Leaving Societal Norms Behind

Dating Detective, Case 1: The Game

Dating Detective, Case 1: The Game


Why Is Dating So Hard?


To investigate this case we are going to use a tool to explore what dating is like in reality. We are going to use the game Set to examine the most common struggles people face while dating. The hopes are that through this investigation we will give people a set of facts that will help them better navigate the dating scene.

Our investigation will take place through experiments done with the game Set. For reference, we have provided photographs of the game instructions. In very basic terms – the way you play the game is by setting 12 cards down in front of you and trying to create a “set” (in which the characteristics of the card images are all the same or all different). See attached images for a more thorough explanation of game rules and game play.

For the remainder of this case, we will present you with evidence-based facts (one-by-one) and then draw together an overall conclusion. To mirror the dating world as closely as possible, we have created this following table to explain the way in which we are using these cards to showcase dating strategies and techniques. Allow this information to carry through all evidence presented (unless otherwise stated).

  • Shape represents Personality Types
  • Shading represents Orientation + Gender
  • Color represents Race or Ethnicity
  • Number represents Lifestyle+ Lovestyle

[Though we could have chosen any aspect of a person’s identity to include as representation, we have picked these 4 categories as we feel they play the biggest role in dating compatibility determination.]

Experiment #1

There are endless possibilities for sets (or what we’ll call ‘healthy relationships’). There are also endless possibilities for ‘unhealthy relationship’ unsets. And unfortunately there are lots of relationships/potential sets that can seem almost perfect, like you’ve found a set, but it isn’t quite right.

Obviously, the more cards you put out on the table the more likely it is that there will be a set – but there will also be more cards to have to look through in order to find it. And dating in reality is more like cards in a giant pile that you have to sort through than cards laid neatly in front of you. Plus, depending on what you’re looking for – it isn’t just about finding ANY set, but a set that meets your preferences.

Evidence 1

For this experiment we are going to say that any grouping of cards that makes a set is a ‘healthy relationship’ and any grouping of cards that doesn’t make a set is an ‘unhealthy relationship.’ We will also look at the way the cards are displayed, and the number of cards available to choose from, in respect to potential and location. A pile of cards needing to be sorted through could represent the world. The 12-card layout of the actual game Set can be seen as your most typical options (like people you see frequently at work or school or any usual activities). And then any smaller or wider layout of cards neatly arranged can be seen as what you may find when selecting preferences on a dating site to widen or shrink your range and overall options. Though, we are aware there are other ways to find/meet potential partners, these are the main focuses we will be examining.

The Impact of Preferences

Everyone has preferences about what they want when looking for potential partners. Dating is a lot about sifting through options with the lens of your preferences. You may have options out there that you haven’t tried, but that you have cast out of the running because they don’t quite measure up. Other times you aren’t sure what you want and that may lead you into relationships where you end up unhappy about what you’ve received. Preferences can definitely help you find someone (or multiple someones) who is right for you, but it can also limit your choices or blind you from seeing potential.

Your options, in this case, consist of choosing between 4 categories with 3 choices each. You have to choose 1 choice in each category for each card. The categories being Shape, Color, Shading, and Number. The choices being ovals, squiggles, or diamonds for Shape; red, purple, or green for Color; solid, striped, or outlined for Shading; and one, two, or three for Number.

Example #1 - Online Dating

Say you only want to find other solids, or you’re only okay dating squiggles, etc. You have to not only sort through to find those you could potentially have a healthy relationship with, but to find those who also match your preferences, or requirements.

It may be stressful or exhausting to continuously go through people asking “Do they fit my preferences?” and then finding out a few dates into it, or even longer down the line that No, they don’t fit them at all. People often wish they could just say “This is what I’m looking for” and be handed their perfect match(es). Online dating has tried to solve some of this, however there are issues with this system as well.

You may be able to use online dating on a site or app to help you sort through people by inputting your preferences and letting the system do the work for you. This approach is like laying cards out in front of you, instead of picking through a pile, and all the cards laid down at least in some way fit your preferences. Take note, here, that even if you find someone who fits your preferences – you may not fit theirs.

And it isn’t just you playing this game, it’s billions of other people. Those cards may be laying out in front of you, but they are also laying out in front of others, too. Whether or not you can make a set with your preferred cards depends on not only whether they are available, but also whether someone else grabs them before you do.

In polyamory (and other forms of non-monogamy) this isn’t as much of a problem, since you and another person could both use the same cards/date the same partner; but even within non-monogamy sometimes people become polysaturated after finding another partner, or there are other life circumstances that prevent them from being with this other person AND you.

Evidence 2

Not to mention, the act of using online dating as your only form of dating is limiting within itself. Whether you consciously make the connection or not – online dating is limiting your dating pool. Why is this? Because not everyone in the world is signed up on the dating sites/apps you’re using, or signed up on any of them at all. This means that not ALL of your potential partners will be on there. So you’re picking from a small pool of people to begin with, and then placing your preferences is narrowing that pool even further.

[Note – sometimes using online dating can expand your dating pool by allowing you to meet people that are in locations further out from where you usually travel. It can be a good tool, but when used as the only form of connecting with potential partners coupled with a long list of preferences…you’re in for big trouble.]

Example #2 - Long List of "Requirments"

Whether you use online dating or not, having too many preferences is just a bad way to go. Let’s say you are only open to finding solid, purple, triangles, that are in groups of three. You refuse to have any other shading or color or shape or number. You want EXACTLY that! Problem is, if you look through the whole deck (which in this case would represent all possibilities out there), there is only 1 card that matches that description, and you need 3 to make a set.

Evidence 3

There are multiple ways to make a set with that 1 card, but you’ll have to get rid of some of your requirements in order to do so (as each and every person/card is very different). We are all unique. And while it is perfectly fine to say “these are my hard requirements,” it definitely DOES limit your options, and sometimes (when the list is too long) it makes it literally impossible to find a set.

This is true even when only considering these 4 different categories with their 3 different choices each. But life and people are MORE diverse and complex than that. There are hundreds-thousands-millions of different categories and just as many choices within each of these categories, making it even more difficult to find that perfect set you’re looking for.

Obviously, it makes sense to have some preferences – a gay man can limit the dating pool to just men (which is then also narrowed down by the fact that not all men are gay). A gay man could also date women, but that’s not who they’re into. Some preferences are more important than others. And I say preference here, in this regard, because sometimes gay people DO date people of the opposite sex, and sometimes straight people DO date people of the same sex, and sometimes sex has nothing to do with it. There are a plethora of relationship-types out there that go beyond what people may initially conceive as the only options.

Point, though, is that some preferences are important and others are not. When you make a long list of “I want this, and this, and this, and this…” you are literally setting yourself up for failure. Or at the very least a very long, LONG wait. It’s good to keep these things in mind when looking for potential partners. Use this, also, to prevent you from judging others who have found a way to make a set in a way you’d never considered before (or would never consider). Healthy relationships come in all forms (regardless of shape, color, number, or shading). A relationship/set may not be exactly what you expected, but it may be exactly what you need. Your journey is your own, as is true for others. Keep your mind open and your list small. Good luck!

Experiment #2

For this experiment we’re going to change up the reference a little bit. Everything from before is the same, except each card now represents a person (opposed to simply 3 cards representing a relationship). This scenario works best if you’re non-monogamous – because you have to have at least 2 partners; and if you’re in a triad – because the grouping comes in 3s. However, you don’t have to play into the numbers too much and just take this as a simplistic model that can be adjusted for use in real relationships (opposed to just discussion about the game).

Thing is, you can make a set with any variety of cards, and the cards/people you make a set with can also make a set with other cards/people (though sometimes they won’t). This idea goes past the actual game play of Set and into a more imagination arena. Here, you can use your 1 card (that represents you), to make as many sets as you’d like to. However, all the cards you make sets with can do the same thing. Depending on how you view this process, you can examine the results as a square shape, or lay them out more like a polycule.

Here, again, the cards you choose to pair with is all due to preferences (and luck). Assuming each card represents a person – each of these people is also pulling from an either limited or overflowing pool. It’s totally okay if you end up making a set with a card in your partner’s set, but it’s also okay if you don’t (and you should never just expect to). Making sets with cards that are in your partner’s sets is even harder (and more limiting) than trying to find sets on your own. This is due to the fact that your partners and you, most likely, do not have the same preferences; AND the other people your partner(s) are with have a set of preferences too. You and your partner(s) are not identical, so it is unlikely that someone’s interest in your partner will automatically spur an interest in you, as well. Never rely on others (whether it be friends, family, or your other partners) to find cards for you. Only you know what you want.

Example #1 - Your Metamours (The Square)

For this example you are going to be a card with 2 green, striped squiggles. First we will lay you down on the table. Next we will lay down 2 more cards above and below you to create a set. In this case, I chose a card with 1 green, striped oval, and another card with 3 green striped triangles. These cards are your partners.

Now, you may also have other partners. These cards we will lay to the left and right of you. For this exercise I am picking a card with 2 red, striped squiggles, and another card with 2 purple, striped squiggles. We have almost completed the square. Next we will choose 2 partners (your metamours) for your top and bottom partners. Your top partner has now acquired a card with 3 purple, outlined ovals, and a card with 3 red, solid squiggles. Your bottom partner has acquired a card with 2 purple, solid ovals, and another card with 3 red, outlined ovals.

Evidence 4

Do you see all the similarities and differences between you and your metamours? Some of your metamours have similarities to you, such as the card with squiggles. However, all of your metamours also have things that make them vastly different from you. Yet they still create sets with your partners. Notice, also, that you cannot make a diagonal line connecting you to all these metamours in order to make them partners, too. Although, under other circumstances they may be able to create a set with you – within this current situation they are unable to do so. And, remember, since they have preferences of their own they may not choose to even if they were able to.

Now, let’s go forward. We’ll eliminate your top and bottom partners and your metamours. You can choose to see these partners as still existent or not, it doesn’t matter. We will then move your left and right partners to bottom and top, respectively. Now they have the chance to acquire partners and you earn a new chance at finding ways to connect in sets with your metamours. As we lay out all the cards, see again how each metamour may have similarities or differences with you. You can see that, also here you cannot connect diagonally to your metamours to create partnerships with them.

Evidence 5

Let’s change up the cards again. In this new scenario you are able to diagonally connect to 2 different metamours. Lucky you! One big happy family, the more the merrier. If you do this yourself you’ll see that it takes a lot more planning to configure this situation than it does to simply create sets for your partners. The cards have to coordinate in multiple ways so that they can be used across multiple sets. 

Evidence 6

When we change this up again, you’ll see we were able to create a new scenario. In this scenario you are not able to connect with your metamours to form sets, but your other metamours and other partners were able to connect to make a set. This is also a more difficult arrangement to configure than simply placing cards down to make the 3 initial horizontal sets.

Evidence 7

In all of these scenarios there was a lot of potential. And across all of these scenarios we see a lot of diversity in the way things can play out. Any combination of cards that requires a more elaborate intertwining will take more time and planning to configure. There are many, many options out there – but if you’re looking for something specific it takes time and patience and a lot of effort. Sometimes you won’t find exactly what you’re looking for, but if you stay open to possibilities there are always way to intersect across set lines.

Example #2 - Your Metamours (The Polycule)

Again, you will be the card with 2 green, striped squiggles. However, this time we are going to lay out the cards in a more polycule type manner. You will now place the cards for your sets on the corners of your card. The left top and bottom corner is where you will place the cards for your first set; the right top and bottom corner is where you will place the cards for your second set. Branching off from here, you can create sets with the cards of your partners.

Evidence 8

You can branch out as far as you want. Can you see the polycule forming? This is a more accurate diagram of what a real polyamorous relationship can look like. We don’t live inside square shapes. We aren’t boxes. A polycule shape branches out like a molecule and creates all sorts of patterns. Beautiful, isn’t it? This is both an example of diversity and preference.

Of course, polycules can have lines all over the place. You can be partners with your partner’s partner’s partner’s partner. Which makes some of your metamour connections exist 2 fold. There are all sorts of options. The only limiting factor is whether or not you can legitimately form a set with the other cards. If you can, then anything is possible – any combination and any number of connections. However, sometimes you try to to make connections where there shouldn’t be any. This would be forming an unhealthy relationship, or what I call an unset.

Example #3 - Unhealthy Relationship Preferences

For this one, you can see the cards as simply forming a relationship when placed together as a group of 3, or you can view each card as a person, it doesn’t matter. The main point here is the forming of the set (or unset). It isn’t always obvious when you’ve formed a set, or when you have the potential to. Sometimes you don’t see the big picture because you’re just staring at one card or one category. Sometimes this also leads you to think you are forming a set when you’re really forming an unset.

Of course there are times when you just make the wrong choice and you end up in a shitty situation, but what about when you’re so dead set on acquiring cards that match your preferences that you don’t pay attention to any of the other categories or choices, at all. Alternatively, you could have preferences that promote unhealthy relationships on their own.

Evidence 9

The latter really only applies to those who have dealt with trauma, because sometimes trauma can cause us to see things unclearly and we cling onto aspects that don’t work for us. They aren’t good for us, and they make our relationships toxic, but we’ve learned that that’s something we “need” so we keep choosing it again and again – when in reality that’s one of the things causing us trouble to begin with. This can be a really complex issue, and is best dealt with through therapy or other professional means.

The former is due more to us being blindsided by our own insistence on preference. Say we want cards that have red on them so bad that we don’t even look at what the shape, shading, or number is. We think we’re getting what we want, but we end up in an unhealthy relationship because we were narrowing our focus too much and not looking at the bigger picture.

Evidence 10

Either of these scenarios can be upsetting. We have to look very closely at our preferences – as well as the reasons behind those preferences. And we need to consider a person as a whole being with many facets beyond simply whether or not they tick off certain boxes. Just because they match up in one area (or multiple) doesn’t mean they match up in every area. We need to make sure we’re making the right choices for us. The ones that will positively impact and intertwine with who we are, not cause destruction. Our preferences, and the extent to which we examine and use these preferences when looking for partners will often impact our dating results more so than anything else will.

Evidence 11
Evidence 12


A lot of things factor into dating. Location plays a big role in determining how big or small your dating pool is (regardless of whether you’re looking for partners online or in-person). This is the foundation of determining your dating situation. Secondly, your preferences (as shown above) play a BIG role in determining who you end up choosing as a partner, as well as sometimes just who shows up in your dating pool as an option. The last ingredient, here, is what these potential partners feel about YOU.

No matter how wide or narrow your dating pool is, and no matter how many preferences you have on your list…deciding you have found someone that you like is not enough on its own. The other person has to like and choose you, too. And as everyone is so different, and people are complex, and there are lots of incidences of individuals choosing the wrong partners or wrong relationships (for any number of reasons), it makes it incredibly hard to choose not only the right person/people but also to make it into the right relationship (ie. a healthy one). Dating is like a game. It may take some skill to play, but once you’ve figured out the rules and learned some useful techniques it isn’t so intimidating anymore.

So…why is dating so damn hard? Simple – it’s complex. Take the time to dissect yourself, your actions, and your choices, and maybe you’ll start to see patterns or places that could use improvement. Each individual’s game is slightly different, but they all take time and patience. Don’t get angry with yourself or the world, just keep on playing. You’ve got this!

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I am a pansexual, demisexual, greysexual, homoromantic, non-binary, transmasculine, genderfluid, solo-polyamorous relationship anarchist; as well as a plant-based Wiccan mama. I'm also neurodivergent, and overall identify as Queer. I love writing, photography, dancing, travel, hiking, cooking, gaming, planning, and motherhood.

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