Last weekend, I went on a road trip with The Consultant. I was nervous, as we hadn’t been sexually intimate with each other since our first, failed attempt several weeks ago. A weekend away together pretty much guaranteed that we would try again. We have hung out a few times since that frustrating night, but I have made myself conveniently busy to give myself some time to process the new, more intimate direction of our relationship. He was patient and persistent, so when he invited me to spend the weekend away with him, I accepted.
Because he travels a lot for work, The Consultant has executive status at several hotel chains. Therefore, he was able to reserve a large suite in a downtown hotel. After a martini at the hotel bar, he brought me to a new, fabulous sushi restaurant for dinner, followed by some live jazz and blues at a really cool dive bar. We were having a blast with each other, but my anxiety increased after he told that he had a surprise waiting for me back at the hotel. What was I nervous about? I really like him and am attracted to him. We paid for our drinks and headed back to the room. I was touched that he had a nice bottle of champagne and some chocolate covered strawberries waiting for us at the hotel. It was a romantic night all around.
Then it hit me. I was not feeling anxious about being sexually intimate with him again. If anything, I was somewhat curious as to whether his holding back from red wine would improve his performance this time. Instead, I have been anxious because I don’t typically date anyone who is so nice and thoughtful. In fact, I just then realized that I have been dating people who verify the way I have been feeling about myself for many years.
Self-verification theory proposes that people do many things to preserve how they see themselves, even if those views are negative.1 For example, if they see themselves negatively, they are likely to date others who share that perception of them.2 Sadly, when others confirm a negative mindset, this actually reduces anxiety and makes people feel more comfortable. For example, people with low self-esteem experience greater anxiety when they get positive feedback, because that positive information is inconsistent with how they view themselves.3 The irony is that folks with low self-esteem would feel more comfortable with others who view them negatively, because that’s what they expect to happen.
People can self-verify not only to have a coherent or consistent identity, but they also do it to self-enhance.4 In other words, we self-verify to make ourselves feel better too.5 Over the last few years since my divorce, I have been trying to understand why I have made certain romantic choices throughout my life. For a great many reasons, I have not trusted others intimately, and have viewed myself as someone who needs distance and control to protect my heart. Dating guys who were mentally unstable or emotionally inaccessible verified the beliefs I had about myself as being someone who needs to be in control and the “sane” one to hold everything together. Researchers have found that when the views we have of ourselves match the feedback we get from others, we feel like our lives are predictable and we are on the “same page” as our romantic partners.6 If my past relationships had been more functional, I would have felt uncomfortable because my exes would not confirm the traits I valued about myself as being the healthier and more “put together” one in the relationship.
So there I was, experiencing anxiety in the hotel with the Consultant. He was not only thoughtful and generous, but he was smart, sane, successful, fully present and emotionally available – he was everything I wanted but feared at the same time. He was a true equal and treated me with the respect given to an equal. This did not verify how I felt about myself, and had me out of my emotional comfort zone.
I took a deep breath and another sip of champagne. It was time to change this pattern. Sure, it would be emotionally risky, but I was willing to try anything to break that old pattern. The Consultant then shared with me that he had popped a “blue pill” when we got to the room. There was no way he was going to risk having erectile dysfunction on our second night together. All I can say is, he did not disappoint!
1Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33–66). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
2Swann, W. B., Jr. Chang-Schneider, C., & Angulo, S. (2007a). Self-verification in relationships as an adaptive process. In J. Wood, A. Tesser, & J. Holmes (Eds.), The Self and Social Relationships (pp. 49–72). New York: Psychology Press.
3Lundgren, D. C., & Schwab, M. R. (1977). Perceived appraisals by others, self-esteem, and anxiety. The Journal of Psychology, 97, 205–213.
4 Swann, W. B., Jr., Rentfrow, P. J., & Guinn, J. (2003). Self‐verification: The search for coherence. In M. Leary, & J. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 367–383). New York, NY: Guilford.
5Gregg, A. P., Hepper, E. G., & Sedikides, C. (2011). Quantifying self-motives: Functional links between dispositional desires. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 840-852.
6Van Orden, K. A., & Joiner, Jr. T. E. (2000). The inner and outer turmoil of excessive reassurance seeking: From self-doubts to social rejection. In K. D. Vohs & E. J. Finkel (Eds.), Self and Relationships (pp. 104-129). New York: Guilford Press.
Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.