Have you ever played poker?
If so, one of the first things you learn is that the strength of your own hand depends on the strength of your adversary’s hand. In other words, it’s not enough to know what your hand is. You also need to know what kind of hand your adversary is holding.
Now let’s say you’re thinking about dating a guy. What’s his hand, metaphorically speaking? This would entail asking yourself questions like: How many relationships has he had? How long did they last? Is he any good in the sack? Is he any good with women, or is he a 40-year old virgin? Is he needy or independent? Player or homebody?
It’s important to know how much skill and experience a man has in the dating arena so you can know how the two of you match up. If he’s coming off a divorce and has not been out on his own in 20 years, your Mata Hari seductress routine might scare him off. And if he’s a youngish guy who goes on 15 app-enabled dates a week, you may want to bring your A-game.
That’s why you need to do some Dude Diligence (sic) and figure out what dating phase your guy is in. Beginner? Intermediate? Advanced? Burned? To that end, I present to you the 6.5 Dating Phases of Men, informed by how I went through most of them myself.
Phase 1: Blissful Cluelessness
UNCLE ED: What do you think about girls, Ali?
ME, AGE 7: I don’t really care about girls, Uncle Ed. They’re kinda icky.
UNCLE: Yeah, that’s gonna change, buddy.
In this phase, corresponding roughly to early boyhood, the guy — okay, the kid — is mostly unaware of the existence of a separate gender known as female. Everyone, boy or girl, is a potential playmate. If anything, sometimes there’s even an aversion to the other sex (see dialog above). In the learning trade, you would call this the phase of unconscious incompetence. You’re bad at something (e.g. girls), you don’t even know you’re bad at that something (e.g. girls), and frankly you don’t give a damn, because it’s not even on the radar (girls?). Yet.
Alas, this phase of blissful cluelessness does not last. Although this was definitely me up to age 7, in that year I developed a raging crush on an impossibly cute classmate named Leila (as chronicled in the last chapter of The Tao of Dating and my second TEDx talk, “Love and the Empowered Woman”). There went my peace eternal. She sporadically stayed on my mind for years.
Even that “crush”, though, was entirely asexual—more about seeking simple approval or companionship than some kind of unstoppable drive to join life, limb and loin.
But Uncle Ed knew something from the world beyond, when those loins would finally come online, assert hegemony over the head, and pretty much wreck everything.
How to get the Phase 1 guy: You don’t. He’s just a boy. And stop having those sick thoughts.
- Companionship drive: high
- Sex drive: absent
- Competence: absent
- General state: bliss
- Percentage of men in this phase: Zero. They ain’t men.
Phase 2: Painful Cluelessness
Also known as “adolescence”, this phase starts roughly around 12 and lasts until about 50 (or indefinitely for males in Los Angeles and San Francisco). This is when the loins come online with casual vengeance, flooding the boy’s veins with toxins like testosterone that make him want to dare the devil by jumping off the high-dive, ramps on a BMX bike, handrails on a skateboard. Why? To impress girls, duh. Because within the space of a few months, girls go from not being on the radar at all to becoming the radar.
This phase started relatively harmlessly for me because I was in an all-boys school, so the objects of temptation/mental anguish were not even present. Unfortunately, this school was in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country hell-bent on sending me to die in a futile war against Iraq as soon as I would turn 16. Mom was not down with the early death program, so she packed me up to Los Angeles soon after my 13th birthday.
Suddenly, I found myself deposited at Emerson Junior High School surrounded by these mystical magical creatures called girls. Where did they come from? Why were they so distractingly beautiful? Whereas before, the crushes happened once every fiscal year or so, now they were dive-bombing my psyche on a quarterly or even weekly basis: Jenny the curly-haired ballerina, Robin the quiet gymnast, Heather the freckly smart girl, and a dozen more whose names I didn’t even know.
Now if you will humor me, let’s take a quick mental detour:
Imagine that on your way to work, there is a bakery. And every day, you have to walk by this bakery that has fresh cake, brownies and chocolate in the display window. They’re even considerate enough to leave the door open so the intoxicating aromas of flour, butter, bread and chocolate waft into the street, gently tempting passersby.
And you can’t have any of it.
I dunno, you’re dirt poor, diabetic, just had your jaw wired shut because of a bar fight, or you’re on some stupid diet. Whatever. You just can’t have any. You can only watch the goodies through the window, with other people gleefully hopping in there to stuff their smug faces with fresh chocolate croissant.
Cruel world, eh. Well, that was my world for a very long time. There I was, afloat in this sea of impossibly cute girls, with nothing for me to drink. There was nothing I can do about it because I couldn’t talk to them. What would I even say to such lofty creatures, so lofty as to be composed entirely of loft?
Of course, if I can’t talk to them, then I can’t get to know them. If I can’t get to know them, I can’t ask them out. If I can’t ask them out, there’s no hanging out, no hand-holding at the movies, no making out, no circling of bases, nuffin’. My genes would never propagate to the next generation. The Binazir name would be listed alongside the dodo, the great auk, the aurochs: extinct and forgotten, even though eminently delicious.
You may think this is funny. And, in the sense of comedy being tragedy happening to other people, it definitely is kinda funny.
But it’s also kinda not funny. Especially when it was happening to me. Because it’s especially vexing to want something so badly while being powerless to attain it. Most boys just kinda take it and patiently hope their luck to turn someday. Y’know, get lucky and stuff. Some never do, and call themselves Incels (involuntarily celibates), buy guns and shoot people in movie theaters out of sheer frustration. Or worse, strap a bomb on themselves because someone offered them 72 imaginary girls in heaven. Scary shit.
Luckily, no part of my ego was tied up in getting girls and partying during high school. Even though my body was transitioning to Phase 2, my mind was firmly in Phase 1 clueless bliss. The crushes kept coming, but I considered them mostly curious nuisances, not the centerpiece of my existence. Yet.
How to get the Phase 2 guy. Many men, especially younger ones, are still stuck in this phase—maybe as many as 5-10% of them. Even though they would like to make stuff happen with women, they don’t even know where to begin. They’ll come up to you and say, “Where are you from? What do you do for a living? What’s your favorite movie?” That’s about as likely to get them somewhere as throwing water on a bag of flour is likely to turn it into baguettes. Boy’s going to need some skills. And remember that “boys” can be as old as 50.
If you happen to fancy mostly clueless but still horny men, getting one shouldn’t be very difficult. You just have to be the first woman who gives him attention. Just make it very easy for him to spend time with you. And ask him questions like, “So, when were you going to finally ask me out?” He will think this is the most miraculous thing that has ever happened and probably follow you around to the ends of the earth, forever and all time, hallelujah and amen.
Upside: He will think you’re the greatest thing since chocolate croissants. Another upside is that, due to lack of skills, he’s not going to have a lot of options besides you, so he’s less likely to stray.
Downside: You will need to take a lot of initiative to get things going, because he will be scared and clueless. And then, the boy is going to get very attached to you, very fast. And that can get old very fast. As will being his boss. Were you looking for a partner or a pet? And lack of skills in the courtship department usually means lack of skills in the sack, at least initially. Luckily, pets and people can learn. Which brings us to the next phase.
- Companionship drive: high
- Sex drive: on overdrive and rising
- Competence: absent
- General state: quiet desperation
- Percentage of men in this phase: 5-10%
Phase 3: Marginal Competence
At college, once again I was thrown amongst a whole bunch of women, many of them exceedingly cute. But this time, things were a little different. I was no longer a six-sigma outlier impoverished nerd in a high school of rich cool kids, but rather a nerd of middle rank in a whole school of nerds. In fact, at Harvard, since almost everyone was smart, and nerd is usually the label normal people apply to smart people to feel better about themselves, you could say Harvard had no nerds at all. In the same way that, say, amongst NBA players, nobody’s really tall.
This, of course, was a grand opportunity for reinvention. No one needed to know that I’d been to exactly one real party in my life, or had kissed exactly zero three-dimensional girls. College: a way to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire basic social skills. But at least that’s some useful education.
So I started going to parties and talking to everyone. I wasn’t very good at it, and it was still frustrating to see other guys insta-making out with girls at parties, without having the slightest clue as to how to board that bus myself. Poisoning oneself with ethanol seemed to be part of the procedure, which I was definitely not down for.
But at least I was in the arena, making friends. I even learned to dance and got reasonably good at it. Baby steps, yo.
With new skills and new horizons opened, and new question would arise: how can I turn a girl who happens to be my friend into a girlfriend? Y’know, like the smoochy kissy version?
It’s fascinating in retrospect: here’s a 17-year old kid clever enough to figure out Schrödinger’s equation, Fourier analysis, the inscrutabilities of Immanuel Kant. You just throw him a book, and he wrestles it down, and digests its contents into mental tools he can use.
But he can’t figure out how to kiss a girl. Or even where to go to figure out how to kiss a girl. Should I call my parents? Ask my older sister? Is there even a book for this kind of thing somewhere in Widener Library? Naaah, might as well give up.
The craziest thing is that I was not alone in my cluelessness. Once a semester, each of our dorms (“Houses”) would hold a ball: The Formal. And for that one date every four months, the entire campus would go into a tizzy. How do you ask a girl out? No Harvard class for that, alas. No counselors, either.
That was part of the reason I wrote a book in 2005 called The Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Success With Women. (Yeah, the book for men was first. And no, you can’t buy it anymore.)
But I digress. In spite of my lack of skill, lightning did eventually strike, and I finally had a girlfriend in my third year of college. Score! Except — not entirely. We both had strange notions about what should and should not happen before marriage, so we technically never had sex. That would come later. All puns fully intended.
At this point, I was the Marginally Competent Guy. I was interesting and witty enough, and maybe even fun to be around. But I didn’t have a reliable system to have girls go out with me, become my girlfriend, and stay my girlfriend. I found out the hard way that that last part is actually pretty tricky, involving a whole new sets of skills I did not possess, as chronicled in gory detail in my article How to Get Over a Breakup: Professional Edition.
How to get the Phase 3 guy: I’d say most guys — maybe 60-70% of them — are in this phase. Getting him will be similar to the Phase 2 guy, perhaps with a little less hand-holding. If you give him attention, he will usually take initiative and ask you out. Just remember that he’s pretty scared, so you have to make the green lights pretty obvious. Returning his communications in an encouraging manner and saying “yes” to his invitations should do the trick.
Upside: Sometimes the Phase 3 guy is a real diamond in the rough, so if you’re willing to put up with a little bit of cluelessness, he could make a great companion, spouse, and dad. He will have more options than the Phase 2 guy, but not by much, since his system for meeting women is luck-based, not skill-based. He’s playing dice, not poker. Therefore, as long as you treat him well, he’ll think he’s the luckiest man in the world to have you, and will generally do his best to keep you around.
Downside: It’s easy to misread his lack of aggression for lack of interest, which could lead to a premature ending of the courtship. This means you have to step up your aggression and pursue him a little more than you’re used to. Although some women are loath to admit this, things like aggression and success with other women are what subconsciously make men more attractive to their partners. So if he’s not good with women in general, you just might lose interest yourself. But then you’d be potentially missing out on a fabulous long-term relationship with a decent man. So you’ll need to take deliberate action to maintain your interest, which can be challenging.
- Companionship drive: high
- Sex drive: high
- Competence: marginal
- General state: okay but could be better, and you look really nice today
- Percentage of men in this phase: 60-70%
Phase 4: Abundance
After college, I went to medical school, where my social skills found another practice arena. Once again, no one knew of my prior life, so I could even attempt to be cool! Which frankly isn’t all that difficult amongst a bunch of ultra-studious pre-meds, but still. I joined the university ski team and started partying in earnest, including drinking (gulp).
I was getting better at talking to women, and had gained some notoriety for getting a lot of phone numbers from them. But unbeknownst to the observers, not a whole lot was actually happening afterwards. I’ll always remember finally getting the cutest girl in our med school class to go out with me to see a play, and then sitting in the car with her for 30min at the end of the evening. Without making any kind of move. What move was I supposed to make? I didn’t know karate or kung fu. This boy clearly had a long way to go.
Finally, in my second year, I met a girl who would become my first real girlfriend. She rightly challenged the irrationality of my idea to stay a virgin till marriage, and proceeded to have her wicked way with me, bless her heart. And I realized that although sex was tons of fun, I had built it up to be a much bigger thing than it really was. Religion can really mess with your head, and not in good ways.
But then something interesting happened towards the end of medical school. A younger friend told me about some interesting material he had found on the internet, which like my friend, was in its adolescence. It was about talking to women. There’s a book about it?
I read it. It was eye-opening, revelatory, paradigm-smashing, world-expanding stuff. It told me exactly what I had been doing wrong around women my entire life (e.g. being safe and seeking approval) — and how to do it right henceforth. Apparently there was a way to speak to women, with a certain intent and demeanor, that triggered ancient, unconscious circuits in the woman’s brain that said, “This guy is sexy.”
I was pretty sure I had never been sexy at any point in my life. Holy revolution, here I come.
After med school, I moved back to Boston and started to implement my new skills. They worked shockingly well. Overnight, I went from kissing a girl approximately every other time a meteorite hit me, to doing it on a weekly basis. And then an eveningly basis. Every time I went out, I could potentially stir up some magic, and suddenly find myself in the Makeout Zone. Unreal!
I went from perennially having no girlfriend, to having too many — sometimes as many as 4 at at time (not that I ever called them my girlfriends). I still had zero skills in the relationship maintenance zone, but I was frankly having too much fun to care. Finally, after decades of deprivation, I could have women in my life, in my bed, on my terms! Wheeee! And make up for all that sex I never had.
That was fun, until it wasn’t. But that’s the story for the next phase. For now, I had newfound power and therefore, choice. Because I had choice, I did not have to put up with subpar treatment. Nor did I have to settle for the first woman who would give me attention. Instead of being a spectator to my own life, and a beggar to chance, I could reliably arouse the interest of a woman of interest and make something happen. That was big.
How to get the Phase 4 guy: Depending on where you are, 10-20% of men are in Phase 4 (in Latin countries, more like 80%). Unlike the guys from the prior phases, the Phase 4 guy has skill, choice and will. He’s been around the block a couple of times and knows enough about a woman’s mind and body to make him dangerous. In fact, that very danger can make him appealing to you, even if he’s not necessarily a good fit. He has enough choice such that he can go for what he wants, not just what fortune throws his way.
So to get him, you must first be his type, which is not entirely in your control. And then you must play the game better than him. You do that by being the buyer, not the seller, while still being your amazingly kind self. You have high standards but still treat him better than anyone has ever treated him. Feisty but nice. If this tightrope act doesn’t sound easy, it’s because it isn’t. Which is why I wrote a whole 280-page book on how to do it.
Upside of the Phase 4 guy: Because other women find him attractive, there will be some dynamic tension in your relationship which will keep you attracted to him. He’s more experienced in the sack, which has definite entertainment value. And Phase 4 guys also tend to be generally more interesting, dynamic, powerful people.
Downside of the Phase 4 guy: Let’s face it: the Phase 4 guy is basically a Bad Boy, and probably a pain in the ass. The problem with getting involved with a guy who’s good at the game is that you may get so involved in playing the game and winning him over that you may not notice that you two are not a good fit for each other. Or that he’s just not into the idea of long-term relationships. With anybody. And because he has more-than-average choice and power with women, he could still get bored and wander off, even if you two do get along and you do everything right. He may also just hook up with someone else for kicks.
- Companionship drive: medium to low
- Sex drive: very high
- Competence: high
- General state: ohhhh yeah, baby
- Percentage of men in this phase: 10-20%
Sub-Phase 4.5: The Trough of Disillusionment
Even if the Phase 4 guy has gotten good at finding, meeting and attracting women, he doesn’t necessarily want or know how to keep them around for the long run. Sure, he’s having many relationships, which is an improvement over none at all. But, just like a well-known side effect of life is death, a well-known side-effect of having many relationships is having many breakups. And breakups are a little bit like getting dental work: sometimes necessary, never pleasant.
I’ve had my fair share of breakups, and over time, I’ve certainly gotten better at handling them. But they all suck, and each leaves enough of a bitter aftertaste to make chasing down the next Bright Shiny Object of Desire slightly less appetizing. It’s also easy to generalize the ensuing state of self-invalidation, self-pity, loneliness and disappointment into “Oh, there are no good ones out there. Why even bother?”
I don’t call this a full phase unto itself because it tends to oscillate back and forth with the Abundance or Marginal Competence phase. The guy eventually scrapes himself off the floor with the spatula of self-respect, and starts looking for love again. And — he succeeds! And then that relationship dissolves again, and he’s back in the trough.
But if a guy lacks resources for resiliency, he could end up becoming a permanent resident of this purgatory. In other words, he’ll be one bitter dude. And bitter dudes you clearly don’t need in your life.
How to get the Phase 4.5 guy: You want a Disillusioned Dude? So you can redeem his faith in women, and love, and by extension, all of humanity and the universe? Really? Are you sure you don’t need a better hobby? ‘Cause martyrdom is not a good look for you.
Although acting the part of the savior can be awfully appealing to some folks, it’s an unstable basis for a long-term relationship. That said, if you do meet Disillusioned Dude, it shouldn’t be very difficult for you to be his shoulder to cry on. And there isn’t much distance from shoulder to neck, from neck to nuzzling, from nuzzling to smooching, and well yeah anyway.
It’s easy to start a relationship when one of the two partners is in a particularly vulnerable state. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. What happens when they’re over the breakup and shit gets real again?
So please: let the guy do his own healing and figure himself out enough such that he seeks you out on your own merit, and not just as the closest tear-absorbent pillow.
Upside: He’s vulnerable! He’s sensitive! He’s sharing his feelings! He wants to spend lots of time with you!
Downside: He’s too self-absorbed in his pain to be a full person capable of offering you support should you need it. Which is one of the big points of having relationships, if not the point.
- Companionship drive: varies between low and needy
- Sex drive: low and decreasing
- Competence: dormant
- General state: FML
- Percentage of men in this phase: 5-10% at any given time
Phase 5: Something Like Wisdom
If a guy has chased many Bright Shiny Objects of Desire, caught a few of them, and eventually let them all go, and still has a few functioning neurons left over in his brain, he may start to notice a pattern: “I really hankered for that girl and thought a relationship with her would solve my problems. But it turned out she wasn’t the answer. Huh.”
And then, if he’s really clever, he’ll make a radical leap: “Well, if it wasn’t Jennifer, or Shannon, or Elizabeth, or Charlotte, or Maddy, or Rachel, then who? What if no one is the answer?”
Bingo. There is no “answer” out there in the form of a human.
Sure, there is this unthinking biological drive, deeply embedded in my 3 billion base-pairs of DNA honed over millions of years saying, “Go, go, go get the girl! It’s going to be awesome!” Because all that drive wants to do is make more people.
But is that what I want? And exactly which of the world’s problem does having more people solve? Hmmm.
In the Wisdom phase, the guy is able to step back from his own thoughts, instincts and unconscious drives, and ask himself: Is that really good for me? Or is it just the ancient software speaking? Y’know, the same software that thinks eating a pint of Cherry Garcia for dinner is a good idea?
In this phase, instead of being disillusioned, the guy becomes free of illusion. Instead of thinking of every attractive woman he meets as The Answer, he asks himself: What’s my mission in life? How can I best serve the world? And would being with this woman catalyze my ability to serve or hamper it? Where’s the fit?
Don’t get me wrong: he’s still a little horny. But he’s learned to watch the drunken lust-bunnies in his mind. They somehow turn the women he meets into The Answer, over and over again, with no supporting evidence. But now he can see those lust-bunnies for what they are: not real. Illusion. Special effects. Super-convincing, and even entertaining at times. But not real.
So he starts looking for substance. He starts looking for depth. He starts looking for partners who are on a mission similar to his own. Instead of just extended-remix hookups, he’s looking for longer-term relationships. “How can she best activate my gifts in service to the world?”, he asks himself.
And he’s patient, because he’s no longer hungry. And he’s not really lonely either, because he enjoys being alone. Sure, he’ll still notice you if you saunter along. But solitude suits him just fine.
How to get the Phase 5 guy: To get the Phase 5 guy, you must first get him — fully understand where he’s coming from. And be a Phase 5 woman yourself. Then, there just might be a fit.
Upside: By the time he reaches Phase 5, a guy has most of his shit sorted out and is ready to relate to another human being in a meaningful way. He’s done with light entertainment and wants the main show. He’s interested in partnership, depth, mutual enrichment, growth, and service. This could be a really good start.
Downside: If you’re not at or near Phase 5 yourself, this may be more goodness than you can handle. Most relationships end because either the partners are at different life phases or grow at different rates. Although being with a Phase 5 guy could potentially feel wonderful, it’s also a little bit like driving a racecar: are you prepared? Can you handle a guy who wants and appreciates you but doesn’t necessarily need you? A guy who just plain refuses to fight? Or to save you? Or to get jealous? Can you be interdependent without being codependent? How well have you worked out your own shit? Careful what you wish for.
- Companionship drive: unhurried
- Sex drive: mostly irrelevant but present on demand
- Competence: high but unused; plays the game of no-game
- General state: equanimity
- Percentage of men in this phase: 1-2%
Phase 6: Transcendence
I almost didn’t include this in the list, because it’s a vanishingly small portion of the population: probably 0.01% or even less. But the scientist in me yearns for completeness, so I present to you Transcendent Man.
I can’t claim to have firsthand experience with this phase, but I have spent time with at least one woman who I believe was in the Transcendent phase. It’s a pretty unusual zone to inhabit.
Imagine that you’re 3 years old again, and everything is novel and interesting. Butterflies! Bugs! Cars driving by! That billboard over there! Everything is just delightful. And so are people! Every one of them is a manifestation of the divine, so perfect in their operating, such a once-in-the-existence-of-the-universe event, that the opportunity to hang out with any of them is simply delightful.
Of course, that is the absolute truth: everything is miraculous all the time, should we have the eyes to see. But at the same time, this biological notion of pair-bonding requires that your partner think you’re at least a little bit special. If everything is delightful all the time, where do you fit in? Clearly this guy doesn’t need you — or anybody else for that matter. But does he even want you?
A relationship with a Phase 6 guy could be novel and invigorating. It could even be a rapid accelerator to your own spiritual growth. But I have no data on whether it’s sustainable. An awakened person by definition has few attachments, if any. And you probably won’t be one of them. I’d say given a chance to hang out with a truly Phase 6 guy, you should take it, so long as you have zero expectations as to the duration of the relationship.
How to get the Phase 6 guy: You can’t. Heck, chances are you probably won’t even meet one in this lifetime. But if you do, just be curious about him and keep asking questions. It’ll be a trip.
- Upside: A completely new way of encountering the world.
- Downside: You will initially have no idea how to relate to him. And probably never will.
- Companionship drive: he likes having people around, maybe probably?
- Sex drive: in hibernation with a chance of selective re-awakening
- Competence: irrelevant
- General state: bliss
- Percentage of men in this phase: 0.01% or less
You now have some signposts for figuring out what kind of guy you’re dealing with when you’re out there dating. So use them! They will make your love life easier.
Although that’s nominally the main message of the article, there are three other big points in the subtext that I want to make sure you don’t miss:
1) No person is The Answer. Hell, no person or thing is The Answer. If there is such a thing as The Answer, it has to come from within. Meditate, yo.
2) No man is perfect. Every relationship has upsides and downsides. Even the most evolved man can be a significant pain in the ass, not in spite of being evolved but because of it. That said, you can still aim for a relationship with a guy who’s a better fit instead of a worse one.
3) Be curious, kind and generous, and you’ll go far. You can get yourself twisted in knots trying to interpret every move a guy makes so you can get the upper hand. Or you can just be genuinely interested in getting to know him better. I present that the latter approach is easier and more fun.
Did you find this article useful? Then please share it with single (or non-single) friends who would benefit from it! And if you have any insights and experiences of your own about the Phases of the Guy, please leave a comment and share with the rest of us!
Image credit: Busetto/Circa
This is Incredibly illuminating. I received a lot of insights from it. With my limited knowledge and interactions with men, I believe it’s on-point 100%. Thank you for sharing this information with the world.
This was a long, in-depth, brilliant read. I enjoyed the getting over a breakup rabbit hole you included as well. I remember reading The Tao of Dating years ago and promptly discarding everything I learned when I met The One. Haha…I just divorced him at the tender age of 30. So I’m going back to those roots and will re-read and reapply everything! I also downloaded the free ebook. I relate to so much of this, especially the potentially negative effects of religion. So I’m on a self-imposed dating hiatus (no time limit, just focusing on healing from the relationship that went from bad to worse). Thank you for popping back in my inbox when I needed the lessons most!
Thanks for the kind words, Winnie! And thrilled to hear you’re on the upswing :)
Hmm how do I meet a phase 5 guy with a high sex drive…?