Most people have been there at one point or another. You’ve been dating someone for a month or so, and things seem to be going well. The two of you have a blast while you’re together, and she or he has even told you that they really see a future with you. You feel the same way, but there’s one problem: You barely hear from them between dates, and it’s making you absolutely crazy.
This erratic contact is called intermittent reinforcement, and it can trick you into feeling completely obsessed with someone. “People are more responsive to intermittent reinforcement (someone who is available, then not) than they are to continuous reinforcement,” writes Jennifer Taitz, certified clinical psychologist in her new book, How to Be Single and Happy. “There’s something about not knowing when we’ll receive the next reward (or text) that makes us stay focused and excited. Inconsistency keeps us trying and hopeful.”
So, how can you distinguish whether you’re actually into someone, versus simply being a victim of intermittent reinforcement—and what can you do about it? Here’s what the experts think.
Why are you so interested in someone who has a low investment in you?
When clients come to happiness coach Jillian Turecki explaining that they’re interested in someone who they don’t hear from much, she has one question for them: Why are they so interested in someone who doesn’t have the same investment in them? “When presented with that question, a person will really need to think about it,” she says. “Because let’s assume that it’s because this person is really lusting for the other. Then it’s usually because she or he has projected a fantasy of what she wants this person to be, without yet knowing if this person lives up to it.”
Turecki notes that if the obsession is driven by the fact that he or she isn’t hearing from their love interest, it could signal that they’re just not ready for a relationship yet. “This could be because getting close to someone is clearly scaring them,” she explains. “Either way, the message is this: Don’t invest in someone who is not investing in you. I promise you, there are way more fish in the sea.”
Beware of games.
While it can be tempting to play games in an attempt to heighten someone else’s interest in you, at the end of the day, that’s not fun for anyone. “Relationships are all about communication, and the most important thing you can do is talk about your expectations,” explains matchmaker Sameera Sullivan. “We all have different communication styles, and it’s the biggest problem in modern-day relationships! Technology has made everything even more difficult. We have to be able to learn each other’s styles of communication, and therefore it’s always a great idea to chat with the other person about how you prefer to hear from them and what type of communication you prefer and how often.”
Turecki adds that exactly how you express your honesty is important. “Let’s say that you’ve gone on a few dates with someone, and all seems to be going well. But then out of nowhere you’re barely hearing from this person anymore,” she says. “At this very juncture, you have to realize that you can be disappointed and have a high standard for yourself. You could call them up, text, or email, and say, ‘I’m sensing some confusion/distance from you, which is totally fine. But I’m going to take a little space because I don’t want to get any closer to someone who doesn’t know what they want.'”
She adds that if the person responds, apologizes, and says they will communicate differently going forward, it’s important to forgive them. “They now know that you have a standard. If they don’t respond with anything of the sort, then you know you dodged a bullet because clearly they are not investing in you.”