The goal can be stated simply enough: the overwhelming priority, when on a date with someone we like, is to persuade them to like us back.
But the simplicity of the mission masks the complexity required to achieve it. Typically, the advice focuses on externals: what to wear, when to unfurl a napkin, what to order…But such counsel, however well-meaning, is at odds with what we ourselves know about attraction: that it is profoundly focused on psychology. However much we may deny it to friends, a date is ultimately a search for a potential long term-partner. So, what really renders someone attractive on dates are signs that they are emotionally well-equipped for what good-enough, long-term relationships require. The capacity to find an ideal full-bodied Chianti on a menu may be impressive, but what we’re really alert for are signs that someone is going to be a decent companion twenty years from now when we have just received a difficult medical diagnosis or are feeling weepy and ashamed at the progress of our careers. Here then are some of the things that we might do to prove attractive to another person on a date: Firstly, tell them that we are a bit mad. We might, in the course of the conversation, light-heartedly drop in that we’re not quite sane. Perhaps we have great difficulty getting to sleep or get very anxious in social situations. The key is that, as we reveal these vulnerabilities, we can suggest we have a mature, compassionate, unruffled relationship to them. What we require in a partner is not someone who is perfect, but someone with a good handle on their manifold imperfections – someone who can warn us of these in good time, and not act them out in ways that will ruin our lives. It is deeply reassuring to witness vulnerability well-worn and madness confidently understood; to see someone mature enough to talk about their immaturities in an undefended and serenely curious way. Conversely, there should be nothing more terrifying on a date than a person who sticks a little too aggressively to the idea that they are totally sane and entirely normal. Anyone over the age of twenty possessed of the idea that they are ‘easy to live with’ has evidently not begun to understand themselves or their impact on others. We should probably skip desert and head home early. Secondly, ask our partners how they are a bit mad. The enquiry should sound playful, natural and wholly compassionate. We should create a safe space in which we imply that it is extremely unsurprising that our date should be a bit ‘broken’ in certain areas; everyone just is. We can gently enquire into what makes them in particular anxious or depressed, what was untenably difficult in their childhoods or what they in particular regret and are ashamed of. This can prove charming because what we’re ultimately looking for in love are not people who find us perfect, but people who will not flinch from the sight of our wounds. We want to be seen for who we really are and forgiven; not mistaken for someone else, idealised – and then one day condemned. Thirdly, reveal we’ve been a bit lonely and sad lately. We often assume that people on dates want to hear that things are going brilliantly for us – and that we become winning for others when we can show that we’re triumphing in the world. But what really warms us to others is evidence that they share in some of the very difficulties and confusions that we are beset by in our private selves. If love involves a desire for an end to loneliness, then some of what we no longer want to be lonely with are our more melancholy dimensions that most people have no time for or interest in. How seductive, therefore, to stumble on someone around whom we sense we’ll no longer have to be jolly in a brittle way; someone who can give us room, through their own candour, to confessions of feelings of loss or sorrow. There can be few things more charming on a date than to hear, from someone who looks extremely self-possessed and competent, that they’ve been feeling unusually isolated and very perplexed of late. They’re showing us the fertilised soil in which our love can grow. Fourthly, pay some compliments. We can, understandably, get anxious at the idea of having to pay our date some compliments. The approach can feel too direct, demanding, almost sleazy. But there is an art to good compliments that starts from a different place: a recognition that most of us struggle to maintain a basic grasp on what is decent and good about us, and privately hunger to hear from someone else certain basic but psychologically-sustaining things about our characters (things that sound unbelievable when we try to say them to ourselves): that we aren’t wholly stupid; that we are sometimes funny or perceptive and have a few qualities to contribute to the world. We can be so worried by our own inadequacies that we forget that the person across the table from us will have an equally large share of them – which it lies within our power to calm. These antics and more belong to a properly rich sense of what we might need to talk about on the audition of our lives that we call, with touching modesty, a date.