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.