It’s no secret that the road to finding a romantic partner can be a bumpy one. From the perils of dating apps to the myriad rules placed upon us about how we should behave, it’s no wonder that we’re often left feeling less dazzled and more confused.
But nothing can be quite as baffling as our own emotions when out there exploring the field, especially when it comes to wanting what we can’t have.
We’ve all been there. We meet someone...sparks fly...the first date goes well...we’re hooked...we don’t hear from them...we want them even more.
Or, perhaps you’ve found yourself on the other side of the coin; a fledgling relationship is happily moving along until the calls and texts start coming in thick and fast and bam, all feelings have gone in a flash.
Treat them mean to keep them keen - the old adage certainly speaks the truth.
According to Psychology Today, this phenonomen of wanting what we can’t have was defined by Robert Cialdini, a leading expert on influence, as the “Scarcity Principle”.
The Scarcity Principle works on the idea of “reactance”, i.e. that we don’t like to be told no or be limited in any way. When we think we are going to miss out, be rejected, or be denied what we want, we react by wanting what we have been denied even more and trying even harder to get it.
There have been multiple studies into the dynamics of human dating which have served as scientific proof of our somewhat nonsensical ways.
A 2014 study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Toronto, and Stanford University found that playing “hard-to-get” sparks more interest and desire in a potential partner than being interested and engaging on a date.
During the study, male participants were asked to read a hypothetical date story, or meet a real woman in a speed date situation, during which the women that they read about in the story, or met on the date, either behaved in a positive, interested manner, or were passive and aloof.
The results found that the male participants were more interested in meeting the woman again when she'd played “hard-to-get” by acting disinterested on the date.
However, they also found that despite preferring to see the disinterested women again, the men actually liked the engaging women more.
Oh, what complicated creatures we are.
Another study in 2010 by the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that the scenario played out the same when the roles were reveresed. The researchers asked women to view the Facebook profiles of four male students who had previously seen their profiles. They were told that the men (a) liked them a lot, (b) liked them only an average amount, or (c) liked them either a lot or an average amount (the uncertain condition). The women who were in the uncertain condition reported thinking about the men the most, which in turn increased their attraction.
But while it has long been clear that treating them mean really does make them keen, nobody has had the answer as to why, until now.
“That much attention can be perceived as desperation or a lack of independence [on the part of the person showing interest],” Dr Johnson explained.
“It could mean that they're a little more co-dependent than you'd like them to be.”
She then adds that we may be more attracted to people who show less interest in us because we place a high value on partners who have a life outside of the relationship, and when someone isn’t always available we imagine that they have other things occupying their time. She also suggests that the ability to “hold back” demonstrates maturity.
“And who doesn't want a mature partner?” she remarks.
While there may be some truth to this, it’s more about how we interpret other people’s behaviour than what it actually means about them. Of course, a frequent texter might just be being friendly, open and willing to show an interest. Who’s to say they’re not squeezing in those texts while out and about living a happy and fulfilled life? And surely being open to a relationship developing shows a level of maturity greater than someone who’s still playing games?
Jesse Kahn, LCSW, the director and supervisor of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective offered an alternative theory on why an over-keen potential partner can be a turn-off. Speaking to Refinery 29, he explained that for some individuals it has more to do with their own issues surrounding intimacy and their ability to be vulnerable.
“When a relationship becomes more intimate, it becomes more vulnerable, and [people] can become more easily hurt,” he says.
So, when somebody shows an interest and therefore opens us up to the relationship developing, it can be easier (and less scary) to pull back rather than put ourselves out there.
If that’s the case, Khan suggests thinking “about what your examples of intimacy and love were in past partnerships and in your family life” and seeing if you can find reasons why you might react to intimacy in that manner.
Thankfully, it seems that many of us have already been putting in the legwork. A poll of 1,000 singletons by eHarmony found that being stand-offish is no longer enticing, with only 4% of participants agreeing that you should wait before replying to a text message. That said, they do acknowledge that it is important not to answer immediately every time, as this can make you seem too available and less of a catch.
And so it continues.
Image: Pablo Heimplatz