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Pity Date: The Emotional Dangers and Tips to Avoid It

February 8, 2024

You’ve probably heard of a “pity date”, even if you haven’t actually been on one. This is when you date someone because you don’t want to be cruel or unkind by rejecting them. Usually, you’ll only have a few pity dates with someone, but you can sometimes find yourself in a full-blown relationship with someone you started out by pity-dating.

Pity-dating isn’t healthy for either of you. In this article, we’re going to look at what pity-dating is, why it’s a bad idea, and how you can spot and avoid pity dates.

What Is a Pity Date?

A pity date is when you go on a date with someone even though you’re not interested in them romantically. As the name implies, you’re doing it because you feel sorry for them or don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Although this might sound like an act of altruism, it’s often actually a little more complicated than that. 

We want to avoid hurting their feelings, but we also want to avoid the social and emotional consequences of rejecting someone. We don’t want the awkward “I’m not attracted to you” conversation, so we go on a pity date to avoid it.

Why Is a Pity Date Harmful?

Pity dates aren’t just uncomfortable. They’re actually also sending some pretty toxic messages to you and to the person you are dating. Here are some of the reasons why pity dates can be toxic.

1. They reinforce the message that you can “owe” someone your attention

Let’s be completely blunt here. You don’t owe anyone a date with you. Ever. It doesn’t matter whether he said nice things about your work, fixed your car, or bought you a pony. You still don’t owe him your romantic attention.

2. They imply that physical presence is more important than connection

When you show up on a pity date, that’s usually about all you’re doing. You’re showing up. You’re not looking to make a deep emotional connection. Being curious and sharing information with others is a key part of how we build relationships1. You’re not actually curious about him and keen to be a part of his life.

Even if you sleep with him (which we’ll talk about later), it’s still not a genuine connection. This is often pretty uncomfortable for both of you. He wants a date with you as a person, and he’s getting your body but not your mind.

It’s also harmful to you. You start to see dates as something you “give” someone, rather than something you “share” with them. Not only is this a transactional relationship, but it’s a deeply unequal one2.

3. It creates a power imbalance

Power imbalances in a relationship are generally unhealthy unless they’re part of an agreed-upon kink. If you’re not interested in someone while they are deeply interested in you, they’re going to feel that imbalance and work extra hard to impress you. 

Neither of you comes out of this power imbalance feeling good about yourself. They’ll probably feel used, while you’re likely to feel increasingly guilty because you know their efforts are wasted.

4. It damages both people’s self-esteem

it damages both people's self esteem

It’s easy to understand how realizing that the person you’re interested in is only on a pity date with you might damage your self-esteem. But, how can it hurt your self-esteem if you’re the one feeling pity?

Firstly, the other person will probably realize at some point that you’re only there through pity. Knowing that you’ve hurt someone else through your decisions can make you feel like you’re a bad person.

More than that, dating someone through pity when you have no real romantic interest in them is patronizing. You might agree to the date to avoid the discomfort of rejecting them, but once that discomfort is gone you might start to realize that you’re not treating them with the kind of respect you would like.

Secondly, you’re not maintaining healthy boundaries. Rather than saying to yourself “dates are an opportunity for me to find someone I want to be with,” you’re saying “my enjoyment and needs on a date are secondary to his.”

When you tell yourself that over and over (even if you only do it implicitly), it’s easy to start believing it.

5. It sets the template for codependent relationships

Sometimes, what started out as a pity date can accidentally stumble into becoming a relationship. Even if that date doesn’t turn into a relationship, you’re still creating a template for future relationships. Unfortunately, it’s not a good one.

When you go on a pity date, you’re putting someone else’s feelings before your own. You’re prioritizing avoiding their discomfort over your own boundaries. If you do this in a longer-term relationship, it’s likely to become codependent3.

Codependent relationships are bad for both people. The person who is being enabled has no incentive to grow and can fall into self-destructive behavior patterns. The person who is codependent becomes exhausted and feels unseen and unappreciated.

6. It gets in the way of finding a real romantic connection

The final problem with a pity date is probably the most obvious one. When you spend your time on a pity date, whichever way around, you’re not devoting that time to finding someone you have a real, meaningful connection with.

If you go on a pity date with someone, you’re taking time away from finding a good partner for you and you’re wasting their time when they could have been dating someone who genuinely delights in their company.

4 Signs of a Pity Date

Now you know why pity dates are so unhealthy, and why it hurts so much when you realize that you’ve just been on one. Let’s look at how you can tell that he’s dating you out of pity. Given that we don’t always notice that we’re pity-dating someone, we’re also going to look at how you can check your thoughts and feelings.

1. He hesitates before agreeing

If you suggest a date to someone and they hesitate before agreeing, they might be feeling sorry for you. 

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This rule isn’t foolproof. If you’ve asked about a specific event, he might be checking that he’s actually free that day. He also might not have realized that you’re interested in him romantically, and he’s just checking how he feels about the idea of dating you.

If you notice he hesitates before agreeing to a date, don’t panic or assume that he’s going on a pity date. Just keep an eye out for other signs.

This can also help you to identify whether you’re dating someone out of pity. If you hesitate before saying yes, pay attention to what went through your mind. If you were thinking about logistics or doing a genuine check-in with yourself to see how you feel about them, you’re probably not pity-dating them.

If you are trying to think of polite excuses or focusing on their feelings, it’s usually a bad sign. When someone asks you on a date, you would ideally feel excited and happy. If not, it’s worth taking a rain check until you can work out your real feelings.

2. He’s not curious

he's not curious

When you’re on a date and you both want it to be a success, you’re usually curious about each other. You want to learn more about the other person. You want to know what matters to them, their hopes and dreams, their values, and their passions.

When someone is on a pity date, they have a very different objective. They’re not trying to learn as much as they can about the other person so that they can decide whether they fit into each other’s lives. They simply want to get to the end of the date without any more awkwardness.

They want to feel like they did a good thing and that they are a good person. They will usually want to keep the conversation light and casual. They might also be trying to send signals so you know that this isn’t going to be a long-term relationship without them having to say so out loud.

If you notice that he doesn’t seem at all curious about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on a pity date. He might just be deeply self-centered or uninterested in the rest of the world. Either way, it’s probably a good sign that he’s not a great match for you.

The same is true if you realize that you’re not curious about him when you’re on a date. When he talks about his passion for travel, do you start trying to fit that into your idea of a shared life? If he tells you about his family, are you politely dismissive, or are you curious to know how they influenced the man he is now?

If you’re not curious about him or casually wondering how the two of you could fit together, you might be pity-dating him.

3. He tries to fix things for you

Just because he isn’t curious about you doesn’t mean he’s not interested at all. Sometimes, you’ll find that someone on a pity date asks lots of questions about the problems you’re facing or any insecurities you might have. Then they offer to help you fix them.

This is because they’re seeing your life as a series of problems that you need help with. He might offer to help you with specific practical problems or go with you to events to boost your confidence. 

Remember that someone who is pity-dating isn’t actually a bad person. They’re trying to be kind. They’re just starting from the wrong place and doing it in the wrong way. If you feel as though he sees you as a “project” more than a person, he’s probably pity-dating you.

The same is obviously true in the other direction. If you see them as a series of problems to be fixed or keep wanting to improve them, you’re not approaching them with respect as an equal. You see them as a project.

Often, we can convince ourselves that we’re not pity-dating someone because we see “potential” in them. We see the person we think they can be and we’d really like to date that person, so we date them now and try to change them.

That might not sound like pity-dating, but it’s the same principle. You’re dating someone you’re not attracted to. You’re attracted to a fictional future version of them. Dating them now is about “saving” or helping them, which is pity-dating.

4. There’s little physical contact

When a date is going well, there’s often a lot of physical contact between you. This might be a light touch to their elbow to draw your attention towards something or your leg resting against his as you sit side by side. This is usually (though not always) missing during a pity date.

There are two main reasons for the reduced touch on a pity date. The first is natural. We touch people we like much more than people we’re not interested in4. It’s one of the clearest signs we have to show someone that we’re sexually interested in them or that we trust them.

The second reason that there might be less touch on a pity date is that they’re trying to send you subtle signals that you shouldn’t expect another date. They want this to fizzle out naturally to avoid awkward conversations where they might hurt your feelings, so they don’t want to give you any signs of interest. This includes withholding physical touch.

What about if you’re the one who doesn’t want to touch them? If you’re thinking about not wanting to give him the “wrong idea,” then you probably already know that you’re pity-dating him. What’s harder to understand is when you find yourself avoiding physical contact with him instinctively.

This could mean that you’re pity-dating him but it could also just mean that there’s no chemistry between you. It might also be that you’re picking up on something subconsciously that makes you feel a little unsafe. Either way, it’s worth thinking about it carefully to understand what’s going on for you.

Pity sex is a thing, but it shouldn’t be

I mentioned above that we don’t always have less physical contact on a pity date. Sometimes, we can also have sex with someone because we think that they’re feeling sad or insecure and we want to make them happy.

Pity sex is generally not good sex. You’re not actually into it, so there’s rarely a lot of foreplay or mutual pleasure. You’re usually just waiting for it to be over. That’s unlikely to help someone else feel better about themselves and will often just leave you feeling awkward and uncomfortable.

Pity sex creates all the wrong expectations and values around you and your body. Just as going on a pity date reinforces the expectation that you “owe” someone your attention, having pity sex creates a sense that you can “owe” others access to your body or that their desire and sexual needs are more important than yours.

6 Tips to Help You Avoid a Pity Relationship

6 tips to help you avoid a pity relationship

Now you know some of the signs that you’re pity-dating someone, but how can you avoid doing it in the future? Here are some of the best tips to help you avoid pity dates in the first place and stop them from turning into relationships.

1. Be in tune with your own emotions

The first step in making sure that you don’t go on pity dates is to be more in tune with your own emotions. We usually don’t agree to a pity date if we know for sure that we’re not interested in someone. It’s most common when we don’t think we fancy them, but we feel like we have to “give them a chance.”

Both journaling and mindfulness practice can help you to really focus on your own feelings and your needs in a relationship5. Consider focusing on your physical reactions, rather than your thoughts. When someone asks you on a date, look for the physical signs that you’re pleased and excited. If they’re not there, default to saying no.

Focusing on your own emotions can sometimes mean you have to dial down your empathy for others. Empathy is a great quality, but not if it means that you focus more on other people’s feelings than your own.

2. Deal with your codependent tendencies

If you find yourself pity-dating a lot, it’s a strong sign that you might have some codependent tendencies. Although codependency comes from a place of love and affection, it’s surprisingly destructive in the long term6. It’s not good for you or the person you’re dating.

Try to deal with some of the underlying issues that push you towards codependency. Your attachment style, in particular, can influence this. If you have an anxious attachment style, you might want to try to become more securely attached

3. Practice polite ways to reject someone

Rejecting someone is almost never easy, especially if you like or care about them as a person. You might also have been caught off guard by their suggestion of a date. It can be helpful to have prepared a few polite (but clear) ways to reject someone.

Try creating a couple of scripts and then practicing them at home. Try to keep them very simple. For example “I really appreciate the suggestion, but I’m afraid I don’t see you that way” or “that’s very kind but I’m not looking to date right now.”

You don’t need to tailor them to a specific person. It’s often helpful to just know that you have a polite refusal to fall back on if someone does ask you out.

4. Remember that you don’t owe anyone your attention

We quite often find ourselves pity-dating out of a sense of obligation. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad or hurt their feelings. Try to remind yourself that you aren’t doing anything except being honest about your feelings.

You don’t have to “give them a chance” to impress you. They don’t need to have done anything wrong for you not to want to date them. Your time and attention belong entirely to you and they don’t have the right to claim it.

5. See who they are now, not their “potential”

Sometimes we can see a lot of potential in someone else. We can imagine how incredible they would be if they only had more self-confidence or less self-doubt. If you find yourself considering dating someone to try to bring that potential out, it’s time to stop and think.

Remind yourself that they aren’t that future person yet and that it’s disrespectful to try to push them towards becoming a different version of themselves. If you want to help them improve their confidence, that’s great, but you don’t need to date them to be supportive.

Look at who they are right now. Are you attracted to that person? If yes, go ahead and date them. If not, it’s better for both of you to say no.

6. Give yourself time to think

give yourself time to think

You’re probably more likely to pity date someone if you feel like you’ve been put on the spot when they asked you out. Just like the way that it would be very hard to reject a marriage proposal in front of lots of your friends and family, being asked out in front of others can create an extra burden on you.

If you feel that pressure, make sure that you give yourself time to stop and think. Research shows that we make better decisions when we pause to think about them7. Practice saying “I’m not sure. Let me think about it and I’ll let you know.” That’s a great way to give yourself space and, potentially, avoid giving them a face-to-face rejection.

FAQs

Is it bad to date someone out of pity?

Dating someone out of pity is bad for both of you. At the simplest level, it’s dishonest and disrespectful. You both deserve to be dating someone you’re attracted to and who is attracted to you.

Why would someone pity date me?

Often, people will pity date someone because they care about them and don’t want to hurt their feelings. They might also want to avoid the difficult conversation where they say that they’re not interested in you romantically. They might also be codependent and looking for someone to “save.”

Can pity turn into love?

Going on a pity date with someone isn’t usually a good way to build a relationship, but it can sometimes happen. If the first date goes surprisingly well, you might find yourself developing feelings for them. Just be careful that you don’t confuse compassion with love.

Conclusion

Pity dates aren’t as kind or generous as they seem at first glance. If you’re tempted to date someone out of pity, it’s usually best to look at why and try to resolve some of your deeper insecurities around relationships. 

What do you think? Have you ever been on a pity date? How did it go? Let us know in the comments. And if you agree that pity-dating is wrong, don’t forget to share this article and spread the word.

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Whether you're married or just started dating someone, infidelity rates have risen by over 40% in the past 20 years, so your concerns are justified.

Do you want to find out if he's texting other women behind your back? Or if he has an active Tinder or dating profile? Or even worse, if he has a criminal record or is cheating on you?

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7 Sources:
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  2. ‌Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy : sexuality, love and eroticism in modern societies. Polity Press.
  3. ‌Hughes-Hammer, C., Martsolf, D. S., & Zeller, R. A. (1998). Development and testing of the codependency assessment tool. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 12(5), 264–272. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80036-8
  4. ‌Grammer, K. (1990). Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14(4), 209–236. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00989317
  5. ‌Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x
  6. ‌Springer, C. A., Britt, T. W., & Schlenker, B. R. (1998). Codependency: Clarifying the construct. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 20(2), 141–158.
  7. ‌Teichert, T., Ferrera, V. P., & Grinband, J. (2014). Humans Optimize Decision-Making by Delaying Decision Onset. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e89638. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0089638
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