First date? Psychology says don’t be nervous.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, singles looking for love might find themselves going on a few first dates, and for many, first dates are a cause for anxiety. Joy McClure, assistant professor of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., says there’s a good reason for that—but it might get in the way of finding a partner.

She explains that there’s a push and pull between the fundamental human need for connection and belonging and the fear of rejection, something psychology refers to as “relational ambivalence.”

“Humans are fundamentally social animals and need to belong, but at the same time, although driven to connect, it’s important to protect the self,” she says. 

Though present in ongoing relationships, too, some of McClure’s research focuses on how this tension plays out in the earliest stages of a relationship for people who are “anxiously attached.” People develop attachment anxiety, she explains, because they have previously experienced that close others are inconsistently responsive and didn’t meet their needs, sometimes by being neglectful and other times by being intrusive.

"As a result, they have become preoccupied with their relationships, caught between a desperate desire for closeness and security on the one hand, but a heightened sensitivity to, and fear of, rejection on the other hand," she says.

In one study, McClure looked at the behaviors of 116 speed dating participants. She found that anxious participants were motivated by loneliness to attend the event, and once they were there, they weren’t very popular or selective—they were pursued by fewer potential partners and made more failed attempts to connect. Though McClure says that, for the most part, she hasn’t noticed a gender difference in the occurrence of this anxiety, at speed dating in particular the costs of anxiety might be different for men and for women: Anxious men were losing matches to their lower popularity but for anxious women their lack of popularity was offset by being especially likely to say “yes” to potential partners.

For some, McClure says, this anxiety also leads them to overreact to rejection or misperceive rejection in a situation when there isn’t any. So what can anxiously attached people do to improve their dating experience?

"When you're worried about what other people think of you, you turn inward, and that's counterproductive. It doesn't communicate interest and can look like rejection to the other person,” says McClure. "Pay attention to the other person—they're probably as nervous as you are. Remember, you're in this together!" 

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Adelphi University
Assistant Professor of Psychology