Although I am mostly known for my work on the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders, I have also helped many of my clients find suitable romantic partners. Their lack of success was often traceable to the problems that brought them into therapy: fear of rejection, worry about being judged, and concerns that they will seem needy and desperate. In essence, their emotional interpretation of the perils of dating were sabotaging their search for an appropriate mate.
Here is a brief version of a story I have heard over and over again. In this vignette, my client is a very attractive 26-year-old woman who is bright and has a good job. From looking at her, you would never guess that she would have any difficulty finding men to date.
Client: I am so unhappy. I am about to give up on dating. I really want to find a mate and settle down, but no matter what I do, nothing works out.
Therapist: Maybe if you describe to me how you are going about finding a partner, we can help you figure out what may be getting in your way. Tell me about what happened last time.
Client: Well, I went out to this popular hangout downtown and sat at the bar. A few men came up and tried to talk to me, but none of them persevered and I went home alone. No one even took my number.
Therapist: What did you do exactly when a man approached you? Tell it to me in the present tense as if it is happening right now. Then we will analyze it together and try to figure out what is going wrong.
Client: I am sitting at the bar, and a man comes up and stands next to me. I turn my back on him and ignore him.
Therapist: Why do you ignore him?
Client: I don’t want to appear desperate.
Therapist: What happens next?
Client: He tries to strike up a conversation, but I act very cool and disinterested.
Therapist: Were you interested in him?
Client: Yes, he is exactly my type.
Therapist: Why don’t you act more encouraging?
Client: I want him to prove he is interested in me by persisting despite my giving him the cold shoulder.
Therapist: How does that usually work out for you?
Client: It doesn’t. The only guys who persist turn out to be players who are only interested in having sex with me. That group does not seem to mind my rejecting them. They keep chasing me. Why can’t the nice guys be as persistent?
Therapist: Do you have a sofa?
Client: Yes, I bought one as soon as I moved into my new apartment. What does that have to do with anything?
Therapist: If you were able to successfully shop for a sofa, I can teach you how to apply the same principles you used to shop for a sofa to shopping for your mate.
What is the “Sofa Theory of Dating”?
Here is the simple method that I developed for my clients to help them be more efficient and realistic in their search for the right mate. I call it the “Sofa Theory of Dating.” It is a pragmatic approach to dating that bypasses a lot of the emotional angst that is attached to trying to find a mate.
Its basic principles can be used by both men and women, although some may apply more to one sex or the other because of cultural expectations about gender roles and dating.
Here is how “The Sofa Theory of Dating” works. You compare what you are doing to find a mate to how you would shop for a sofa. If you could not find a sofa using your method, you should not use it to find a mate. The same basic method works for using internet dating sites or for searching in person. Here are the 5 basic rules:
Rule 1—To find a sofa, go to places where they sell sofas.
If you needed a sofa, you would not sit home and expect a sofa to find you. Why would you be passive and hope that somehow a perfect mate finds you? Similarly, you would not just hope that you run into the right sofa while walking down the street. You would expect to have to put some effort into finding one. This translates to:
- Go to places where single people like to hang out, this includes internet dating sites as well as in person.
- If you do not like the type of person that hangs out there, go to other places where the people you find attractive are more likely to be found.
- Don’t count on running into somebody accidentally on the street or in a coffee shop who is your perfect mate.
Rule 2—If you didn’t find a sofa at the first place you looked, go to other places.
This translates into making a project of finding the right person. If you did not find the right sofa in the first place you looked, you would keep on looking. Do the same if you are looking for a mate.
- Keep looking until you find your mate.
- Be creative about where you look. If you like to play sports, join a coed sports team. If you are interested in politics, volunteer to help get out the vote.
- Choose people on internet dating sites who share your interests and values.
Rule 3—Don’t worry about looking desperate.
When you go into a sofa store, you are unlikely to feel ashamed that you do not already have a sofa. Why should you feel ashamed to admit you do not have a mate?
- Don’t let embarrassment stop you from looking.
- Don’t play so hard to get that you discourage nice people from asking you out.
- Be friendly and open to talking with people who show an interest in you.
Rule 4—Choose appropriate people to ask out.
You would not hunt for a sofa in places you could not afford, or places that carry sofas you would not want. This translates to being realistic about who you ask out and making sure you have enough in common.
- Don’t look in bars if you do not want a drinker.
- Don’t focus on people who are much more attractive than you are.
- Don’t waste your time pursuing someone who is not interested in you or already taken.
Rule 5—Play to your strengths.
This is a bit like making sure the sofa you choose would actually fit your room. For example, one man said that his strengths were that he was religious, respectful, and had a strong moral code. I advised him to look in places where the women he was likely to meet valued those qualities. He stopped looking in bars and online dating sites and found his mate through his church’s singles’ group.
- If you are religious, check out your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.
- If you are interested in helping other people, do volunteer work for a charity you support.
- If you are politically inclined, volunteer for a politician or a neighborhood community board.
- If you look great in a bathing suit, get a summer share in a beach house.
Finding a mate is a bit like shopping for a sofa. Almost everyone needs a sofa, and no one is usually ashamed to admit that they are looking for one. No one plays hard to get with a sofa salesman. The basic method to finding a mate who is a good fit for you is similar to shopping for a sofa: know what you like, who fits your lifestyle, and keep searching until you find the right one.