Following Your Instincts

Conventional wisdom says it’s best to follow your instincts. But according to one former FBI profiler, letting your gut rule over your dating decisions can be disastrous. Read on…

By Chelsea Kaplan

t’s been said of looking for love: “When you know you’ve met The One, you just know.” Many happily coupled men and women claim that their “gut” told them right off the bat that their partner was the real deal — and at the same time, lots of people
One good trait does not a perfect mate make.
also attest that their instincts accurately signaled when a first date would end up being a complete dud.

Though many daters have successfully been led by those instincts to Mr. or Ms. Right (or as a means of warding off Mr. or Ms. Wrong), former FBI Senior Profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole asserts that the truth actually contradicts conventional lore. According to O’Toole, the messages you receive from your gut when you’re dating are usually unreliable, untrustworthy and can be downright dangerous. “Many conscientious people believe they are inherently blessed with wonderful instincts that will alert them if the ‘wrong’ person or situation confronts them when dating,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this is a complete falsehood. I have seen so many times when people mistakenly relied on this inner barometer they believe they were born with — a barometer they think is consistently reliable, extremely well-honed and foolproof — and then are shocked when they (or someone they love) gets victimized, emotionally or otherwise. It’s always wiser to believe what you see — not what you ‘feel’.”

Tend to trust your gut when looking for love? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Below, O’Toole lists five messages your gut may be sending that could actually prove more harmful than helpful when you’re dating someone:

Gut Feeling #1: “He/She is amazing — I felt it right away!”
Hey, it happens. Sometimes after just one date, you feel a visceral connectedness with the other person. Though this can be exhilarating, O’Toole says that it’s not always wise to trust your initial gut instincts about a date. While someone may radiate kindness, trustworthiness, compassion (or any other desirable quality), it’s best not to make snap judgments about someone’s true nature until after a longer period of time, she explains: “Once you’ve watched him or her interact with others in different situations, more behaviors come out and we begin to see different patterns in others’ personalities. It’s these patterns that are important.” For example: Let’s say you meet someone and during the first month or so, this person says that he or she pays child support payments and all other bills on time. Your date borrowed a little money from you but then paid it back quickly (along with a few other nice things), which makes your gut to tell you that he or she is trustworthy. “But what if he or she is physically or verbally abusive to the children when they visit?” O’Toole asks. “Or, what if this person spends hours on the computer (even the company computer) surfing pornographic sites? Does this behavior concern you? How does this fit into your partner being trustworthy? One good trait does not a perfect mate make.”

When working in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, O’Toole says the importance of obtaining someone’s “baseline of behavior” was always emphasized. “This means developing an understanding of the full repertoire of someone’s behavior patterns over a period of time, not just when someone thinks they are being scrutinized or watched.” Therefore, even if your gut tells you that this person you’re considering making a life partner seems like a stand-up type, it’s essential to think like an FBI agent and get a baseline of behavior first. That way, you won’t miss any red flags before it’s too late.

Gut Feeling #2: “He/she would make a great parent.”
Your gut is screaming to you that your date’s kind, gentle Maria Von Trapp-esque nature may very well make her the perfect mother. However, if you’re certain that having children is crucial for your future happiness, relying on a gut feeling to judge whether your date shares your level of dedication and parenting fitness is very risky, says O’Toole. “The decision to start a family is, naturally, an extremely important one,” she asserts. “Therefore, discerning if someone might want children and
Few behaviors are more annoying than dates who ramble on about a former flame.
would be a good parent without directly asking and observing that person in various situations involving children is dangerous.” Coming to these conclusions based on a gut feeling has the potential of producing results that are just wrong, she cautions, and the risks to you are great. “Why rely on nebulous feelings when you can ask direct questions and observe a series of behaviors involving kids?” If you’re looking for a mate who will also be a fantastic parent, O’Toole advises asking questions like “Do you want children?” and “What would happen to our relationship if we were to get pregnant?” (Be sure to do this at appropriate times, of course.) Additionally, observe your mate in situations involving children, paying careful attention to his or her attitude towards and readiness for children. Just don’t forget to factor in age; a 23-year-old who seems disinterested in kids may very well change his or her tune in time.

Gut Feeling #3: “This person seems sketchy... not sure if us dating is a good idea”
When someone radiates a shady vibe, the “run!” message from your gut can be as subtle as a tornado. Despite these visceral warning signals, O’Toole warns not to jump to conclusions too quickly. Instead, she advises, consider the factors and behaviors you’re using to draw negative conclusions. Is it how this person looks, dresses, or the background your date comes from? The aforementioned clues aren’t always reliable indicators of someone’s character, O’Toole asserts; someone who has, say, facial piercings probably doesn’t like to bite the heads off puppies, and someone whose dad has been married five times might actually make the world’s most loving, stable spouse. Making snap judgments from external factors — even if your gut’s telling you to do so — can make you miss out on a potentially good (if unconventional) mate. However, if your date engages in illegal or cruel behaviors, your gut and brain should be telling you to move yourself right along, says O’Toole.

Gut Feeling #4: “We are definitely not right for each other. It’s time to go our separate ways — fast.”
O’Toole says that most of the time, feeling genuinely incompatible with someone makes it easier to move on with your life. However, if the person shows dangerous tendencies that you’ve ignored or overlooked, you be putting yourself at risk by leaving relationship, she cautions. “In this case, how you let this person down so you can move on with your life can become very important,” O’Toole explains. “Don’t trust your gut feeling if it’s telling you to move on as swiftly as possible and wash your hands clean of the relationship; he or she may be the type of person who’s ultra-sensitive to slights or rejection of any kind and blows them out of proportion when they do occur. If this is the type of person you’re leaving, you may need to consult with an expert about designing a correct exit strategy and how to identify stalking.” (Remember Basic Instinct? Exactly.)

Gut Feeling #5: “This person seems a little too hung up on an ex... not sure they’re over each other yet.”
Few behaviors are more annoying than dates who ramble on about a former flame. Though irritating, O’Toole says that talking about an ex isn’t necessarily a red flag that your date hasn’t moved on. Before your gut tells you to run, ask yourself what behaviors (other than remarking about a past relationship) make you think that. Maybe your date’s just nervous and (unwisely) grasping for a conversation topic, or trying to find some common ground between you and a recent ex-partner. O’Toole also advises taking a look in the mirror: “Is it possible that you are a very jealous person, and the mere mention of the ex sends you into a rage? Again, in order to conclude that your date is too hung up on an ex, you need to understand this person’s behavior — both verbal and physical behavior — over a period of time, and in different contexts with different people to know if your gut is telling you the truth.”

If you’re considering getting into a long-term relationship, O’Toole recommends looking for the following red flags:
  • Is the ex always the topic of conversation?
  • Does this person purposefully engage in behaviors that put him or her in contact with the ex?
  • Does your date compare the two of you to each other?
  • Does this person’s pastimes, hobbies, etc. seem like attempts to rekindle the old relationship — or at least perpetuate it?
If you can say “yes” to any of the four points listed above, O’Toole says that your gut may be leading you in the right direction… but if not, it’s wiser to ignore it.

When DC-based journalist Chelsea Kaplan isn’t helping you solve your relationship problems, she’s making jewelry. Check it out at
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