November 28, 2006

Dating Advice

One of my blogging friends recently asked on her blog for dating advice. Of course, I was tempted to fill dozens of her comment boxes. I do so love to give advice. But then I figured, heck, since she reads my blog, I might as well put it here.

Of course, I haven't had a date myself in over two decades. You might think that should disqualify me from dispensing advice, but really it's not my fault that my high quality dating skills led me to a solid marriage that has lasted this long. And I've been studying this whole dating thing for years and years. My friends love to entertain me with funny stories of dates gone wrong, so I have heard enough about bad dates to qualify me as some kind of dating anthropologist. And hey, I did take a psychology course in college about dating – honestly, I did – so I believe that gives me some kind of credentials.

I can sum about my advice about dating in a simple sentence: don't think of it as dating.

See, the minute you call something dating, you bring in all this dreadful cultural baggage. All kinds of weird, arbitrary, and convoluted rules, hammered out by patriarchy and set in formica by television shows in the 1950s. All kinds of expectations and pressures that no one, absolutely no one, can live up to. The minute you call something a date, you doom it to failure. Suddenly, your life turns into a sitcom. And that is never a good thing.

It's a bit like the advice MentorPoet gave me the first time we read at a poetry reading together. He wanted me to open with a funny poem, and I was nervous about reading a funny poem to a cold audience. I mean, what if they didn't laugh? What if they didn't find me funny? It seemed like an awful lot of pressure.

He told me the trick: don't think of it as a funny poem. That way, you won't expect them to laugh. Just get into the poem and read it like you are totally serious.

That simple piece of advice removed all pressure. After that, I never minded reading a funny poem. I just get into character – that is, just an exaggerated version of me, which is really not a character at all – and read the poem as if I am completely serious. I drop any expectations. If the audience laughs – and usually they do – it's great, but if they don't, it doesn't matter. Either way, I've performed the poem successfully.

The same thing applies to dating. If it's not a date, there is no pressure. If two people go on a picnic together, eating some nice food, enjoying a natural area, and spending time chatting, then they can both return home feeling good about themselves. It was a good picnic! A nice afternoon!

But if it's a date, the whole thing never ends with a simple nice feeling. No! That apparently is against the official dating rules. The nice feeling of a pleasant afternoon dissolves immediately under a surge of dating questions: did she like me? did I talk enough? did I talk too much? should I have kissed him? what will this lead to? do I want to see her again? what did she mean by that? should I wait for her to call? should I send a text message? was I chewing too loudly? should I have worn my contact lenses? are we compatible? is she smart enough? am I smart enough? did I act stupid?

The dating questions are followed closely by a round of date-doubt, designed to grind away any last bits of self-esteem that may have survived the first round of questions : I know I talked too much. I shouldn't have told that joke. She didn't laugh. I think there may have been something weird about him. It's been three hours and she hasn't called. I don't think she is going to call. Did I remember to give him my phone number? Did I look too eager? Was there spinach in my teeth?

Within an hour of the date, all pleasant feelings have been overtaken by a spiral of questions that get increasingly more desperate and hopeless, a situation that can be remedied only with slabs of chocolate and a long phone call to a friend.

So yeah, if I were single, I would just avoid the dating thing altogether and continue to nurture friendships. I mean, it's always fun to meet someone new, get to know them, spend some time together eating a meal or taking a hike or going to a museum. Perhaps one of the reason I love to get to know people and make new friends is that I've been married for 22 years so I never have that pressure of being on a date.

Of course, Hollywood tell us that without dates, no one ever lives happily ever after. I mean, the movie romance is love-at-first-sight, right? I have known couples, quite a few, actually, who have had an initial intense attraction, a romantic encounter that begins with a bunch of dates and leads to sex within a month or two, and feels like true love. But rarely does that lead to happily-ever-after. From what I've seen, love at first sight usually means, "Hey, I've found someone with whom I can work out my childhood issues." Once the first happy year of infatuation and sex are over, the couple is headed for fights, tension, therapy, or some kind of dramatic breakup. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing – you can learn a lot from being in a relationship with someone just like an emotionally unavailable parent – but it does seem like Hollywood leaves out a whole lot.

From what I've seen, friendships are the best route into romantic relationships that have promise. Of course that brings up the question everyone always asks: will sexual attraction eventually surface even without the ritual of dating? That seems always to me a silly question. I would argue that sexual attraction is such a powerful force that most dating rituals in our culture have been designed to keep it in check, rather than the opposite. I don't think it takes stupid dating rituals to stir hormones into action. I'd say, that if you are close friends with someone who is available and compatible, and sparks aren't flying, that's a sign that you have some emotional work to do before you are ready for a relationship.

And if sparks are going to fly, if chemistry is going to happen, if stars are going to collide, if all the falling-in-love cliches are going to happen, it's nice when it happens between two people who are already friends, who already know and respect and care for each other.


Anonymous said...

That's just how I met my significant other, so I think it's great advice! (Although there was the small matter of one of us not actually being available at the time, but that's a question for a whole separate advice column...)

Yankee, Transferred said...

jo(e), I totally love you.

Repressed Librarian said...

Excellent, thanks! (Not that I will likely have an opportunity to use this advice myself, but I will definitely be passing it on.)

Girl said...

Ooo...I don't know, Jo(e). I hear what you are saying, but I know WAY too many guys who "friend" instead of date and it gets them out of the responsibility of having to express whether they are interested in someone. They can hang out with girls as much as they want and get all the benefits of dating, without the emotional attachment. Of course, it doesn't help that many girls are wrongfully programmed to accept this behavior as 'the best they will get'.

I actually wrote about this a while ago...if you can see past how angry I was at the time...I think my point is a good one.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Great post! I have to confess, though, that I've only ever had any chance with people that I met and thought, "Oooooh!" right away, NOT in a friendship way. I'm actually really bad about not being able to get into relationships with friends - I have to feel that potential spark right away. Of course, after that my partners became my friends. And as I've only had two relationships that lasted more than a couple of weeks, I'm probably not the best model to follow! (Though one is the marriage, 13 years of togetherness and counting.)

Dating definitely sucks, though.

Anonymous said...

This is great, Jo(e). Thanks. I do think it helps to get over the idea that it's a date and just think of doing something with a friend. I'm not there completely. It's hard to turn off the evaluations. And, well, raging hormones don't help much either.

kathy a said...

i just never really understood all the dating stuff -- the rules, the snagging people, the angst. i felt like an alien, because that seemed so important to people, but it just didn't make sense or seem fun to me. it is approaching 26 years with my husband, so i have no recent experience, either.

my daughter is 17, and i know she feels weird because almost all her old friends went boy-crazy and turned cliquish in high school, and she just is not in that place. thankfully.

Anonymous said...

Right on target!

(un)relaxeddad said...

"Friends" is where it started 15 years ago for us.
Though something we've noticed is that there come a point in a long partnership when you need to learn how to date all over again...

listmaker said...

I have a student who really needs to read this. She has desperation written all over her and doesn't understand why her *relationships* go nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Very good advice, indeed.

Red Rollerskate said...

My husband and I definitely jumped into things, and it worked beautifully. BUT I totally agree with your advice, and it is the type of advice I give to others.

Anonymous said...

I have one word to add to all your advice (excellent advice, btw!!!) and that word is "coffee" or perhaps, "tea".

Not "lunch" and by no means "dinner". "Coffee" takes a huge amount of pressure off. So you're going out with him? So what? It's just "coffee"!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

It just occurred to me that I managed to meet Keith, get to know him, learn to love him, and marry him without ever dating! YAY!

And one of the nice thing about our marriage is that we are still having those friendly picnics.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Yes! Exactly!

Chris and I were friends who realised that we were romantically interested in each other and decided to start calling ourselves a "couple."

And, after nearly a year, we realised that we'd never gone on a "date," by his sister's standards. (She'd started dating a guy and insisted on a "first date" with flowers and a fancy restaurant and all that.) Our equivalent of a "first date" was attempting to go bowling with a friend, and ending up watching The Sting at his house.

I can't tell you how glad I am.

YourFireAnt said...

You've missed your calling, Jo(e). Forget poetry. Start writing a column. The Ann Landers slot is vacant, and you've got the touch.



Arbitrista (formerly Publius) said...

I don't know. There's always the problem of getting locked into the "friend" category. Once people perceive you a particular way, it's very difficult to change their perception.

joy said...

Two thoughts come to mind.

First: as soon as you say you're not dating, you think, date! I mean, the old saying, you'll meet him when you least expect him...if I say that, that I am not THINKING of finding "him" (no matter how hard I try not to) I'm expecting him to come around the corner and surprise me! (afterall, I'm not expecting him anymore...!)

The second thought is: relationships cannot happen with out mutual-liking (digging him/ him digging you..forgive the bad grammar). I mean, you can go out on a date, have a wonderful time and think, wow. We're so good together. But he may just think, we had a fun time and that is that. Or visa versa. The mutual-liking has to come naturally. And that is the whole point of needing to be friends first.

Maybe finding a lot of male friends is the way to find the male friend that can be your partner. May still never happen (oh, I hope it will!).

I just cannot say I'm not looking for a date...cause than I'm looking!

Anonymous said...

Dating is overrated to say the least. As you said Jo(e), way too much pressure to be perfect. Who cares! If you click with someone (no matter the situation), then go with it. You may have limitations on the bond and you may only end up being blogger buddies or something equally platonic, but that may end up being an incredible connection!

I think these lyrics describe my take on it perfectly!

“I'm happy with myself
I'm happy with myself
and I don't have what it takes to please you.”
Over The Rhine, Happy With Myself, Eve


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I'm certainly not opposed to dropping the formal date, not that I've been on many, but the idea that I will spend time with an available man I like enough to actually, you know, spend time with and *not* think of it as dating is really unlikely.

Maybe the pool of available men (or women) is large enough where you are that you don't think about it. If there were a lot of 30-50ish single men around here, then maybe....

Or maybe you married people out there have forgotten what it's like not to know where your next kiss (etc.) is coming from? And to go a very long time between them?

purple_kangaroo said...

I hope my kids will have lots of good friendships before they ever date.

............ said...

I hear you, I could think about this dating stuff forever. I always feel a little bit guilty when people ask how my fiance and I got together because we were friends for so long so we never really "dated." But I think that's because we did a lot of dating without calling it a date-- just like your post suggests.

Dating 4.0

Anonymous said...

Dating pressure makes me nuts! I don't understand how you are supposed to create intimacy with someone you just met. People always ask why I don't date more, but I just hate it, and I end up taking it out on the guys, and then feeling horrible. Sometimes I think I would rather just be by myself.

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Dating said...

Maybe the pool of available men (or women) is large enough where you are that you don't think about it.