How To Read First-Date Chemistry Clues

Is your new crush looking for a life partner, a lover, or just a friend? Here, a psychologist shares his expert insights on how to easily figure out what someone’s really angling for on a first date.

By Maura Kelly

erhaps it’s no surprise to hear that most people out on a first date have one of two goals in mind: 1) investigating their romantic potential and 2) investigating their sexual compatibility with someone new. But other singles who fall into in a third camp have already decided they’re not interested in having either a long-term romance or a sexual fling — but they keep the
If someone is primarily interested in sleeping with you, it should be fairly obvious.
conversation going because they think that you might become a good platonic friend. “It’s relatively rare that a person has only one dating goal throughout the course of an evening,” asserts Dr. Paul Mongeau, a psychologist at Arizona State University who interviewed 144 daters while conducting a study of first-date goals published in the journal Communication Monographs. Dr. Mongeau also notes that a person’s motives typically shift over the course of the evening, going from curiosity about someone’s viability as a romantic partner to wondering about their mutual bedroom chemistry — or from trying to determine whether a relationship might be in the cards to working towards setting the foundation for a platonic friendship.

How can you tell what the person you’re with is really after, then? Dr. Mongeau has a few pointers for singles below:

Signs that your date only has sex on the brain
If someone is primarily interested in sleeping with you, it should be fairly obvious, according to Dr. Mongeau. What do people with sex on the brain usually do during a date? “Drink a lot of alcohol, flirt a lot, and engage in a lot of touching,” says Dr. Mongeau. He explains that someone on the prowl for a fling will be sure to keep the topic of conversation light and frivolous; small talk might revolve around current events, light-hearted stories, or superficial interests — like the kinds of movies and music each person likes. There wouldn’t be much discussion about anything that’s especially personal or serious — and he points out that there would be absolutely no talk about going on a second date, either. Dr. Mongeau’s study allowed him to make some interesting observations about college-aged daters: “When women initiated the date, men tended to see it more as a sexual invitation,” he explains. And yet, despite the men’s expectations, it was less likely that a couple would end up in bed together when she did do the asking, according to Dr. Mongeau’s research.

How to tell that someone is genuinely looking for love — with you
Someone who’s trying to figure out if you might be a good romantic partner is going to show more interest in getting to know who you really are — i.e., your goals and dreams, what your friends are like, the kind of childhood you experienced and so on — than someone who’s just looking for a one-night-stand. The vibe will be much less overtly sexual and flirty; the drinks won’t be thrown back quite as quickly. And while there might be a long good-night kiss at the end of the night, according to Dr. Mongeau, there probably won’t be much
Men typically see sex as a more prominent first-date goal than women.
pressure to do anything else. However, romantic partners do sometimes become physically intimate on their first date — and you’ll have to wait to see if the other person calls the next day or responds to your texts to figure out what your crush was really thinking. “I was talking with my students and we were discussing the difference between a hookup and a sexual interaction that marked the initiation of a romantic relationship,” says Dr. Mongeau. “The class told me that you could judge which one was which depending on whether or not your date called the next day. The stronger the person’s romantic interest, then the more he or she will communicate that interest — via text, phone, email, Facebook, etc. This person probably won’t flat-out say that he or she is interested in a relationship, but will certainly show heightened interest in maintaining and extending the conversation further.”

Clues that your date’s headed into platonic friendship territory
It can be tough to spot the difference between someone who’s seeking a romantic partner and one that’s trying to determine if you’d be more suitable as a good friend. And once again, says Dr. Mongeau, it may not be possible to figure out how this particular person feels about you until after the date’s ended. Someone who thinks of you as just a friend will still get in touch shortly after a date — but it probably won’t happen the very next day. “This person’s pursuit would likely be less intense and might focus on a particular activity or interest that the two of you have in common,” says Dr. Mongeau.

How men and women differ in assessing a first date
Do men tend to behave differently from women do on first dates? Dr. Mongeau believes that yes, they most certainly do. “Men typically see sex as a more prominent first-date goal than women,” he notes. What’s more, some men will be flirty and touchy regardless of whether they’re looking for sex or lasting love, whereas women tend to be more physically reserved if they’re interested in pursuing a long-term relationship.

Age-related differences in the way singles think about first-date goals
Are people of different ages predisposed to have different first-date goals? Yes, says Dr. Mongeau. Of course, daters of every age — from college students in their early 20s to older adults in their 60s and 70s — try to figure out if the people they’re meeting face-to-face would be good prospects for long-term relationships, but “long-term” means different things to people in different age groups, according to Dr. Mongeau. “For a college student, long-term probably means a semester (three or four months) or one school year,” he notes. Older adults who might have serious careers or children to worry about think differently when sizing up a new love interest. “They’re much more likely to indicate that they have had long-term goals in mind — we’re talking years, decades or even a lifetime — when making a first date with someone,” says Dr. Mongeau.

Maura Kelly is a personal essay writer and author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great-Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals. Find out more about her at
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