I’ve heard it plenty of times before: friends tell me all men are jerks and they just can’t seem to find and keep a good guy. Maybe part of it is fate, but a much bigger part is your picker — your internal sense of who’s a suitable companion for you. If more of my friends (and anyone else out there who bemoans the infestation of jerks in their dating lives) followed these simple rules right at the start of a relationship — in the choosing phase — they’d discover that the problem isn’t that all men are a**holes, but simply that too many of us choose to date someone who’s wrong for us for too long, making ourselves unavailable when the right guy comes along, and building resentment and bad feelings toward each other along the way. These rules go both ways — any man can (and should) follow them if he feels he often dates women who don’t behave well toward him. Since most appeals for advice on this subject that I’ve received have come from straight women, I’ve assigned gender pronouns accordingly — but the ideas are universally applicable. Check out these five mind-bogglingly simple steps to avoid your next dating disaster.
5. Don’t Date Jerks
Look, it’s so obvious most people miss it. Most jerks are not masters of disguise. They’ll show their true colors to you the first time you meet, if you’re looking carefully enough. We often just get so swept up by the romance of the situation, or his attractiveness, or our desire to get a date, or the pleasure of receiving attention that we choose to ignore the signs. Are you uncomfortable with how dismissive he was of your friends? Did he say something rude to you that you just tried to laugh off? Has he abruptly cancelled or rescheduled on you for pretty thin reasons?
I believe that when it comes to first dates, you might as well give everyone a shot, so I’m not saying you should be so picky that you turn down a first date based on relatively minor offenses. But typically, when a person really is a dyed-in-the-wool jerk, it’s hard to miss. Trust your instincts. Cut things off after the first, second, or third date if you can tell already that he’s kind of a jerk. Don’t drag things out, hoping that his behavior will change as you become closer, or trying to rationalize it (“He’s just trying to impress me,” “He’s just being brusque because he’s nervous,” “He’s just a super busy guy”). Even if his behavior is due to a relatively innocuous reason, maybe it’s a sign that you’re simply not compatible or it’s not the right time in either of your lives to make a go at a relationship together.
4. Believe What He Tells You About Himself
If he tells you he’s not close with his family, don’t take this as a challenge. If he admits (even jokingly) that he’s rude to his coworkers or he’s a bad friend, believe him. Self-deprecation is a way to try to make light of a flaw; we’re all flawed, but if one particular flaw is a deal-breaker for you, listen to the truth under his lighthearted tone. Someone who says, “I steal from the tip jar sometimes” with a self-deprecating laugh in his voice is still telling you the truth, that he steals from the tip jar sometimes. If you don’t want to be with someone who steals from the tip jar sometimes, this is your cue to bail out. It’s not time to say to yourself, “Oh, he steals from the tip jar sometimes but it’s sweet that he can laugh about it. Maybe that means he’ll be willing to change.”
Sometimes a confession like that is a plea for help or sympathy — maybe he’s not close with his family because of a terrible falling out in which both parties acted poorly, or maybe he steals from the tip jar because he has a compulsion problem that he wishes desperately that he could change. It’s possible that his confessions deserve a great deal of sympathy and compassion — but that doesn’t mean you have to date him if those confessions also reveal fundamental incompatibility. And even if he does express an interest in changing, the will and the strength to do it have to come from within him. If he’s searching for a woman who can “fix” him, he’s not ready to change. You are only ever dating the person who he is right now, so if you don’t like that person, don’t date him. And if you do choose to date him, do it with open eyes — not with the intention of being his personal savior.
3. Know Yourself
A lot of times, when friends tell me their exes were jerks, or they seem to always wind up dating jerks, the truth of the matter is they simply weren’t compatible, and the process of trying to keep the relationship going despite their incompatibility made both parties act poorly toward each other. There is no such thing as a breakup where all the fault belongs on one side. Have the courage to admit, in hindsight, how your choices and behavior contributed to the breakdown of past relationships. Often what you may find is that, while one or both of you may have behaved very poorly, the root cause of that poor behavior was a fundamental incompatibility between you both…not that “he’s just a jerk.”
To avoid that situation in the future, you must first know yourself — think deeply and clearly about what you want out of a relationship, how you want to be treated, and also what you’re willing to put in. In other words, don’t just think about how you’d like to be treated, but also think realistically about how much time and effort, and what kinds of demonstrations of love and affection, support and commitment, you are willing to contribute to a relationship. You are the only point of reference in this process; not what your friends tell you, not what your parents expect, not what the movies show you. The first step to breaking the cycle of getting entangled in long-term relationships with deeply incompatible people is to understand what a compatible person for you would look like.
2. Learn from the Jerks
This one sounds counter-intuitive, but we can learn about human behavior in two ways, by example and inverse example. It’s easy to admire a kind person when you encounter them; it’s equally easy to ignore the lessons you can learn from an unkind person.
First of all, was their unkindess due to malice or thoughtlessness? More often than not, even the biggest jerks we know are more thoughtless than they are malicious. It’s easy to spot thoughtlessness when you’re its victim, but much more difficult to recognize it when you’re the perpetrator. If someone’s inconsistency in returning your calls, or inconsiderateness in keeping dates, or forgetfulness of your preferences bothers you, use it as a lesson to pay closer attention to those things in your own behavior toward others. It doesn’t mean you have to put up with it, or continue dating a person like that — but it will help you understand better where jerky behavior comes from. Life, and relationships, are a lot easier to manage when you have the courage and wisdom to discern when bad behavior was due to thoughtlessness rather than malice. It’s actually kind of fun to get outraged at someone’s horrible behavior, and to assume it springs from some deep well of horribleness inside them. It’s addictive to perceive people’s behavior that way. It’s a lot more difficult (and takes more courage and open-heartedness) to discern when a person’s bad behavior is just due to thoughtlessness, and to seek to avoid thoughtlessness yourself (and forgive, or at least understand it, when you encounter it in others). That doesn’t mean you have to date chronically thoughtless people; but if you learn from that experience to be more thoughtful yourself, perhaps you’ll recognize that quality more clearly in someone else, when the right person comes along.
Now, for the few cases when bad behavior truly does spring from malice, that itself contains a lesson. A lot of malice grows from bitterness, resentment, and fear. It’s easy simply to think, “That guy is a bad guy, through and through, a terrible person.” It’s scary to think, “I could be that bad too, if I take the path he took.” In other words, simply dismissing someone as an inherently bad person can expose you to the same things that made them the way they are, because of your refusal to acknowledge the source of their malice. If you understand that malice often springs from bitterness, resentment, and fear, you suddenly see your own potential to become a malicious person if you, too, let those feelings overcome your life. Once again, you can understand (and even have compassion for) a malicious person without having to date him. The answer here is still to walk away. But you know what tends to inspire a lot of bitterness, resentment, and fear? Dwelling on how awful the malicious people in our lives are. It’s an infection that spreads. But if you understand that’s how they got to be that way, you can choose to let that person out of your life along with the bitterness he may have caused.
1. Be the Person You Want to Date
Don’t have expectations of a partner that you would never be able to live up to yourself. And if you do want a good man — a generous, kind, affectionate, hardworking, intelligent man — try to be those things yourself (or, whatever other qualities you seek). We’re all looking for generally the same things, but very often we forget to be those things ourselves. So we wander around the world, bouncing off each other, disappointed in others for what we’ve forgotten to strive for in ourselves.
If you strive to be the kind of person you want to date, you may be more likely to attract that person (because he’s probably looking for the same things in a partner). But… maybe it won’t happen after all. Fate is fickle, and maybe despite years of striving to be kind, generous, wise, and affectionate, you still don’t find the right partner for you. The thing is, trying to be the kind of person you’d want to date is its own reward. Independent of your relationship status, wouldn’t it be nice simply to lead a good, fulfilling life full of kindness toward others? Wouldn’t it help you, in so many ways throughout your life, simply to learn to be wise?
Cynicism can be a crutch, replacing real wisdom. Claiming that the world is just full of jerks and it’s impossible to find a good partner is not wisdom, it’s cynicism. It’s the refusal to acknowledge the much more difficult truth in front of you: that sometimes we just don’t find the right person, or sometimes we fail many times before we succeed. Or sometimes we succeed for a brief period of time, and then fail anyway. Another difficult part of that truth which we seek to avoid, by hiding behind our cynicism, is that our lives would be much better if we strove to be good people ourselves, even if we don’t wind up with our dream partner after all. It’s much easier for us to believe that everyone else is the problem. It’s true there are a lot of less-than-nice people in the world, but the only person you have total control over is yourself, so if you wish that the world were different, you can do the one thing within your power: be a nice person yourself, and increase the number of nice people in the world by one.