As #BlackLivesMatter protests rocked the globe, dating services that had formerly endorsed racial exclusion-based dating appeared to change their tunes.
Some announced they would be removing ethnic and race filter options. Others declined, citing the longstanding motivation for preference filters: maximizing user choice. (Choice which I’ve argued is largely an illusion.)
Such changes could be taken as a mark of progress. They may have also just been virtue signaling.
When the powers-that-be make a concession to the oppressed, more often than not it is less a concession than a convergence of interests. The timing of this decision suggests as much.
The popularity of dating apps and services depends upon their promise of greater ease and convenience, but also the pleasures offered by gamification. Exclusion-based dating exists because app design reinforces this pattern.
To explain: sorting through the sheer number of prospects on dating services requires a process of elimination. Filters present themselves as the logical conclusion.
And so users are funneled into a preset selection of behaviors, responding to each candidate on a binary yes/no basis.
Sorting through an ocean of romantic/sexual options demands significant mental energy. Our brain quickly learns to conserve that energy by autonomizing the process.
A careful profile survey is refined into a reflexive swipe. Preferences shift into hard “no”s. Full sentences degrade into monosyllables.
The apps positively reinforce our continued engagement with this pattern through instant notifications. Flashy animations and sounds signal success, assuring us that whatever we are doing must be right.
We in turn interpret our behaviors as winning strategies, leaving us less prone to questioning our own biases.
Left unchallenged, biases color our perception of the world. They fledge into prejudice, promoting “isms” such as ableism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism.
The first step to overcoming biases is awareness. If you suspect you are prone to a particular bias, consider taking a free implicit bias test.
The second step is introducing information that directly conflicts with our automatic patterns of thinking about a particular group.1
Consider writing a letter to yourself, exploring the reasoning behind a specific bias or prejudice. Describe the experiences that may have given rise to it. Find possible flaws or contradictions in your biased belief system.
Weigh your dating preferences against your values. Do the two align, and if not, what then are you willing to do to address it?
Revising any attitude, belief, and response involves some mental effort. Dating apps on the other hand encourage us to suspend “intention, attention, and effort”2 for the sake of convenience and efficiency—then reward us for doing so.
Giving into automaticity results in us falling back on old habits. Like a car following grooves and ruts in the road, we will very quickly “tramline” our way back into bias.
Without self-reflection, we are at the mercy of our worst instincts. Only by developing awareness about our own thinking can we escape the toxic hold of exclusion-based dating.
Collecting our behavioral data for private profit is a now-standard business practice first pioneered by tech giants like Google and Facebook.
On this surface, this may seem to be a mutual exchange: products and services, in return for personal information and what The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus” data.
From this surplus, these companies are able to construct profiles which are then sold as a commodity to other businesses.
These profiles can also be used to “nudge, coax, tune, and herd [our] behavior” in a way that serves the interest of top bidders, such as through targeted advertising.
The people guiding this process—a mysterious, corporate-run “data priesthood”—operate from behind a one-way mirror. They might know everything about us, but we know next to nothing about them.
This priesthood’s practice of collecting, selling, and exploiting our behavioral data has since been adopted by the likes of dating and hookup app operators, at great cost to our privacy—and wellbeing.
The normalization of surveillance capitalism
Zuboff argues that every time we give in to these companies and sign their obscure, incomprehensible terms-of-service agreements, we are handing over exploitable information about ourselves.
We comply with these agreements only because by now they appear bog-standard, and because they are a necessary hurdle to accessing services upon which we depend.
Fashioning an image of themselves as heroic entrepreneurs or authorities, data collectors buy our trust by promising “social connection, access to information, time-saving convenience, and, too often, the illusion of support”.
Yet their true goal as Zuboff points out is to extract human experience as a raw material for profit.
But succumbing to the new form of power represented by these organizations shouldn’t seem so inevitable. We still have the power to opt-out.
Here’s why it’s crucial we exercise that power.
Surveillance capitalism in gay apps
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains how the social media platform Facebook uses “closed loops of obsession and compulsion” pioneered by the gaming industry to engage and captivate users.
These loops rely upon “social pressure, social comparison, modeling, subliminal priming” to generate continued usage—and even addiction.
What’s not often discussed however is how app creators use behavior data to shape app design and to enhance the “hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction”, to use Zuboff’s phrase.
For example, a cursory glance at Tinder reveals the creators have tuned the app design to generate more rewarding feedback, and thus more user engagement.
Consider the flashy animation and audio tone whenever you “match” with another user on Tinder—stimulation that’s likely to cause a release of the neurochemical dopamine, associated with the sensation of pleasure.
This is a form of positive reinforcement that ensures many of us keep on playing the swiping game, at least until we hit a paywall.
Paywalls in this case are used to create the illusion of scarcity. When free users swipe “no” on an interested candidate, the app will notify them they have missed a potential match, then suggest relieve the resulting fear of missing out (FOMO) by purchasing the right to chat with this other user.
Similarly, by offering a limited amount of free “likes”, the app levers loss aversion to coax users into buying a subscription.
App designers also nudge us to return to the app using push notifications. These notifications are also used to promote flash sale promotions or advertisements.
The examples provided here are blatant examples of the manipulation Zuboff describes. However, it’s the examples we don’t know about that I believe we should be most worried about.
The danger of manipulative app design
Zuboff cites studies that reveal the particular vulnerability of teenagers to social media addiction, owing to their development age.
If we don’t practice mindfulness, we are at risk of being caught in a toxic cycle, wherein “ego gratification and ego injury drive the chase for more external cues”.
To explain: when we are ignored or rejected on these apps, gratification is denied, and our ego is injured.
We may try to soothe that injury by pursuing still more gratification, returning over and over to the app for our fix.
The shallow, mechanical, and objectifying exchanges that often ensue are a far cry from the acknowledgment and affirmation we are seeking.
As we hover over our phones “anxiously awaiting the appearance of the little notification box as a sign” of our self-worth, we suffer a slow extinction by a thousand snubs.
For “Without the ‘others’,” Zuboff writes, “the lights go out.”
How surveillance capitalism hurts us
Enter dating and hookup apps with their endless stacks and grids of attractive faces and torsos.
In the case of gay men, this social comparison is taken to a new level: we aren’t just competing for the attention of other users, but also against them.
The competition for the best possible “match”, when combined with the illusion of scarcity, fuel FOMO regarding potential romantic or sexual interests.
Our interactions on these apps come to resemble some overwhelming game of chat whack-a-mole, in which we try desperately to catch, hold and hoard other’s attention.
It’s a game that often feels futile, as interest fluxes and users log on and off, often without explanation. Being shunned or ignored is commonplace, as is deception.
For instance, it’s not unusual to realize mid-chat that the person on the other end either isn’t who they claim to be—or is actually a chatbot.
Certainly, where dating is concerned, rejection is par for the course. But when identity and self-value come into question, as it so often does on these apps, the stakes often feel so much higher, as anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a flame war can attest.
Creating app-based addiction
To recap: surveillance capitalism allows creators to monitor users’ behavior and then use the resulting data to control us, for example through the gamification I’ve described above.
Like gamblers denying the odds, we keep coming back, even attempting to turn these odds in our favor by curating a profile we know will maximize user engagement, even to the point of trickery.
It is human nature to selectively present the best parts of ourselves, but these apps seem to actively encourage selective self-representation by providing profile fields that cater to one-dimensional hypersexuality.
Limiting as it is to be defined only by the minutia of one’s erotic interests, many users inevitably fall into line. Some do it in the name of efficiency or practicality, others in the name of achieving the success of a date, a hookup, or simply being messaged.
When taken to the extreme, users will adopt a completely different identity, knowing it will likely entice messages or photo exchanges.
Instant messaging is inherently rewarding, but add to this the ever-present possibility of sexual attraction or rejection, and users are pushed into heightened states of anxious arousal.
With enough exposure, we run the risk of developing an app-based process addiction.
Defying surveillance capitalism
Today’s tech-dependent world has arguably left us all pawns of surveillance capitalism.
Personally, as someone with a natural tendency for obsessive compulsiveness, I find app-based dating about as stressful as clothes shopping.
My visits to the mall usually begin with a single aspiration: buying a pair of jeans. I’ll usually give myself just an hour to make a decision. But this attempt at self-discipline rarely is a good idea.
What begins as a low-pressure routine trip quickly ends up becoming a race to find the best deal. Wandering from store to store, I’ll compare fit, color, and price, and how each option ranks alongside those I find online.
Before I know it, the internal timer will hit the hour mark and I’ll be forced to settle on a candidate.
Head spinning, I’ll collapse into the nearest seat, overwhelmed by the possibility that for all my research, I may very well end up making the wrong choice.
This “analysis paralysis” usually results in me returning to my car, driving home, and spending the next two hours browsing online until I’ve found an even better deal.
The tyranny of choice in app-based dating
Picking a pair of jeans is not a life-or-death type of situation, but for me it certainly feels like one. Whatever savings I may make along the way are almost always negated by the stress I accrue as a result of my exhaustive (and exhausting) search.
Worse still, when the jeans I ultimately select arrive in the mail, I’ll often discover they’re a bad fit…meaning an even longer wait for a replacement pair.
It’s a development I could almost certainly avoid if I just settled for an in-store option. So what exactly is stopping me? A little something economists refer to as “loss aversion”.
No one resents the freedom to choose, or the benefits, conveniences and privileges it affords in today’s world. But there are instances—like the one above—where choice can tyrannize, rather than liberate.
The downside of living in a consumerist society is that it often leads to a mindset governed by what author David Brooks calls a “utilitarian calculus”.
That is, we look at everything in terms of personal utility or gain. Not even interpersonal relationships are immune to such cynical assessments.
People who have fallen prey to “utilitarian calculus” are what The Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz calls maximizers. When confronted by a purchase decision, maximizers almost always pursue the “best” possible option.
Maximizers are consumed by the need to be conscious and deliberate about every choice. They are extremely averse to losses, but also regret. For that reason, they are more often than not hamstrung by their pursuit of perfection.
As in my case, shopping for the “best deal” when confronted by an endless array of choices can lead to mental overload. It can also deprive us of valuable time and energy.
As Schwartz writes:
“Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.”
The perils of ‘maximizing’
Consider this quote in light of gay app-based dating. A maximizing mindset seems baked into website and app design, with features that make screening, excluding and selecting effortless.
We are able to set filters to identify people who fall within a narrow set of idealized parameters. We swipe to dispose of undesirables, and “favorite” to build a list of prospective lovers.
But as Schwartz points out, dating app maximizers sooner or later run up against the following conundrum: “How can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible?”
The fact is, we never really can, a fact that continues to haunt maximizers well past the point of having made a decision.
This may explain why many app users avoid meeting; who ghost and flake on a whim. Barring obvious reasons—such as being on the app purely out of procrastination or a desire for validation—these individuals may feel confronted by your request for them to make a decision.
While meeting for a coffee is not exactly a marriage proposal, it does require some investment of time and energy. It is by no means a commitment, but it is a choice all the same.
That choice comes inevitably at the cost of other choices. For instance, spending facetime with one person for example means possibly missing out on facetime with someone else who happens to be available and interested at the same time.
Not a significant loss by most measures, but ask a maximizer who lives with a background anxiety of loss and regret aversion and they may disagree.
This anxiety and agonizing about supposed trade-offs however can ultimately thwart the maximizer’s search.
Ignoring those of us who use app-based dating for the thrill of instant messaging and sexting, the remainder we can safely assume are looking for some form of in-person interaction.
Monitoring our usage of these services reveals that we spend a lot of time information gathering for the “best option”—swiping, starring, filtering, blocking, chatting—time that is rarely proportional to any tangible outcome.
Sooner or later, we hit a point of diminishing returns. The “fun” offered by the often gamified app-based dating services diminishes, and we log off. (And unless we delete our account, it’s likely we’ll find ourselves hopping back on again for a quick attentional fix when boredom or desire strikes.)
Consider the ever-shifting availability of possible partners. Attention from these individuals will oscillate, peaking at certain hours, falling during others, even dying off suddenly and inexplicably.
Consider also the fact other users harbor a variety of motives. Even supposing they happen to share ours, there’s often a difference between stated motives and true motives.
A chat partner may say they are looking to date, but that may simply be a front aimed at sustaining the interaction. Or it may also be one of many conflicting and competing motives.
What this means is that in many cases one user’s stated desire to date could be abandoned the instant they are presented with an offer of immediate sexual gratification. (To quote the Nelly Furtado song “Promiscuous”: “Chivalry is dead / But you’re still kinda cute”)
Finally, while it may seem that you have total freedom to choose a romantic partner, that freedom is not exclusive to you. The other person has the right to their own choice, which will not necessarily align with yours.
Assuming your maximizing instincts don’t first paralyze you, there’s always the possibility your decision might be thwarted when the other person fails to reciprocate your interest.
Confusion, commitment phobia, and ‘gaming’
The opposite of a maximizer is the satisficer. Like the maximizer, the satisficer will be discriminating when it comes to selecting a romantic partner. They are also capable of being satisfied with excellence, as opposed to some impossible ideal of perfection.
Where maximizers are picky about finding “the best”, satisficers carefully weigh the options before accepting “good enough”.
Schwartz says the distinction is essentially a philosophical one:
“A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.”
When juggling options on Grindr, Scruff or Tinder, we exercise our rights as romantic and sexual “consumers”. But what we don’t do is reflect on what’s motivating our behavior.
Yet effective dating arguably can only happen once we have a clear and consistent understanding of what we’re seeking, and why.
What type of interaction are we interested in (hookups, dating, relationship etc.)?
When do we want this interaction to take place?
Why this interaction in particular? (To put it another way, how will this interaction contribute to our long-term goal?)
How do we intend to establish that interaction? (What methods will we use?)
Sounds obvious. And yet more often than not, our focus is confused. There are simply too many options that maximizers are forced to treat app-based dating as a game of elimination.
Our focus in this game is less identifying a suitable partner than it is removing options from the dating service pool, often for the most arbitrary reasons (“I don’t like his hairstyle”, “He seems too needy”, “He lives on the other side of town”).
Gamified app designs, such as the swipe mechanic used by Tinder, encourage users to continually “prune” options, often to the point of distraction.
Another factor is that we as a culture are commitment phobes. More often than not when dating, we become locked in a maximizing mindset, hellbent on securing an option that ticks off an often superficial, if not impossible shopping list of personal traits.
Forever scanning our grid or swipe stack, we “trade up” prospective candidates like indecisive children in the candy aisle, stricken by the possibility that the one candy we select comes at the exclusion of other, possibly better selections.
Maximizing also can lead to “gaming”. Caught up in maximizing rewards, our initial goal (“meeting someone with whom I share chemistry and/or compatibility”) becomes something more vague and insatiable (“getting as much validation as possible”).
To put it another way, we go from treating romantic attention as the means by which we achieve some kind of relationship, to attention exclusively becoming the ends.
Caught up in the fun game of projecting desirability and provoking engagement, we spend our time manipulating the attention-based economy of dating services in order to get our attention fix.
‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda’
When our focus is confused, when we shy from committing to a choice, and when we’re caught up in gaming app-based dating, we treat self-awareness as an obstacle to our purpose.
Yet so long as we’re driven by blind instinct rather than introspection, that purpose risks becoming more and more unclear.
A more effective and productive use of our time therefore would involve choosing with purpose, rather than selecting on a whim. Namely, satisfying, rather than maximizing.
If we give in to maximizing, we may find ourselves prone to bad decisions, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, and even depression, Schwartz warns.
To maximize means to be driven by a fear of loss and regret, to succumb to “shoulda, coulda, woulda”-style doubts.
Regardless of what our moment-to-moment motives on app-based dating services are, what we are all seeking as human beings, ultimately, are meaningful connections.
But where such connections are concerned, one can only maximize so far. People are by nature imperfect, so pursuing “the best” is a quest that – let’s be honest – is doomed from the outset.
Recognize that “maximizing” is driven by loss aversion.
Throughout my twenties, I stumbled from one unsuccessful gay relationship to another, thwarted by the fact my partners and I were often operating at cross-purposes.
The first time this happened, I had just confessed to my then-boyfriend Kohei* that I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to have kids of my own.
Having a vague awareness of my own dysfunction, and fearing I might unintentionally inflict it upon my children, it seemed the sensible thing to say.
I was also barely out of my teens, and in no way ready to even contemplate the possibility of parenthood.
“Gonna be honest, that really has me worried,” Kohei replied. I shook my head.
“It’s just not my thing.”
“… So you’re not even going to consider it?” Kohei said.
“Sorry,” I said. Kohei’s gaze fell to the floor.
“Well, I can’t see myself dating someone who doesn’t share my long-term goals.”
Feeling cornered, I grabbed my backpack from his couch and stood up.
“Fine,” I said. “Don’t date me.”
Stepping out onto Kohei’s front porch, I called out a polite farewell, hopped on my bike and pedaled home.
When a gay relationship just doesn’t “work”
My reaction was, in hindsight, unfair. But truth be told, Kohei’s ultimatum had given me the escape hatch I had long been looking for.
My boyfriend’s puppy-like devotion had arrived at my door, premature and unqualified – like a Christmas gift in July. It had left me with deep-seated suspicion.
Was Kohei really interested in me, or was he just afraid – as we all are, on some fundamental level – of being alone?
Up until this point, I had been seeding our conversations with prickly challenges, less out of a desire to antagonize Kohei than a wish to test whether he would stand his ground, or roll over. And time and time again, Kohei had done the latter.
When the morning after our confrontation, Kohei attempted to patch things up with me, I insisted that he was in fact right: we were not compatible.
The “don’t date me” comment was, I knew, the culmination of many attempts to test him. Kohei’s willingness to overlook my take-it-or-leave-it attitude seemed to me proof enough that the two of us were, in some inexplicable way, out of alignment.
Too needy, or too neglected?
Where I had kept Kohei at arm’s length, come the next relationship, I found myself cast in the opposite role.
Remo* was accommodating, but not in the way Kohei had been. Unlike Kohei, asserted himself where he needed to, and I respected him all the more for it.
Here was a person capable of withstanding me at my bossiest and gently putting me on notice. We were, I wanted to believe, a good match.
The day I called to reveal I had just been made redundant, I got my first hint of the growing distance between us.
“So…I’m out of a job,” I said, my voice breaking with emotion.
“Well, you know what you have to do,” Remo replied.
“What do you mean?” I replied, stung by his lack of sympathy.
“Look,” Remo said. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll text you later.”
Feeling kind of put out, I grew first apprehensive, then adversarial.
“You know, you could be a little more empathetic,” I said during a later conversation.
“I think you mean empathic,” Remo sniped back.
Sensing his withdrawal, I pressed him for emotional support. But the bullishness Remo had once excused had suddenly become a problem. He ended it not long later, claiming he no longer “had the time” to hang out.
In fighting for my boyfriend’s validation, it seemed I had unwittingly driven him away. Heartbreak and an unexplained sense of shame followed.
What is attachment?
When gauging a gay relationship for compatibility, there is perhaps one factor that trumps all, and yet is often overlooked: attachment style.
Attachment styles in short are about how we form attachments to other people. Our styles are largely the result of our first relationships with our caregivers.
When however our caregivers inflict trauma such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect, or fail to properly “attune” with us, our attachment is ruptured, and we develop an insecure attachment style.
Those suffering from insecure attachments not only struggle to maintain consistent self-worth – they are also more likely to struggle where it comes to forming healthy relationships.
Levine and Heller identify two insecure attachment styles as the most common: “anxious” and “avoidant”.
Those with anxious attachment styles typically seek closeness and intimacy in their relationships. They fear abandonment and may engage in “protest behaviors”, which include excessive attempts to reestablish contact, withdrawing, hostility, and manipulation.
Avoidants on the other hand like to keep their distance when in a relationship. They do this by engaging in “deactivating strategies”: refusing to verbally commit or say “I love you”, dodging physical or emotional closeness, nitpicking their partners, flirting with others and longing after a “phantom ex”.
Levine and Heller believe about 50 percent of the adult population has a secure attachment style, while roughly 25 percent are anxious, and the remaining 25 percent are avoidant.
Notably, relational trauma can also shift securely attached people towards insecurity. The fact that “betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and chaos” is a gay relationship rite of passage for many, according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, makes us even likely as a population to suffer from attachment issues.
Which attachment styles are compatible?
Secure + secure OR secure + anxious/avoidant: Those with secure attachment styles can form strong relationships with each other and with the insecurely attached (anxious and avoidant). “Secures” are generally able to provide a “safe base” for their insecure partners, sometimes even help “heal” their attachment problems. But not always.
Anxious + anxious OR avoidant + avoidant: Anxious-anxious and avoidant-avoidant partnerships are less likely to work by virtue of their mutual difficulty forming healthy attachments.
Anxious people seeking reassurance from other anxious people are naturally a difficult proposition. Likewise, avoidants are not likely to date avoidants because of their mutual desire for distance and independence inevitably forces them apart.
Anxious + avoidant: Avoidants’ tendency towards distance and independence is likely to unsettle their anxious partners, who thrive in an affirming, supportive environment.
When avoidants withhold intimacy from their anxious partner, the partner may confuse the resulting turmoil for passion. Attempting to re-establish relational equilibrium, the anxious partner may double down in their demands, only for the avoidant to withhold affirmation even more.
The pair thus will find themselves caught up in a spiraling push-pull dynamic that is sometimes confused for romance.
Kohei’s constant need for affirmation and intimacy might have been a non-issue for a securely attached partner. But for me, it was overwhelming, and I coped in the only way I knew how: by challenging and thereby trying to create distance.
Kohei’s anxiety about the relationship understandably grew, until at least he issued a challenge of his own: either change my future parenthood plans or kiss him goodbye.
Remo on the other hand was most certainly avoidant. I was never permitted to get too close, and the more I sought reassurance, the more he withheld. My attempts to re-establish contact were met with veiled contempt.
Until I discovered attachment theory, the mechanics of a successful gay relationship eluded me, and gauging romantic compatibility was hit-and-miss.
Levine and Heller thankfully provide detailed strategies for coping with avoidant or anxious attachment styles. Their key advice is to seek out a more balanced pairing: secure + secure, secure + anxious, or secure + avoidant.
To determine the other person’s attachment style, Levine and Heller suggest following these steps:
Determine whether your partner seeks intimacy and closeness.
Assess how preoccupied s/he is with the relationship and how sensitive s/he is to rejection.
Don’t rely on one “symptom” – look for various signs.
Use effective communication: express your needs, thoughts, and feelings. Then assess your partner’s reaction.
Listen and look for what he is not saying or doing. Trust your gut feeling.
A final word of caution to secures: helping someone with an insecure attachment shift towards more secure attachment patterns isn’t always possible. Sometimes your partner may insist on clinging to their old ways.
The question therefore is, are anxious or avoidant behaviors something you are ultimately willing to overlook in your bid to forge a gay relationship? Can you learn to be satisfied with your partner’s status quo?
For those with anxious attachment styles, remember that you’re more likely to experience an avoidant out in the wild than any other attachment style.
Avoidants after all spend more time dating than in actual relationships, on account of their struggles forming healthy attachments.
Secures are also a lot harder to come by. Why? The ease with which they form healthy attachments means they’re more likely to remain in relationships, and are less likely to ever appear in the dating pool.
Identify your attachment style: secure, anxious or avoidant.
Use the five steps to determine your partner’s style.
Seek compatible partnerships.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.
Much of the small talk that happens on gay dating apps is, in my experience, a preface to a request.
“What you up to?” someone may ask, and behind this seemingly polite question, invisible gears are turning.
Maybe this stranger will hear my response and respond authentically, or maybe they will continue with the subterfuge of trying to gauge whether I’m willing and able to sustain a fantasy – or fulfill a desire.
These boxes reinforce desired behavior by dispensing a reward such as food, or punishment in the form of a shock from an electrified floor grid.
Skinner boxes are a perfect analogy for gay dating apps. The difference here is that messages, or more specifically, the attention they represent serves as the reward, while being ignored is a form of punishment, or negative reinforcement.
As app users, we maximize reward and minimize punishment using strategic and even deceptive self-presentation and engagement. We tailor profiles and our behavior in ways that will gain and sustain attention, even if they aren’t necessarily authentic.
We may boast about our preferences or prowess, while using erotic photos as bait for our chat partners.
Some of us may go so far as to create fake profiles, or message someone exclusively with the aim of receiving a response.
Messaging purely for attention, however, may be the first signs we’re developing a process addiction. Here’s why.
Why gay dating apps are addictive
At one point during his studies, the inventor of the Skinner box – American scientist B.F. Skinner – modified his boxes to dispense food pellets according to a random number of lever presses.
His pigeon test subjects, rather than being deterred by the unpredictability of the exercise, quickly learned to press the lever at random, even when no pellet was immediately forthcoming.
What Skinner realized was that this very same unpredictability had created a tension of expectations, which was released the moment the pigeon received their reward.
Consider the unpredictable nature of “rewards” on Grindr, Scruff or Tinder: users log on and off at random, and the rate of replies can vary completely, sometimes even within the span of a single conversation.
Meeting someone off the app may begin as a tantalizing fantasy, but it’s one that ultimately can’t compete with the dopamine seeking reward-loop offered by the back-and-forth of instant messaging.
The result is an experience that could be broadly described as ineffective, at least where it comes to generating face-to-face interactions.
Of course, if you were to canvas a group of gay men at random, I’m not sure a consensus would ever be reached on what constitutes an “effective” dating app chat session.
After all, everyone’s definition of a reward will vary from interaction to interaction, day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Yes, humans are a fickle bunch.
How addiction creates dating app sociopaths
Dating apps don’t help, in that they all seem designed to facilitate any variety of interactions. Some may use the app with the intent to meet, while others are simply looking for distraction, or the thrill of erotic chat or photo exchanges.
Suppose we come to the apps with a specific goal in mind. Gamification in many cases will nudge us towards abandoning specificity, towards being open to any and all interactions, if only for the momentary gratification they promise.
Our sole purpose thus becomes the maintenance of the tension-reward loop.
Sustained use will lead many users towards a nebulous middle ground, simultaneously craving all of the above, yet never finding true satisfaction. And yet we keep coming back. Why?
Notably, Skinner found that pigeons in his experiments continued to peck a lever even once their appetite had been sated. His conclusion: the action of cranking a lever had in and of itself become “fun”.
You can see the same behavior among users. Like edgy, risk-averse stockbrokers bidding in an incredibly volatile market, we hedge our bets, messaging indiscriminately just to see who will bite.
After firing off scores of messages to multiple chat partners, we wait for the replies to trickle in.
Too much tension and frustration – not enough replies, significant delays, or “inferior” rewards – and our sense of enjoyment will diminish.
Our only recourse then is to either adjust our expectations or spread our net more widely in order to maintain the loop.
Profile grids and swipe stacks will come to resemble an ever-shifting buffet in what feels like a perpetual famine.
In the 10+ years in which I’ve used gay dating sites and apps, I’ve often caught myself logging in just to see who had messaged, less interested in the content of the communication than the sheer fact of its existence.
It became clear to me that so long as I was caught up in tension-reward loop – in the split-second objectification, relational multitasking, devaluation, and dismissal that seems baked into digital modes of interaction – I could hardly expect to form healthy relationships with other gay men.
How, when I was treating chat partners as mere levers to be pulled for personal gratification?
The single-mindedness with which we perform this action, according to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is the antithesis of empathy:
“Single-minded” attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind at the very same time… When empathy is switched off, we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too.
It is in the absence of such empathy that we adopt sociopathic behavior. And just like the sociopath, many of us – consumed by our process addiction – will go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of satisfaction.
complete inability to form lasting intimate relationships
failure to learn from punishment
absence of emotion
lack of insight into the impact of our behavior
failure to plan ahead
For those of you who have or continue to use gay dating apps, I ask you this: have you not experienced or dabbled yourself in superficial charm and unpredictability?
Or worse still: deceit, manipulation, and outright nastiness?
The system is hopelessly broken
Chances are you’re alone. Tragically, the addictive qualities of gay dating apps have created an environment where sociopathic behavior is now the status quo.
Strangers will issue demands and unsolicited erotic photos, interrogating our sexual preferences before blocking us at random.
While these tendencies are not specific to gay men, app-based reward loops positively reinforce these behaviors while failing to offer real accountability.
The result is an endless chain of victimization in which bad behavior is normalized and internalized and we all unwittingly find ourselves either in the company of, or becoming, gay dating app sociopaths.
It’s no secret that gay dating apps aren’t designed to foster genuine, heartfelt connection, or for that matter to enforce personal accountability.
Their goal, rather, is to gamify interactions with the goal of sustaining use, indefinitely. But in so doing, they train us to associate self-worth with constant affirmation.
In our pursuit of that affirmation, we will find ourselves pulling out all stops to feed it, even if it means completely disregarding and discarding others along the way.
The system may be broken, but it remains profitable for app makers, so there is little motivation for change. But as individual users, we can and must hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal conduct.
We can do this by:
Exercising self-awareness: curbing usage motivated only by the desire to get a “fix”.
Empathizing, rather thanobjectifying: treating people with kindness, consideration and courtesy. Being honest and upfront with our intentions and not stringing people along when we aren’t interested in them.
“I think we have good energy.” I stared at Derrick, trying not to laugh.
“You realize horses cost a lot of money, right?”
“A few thousand dollars, at most,” Derrick replied.
“Really,” I said. “And where would you keep it?” Our tiny apartment was hardly big enough for two people and a dog as it was.
“At the stables,” Derrick said. “See, I think it would be a great investment. I could rent it out to other riders. Before long the costs would cover themselves. I’d even be able to turn a profit.”
I was on the verge of disputing the claim when the pointlessness of it all struck me.
Derrick was mercurial where it came to life decisions. This I figured was him trying to persuade himself as much as me.
And sure enough, when Derrick returned from his riding lessons a week later, he was under a cloud.
“Bitch,” he muttered. I gave him a look. “The trainer,” Derrick added. “She quoted $12,000 for the horse. Can you believe it? Then she had the nerve to ask for a commission.”
I knew better than to rub vinegar into my boyfriend’s wounds. But still, I had to ask the question.
“So…are you still going to buy a horse?”
“I’m not giving her a damn cent!” Derrick said, storming into his room.
Reality had dealt his modest dream a death blow. But by the next day, his mood had changed.
“Good news,” he said, bouncing through the door. “I’m going to buy a motorcycle.”
“You’re- What?” I replied.
“I sat on one today,” Derrick explained. “It was so cool. Look.” He showed me a photo.
“But you don’t even know how to ride,” I pointed out. Derrick scowled.
“I’d learn,” he said.
Still, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this latest obsession. Last time it had been a trip to Coachella. And the time before that, an overwater bungalow in Tahiti. Derrick was quietly treading the waters of a mid-life crisis.
I made myself a bowl of cereal. Derrick’s expression got all furtive.
“So… How’s your therapy going?”
It was a fishing expedition – I was sure of it. I tried to keep my tone neutral.
“Pretty well so far.”
“Have you told her about us?” I hesitated.
“No, not yet. See, she’s Christian,” I said. “I’m worried she’ll pass judgment. You know, about us.”
“You should really tell her,” Derrick insisted. As if doing this might somehow help crystallize our relationship.
Right now, Dr. Kukosian was impartial. Trying to keep your private life private while stretched out on a therapist’s couch might sound like a losing battle, but the last thing I wanted to do was incite her prejudices.
Defending one’s “lifestyle choices” was not a task I particularly looked forward to, especially when it might result in me being more or less kicked out of therapy.
The therapist pickings were slim. Los Angeles was a city ripe with dysfunction, with not enough sympathetic ears to go around.
Though if I was being honest with myself, Dr. Kukosian’s religion was an excuse, and Derrick had good cause to be worried.
Dr. Kukosian’s office was on the ninth floor of a high-rise at the heart of Glendale. This floor, I eventually learned, had been rented to a private Christian college. The doctor’s counseling room – more of a booth, really – occupied a far corner.
Dr. Kukosian sat in an armchair, clad in a cardigan, capris and an unfaltering smile, listening patiently as I ran through the week’s events.
Fifteen minutes into the session, I ran out of things to talk about. Dr. Kukosian’s encouraging smile loomed before me.
Her nondirective therapy style had left me with a chronic fear of silence. Broaching the subject of Derrick was no longer a choice, but a necessity. It was time to let the homo out of the bag.
I opened by mentioning that I had a partner. Then I casually slipped in a masculine pronoun, carefully watching Dr. Kukosian’s face for a reaction. Nothing.
“So you moved in with him after only two months of dating?” she asked. Her lack of disapproval was anticlimatic…disappointing, even.
“Well, my lease was up at my old place,” I said. “He had a spare room. The rent was cheaper. I wanted to save money.”
Here I was, trying to justify my decision, less worried about being condemned for being gay than I was for being, well, reckless.
“Seems like that happened very quickly,” Dr. Kukosian observed.
“Anyway, it’s just temporary,” I said, hearing a criticism where there wasn’t one. Dr. Kukosian processed this with a sagely nod.
“And how are things between the two of you?”
I considered how best to respond.
“Well, he has an anxiety problem,” I began.
My therapist would have to be deaf not to hear the irony of this. I was here, after all, because my own anxiety had recently migrated to my face, leading to weeklong bouts of jaw clenching.
“Derrick’s a workaholic,” I continued. “He’s often go-go-go all day, night and weekend. We don’t have any time together. He forgets all our couple’s appointments and blames me for not reminding him. I’ve basically become his maid and dog-minder.”
“And how does that make you feel?” Dr. Kukosian asked, perhaps sensing my exasperation.
“Like I’m a…a fixture in his household,” I said, grappling for a metaphor. “Like a lamp or a chair. Like my needs don’t matter. The dog isn’t mine. She shouldn’t be my responsibility.”
That, however, wasn’t the worst of it. I’d known from the beginning that Derrick had anger management problems.
Early on in the relationship, he’d mocked my taste in music during a car ride. I’d mimed slapping him and an instant later his fist connected with my face.
It had not been deliberate, but rather a knee-jerk (or should I say elbow-jerk?) reaction. Still, it had made me cry, and in an unexpected show of contrition, Derrick had pulled over and gotten down on his knees to apologize.
A few days later, on the return drive from a visit to see his family in Sacramento, Derrick had woken from a nap to hear me telling his dog, who was misbehaving at the time, that she was “out of control”.
“Maybe you’re the one out of control!” he shouted, before turning over and promptly falling back asleep.
At first, I was bemused. But the outbursts had continued, eroding my sense of security.
Another time, we were driving through his friend’s neighborhood while he was in the car. I made what I believed was an inoffensive observation, noting that the houses around us looked “rather squat”.
Perhaps Derrick thought I was, by extension, insulting his friend’s home, because his reaction had been to snap at me.
“Just shut up, okay?”
And when Derrick wasn’t taking his frustrations out on me, he was usually humblebragging.
As a manager at a tech startup, Derrick had crossed paths with more than a few industry luminaries. But after weeks of namedropping, I’d taken to joking about Derrick’s claims to fame.
“Elon Musk and I are totes besties,” I’d once exaggerated. “You don’t believe me? I’ve got his father’s phone number in my phone. Look, see? Wes Musk. We’re on great terms.”
Derrick’s had retaliated by threatening to kick me out of his apartment.
Derrick was in his 40s, so my expectations had admittedly been skewed towards him possessing a certain degree of maturity. Skewed, if not faulty.
Over the course of months, Derrick had gone from charm offensive to lashing out at random, until finally, I’d withdrawn into my room, taking with me all my goodwill.
Our lives from then on had been parallel, occasionally crossing but never connecting. When my attempts to bridge the divide had been ignored and even scorned, parting ways had seemed the inevitable conclusion.
“It sounds like a very stressful situation for you,” Dr. Kukosian said. “Maybe for the sake of your relationship it would be best if you just moved out?”
Later, after the session, as I stood at the university urinal relieving myself, I noticed a poster taped to the wall.
“I am sending you,” it read. It was a quote, attributed to none other than Jesus Christ.
Sending me where, I wondered? And more importantly, why?
I considered the Korean characters beneath the quote. Supposing this wasn’t just a mistranslation, the phrase could have once made sense, in some other time and place. It was also equally possible it never had, and never would.
All the same, I decided to take it as a sign. Jesus or no, I was going to leave Derrick.
The following day, Derrick asked if I would be willing to volunteer my services as a personal assistant at his startup.
The business was short-staffed, and given Derrick had helped me with picking out my first car, I figured I owed him the favor.
But shortly after I arrived, I witnessed Derrick ball out another manager in front of several other employees.
Over lunch, I hinted to Derrick that I was worried about the possible fallout.
“Perhaps it would be better next time if you just walk away?” I suggested. Derrick glowered.
“Well, maybe next time I just won’t ask for your help,” he replied.
I studied my lunch. For the better part of the morning, I had been running around doing errands on Derrick’s behalf. Was this his idea of gratitude?
That night, Derrick missed yet another couple’s dinner, returning home hours later to find me practicing yoga. Trying to look as defiant as I possibly could from my position on the floor, I announced I was moving out.
“Okay,” Derrick said. Uncertainty flickered across his face, hardened into something else entirely.
“I don’t have any hard plans yet,” I said, trying to soften the blow, “but I have started looking around.”
I braced myself. Having laid the groundwork, I figured now was as good a time as any to pull the trigger.
“I was thinking,” I began, “it might be best if we both took some time out from the relationship.”
The subtext being forever – not that I was going to spell that out. Right now, Derrick was a powder keg I had no intention of lighting.
Derrick leaned back on his heels.
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.
“… You do?”
“I’m pretty busy right now with work,” he said, playing it cool. “And you want more than I can give you.”
Was that a jeer I heard in his voice? If Derrick was hoping I would rise to the accusation, he was going to be sorely disappointed.
“Are you sure you’re okay with it?” I pressed.
“Fine,” Derrick insisted. His refusal to meet my eyes told me he’d suspected this was coming.
And really, how could he have not? I’d told Derrick on multiple occasions how his behavior was driving me away. His response had been to label me “too sensitive”, or worse still, ignore me completely.
Fearing my short credit history and lack of savings would hinder me in my search for a new apartment, I’d dragged my heels. But then my mental health had taken a turn, and moving out had become a matter of survival.
Over the next week, Derrick wavered between anger and brittle formality, staying away from the apartment. I began to walk on eggshells, fearing that if I wasn’t careful, Derrick might try to evict me on the spot.
A friend heard I was looking for a place and asked if I might want to take over his lease. The studio proved tiny, but it had recently been renovated, with exposed brickwork and a kitchen sink the size of a drydock. Cute, serviceable and – most importantly – available right now.
In less than 24 hours I’d signed the lease, packed my belongings and booked a moving truck.
Moving day rolled around and I received a text message from Derrick, stating in precise detail the condition in which he wanted my room left.
“Make sure when you move out to vacuum,” he wrote. “I want you to clean all the dust off the skirting boards.”
This from a man whose idea of cleanliness involved letting his dog defecate in the house while the Rumba was on.
All week conflict had been brewing. And soon it would explode.
At 9.30 pm, I made my final trip back to the house to collect some potted plants. While collecting the last one, I spotted movement through the open front door.
After a day’s absence, Derrick had returned home. His earlier silence over text told me he was itching for a fight.
I leaned over the threshold and dropped the keys on the TV stand.
“Here’s your keys!” I called, turning to leave. Derrick poked his head out of the bathroom.
“Wait a second,” he said, drying his hands and hurrying over. “I want to talk to you.”
“Really – I have to go,” I replied. My friends were waiting outside in the car, and we were long overdue for dinner.
“That’s fine,” Derrick blurted, using a word I’d come to associate with its exact opposite. Then he launched his opening salvo: “You need to stop talking shit about me.”
I stared, deadpan. Derrick forced a smirk.
“It’s actually kind of sad, the fact you need to go around talking about other people behind their backs.”
Yes, I had complained to a mutual friend about Derrick’s emotional abuse. So far as I was concerned, I could shout my story from the rooftop if I wanted to.
Suffice to say, Derrick didn’t really want an apology. He wanted a scene. But I was not going to give him one.
“Bye,” I said. And off I went, bounding down the front steps. Derrick rushed out onto the landing after me.
“Good luck with your writing career!” he screamed. “I hear it’s going really well so far!”
It was a knife-twist out of some soap opera playbook.
Giddy with the ridiculousness of it all, I launched myself into the waiting car.
“What happened?” my friends wanted to know.
I looked back at the security gate to Derrick’s apartment complex. Any second now I expected him to burst into view, a spurned lover set on shrill revenge. The idea left me torn between laughter and mortification.
“Just drive!” I said. “Quickly!”
The next day I received a text message from Derrick, written in the frosty prose of a job rejection letter. I was hereby notified he would be invoicing me for all outstanding bills. Derrick also demanded I remove myself from our shared auto insurance plan.
“Well ahead of you there, buddy,” I wanted to reply. Derrick was so out-of-touch he hadn’t even noticed when I’d cut the tie two weeks prior.
If I’m being honest, the relationship had been a slow-motion train wreck.
It was not first, and as circumstances would soon prove, it would not be the last.
Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.
My tendency to plunge headlong into things often created problems that could easily have been avoided. My relationship with Derrick was just another case in point.
“It’s the anxiety,” Dr. Kukosian said at our next session. “Anxious people move too fast.”
A politer version perhaps of “fools rush in”. But was there anything I could do to fix it?
“My patients who have overcome their anxiety continue to face this problem for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Kukosian explained. I stared at the ceiling.
“You’re saying I’m stuck with it?” She nodded slowly.
I eyed a canvas print of an oil painting on the wall behind her. It depicted a scene of biblical rapture. What right did these apostles have, being so happy?
“So… What should I do?” I said, feeling more than a little helpless.
“Every time you feel yourself rushing into something, slow down,” Dr. Kukosian said.
Slow down? I only had one speed, and as far as I could see, the gear stick was broken. But if the Derrick experience had taught me anything, it was that I shouldn’t jump into another relationship ever again.
My new resolve lasted a total of four months.
One day, while scrubbing myself in the shower, I caught myself talking to my dead dog. By talking I mean babbling, something between doggolingo and baby speak.
“Oh Deedeesco, bwye you so kyute?” I said in a singsong voice. “I bwanna sqbuish dat. Gib cuddle?”
To the casual listener, it would have sounded like I was suffering from pathological echolalia. But it all made perfect sense to me.
Soon I was babbling while dressing and cooking dinner. I stopped strangers in the street.
“Can I pet your dog?” I’d ask, my hand already halfway to their pet’s mane.
“Oo… You iz berry sbweet, isn’t you?” I’d coo to the dog. “Oy loik dat.”
The owner would force a smile, but their body language would be practically screaming: “Could you just please get AWAY from my dog?”
Before long I was staying up nights, scanning pet adoption websites.
Many of the ads read like personals, some adopting a pitiful, pleading tone.
“Marisol is a sweet, affectionate pit bull cross. Her previous owners were, unfortunately, unable to keep up with her energetic nature.”
Other ads bordered on insolent.
“Must have a large yard. No small children. Adoption possible after two weeks of successful fostering.”
Some came with detailed questionnaires or requests that struck me as a tad over-the-top.
“In the event your dog became ill, how much would you be willing to spend for treatment? $500? $1000? $3000.”
“Record a video tour of your home to give a sense of where the dog would be living.”
Most hotels didn’t even offer a video tour, and yet here was a pet adoption agency demanding a visual guarantee you could offer their homeless dog a picture perfect abode.
I winnowed my options and made a few calls. The first on my list was a scruffy, adorable-looking Chow by the name of Thompson.
“That dog is not available for adoption,” the lady at the pound told me.
“Well, why not?”
“He has aggression issues,” she said. “He’s only available for adoption to specialist shelters.”
“So why list him at all then?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. The woman hung up on me.
Moving my way down the list, I fired off emails. My selection criteria, as it turned out, were entirely superficial, cuteness prevailing over practicality.
One response arrived. Yes, Sandra the low-slung black mutt with tender eyes was still available. I sent an email back, expressing my interest in meeting her.
“Unfortunately you cannot meet her until after you have adopted her,” went the reply.
Say what? The lister confessed then that Sandra actually lived in South Korea.
Only once I had forked over the adoption fee would the agency fly Sandra out to Los Angeles to begin her new life with me.
It was potentially the canine equivalent of a catfish – a dogfish – and a risk I was not willing to take.
A few days later, a shelter contacted me about a tan Jindo called Ki.
“Ki’s foster Miska has offered to come by and talk you through the ins and outs of Jindo ownership,” the email read. “Miska will bring Ki along for you to meet. Please do not touch Ki during the meeting, as Jindos are generally wary of strangers.”
I crammed information about the dog breed in preparation for the meeting.
There were a few warning signs. Jindos for example were wary of strangers. But as had been the case with Derrick, I chose to focus only on the positives.
Wow! Jindos were a breed known for their bravery and their loyalty towards a single person – traits largely absent in the people I dated. What was not to like?
That afternoon Miska arrived with Ki in tow.
“First thing you should know,” Miska began, sitting on the edge of my desk, “is Jindos kill.”
“Er,” I blurted.
“They have a high prey drive,” Miska explained. “Ki kills something about once a week.”
“How-” I began, and stopped.
“Just last week we were walking and he suddenly pulled free,” Miska went on, oblivious of the effect her words were having. “Next thing, I see him tossing a rat into the air.” She mimed, laughing in what I hoped was chagrin. “Then he broke its back.”
My eyes went to the dog perched on the windowsill, staring intently at something I couldn’t see. Prey.
“He’s killed pigeons before, and a few stray cats,” Miska added. My eyes returned to her.
“How do you know they were stray?”
“They didn’t have collars,” Miska said, as Ki came over to study me. I dry-swallowed.
“Otherwise Ki is just lovely,” Miska said, as if this would negate everything that had come before. “He’s so protective. As a woman I can walk him anywhere at night.” She stared down at her foster pet. “I’m going to really miss him.”
“I bet,” I said dubiously. Doubts piled on. “So the shelter told me Ki would need more than an hour of walking every day?”
“At least,” Miska said.
“But Ki wouldn’t like it if my friends touched her, right?”
“Definitely not,” she said. “Sometimes if I touch her while she’s lying down, she growls at me.”
And there it was: the soft hiss of escaping air. The balloon of my Jindo aspirations had been pricked and was rapidly deflating.
Maybe Miska was trying to be funny. Maybe she’d overstated her case. But truth be told, any murderous tendencies were for me an immediate dealbreaker.
My reservations expressed, I thanked Miska for her time and saw her and Ki out.
Days later, I got a callback for an ivory-haired husky-corgi called Cash.
There had been a lot of interest in Cash, the adoption agent informed me. Given how cute he was, it was any surprise he was such a hot ticket. But, the agent told me, I was still welcome to come by and meet him tomorrow.
Nursing the beginnings of a cold, I drove to the adoption center in Eastside Los Angeles. As I walked through the door, I spotted Cash sitting beneath a chair, a red bandana twined about his neck.
He peered up at me, bushy tail wagging, and I was smitten. To hell with all the other contenders – this dog was going to be mine.
I sat down beside his current owner Anja, a silver-haired woman with a voice as soft and sweet as cotton candy. As Anja gently patted Cash, she explained she’d only recently adopted him, but that he hadn’t been the right fit for her household.
“He kept jumping all over my other dog, who’s pretty old,” she said. “Once he scratched her in the eye. I had to take her to the vet for treatment.”
The excitable fur ball between her knees strained to the end of his lead, sniffing the gap beneath a door.
I made kissing noises to get Cash’s attention and he trotted over to lick my hand. Next thing I was squishing my face into his. This was my attempt at affection – and probably the textbook definition of the worst way to introduce yourself to a dog.
Cash gave a Husky growl of protest.
“I’ve never heard him make that noise before,” Anja said, fascinated.
The adoption agent came over to ask how things were going.
“I want him to adopt Cash,” Anja said. “Can he take him today?”
The face squishing trick, it seemed, had worked. Anja had sensed our special, instantaneous bond; had recognized that there would be no greater owner than I.
The agent frowned.
“There are still a few families who would like to meet Cash first,” she said. Anja insisted. A gentle tug of war ensued, until, finally, the agent caved.
An hour later I strolled out of the agency, Cash’s leash in one hand and a box of dog supplies in the other.
Getting my newly adopted child into the car proved something of an ordeal. The instant Cash realized what was happening, he flailed, bracing his paws against the frame of the door, like a cartoon character resisting a lifetime of imprisonment.
It took two of us to get him inside. Cash immediately settled on the floor, unmoving and unresponsive.
I searched for “dog relaxation music” on YouTube then connected my phone to the car’s audio system. Soft, languorous synths oozed from the speakers.
These were the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in a crystal shop…and probably the closest thing to musical waterboarding. Whether Cash enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell, huddled as he was beneath my chair.
When we got home, I carried my new pet over to the bath and ran some warm water, rubbing strawberry-scented shampoo into his fur.
Cash struggled with a desperation born of certain hydrophobia. I drew the shower curtain to prevent him from leaping out, and when that didn’t work, blocked the path of escape with my body.
Afterwards I dried him and he sat, staring at me with doleful eyes as I ran a brush through his tangles. The adoption was beginning to hit home.
But so was my cold. My throat in the last few hours had grown raw, and my nose was watering.
Binning a fist-sized wad of hair, I flung the brush away and sat, exhausted, on my bed. An uncomfortable pressure built inside my sinuses, giving way to pain.
“Cash?” Cash wandered over. I sat him on the edge of the bed, buried my face in his fur, and proceeded to cry.
Cash was having none of it. His eyes bulged. “Too soon bro!” they seemed to say.
He leapt down, vanishing into the kitchen.
I lay back, trying to repress a sneeze and failing. Lying on my back, with my face parallel with the ceiling, this had the unfortunate effect of simulating rain.
There came a noise, like someone trying to squeeze ketchup from a bottle, and levered myself up. That was when I spotted Cash squatting, in preparation to defecate.
“No, Cash! No!”
Diarrhea spattered the tiles. Completing the motion, Cash stepped backwards, directly into the puddle.
“Cash stop- No! STOP STOP STOP STOP!”
At the sound of his name, Cash trotted back over to the bed, leaving a trail of muddy pawprints.
His pale, arctic-fox face peered up at me. Wary, expectant. My tear-stained face stared back.
Here we were: two sick, miserable beings in need of love and comfort. It was, if anything, a promising beginning.
Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.
“Why do you want to date me?” The question hung in the air for a few awkward seconds. Derrick scrambled to find an answer.
“… Because I like you,” he said, his face devoid of emotion.
“And why do you like me?” I was like the four-year-old who’d just discovered the word “why”. Once I started, I absolutely refused to stop.
“You’re weird,” Derrick replied. “I like that.” As good a reason as any to be with someone, I suppose?
What Derrick had failed to articulate, however, was that I was there – and that was enough.
Whether we were actually compatible was a question to which Derrick was not interested in devoting his attention. And I accepted this. Broken, complicated ol’ me. Probably didn’t deserve any better.
You see, when I met Derrick, I was recovering from the worst illness of my life. Since my teen years, I had struggled with an undiagnosed gut disorder.
For a decade, I had believed my symptoms – gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, eczema, fatigue, severe mood swings – to be the result of gluten intolerance. After removing gluten from my diet, these symptoms improved but didn’t resolve completely.
Gradually I removed other possible offenders like dairy, with varying degrees of success.
After years of on-and-off illness, I made an appointment at a leading allergy clinic. Every single test came up negative.
At one specialist’s suggestion, I adopted a diet eliminating naturally-occurring food chemicals: salicylates, aminos, and glutamates, which can be found in anything from fruits, to cheese, chocolate, and sauces.
While these chemicals can cause reactions in some people, they didn’t appear to be a source of bother to me. Next I trialed going off animal products altogether…only for the symptoms to intensify.
A large red rash appeared on my back, and neither anti-fungal or cortisone creams could persuade it to go away. My gut became permanently distended, prone to swelling every time I ate.
With my health in shambles, I had no choice but to cut back completely on dating.
WebMD told me I was probably suffering from a condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS was a somatic condition linked to anxiety and depression, and given my predisposition to the latter, this made me an ideal candidate. Notwithstanding the fact that feeling like I was in the third trimester of pregnancy wasn’t depressing in its own right…
A doctor confirmed the diagnosis and suggested I undergo a test for a secondary condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
The results confirmed that I had indeed had well and truly become a human incubator for single-celled organisms. At last, I had an explanation for my symptoms.
Where IBS could be treated with ongoing dietary restrictions, SIBO required antibiotics. A couple of weeks of treatment reduced my gut to its normal size, only for new symptoms to emerge: chronic fatigue, followed by dizzy spells.
After petitioning my doctor for help and receiving a handful of taciturn emails, I flew to Australia to stay with my folks while trying to figure out what the hell was happening.
A helpful country town doctor put me through a battery of new tests. Receiving the results was like opening a grab bag, only to find a cluster bomb.
IBS and SIBO had left my gut ravaged, and in their wake some kind of parasite had set up shop, requiring yet another course of antibiotics.
On top of this, I was suffering from a Vitamin D deficiency, on account of all the sunlight I was not getting from lying in my sickbed.
But the kicker was that the cause of my chronic fatigue was something altogether unrelated: infectious mononucleosis – the so-called “kissing disease”.
Turns out I hadn’t been wrong to stop dating, only that I probably should’ve done it sooner. In my ailing condition, I had sought comfort in the wrong person, and he had given me a case of mono. It had been a teen rite of passage, a decade too late.
I swung very suddenly from a state of chronic fatigue to one of chronic embarrassment.
Still only partially recovered from my illness, I returned to Los Angeles. To say the experience had left a dent in my spirit was something of an understatement.
Look people – I almost died. Almost. Well not exactly. But I COULD have died. I could die anytime, as a matter of fact. Is that a lump I feel in my armpit?
Being so sick had only heightened my existing anxiety, leaving me overwhelmed. It might’ve helped if I’d had friends or family around to care for me in LA, but I was a newcomer to the city.
Any surprise then that I warmed so quickly to Derrick. From the very beginning, he lavished attention on me, taking me out to dinner at least twice a week.
He was solicitous about my health, swearing I could always count on him for help. It was the kind of care I’d secretly longed for.
Other people fantasize about filthy rich dreamboats, but not I. What I wanted was a nurturing parental figure who doubled as a part-time chef. Realistic, I know.
But Derrick couldn’t have been any less equipped to provide that, given he himself wanted to be parented. By the three-month mark, suspicion had set in.
Derrick had a mantra he liked to repeat, usually every day, sometimes at three-minute intervals: “I’m tired”. I’m not entirely sure what he wanted to accomplish by telling me this.
Around this time, Derrick also shifted from charm offensive to preoccupied and avoidant. We went from eating out every second night to not eating together at all.
While I could make do without bribery by takeout, a complete lack of companionship was pushing it.
At first, I tried sympathy. When Derick continued to complain about being tired however, I changed tactics. I bought a shirt with the phrase printed on it and gifted it to him, “so he wouldn’t have to keep telling me”.
Derrick was so offended he threw the shirt into the bottom of his closet. There it remained, until I, tiring of my boyfriend’s tiredness, dug it out and wore it myself.
They say there are five stages of grief. When I broke up with Derrick, I discovered a sixth: absurdity.
In the week after, I’d broached the subject, and Derrick had airily declared he was “done with this relationship”. “This relationship” being the one from which he’d quickly become absent anyway.
With that, he had stalked from the room, only to reappear moments later to ask if I would mind his dog over the weekend. When pressed for an explanation, he said he was going away on a road trip to Vegas – and I was not invited.
To his credit, Derrick made a few tangential attempts to ingratiate himself after the breakup. Once, he dangled the possibility of ex-sex. Another occasion, he coyly asked if he could wear my hat…because he “liked it”.
Once I even caught him spritzing himself with my cologne, as if he were trying to savor my soon-to-be lost odor. It was almost too painful to watch.
Having weathered Derrick’s outbursts, forgiven his shortcomings, and soothed his insecurities, I’d been forced to overlook my own needs, until at last my reserves of empathy had finally run dry.
Soon I began drawing lines in the hardwood. When I caught Derrick trying to smuggle yet another bland mid-century credenza into our apartment, I responded simply with: “No”.
Derrick hadn’t allowed me to bring my own furniture into his home, telling in me in uncertain terms that it looked “cheap”. To diss my taste in furniture was one thing, but furnishing his apartment without my input? Unforgivable.
When Derrick insisted on keeping his latest acquisition, I wrapped a clawhammer in newspaper and placed it atop the credenza.
I’m not entirely sure if I’d “nailed” the Godfather reference, but the next day, the credenza was gone. Still, the little battles waged on.
Derrick had a habit of burning California white sage in the house in the place of air freshener. The smell had a rancid quality which he seemed to favor over that of his dog’s various messes.
It was an odor that happened to leave me with blinding headaches, such that I was forced to keep the door to my room closed. During the Vegas trip, I started throwing out every bundle of the stuff I could find.
The day before Derrick returned, while doing his laundry for what felt like the fiftieth time, two twenty dollar notes fell out of Derrick’s jeans pocket. I didn’t hesitate, pocketing it as compensation for all the thankless janitorial duties that had been fobbed onto me.
This moment turned out to be the last high point in our steadily declining relationship.
Did I linger to savor it? No. What I did instead was divide our Q-tip supply into two neat piles, stuff my share into a zip-lock, and departed his life as fast as humanly possible.
Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.
With Derrick gone, I fumbled towards the appearance of equilibrium.
My employer agreed to put me on part-time hours so I could focus on a few side projects. Superficially, conditions changed, and yet the very same thing that had first propelled me towards Derrick did not.
Not a desire to be cared for as such, but rather, the inability to look after my own wellbeing. I was still a devout workaholic, cooking up responsibility after responsibility for myself.
For weeks on end, I would work around the clock, rarely taking breaks for socializing, leisure activities, and exercise. I’d eat at my desk, and when there wasn’t even time for that, I’d skip meals entirely.
Adopting a dog was my attempt to embrace a more well-rounded, enriching life. It would, so I told myself, be opening the door to the company and peace of mind I’d long denied myself.
And there was also the fact that I did, and always had, loved dogs, so much so in fact that I often preferred their company over that of other human beings.
Cash arrived at my home in what I believed to be a lull in life commitments, but what was in truth a franticness of my own making.
While trying to meet multiple writing deadlines, I was also finalizing the release of my first feature documentary. Cash’s adoption added yet another stressor to the equation.
When you tell people you want to get a pet, some may try to caution you: “It’s not going to be easy.”
“Well,” I’d thought, “point me to a single thing in life that is easy.”
The absence of fine print disarms you. Yet I, ever the responsible pet owner, had vowed to be as informed as I possibly could with the help of my trusty friend, Google.
The forum posts I read warned the first few days would be rocky. A bit of tummy upset, a possibility of separation anxiety. But Google alone could not have possibly prepared me for what was to come.
The first week, I was woken every day at 7 am to the frantic sound of nails against fabric. This was the sound of Cash trying to escape his foldable dog crate.
The walls shook and bulged in what looked like a cartoon punch-up. Cash’s shrill machine-gun barks suggested he was enduring some heinous form of torture, rather than mere separation by canvas.
No sooner had I managed to work the zip open an inch than he was launching himself out like a fur cannonball.
The crate was meant to serve in principle as his “den” – a place of rest and familiarity. But to Cash, it was the equivalent of an iron maiden.
To me, it was a sea wall holding back waves of diarrhea.
Cash, I had been told, was housebroken. Yet the stress of the adoption – and his recent surrender by not one, but as I later learned, three owners – had thrown all of his training out of whack.
Having a dog and being mildly OCD were two things that did not mix well. Still, if being occasionally triggered was the only cost of a cute dog’s company, it was one I was willing to pay.
But after climbing out of bed in the middle of the night and stepping into a foul-smelling puddle, I’d decided it was time to try containing the issue.
I had entered dog ownership knowing there might be complications. But I had also gone into it expecting an emotional support pet…only to find myself becoming a dog life support system.
Years prior, I’d witnessed the antics of a friend’s equally needy dog and vowed I’d never adopt an animal like that. And here I was new with a puppy who nudged me the second I stopped patting him.
My expectations may have been unrealistic, following as they did the high bar set by our household dogs.
The first, Kimi, slept beside my crib when I was a baby. The instant I awoke crying, he would go into my parent’s room and wake my mother.
On weekend picnic trips with my family to a local river, I’d push Kimi into the water, cling to his tail, and wait for him to tow me to the far side like a dutiful rescue dog. Never mind he was half the size of his lookalike Lassie.
I mean, what was not to love?
As for his successor, Rumi, he had been a gentle, refined creature who could only be stirred to a state of excitement by my mother’s return from work.
Early on, I learned he could be duped by a single phrase: “Mummy’s home!” Within seconds, his gullible bottom would be waggling.
Rumi’s worst offense was howling when left alone. Compared to Cash’s daily hysteria, Rumi’s crooning was a deeply moving show of love and loyalty.
Notwithstanding the fact Cash was lacking the same degree of charm as my previous dogs, his “accidents” would have been forgivable had he been actually capable of going potty outside.
The closest thing to “outside” Cash had ever known it seemed was a suburban yard, with none of the distractions and threats of a street frequented by people and other pets.
Each outing thus proved fraught. The sight of people, other animals, or babies sleeping in their strollers would often spark bouts of temporary madness.
Cash would growl at anything that moved, bark at every approaching figure, lunge at other dogs. Having never been lead-trained, he would pull me down stairs, into walls and car doors with careless abandon, leaving me with an assortment of cuts and scrapes.
When we finally did get to a grassy verge that served as a toilet for the neighborhood dogs, Cash would just stand there. Sometimes he might pace, other times he would sniff the leavings of his predecessors. But he would not, for reasons I could not fathom relieve himself.
After twenty minutes of exasperated waiting, I’d take him back up to the apartment. Before long, however, Cash would be at the door, crying to be let out. Up and down the stairs we would go, over and over again, with nary a bowel or bladder movement.
I wondered if I was being subjected to some kind of canine mind game. But then I would look into Cash’s gentle eyes, and my exasperation would soften into pity.
One day, upon returning from my seventh lap to the grassy patch, I found my own bladder was full. As I stood at the toilet relieving myself, Cash entered the bathroom, hunkered down on the bathmat, and urinated in tandem.
Cutting myself off mid-stream, I turned and gave him a look heavy with disapproval.
Cash for his part stared up at me in what appeared to be guilt…or perhaps blame. I’d made him wait, after all, inflicting my unreasonable expectations upon him.
This? This was payback.
The stair-climbing routine began to grind on my nerves. I was facing down multiple deadlines, and to make matters worse, I was still ill.
Over the past few days, I’d coughed so hard I was pretty certain I could now see my abs. It was a first, but one I wish I had only achieved by virtue of exercise, rather than repeated attempts to lose a lung.
The combined stress sent me into a downward spiral of dog shaming.
“Pee or do not pee!” I caught myself screaming at Cash. “There is no try!”
My wisdom, however, fell on deaf ears.
Once more, I turned to the forums for help. One post suggested I could fix Cash’s problem by collecting a sample of Cash’s urine and using it to “mark” the desired spot.
Ever the dutiful parent, I squeezed the contents of a puppy training pad into a jar. I took Cash downstairs, dribbled the pee onto a patch of brown, stunted grass and told Cash to go potty.
Cash didn’t so much as look at me. Instead, he sniffed at a passing homeless woman, pushing a trolley laden with garbage bags at the far end of the block.
“Cash! Go potty.”
Still he ignored me.
Growing up, I’d seen parents accompany their toddlers into toilets. The idea of guiding anyone through such a process had revolted me. Helping someone perform a basic biological function? No thank you.
But what choice was left to me now? The situation called for desperate measures.
Checking to see the coast was clear, I lowered the front of my pants and urinated. Not a full stream mind you – just a few discreet squirts.
“See Cash? Like this.”
Cash looked at the pee puddle, then his attention returned to the homeless woman.
I had just publicly exposed myself – all for the sake of my dog. But if I was expecting gratitude, I certainly wasn’t going to get it.
It was some days before Cash mastered outdoor peeing. Around this time the fount of diarrhea dried up, and now he was suffering from the exact opposite problem.
My relief was swiftly replaced by concern. So, back to the online forums I went.
One post suggested I give Cash some pureed pumpkin to help move things along. What it mostly did was earn me some serious canine side-eye.
Cash’s symptoms were, as it turned out, psychosomatic. He was a very anxious dog, and his anxiety prevailed long after most dogs would have otherwise “settled in”.
Losing sight of me sparked for my pet what sounded like an existential crisis, every departure and arrival greeted with a furious storm of barks.
A dog training website told me I should ignore Cash until he calmed down. Yet my snubs only made him double down with the protesting.
Another site suggested I desensitize Cash to all the familiar cues of my leaving. I began jingling my keys at random intervals. I’d go through the motions of putting on my clothes and shoes before sitting back down at my computer.
Each time, Cash would leap up as if he’d just heard an air raid siren. If I dared move, he would stick to me like a piece of Velcro. If I closed the door on him, he would bark incessantly. It was like having the world’s clingiest boyfriend.
One morning, tired of my dog’s bottomless need, I decided to try sneaking away. As I quietly prepared to head out for work, I paused to listen. Cash seemed to be still sound asleep in his crate.
Finishing dressing, I crept over to the door, unlocking it. Carrying my shoes out into the hallway, I eased the door closed.
It was two inches from the jamb when a sneeze came on. I tried to hold it in, but the effect was like trying to swallow a sneeze: all the air went out my nostrils.
Snot geysered, dribbling only my chin.
And just like that, my cover had been blown. The apartment rang with a series of high-pitched yelps.
Scrape-scrape-scrape went Cash’s nails against the canvas as the crate bounced in place.
Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18.
After weeks of preparation, I released my first feature documentary, marking the occasion with a free screening at a local community theater.
It should have been an occasion to celebrate, yet my mood at that point was far from celebratory.
Juggling work, my side projects, and Cash had left me drained. Then I’d gone and added organizing venue hire, promotion, and catering into the mix.
There was only so much time in the day, and so I’d been forced to cut down on my sleep. My immune system crumpled, and within days came down with yet another cold.
When it came time to stand in the wet, open-roofed lobby of the theater and greet attendees, I was in the height of my illness, complete with a croaky voice, stuffy nose, and fits of sneezing.
At my back stood a promotions board, covered with faded photos, dogeared flyers for elementary school productions, and posters celebrating a one-woman show by a Jewish comedian titled “I’m Just Yidding”.
Within stood what might have passed for a wood-paneled rumpus room that hadn’t been renovated since the 60s. Even with the lights turned on, it was dim, grotto-like. The chairs were fuzzy plaid, the color of mulch, and the projector was about as bright as my phone screen.
Backstage, I’d found an antique computer for controlling the lights. It came equipped with a monitor so antique it displayed one color only: acid green.
It wasn’t much, certainly – but it was the best I could afford on my budget. Having not yet sold the film, I was paying for the entire launch party out of my own pocket. In true anything-for-art fashion, I was spending money that I should have been saving for replacing threadbare socks.
The film was warmly received, even getting a few laughs. Yet afterwards, sitting in my car, I couldn’t help but feel dejected.
Of the 70 people who had RSVPed, only 10 had shown up, most of which had been friends of friends. Then again, a documentary about disability wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a perfect Friday night date movie.
And, much as I’d like to have believed otherwise, I wasn’t a big name filmmaker with a loyal following.
Expecting moviegoers to brave the late Winter rains may have been a touch unrealistic, free tickets or no. Heck, I shouldn’t have been braving it myself – not in my current state.
The minute I got home, I planned to turn off the lights and collapse into bed. But then again, there was Cash to consider.
He’d probably need a walk, a toilet break, and oodles of attention. My days of bachelor-style living were, as of a few weeks ago, firmly behind me.
Sliding the keys into my car’s ignition, I turned on the heater and pulled my coat up over my head. Up one arm it went, then the other.
The coat snagged on my elbows and I lifted my arms still higher, wriggling as I tried to draw the fabric free. Then something very bad happened.
When I was a teenager, I’d discovered the ability to contort my arms into unusual positions. A good party trick – but one with a clear disadvantage.
Hypermobile joints, as they’re known, were are by weak, undeveloped muscles. As a result, sufferers can find themselves prone to accidental dislocations.
I’d throw a ball and next thing my shoulder would be out and I would be screaming, charging into walls in an attempt to relocate it.
This weakness only grew when I didn’t exercise…just as I’d failed to do the past few weeks.
Given this painful history, I should’ve known better than to try pulling my coat over my head. And yet there I was, roaring in pain as it dislocated.
With my hands trapped over my head, I tried to wave down my friends – standing on the sidewalk a few cars away – a movement that only translated into a lackluster shimmy.
With my window up, no one could hear my cries, and opening the door was out of the question.
I rolled my shoulder one way, then the other, hoping against hope it would reset itself. To the casual onlooker, it probably looked like I was wrestling with some invisible demon.
After what felt like forever, there was a meaty clunk, and my arm popped back into the socket.
Flinging off the coat, I sagged back against my seat, breathing raggedly, in a daze of pain.
This, surely, was what rock bottom must feel like.
Boy was I kidding myself.
What I took to be the encore of my previous cold proved to be the flu. Within hours I was hit by total exhaustion, weakness, and fever. I had pushed my body to its limit, and now, like a rubber band, it was snapping back.
The next week I spent in bed, mostly sleeping. Twice a day I took Cash downstairs to do his business, an exercise which in my current state was incredibly taxing.
Perhaps aware of my condition, Cash sat patiently on the end of my bed, nose to bottlebrush tail, waiting.
By day five, however, cabin fever had set in and my dog started nibbling my toes. When that didn’t work, he seized my foot and dragged it to the edge of the bed, in a deliberate plea to be taken out.
A friend agreed to take Cash out for a walk, and while they were gone, I fell to brooding.
The only reason I was so sick was that I’d neglected my own needs. And not just my needs – Cash’s as well. I was a bad owner and not cut out for this responsibility.
The barrage of self-doubt rose to fever pitch. I had failed Cash, would continue to fail him, just as I failed everything and everyone else.
The adoption had been a mistake, and Cash would be better off without me.
What I did then was something every rational, emotionally balanced person would have done: I conducted a SWOT analysis of my dog.
Under “strengths” I wrote: “He’s an acceptable size for most apartments”. “Very cute”. In the “weaknesses” column I added: “He’s anxious and needy. I don’t know how to give him what he wants”. “He doesn’t like cuddles”.
This last point in my opinion represented a very serious breach of the Domesticated Canine Obligation Act of 15,000 B.C. If a dog wasn’t helping me hunt or guard my livestock, he sure as hell should be justifying his presence with a little reciprocal affection, at the very least.
But when I tried to touch Cash, he pulled away. When I tried sitting him next to me, he would flee, shying from closeness as if he too suffered an autism-related aversion to touch.
Indeed, if Cash was my child with autism, then I was the struggling mother, and this was a tearjerker Oscar-bait film.
There would be a scene in which I tried holding my child, only to be rebuffed. Ever stoic, I would invent new ways of trying to get close to him.
Again and again, I would be thwarted, until finally, my spirit battered, I would retreat to my room to wail and beat the wall with the flat of my hand, overcome with pain and frustration.
In reality, however, I refused to surrender so easily, instead forcing my way into Cash’s affections.
Every day, I would trap him against the bed with my body, kissing him repeatedly on the muzzle. Cash would flail, growling to be let free.
While I’m not certain he appreciated my efforts, I knew that as his dutiful parent, they must be made all the same.
Despite Cash’s many contractual breaches, I decided to list his companionship as an opportunity. This I weighed against the potential benefits he might enjoy in the care of a more giving, more responsible owner.
For “threats”, I listed: “Too many ongoing commitments. Can’t give Cash my full attention”, and “He eats s—”.
The latter was not a joke. Cash had developed a habit of snapping up other dog’s stools during our walks, which meant I had to keep a close vigil every time we went out.
It also meant I’d been forced to temporarily suspend my daily kissing ritual. This probably wasn’t my dog’s end goal in eating s—.
Chances were, he was actually suffering some kind of nutritional deficiency. It was not in any case a trait I had found endearing.
When my friend returned from his walk with Cash an hour later, my sense of guilt intensified. When in the last three weeks since I’d adopted him, had I given my dog this much attention?
After my friend left, Cash trotted over to the walk-in closet and sat in his doggie bed, a recent substitute for his loathed crate, complete with a baby gate.
The function of this gate was to prevent Cash from sneaking into the kitchen and stealing food scraps when I was cooking. On top of being anxious, Cash like me had a very sensitive stomach.
Anything other than Cash’s regular dried dog food was enough to induce the runs. Without the gate, my carpet didn’t stand a chance.
This of course hadn’t stopped my dog from leaping over the gate at the peak of his separation anxiety. What it had done nevertheless was provide me with a temporary barricade for my dog’s incessant neediness. Not the total respite I was secretly craving, but enough for now.
As Cash drifted off to sleep, I decided this compromise was surely more proof I was a terrible owner; that my dog indeed deserved better.
Dragging myself over to my computer, I chipped away at the mound of work I had amassed during my week of illness, fielding email inquiries and paying bills.
My work was interrupted a short while later by a yelp from the closet. Cash appeared, rushing over to lean against my leg.
At first, I thought he hurt himself; brushed up against some sharp object in the closet. When a search of his sleeping space turned up nothing, I concluded that he must have just been a bad dream.
Muttering reassurances, I patted my dog, and he snuggled against me, his eyes full of gratitude.
However much I might see myself as inadequate, this was not a view my dog appeared to hold.
My eyes returned to the incomplete SWOT analysis, considering. Then I turned it over and climbed back into bed.