First Published in EQ Iris Dating
As a latecomer to dating, I wish someone had explicitly told me that people have different goals for their dating life. Of course, it's obvious to me now, but, like the kid who can't see the blackboard at school because she needs glasses but doesn't know that she can't see the blackboard at school (because she needs glasses), you don't know what you don't know! I entered the dating world assuming everyone had the same motives—to find a spouse—I did but not knowing that I had this assumption. Thankfully, I didn't have to learn the hard way.
Another thing I wished someone would have done is to give me the rundown of the various reasons people have for dating because just learning that others' motives might differ from mine didn't enlighten me as to what other motives might exist. It's like being able to recognize the sound of French doesn't make you able to actually speak French. The reason it might seem like I'm spending a lot of words on this "introductory" material is that it actually took me equally long to fully understand. First of all, dating has multiple purposes (I know. Did I mention I'm a latecomer to this particular area of life?) and what that actually means.
Of course, marriage/life partnership is a common reason for dating. So is hooking up. So is simply having fun—something that, until I got my social anxiety under control and got on my A game with boundaries, never would have occurred to me. Since there could be as many reasons to date as there are daters (or more), it would be frivolous to attempt to catalog them. Still, my attempts to actually do so helped me uncover a hopefully rare motive that I'd especially like to caution disabled folks to look out for: the charity dater.
This type is just as problematic as the evange-dater—the person who dates with the primary or sole goal of converting others to their religion (usually, Christianity)—and has a lot in common with this type as well. How can you tell if you're dating someone with these motives? First, trust your reactions. The charity dater is more focused on their own sense of self-worth related to how well they can rescue or save someone from whatever they have identified as that person's plight, and this will likely not feel quite right to you. This can be tricky because we don't want to mistake our own insecurities and anxieties for intuition. That said, we also don't want to totally write off gut instincts.
This is why I say trust your reaction rather than your "feelings." A reaction, in this case, is acute and at least related to, if not triggered by the moment you're in or the person you're with. Feelings can be the main reason for reactions instead of the current circumstances you're in or the person you're with. Still, there's often a quality to the reaction/instinct/intuition that elevates it above your day-to-day feelings. "When you know, you know," as they say—the opposite of not knowing what you don't know. Either way, something will likely feel "off," even if it's not clear specifically what might be wrong. You don't necessarily need to cut off contact immediately, but don't simply brush over such a feeling simply because you don't have "evidence" or can't "justify" why you think this.
Quick sidebar on feelings: one of the things I have found exceedingly helpful in my dating journey is getting to know my feelings. It's not for the purpose of naval-gazing or wallowing but so that I can become familiar with my own patterns. And that is for the purpose of both healing them and detecting differences and variations from my patterns—so, things like gut instincts and reactions to specific situations.
Perhaps feelings/reactions/instincts are too murky or vague for you. Another way to tell you're more charity than a partner is the imbalance in the relationship. While it might feel good to be "pedastalized," it's not a good sign if you're being waited on hand and foot, especially if it starts to spill over into the territory of not being permitted to solve your own problems or fight your own battles. Again, this is tricky: the line between paternalism and emotional support is not the easiest to find, so if you feel like you're being smothered by someone's "service" or gifts, have a gentle but precise chat about it and give them a chance.
They may just be awkward or excited or, ahem, inexperienced. Suppose things don't get more balanced after you address it. In that case, your dating partner may be using you to earn "savior" points. To avoid being vulnerable themselves, or because they genuinely think you're incapable of having your own life—something disabled people get way too often in general. Aside from such imbalances being unsustainable, if persistent, they are often a significant clue that you're being seen as more project than partner material.
Finally, another significant way to tell if someone's motive for dating you is charity is that little or no emotional intimacy grows between you as you continue to see each other. If you're being seen as charity, you're not being seen as equal. It's hard to build the necessary attachment for emotional intimacy with someone if you believe they are beneath you. Charity daters think that about anyone they would choose to date.
If you're not able to give what you want to give in a dating relationship, it could be because you've been labeled "the receiver" for the benefit of "the giver." Regardless, relationships work best when you find someone who needs what you want to give to a relationship and vice versa.