What if you just modeled your partner well enough to do what they would want without needing to ask? And what if you tried this from the very first date?

Cross-posted from Putanumonit, this is the conclusion of a four-part sequence on selfless dating.


My last three posts talked about all the things wrong with dating today, from the narratives to the frameworks to the myriad ways you’re self-sabotaging your own romantic life. This post is about the opposite — how dating can go very very right.

To me the best style of relationship is one where both partners treat the other’s real preferences with equal weight to their own, and make decisions on that basis and not based on pre-agreed rules. I call this ideal “selfless relationships”; others have arrived at similar ideas under many names.

Note that “selfless” here doesn’t mean “self-abnegating”, it just means that your innermost circle of concern contains at least one person other than yourself. This may mean, for example, that if you’ll enjoy the plums in the icebox more than your partner you should just eat them and this doesn’t make you a bad person (although it’s still a good idea to apologize and make it up to them). It means not only that when it’s late in the evening my wife and I will rate ourselves on 1-10 scales for horniness and sleepiness and do whichever gets the highest combined score but also that I have learned to calibrate my preferences down because my wife is less decisive about the difference in her preferences and if I reported my scores accurately I would get what I want too often and she not enough. Selfless relationships mean acting on the combined utility function.

A selfless relationship requires:

  • That you know your partner well enough to model their real preferences
  • That you care about them enough to do what they’d want even if they never asked for it
  • That you trust them to do the same for you (approximately) forever

I’m not going to directly defend the proposition that selfless relationships are always better than partnerships based on setting rules and negotiated consent for everything, although I do hope this will show through. I have arrived at this style over many years and many partners, and my current relationship took some years to evolve in that direction.

I am going to defend the proposition that selfless relationships are possible, which is an idea that gets a lot of pushback whenever I bring it up. If your hackles are raised in skepticism at the idea of selflessness in dating, you may fall in one of two camps.

One option is that you bought in to a memeplex of irreconcilable conflict between the sexes, one that’s reinforced by the social circumstances and skewed gender ratio it creates for its adherents. This includes various flavors of radical feminism from the intersectional to the girl-bossy, and various colors of manosphere pills from the incel’s black to the PUA’s red. If that’s the case, all I can hope for is that when you realize how wrong and harmful your ideology is you’ll land on some sane middle ground instead of ricocheting all the way to the other end of the horseshoe.

Avoiding the Pain

The other option is that you simply don’t see a way to a selfless relationship from your current situation, which may look something like this:

You live in a big city far from anyone else invested in your dating success. You’re doing well enough in life to think about dating, but dating sucks despite how well you’re doing. Your job and hobbies put you in social environments heavily skewed to your own gender, which makes flirting difficult and risky to your reputation. You try online but the apps are a lemons market, and their prompts and algorithms turn the users into homogenous commodities. A lot of the people you meet on dates are weird, creepy, or dishonest. Even when you meet someone good, you both carry scars from previous harrowing experiences.

Dating is painful, and your first goal is to minimize the pain. You look for dates who fit your lifestyle — same hobbies and TV shows and same neighborhood — so at least the nice parts of your life aren’t disrupted too much. You negotiate terms and set boundaries, looking to grab what morsels of sex and validation would make it all worth it. You know that any desirable partner has a lot of choices, and you learn to keep your options open for when you’re inevitably ghosted.

Eventually, a relationship can bloom even in this unpromising soil. You learn each other’s rules, and as long as you abide by them you both feel safe enough. After some awkward pillow talk, even the sex gets better. You find positive-sum win-wins. You discuss consent a lot.

Occasionally you see the ominous shapes of decisions you don’t have a set rule for. What if they don’t want a baby or vice versa? What if they can only find a post-doc in Wisconsin and you hate the cold? It’s not like you can have half a child, or live halfway to Green Bay. You’ve survived a dozen negotiations already, but you’re always dreading the next one.

This sort of relationship develops from the desire to avoid getting hurt — hurt by rejection and ghosting, hurt by getting screwed over, hurt by big negotiations not going your way. There’s a lot of potential downside to dating, and the boundaries and rules serve to minimize that downside.

Slack and Selflessness

Selfless dating is about adopting the opposite mindset — shooting for the upside of a relationship. This doesn’t offer a solution to getting hurt; quite the opposite.

I think that the best way to get to a selfless relationship is to act selflessly way too early, long before the other person does. This doesn’t equate to simping, subservience or melodramatic declarations of love. It means that from the very first date your goal is to figure out and give your partner what would make them happy, which is usually a lot more than they themselves would dare ask for.

The problem with this is that when you first try it you won’t do a good job, and even when you do most people will not reciprocate. Maybe they’re just selfish, maybe they’re not that into you, maybe they’re confused, maybe they’re playing out rigid scripts of dating and escalation, maybe they don’t know how to be selfless or even that they should try, and maybe they’re incapable of ever learning. You wouldn’t know if you need to keep trying for another 5 first dates or 50, and if the fault is with you or with them. And every time this fails it leaves you smarting and frustrated.

I’ve written long ago about modeling dating as a stag hunt game. To recap: either player can catch a rabbit by themselves, but they’ll only catch the bigger prize (a stag) if both reliably go for it. If you go for the stag while your partner is trapping rabbits, the stag escapes and you’re left hungry.

In the context of dating, hunting rabbit is keeping your options open, negotiating for what you want, investing a reasonable amount of effort, judging people objectively. Hunting stag means closing your other options to focus on just one person, giving what they want selflessly, investing an unreasonable amount, giving them the benefit of the doubt when they do or reveal something you don’t like.

One of the points of that essay is that even if both “players” like each other and would prefer to hunt stag together, any amount of uncertainty about each other’s intentions can make “rabbit” the rational choice individually. Likewise if either player is short on resources they have to go “rabbit” as well. Perhaps they don’t have the energy to put in even a reasonable amount of effort into dating, or they struggle to find dates and just happened to land another one the same week as you and are scared to give that up. Ray Arnold and Duncan Sabien wrote excellent essays on stag hunt, and why hunting rabbit is often not blameworthy but the right response to uncertainty and constraints.

But the only way to catch the stag is to hunt the stag. And to hunt stag you must have the resources to persevere through failure and uncertainty. In dating, that means confidence that’s based on real value you provide, emotional resilience, and the knowledge that even your worst dating experiences will eventually just be funny stories for your blog. You need a whole lot of slack in a world that’s out to get all of it.

Tragically, the people who have failed at dating the longest are the ones who are most desperate for quick fixes and reliable solutions. Selfless dating is neither quick nor reliable. If you’re stuck in the sort of dating situation I described in the previous section, you should consider taking a long break to build slack and rediscover joy before trying it. But when you do try it, you have to be fully committed. Acting like you’re going to be happily ever after from the very start is the way to make it so.

All the secrets to life take too long and are too uncertain, otherwise they would not be secret.

A Second Mind

Another challenge of selfless relationship is that they require making peace with the fact that not everything can and will be discussed explicitly, and that each partner will need to make decisions that affect the other unilaterally. If you insist on negotiated consensus for everything, it leaves no room for just doing what your partner would want.

Why not talk it all out? Primarily, because you can’t think of every dilemma, can’t articulate every desire, and often won’t capture what’s important when you try. Example: your attractive opposite-sex college classmate is in town, asking if you want to go watch the sequel to that movie you all loved back then. They need to know right now, and your partner isn’t picking up the phone. Does going to that movie that count as cheating or would your partner be crazy to get angry about it?

This is an example of a scenario many monogamous couples wouldn’t have ever discussed (poly couple will have other gray areas). A couple may decide that this is ok but the other partner may still feel jealous and resentful, or they may prohibit this and give up entirely on having even benign opposite-sex friendships.

What’s important here is not the act itself of watching a movie, but the impact on the relationship. Is the movie-going partner attracted to their friend and could potentially have an affair? Does the stay-at-home partner feel insecure over this or for some other reason? You can’t have an explicit rule that movies with hot friends are OK only if you feel really committed to not cheating and your partner feels secure enough that it’s worth. But if you know yourself and your partner you could just decide to do that, on behalf of both of you.

In the above example, your partner may not even know that they’re feeling insecure and will be hurt by you going to that movie, and even if they suspect they may not want to say that out loud. But you may know if you pay enough attention to them.

Self-awareness is hard. Rationality has many techniques for self-understanding and self-improvement. Most of them can be practiced completely alone, but I’m always struck at how much more effective each one is with another person who’s just there to hold space, listen, and watch that you don’t fool yourself. One of the greatest gifts you can get is another mind, equal to yours, who pays attention to you and thinks about your conflicts and desires with you. Spurning that gift by erecting walls of rules and individual choice within a relationship is a tragedy.

This is the final important point. Strong boundaries can be detrimental with a partner who knows you and wants what’s best for you, but they’re absolutely necessary with a partner who is selfish, ignorant, or simply unskilled. Being selfless yourself can’t turn the latter to the former. All it can do is be a beacon, letting you build the right sort of relationship with the right sort of person while not letting the wrong sort get you down.

Godspeed.

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:13 AM
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  • How many "first dates" did you have to go through before you found a suitable partner for selfless dating?
  • How long on average did it take for you to decide that someone wasn't a suitable partner for selfless dating and break up with them?
  • Did you have to break up with someone who would have made a fine partner for "hunting rabbit" (conventional dating/romance) just because they weren't willing/able to "hunt stag" (selfless dating)? If so, what gave you the conviction that this would be a good idea?
  • Did you or would you suggest explaining what selfless dating is and what your expectations are on your first date with someone?
  • What were some problems you encountered with selfless dating (after you found your current partner) and how did you overcome them?
  • Do you have any additional evidence/arguments that you weren't just very lucky and that selfless dating is actually +EV for your readers (or some identifiable subset of your readers)?

I was in a few long-term relationship in my early twenties when I myself wasn't mature/aware enough for selfless dating. Then, after a 4-year relationship that was very explicit-rules based had ended, I went on about 25 first dates in the space of about 1 year before meeting my wife. Basically all of those 25 didn't work because of a lack of mutual interest, not because we both tried to make it a long-term thing but failed to hunt stag.

If I was single today, I would date not through OkCupid as I did back in 2014 but through the intellectual communities I'm part of now. And with the sort of women I would like to date in these communities I would certainly talk about things like selfless dating (and dating philosophy in general) on a first date. Of course, I am unusually blessed in the communities I'm part of (including Rationality).

A lot of my evidence comes from hearing other people's stories, both positive and negative. I've been writing fairly popular posts on dating for half a decade now, and I've had both close friends and anonymous online strangers in the dozens share their dating stories and struggles with me. For people who seem generally in a good place to go in the selfless direction the main pitfalls seem to be insecurity spirals and forgetting to communicate.

The former is when people are unable to give their partner the benefit of the doubt on a transgression, which usually stems from their own insecurity. Then they act more selfishly themselves, which causes the partner to be more selfish in turn, and the whole thing spirals.

The latter is when people who hit a good spot stop talking about their wants and needs. As those change they end up with a stale model of each other. Then they inevitably end up making bad decisions and don't understand why their idyll is deteriorating.

To address your general tone: I am lucky in my dating life, and my post (as I wrote in the OP itself) doesn't by itself constitute enough evidence for an outside-view update that selfless relationships are better. If this speaks to you intuitively, hopefully this post is an inspiration. If it doesn't, hopefully it at least informs you of an alternative. But my goal isn't to prove anything to a rationalist standard, in part because I think this way of thinking is not really helpful in the realm of dating where every person's journey must be unique.

The most important thing I discovered in regards to my current partnership is that the relationship is the thing that exists between the partners. The relationship is the choices that are made by both people

In every previous situation, the relationship was dysfunctional because there was an unwillingness to acknowledge "what I want it to be," "what the other person wants it to be," and "what actually exists between us". 

(Think 500 Days of Summer, when Tom says "you can't say we're not a couple, we do all of the things couples do" and Summer says "I can say we're not a couple because I only want something casual," and what actually exists between them centers on the illusion of emotional intimacy, the practicality of exclusive sex, and the decision that "hoping the other person will change their minds about what they want" is better than "putting in the effort to find someone new" and/or "accepting the pain and effort that comes with ending a relationship that is not giving me what I want.")

Everything changed the day I realized that an action could only be considered "of the relationship" if it were willingly entered into by all parties in the relationship. This applies to families and friendships as well as romantic relationships/adult partnerships.  

I can expand on this if you want...

The concept of selfless relationships can definitely work and is useful for some, but the post makes a few assumptions that make it seem like this mindset towards dating and relationships is useful for more people than it is:

  1. Not all relationship seekers seek a relationship to last forever. This makes a selfless relationship not useful for people who want to share interests with someone for a short- or medium-term e.g., a summer fling or a winter cuddle partner.
  2. Not all relationship seekers have a stronger preference to stay in the same relationship than to achieve some other personal preference. This makes a selfless relationship not useful for people who would always place a certain preference in their innermost circle of concerns above their partners, e.g., a contradictory religious or ethical belief or a demanding career.

This leaves only people who want to stay in the same relationship forever, and who want to find a partner with whom they will stay forever regardless of future conflicts of interests. There are certainly people who seek that kind of a relationship, but for people who seek other kinds, this definition of selfless relationship is detrimental to them and their partners. 

These are countered in parts of the text (ex)

Note that “selfless” here doesn’t mean “self-abnegating”, it just means that your innermost circle of concern contains at least one person other than yourself. This may mean, for example, that if you’ll enjoy the plums in the icebox more than your partner you should just eat them and this doesn’t make you a bad person (although it’s still a good idea to apologize and make it up to them). It means not only that when it’s late in the evening my wife and I will rate ourselves on 1-10 scales for horniness and sleepiness and do whichever gets the highest combined score but also that I have learned to calibrate my preferences down because my wife is less decisive about the difference in her preferences and if I reported my scores accurately I would get what I want too often and she not enough. Selfless relationships mean acting on the combined utility function.

The quote is not countering the arguments.

The combined utility function implies the parties are a single unit finding the best approach to fill the preferences of all parties involved. The arguments above point that some relationship seekers don't see themselves as a single unit with their partner, and seeing themselves as such will be harmful for their own preferences, e.g., a short-term relationship or a non-negotiable belief system.

I see what you're referring to I think. Thanks for clarifying, what you're saying makes sense.

Your comment's examples are useful, but I will note that even this is covered in the original text:

A selfless relationship requires: [...] That you care about them enough to do what they’d want even if they never asked for it