When we sat down for too sweet, too cheap margaritas, I knew immediately I would never see this man again. Sorry to you, Fake Palm Reader Man. I started feeling regret when chips and guac hit the table, and confidently on track with the guy, let’s call him T, that I’d been seeing for weeks by the time we split the $30 check. A final push over the fence to commitment, if you will. Relief washed over me when I saw T’s name pop up on my phone later that night. Suddenly it felt silly to even consider this wasn't what I wanted for myself.
This is a classic example of temperature-checking, a dating trend that’s increasingly common among anxious and commitment-averse millennials.
Temperature-checking is, albeit problematic, a way to alleviate those feelings of anxiety that happen when you're unsure where you stand with a current fling, or find yourself approaching the last exit before you jump into a new relationship. When faced with commitment, it might feel comforting to backslide to square one with someone else.
Temperature-checking can be anything from texts with an ex to a final pass on the dating apps for a low-impact date to see how easily your head can be turned. Think of it as a litmus to “check the temperature” on your feelings for the person you’re dating. Do I like this person or just hate being lonely?
For me, it was a way to figure out if what I was feeling for T was real, or perhaps just a comfortable break from being single with cuffing season approaching. Plus, I had no idea where his feelings stood for me. "Do you think he's still seeing a bunch of other people??” I asked a friend on FaceTime a few days before ultimately deciding to go on my ill-fated margarita date.
“When we get to know someone but are unsure of how we feel about them, or how they feel about us, it can create a sense of uneasiness or anxiety,” says Dr. Jessica January Behr, Psy.D. a licensed psychologist and founder of Behr Psychology, a private practice specializing in individual and couples therapy in Manhattan.
“This ‘backsliding’ or ‘temperature checking’ can be a way of working with that anxiety, which can occur in many different ways and doesn't always have the same psychological reasoning,” she explains. “For some, returning to the apps or communicating with an old romantic interest may help to rebuild a sense of personal desirability, lost or reduced in the current relationship. It can reaffirm one’s attractiveness, confidence, or worth when feeling insecure or uncertain about your position in the budding relationship. For these individuals, the temperature-checking is more about self-assessment, than assessment of the partner.”
For others, dipping their toe back into the dating pool may reflect doubts about the person they’re seeing or a desire to determine if there’s someone else out there better-suited for them, Dr. Behr says. While fear of commitment is nothing new — we, as a species, have been running from ‘defining the relationship’ for ages — the dating app era has taken things to a new level. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of dating FOMO, worrying you’ll bench yourself and miss out on greener grass that might be a swipe away.
So, is temperature-checking ever actually helpful? Well, maybe. If you feel like things have fizzled with your current flame, introducing a new person to the equation could provide you with clarity and perspective. “In these cases, people might engage more comparatively, seeking out markers of strong compatibility in prospective partners,” Dr. Behr says. In other words, by realizing you have more chemistry on a first date with a stranger than with the person you’ve been seeing, it could help you realize that it’s time to break things off with someone who isn't your ideal match.
So while Dr. Behr suggests a ‘temperature check’ isn’t always inherently toxic, and can, in some cases be helpful in the beginning, she suggests going through these steps first.
Dust off your communication skills.
“Firstly, before temperature checking, consider the terms and conditions of your relationship. Are you exclusive, official, or casual? Have you discussed the boundaries and limits of the couple together? If this is a partner that you are invested in, it may be useful to share your thoughts and feelings, hesitations, doubts, and uncertainties with your partner,” suggests Dr. Behr. In other words: “Instead of testing the temperature outside of the relationship, you may get a more accurate read from within.” In my experience, you can save yourself the trouble (and guilt) of going on a date with someone else by simply taking inventory of your needs, fears, and concerns and then having an honest and open FaceTime call with your partner to get back on track. Trust: It’s a way more productive way to quell anxiety or second thoughts about having the commitment talk.
Act with intention, set boundaries, and check-in with yourself.
“If this a very new relationship, or one that doesn’t yet support intimate emotional conversations, it may be worth trying to start those conversations. If not, and you do feel the need to perform a litmus test without disclosure to your partner, it is to your benefit to do so as consciously and deliberately as possible,” Dr. Behr says. “Have intentions, have clear boundaries and limits and be clear on your personal motivation to temperature check. This way, it doesn’t become a knee-jerk response to commitment fears, but is a useful tool for reaffirming your confidence or engaging in a comparative exercise.”
The bottom line on temperature-checking?
That initial sip of a drink with someone new or a reliable fling might feel like you’re gaming the system, being modern, dating like a man, etc. etc. — but it might catch up to you by the time you get to the Lyft. Is it cheating? Not exactly *if* you haven’t taken the plunge to make it exclusive. But, if it feels like you’re being shitty, go with your gut! In the commandments of dating, treat people the way you want to be treated and you’re always going to be on the right track.
Dr. Jessica January Behr, Psy.D. is a Licensed Psychologist and the founder of Behr Psychology, a private practice specializing in individual and couples therapy in Manhattan.
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