A man in his late 20s approached me for advice. He’s been single for about three years and has been active on the dating scene for about two years. In the last six months or so, two women whom he met via a dating app, and was interested in getting serious with, broke off contact saying that he was “too intense”. In both these cases, he thought that things were going well, and was surprised by this feedback. This man is a technology entrepreneur with a very strong artistic side – travel photography, painting, and his vinyl collection take up most of his leisure. He’s articulate, financially successful, and takes good care of his body. He was having trouble wrapping his head around this “intensity” bit.
During our first discussion, he displayed an uncommon authenticity – body language consistent with verbal phrasing; no deception leakage in gestures or words; and an honest disclosure of what he considered to be his adverse traits. During the course of our conversation it became abundantly clear that this “intensity” his dates complained about came from a combination of oversharing and an exquisite capability to describe and relive experiences in emotional and physiological terms. For instance, speaking about his fondness for classical music, he told me that his favourite piece was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and choked up as he spoke of how it reminded him of moonlit nights in his hometown and had featured in a Near Death Experience caused by a scuba diving mishap.
During the course of our discussion, I asked him if he had described this to the women he went out with. He said yes – the subject of favourite books and music often comes up on the first date, and the conversation would move to this anecdote.
Too intense for a first date? Possibly.
Now, there are situations when mutual authenticity leads to an instant intimacy. Most of us may have experienced this in both the romantic and platonic dimensions. However, these “instant connects” are few and far between. Either due social or cultural conditioning; prior emotional damage; or simply a lack of interest; people generally have barriers or filters in emotional communication. Now if this individual were going on about his subjective experience of Moonlight Sonata to someone who is reticent or not sensitive to this piece of music in his way, he would certainly come across as pretentious, overly vulnerable, or “intense”. On the other hand, if the person he was speaking with was emotionally available at the same level, there would be an instant connect and perhaps an explosive sensual or fraternal chemistry between them.
So how does a sensitive person navigate this space without either scaring people away or being inauthentic?
A Transactional Progression.
Speaking broadly, positive human connections can be broken down into three categories: Courteous, Familiar, and Intimate.
Courteous connections are those with acquaintances or strangers – supermarket cashiers; office colleagues who you meet in the corridor and perhaps know just by face and name; Uber drivers, etc. In these cases, you’re barely or lightly acquainted, and there is no material emotional connect between the two of you.
Familiar connections are with people you spend a time with on a regular basis. These may be colleagues in the same work unit; neighbours whom you spend time with; fellow members of hobby groups or book clubs you frequent and so forth. These are people whom you know something about – details of family, interests, perhaps even political and religious leanings.
Intimate connections are those where there is a strong emotional link. Family members, childhood friends, long-term lovers, spouses, or others with a deep shared history that is mutually acknowledged.
Now, these connections are dynamic – active relationships move between these zones. To get where you want in a relationship, you need to draw your subject through to the zone where you want them.
Now with online dating, you typically start in the courtesy zone. Since you are meeting with the pre-defined mutual goal of finding romantic companionship, there is a tendency or even an interest in familiarity. Your interactions typically start with the usual pleasantries, talking about the weather, the city you live in, etc. If your interest in this person persists, you need to consciously draw them into the “Familiar” zone. Start with sharing some information about your enthusiasms or your background – something that gives them a view to who you are. If the other person does not reciprocate with at least a similar level of openness, you’re not yet on the same page emotionally. If over the next two “invites” this person does not reciprocate, you’ll have to settle for the fact that this relationship is not ready to leave the courteous zone and may never do so.
However, if the other person reciprocates, and you’re able to meet in this zone, invite them to the intimate zone. Talk about your desires and ambitions. If the person reciprocates, only then head to the depths of your fears and scars.
Timelines are tricky. It is possible to move from Courtesy to Intimacy in the matter of minutes; also, there are instances where people who have known each other for years in the “familiar” zone unexpectedly transition to emotional intimacy as a result of either a gradual shift or a sudden realization.
The key here for those with intensity is the “invite” and being sensitive to the “response”. In the time since our discussion, the person mentioned above tested this approach at a singles meet. By this third chat of the evening, he was able to perceive the dynamics of the first two zones, and is now more confident on his Tinder dates.
The case study in this post has been published with the consent of the subject.