I recently picked up a new “client” – that still feels like a strange way to say it – who asked me to give them dating advice and to help them date better. She said she was terrible at dating and wanted my advice. Now, I’m not perfect at dating. Like everyone, I have room to grow and I am always intentionally looking for ways to improve my social life. And I’ve dated a lot. Like… a lot. Studies show that there is a “magic” number to dating, 12 people. Peter Todd, a professor of infomatics and cognitive science at Indiana University (whose studies were featured in Wired magazine) found that if you have dated 12 people, you’re ready to settle down and marry. That’s the sweet spot. Me? For better or worse, I’m well past that number. And my dating life is still fun, adventurous, and getting better all the time, so why not share what I’ve learned?
I love giving dating advice. I love it. Like, insanely love it. And how could I not? When someone invites me into their life and asks what I think, I see that as a gift between us. It’s something I treasure, but it’s something I try to never take for granted. I will periodically tell my clients, “Listen, you’re the one who needs to live with this advice. If it’s not working, toss it overboard.” But there are some questions which guide how I talk to someone about dating.
What kind of expectations do you have?
Why are you dating? What do you think of when you say “dating” or “relationship? What does “going out” do for you? I have to ask this because, really, it’s different for each person. How much are you willing to give, what are you looking to take away, and what can we work with in-between those points?
More than anything, your expectations of dating will affect how successful you are at dating. If you think a healthy dating relationship will always end in marriage and kids and a minivan, well, it’s no surprise that this is the goal you have set for your relationship. If a strong dating life means dating many people over a lifetime, then you will feel restless with the idea of “The One.” Anything less than your own, individual ideal will make you unhappy. Do you date just for the sex? Well, when one of you starts to develop feelings, things can sour pretty quickly.
All of this can change with time. For example, there have been periods where I didn’t want anything serious. I just wanted to go out, meet people, make some contacts, and get the endorphins flowing. And I always tried to communicate that early on because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt or have false expectations. But there have also been very intense, serious periods where I wanted nothing more than to share the rest of my life with one person.
What you expect from dating someone – the social contract between the two of you – either leads to great happiness or great sadness. Consequently, it affects how you date, who you date, and whether or not you feel like the relationship is working. That can be pretty empowering when you realize it, helping you to channel your dating life to some degree, but you absolutely have to work out what those expectations are. If you want a “ring by Spring” and they just want to go out dancing once a week, you are not on the same page. And that’s okay. But help each other out by talking about realistic expectations for the relationship.
Are you a “good dater” or do you “date well”?
Really, what makes for a “good date”? Not the theatrics of going out – the flowers, the dinners, laughing together – but the overall experience itself. Most people feel like, given enough “good dates” then they are “good at dating.” That’s a logical fallacy, but it’s pretty much what everyone thinks of when they think of someone who is “good” at dating. That person goes out regularly and eventually finds The One, then they get married.
Notice the problem there? You’re “good” at dating when you stop dating. Going along with this idea, when you get married, you’ve won! That’s proof enough right there that you made a good impression and they wanted to keep seeing you!
I don’t take that approach. As great as marriage is, that doesn’t mean either partner is good at dating, good at being in a relationship, or that what they have between them is a good relationship. It doesn’t even mean that the partners date well. All it means is they decided they didn’t want to keep going out, feeling the butterflies, and wanted a measure of stability. That is great! But again, that’s not the same thing as being good at dating or even dating well.
What do I mean by mincing words like that?
Growing up in the South, I was taught and shown that “good” dating always led to marriage and a mortgage. Sometimes shared responsibility of a pet. You knew for certain that you were loved and lovable once you had rings on your fingers and your family heard you say some important things. That was it. That was the moment when the mission was complete. You could go home now. And for most communities, that is still true. You are good at dating when you stop dating.
But what I noticed a year or two after the receptions and dances was that those same “successful” couples started getting divorced. My best friend? Divorced. Literally every person I went to junior high with? They’re divorced. Half of my friends from college? Divorced. For real. They were each and all great people, but getting married didn’t mean they were emotionally intelligent, compassionate, flexible, or willing to stick it out.
For me, “a good date” – pronoun – means you had a good time. You had fun. Whether you went to Disneyland and took photos on Splash Mountain or fell asleep watching Netflix, you had a good time. It was fun! And what I will tell people is that it’s probably a good idea to leave it at that, to not overthink it. No matter what else might happen, you had fun. It was a “good date.”
“Good dating” – verb – means you’re asking people out that you will have fun with (or accepting when they ask) and that you’re fully present each time you do this. I emphasize quality over quantity all the time, so If you’re going out with someone different every night and fun and exciting, you have energy, you’re awake and making healthy life choices? That’s great! So happy for you! But I can’t possibly stop there. My next question is, are you also treating these people well? Taking care of them and their half of the relationship? Do you date well?
It’s not all fun and games
This word I’ve been using, “fun” is often misleading. You need to be a fun person and then bring your fun into the relationship. But if I were to use the word “commitment” instead of “fun”, that would be just as important. What I’m asking when I ask whether you date well is are you able to bring those qualities that you already possess to the relationship? Are you bringing commitment to the relationship, and are you also doing whatever you can to keep them committed to the relationship? Are you bringing love for yourself, respect for yourself, then giving love, giving respect, as well? Are you first embodying and then bringing the qualities you want to see to your relationship? Or are you expecting someone else to do all the work? Because what you want in your relationship, you will have to embody. If you want commitment, be committed. If you want cuddly, huggy, kissy faces, be that cuddly, huggy, kiss faced dater. In others words, you need to be the type of person you want to date. That’s “dating well” for you, in a nutshell. If you think you can dress like a schlub and catch a date with a fashion designer, that just isn’t going to happen. Not even in the movies. If you think you can be emotionally stunted, immature, even abrasive and go on to kick it with a cuddly, doting person, you’ll be single forever.
What you bring to the relationship is what you should be getting out of the relationship, otherwise something is out of balance and it will only get worse as time goes on. Dating is hard work. It requires a lot of you. But once you have a rhythm and can oil the machinery with those qualities that help a relationship thrive, dating becomes a cinch! You need to be the kind of person you would want to date (“good dating” — embodying good qualities for your own growth and betterment) and then share than with others (“dating well” — giving and sharing those same qualities with someone else in the relationship).
Dating well means that you’re not just collecting stories for yourself. You’re building stories simultaneously for someone else. Here’s how I try to say it: “good dating” is for you. You’re benefitting from sharing time with this person. “Dating well” means you are making it possible for someone else to benefit from you. You have opened your heart and life to this person enough to share things and experiences with them. But before you ever get to that part, you first need to know what you expect out of relationships. Not just the relationship you are in, but relationships in general.
Continued in Dating 101 (part 3 – coming soon!)
Watch for Dating 101 to continue as a series, only here on Sexuality & the City!