It’s Friday night. My legs are curled beneath me and my laptop is buzzing with heat, burning my knees. I stare at the list of questions on the screen in front of me. Font style: Basic. Theme colour: Purple. I play around with the format for a little while… as if that will make what I’m doing any easier. Would the sting of rejection be softer if it came in a more elaborate font? Probably not.
The questionnaire gets scarier the further down you scroll. It begins lightly with, “What did you like about me when we first met? What were my good qualities?” Then, there are the gut-tugging ones. “What did you not like? Why did we stop seeing each other? And, “What would you recommend I do differently in the future?”
There are eight questions in total, all compiled on an incongruously professional Google Form. I add in a favourite picture of myself, for extra effect, take a deep breath and send the link on its way. In total my “dating feedback form” goes out to eight people, some of whom I haven’t heard from or spoken to in months. Why, my brain screams thinking of it landing in their DMs, am I doing this again? Is this what dating in 2022 has come to?
Rewind four months and I’m on a slightly different sofa, only this time I’m not alone. My legs are resting on Joey*, there’s the familiar chatter of Keeping Up With The Kardashians coming out from the TV and takeaway breakfast boxes strewn across the table. This was our third date and, if you count lazy Saturdays cuddled up as a marker of success, all seemed to be going well.
For those familiar with the perils of dating, how this three-date situation ended will be nothing new. Just a week after that scene of cosy comfort, my messages were going unread and ignored. Ghosted, again. With endless choice and busy lives, the high-speed production cycle of modern dating often feels like we’re all collectively trying each other on in the changing rooms of life and swiftly deciding not to buy.
But, unlike those Asos return forms, there’s no way to ask, “Why weren’t you happy with this item?” (the very nature of ghosting sees to that) – leaving us to sift for answers, from reading into snippets of information (they stopped watching my Instagram Story after that selfie so they must think I’m cringe/ugly/annoying), to overthinking the reasons why certain dates didn’t work out. But, while we wallow in a pile of ‘maybes’, we rarely get to hear honest feedback from former dates on how things actually went.
Enter: the dating feedback form, a concept I first encountered on the Finsta (that’s ‘fake Instagram’, FYI) of a particularly confident friend who asked former dates to review her online. They’re now cropping up across TikTok, with daters raving about how they helped them see where they’re going ‘wrong.’ And as someone who hasn’t had a whole bunch of success dating long-term and who loves her fair share of self-analysis, I, of course, wanted to find out what my own past dates had to say…
Does the truth really hurt?
I’d met Joey in (shock!) real life at a party where I, under the influence of a dark room and alcohol, felt a vibe coupled with some good conversation. We met up a few more times for drinks and I’d say we got on well – which is why I was confused about being ghosted. All will be resolved with some feedback, right? Joey’s form started off short but sweet, and I’d say I can be summed up by these two positives and a negative: “Aries vibes, solid chat, not on time.” Hey, at least the latter is something I can (try to) resolve. So far, so good. As for criticism, things were left a little more vague, with Joey saying the reason we stopped seeing each other was “nothing personal”. His final comment: “nothing actually bad, keep vibing.” Okay, not a whole bunch to work with, and the lack of negative responses did put a spanner in the works regarding the efficiency of my experiment. When quizzed again (and I promise begging for negative feedback feels as weird as it sounds), he reiterated, “honestly nothing specific, we had fun, but people just come and go.” It’s a universal truth in dating that not everyone is ‘the one,’ but being told I’m essentially disposable and interchangeable did sting a little bit. I guess I asked for honesty…
Still, on to the next. When I first met Sam*, I can only say I experienced what the Love Island cast would call having my head, very literally, turned. As in whipping-right-around-in-the-club turned. After a couple of dates, we quickly slid into casual ‘friends with benefits’. And although I knew there wasn’t a deeper connection between us, I was left wondering why he didn’t want anything more from me. Was it a certain part of my behaviour or personality? I took to the form to find out, which led to compliments on my appearance, a comment about being “funny” and a (weirdly disappointing) “I can’t think of any” in the negatives section.
This became somewhat of a trend throughout my mission, with various former dates promising to fill in the form only to never do so. Others ghosted my request for them to explain their ghosting (what did I expect?). This lack of negative feedback should’ve pleased me. So why did I find myself now desperate for someone, anyone, to say something bad about me?
The psychology of rejection
While I’ve been a recurrent victim of ghosting, I can truthfully say I’ve never actually been the perpetrator (probably because I usually at least like to have the final say) – although I’ll admit that I do understand the appeal. After all, it is easier (and sometimes seemingly kinder) to just ignore a message than it is to type out the words, “Sorry, I don’t want to see you again.” Dating apps and social media have seen to it that we do the majority of our communication through hastily typed out messages, and when you’re dating a lot, do you really want to hear when a date hasn’t been successful… especially if you felt exactly the same? It’s so much easier just to move on to the next.
But this lack of answers can sometimes make rejection hurt more. That’s because it sends our imagination running wild, says psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience, Audrey Tang. In the absence of an explanation, “We are left with a whole lot of assumption,” says Dr Tang, “and all we can do is try to explain [those assumptions] to ourselves or rationalise them, which doesn’t always work.”
That’s because the assumptions we run with in our heads will often go directly to what we believe “is negative about ourselves […] rather than the stuff which just simply wasn’t compatible with the other person. It’s just easier to go with that idea, because if we don’t like something, we presume everyone else doesn’t like it as well.”
So, what does my egocentric brain tell me are my negative points? Honestly, I think I can be a little bit annoying, talk too much and maybe I sometimes go too far on the ‘not that into you’/CBA approach. But while searching for assumptions on the negatives, I somehow still managed to bypass the positives that were actually committed to writing in front of me. Remember? “Solid chat”, “funny.” So, hey, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought after all. And assuming (there’s that word again) that people really are honest, maybe I need to accept my respondents’ answers that there is no answer. Perhaps it really was nothing specific, and we just weren’t compatible or there wasn’t that deeper spark between us.
Dr Tang offers up a (highly relatable) analogy: “If I were to offer you a choice between having a McDonald’s and a Greggs, you might have a preference at that time for a McDonald’s, because that’s what suits your needs. And that’s the same thing with dating. As soon as we can start seeing it a little bit more practically rather than personally, that will help us a lot.” However, that’s easier said than done. “The reason we struggle with this is because we’ve grown up using our measurement of self-esteem and comparison to know where we are. In a rejection, we can’t help but think, ‘Well if I wasn’t taken, who was? And what makes them so much better?'” Dr Tang explains. “It’s always in comparison to someone else,” even an imaginary other person chosen over you. “We can’t help but think about who’s better than me, who’s been chosen instead of me, rather than ‘Well I’m just not right for that person.’”
So, are we all just a little bit too self-obsessed? In getting so caught up in what Joey thought of me and why he’d chosen to discount me, I’d neglected to acknowledge the fact that I didn’t even like him that much myself. The last time we’d hung out, I’d found myself developing a very familiar feeling: the ick. It might have been down to some fairly trivial details, but it was there nonetheless – so much so that when I saw him at another party a few weeks later, I’d actually tried my best to avoid him. At the same time as being annoyed with him for ghosting me!
If I’d already decided I wasn’t that into Joey and didn’t want to pursue things any further, then why was I so hung up about being rejected? It’s all about self-esteem again. “Of course, our ego is bruised,” says Dr Tang, “because we have become very attached to the person we thought we were. And when someone rejects that, we might have to question, ‘Am I actually that attractive?” Again, our self-centred mind runs deep. We assume, says Dr Tang, that the other person has judged us on the same things we’ve judged them on, when they actually might have decided to end things with you for a totally different reason.
Likewise with Sam, if the spark just isn’t there, why worry about any imaginary negative points? Unfortunately for us, no matter what your logical brain is telling you, rejection is always likely to hurt on some level. Humans have evolved to be community-based social creatures, says Dr Tang, and rejection calls back to an evolutionary fear of being left alone. “It stirs up quite visceral, raw emotions – they’re almost instinctive,” she explains. “There are some real fundamental fears in there that are almost deeper than we can rationalise.”
My type on paper?
After spending some time trawling through the past, I decided to head back into the present and sent out my feedback form to someone I’m currently dating. A risky game, right? I recently ran into Will*, an old friend from uni, at another party. We’d been seeing each other for a few weeks when I sent the form, something he responded to with bemusement and… of course (he didn’t have much of a choice) a string of compliments: “Funny; good conversationalist; intelligent, perhaps too much for your own good; excellent taste; laid back; sense of humour.” Then there were some (I’d say necessary) differences of opinion: “Star sign beliefs, fondness for Kardashians” were his idea of negatives.
It turns out people probably aren’t actually lying when they reel off, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Or perhaps more accurately, “It’s not you, it’s us.” There were similarities in the positive and negative feedback from all of my dates, but all with differing outcomes of success. And that’s because there isn’t anything inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ with me or them, we just weren’t compatible.
Ultimately, it’s about checking in with yourself. When I think back to the reasons I’ve broken it off with someone, it’s rarely easy to verbalise. Yes, my friends and I will laugh at minor things giving us the ick, but, actually, love (or lack of it) never hangs on those small details. Even if we think we’re ending something over the other person’s excessive use of the crying face emoji, at the heart of the problem is likely a lack of connection or just an elusive ‘missing piece’. So while I set out in pursuit of feedback I could improve upon, when I think now about the potential harsh answers, would I really have wanted to change myself just to become an idealised version of what one specific person wanted? Of course not. For one, you can’t fake compatibility. And for another, even though our ‘negative’ traits are the ones we all focus on, at the heart of it, I do like myself. Even the parts and hobbies that others might find a turn-off (hello, obsession with star signs and the Kardashians.) Ultimately, that’s what we should all learn to turn our attention to. As really, the most important feedback is the opinion we have of ourselves.
Time to check in
While feedback from these ghosts of dates past felt important when I started this experiment, I’ve realised since that what really matters is addressing the health of the situation you’re currently in, with the person you’re actually in it with. But how do you get active feedback from your significant other with minimal awkwardness?
- Reassess your relationship with criticism. Often, our hypervigilant response to feedback means we jump to the conclusion that we’re being criticised, says Relate relationship counsellor Simone Bose. This can be impacted by our experiences of criticism growing up or in past relationships, so be careful not to pre-emptively expect negatives.
- Express how you want to receive feedback. If you’re on the receiving end of constructive criticism, tell your partner how you’d like feedback to be delivered. “You can ask for your hand to be held, to have your positives pointed out, or for their tone of voice to be softer,’ says Bose.
- Think about timing and setting. “It doesn’t have to be formal,” says Dr Tang. “It’s not [always] a case of sitting down and talking, but it can be noting if there’s an issue and finding a time to raise and work through it when both of you are in a comfortable, non-threatening space.”
- Structure what you’re saying. If there’s a lot on your mind, try noting down everything you want to say, suggests Dr Tang. “While this may be seen as cringe, having a written outline if you’re having a serious talk can also help, because when emotion flows, it can be very easy to go off track.”
- Don’t use blame language. Explain how you feel without pointing the finger, says Bose. Rather than using ‘you’ phrases (which can come across as accusatory), instead opt for ‘us’ and ‘we’, focusing on ‘how we can both work this out together.’ Pointing out your partner’s good qualities can stop them getting defensive too, she adds.
- It takes time. “The more you have open conversations about how you feel, the easier it becomes,” adds Dr Tang. Promise.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered member of The British Psychological Society.