Today’s dating culture isn’t one of immediate investment. With apps like Tinder, Bumble, Match, and the League flooding the landscape, you can have dates round the clock if you’d like.
Many daters, especially in big cities, set up multiple dates over the course of an evening: happy hour drink with one person, dinner around 7:30 or 8 p.m. with another, and a late-night cocktail with yet another. In less hectic settings, dating can still be a frenzied mix ’n’ match process. Friends of mine, when really invested and committed to the process, have averaged three dates with three different prospects in a week.
Needless to say, today’s version of dating can feel more like speed dating. You’re trying to gather information on dates as efficiently as possible, to see if you have enough in common to keep going, while still putting your best foot forward. No easy task.
The first date is actually the best time to sleuth out some important information, because you’re generally operating in a pretty clear headspace. You’re not super invested in the person sitting next to you, nor are you blinded by chemistry. I’m going to assume you already know to watch out for how your date treats the wait staff and other obvious advice for first dates. (Keep looking for those basic tenets of kindness, character, and respect.) The below advice is a step beyond.
While you can’t gather everything you need to know in one few-hour meeting, you can make a great start. Here’s your first-date cheat sheet.
How does your date discuss the current nature of his or her life?
Daters generally tell you who they are, the question is: “Are you listening?” People who aren’t ready for a real relationship will tell you all the reasons they aren’t. They’ll be super busy at work; considering a move; about to start grad school; fresh from a breakup; about to go away on a long work trip. Notice the roadblocks that people bring up, especially if they don’t explain them away in an attempt to make you feel better.
If a person casually tosses out a bunch of barriers to intimacy, you can assume there may be some timing issues — even if you two do connect. If you don’t mind someone who’s slower to warm up and commit, feel free to proceed with caution. If you don’t like that the person is presenting 29,430 barriers to relationship status on the first date, you can move on to someone who’s more available.
How does your date react to your life, your goals, and your plans?
You want someone who is going to be genuinely supportive of your immediate and longer-term goals, so it’s important to see if that person acts engaged and interested when you talk about them. Does your date think it’s fascinating that you want to open a bakery in the future, and ask you why? Or does that person simply wave it off with an, “Oh, cool, that’s fun … Do you want to get another round?”
Some people dominate the conversation with their goals and dreams. They are looking for a plus-one who will fit into their life, not a partnership in which two dynamic timelines will need to merge into one. If that’s fine with you, then tally forth. But if adapting to someone else’s schedule isn’t your cup of tea, this might not be a match made in heaven.
How does your date talk about family, friends, and exes?
Maybe you connect easily, have a marathon date, and wind up talking about some deep issues. Great! I’m not really one for dating rules. You can and should talk about the big stuff whenever it feels natural and right. However, beware the person who has a lot of broken relationships, and talks about others with resentment or ire.
Lots of narcissists are charismatic. They can create chemistry. You may feel you connect with them instantly — so beware the love-bomber, who showers you with attention, sweet-talks you right off the bat, and attempts to create an automatic relationship to suck you in. Also, watch out for magnetic people who tell you they have poor relationships with family, almost no close friends, and exes who are “crazy” or unreasonable.
According to psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD, it’s essential to find a partner with relational self-awareness. This means some can take a “curious stance” when looking at their relationships. They have perspective; they see past breakups as “some stuff you did wrong, some stuff I did wrong,” listen to feedback without getting defensive, see how relationships have shaped their life trajectory, and deal with their feelings in a healthy manner (discuss them versus act out).
Watch how your dates casually discuss people who have passed through their lives. Can they be critical of themselves when appropriate? Are they taking that information, applying it, and trying to create stronger relationships in the future? Or is it “all the other person’s fault”?
Do you seem potentially compatible?
It’s fun to see if you have chemistry with a new dating prospect; however, before you get swept away in that blinding flood of hormones, take a moment to gauge compatibility. I’m not saying you can know if you are truly compatible after one date, but you can sometimes know if you are not compatible — even if you like the person.
You should walk into each first date knowing what you need at baseline (does a partner need to be the same religion as you? have similar values? a wicked sense of humor?), and also keeping an open mind about the wish-list items (height, job, education, etc). If you’re in love with the city, and your date’s major goal in life is to move out to a ranch in Montana, your futures may not align. If religion is a deal breaker, and you find someone who’s practicing another faith, you may want to consider bowing out early.
At the end of the day, it’s probably better to “next” incompatible partners than to get emotionally entrenched in a relationship with insurmountable barriers.
Does the interaction feel reciprocal and open?
Dominating the conversation is uncomfortable if you’re the one talking nonstop, and overwhelming if your date seems all about themselves. Dates should feel generally reciprocal. Conversation should have flow, even if there are a few lulls, or nerves get the best of you. Keep in mind, men tend to be slower to open up than women. Research suggests men find women who are willing to open up about themselves on a first date more attractive, aka those who use the word I more frequently. So if you’re a woman on a date with a man, don’t be afraid to talk more than you listen, especially if he’s asking lots of questions to prove he’s interested and engaged.
Overall, though, openness should be met with openness. You’re on the date to push yourself out of your comfort zone and see if you have enough in common, if you can connect on some level, or if you just can’t. You should feel like the person sitting across from you is forthcoming, especially if you ask a direct question.
Once, I had a lurking suspicion about someone’s history of fidelity, so I directly asked if he’d ever cheated on a girlfriend. I would have listened to the explanation; I genuinely wanted to know what he’d say. Instead of providing a brief but honest answer (mistake, youth, etc.), he simply said, “I’m not telling you that.” That opaqueness did not sit well; we did not have another date.
How does the person act after the date?
Some people date to meet tons of new people. Some date to get over an ex. Some date because they’re bored. Others date because they want to improve their skills in the art of seduction, or have sex. If you’re looking for a relationship prospect in this sea of suitors, you have to gauge how the persons acts after a date.
If you had a good time, I’d text and say so; some people really do doubt themselves, and may talk themselves out of someone they really like. Anyone who is worth your time will respond positively and set up another date almost immediately, or within a day or two maximum. Anyone who can’t make time for you once a week in the beginning, more as you progress, is distracted — by other commitments, all the options on the dating market, a breakup, or something else entirely. Your best bet is to look for someone who is emotionally available and ready to invest the time and attention a real relationship requires.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, a dating coach, and the author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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