The problems with mainstream dating/courtship -- and can we fix them?
by Mona Pereth
One of the hardest things for many autistic people is finding/developing a romantic relationship. Here, I'll talk about some of the problems with currently-popular mainstream methods, and then I'll talk about one possible way that a better-organized autistic community could make things somewhat easier.
- The big problem with dating apps
- The big problem with meeting people in bars, or via "speed dating," etc.
- The soundest approach, friends-first, has its difficulties too
- A community-based fix for some of the problems with dating?
The big problem with dating apps
As a way of seeking a romantic partner, dating apps are utterly unromantic.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with today's dating apps is that they intensify the market mentality that is all too often involved in seeking a romantic relationship.
By market mentality I mean: (1) trying to sell oneself to potential partners, while at the same time (2) shopping around for the best possible potential partner.
Note: I have never, personally, used any of today's mass-market dating apps. When I was younger, I did meet a few people via old-fashioned personal ads, but that was quite a different experience from today's big dating apps. My comments about dating apps are based on the many complaints I've heard about them from other people.
Dating and courtship, especially between heterosexuals, have always tended to involve some degree of market mentality. But it seems to me that today's mass-market dating apps intensify the market mentalily by at least several orders of magnitude. Dating apps intensify the market mentality by showing you a cornucopia of strangers, none of whom you have any knowledge of or personal history with, outside the context of the dating app itself.
What's so bad about market mentality? Apart from the fact that autistic people tend to be bad at it, the biggest problem with market mentality, in the context of seeking a romantic partner, is that it hinders the development of emotional intimacy. Not only it NOT a good foundation for a romantic relationship, but it intrinsically undermines the very thing it is trying to accomplish.
One of the things a romantic relationship requires is emotional intimacy. To have emotional intimacy, the partners must be able to connect emotionally on a deep level. To that end, they need to feel free to be themselves with each other.
But this isn't likely to happen if you are busy bending over backwards to make a good impression on prospective partners, worrying about whether you are good enough for them, while at the same time evaluating whether a given prospective partner is good enough for you. Thus, too much market mentality is antithetical to any deep emotional connection.
Many people do manage to find relationships via dating apps these days, despite the above. But the built-in market mentality makes it intrinsically more difficult than it might otherwise be.
The big problem with meeting people in bars, or via "speed dating," etc.
Meeting people in bars, even more so than meeting people on dating apps, requires people to make quick judgments about total strangers, and also requires people to make themselves as appealing as possible to at least some of those total strangers.
It also requires a level of conversational skill that is difficult for many autistic people, especially autistic heterosexual men (and especially drunk ones).
Anything that involves people making quick in-person judgments about each other is likely to be very bad for autistic people. (See Autistics Make Others Uncomfortable, Instantly by Christopher Scott Wyatt, January 14, 2018.)
Furthermore, many autistic people have sensory issues with bars. Bars are just too damned noisy for many of us.
So-called "speed dating" is more structured and gives more people opportunities to talk to more people, but only very briefly.
All these ways of meeting total strangers are very conducive to market mentality. Thus the first date, and everything leading up to it, is essentially a glorified mutual job interview, with all the stresses thereof. And job interviews are another thing many autistic people tend to be bad at.
The soundest approach, friends-first, has its difficulties too
In my experience, and in the experience of most autistic people I've known who have had successful romantic relationships, the strongest and most stable romantic relationships form gradually, between people who already knew each other as friends.
My own current (and longest-lasting) relationship was formed in this way. We started out as co-workers, then founded our own small business together after we both got fired, then gradually became friends as we continued to work together. Then, after we had known each other for three years, he suddenly had to move in with me due to a crisis in his living situation. About six months after he moved in, I went through a crisis of my own and reached out to him for comfort, which led to our relationship taking an erotic turn. Things were rocky between us for the first three years after he moved in, but we persisted, partly for the practical reason that we both saw working together as the best way for both of us to make a living in the long run. Eventually we both learned to get along with each other much better and evolved into having a very close, committed relationship. (Years later, he told me he had a crush on me when he first met me. But it would NOT have been a good idea for him to have expressed that crush back then!)
In my opinion, a good romantic relationship is everything a good friendship is, plus more (and also more than just "friends with benefits"). So, if you're already friends with someone, you already have a head start on some (though not all) of the most important ingredients of a romantic relationship.
There are, however, some difficulties that many people -- especially many heterosexual autistic men -- have with the friends-first approach too:
It's slow. For someone who ardently desires a romantic relationship, but who isn't particularly good at making friends, the friends-first approach can seem just too darned excruciatingly slow.
If you're romantically interested in a friend, but your friend isn't romantically interested in you, you risk losing the friendship. (This can be especially problematic if the friend happens to be someone you met at work.)
It limits you to a much smaller dating pool than either dating apps or trying to meet people in bars or via "speed dating."
To work well, the friends-first approach requires that you NOT be focused on finding a romantic relationship. "A watched pot never boils." That's intrinsically difficult for people who ardently desire a romantic relationship, especially if they just don't care a whole lot about friendship otherwise.
My comments on these issues:
Better slow than never. Besides being intrinsically un-conducive to emotional intimacy, the faster methods, such as dating apps and bars, tend to be much more popular among heterosexual men than among heterosexual and bisexual women, thus very disadvantageous to autistic heterosexual men. Why so few women? Because women tend to deem these methods unsafe. I suspect that most Women are also put off by extreme market mentality I discussed above. So, on dating apps and in bars, the odds are very much against any heterosexual men who aren't exceptionally handsome and charming. All the more so are the odds very much against most heterosexual autistic men, who tend not to be the most charming people in the world.
A significant problem, yes. Hopefully addressed in the next section, below.
Quality may be better than quantity. And what mattars, in terms of quality, is not just the quality of the person, but also the quality of the context in which you originally met each other, and then the quality of the contexts in which you continue to interact with each other. The friends-first approach does result in a much smaller dating pool, yet a much better chance of creating emotional intimacy that can lead to a romantic relationship.
Too many autistic people don't understand the value of friendship, as an end in itself -- not just as a possible bridge to an eventual romantic relationship. But that will be a topic for another article.
A community-based fix for some of the problems with dating?
Perhaps what some of us might need is a different, smaller-scale kind of dating app. Perhaps what's needed are dating websites/apps that aim NOT to introduce vast numbers of complete strangers to each other, but instead focus on specific groups of people, with the aim of making it less awkward for people who already know each other (or who at least are part of the same cluster of small groups) to express interest in possibly dating each other.
An example would be dating websites/apps that are aimed at particular small religious groups that want people to marry within their religion.
Perhaps, one day, a better-organized autistic community than we have now could have something similar. Unfortunately this is not yet feasible at the present time, but it's worth considering how we might be able to make such a thing work in the future. Here's how I envsion it working:
- All single members of a given cluster of groups who are seeking partners, and who are willing to meet people from within the autistic communit, would be encouraged by group leaders/facilitators to use the app.
- The app would be flexible as to what kind of profile users want to have. (Some might emphasize photos, others might feature questionnaire replies or free-form statements by the users about themselves and what they are looking for.)
- Users could browse other users' profiles and indicate who they are interested in.
- Indicated interest would be revealed to the other user if, and only if, it is mutual.
This kind of dating website/app could be valuable not only for a possible future version of the autistic community, but also for future, better-organized versions of the even more under-developed subcultural groups I mentioned here, for people with mental illnesses such as depression. Within these communities, with which the autistic community overlaps heavily, there would be a much closer-to-even male-to-female ratio. But these communities would need to become extremely well organized, with lots of good solid self-help programs as well as therapy groups, in order for relationships formed therein to have a reasonable chance of being stable and beneficial.
Various autistic peer-led groups including support groups, career-oriented groups, and hobby-oriented social groups, led or facilitated by members of the Autistic Peer Leadership Group. Our newest group is the Autistic Women's Support & Social Group. All groups currently meet via text-based chat. Some groups will hopefully meet in-person after the COVID crisis is finally over with.
A list of Online forums and social media for autistic people.
Where to get an ASD evaluation as an adult: This page will be expanded and updated sometime after the COVID crisis is over with.