Success Tips For First-Time Daters

If you’re just entering the singles scene (or making a hesitant return after heartbreak), have no fear — we’ve got wise advice for first-time daters at every age and experience level here.

By Judy Mandell and Craig Malkin, Ph.D.

lfred and Silvia Cavagnaro met each other on, but Alfred says that he botched everything on their first date. “I arrived late,” says Alfred. “Silvia declined an alcoholic drink, but I said that I needed a drink — and then pulled out my hidden bottle of tequila. Booze was not a plus in her mind, and she was thinking to
Like Alfred, many people mess up during the early stages of dating.
herself, ‘Nice guy, but I am not going down that road again.’ Then I discussed all my exes. Who knows what else I said? Although things seemed to go better on our second date, she told me that if she were me, she’d pursue other women.”

Like Alfred, many people mess up during the early stages of dating. Why? Because they make one fatal mistake — they turn their own biology against themselves. Any number of mind and mood-altering chemicals start spilling into our nervous systems when we experience an intense attraction to another person. The hormone oxytocin relaxes us and deepens our sense of trust; the neurotransmitter dopamine — which is key in both psychotic experiences and the effects of cocaine — helps generate feelings of intense euphoria. When we’re falling for someone, we’re not just blind… we’re basically psychotic and high, too. All these “love chemicals” can make it hard to think, and once that happens, you’re apt to miss some important red flags. Alternatively, you can doom a romance from the start by not allowing any chemistry to develop at all.

How you cope with anxiety affects your dating patterns, too
People who are returning to dating after the end of a relationship (or just starting out as an inexperienced younger single) tend to be understandably nervous about how they’ll come across to others. Regardless of race, culture, age or sexual orientation, everyone handles this normal type of anxiety in one of two ways: They either protect themselves by holding back emotionally (which, at the extreme end, can come off as playing “hard to get”) — or they pour all of their energy into making a relationship happen by initiating most of the contact and making the majority of the plans to see someone they’re interested in. Both approaches bring a different set of problems, either by killing the chemistry or stirring it up prematurely.

For younger, first-time daters who’ve been raised to feel comfortable with instant messaging and texting, it’s easy to generate a lot of virtual heat before having any face-to-face contact. In college, those late-night pour- your-heart-out conversation sessions are a common way of creating intense friendships and romances. It’s tempting to continue using this approach in your post-graduate dating life, but young singles do so at their own peril. Personal sharing of this kind — which can understandably feel easier to do in the relative anonymity of online chats, like IMs, tweets and emails — may generate powerful romantic longings before you even really know who you’re speaking to, making it all too easy for both parties to end up getting hurt. At the other end of the spectrum, young singles who handle their dating fears by remaining detached can be drawn into the currently prevailing “hook-up culture,” where people jump into the bedroom with little or no expectation of commitment or emotional intimacy. According to our research, this is a deeply dissatisfying outcome for men and women alike.

Six success tips for younger first-time daters
To avoid the dangers of falling on both the distant and “clingy” end of the spectrums, here are some good guidelines for younger singles to follow:

1. Meet up with your dates as quickly as possible. Studies show that singles who linger in cyberspace for more than two weeks with long, drawn-out chatting, instant messaging and email sessions often end up disappointed when they finally meet each other face-to-face. It’s easy to craft an online persona that’s intriguing — but it’s not so easy to fake one in person.

2. Pace the frequency of contact to give yourself some breathing room. If you already have a great connection with someone, you won’t lose it by slowing things down a little. Replace intense levels of contact (like all that frantic texting) with planned get-togethers once a week.

3. Wait until you’ve met face-to-face to share anything that’s too personal. Hold off on sharing any deeply personal experiences until you’ve had the chance to spend time together one-on-one and in person. Sharing too much, too soon stirs up all that neurochemistry that blinds you to potential signs of trouble, making you more vulnerable to falling for the wrong person.

4. Show a little interest if you’re normally aloof (and vice-versa). If you’re the more distant type of dater, test out showing a clearer level of excitement and curiosity about the person you’re dating. Try sharing your normal fears (it’s okay, everyone has them) as you get to know each other better instead of letting those fears control you by making you act more aloof. By taking a few risks like this, you can crank up the heat if you’re feeling lukewarm or cool things down if you’re overwrought.

5. Stay present and in the moment when you’re together. Rushing into fantasies of a shared future together or pulling away out of fear you’ll “get trapped” in a relationship will only distract you from learning what you really need to know about this person. Ask yourself: What does it feel like to be with this person right now? What am I discovering about him or her that helps me gauge this person’s potential as a romantic partner?

6. Date around actively for a few months before making any decisions. You should make every effort to date different people for several months. This not only slows down the courtship pace — it also gives you a chance to test out your feelings when you’re with different people. If you do this, make sure you’re open about it and that you don’t let it drag out for too long due to feeling a need to keep people at arm’s length emotionally.

Five tips for older first-time daters (including those returning after a relationship ends)
Older singles who haven’t yet sought out a mate and those returning to the dating scene after divorce, the death of a partner or ending a
Continue living your own life while you’re dating…
long-term relationship face a slightly different set of challenges than their younger counterparts. They’ve often suffered recent or remote losses, either through death, divorce or ending a long-term, committed relationship. The sadness of experiencing a recent loss and its accompanying loneliness can make you to fall fast and hard for the next person you meet, even if he or she isn’t the best prospect. On the other hand, fears of suffering further losses could prompt you to take everything at a snail’s pace. To get a clearer sense of how well you match with the person in front of you, follow these guidelines:

1. Watch out for comparisons between your current love interest and an ex. According to our research, people who handle their fear of rejection by remaining distant use thoughts of “the one who got away” (or the person whom they lost) to dial down the heat while seeing someone new. So, focus on the person you’re with; if you keep thinking of someone else no matter how hard you try not to, it might be too soon for you to be dating again.

2. Beware of rushing into a rebound romance. In this case, folk wisdom is also supported by science. Following a relationship loss quickly with an attempt to find someone new can speed things up too fast and make it hard to spot signs of trouble when they arise.

3. Stay active and engaged in your own personal life and daily routine. Out of fear of facing the future alone, it can be tempting to cease all your usual social plans and hobbies in order to devote all your free time to someone new that you like romantically. Unfortunately, this makes you completely dependent on your date for doing anything fun in your free time. Continue living your own life while you’re dating, because it helps keep you feeling resilient and gives your dates a chance to prove they’ll plan time to see you instead of just assuming that you’ll always be available.

4. Find ways for you to play and learn together on dates. The pressures of finding someone as we get older (or the fear of getting locked into a bad relationship and being hurt again) can take all the fun out of dating. Consider planning a few “play dates” where you can both experience something new together, like indoor rock climbing or taking dancing lessons. It keeps things light, provides more information about how compatible the two of you really are, and also offers the kind of novelty that makes dating exciting — especially if you tend be in the “playing it cool” dating camp.

5. Limit any conversations about your exes. This is often another way people end up killing the chemistry on their dates. Be brief, honest and positive when mentioning an ex: It was difficult, but I’ve worked hard to move past it and understand what happened. Now, I’m looking forward to a new chapter.

Before meeting Silvia, Alfred swore that he would never get married again. It was only after having gone on a few dates (which were spread out over two months) that Alfred offered Silvia a ring and declared his love for her. “I did not know how she would respond, but I knew that she was the one for me,” he recalls. “I still had a lot to learn about myself, but I had absolutely no fear or doubts about wanting her to be my life partner. I just needed the ‘right’ education.” His instincts about this new love were correct, it seems: Alfred and Sylvia have now been happily married for four years.

Judy Mandell is a freelance writer based in North Garden, Virginia. She is a frequent contributor to Happen magazine.

Craig Malkin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and director of YM Psychotherapy and Consultation in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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