Millennials’ Fatal Dating Flaw — and How to Fix It

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer
Illustration: Getty Images

I recently conducted an informal survey of men and women in their 20s and 30s, during which I asked each one to share their biggest gripe about the opposite sex. I didn’t expect the result to be so unanimous, but it was. Across the board, “poor communication” was the No. 1 complaint.

Many millennial daters are blind to how they’re coming across. Case in point: I remember once interviewing a guy in his late 20s who swore he’d improved his communication skills a ton in recent years. Then he started describing a recent failed romance, where he just couldn’t figure out what this girl was thinking or what she wanted after a couple of months of dating.

She seemed to run hot and cold. One day, she’d ask him to meet all her friends or family. The next, she’d dodge date invites or fail to reply to texts. In response to her actions, he simply played the withholding game too. He called it a “power struggle.” They both “probably had other options,” he presumed. To this day, he doesn’t know what went down.

I saw a really simple solution to the problem, which never seemed to occur to him.

“Did you ever ask her what she wanted from you? In dating?” I asked. Answer: No.

“Did you tell her what you wanted from the relationship?” Answer, again: No.

The whole issue could have been clarified and cleared up with a few direct questions and honest statements. “So, how do you think you’ve improved your communication skills over the past few years?” I asked. He laughed. Maybe Ive just improved my communication with myself?

Figuring out how to cut through your own internal noise to date more effectively is not a bad thing. We all need to get real with ourselves about what we actually need and desire from relationships. But ultimately, that doesn’t mean much if you can’t also be open and vulnerable with those you date.

We’re practically set up to fail. Technology has stunted our communication patterns, mixed up messages, and convoluted interpersonal signals. Many young adults don’t like to use the phone. Most rely heavily on text exchanges that fail to convey the appropriate nuance; we frequently start relationships this way, meeting on app interfaces where all you can do is text.

Even if you can get off technology and into real life, there are still problems — some of which have existed, especially between the sexes, for ages. I find there are two major camps:

Lax communicators

I’d say more men fall into this camp than women. Lax communicators are vague. Their intentions are often veiled. They don’t clarify what they want and need from a relationship partner. They’re often out of touch for long spans of time, and they’re not particularly good at staying present. They live in the here and now, and often their partner might view their lack of consistency as cold and callous.

Mixed-signal communicators

I’d say more women fall into this camp than men. Mixed-signal communicators often don’t say what they mean, or mean what they say. They will run hot and cold to make a point. They “test” their relationship partners with dares, passive-aggressiveness, or withholding. They live in nuance, often read between the lines and convey hidden meanings their partner is magically supposed to understand.

Bottom line: We all need to get better at conveying what we mean, and stop assuming everyone consumes information the same way we do.

There are different kinds of communicators. Some people are very direct; others assume that subtext is everything. Learning a person is like learning a language, where you have to constantly piece out their patterns: Do they typically pick up on nuance and deeper meanings, or expect and appreciate directness? It’s fantastic to put effort into understanding how others communicate as best (and as soon as) you can.

The biggest issue is that so many communication problems happen in the early stages of dating, before you have time to learn exactly how another person processes all those signals. With that, being very intentional in your communication with relationship prospects is huge.

Here’s my cheat sheet for effective communication, millennials. The next time you encounter someone you’d like to see more often, this is what I want you to do. Listen up.

Direct communicators will say something very honestly to a relationship prospect, and the read-between-the-lines types will think they’re being played. Subtext communicators will say they’re “OK with going anywhere” on a date, for instance, and get extremely miffed when the other person chooses a dive bar instead of fine dining.

Early on especially, the clearer and more detailed you can be, the better. This helps the other person get to know you, your likes, and your preferences. They aren’t going to instantly “get you.” They need to learn you. So, help! Put effort into planning dates with each other (one person doesn’t need to do it all). Tell them what you like and what you don’t (this helps determine compatibility). Communicating effectively and appropriately on all mediums (if you don’t know what someone means, pick up the phone and ask until you’re clear).

Daters make a lot of promises. “I’ll text you ____.” “Let’s meet on Wednesday night; I’ll call you to confirm a time.” “I’ll take you to that new restaurant in town!” And then … you know, they’re ghosted, or the person just straight up doesn’t follow through. This happens so often, it’s no wonder there are so many people withholding communication, playing games, and dissecting dating prospects with their friends — who usually just give bad advice to issue tests instead of directly addressing the poor communication.

If you like someone and want them to know you’re serious, just do what you say you’re going to do exactly when you say you’re going to do it. If you say you’re going to call at 7 p.m. on Monday, call at 7 p.m. Not at 8:30. Not at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. It’s crazy that I have to give this advice, but it’s the most important piece of the puzzle. Kinda-sorta doing what you say is a recipe for confusion: “Does he/she like me?” and intermittent reinforcement will drive you crazy. Consistency matters. Patterns make people believe.

People used to have “The Talk” or DTR (“Define the Relationship”) by default. Now it rarely happens, because people are afraid to explicitly declare how they feel and scare the person off. So, instead, they settle for a fraction of what they actually want, and live in constant worry that the other person is going to bounce.

It’s time to bring back the art of clarity. At every stage of the relationship, after the first several dates, you need to mutually agree upon the boundary lines. Are you exclusive? Committed? Boyfriend/girlfriend? Seeing others? I don’t care what they are; just have a really open discussion about it. I hate talking to a girl who assumes she’s building a relationship with a near-boyfriend, only to find out he’s sleeping with other people. Or talking to a guy who wants more with a woman, but thinks saying so will scare her off.

If you want to have better relationships that actually feel stable, satisfying, and legitimately healthy, then you need to learn to state what you want, put effort into communicating clearly, and remain consistent. Setting a new (higher) standard for how we date can start with you.

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Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to with YAHOO QUESTION in the subject line.