With a lot of the teenage guys with whom I work, dating is a serious goal and a serious headache. Most of them have a lot of misperceptions about what it takes to—in their words–“get a girlfriend.” There are many misperceptions about this process—and it is a process…an ongoing one. My hope is that teenagers (and parents) walk away with a few tips on how to approach dating—whether it’s a boyfriend or girlfriend being sought.
It’s a process, not a destination
The most common misconception that I encounter seems to be the idea that a girlfriend/boyfriend is a prize awarded, as if one were playing a video game and finding this elusive, magical unicorn called “girlfriend” somehow gives one enough experience points to attain a new social level (this is a gamer thing—ask your kids).
You can hear this in how the guys with whom I work talk and strategize: “How do I get a girlfriend if I like Dungeons & Dragons?” or, “Do girls like guys who are smart or dumb?” and even, “Should I have six pack abs? Will that work?”
Additionally, we often talk about how much work it is to maintain a romantic relationship. This is difficult as teens often don’t think further than “Girlfriend Achievement: Unlocked,” and when they do talk about it, it’s often about what they can do to keep a girlfriend: “I can buy her gifts,” or, “I will need to take her on a lot of dates, right?”
The problem assumptions
There are a few problems with the above mentality:
It assumes that people are not independent, but machines where one may press certain buttons or pull certain levers to achieve a desired outcome.
It assumes there are universal answers to what people find attractive. Yes, there are certain things that people tend to find attractive (confidence and authenticity often being two biggies)—but it varies from person to person.
It assumes that the teen, as a pursuer, is somehow owed a relationship if they do all the right things.
These are problematic—especially when the last assumption is violated. The guys can become creepy or occasionally scary that their advances were denied. To make things more difficult, dating today has less overt rules (such as not using titles like “boyfriend/girlfriend” or “relationship”), which can be antithetical to the rigid way teens who need help with social skills think.
What can be done?
First, I teach my social skills clients that they need to change how they think, starting with the following rules:
A girlfriend is not an achievement. She is a person with the same independence, rights and feelings as you.
She doesn’t owe you anything—even if you’re being nice to her. (Additionally, if you’re being “nice” to only get something, that really isn’t very nice.)
Developing a relationship is not that different than making a normal, platonic friendship. You need to get to know the other person buy engaging in small talk and responding to their verbal and nonverbal cues. You need to learn about common interests so that the relationship can deepen.
Despite what some websites tell you, there is no one formula of behavior to “get a girlfriend” because every person is different.
You have to learn to fail and get rejected (and coping with rejection is a learned skill) in order to develop a socializing style that is authentic for you.
You need to learn to enjoy the process of getting to know people.
Be willing to walk away from the relationship if you don’t have things in common.
These rules add up to one thing: flexibly enjoying the process of getting to know someone.
Ideally, it should be like a good video game. Your focus should be about the person and the process, not just the end result or achievement. You should enjoy the journey of getting there—if the ending is good, that’s wonderful!
What else is out there?
If you are looking for other resources, or if you have concerns about your (or your child’s) dating skills or approach, I recommend the Aspiring Youth individual social skills coaches. This is a great topic to discuss with us, and one we enjoy helping our teenage and young adult clients with.
Other than that, I tend to recommend author Harris O’Malley, better known by his screen name Dr. NerdLove. Aside from his brilliant blog, he has books on dating, including:
Simplified Dating offers an honest perspective and great tips on all aspects of dating.
When It Clicks: The Guide to Mastering Online Dating is a great how-to guide for setting up online dating profiles.
What I definitely don’t recommend are any websites or books written by those in the “pickup artist” (PUA) community. Don’t even look at PUA websites (visiting gives them web traffic and, consequentially, income)—they tend to objectify and dehumanize women to a frightening degree, and that’s no way to learn about and enjoy the process of building relationships.
Dr. Boccamazzo is a doctor of clinical psychology and social skills coach with Aspiring Youth. In addition, he is the clinical director of TakeThis.org, a national nonprofit focused on mental health and the gamer community, runs a private psychology practice in Bellevue offering individual therapy and psychological assessment to adolescents and adults, and provides parent and clinician trainings on technology in psychology. Much of his work focuses on high functioning autism, problematic technology usage, social anxiety, trauma and games. In his spare time, he enjoys acting, cooking, board games and video games.