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In the age of app-based dating, and hashtag-able everything, relationship struggles can so often be summed up by a single, zeitgeisty buzzword: ghosting, breadcrumbing, and Gatsby-ing, oh my. Each is stressful in its own special way, but mostly they’re born out of a human need to avoid awkward conversations or confrontation at all costs. There’s one method, though, that seeks out the awkward—it sniffs the tiniest sense of insecurity and latches on, feeding like a leech upon its prey—and it’s been around for ages. That would be negging, of course.
An ugly word for an uglier practice, negging essentially entails offering someone a compliment that carries with it the hidden message that you feel they ought to seek your approval—and you’re not so sure they deserve it. It’s reverse-engineering a dating “league” right on the spot, saying: “You’re not in mine. But you should strive to be.”
This happened to me once, on a date I otherwise thought was picture-perfect. We were sharing drinks beneath the sunset, just like in the movies, when the whole thing was torpedoed with one soul-crushing comment. “People with interesting lives attract people with less interesting lives,” my date said, arrogantly. We’d been talking hypothetically about the state of dating these days, but this comment felt decidedly less hypothetical. Like he was talking about us. “When you have a constant flow of friends and lovers in and out, that shows that you have ‘resources,’ right? Money, humor, ideas … It’s exciting and attractive, and people with boring lives want to be with more exciting people.”
He was 30, and I was just 22. He was wise and sure of himself, while I had very little idea of who I was or what my future held. If I’m being extremely generous, I can say there’s a chance he thought he was doling out some useful life advice to me, from the other side of 25. Either way, his message was clear: “I’m out of your league.”
That planted a seed that’s really hard to uproot. I did think he was interesting. That’s why I wanted to date him in the first place. Had I erred by reaching beyond my station in life? Was I boring and undeserving of hot dates under an orange sky? It was like imposter syndrome had come for my love life and, suddenly, I felt catastrophically un-special.
Of course he was not literally on higher ground, but the damage had been done. Our disparate leagues had been applied. When I told my friends about this, many had similar experiences to share. “A guy [once saw] my grade on a paper and said he was shocked and impressed that I did so well,” Cecelia Bowman, a grad student in South Africa, told me. “I guess it was meant to be a compliment, but it was so condescending and made me feel really small,” she says.
Shelly*, 22, had this experience on a second date, just as she and the man she was seeing connected over a shared love of coffee. “He made a reference to some pseudoscience bullshit about how drinking too much coffee can make your boobs smaller. I have small boobs already, and I’m perfectly okay with that, but it was a very strange way of drawing attention to that and making me feel bad,” she says. By referring to an obvious attribute of hers as a side effect or flaw, he established dominance. He established leagues: She wasn’t normally his type; she’d have to work harder to be good enough for him. Just like that, she was made to feel like he was the catch.
But what does “good enough” even mean? Who decides what is good? Whether you idolize your partner to the point of feeling inadequate, or nip love in the bud because of a childish judgement of their perceived inadequacies (or that has happened to you), recognizing that there’s no such thing as “your league” is freeing. But first, there’s a lot of gray area to wade through.
What are dating leagues, anyway?
Modern dating has made it easier than ever to find and list data points that quantify, and place value on, our romantic prospects. A little LinkedIn sleuthing clears up questions about wealth and education; Facebook and Instagram fill in the looks and social status gaps. And somewhere in the cauldron with all that is a “league.” Dating based on a league system is simply noting this data, making a judgment call as to how it stacks up against your own, and using the result to inform the way you treat others who might be interested in you. Put that way, it’s clear: It’s elitist. It’s rude. The whole thing is outdated and classist and shallow. But also, according to Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a New York City-based therapist and relationship expert, “It’s normal.”
“I’ve heard comparisons about professions, how much money someone makes, where they went to college, how tall they are, how much they weigh; these are the ways our little computer brain is always sizing things up,” she says. And though she hasn’t noticed her clients outright say someone is out of their league (“because that sounds so bad”), she agrees this type of classifying is alive and well.
“I think it’s a big thing, when you meet someone from an app, to decide whether you think they’re hot or not,” she says. Her clients have talked about that decisive moment, wondering, “Can they see feeling like they want to show off this person?”
We can debate all day whether there are objective divisions among people that make it “okay” for them to date one another; or make one a prize and the other the striver. But looking at pop culture, leagues are definitely a “thing.” And they’re usually presented favorably.
The trope of mismatched lovers has played out in media for decades; from the classic My Fair Lady to Titanic’s iconic Jack and Rose, the entire Molly Ringwald canon pretty much, and more than a few Disney tales. These relationships between two people from unequal social footing seem destined to fail, and thus we root for them against all odds (just grow those legs, Ariel—you can do it!). Then we get to come along on the painful journey as they struggle to build something resembling a successful relationship out of such a mismatch, like in the aptly titled 2010 rom-com She’s Out of My League, or in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s tortured “Uptown Girl” nearly three decades before it. We want to believe there are levels to everything, and that includes the people we date.
“I do think leagues exist in general, and that people who convince themselves that they don’t exist at all are doing themselves a disservice,” says Heather Canon, 24. “I consider all the traits that a person brings to a potential relationship, relative to both their ‘competition’ and their potential matches.” Gauging how you compete against people of your own caliber (for a date or partner) is a core tenet of league dating. Also, it is not sexy. It’s like job-interviewing.
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Reflecting on her own dating life, Cecilia Bowman, the grad student, says she has relied on leagues as a way to grab some power in her past relationships. “Looking back, I do purposefully ‘date down’ when in comes to intellect,” she says. “I want to be the smarter person in a relationship. I think that’s why I tend to go for younger guys; it’s almost a way to be sure that I will be the more mature, ‘together’ person in the relationship, and therefore have more control, I guess.”
Power dynamics are often at the center of this sort of thinking, and while there’s no shortage of explanations for the ways men can have—and abuse—power over women, this particular interplay is not gender-based. It’s not even specific to hetero partnerships.
Joel Caban, a 31-year-old business systems analyst, reflects on this issue: “On gay dating profiles there is a very exposed ‘caste system,’ if you will. Assumptions follow that [masculine] is better than [feminine], muscular or toned is preferred over fat, etcetera. Race can’t be ignored, either, in this equation.”
He’s seen “preferences” such as these spelled out plainly on apps like Grindr, where the once satirical and meme-status RuPaul’s Drag Race reference—“No Femmes, Fats, or Asians”—has become a commonplace and socially accepted part of user profiles.
Aside from damaging, offensive, and plain rude, this may not even be legal. That’s what Sinakhone Keodara, who is originally from Laos and came across “no Asians” text on Grindr, is alleging. NBC reported earlier this month that the actor and producer is gathering names to bring a class action suit against the platform for the racially discriminatory language he faced there.
“I don’t think I’m unattractive. I’m educated, have a good job, [am] well traveled, multi-lingual … But because of everything stated above, I have built-in insecurities that I’m not ‘masc’ enough, or my body doesn’t look [a certain] way,” Caban says. And he probably feels that way because he’s been literally told as much, while attempting to get a date.
Isn’t this bullshit?
Remember that day in 2017 when the internet found out that Chris Evans and Jenny Slate had started dating (the first time), and the consensus was utter disbelief that a superhero guy would be with, what, a short person with curly hair who is a gifted and hilarious actress? Based on the social media firestorm that ensued, it became clear that it was unfathomable to many people that someone they find incredibly hot and someone they find regular hot would choose to be together. Why is that? Does it challenge how we measure our own self-worth and who we believe we are eligible to date?
It only takes talking to someone who believes in leagues a little too much to watch the idea fall apart. A 27-year-old finance guy, whom we’ll call Matt*, admits he’s constantly confused by couples who appear physically mismatched: “I see so many not in good shape guys with these fairly attractive women or really hot women. The guy must have money, is what I usually tell myself.”
But then, there’s a twist: “I dated a really beautiful girl who appeared very mature even though she was a few years younger than me,” Matt recalls. “At first I thought maybe she was out of my league, but quickly realized I was out her league after going on a few dates. She wasn’t as mature as she first seemed, and her looks didn’t matter after that.” That sounds confusing! Who is objectively “better” in this scenario?
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“I think part of the problem is—listen, none of us are really privy to the statistics, but I think all the guys tend to think if you’ve got some hair on your head and some money in your pocket, dating beautiful women in New York is like shooting fish in a barrel,” Sussman says. “I’ve seen guys who I don’t think have so much going on, who think they’ve got so much going on; who are dating a nice girl but they don’t think that’s enough for them.”
Therein lies the fragility of league dating. Someone can be your perfect match on paper, but if there’s no spark, then you’re not going to enjoy being with them. Maybe Matt’s beautiful date was an objective 10 out of 10 based on whatever archaic value system he has grown accustomed to using. But in the end, she wasn’t what he wanted, which he only realized after he began to get to know her. Or maybe, as Sussman surmises, he’s judging her (and himself) against the wrong set of traits to begin with.
When you rule someone out based on perceived league status, she says, “you are not really getting to know them or getting to know some of their more stealth qualities—because what you lead with and what’s underneath can be very different things, and it really takes a long time to get to know someone and fall in love with them.” Cutting any chances off at the head may be a defense mechanism, back to plain old negging: If you make someone else feel inferior, you protect yourself from the hurt they may cause in the event that they reject you. Either way, you’re both missing out on the potential connection.
A University of Texas study in 2015 of more than 130 couples found that the longer partners knew each other, the less likely they were to say that “assortative mating,” or dating according to perceived status, played a role in their relationship. In other words, getting to know someone is a crucial part of developing a lasting relationship. The newer, and potentially more short-lived partnerships were more likely impacted by the snap-judgment phenomenon, as reported in the journal Psychological Science.
For me, anyone I’ve ever truly liked, or loved, has been made up of a constellation of different traits and attributes that are far less tangible than those I could’ve scrubbed from their résumé and a late-night social media deep-dive. “What makes you fall for one person over another is so mysterious and ethereal that it’s counterproductive to think of it in terms of competition,” says Francesca Hogi, a California-based love and life coach. “Someone is either for you or they’re not for you.” In a world where a successful, beautiful, and accomplished actress married some ginger and made the world swoon, it is clear that there’s no reason to let outdated social constructs dictate whom we love. (Or is it Harry who’s supposed to be out of Meghan’s league? Either way.)
It might be comforting to think that there’s someone out there whose dating requirements align with ours perfectly, and all we have to do is find them, but what makes someone “for” us is never that cleanly precise—matters of the heart never are. And if the royal family can get on board with the very modern prospect of dating beyond one’s tax bracket and title, so can the rest of us. After all, they are arguably the most special people of all.
What about standards?
In her defense of dating leagues, Canon says it isn’t always about putting others down, but acknowledging your own worth: “There are definitely people who have a hell of a lot to offer, and people who offer [nothing],” she says. It has to do with being realistic, says Hogi, who says she urges her clients to place the focus less on what they think they deserve and more on what they want.
“When my clients present me with a list of the traits they’re seeking in another person, I always ask them when they dated someone who fit that description. If they tell me ‘in college’ or never, then it’s time for some tough love,” she says. It’s time to draw a line between healthy standard-setting, and kind of being a jerk. In her work, she tries to coax clients away from thinking up the ideal partner, based on who the world says they should be with, and bring them closer to imagining someone they’d actually enjoy being with.
In the end, whether we’re talking about standards, leagues, negging, or going back to ghosting, it’s important to keep in mind that you can only control your own behavior. Even if you’ve risen above it all, many people still behave as if leagues are completely real, prospective dates can be graded on a 10-point scale, and anyone not on their level in not worth pursuing.
They can still use this to hurt you, or make you feel inadequate, and that sucks. But, it does have the upside of telling you exactly what kind of person they are—which is likely not one worthy of your time.
*Names have been changed or last names witheld.
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