What went wrong on your last date? The way you answer could change everything about how you approach your next one. 

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Gregory McClell Buchanan have studied how people explain the events that take place in their lives. How might we explain the man who was rude to us on the bus? Or the results of the beauty pageant we answered? Or the date that ended in awkward silence and a rushed goodbye? We might gather input from past events, our knowledge of the people involved, or we might ask friends and family members to explain events, too. But when it comes down to it, Seligman and Buchanan developed three parameters in which we explain certain events. Together, these parameters make up our “explanatory styles,” which determine the way we reflect on failure, success, and the occasional awkward date. 

(Interested in reading more about this? The books Learned Optimism and Explanatory Style are two great places to start!) 

Based on the parameters Seligman and Buchanan have developed, we make assumptions about what the next event, i.e. date, will look like. You know what they say about assuming, right? So let’s take a look at Seligman and Buchanan’s explanatory styles. You may find that shifting your perspective makes your next date a lot more exciting. 

Stable vs. Unstable (Permanence) 

Let’s say you go on a date and it ends poorly. You text friends, who aren’t very encouraging. They say things like, “dating sucks.” “Dating is never fun.” “Men will always be immature.” You’re not going to look forward to the next date if you’re always going to run into bad dates!

We can see an event as stable, meaning that it’s permanent. Or, we can see an event as unstable, which means it’s temporary. People who believe that situations are stable may have a fixed mindset, in which growth is limited and things rarely change. 

No one wants to go on a date they know is going to be bad. And truthfully? The only way you can be sure that a date will be bad is if you have a time machine. Your dating life can change as you grow and learn about yourself. Your dating life can change because you start dating men, or you start dating women, or you start dating both! There are a million different ways to approach dating and change how you go on dates. So really, is the status of your dating life ever permanent?

Global vs. Local (Pervasive)

Let’s say you go on a date with a person who is interested in video games. They’re slow to text back, not great at communicating before your date, and spend the evening talking only about video games. How do you explain this dud of a date? Do all people who play video games only have interest in this hobby, or is this one person’s inability to take their mind off their Xbox? 

We can see an event as global, or applicable across the globe. Or, we can see it as local, something that only takes place in one location, one area of your life, or on one date with one person. People with a global perspective of failure may get rejected from a person and believe that all people will reject them. 

This explanatory style can lead people to make fascinating, puzzling, and downright disturbing assumptions about people they go on dates with and those who share something in common with them. I’ve heard it all. All potential matches named Matt are destined to be liars and cheaters. All women over a size six don’t take care of themselves. All African-American men grew up in a certain culture, and the cultural differences make them less attractive. I know these statements are hard to read, but they are all things I’ve heard from individual clients. Does this mean all of my clients have prejudices, unfair biases, or should switch up their explanation style? No, it doesn’t. Every one of the eight billion people on this planet are unique. We all make different choices, live different lifestyles, and see the world differently. If we can attribute one or two bad dates to individuals, rather than an entire population, suddenly the dating pool becomes more exciting. 

Internal vs. External (Personal) 

Let’s say you are excited to go on a date, but on the way, you encounter bad traffic. Then, the doorman at the bar gives you a hard time about your license picture. You realize that there is gum stuck to your shoe and you forgot your umbrella, which is a shame because it’s pouring outside. Are you still going to be excited for your date? 

We can attribute a person’s behavior on a date to internal factors, like their disposition and character. Or, we can attribute a person’s behavior on a date to external factors, like the weather or the time of day or an infinite number of other events that play into getting ready for a date. We can also look internally for the cause of a bad date (i.e. we did something wrong on the date; there is something wrong with us). Or, we can look externally. 

Depending on how you view a bad date, you could walk away feeling terrible about yourself, terrible about the other person, or terrible about the conditions that made what could have been a great date, a bad one. You can see a pattern here. How you think about your bad date is all in how you explain it to yourself. 

At the end of the day, we might not know everything that caused a bad date. What we do know is that we have control over how we approach dating in the future. The next time you find yourself driving home from a bad date, reflect on the different explanatory styles. What are the different ways you can explain a bad date? And as you look at these different styles, think about how these explanations make you feel more or less optimistic about future dates. Optimists see events as having unstable, local, and external causes. Pessimists see events as having stable, global, and internal causes. 

Come back to this article after you reflect on your next date. Are you feeling more hopeful, open to opportunity, and optimistic? That means you’re on the right track. 

How to Explain a Bad Date, With Help from Psychology 

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