My last three posts talked about all the things wrong with dating today, from the narratives to the frameworks to the myriad ways you’re self-sabotaging your own romantic life. This post is about the opposite — how dating can go very very right.
To me the best style of relationship is one where both partners treat the other’s real preferences with equal weight to their own, and make decisions on that basis and not based on pre-agreed rules. I call this ideal “selfless relationships”; others have arrived at similar ideas under many names.
Note that “selfless” here doesn’t mean “self-abnegating”, it just means that your innermost circle of concern contains at least one person other than yourself. This may mean, for example, that if you’ll enjoy the plums in the icebox more than your partner you should just eat them and this doesn’t make you a bad person (although it’s still a good idea to apologize and make it up to them). It means not only that when it’s late in the evening my wife and I will rate ourselves on 1-10 scales for horniness and sleepiness and do whichever gets the highest combined score but also that I have learned to calibrate my preferences down because my wife is less decisive about the difference in her preferences and if I reported my scores accurately I would get what I want too often and she not enough. Selfless relationships mean acting on the combined utility function.
A selfless relationship requires:
- That you know your partner well enough to model their real preferences
- That you care about them enough to do what they’d want even if they never asked for it
- That you trust them to do the same for you (approximately) forever
I’m not going to directly defend the proposition that selfless relationships are always better than partnerships based on setting rules and negotiated consent for everything, although I do hope this will show through. I have arrived at this style over many years and many partners, and my current relationship took some years to evolve in that direction.
I am going to defend the proposition that selfless relationships are possible, which is an idea that gets a lot of pushback whenever I bring it up. If your hackles are raised in skepticism at the idea of selflessness in dating, you may fall in one of two camps.
One option is that you bought in to a memeplex of irreconcilable conflict between the sexes, one that’s reinforced by the social circumstances and skewed gender ratio it creates for its adherents. This includes various flavors of radical feminism from the intersectional to the girl-bossy, and various colors of manosphere pills from the incel’s black to the PUA’s red. If that’s the case, all I can hope for is that when you realize how wrong and harmful your ideology is you’ll land on some sane middle ground instead of ricocheting all the way to the other end of the horseshoe.
Avoiding the Pain
The other option is that you simply don’t see a way to a selfless relationship from your current situation, which may look something like this:
You live in a big city far from anyone else invested in your dating success. You’re doing well enough in life to think about dating, but dating sucks despite how well you’re doing. Your job and hobbies put you in social environments heavily skewed to your own gender, which makes flirting difficult and risky to your reputation. You try online but the apps are a lemons market, and their prompts and algorithms turn the users into homogenous commodities. A lot of the people you meet on dates are weird, creepy, or dishonest. Even when you meet someone good, you both carry scars from previous harrowing experiences.
Dating is painful, and your first goal is to minimize the pain. You look for dates who fit your lifestyle — same hobbies and TV shows and same neighborhood — so at least the nice parts of your life aren’t disrupted too much. You negotiate terms and set boundaries, looking to grab what morsels of sex and validation would make it all worth it. You know that any desirable partner has a lot of choices, and you learn to keep your options open for when you’re inevitably ghosted.
Eventually, a relationship can bloom even in this unpromising soil. You learn each other’s rules, and as long as you abide by them you both feel safe enough. After some awkward pillow talk, even the sex gets better. You find positive-sum win-wins. You discuss consent a lot.
Occasionally you see the ominous shapes of decisions you don’t have a set rule for. What if they don’t want a baby or vice versa? What if they can only find a post-doc in Wisconsin and you hate the cold? It’s not like you can have half a child, or live halfway to Green Bay. You’ve survived a dozen negotiations already, but you’re always dreading the next one.
This sort of relationship develops from the desire to avoid getting hurt — hurt by rejection and ghosting, hurt by getting screwed over, hurt by big negotiations not going your way. There’s a lot of potential downside to dating, and the boundaries and rules serve to minimize that downside.
Slack and Selflessness
Selfless dating is about adopting the opposite mindset — shooting for the upside of a relationship. This doesn’t offer a solution to getting hurt; quite the opposite.
I think that the best way to get to a selfless relationship is to act selflessly way too early, long before the other person does. This doesn’t equate to simping, subservience or melodramatic declarations of love. It means that from the very first date your goal is to figure out and give your partner what would make them happy, which is usually a lot more than they themselves would dare ask for.
The problem with this is that when you first try it you won’t do a good job, and even when you do most people will not reciprocate. Maybe they’re just selfish, maybe they’re not that into you, maybe they’re confused, maybe they’re playing out rigid scripts of dating and escalation, maybe they don’t know how to be selfless or even that they should try, and maybe they’re incapable of ever learning. You wouldn’t know if you need to keep trying for another 5 first dates or 50, and if the fault is with you or with them. And every time this fails it leaves you smarting and frustrated.
I’ve written long ago about modeling dating as a stag hunt game. To recap: either player can catch a rabbit by themselves, but they’ll only catch the bigger prize (a stag) if both reliably go for it. If you go for the stag while your partner is trapping rabbits, the stag escapes and you’re left hungry.
In the context of dating, hunting rabbit is keeping your options open, negotiating for what you want, investing a reasonable amount of effort, judging people objectively. Hunting stag means closing your other options to focus on just one person, giving what they want selflessly, investing an unreasonable amount, giving them the benefit of the doubt when they do or reveal something you don’t like.
One of the points of that essay is that even if both “players” like each other and would prefer to hunt stag together, any amount of uncertainty about each other’s intentions can make “rabbit” the rational choice individually. Likewise if either player is short on resources they have to go “rabbit” as well. Perhaps they don’t have the energy to put in even a reasonable amount of effort into dating, or they struggle to find dates and just happened to land another one the same week as you and are scared to give that up. Ray Arnold and Duncan Sabien wrote excellent essays on stag hunt, and why hunting rabbit is often not blameworthy but the right response to uncertainty and constraints.
But the only way to catch the stag is to hunt the stag. And to hunt stag you must have the resources to persevere through failure and uncertainty. In dating, that means confidence that’s based on real value you provide, emotional resilience, and the knowledge that even your worst dating experiences will eventually just be funny stories for your blog. You need a whole lot of slack in a world that’s out to get all of it.
Tragically, the people who have failed at dating the longest are the ones who are most desperate for quick fixes and reliable solutions. Selfless dating is neither quick nor reliable. If you’re stuck in the sort of dating situation I described in the previous section, you should consider taking a long break to build slack and rediscover joy before trying it. But when you do try it, you have to be fully committed. Acting like you’re going to be happily ever after from the very start is the way to make it so.
All the secrets to life take too long and are too uncertain, otherwise they would not be secret.
A Second Mind
Another challenge of selfless relationship is that they require making peace with the fact that not everything can and will be discussed explicitly, and that each partner will need to make decisions that affect the other unilaterally. If you insist on negotiated consensus for everything, it leaves no room for just doing what your partner would want.
Why not talk it all out? Primarily, because you can’t think of every dilemma, can’t articulate every desire, and often won’t capture what’s important when you try. Example: your attractive opposite-sex college classmate is in town, asking if you want to go watch the sequel to that movie you all loved back then. They need to know right now, and your partner isn’t picking up the phone. Does going to that movie that count as cheating or would your partner be crazy to get angry about it?
This is an example of a scenario many monogamous couples wouldn’t have ever discussed (poly couple will have other gray areas). A couple may decide that this is ok but the other partner may still feel jealous and resentful, or they may prohibit this and give up entirely on having even benign opposite-sex friendships.
What’s important here is not the act itself of watching a movie, but the impact on the relationship. Is the movie-going partner attracted to their friend and could potentially have an affair? Does the stay-at-home partner feel insecure over this or for some other reason? You can’t have an explicit rule that movies with hot friends are OK only if you feel really committed to not cheating and your partner feels secure enough that it’s worth. But if you know yourself and your partner you could just decide to do that, on behalf of both of you.
In the above example, your partner may not even know that they’re feeling insecure and will be hurt by you going to that movie, and even if they suspect they may not want to say that out loud. But you may know if you pay enough attention to them.
Self-awareness is hard. Rationality has many techniques for self-understanding and self-improvement. Most of them can be practiced completely alone, but I’m always struck at how much more effective each one is with another person who’s just there to hold space, listen, and watch that you don’t fool yourself. One of the greatest gifts you can get is another mind, equal to yours, who pays attention to you and thinks about your conflicts and desires with you. Spurning that gift by erecting walls of rules and individual choice within a relationship is a tragedy.
This is the final important point. Strong boundaries can be detrimental with a partner who knows you and wants what’s best for you, but they’re absolutely necessary with a partner who is selfish, ignorant, or simply unskilled. Being selfless yourself can’t turn the latter to the former. All it can do is be a beacon, letting you build the right sort of relationship with the right sort of person while not letting the wrong sort get you down.
15 thoughts on “Selfless Dating”
The problem is that the partner who is trying to be “selfless” (without explicit communication) can model their partner’s preferences wrongly, and this can lead to very bad outcomes.
Example: A thinks, “naturally I’ll leave the last cookie for my partner, because that’s what I would want, and I assume B will want the same thing.” Or “naturally I’ll take out the trash every day.”
Turns out B doesn’t care who takes the last cookie and thinks taking out the trash every day is excessive and pointless. A ends up feeling offended that B takes the last cookie and never thanks them for taking out the trash so often.
More serious example: A gives up romantic opportunities with other people, assuming that because the relationship is serious, and serious = strictly monogamous, B would want them to. B thinks a serious relationship doesn’t need to be monogamous. Seriously hurt feelings result because A feels their sacrifices are not recognized or reciprocated, and B truly does not value those sacrifices.
In both of these cases, the parties would be better off having an explicit negotiation about monogamy, or about how often to take the trash out. It can be really frustrating to operate with a “selfless” (read uncommunicative) partner who puts a long list of assumptions on you without ever explicitly saying what they want and asking what you want.
I think Jacob is outlining an ideal relationship in which partners don’t need to communicate because they already understand each other perfectly. If you have that, nice! Those of us who don’t perfectly understand each other still need to talk.
Of course you talk all the time about what you want, that’s indispensable in any relationship. The idea is that as some point you should just trust your model of how much your partner cares about chocolate chip cookies even if you only discussed macadamia cookies before. And of course you still get feedback after every choice you make (did they thank you for the cookie or said nothing?) and update accordingly.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A “selfless” relationship would be codependent. This model includes the self, so I don’t think this is a good name for the style.
Modeling preferences is very hard, and requires a lot of communication. I had this sort of relationship, once, and it was great. Our models of each other drifted, though, and by the time we noticed, it was too late.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Good luck with dating and maintaining a relationship based on such a highly abstract and complex model requiring a lot of coordinated effort from both parties. The default female sexual strategy – now unrestrained and boosted more that ever in the human history – involves a way higher choosiness, antithetical in its selective nature to such a selfless approach.
(I don’t even mention women’s higher in-group bias, less cooperation in iterated Prisoner’s dilemma, and other concerning psychological proclivities amplified by the current culture, all demonstrated in good papers published by leftist/liberal authors. Jacob would still likely dismiss them, because they’re at the odds with the utopian “purple pill polyamory” vision).
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is a good article, and as someone happily married I can say it matches up with a lot of how I think about my relationship. The linked twitter thread about global vs. local optima in particular is pretty insightful and would be worth its own article.
That said, this jumped out at me:
My first reaction to this was “That’s pretty rich coming from a polyamorist.”
Maybe you’re “different” somehow but my impression of a lot of polyamorist people is that they’re using it as an excuse to stay in rabbit-hunting mode forever, because they feel more comfortable in that mode.
And yes, I’ve heard the tired clichés of “being polyamorist doesn’t mean you don’t have commitment” or “it’s all about setting expectations and keeping everything consensual” but: 1) I believe those lines a lot less than the people who say them, and 2) the latter in particular feels antithetical to everything you’re saying here.
Focusing on one person is very important at the start of a relationship, which I did even though it was a very difficult choice. We were also completely exclusive for the first nine months of our relationships as we slowly learned each other’s preferences and built trust and security together. Polyamory is now a consequence of having arrived (after a long while!) at a selfless approach to our relationship, it’s a not a precondition for it or a necessary outcome which is why I didn’t really want to mention it.
Note that a lot of what people call polyamory is quite different from my own marriage — my wife and I are committed to each other more than we are to any particular format of exclusivity. I don’t know if what I described can work in, e.g., a polycule of 3-4 equal partners. I suspect that would have to rely on a lot more explicit negotiation, but I never tried it either way.
This strategy is very vulnerable to a partner who acts in bad faith and seeks to only maximize their own utility while able to convincingly fake adherence to selfless dating. Sociopathic people are rare, but they’re still common enough if you can have your life really messed up if you have the misfortune of getting into a close relationship with one while extending high levels of trust.
Yes. A prerequisite for trying selfless dating is having low vulnerability to sociopaths through some combination of personal experience, resilience, and good friends who watch out for you. If your dating pool has a lot of sociopaths and you’re vulnerable to them, you need strong boundaries to stay safe (but can still try to transition to a selfess model after being in a relationship with someone for enough time).
Your model is somewhat market-ignorant and I don’t like it. Namely, you assume that the aggregation of my and my partner’s utilities to choose is simple averaging. But the dating market may be such that agreeing to this is disadvantageous for one of us. Without loss of generality, let’s assume that it’s disadvantageous for me. By this, I mean that counterfactually, if I were not to be with my partner, I would be better off (in expectation). This means I shouldn’t have chosen my partner and instead should’ve chosen someone else.
So, I like the following model. Each person in the dating market has baseline expected utility they will achieve during their life if they were to remain alone. People can pair up and cooperate to help each other achieve higher expected utility. Typically, for any two people, they can vary their cooperation agreement to make it skewed more in favor of one person, or in favor of the other person. Clearly, a person should agree to a cooperation agreement with someone iff the deal is better than what they would be able to get alternatively with someone else in the market. I assume here there there is an equilibrium and every person has a surplus of utility they can expect to get compared to if they were to remain alone. But the agreement that gets that surplus is not necessarily “act to maximize the average of our utilities”.
For example, if there are more men than women then women can demand more favorable agreements. Or if you’re unusually evolutionary fit, you can demand more favorable agreements.
We had an unwritten social equilibrium called “assortative monogamy”, doing a pretty good job at balancing the zero-sum parts of male and female sexual strategies. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening and improving that further (so e.g. people could easily and quickly identify their excellent long-term matches), the entire social contract broke down due to various factors. After all the revolutions, liberations, and countless technological advancements, people are lonelier, more sexless, and angrier at the opposite sex than in the past.
There is no return to the beneficial parts of the past order, and there are no individual solutions to systemic problems.
The alternative to “stay with this person I know” is not “be with someone better” it is “return to alone (with an option to spend more resources searching further)”
“Stay with the person I know” can very easily be a local maxima. And, depending on the dating landscape, the EV of switching may be lower than staying, due to the transition costs. It could be easier to build my current molehill higher, than seek a mountain.
Thank you for this post, really. I feel inspired.
Could you give some advice on how to implement this on a first date?
I really like this and my view is quite similar. But there is still a thing I struggle with – how do I communicate my non-critical preferences if it can be potentially painful for my girlfriend?
Let’s say I like shaven legs more. But I expect considerable harm in telling anyone preferences about anything of such kind – because for now I think than it’s extremely common trauma. Should I wait four years until she randomly shares some relevant piece of info and assume there is none after the deadline? Should I ask her about body negative trauma and also ask to not think of why I’m asking about it? Should I just tell her “I’d like your legs shaven more, but it’s a non-critical preference”? Hope she offers it one day on her own initiative?
For now, I constrained myself with dating only the girls that I like the way they are and it’s working better than ever. But if she puts on 20kg – it will be revealed when I won’t get a hard-on and she asks about it. This ould be a devastating scenario for both parties and I don’t think I’m quite ready to handle it
I know this isn’t the point, but there’s an argument to be made for Selfless Dating as a selfish optimization of the utility function of a relationship (outside of stag hunting).
Let’s assume that the primary function of any relationship is to get one’s own needs/wants/dreams (NWDs) met. (I know that this point can be argued; for the sake of selfish optimization let’s start here). The failure mode of long-term relationships, then, can be described as “my NWDs are not being met”. This seems self-evident, yet this is an effect, not a cause. The cause can be likened to something like “My partner’s NWDs are being sufficiently met, but mine are not.” Practically speaking, you come to a point in a relationship where you are meeting enough of your partner’s NWDs that they are content, but they are not meeting enough of yours for you to be content. Let’s call this contentment selfishness. Selfishly, this is the relationship state that you wish to avoid.
The red pill answer is something along the lines of being the prize (traditional), dread game (Rational Male), or only being in relationships where your happiness is optimized from the start (Alpha 2.0). All three approaches seek to keep the relationship in some state of NWD imbalance in your favor (when you are the prize, she wants more of what you have to offer; when you use dread game, she fears losing the NWDs she has with you; in Alpha 2.0, you only promote women to relationship status if they have consistently met your NWDs for a set period of time). However, none of these answers model the relationship state that you wish to avoid; they do not answer the question of “How will my partner act if/when their NWDs are being met within our relationship?”
Ideally, you are looking for a partner that, when they are satisfied and content, they still meet your NWDs. When they are happiest, they don’t disregard you, but seek to give to you. In other words, you want to have a relationship with someone who’s idea of relational success is both of your NWDs being met. And you want to avoid freeloaders; those that will take from you what they want (money, attention, energy, gifts), and once they are content, give nothing in return.
Assuming that you actually care about your partner, and have an intention and ability to make their NWDs a reality, there is only one way to test for contentment selfishness: model it. Meet as much of their NWDs as possible while dating so until they are in a state of relational contentment. Then, watch. Do they do the same to you? Do they just bask in having their needs met, and ignore yours? Do they demand more? Do they give more? Do they think they “deserve” this treatment? Or something else? It’s almost like a passion test for relationships: “If you had all the money in the world, how would you spend your days?” If your partner has all the relational contentment in the world, how do they treat you? Gather enough data to have a reasonable model for how this person functions in a sustainable relationship – a long-term relationship. Then, decide if their content self is the type of person you want to have a relationship with.
The failure mode of not Selfless dating is a lack of gathering contentment selfishness data. How many relationships have you seen where everything is great while they are dating (read: things are uncertain, one or more NWDs aren’t being met), but after a few years together, things fizzle? How many times have you had the experience where if you see someone only once a week, there is high passion and desire, but once you start seeing them every day, it fades away? Anybody will be eager and engaged with you if you don’t give them their NWDs, but signal that you possibly could, or will at some point in the future. People will behave much differently once they get comfortable. You want to gather data on how people behave once they are comfortable in a relationship. Preferably, you would gather that data without having to spend 2-3 years in a long-term relationship with them.
The model that allows for the gathering of this sort of data is Selfless Dating. For six months – or for however long you’re dating them – treat them like royalty. Give them everything. Be completely selfless. But when it comes time to have the relationship talk? Be completely selfish. Evaluate how they behaved when you gave them everything. Consider if they attempted to make your life better, or contribute to you, when they were content. Determine their level of contentment selfishness. And from there, you can rationally determine whether a long-term relationship with this person is a win-win, or no deal. Either they are the type of person you want to be in a committed relationship with, or they proved that they are not.
This only can work if the only game you’re playing is the Dating Game. This is not realistic unless you are both 14, in school, and have no demands from the outside world. IRL, I have only one pool of resources for all the games I play – dating, earning money, volunteering, fighting my mental problems, exploring stuff, and 10 more that I don’t see the point to list here. You observe only one game and approach my resource pool like a black box(wise if you don’t trust me). You may observe no difference for months because I’m in the depression phase of BPD, struggling at work, or am actively losing any other game.
Maybe your model has its merits, but it is suboptimal and it doesn’t describe exactly in which situations it is useful and in which ones it isn’t.
Disclaimer: my model is less defined and is harder to understand unless you have any similar experience. I maybe a rare person and my model works only for people with similar rare traits that either are immutable or who knows how hard to obtain.
One trait that might be relevant in understanding all of this – I’m very deep in tell culture, I volunteer 99% thoughts and offer to process something very often – both topics to train on and real ones. This is both my main tool to maintain relationships and the greatest filter. I just don’t start relationships with people that I don’t trust 90% of my everything.
Some of my best relationships were quite asymmetric – one gave and another received and both were satisfied. It worked great because we didn’t count each penny, compliment, and initiative to go out. Now I’m in a long-term poly relationship which amazes me by how great it works and how low-maintenance it is. Sometimes we spend months together and sometimes we don’t communicate or exchange anything at all. Sometimes one gives and gives and the other one accepts. If not for this attitude – we would lose the long-term game ten times over, while conserving negligible amounts of resources.
I guess, neither I nor my partners ever went to any extra effort for each other, except efforts to discuss things that frighten us. We both see the dating game as casual and relaxed, 10th priority even when we move in. So we don’t expect to get much, except to have some sex, spend some time together, save some money. Sometimes I or she have extra energy to do something that can’t be conserved or spent egoistically – then we do something for each other or for the shared things, like cleaning up or repairing something. This works like a charm.