How Do I Finally Start Dating?
Hello Dr. NerdLove
I’m a longtime reader, and have even tried putting some of your advice into practice, but likely haven’t put as much effort as I should have. My question is: how do I get started?
This is a little more complicated than it sounds. I’m a virgin at 39, on the spectrum, and currently living with my parents for the next few months (it was only meant to be a few months, but turned into years as my parents suffers health problems and major money problems). I also suffer from depression and severe social anxiety. So there are my main excuses – bad at socializing, bad with my emotions kicking my ass, and broke and living with mom and dad when I’m about to become middle aged.
As for my past, I have never dated, ever. I’ve had a few chances, but I literally cannot tell when someone is flirting, and have been told by a witness that sometimes a girl has actually tried flirting with me. I was too scared to even talk with girls in high school, any of my colleges, and only tried once at a job that led to very embarrassing results. I can’t even keep a friendship going, as most people find me boring after a while, but I also am in an area where finding people with likeminded hobbies and interests is rare (let’s just say I live in a place in Florida where even churches have political banners out front). So I just don’t have any history in sex and romance, and the few times people have either assumed this or I’ve hinted at it have led to some rather disparaging remarks.
Now here is what I’ve done in the last two years that counts as progress: I’ve taken an accelerated college course for a business degree, and despite a severe bout with depression nearly derailing that for a fourth time, I am only a few classes from graduating, likely in March. I am planning on following that up with getting a computer tech certificate with Coursera, and am taking a TEFL course in Mexico to teach English while I live in Mexico. I have started taking my hobby seriously (indie game dev, not aiming to be one the big success stories but make a steady living), and have started working out (for maybe the 10th attempt). I can’t promise all of these will prove fruitful, but I am trying.
So I’m asking how to get started in dating. On my good days, I don’t think I’m hideous, just very average and kind of forgettable looking. I have a stutter, but I’m not embarrassed by it normally, just a little frustrated at times. I am also an introvert, and know what places I just can’t get comfortable at tend to be the most popular for meeting people (bars, clubs, and concerts, or anywhere that’s crowded and loud just send me into a panic). I know my situation is a little less common (I am moving to Mexico, not just visiting, as I refuse to give up this time), but do you have any advice on how someone like me (older virgin with no experience) actually try dating or meeting people?
Thank you for any advice you can give.
Getting a Late Start
This is an increasingly common question, GLS, and I want to start with the same advice that I give a lot of people in your position: stop talking yourself down. You put far more effort into telling me why you can’t date or why you think you’re disqualified from dating and not nearly as much effort into acknowledging your good points.
You’re autistic and can’t tell when folks are into you? OK… that’s a challenge, not a disqualification. Yeah, it can make some social situations more difficult than they would be if you were neurotypical, but autistic people can and do date, have relationships, get married, have kids, the whole nine yards. The same goes for introverts – they have to plan how to manage their social energy more than extroverts do, but that’s just a difference, not a disqualifier. You live with your parents? Well, so do half of Millennials… I’m sure you see where this is going.
Now how about instead we talk about some of your good points – the ones you’re underselling. You’re generous and family oriented – you live with your parents because they have health and financial struggles! That’s goddamn admirable. You suffer from depression, but you’ve pushed through to get your degree – despite having failed before. That means you’ve got grit and determination and no small amount of ambition! You suffer from social anxiety, but you’re about to move to another damn country! That tells me you’re brave. You’re ambitious, you’re focused… these are all great goddamn qualities to have, things that people look for in a partner.
The things you worry about – being a bit boring, having a hard time connecting with people, being slightly awkward or afraid to talk to women… these are all things that can be fixed with practice and effort. The same with “just being a little forgettable-looking” – that’s a matter of working on your style and presentation.
In short: you’ve got a lot more going for you than you give yourself credit for. You have some challenges, sure, but most of what you think are handicaps are just matters of practice and experience. That’s all.
Now I think part of the problem you’re facing is that you’re focused more on an end-goal that seems nigh-impossible… or at least it does for now. I think what may help you more is if you decouple what you’re trying to do – improve your social skills, get more comfortable with meeting and connecting with people – and the ultimate end goal of getting a relationship. I think the seeming immensity of that goal is intimidating you, where if you just get rid of that last part – the “and get a relationship”, you might do better.
Let’s try looking at it in terms of coding and game development. When you first started learning how to code and develop games, you understood that it wasn’t just a case of “ok sit down, hit some keys for a bit and boom you have a game”. You had to learn a number of different, but interrelated disciplines. You had to learn to code, you had to understand graphics, design, rigging and animation. You had to have the math right to get the various systems to interact properly. Narrative flow and storytelling were important for making sure the game connects with its audience. Getting a solid base in these skills meant that when you sat down to work with a new engine – or trying to get an older engine to do things that it wasn’t designed for – you had a solid foundation to work from. Yeah, you may be using Unity or Unreal Engine for the first time… but you know its mostly a matter of getting used to that engine’s particular quirks. You had the skills necessary to make it happen.
Well, the same thing applies to meeting people and building relationships with them. It’s a series of seemingly disparate but intertwined skillsets that all merge together to give you the basic foundation of human interaction. So, since we know some of the areas that you feel deficient or less skilled in, we have a good place for you to start.
Let’s talk about your social anxiety, to start with. There’re two ways to approach this. The first is top manage the symptoms. Mindfulness meditation, self-directed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises and managing your breathing all can help turn the volume down on your anxiety – they won’t eliminate it, but it can definitely serve to say “shhhhhhh” to your brain. And If this is a serious hinderance to your life, there are medications that can help – talk to a therapist or a counselor about what might work for you.
The second way to approach it – one I suggest that you apply in conjunction with the first – is that you treat meeting people as practice. Rather than worrying about trying to talk to women that you’d like to date, look at it as “I’m learning how to be more social”. If it doesn’t work out perfectly… well, it may be a bit awkward, but hey that’s the point of practice. You’re supposed to make mistakes and learn from them. Learning from your mistakes teaches you the most important lesson: that mistakes aren’t fatal, that failure isn’t permanent and you can recover from a truly surprising number of errors.
What about just meeting people in general, especially if you can’t do the bar or club scene? Well good news! The people you’re most likely to be compatible with aren’t likely to be there either, so going to bars or clubs or large crowded parties would just be a waste of your time. Fortunately, we meet people in all sorts of places. And since you’re planning on moving to Mexico, you’re actually in a position where you are more likely to find opportunities to meet folks.
The best way to go about doing this is to lay the groundwork in advance. Start by looking for online communities in the general area that you’re planning to live – Facebook groups or subreddits for expats and recent immigrants, community groups for people who already live there, etc. – and start participating there. Get to know some people virtually as part of your preparation for the move. The odds are good that you’ll make some contacts before you even get started packing everything into boxes, giving you at least a few people to say ‘hey’ to and help get you situated in your new home. Once you’re moved in or at least well on your way, you can even start asking if anyone has recommendations for places to hang out, cool restaurants or bakeries or the like to try, book stores or gaming centers… connect with people on that level and by the time you’re moved in, you may well have people who will be happy to show you around and help you get comfortable.
Those may not be your best friends for life, but at the very least they’re a good starting point; they can point you in the general direction of places to hang out and meet people that will be much more your speed than loud and chaotic venues.
From there, I recommend the classic move of “find a place you like and become a regular”. Becoming a known quantity – whether at the diner, the library, the coffeeshop or what-have-you – makes it easier to forge connections with the other regulars, if you’re willing to show some curiosity and interest in other people. This – incidentally – is also a good opportunity for you to practice your social skills.
I’d also recommend finding the communities there that match your interests. I’ve no doubt that there’re going to be other indie devs around you. Finding the places where your fellow game developers hang out, participating in game jams and the like will all be good ways of finding your people.
What about your difficulties in, say, telling when people are flirting with you? Well, first and foremost, you’re hardly alone in this; people are bad at telling when others are flirting with them in general. But in your case, I’d suggest leaning into the fact that you’re autistic. Right now, you seem to see being autistic as a negative, something that’s a hinderance to people liking you. But what if, instead, you just treated it as neutral, a simple fact about you? Being up front about things, rather than masking – telling folks when you don’t understand, asking questions if you’re unsure what they mean, even just saying “hey look, I’m autistic, so I’m going to miss stuff and it works better if you just tell me straight up” – then it goes from being something you have to hide or adapt to and just “this is part of what makes GLS who he is”. And as someone who’s speaking Spanish as his second language, asking for greater clarity and directness is going to be pretty understandable.
Yeah, I know, this all seems like a lot. But by breaking things down into discrete skillsets that all work together, it’s much easier to focus on the immediate need – working on your social skills – than putting all your effort on the overall goal of Finally Start Dating.
But funny thing? If you do start putting these into practice and working on them individually, without trying to date or meet people? You’re going to find that people will start coming into your life organically, almost without conscious effort on your part. All you’ll be doing is just living your life. Spending time in local hangouts and getting to know the other regulars will make it that much easier to find folks who grab lunch with or go see a movie. And if you make a point of making friends across the gender spectrum – talking to everyone, not just people you’re attracted to – then you increase the likelihood of meeting the people you’ll be compatible with. Some of those will likely be interested in dating. Of those who aren’t… well, they may not want to date, but if they’re your friend, they may well be the person who introduces you to the folks who do want to date you.
So TL;DR don’t worry about the destination and put more of your attention on the journey. Working on those aspects for their own sake will be what put you in the position to meet awesome people of all sorts. Some will be valuable networking contacts, some will be good friends… and some could well be your first step towards love.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on medium.
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