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Hooking-up, tech sex, and obsession: Talking about modern love with Dr. Natasha Tidwell

Fort Lewis prof Dr. Natasha Tidwell, on for-sure signals of attraction, handling rejection, and technology-savvy dating
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Want to read more about modern relationships?“Science of Relationships” is fulla easy-to-read, fun research by relationship scientists. Check out www.scienceofrelationships.com

Ar 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ar 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ep 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ep 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ep 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ep 171119688
David Holub/DGO
Ep 171119688
Dr. Natasha Tidwell, assistant professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College
Ep 171119688
Dr. Natasha Tidwell, assistant professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College

Dating can be terrifying. It can be Rejection City on apps and, OMG, if you actually try to talk to that cute barista in person, you could ruin your favorite hangout forever. Dating today is such an epic quest, even comedians publish books about it. See, for example, the hilarious and handsome Aziz Ansari’s conversational, social science-infused “Modern Romance” that dissects not only his own struggles with dating but America’s courting culture as a whole.

Say you finally find a partner – are they gonna think you are too needy, not catching signs, or want too little or too much sex? Is there such thing as Too Much Sex? Is dating even worth it?

DGO talked to Dr. Natasha Tidwell, assistant professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College. Tidwell is an expert in areas of attraction, relationships, and social psychology. We don’t have all the answers to your dating struggles, but here’s a good start on the signals of attraction a potential partner can give off, signs that someone is totally not interested, and how tech in dating doesn’t have to mean rejection.

Are there for-sure signals when someone is attracted to you?I can’t give a 100 percent guarantee on this one, because attraction is a pretty complex process and is affected by situations, cultural norms, and individual differences, but here are a few (of many) signs that can indicate attraction.

One is pretty easy to predict – time. Is the person you like trying to spend a lot of time with you or are they avoiding your calls/texts?

Another is self-disclosure. If the person is revealing personal information about themselves and becoming more emotionally vulnerable with you, then that can be a sign that they want something more to develop. On the flipside, if they’re only talking about themselves and don’t seem interested in what you’re sharing about yourself, that can signal that they aren’t really invested in you as a person.

One really subtle cue is mimicry: People tend to mimic the behaviors (even some subtle ones, like crossing your arms, leaning back in your chair, etc.) of people they like.

None of these on their own are foolproof. In general, the best way to know if someone is into you is to ask.

How do attraction signals differ in a digital setting? A lot of the cues I mentioned above can translate to an online setting. For example, some evidence suggests that how much people match their language to one another predicts how attracted they are to one another. So, when you’re looking at the texts and messages you send to one another, see how similar your language styles are.

Are there for-sure signals of someone not digging you when the person hasn’t flat out said, “Not interested”? If someone isn’t responding to your texts or calls in a reasonable amount of time – please note that it’s NOT reasonable to expect people to always get back with you within 15 minutes! – or frequently doesn’t respond at all, they’re probably not that interested. Same if they keep canceling plans at the last minute or are consistently noncommittal when you mention making plans together. Of course, emergencies do happen and plans can change, but if this is a pattern of behavior, then it’s probably time to stop pursuing them.

The way I think of it is this: If someone isn’t as enthusiastically into me as I am into them, it’s probably better for both of us if we look elsewhere. Also, if you’re not sure or are getting mixed signals, just ask!

How do we combat obsessing over someone? For example, going mad when someone doesn’t text you back when you know that they always have their phone. It’s important for people to keep their own friends and interests and not rely only on a partner or potential partner to fulfill all of their social and emotional needs. It’s definitely normal to feel a bit of anxiety about whether someone is into you, especially during the early stages of relationships, but that anxiety will be a whole lot harder to deal with if you’re focusing all your energy on this one person instead of keeping up with your other hobbies and relationships.

Are young folks today really hooking-up more than previous generations? That’s a common myth that gets perpetuated. In reality though, there’s some evidence suggesting that current young adults are actually LESS sexually active than previous generations were. Similar to that, a lot of people assume that adolescents are having sex at younger and younger ages. In fact, though, adolescents now are (on average, of course) waiting longer to have sex than adolescents from 10 and 20 years ago were.

There is a heavy rejection rate on apps. It’s all swipe left or swipe right. How can someone stay positive in a rejection-heavy dating culture?I think that remembering just how quickly and superficially people make judgments on dating apps can help. With dating apps, it can seem like there’s an endless possibility of potential partners. Because of this, people can fall into the pattern of thinking there’s always a better option out there, no matter what good qualities they could find in the person they’re currently looking at, so they often don’t spend a lot of time or effort considering the possibilities of each profile they see. When people swipe, they’re making a really quick decision with very limited information. A lot of stuff about a romantic partner can’t be learned in two seconds. Recognizing the limitations of this method of dating and remembering that dating apps aren’t the only way you can meet people is probably a good idea. Plus, don’t get so wrapped up in dating that you forget the other awesome aspects of your life! Stay plugged in to your friendships and hobbies.

Is technology a new trend to enter into relationships and intimacy, or has tech been a factor in love for some time? I think technology often has huge effects on human relationships that we don’t always recognize. For example, think about how much of an impact the telephone likely had on people’s daily lives when it first became a common fixture in homes.

I do think that our current norm of having constant access to technology has been both a blessing and a curse to relationship functioning. On the one hand, people aren’t limited in how much they can contact their loved ones, which can potentially allow them to maintain a sense of closeness and connection with them. This is especially true when you and your partner are traveling separately or live far apart. On the other hand, constant access to smartphones, even when we’re not actively using them, can negatively affect our communication with other people. One of my concerns with constant access to technology is that a lot of people let their smartphones interfere with their relationships in their real life. If you’re distractedly checking your phone while your partner is trying to talk with you or (in a more extreme example) secretly checking Tinder behind his/her back “just in case someone better comes along,” that can really undermine your relationships and connections. We all need to think about how to maintain a healthy balance when it comes to our smartphone habits and remember that just because we’re constantly connected doesn’t mean we’re communicating well.

Is there such a thing as having too much sex? The right amount of sex is the amount that both partners are satisfied with. When it comes to casual sex, the most important guidelines is whether safety precautions are taken (e.g., contraception, regular STI testing) and all parties are enthusiastically consenting. If people are using sex in order to avoid talking about problems within a relationship or relying on it as a way to fix emotional wounds, than it can be problematic. But there’s a huge range of what’s “normal” in terms of frequency.

What about such a thing as dating too many people? I think the most important thing is being honest with both yourself and your partners. If someone you’re seeing wants to be exclusive but you don’t, you have to have the difficult conversation.

People vary on a dimension called “sociosexuality,” which refers to the extent to which they separate love and sex. Some evidence suggests that people who have a more “unrestricted” sociosexual orientation (agree strongly that sex without love is OK, for example) are more likely to cheat on their partners. But that’s a big generalization; for example, if someone with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation is highly committed to their partner, or is in an open relationship or casually dating multiple people, that may not be a problem for them. Developing communication skills and talking openly with your partner(s) about whether or not you want to be exclusive is more important than how many people you’re seeing.

Are there elements of dating culture that will never change, even if we all end up as avatars dating each other in simulated worlds?I think that the sometimes obsessive anxiety that people experience at the very beginning of a new dating relationship will remain, just because of the way we feel when we begin to make ourselves vulnerable to another person we’re interested in. And I definitely think that communication skills will always remain one of the most important factors in determining a good, healthy dating experience regardless of the way we date.

How does studying modern intimate relationships and attraction positively impact the world?I think this field is valuable because our romantic partners are often some of the closest, most influential partnerships we can have. If we can understand how to navigate them effectively, we can learn how to build happy, healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. We can also prevent a lot of emotional pain both for ourselves and other people.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton

Ar 171119688

David Holub/DGO

Ep 171119688

David Holub/DGO

Ep 171119688

David Holub/DGO

Ep 171119688

Dr. Natasha Tidwell, assistant professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College

MORE!

Want to read more about modern relationships?“Science of Relationships” is fulla easy-to-read, fun research by relationship scientists. Check out www.scienceofrelationships.com