Beware The Kirkeslahger Effect

The Kirkeslahger (KER-kuh-slah-ger) Effect: the situation wherein a bad experience with a dating partner lowers our standards such that a subsequent dating partner seems extraordinary by comparison, even though the new partner is doing only the bare minimum.

The contrast principle is a psychological phenomenon whereby we tend not to make absolute judgments, but instead judge based on comparison with something similar:

When we make judgments, evaluating how good a dress or person is, we don’t make absolute judgments. The way we judge pretty much anything is in comparison with something else. When we say someone is smart or talkative, we actually mean they are smarter or more talkative than other people. (Note the ‘-er’ at the end of the adjective and the ‘more’ — these are sure signs of contrastive words).

The squares are all actually the same color! Contrast makes fools of us all.

This happens in a dating context all of the time. The Kirkeslahger Effect is named after one of Gina’s former partners who had terrible communication skills. He wouldn’t answer texts for days. he would make plans, then disappear and be unable to confirm with, only to cancel at the last minute (or just not show up). He so lowered Gina’s expectations for new partners that she was blown away when her next partner was able to display basic communication skills.

The Kirkeslahger Effect can be cute, but it can also be dangerous. That partner of Gina’s who benefitted from it (the one who seemed really impressive) ended up being abusive. It’s important to understand that the Kirkeslahger Effect gives us a skewed interpretation of our dating partners. When it’s paired with NRE, it’s almost impossible to make an objective evaluation of new partners. We should do all we can to correct for it (or at least be aware of it).

Helpful strategies may or may not include (depending on your preferences, resources, and situation):

  • enlisting the help of other partners or friends who may be able to take a more objective look. Even the process of trying to articulate what you like about your new partner may be helpful in maintaining some objectivity.
  • instituting a waiting period before making any long-term plans with a new partner (like NRE, the Kirkeslahger Effect weakens with time).
  • making a list of what you actually consider important about a person and comparing it to what you know about your new partner (I actually find this incredibly helpful).
  • asking for reinforcement (from other partners, friends, family, etc.) that your former partner’s behavior was unacceptable and not normal.
  • as is almost always helpful, developing a strong sense of self-worth.
  • pretty much all of this advice for dealing with NRE.

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