that might show up around relationship, and so having people in your corner who know you and know what you’re looking for, it can just be super valuable.


Bryn: I think that can be somewhat scary for people maybe just because we’ve gotten to this point where we are more, maybe isolated in the dating process, but the other potentially awkward conversation that I’m thinking of too, is I’ve heard from multiple people recently that they’re having the COVID talk very similarly, to how we often think about the sex talk at a certain point, you know, as you’re getting to know someone but the COVID really does happen, I think for many people fairly early and can also be somewhat revealing about how both of you handle a specific problem together, but then also your comfort level as you’re navigating the greater situation about personal space and who you’re incorporating into your bubble and how you’re able to also respect the other person’s boundaries.


Caleb: Yeah. Boundaries are fricking important that nothing is sustainable without boundaries, and within the context of relationships and specifically relationships during COVID, we’re finding ourselves having to sit and talk about boundaries like we have never had to before. So easily at the beginning of a relationship, we can be on different pages where maybe one person might be looking for just casual sex and another person might be looking for a long-term relationship. Being able to name what we want and what’s okay and what’s not okay can really assist us in this dating process and allow it to be somewhat more efficient.


So easily I think we can maybe feel bad about really being, like saying what we want, or what we look for and there’s a lot of guilt that can show up into the scene and at the same time, I think it helps release people from the state of purgatory in relationships where we’re trying to make it fit or trying to make this person work, but sometimes we’re just not on the same page, and so what can be at a really important piece of building a healthy relationship from the very beginning is how do I promote a sense of secure functioning in my relationships, specifically, being able to talk about what I need and creating space for what you need.


Bryn: Yeah, and that’s the talk that can bring up conflict, right, and I think many people struggle with handling different opinions really at any point in a relationship. Something that I’ve started using a lot is John Gottman, so The Couples Researcher, I think in many of his books, he talks about this 15 minute practice, which is where you have one person who’s a listener and one person who’s a speaker and so the listener’s job is to ask questions and very much kind of open-ended asking as though they were a friend and the speaker’s job is to answer as openly and honestly as possible and so there’s actually a list of questions which involve questions like, you know, what does this mean to you?


Or is there a story connected to this specific topic for you? Or how do you feel about what’s happening or what dreams are tied to this conversation or to this topic, and then what happens is that after that 15 minutes, where your rules are very clearly defined, so the listener isn’t to be judging or, you know, making comments or suggestions, then you switch roles, and so then the other person has their turn to ask questions, while the first person is speaking, and what I think that does is that it just helps people to handle the threat of conflict in a way that really allows for connection, and it just radically changes the game of what conflict actually means.


Caleb: Well, there’s like this, this beautiful structure that you just talked about, right? That almost gives us a position on how do we listen? How do we acknowledge what’s happening for us and what’s happening for the other person? Which can be highly difficult to do when we feel threatened and something that’s so easy to miss during conflict is that our bodies go into a sense of a threat, that our threat response system becomes activated and in that state it’s really easy for us to feel like our fear in that moment is like it’s all truth.


It’s exactly what’s going on. This person is completely doing that one thing that we deeply fear and it’s clear, but in that fear and in that threat, it’s so easy for us to miss the impact of how our past influences the things that threatened us, whether that be things like our family of origin and the experiences we had in our home that may be experiences with an ex-partner who did that same thing, and it resulted in a very different outcome. Amidst threat it’s extremely easy to respond in a defensive or threatened posture and sometimes that posture shows up in us ghosting and disappearing and shutting down and sometimes that posture shows up in us controlling or demanding or being angry or needy or clingy and all experiences that can be a normal part that show up in relationship but aren’t really good getting to like the heart or like the core of what is happening for us.


I’m thinking about the research of Brené Brown, and she talks about how vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, that when we’re able to acknowledge that deep, primary rooted fear of what’s happening for us, it actually sets us up to have healthier and improved relationships. It’s less about whether or not we fight, and it’s actually how we fight. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this Bryn, but I had couples who come into my office who will say something like everything was great and we haven’t fought in 10 years and all of a sudden, this thing happened. Often when I hear that, that can be somewhat concerning for me as a therapist, because it might mean that we’re not actually being vulnerable enough to name what’s happening for us and so part of the map in creating a healthy relationship is being truthful and honest about this is what I’m scared about. This is what I really want.


This is what I don’t want, and being able to bring that up to the surface and allow your partner to respond and hold it with you. In some ways, when I think about threat and what happens in our bodies, it’s almost like what’s happening in front of us, might not be what’s happening inside of us. We make associations as a response to the feelings that we’re experiencing, which is totally normal, but I think that’s why using some of these questions from John Gottman can be helpful because it allows us to slow down our activated and threaded bodies and to listen and ask questions in a way that’s going to actually promote the health of our relationship, rather than just tending to the fear that we have in that moment.


Bryn: So as people are dating as they’re getting to know each other, how do you know that you found a great relationship that’s worth continuing to build?


Caleb: That’s like the 65 million dollar question. Is this the right person if I invest all my time into this, will I be happy or will I regret it? Will it work, or will it not? The best way for me to answer this goes back to this idea of attunement and in this idea of attuning I’m thinking of the work of Dr. Stan Tatkin, I think right at the beginning, you were talking about how we can build secure functioning in our relationships from the very beginning we can talk about what we want and what we need from the very first date. He actually has this template or these five main points that he talks about that can almost function as like the goal of building a healthy relationship. One of the first things he names is producing a sense of security in your relationships.


So, the idea of we protect each other. So even if we don’t know each other that well, how are we trying to keep each other safe and secure. To give an example of that, I think even if just like physical safety, like maybe I can wait outside to ensure that my partner gets inside their apartments safely.Another way of building security is asking for consent and explicitly naming those things so that I feel safe in front, so that you feel safe. Another point that I think about when it comes to is this relationship worth building upon is sensitivity, and this might be one of the most important pieces. It’s looking at are we aware of each other’s needs? Are we responsive to those needs? One partner might have a need for autonomy.


For example, that might mean they need to go to the gym a certain amount of times a week, or they have a hobby, or it’s really important that they spend this amount of time with their family, but in contrast, the other partner might feel like they have a need for quality time, and so sometimes these needs can almost work against each other or be working in opposite directions, and so a healthier relationship is going to be looking at how can Ibe aware of your need for blank and still honour it at the same time, and how can then I also name that opposing potential need that could be showing up.Conflict is inevitable and I think what I was suggesting earlier is that it actually could make your relationship even healthier. Having a sense of justice and fairness in your relationship is important.


Dating partners who can move quickly towards repairing hurts that show up. They’re the ones that really lasts. They’re the ones that build the sense of security and sensitivity that I’m talking about. Something that I tell a lot of the couples that I work with is when conflict shows up attempt to deal with it and if that conflict feels too overwhelming, or like, it’s not a good time for whatever reason, set an appointment with each other to readdress this thing that’s shown up. So that might mean, hey, right now it’s 11:00 PM and we have to wake up in the morning and we can’t really navigate this that well right now, but I know tomorrow at 5:00 PM, we’re both home and so let’s agree to repair this thing then.


Bryn: Yeah, and I’m thinking that can also be something as simple as taking ownership. You know, when you see that you’ve hurt the other person that can be coming back in 10 minutes and just saying, you know, I was at a line there, I’m sorry. I’m always amazed at how significant apologies are and a genuine apology.


Caleb: Right, because it communicates that you’re actually thinking about how I feel you’re being sensitive to my needs as well.


Bryn: It’s a sort of form of collaborating, isn’t it? Exactly, and I think collaboration or having the sense of joint exploration that I want to get to learn more about you and you’re going to show up and teaching more about yourself and vice versa is something that allows us to build some depth in the relationship. It’s important for us to know about our partner’s past, their dating history, their experiences in their family, some of the fears that show up in their relationship and so if we can almost hold the mindset of, we’re in this together, how do we join together? That’s a relationship that’s worth investing in. It’s almost like that we’re on the same team dynamic, and then when I think about, we’re on the same team, StanHopkins, last point, he talks about having a sense of true mutuality. So almost what is good for me is also good for you that this thing is mutually beneficial and so how can I make decisions in this relationship that not only just serve my needs, but also serve the needs and the growth of our relationship together.


Bryn: Yeah. I think we all have the basic wiring for these characteristics and sometimes we just need to strengthen that wiring to offset any counter tendencies and any beliefs of, you know, I’m not good enough to be in a great relationship or I have this particular need and that’s not conducive to a great relationship. I think it’s more how you navigate those personality quirks and desires that really makes a lovely relationship.


Caleb: I think the beautiful thing about this is that we are all hardwired for connection, right? That as mammals with the mammalian brain, we’re hardwired to being community and to connect with one another, and so this big, long list can sound perhaps overwhelming or can sound abstract, or how on earth am I going to be able to master all of these things, but perhaps you may be more equipped than you really realize that perhaps some of these characteristics will just show up more naturally for you and others might be some tendencies that just require us to hold some extra consciousness about, I don’t think that any of us really do this list perfectly, but it’s how do I build a relationship that shows some promise in these areas that we’re talking about.


Bryn: Yeah. I mean, building a relationship does take some humility, I guess, but also can be such a fulfilling experience and can be so rewarding. Caleb, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been fantastic.


Caleb: It’s been such a pleasure, Bryn. Thank you so much.


Bryn:  Caleb Gunning has a private therapy practice in Ottawa, Ontario. He is accepting new clients for phone or video sessions due to COVID-19 restrictions, and you can search for his profile on psychology today, or find more details on today’s podcast, including transcript and I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plum-Line, a podcast on mental wellness.