A lifetime of bad lessons can mess you up. Look at every love story ever told:
Boy meets girl. Their eyes touch, and for a heartbeat the world stops turning. But it cannot be, because there's another guy:
Or perhaps another girl:
Or maybe just crappy ol' circumstances:
This doesn't stop our hero/heroine. Through their undying faith in destiny they battle to win the heart of Their One True Love.
And they succeed!
Only to screw it all up for dramatic reasons.
And in one final act of soul-aching humility (that always seems to involve chasing a train or plane) our star-crossed lovers come to realize they're perfect for each other.
And they live happily ever after. The End.
Unfortunately, this is all total wish-fulfillment bull crap. Worse, it's poisonous to real relationships. Let me show you why.
Lie #1: Wanting someone means you should be together.
In our stories, our hero knows they've found the one, and they'll do anything to win them over.
We all make this mistake. We want someone so much. Surely, that means we have to be together? Right?
In reality, few people find each other equally attractive. In fact, this almost never, ever happens. Pick two people at random, and if one of them does fancy the other, chances are the other one doesn't feel the same way.
What makes a relationship isn't just the strength of your feelings, but of your partner's too. That combination is hard to find. But when we're smitten, or heartbroken, it can be hard to notice how blind we are.
In our stories, our hero clings to their strength of feeling, no matter what the obstacles. Their feelings give them the power to win over the target of their affections, even if they are rebuffed again and again. In real life, a person who does that is kind of a crazed stalker who really needs to let go.
Lie #2: Sincerity wins hearts.
In our love stories, our heroes win by breaking down and confessing their feelings.
Now you might yearn for a world where we can all just be honest with each other, but that's not this world. People are wired to take someone else's desperation as proof of lower value. When someone comes on too strong, we instinctively want to run away.
And if someone is too direct with their feelings, we think they're a callous asshole:
This is why we have flirting.
Flirting is how we advertise and measure interest in another person, without lowering our perceived value. The whole essence of flirting is we tease deniable hints that we like someone. A flick of the hair, a brag, a light touch on the arm. It's a game of tit for tat, where both sides are trying to evaluate a prospective partner, and find out if the other person likes them as much as they do without coming over too strong.
People who skip this stage, or who don't get it, are usually rebuffed and don't know why. The truth is, attraction is a game, and you have to play by the rules.
Lie #3: "The One"
The concept of The One is ridiculous. Most people could think of three celebrities who they'd marry on sight. Are they all your Ones?
What we do look for is the best person we can find, the one who compliments and completes us, and one who feels the same way about us. In a world of 7 billion people, there's probably quite a few of those, but that doesn't mean they're easy to find (see Lie #1, above).
In fact, our standards are 90 percent dictated by our options. So if you live on a desert island, you'll find your "One" right there. If you live in NYC, they might be your neighbor or your co-worker.
What are the odds?
The One is an evil myth to spread because (a) it's not true (b) you're unreasonably expecting your partner to be literally the best person for you on Earth and (c) if you ever break up with such a person you would feel justified in ending your life right now, because you just lost your one shot at happiness. Which you haven't.
The true formula to dating success
Well that was depressing. Don't you wish dating actually made sense? Like, if only there was some kind of magic formula to finding your special someone? Well, there is.
Let's break it down.
Imagine you filled a jar with 500 blue jellybeans, and then 500 pink jellybeans:
That's like most social circles. Not a lot of blue and pink beans are going to get together. You're one of them, and you need to mix it up.
The amount of mixing with potential partners you do in your life is a multiplier for your dating success.
Notice I said multiplier. You've got a great product (that's you!) -- but you need to get in front of buyers to sell it. Even if you're super fit, smart, funny, successful supermodel who's just won a Nobel Prize, that doesn't do you a lot of good if you live alone in the woods.
Meeting the same people won't expand your pool. Getting drunk won't expand your pool. Try a new hobby. Join a club. Travel the world. Move to a new city. Sign up for speed and online dating. These things are literally multipliers for the number of people you meet, and therefore for your success. Not all of them will work, but that's not a reason not to try.
Some people are just more attractive than others. And you might think there is little you can do about that, but there is.
Here's a test: What's going on in your life right now? What are you looking forward to in the near future?
Are you traveling somewhere interesting? Learning to scuba dive? Writing a book? Dancing in front of a crowd? How about giving blood, starting a business, helping homeless people, making a billion dollars or juggling knives?
When your overall life is awesome, your attraction rises. Your confidence, and understanding, and imagination and humility and empathy and a million other skills all increase. You become more interesting. You become more unique. And you will almost certainly be happier, even when you don't have a partner.
A surprisingly large number of my friends found their spouses by volunteering in the developing world. In what might seem like the least likely place imaginable they found other awesome people who were doing the same. They mixed up their jellybeans and made their life awesome all in one.
Paradoxically, one of the best things to do to improve your dating success is not focus on dating. Live awesome first. And don't be afraid to mix up your jellybeans.
Just whatever you do, don't buy into more stupid love stories.