When we meet someone we like, we have a strong instinct to try to please them – and we naturally believe that the best way to do so is to show how much we agree with their views and choices on all issues big and small.
When they mention that they enjoy dancing on a first date, we will signal that we, of course, enjoy clubs as well. Or, when they complain about how boring museums are, we’ll tell them that on a trip to Berlin last year, we spent an entire fascinating day in the galleries of the Altes Museum.
We will not tell outrageous lies, but we will stretch and bend the truth to create the illusion of near-total agreement. Our desire to please can peak around sex, and we can’t risk exposing them to the actual byways of our erotic imagination. We simply claim to want miraculously exactly what they want.
Along the way, it rarely occurs to us that they may be going through some of the same motions as we are, that they may be adjusting their self-presentation in subtle but powerful ways to fit in with what they believe to be our preferences and values.
Our growing mutual desire has a tragic-comic undertone. Two respectable folks are doing their best to be as polite as they can. No one intends to deceive, but a set of profoundly inaccurate and dangerous notions about who each individual truly is is gradually taking hold.
Our overwhelming desire to please can lead us to live together and eventually marry. Then, inevitably, the prolonged, intimate scrutiny that coupledom entails will reveal the magnitude of our misguided expectations. We will each be saddened, disappointed, and shocked to discover who we have ended up with after a series of disillusioning stages. There will be recriminations, squabbles, and shaky reconciliations until one or both parties comes to the grim, but the still unexpected, conclusion that we were never compatible.
Or we can persevere in our misery. We will face a lifetime of vacations that will never include the museum visits we crave. We’ll have to accept that we’ll never have the kind of sex we want. Or, even worse, we will eventually embark on a clandestine existence; we will seek out the moments when they are absent to satisfy needs we have pretended not to have. Until one day, our double life is revealed, and we drown in bitterness, rage, and sorrow.
However, the source of such nightmares was always a heartfelt, but painfully flawed and risky, devotion to being an easy match. We wanted to keep things simple, but we ended up with a very complicated mess.
A genuinely simpler approach is to start somewhat complex. When the topic of dancing comes up, the sensible lover should immediately describe their dislike of the activity; when the topic of museums comes up, they should openly express their enthusiasm. When it comes to routines and tastes, they should dare to mention their enjoyment of a perfectly clean kitchen worktop or explain what it means to them to be awake in the early hours, when the rest of the world is still sleeping and their mind is at its most adventurous.
There’s no need to be arrogant or demanding. And there’s no requirement that our date agrees or even stay past dessert (or the main course). Some will, and should, flee.
To reveal our truths, we must first have a basic sense of acceptability; we must understand that we are not perfect, but we are also not wholly abject or shameful. Our attitude toward the kitchen may be a little exaggerated, but it is not delusory. Our unusually early rise may be unusual, but it is perfectly sane – all things considered. We know that a sexual preference can be statistically unusual without devolving into evil. Our inner conviction that our eccentricities are fundamentally reasonable enables us to present ourselves to another person without fear or defensiveness.
Our sincerity then gives us the right to ask the other person to reveal – with similar candor – what may be unique and difficult about their own personalities. If they insist that they are truly simple and ‘easy,’ we can be gently but firmly skeptical. They are human beings, and being human means being complicated. They can’t exist without significant quirks. The issue with any potential partner is rarely that they are too strange, but that they haven’t come to terms with their uniqueness or found a language to introduce others too who they are in a way that can be reasonably understood and accepted.
Being straightforward on dates is, in the end, a mechanism for two people to fast-forward time – and, in the process, spare themselves agony. We should be aware that a gleaming exterior is not a true reflection of who anyone can be. Only after we’ve outlined our mutual complexities can we sense, with great relief, that we’re in the presence of a fellow mature and refreshingly direct individual. When we dare to reveal and accommodate the true complexities of human nature, we will be able to have the simpler relationships we desire.