When we date someone new, we cling to a lot of secrets. It’s a risk to reveal what is left off the dating apps. In time we open up, but the Aww, that’s sweet stories usually emerge first. They’re lighter than the stories heavily draped in shame. Shame denotes humiliation. Why seek it out early in courtship?
But what happens when you bring a shame story to light in the beginning?
I went public a while back about a shameful experience. I wrote an article for a popular relationship column about having an HIV scare. I was almost 40 and had recently had unprotected sex with a total stranger. It was a foolish mistake and upsetting experience and hard to write. I felt strongly about telling the story, but I couldn’t quite say why. Sometimes it’s unclear to the storyteller why a story is being told.
I had written about my fear of others’ judgment. I felt ashamed and beat myself up for making such a foolish mistake. Instead of leaning on friends, I kept the experience mostly to myself during the month I waited to take a second HIV test. Silence turned out to be the most painful part. But my battle cry became: Giving people the chance to know you (even the mistakes you recoil from), rather than assuming they’ll judge you, can help counter the judgment you heap on yourself.
The very first person I met after that article was published seemed to prove the theory wrong.
Shortly after we met on a dating app, he asked about my writing. I shared the article. His response after reading it stung. “I would never do that,” he said, his voice steeped in derision. The next day, he made a joke that was plainly mean. I was disappointed but tried to overlook both. We continued to talk and get to know each other, and in some ways the connection seemed promising. We had common interests and curiosities, and texting banter made it clear the physical attraction—at least in phone-size photos—was mutual. I went with it.
We only ended up meeting once, and it was over before it began. During the date, he once again brought up what I’d written about. It was clearly a sensitive subject for him. He commented on, essentially, my stupidity. After that night he disappeared. We never spoke again.
Shame researcher and TED Talk sensation Brené Brown points out, “If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous shame storm.” She couldn’t have put it better.
In the weeks after that night, I was distraught—more than reasonable, given we were virtual strangers and the in-person chemistry wasn’t even good. And yet, I often found the voice of a random someone I spent less than a day with echoing in my head. His judgment had confirmed exactly the fear I wrote about.
They say never to talk about past relationships on first dates. Negativity is bound to creep up, and that’s hardly attractive. Now, it seemed, I had a first-date never to add to the list. Except that was no longer an option.
Had I been naive to overlook how sharing this shame story might affect my dating life?
Dating profiles typically ask for descriptors about ourselves and what we’re seeking. Common words include successful, ambitious, financially secure, adventurous and—for men anyway—the obnoxious and ill-defined “masculine.” These say little. Being a good listener is one of the least frequent descriptors. And that’s unfortunate. Listening elicits understanding. All of it—the ugly and quietly beautiful. It’s harder to judge someone when you understand them.
It was only after unexpectedly meeting someone else a few months later that this came into sharp relief. And I started to realize what putting that particular story out there had really been about.
Early on, he also asked about my writing. This time, I shared other articles, hoping to keep buried the one that had caused grief. Everyone googles now, and he found it on his own. When he mentioned reading, my stomach dropped. I was silent. Then he said, “I want you to know I empathize with your story.” This caught me off guard. “That’s a tough and lonely place to be,” he said. “I’ve had times in my life when I felt that way too.” A warmth settled over my body as he spoke, like a blanket fresh from the dryer. He hadn’t just read, he had listened. The next time we talked, I thanked him for understanding with an earnestness that seemed to confuse him. As if it should be any other way.
Writing can help us make sense of life. That I already knew. But after he and I hung up that night, I lay in bed and wondered, What if my instinct to tell the story I did in such a public way actually had not been without logic? Maybe deep down I’d hoped being vulnerable would prompt another’s vulnerable side to surface. Reflecting on judgment might repel, or at least neutralize, judgment. It might even encourage empathy. No wonder when that didn’t happen it hurt. I’d put myself out there, only to have it crumpled up and thrown back at me.
Everyone messes up and feels shame in one way or another. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if more people were up front about it?
Imagine if dating apps included the prompt: Tell me one of your mess-ups—show your humanity—in 100 words or less. That could shift the entire dating experience.
Thinking back, my relationship history follows a path many know all too well—one scattered with shoulds, shouldn’ts, criticisms, and could-be-betters. But instead of walking away come great efforts change. Anything so that whoever it is will continue being interested. It can be hard to recognize while shifting around like an over-eager chameleon that the problem is them, not us. The guy I met on the dating app fell onto a well-worn path.
The article I wrote took on a meaning larger than I could have imagined. After a quick backfire, I was left facing a more damaging behavior than having unprotected sex with a stranger could ever be. Through the men I often find myself drawn to, I reinforce the judgment I fear. Now that a part of my past is out there primed for judgment—from certain folks, anyway—that most important lesson will be hard to forget.
Things didn’t work out with the second guy either. It’s okay. I’m grateful we met. I believe that people—no matter who, no matter how brief—enter our lives for a reason. His generosity of spirit and empathy in the face of something that had brought exactly the opposite from someone else was a welcome reminder the world isn’t devoid of people who seek to understand rather than judge. It’s a matter of knowing who to look for.
Brown also says that shame cannot survive empathy. If we can have an early-dating litmus test for empathy, I think I found mine.