I entered the dating world like a lot of other people, excited and hopeful, sure that I would find the one. My soulmate. After all, that’s the message I received from magazines, movies, and my friends. What I never expected was the anxiety, confusion, and pain that plagued my love life. Since 2014 that has changed.
Ever since I was a child, I didn’t recognize a separation between myself and other animals. That acceptance deepened as I pursued my PhD studying the ins and outs of the social and mating behavior of other species. What was different now was that I decided to apply animal behavior principles directly to my personal life—specifically my dating life.
If I think back over my early dating years now, how I wish I had started doing that sooner. I would have had much more fun and developed more meaningful connections, even if the date or relationship didn’t go far.
I remember a spectacularly awful and uncomfortable date. I was in my mid-twenties and a smart, pretty handsome, statistics graduate student asked me out on a date. I was excited. He took me to dinner and I thought it was going really well. The conversation seemed to flow easily.
I suppose he felt so at ease he was comfortable sharing that he really liked this other woman, but since she had a boyfriend he figured he would ask me out instead. Ouch. Not only was the sting of rejection immediate, but I was also genuinely befuddled. Why would he ask me out if he wasn’t interested? Why would he take me to dinner and spend money? And why on earth would he tell me about it?
At the time I thought this guy was a jerk, today I have a different perspective. I realize that the rejection wasn’t personal. He didn’t know enough about me to reject me. He simply preferred someone else.
As for asking me out despite his lackluster interest? He was settling for someone else since the object of his true desire was unavailable. We humans do this all the time, but so do other species. If you’re a female strawberry poison dart frog, your romantic life motto is take the one you can get for now and then take the next one that comes along. The biggest difference between ourselves and these frogs? Strawberry poison dart frogs trade up, never down.
I came to discover that there are so many lessons we can take from other species in every area of our lives, but especially in our romantic ones. I have now written books on the topic, and recently worked as a consultant on the reality series, Love in the Jungle, where I was able to help put some of these concepts into practice for the contestants who were looking for love. So, if you want to tap into your animal nature, here are a few dating do’s and don’ts from the ‘other’ animal kingdom:
Keep putting yourself out there.
I get it. Rejection is hard. It’s hard to receive and it’s hard to dish out. It takes guts, but it also takes kindness. I have seen this play out in my own dating life. As I am evaluating a potential mate, I have realized I am not well matched with someone that I like, or vice versa.
If you are rejected, know this: It happens (a lot) and other animals accept it. Satin bowerbird males experience a ton of rejection. They put in a tremendous amount of effort to impress a female. They carefully construct a bower, then decorate it, and finally, they dance and dance their way through their bower hoping she’ll take notice. After all this, less than 1 percent are successful.
It’s important to take some time to lick your wounds so that you don’t go around wounding others, but then, shake it off like a satin bowerbird and keep on trying to dance your way into the heart of another. When it comes to dishing it out, bowerbird females don’t feel guilty or scared or uncomfortable about rejecting a potential mate. They communicate clearly and no one is left wondering what the heck is going on.
The reason rejection isn’t personal is because everyone is trying to find the best partner for them. If you’re not someone’s best partner, they absolutely can’t be yours.
Take it slow
That rush of attraction, chemicals and hormones flooding our bodies, rendering us unable to think clearly. That’s the delicious way of getting us to notice one another. It’s simply intoxicating, isn’t it?
Attraction, however, is just that: attraction. On Love in the Jungle, the singles are put together in a group where they feel strongly attracted to several people at the same time.
If all this juicy attraction isn’t about finding a soul mate, what’s it for? That depends on what you’re up to. When the end goal is simply to mate, these immediate physical cues tell us we have found a good physical match for making babies. I recently saw a herd of manatees, about 15 of them, engaged in a lot of…attraction.
To find a solid partner, however, you’re going to need more information. Much more. Will you be compatible over the long run? Are you reliable? Can we communicate well? Will you be a solid parent? This is the stuff of long-term relationships. Attraction drives you to collect this critical data.
Grebes understand this. Grebes are diving waterbirds and have elaborate courtship rituals from coordinated dances to duets. This is how they determine if they will be a good match after they first encounter a potential attractive mate. In a grebe’s world, if you’re not in sync you’re not the right match.
Learn to detect problems…quickly
Related to taking things slowly, detecting bad behaviors that signal a poor quality mate is crucial. For example, if someone demands all your time or tries to shut down your other options too quickly.
Recently, I ended a blossoming relationship because the person had unrealistic expectations. His exact words were, “I think my partner should be available to me at all times.” My brain said, “Alert, alert! Danger ahead…run!”
This is a behavior we see in walking sticks and tiger beetles. Males of these species attempt to control females by going everywhere with them. The walking stick really kicks things up a notch by clinging to the female for up to 70 days. Talk about possessiveness and insecurity!
From controlling behavior and aggression to more nuanced differences in values, one needs to pay attention and keep things in perspective. The faster you identify problems or incompatibilities the quicker you can move on to the next potential mate.
Don’t be a long-tailed dance fly!
Finding a partner and creating a family is serious business and for most species there is truth in advertising. Don’t get me wrong, animals lie all the time about many things. But, in the realm of finding a mate, there’s little room for deception.
We humans, on the other hand, have mastered the art of lying to potential mates. Whether it is our appearance, our interests, or even our intentions, we rob others of their precious time and energy as they search for a partner.
I made this mistake a long time ago. I dated someone who was obsessed with Bob Dylan. I’m embarrassed to admit that I spent many months pretending to love Bob Dylan. In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s the thing with lying; it may work in the short term, but eventually, you’re likely to struggle with the deception.
The energy and effort it takes to find a mate, keep a mate, and raise a family is too great to risk a mistake for both males and females. For other species, I have observed that there are usually built in safeguards that prevent lying.
The long-tailed dance fly is an exception. In this species, males give a female a very large gift of food. Because it takes almost 30 percent of a male’s body weight to produce, they’re very selective and prefer large females. Some smaller females cheat by swallowing air, temporarily making them look bigger. A male that fails to detect the lie risks wasting his one and only chance at success.
We do ourselves and each other a grave disservice when we aren’t honest and upfront about what we want or how we feel. By incorporating some strategies used by our wild companions we can have more fun, become kinder, and make stronger connections with each other. May you all find love out there in the jungle!
Dr. Jennifer Verdolin is an animal behavior scientist and science communicator. She’s been a consultant and on screen contributor for wildlife focused television shows, most recently for Love in the Jungle on Discovery+. She’s written two nonfiction books, Wild Connection and Raised by Animals. You can follow her on Twitter @RealDrJen
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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