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Check Your Baggage at the Gate

I’ve got some baggage. I don’t know anyone at my age and “experience” who doesn’t. Multiple marriages, children, a few crazy exes…I have done the inventory and know what I bring on board as I get back on the dating train. So how can I manage a good dating impression and lug around an oversized Samsonite full of my past experiences?

Some people have an easy time hiding their baggage in an overhead compartment or under their seat during the first few dates, however my baggage is not so easy to conceal. After I tell men that I have only one child-free night a week for dating, I unfortunately need to explain my single mom, full custody status, which turns some of them off. One benefit of online dating is that I, in principle, also get to glimpse a guy’s carry-on before we even meet. Internet profiles contain a lot of information, some could be interpreted as positive or negative, such as marital status or education level. If someone is packing something negative, the internet provides an easy way to manage the impact that this might have on a potential date, more so than in real life.1 For example, it is easier for me to craft a story about my past while typing away, alone on a home computer, than in real life on a date after a few glasses of wine.

Self-presentation theory states that people employ strategies to present positive and avoid negative aspects of the self in order to create a good impression.2 Assuming a guy still wants to go out with me after I explained my limited availability through email, how can I best employ self-presentation strategies on our actual date?

Case in point: Most of the dating advice I have gotten over the years has been to avoid topics like politics and past relationships on the first few dates. This week, I had a date with “The Consultant.” According to his profile, he has children, is legally separated, and we are equally interested in developing a serious relationship (meaning not at all). He is smart, educated, attractive, and made me laugh hysterically. Due to something we psychologists call the negativity bias, we pay more attention to negative than positive facts and give them more weight in our perceptions of others.3 Knowing he was legally separated even before getting together for our first date, I kept wondering  what his story was. Is his separated status something I should be concerned about? I have been divorced more than once, and am not sure I want to discuss marital status on our first few dates. Should I even bring it up? I didn’t want to prematurely uncover his skeletons, let alone mine.

Self-disclosure4 is an important precursor to intimacy, and we like people more when they disclose positive5 rather than negative information.6 I may not want a serious relationship right now, but I would like an intimate, rewarding relationship at some point. So herein lies the issue. How can self-disclosure be paced most effectively so as to not open Pandora’s Box too early? I would like to talk about our respective carry-ons because I want to get to know The Consultant better; but the rub is that such disclosure can scare us away from each other even before we have a chance to do that.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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1Gibbs, J. L., Ellison, N. B., & Heino, R. D. (2006). Self-presentation in on-line personals. The role of anticipated future interaction, self-disclosure, and perceived success in internet dating. Communication Research, 33, 152-177

2Schlenker, Barry R. (1980). Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations. Monterey/California: Brooks/Cole.

3Fiske, S. T. (1980). Attention and weight in person perception: The impact of negative and extreme information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 889–906.

4Archer, J.  L. (1980). Self-disclosure. In D. Wegner & R. Vallacher (Eds.), The self in social psychology, pp. 183–204. London: Oxford University Press.

5Collins, N. L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475.

6Greene, K., Derlega, V. L., & Mathews, A. (2006). Self-disclosure in personal relationships. In A. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of personal relationships, pp. 1268-1328. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University 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.

image source: coolintl.com

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