Dear Captain Awkward,
How do I respond to the ‘what are you looking for’ question? It feels like no matter what I say it’s never the right answer. If I say I want a relationship I feel like that reads as ‘I’m desperate to get married and have babies’ which I’m not (been there, done that). And, if I say I’m open to something casual then it reads as ‘I have no self-worth, this is an open invitation for you to use me for sex without any regard for my feelings or basic human decency’ (100% nope). I also hate that I might unintentionally give the other person certain expectations or drive them away before I’ve had a chance to get to know them and figure out what, if anything, I want from them.
Personally, I don’t go looking for a particular type of relationship. I just look for someone I connect with and hope that we are both on the same page. Sometimes it leads to a long-term monogamous relationship, sometimes it leads to something more casual but equally fulfilling, sometimes it leads to a whole lot of drama, and sometimes it doesn’t lead to anything.
Personally I’m open to a range of relationship options – depending on who the other person is, what our chemistry is like, and what else is going on in my life at the time. The only things I am 100% not open to are BS drama and being treated like crap.
So how do I answer the question in a way that helps me filter out the jerks and time wasters whilst still keeping my options open?
Dating can often resemble a series of job interviews, and the “So, what are you looking for” question can feel like a conversation killer. It’s the “So, where do you see yourself in 5 years” or the “What are your biggest weaknesses” question of a job interview and the “You can write about anything you want, no restrictions!” assignment of a creative writing class, i.e., a recipe for the other person to become totally blocked and inarticulate. I get the whole “let’s not waste each other’s time” aspect of it, like, if you want a monogamous marriage & kids and your date is Casanova Of The Perpetual Seeking it would be good to figure that out soon. But I think it’s also worth asking “Hey, are you the sort of person I could see myself wasting a little bit of time with?”
So, what if you used this question as a way to fantasize about the kind of person you are attracted to and compatible with rather than to define the kind of relationship you want esp. as you’re just getting to know someone?
When I was online dating 6+ years ago, this was mostly what was in the “What I’m Looking For” section of my OKCupid profile:
You are gregarious, outgoing, and have closely knit community of friends and/or family around you. That doesn’t mean “No introverts,” just that I want someone who draws people to him and welcomes them in.
You are physically and verbally demonstrative. The “strong, silent type” is definitely not for me.
You think a good evening would be scouting out a grocery store and making an ambitious recipe together.
You are passionate…about something. There is some subject that you love enough that it lights you up to talk about it and sometimes your friends have to stop you and say “Ok, enough about _____.”
When I say “I’m a feminist!” you say “Neat, me too!”
You live somewhere accessible by public transit.
You’re comfortable taking the lead sometimes in making the plans. It’s not your fault (we all have baggage from old relationships, right?) but right now the least sexy words in the English language are “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and “I don’t care. Whatever.” One of my superpowers is finding neat, inexpensive stuff to do in the city – I promise I’ll pull my weight.
This isn’t personal: I get really bored with weeks of messaging back and forth, IMs, etc. Let’s meet up! How bad could it be?
This IS personal: Married guys, step off. I’m sure you have a very unique and complicated story. Tell it to me when you’re not sharing a bed and a bank account with someone else. Furthermore, I am categorically uninterested in any kind of “polyamory” setup.
Finally, I don’t read too much into OK Cupid match percentages, but based on 11 years of anecdotal evidence from dating in Chicago, if you have Guns, Germs, and Steel, American Gods, Devil in the White City, and a bunch of Neal Stephenson on your bookshelf, the chances are very high that we will make out at some point in our lives. I’m not even saying that those are my favorite books, or your favorite books – I’m just saying: It is our destiny.
Mr. Awkward read that in early 2012 and thought “Could she be looking for me?” and it turns out I was. Not to marry, necessarily, but to go on some dates with. Other dudes read that and thought: “NOPE!” and kept scrolling, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t want to find the widest possible list of matches, I wanted to find specific matches who might be a good fit for my brand of weird.
My list of what I wanted at that time won’t look like anyone else’s and that’s also a good thing. You can see me try to compensate or correct or some of the lessons I’d learned from other relationships and dating experiences. For example, I emphatically did not want to be someone’s Only Person (esp. right after meeting them), I didn’t want to be the person making all the plans. I wasn’t looking for a polyamorous setup and I wanted to be clear about that. Also, quiet people are great, but my wordy ADHD ass shouldn’t date them.
So, what if you said:
- “I’m looking for someone who is as cool and kind and as funny as my friends.”
- “I’m looking for someone who will come to the RenFaire with me and not be too shy to wear costumes.”
- “I’m looking for someone who does not talk during movies.”
- “I’m looking for someone who super-loves dogs, since I have 4 of them and they’re basically the center of my world.”
- “I’m looking for someone who loves to plan vacations.”
- “I hate talking on the phone, so I’d rather not do too much of it.”
- “I really like my alone time, so I like to date people who have a lot of their own interests and friends.”
- “I’m really involved in my local political scene, I want to date someone who cares a lot about politics.”
- “I’m really involved in my church, I’m looking for someone who is also religious or at least spiritual.”
- “I hate cooking and would eat out every night of the week if I could, so I need to either find someone who really loves cooking or someone who really loves sandwiches.”
What are you into? Have opinions. Have preferences. Be specific. Don’t be afraid to alienate people by having strong opinions and preferences. If I had a dollar for all the dudes who read my profile and wanted to argue with me about why feminism is actually discrimination against men I’d be rich. The fact that they honed in on that detail and thought I’d enjoy arguing about it was an excellent “weeding out” tool.
Speaking of weeding out tools, I also had full-body profile photos and language in the profile about being fat:
I’m fat. “Google ‘Beth Ditto naked’, subtract the tattoos and goth hair, and you’ll get the idea. If you’re not down with that, it’s cool. I don’t like smokers, ponytails, or people who pronounce library as “liberry.” Life is short; be picky!”
If I had a dollar for all the dudes who wrote to me about how they didn’t normally like fat chicks but they really liked my sense of humor so they were willing to give it a try but you know, “desire is really complex,” I’d be extremely rich. People’s reactions to that fact told me a lot about who they were.
Again, the point of dating isn’t to sand off your edges or hide your preferences in order to appeal to a wide variety of people and then narrow down the field to one lucky person. You say you’re worried about driving people away before you’ve gotten the chance to know them, but driving people who can be driven away by something that’s true and important about you is actually a good thing.
As for scripts, let’s take your letter as a guide. What if you were honest and told your dates what you told us?
- “I never know how to answer that question, especially when I’ve just met someone! How do you usually answer that question?” (It’s totally fair to turn this around on the person who asked – if they are asking this question in this way chances are they have their own agenda).
- “I guess I’d like to go on some fun dates and enjoy myself and then see if there’s enough chemistry for a longer-term thing or if it’s better to keep it casual.”
- “My answer to that really depends on the person. Why, what do you have in mind?”
- “I’ll know it when I see it. What’s the weirdest answer anyone has told you when you’ve asked that?”
- “I want to get married and have ONE MILLION babies. Also, are you rich? You seem rich, and that’s awesome because I’m quitting my job soon.” “Just kidding – I wanted to see your face when I said that, though!” (To be clear, if a person did want to find someone to marry, that’s good information and you shouldn’t have to hide it in order to pretend to be cool. “I know for sure I want to have kids someday, and I’d love to settle down soon, but I’m not in a hurry to lock things down with you, specifically, right now – let’s just date for a bit and see how it goes.” If that totally scares someone off from you, let them get scared!)
It’s okay to have fun with this. There is no right answer, only your answer.