Dating Advice For My Future Children

As a little background, I’m Mormon and we take marriage seriously — a high ideal worth working for. Because dating is the process that leads to marriage, we usually take dating seriously too. We might do well to be both more serious and less serious about dating — more deliberate, but less anxious. I look to my parents, several good friends, and others as models of good marriages. This talk by Richard G. Scott also paints a good picture: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”.

Introduction

I’ve been thinking about this post for almost two years and the ideas in this post for even longer. I’m 33, so I’ve had over a decade of post-mission dating. The differences I see between my dating world and the one described by my parents’ or grandparents’ generation will likely be even more stark for my future children, so these are the observations I’ll share with them:

Be careful of distraction and other mental traps

Some people have told me, “Your generation is scared of commitment.” While that may be true for some people, I believe distraction and other mental traps are larger factors. Ironically, distractions even affect the people who desperately want to get married.

Here are a few distractions and mental traps I’ve observed:

Facebook, etc.

It’s not really the time wasted on Facebook. It’s that you can travel down a “rabbit hole” of looking at pictures of attractive people you don’t know, looking at events that you’re not attending, and deluding yourself into thinking you’re “meeting” people. Of course, no one thinks they’re actually meeting people, but your mind can be tricked into thinking you’re making progress. And you’ll probably believe your own dating isn’t very exciting. I’ve had friends go down that rabbit hole and say “she looks like my type — why can’t I find someone like her?” and then come out of the rabbit hole to say “Where did the last 30 minutes go?”

In this trap, the strangers on Facebook we don’t know seem more attractive than the real people we do know. Of course, those strangers are also real people with strengths and weaknesses too, but we build them up in our minds.

In The Great Gatsby, Jay fell into this trap: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion…. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

The aggregation effect

Suppose you go to a dessert party, talk to several attractive people, and have a great time. Which one do you want to date? None of them? You may have just been fooled by the “aggregation effect”.

Source: Flickr user Doug88888

Source: Flickr user Doug88888

The aggregation effect is that you mentally combine all the attractive qualities of a group of people and subconsciously believe there’s one person out there who possesses all those qualities. Amy dresses well, Beth is well-read and interesting, and Candace laughs at your jokes, which makes the party fun, but if you don’t want to take someone on a date, then your mind may have fooled you. Again, this is subconscious.

Elevated baseline

Related to the aggregation effect is an elevated “baseline”. Think of your baseline as your average day-to-day excitement or happiness. It might be loosely associated with dopamine levels in your brain. When you meet someone attractive, your excitement level rises above the baseline. It’s novel and exciting.

By constantly attending parties, dessert parties, group activities, huge dances, etc. with exciting/attractive/interesting people, I believe it’s possible to raise your “baseline” so that you’re no longer excited by one individual.

To paraphrase Jeffrey R. Holland, no one is as handsome or as beautiful or as brilliant in school or as witty in speech as all of us are combined.

With 1 person, you have to carry the conversation about 50% of the time, and you get to hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation the other 50% of the time. At a dessert party with 20 people, you might carry the conversation just 5% of the time, but you hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation 95% of the time. Parties are biased to provide you far more novelty and entertainment than any one person can provide alone.

How to kill a moth

Nature magazine published an article on how moths were exterminated in Australia using their own natural pheromones instead of manufactured insecticides. (Pheromones are a natural substance released by female moths to attract male moths.) One method was to build a snare into which the male moths would enter and not escape. The second method didn’t require a physical snare at all:

Source: Flickr user Benimoto

Source: Flickr user Benimoto

[It] is called the confusion method. An airplane scatters an environmentally insignificant number of very small plastic pellets imbedded with the scent of the pheromone, and only a few of these pellets per acre are enough to overpower the male’s ability to find the female. He is thus desensitized to the natural scent of the female by this compelling scent. The Australian article describes the confusion method as follows, “The male either becomes confused and does’t know which direction to turn for the female, or he becomes desensitized to the lower levels of pheromones naturally given out by the female and has no incentive to mate with her.” (Quoted by Dr. Donald Hilton, Lighted Candle Society Annual Banquet, May, 13, 2009)

The male moth was exterminated by raising the baseline pheromone level of its environment.

Frenzy

Adlai E. Stevenson was a candidate for U.S. president in 1952 and 1956. He said that from citizens we need “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”. That also sounds like a good formula for a relationship. To be open and vulnerable in marriage, you’d want your partner to be steady, not frenzied.

Incidentally, that’s opposite of what makes romance exciting. Drama is fun! Drama is exciting!

What makes slot machines addictive and dogs trainable is intermittent variable reward or IVR, the idea that it’s easier to manipulate behavior with random rewards than consistent rewards. “[A] dolphin rewarded with a fishy treat every six jumps will soon become lackadaisical about the five in-between ones; reward it at random, however, and it’ll jump vigorously, never knowing which jump will bring fish.”

If you date someone that’s up and down, hot and cold, it certainly may be exciting. The transition from cold to hot is exciting because of the contrast, but your mind may be tricked by this IVR effect. On the other hand, someone who’s consistent and steady may not be as provocative to your amygdala but they may provide more safety in a relationship. Our minds trick us into wanting excitement when we may prefer steadiness.

In pop culture, this is called being “no drama”. The recently passed Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Being no-drama seems about the same.

Lower the costs of dating, and not just financial costs

Source: Flickr user The Fayj

Source: Flickr user The Fayj

Much has been said about reducing the financial cost of dates, and I think it’s good advice. I also think it’s more than financial costs. Keeping dates inexpensive is also about reducing the transaction and risk costs.

The transaction cost of a date is all the “fuss” before and after a date.

The risk cost of a date is how emotionally painful or socially awkward it will be if this date doesn’t work out.

Things that increase the transaction costs and risk costs of dating:

  • Making a big deal out of date, whether yours or a friend’s
  • Jumping to conclusions about someone you like
  • Jumping to conclusions about someone you don’t like
  • Talking too much or too soon with your roommates/friends about your dates
  • After your roommate’s date, asking “Is he/she THE ONE?”
  • Spreading the news that two people went on a date

Dating as a conversation topic should be as mundane as the weather.

Privacy

I know a young lady who lived by herself and didn’t talk about her dates, even with girlfriends. She sometimes had dates on different nights with guys who knew each other but didn’t know they were all dating her. She effectively reduced the cost of asking her on a date because guys learned that they could ask her on a date without burning bridges with anyone else. Later she started dating one of them steadily and it became public.

As my friend Tristen says, stop talking about your first dates.

Optimism

Suppose I have a daughter who doesn’t get married until later in life. It may be difficult for her to stay optimistic and cheerful about dating. However, I’ll try to explain to her how important it is to be as carefree and cheerful as she was when she first started dating. I might say, “If a guy perceives that asking you on a date might get your hopes up and hurt you if it doesn’t work out, he may not be inclined to take that risk, for fear of hurting your feelings. Stay optimistic and reduce the risk for him to get to know you.”

Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello

Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello

I like these words from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, not once. I have discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work” and “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Dating is a process of experimentation, trying to find the right fit. It doesn’t have to be viewed as compounding disappointment until it’s finally, happily over. It can be fun along the way, and we can learn a lot from each other, even when it doesn’t work out.

23 thoughts on “Dating Advice For My Future Children

  1. Brian Stucki
    That’s a great post Richard, and one I’ll be referencing in the future. I know this has been a long time in the making so glad to see it put together.
  2. Kevin Miller
    Very interesting post. Great examples and analogies. Good common sense that is not so common now days.
  3. Mira
    I would love to share this with a group Voices for Virtue of Facebook as well a ward list serve May I have your permission to do so? It was an excellent post and you made several points I have been thinking and pondering about it was very insightful!
      1. Mira
        Thanks so much…I have requested for it to be posted with Voices for Virtue as posted it as well to my own singles ward list serve and personal blog…well done!
  4. Quinn
    I liked this a lot I especially like the moth analogy I hadn’t heard it before and could also be used to illustrate the dangers of Pornography and what me and my wife call “emotional pornography” otherwise known as chick flicks.
  5. Megan
    Great post. You articulated things I have observed, but wasn’t able to put my finger on. This seems to be the plight of so many friends. It’s always seemed interesting to me that we can have so many great people in a singles’ ward, yet relatively few of them ever seem to marry each other. This is a good explanation of why.
  6. Shmitty
    I’ll add these bits of advice as well: 1. Don’t limit yourself to LDS men/women, but do seek out people who share your values. You can often find people of other faiths that have as good if not better morals and they are as much if not more likely to appreciate you for your good qualities. 2. Don’t spend much money on dates at first as it will likely go to waste, instead find low cost ways to spend time together. 3. Don’t let anyone tell you that someone is too good for you, you have to follow you’re own free will.
  7. Morgan Shaw
    Very insightful. It’s fun to see random friends of mine posting this around Facebook.
  8. Tristen Ure
    I have been WAITING for this post! Finally Richy Rich! You are brilliant in your observations…and your delivery is even better. I miss you and hope I get to see you soon!
    xoxo-T
    CKorB…all the way baby!!
  9. Stephanie
    I really appreciated this post, but can I add one? It kind of fits under your last entry, but I think it deserves an entry of its own. Dating takes time. While some people may “just know”, most of us don’t. It takes time to truly get to know someone and decide if you want to spend eternity with them. As you are dating, you should see problems and have concerns. If you don’t, you either naive, delusional, or you haven’t dated long enough. How you resolve these can indicate how future problems and concerns may be resolved in your marriage. It is generally these experiences and not angels from Heaven that will help you know how to proceed in your relationship.
  10. Audrey
    I agree Richard. All the excitement of single social scenes including all the intelligent conversations and good looks tend to be put on in the moment. It’s hard to know where the real diamonds are. It seems like most people clamor for the sparkle in the desert only to find it’s a mirage. Hopefully they realize it is a mirage before the “I do.” I wish girls could be worth more than an MRS degree to Mormon guys. That the opinions and independence before marriage actually can and probably is the gem on the other side of marriage. But the reason guys are over saturated is because of the underlying message that many Mormon men feed girls. They are worthless without their special degree. When that changes, men won’t feel as saturated anymore because the women won’t be as needy. Dating could look different. Make a girl worth more. Not just by telling her but by letting her.
  11. Jared Iverson
    Richard, very well said! I really agree with the elevated baseline concept and how it’s affected by and related to our Facebook culture and the aggregation effect. Those concepts seem very related to the paradox of choice and the occasional detriment too many options can cause.

    The “Lower the costs of dating” section made me think for a bit. At first, it struck me as somewhat counter-intuitive to encourage people to talk more mundanely and less excitedly about dating since it’s usually such an important and consuming aspect of our lives worthy of some excitement. I think you’re saying “entry” and “early-stage” costs should be lower so more people will initially engage in dating with a new person (lower entry barriers). But then I realized it’s a tough topic to generalize to everyone. People who are too nonchalant with dating may need to take it more seriously, while on the other hand, too many people are self-defeating by being far too anxious. So I ultimately agree with you, and especially for individuals who share our beliefs about marriage, that over-anxiousness is by far the bigger problem.

    But what really made me think is what if some costs are actually too low. Beyond the initial or early-stage costs that prevent someone from asking someone out (which I agree should be lower), what if break-up, or “relationship-jumping,” costs were actually higher. Just to clarify, I’m a HUGE advocate of ending it with someone that you’re not wanting to marry and would never advocate marrying out of a feeling of duty. However, with our culture’s increased aggregation and baseline effects, people are more easily and prematurely drawn from a relationship that could have led to a successful marriage. So while I agree that entry costs should be lower, what if “relationship-jumping” costs were higher? That would lessen a person’s incentive to expend resources seeking ever-increasing novelty/excitement and allow them to focus more on the person they’re currently dating.

    I think “relationship-jumping” costs used to be higher. Before when I wanted to find a new person to pursue and date, I was limited to my high school yearbook, or in college, my printed ward directory, classes or circle of friends/acquaintances. And all this was in a very limited geographical location. Before our Facebook and social media culture, it would have been very costly for me to even learn about other dating prospects that weren’t in my limited sphere. Driving to another city and cruising the local mall for prospects was time-consuming and expensive! :) Now we feel that ending a relationship carries very little cost because we can see on our smartphones 20 other viable and possibly better replacements. It seems like a very challenging balancing act (because who wants to intentionally limit their options), but I think lower entry costs followed by higher relationship-jumping costs would help lessen the aggregation and baseline effects. If only there were an app for that.

    1. Richard K Miller Post author
      Hey Jared, thanks! Interesting to hear your thoughts on the topic!

      It’s true that when I was speaking of making dating “mundane” or pedestrian, I was thinking of early-stage dating. Another way to say it might be “let your excitement be proportional to the stage”.

      I feel must more strongly about the question of discussing my dating vs. your dating than I do about early-stage vs. late-stage. I say be as excited about your own dating as you want. But if you’re talking about someone else’s dating, with or without them present, I say be careful. In my observation, speaking of someone else’s dating, either 2nd-person or 3rd-person, can have the effect of hurting the culture and artificially raising the cost of dating.

      For example, suppose I’m in a ward/city/culture where asking out Mary will carry a social cost of 5 questions from my roommates (2nd-person) and 15 conversations among ward members (3rd-person). Now transport me and Mary to a different ward/city/culture where I’ll receive zero 2nd-person questions and there will be only 7 3rd-party conversations about us. Clearly the latter is more attractive. And this is all before the first date, before I even know whether I might want to ask out Mary again.

      Of course, this doesn’t describe the dynamics after we start dating seriously, but my observation has been that the first-order problem is the early stages of dating. I’ve seen far more non-dating than I’ve seen dating for 6 months and then not committing.

      I’d probably argue that relationship-jumping costs in the past were _lower_. Your choices may have been fewer (I agree with that, and that was probably a good thing) but I would guess that it was as easy or easier than now to break up with someone and not face social consequences disproportionate to the stage. Because social media can broadcast your relationship status far more widely than in the past, you can receive attention and scrutiny disproportionate to the relationship’s length or seriousness. In addition to this social media difference, anecdotal evidence from my parents is that in the past casual dating was just more common and less stigmatized.

      I think of this as similar to a pro-labor law that intends to help workers by making it harder to fire them, but unintentionally causes fewer employees to be hired, or a clause in a venture financing contract meant to protect investors in a downside event but which has the effect of discouraging a deal with them. Hard to exit = hard to enter.

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