Have you ever wished there was some sort of universal dating rulebook? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we were all operating with the same guidelines and expectations?
The lack of clarity and consistency with how people date can be maddening. It often feels like a kindergarten recess. Some people are playing football while others are playing soccer. Some people are swinging on the monkey bars while others are crying off in the corner. Everyone has their own way of going about it.
I don’t have access to a universal dating rulebook, but if you’re looking for some guidelines to navigate your own romantic journey, I have compiled a solid list of things to do and avoid that might help.
What to do
If you’re a total goof, be a goof. If you’re more intellectual, be intellectual. If you’re Catholic, be Catholic. Don’t jeopardize or shy away from who you are just to win someone over.
Granted, this is much easier said than done. Dating — especially the first few dates with someone new — can be intense. We all want to put our best foot forward. There’s a difference between your best foot and your fake foot, though. It’s absolutely essential to fight against the impulse to be someone that you’re not.
When you’re dating, you’re ultimately looking for someone who accepts and embraces who for who you are. If someone can’t accept who you are, then so be it — let them miss out. Someone else will accept you.
A lot of people feel pressure when it comes to dating, but when you truly believe that the right person will accept you, dating becomes a very freeing experience. When you don’t feel a need to be anyone other than who you are, you can walk into any date with a healthy indifference. Be you, because you are great.
This is an echo of the last point, but applied to conversation. If you’re a Dodgers fan, feel free to talk about the year Kershaw is having if the conversation wanders into sports. If you’re pro-life, don’t be afraid to talk about your convictions if the opportunity presents itself. Don’t soften — or exaggerate — who you are.
When you’re dating someone new, you might be tempted to cover insecurities. You may not set out to straight-up lie, but it can be easy to glaze over facts in order to not scare someone away.
For example, I was recently out on date with someone who asked how many girlfriends I’ve had. I found myself slightly insecure that I didn’t have as many relationships as she had, so I felt an impulse to say, “Oh, a handful or so.” Instead, I chose to be honest and say “two” because two was true. If she thought that was weird, then so be it. I wasn’t going to change my past to fit what I thought she expected. Neither should you.
Dating is a search for someone who embraces us for who we are — not for who we want or appear to be. So don’t hold back — be yourself and talk about stuff that you’re jazzed about.
Because dating can bring together people with wildly different expectations, it is actually a great context in which you can remind someone of his or her value. Even if a relationship ends after just one meeting, a good date can do so much to restore one’s sense of worth and dignity.
So pursue romantic leads with creativity and gratitude and humility. We’re all made in God’s image, so each date is a sacred encounter. Be generous to one another and build one another up, even if you don’t see a relationship going anywhere. If you’re taking the time to go on a date with someone, make the effort to make them feel seen.
This not only impacts the person you’re dating, but it impacts the people they’ll date after you if things don’t work out. They’ll expect better for themselves in the future, and the bar will be raised for the next person. You’d want the same for yourself — to meet someone who exceeds your expectations and standards, who calls you to be better — so be that person for someone else.
What not to do
Don’t date if you’re not ready to date
The point of dating is to find someone you want to commit to. It’s supposed to be fun — but it’s also serious business because our hearts are on the line.
A first date is one thing. A second date is another, different experience. A third date, again, is a whole other thing. The more you date someone, the more of a connection you create — and the more of a connection you create, the more emotional investment and vulnerability. And that emotional investment and vulnerability comes with the potential for pain.
If you’re not looking to commit, then it’s easy to use each other for motivations that diminish us. That may not be a conscious intention, but that’s what happens when you allow someone to emotionally invest in you while you yourself remain detached.
It’s impossible to merely “have fun” with matters of the heart. You can’t play with emotions and expect no one to get hurt.
Don’t be blinded by beauty.
It’s easy to overlook glaring issues when you’re enraptured with the beauty of someone. Red flags don’t look so alarming when you’re sitting across from an attractive individual. It’s important to keep an objective assessment of someone and your compatibility with them.
This isn’t to say attraction is a bad thing. Not at all! It’s a great thing — and necessary. When we date, it’s natural to exaggerate a person’s good qualities. But we also need to guard against getting swept away and overlooking their bad qualities.
Look, no one is perfect. We all have faults and limitations, so being honest about your date’s positive and negative qualities doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t pursue them — it just means your eyes are wide open and you’re seeing them for who they are.
A good practice is to bring your friends into your relationship. When you’re in the ooey gooey stage of a relationship, your friends can provide a clear, non-biased look into the person you’re dating and reflect back to you what they are seeing. Listen what they have to say, because they know you well and they’re not swept up in the emotions you might be feeling.
If you hear a recurring sentiment from your friends, that should catch your attention. Likewise, if they echo something you’ve thought but glazed over, that should catch your attention. They might notice that this person brings out the best in you, or they might talk about a vibe or dynamic that doesn’t seem to fit who they know you to be. What they notice either way is valuable feedback.
Don’t introduce physical affection too soon
Physical acts of affection release dopamine in your brain, creating a chemical connection to another person. This powerful process kicks in for any kind of physical connection, from kissing to holding hands. It’s a beautiful part of the way God designed us: our biochemistry is ordered toward fostering a lasting connection with someone else. We are created as both body and soul, so our attractions work on both levels — we can’t separate physical intimacy from emotional and spiritual intimacy.
We run into trouble if this biochemical process of physical attraction outpaces our emotional connection. Introducing relational dopamine too early creates a bond that might not last, or that we’re not prepared for. This not only sets us up for potential pain, but it also diminishes our ability to make a clear decision. Someone who may not be the best fit for us can suddenly seem like a perfect fit, just because we’re hooked on the dopamine.
You have a responsibility not only to yourself regarding physicality, but you also have a responsibility to the person you’re dating. They might be experiencing the same high, so your actions have consequences for how they might be bonding to you as well. A solid relationship depends on mutuality, freedom, and agency, so be careful not to introduce dynamics that can cloud decisions for either of you.
At some point, the biochemical attraction wears away — and that’s a gift, because it presents us with the clear-eyed opportunity to make a conscious choice of the will to give our heart to someone. Until you get to that point of commitment, though, be thoughtful and respectful when it comes to physical expressions of love.
Dating is a first, exciting step in revealing yourself to someone — and they are opening up to you in the same way. Walk gently and be authentic. Each date is a small gift of self, so share and receive that gift with humility and delight and respect.