The pandemic has been a global tragedy, but I’m grateful for it in this very narrow, selfish way: It helped me get better at dating.
I’d gone through periods of dating before. But because I had to move slower than usual and was at times incredibly lonely, I had plenty of time to scroll through dating apps and sharpen my skills.
And because most of the first dates were on FaceTime, I was able to practice dating almost as if I was interviewing for a job — and as if I was interviewing potential partners who were seeking a job.
Now, I’m engaged to a person I fell deeply in love with after meeting her on Hinge. I’m learning and practicing a different set of skills now (which I wrote about here).
But all dating and relationship success pretty much reduces down to the same truth: The clearer I am about my own needs and wants, the better the outcome.
Learning and practicing skills like setting boundaries (tip #4 below) and asking for consent (#5) is important. But it’s really just icing on the cake that is knowing what is true for me.
A few notes before I get into the tips:
- These tips could be for anyone. The reason I’m framing them for cisgender men is because the ways many of us were raised and socialized hold us back in particular ways when it comes to dating. The reason I’m framing them for cisgender, heterosexual men is because I’ve never dated a man. I don’t know the nuances of dating in the LGBTQIA+ community.
- There’s nothing bad about having sex outside of a relationship or hooking up — as long as it’s consensual. Spend some time doing what I propose in tip #2 to see if that’s what you truly want during this phase of your life. If that’s the case, these tips aren’t meant for you.
Tip #1: Meditate/journal/think about what you want in a partner beyond physical attraction
Boys and men are bombarded with images of the ideal female body on TV, social media, and in porn. Women are supposed to be in shape yet curvy, with a large butt and big breasts. Men are often shamed by other men for being attracted to anything outside of this norm.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking the ideal body type. It’s just that focusing on physical attraction can blind us from qualities that mean more to the chances of a long-term relationship.
Emotional intelligence, sense of humor, spirituality, values, political views, whether they want children — these are the things that make a relationship work or not, far more than physical attraction.
For example, after countless first dates on FaceTime, I finally started noticing why so many were frustrating. I’d feel chemistry with some women right away. But most of the time, something felt off, like we were on different dimensions.
I began noticing a pattern: The women I felt little to no connection with generally had larger breasts. I’d swipe right on these women’s dating app profiles without looking at the rest of their profile. If they had big breasts, I was all-in. But when we actually started talking beyond some initial small talk and flirting, the odds of us clicking were a crap-shoot.
I like to think of physical attraction as something that can be good enough. If there are plenty of other reasons I’m interested in someone, I’ve found that I can learn to be in love with their body as well, regardless of whether it fits the ideal or not.
Once I started focusing more on intangibles like values, emotional intelligence, and sense of humor, my dates got progressively better.
Tip #2: Make more friends so there’s less pressure on dating partners to meet all of your emotional needs
This one might as well have been first. It’s that important.
We live in a hyper-individualized, overworked, and overstressed capitalist society. Men, especially, are experiencing increasing levels of isolation and loneliness. In 1990, 55 percent of American men reported having at least six close friends; today only 27 percent do.
This puts a ton of pressure on romantic partners to fulfill emotional needs — especially women in heterosexual relationships.
When I was dating during the pandemic, I started noticing how much I was looking forward to jumping on FaceTime. Some weekends, my only plans were scheduled first dates. When the chemistry wasn’t there — which it wasn’t most of the time — I’d get incredibly frustrated and spiral into a night of loneliness, drinking, and self-loathing.
Get intentional about making more friends and reconnecting with old ones. Get involved in local community or political organizations. Join a sports team. Start a reading group. Find people who share your spiritual beliefs. Build your community.
The more social connections you have, the more connected and supported you’ll feel day-to-day, which will take pressure off of dating to fill you up. And you might just meet someone the old-fashioned way while you’re at it.
Tip #3: Think of dating apps not as a crutch but as a tool to get more dates and practice
Years ago, after I broke up with someone, a friend asked me, “So, are you on the apps yet?”
I was shocked. This guy had a steady stream of beautiful women (see tip #1) in his life. He needs help from dating apps? I thought.
I tried to play it cool, responding that I didn’t think I needed them. But inside, his question had given me permission. I downloaded Tinder later that night and never looked back.
This isn’t so much of an issue with younger men who are used to online dating. But many of my buddies in their 30s and 40s struggle with dating apps — and part of it is the shame that comes with needing help.
I felt that shame for a while, even when the apps were landing me dates with good matches. Us men are socialized not to seek help, and we get messages from society that we’re supposed to be able to walk up to any woman anywhere and be seductive enough to get her number.
But then I started seeing apps as a tool — not to hookup (though there’s nothing wrong with that, again, if it’s consensual), but to get more dates to better understand what I want in a partner and practice communication skills.
Tip #4: Set boundaries to protect what matters to you
This one will serve you way beyond dating. Setting boundaries — if you’re not familiar with the idea — means to recognize your needs and communicate them to others.
When I was dating during the pandemic, I was also working full-time and going to counseling school full-time. I was also pushing myself to build community in a new city I‘d moved to (see tip #2).
That is all to say, I didn’t have infinite time for dating. I would often tell first dates beforehand that I only had an hour or hour and a half — and I would stick to it.
Sometimes it was hard pulling away. I‘d be enjoying the connection and a part of me wanted to keep talking. But deep inside I knew that holding my boundary was important for me to give the quality of attention I wanted for school and work.
Another area that I set boundaries around was communication frequency. Over the years, I’ve learned that mornings set the tone for the rest of my day. I need a few hours of quiet meditating, reading, and writing before I’m truly ready to show up fully for work, other people, etc.
If I’d gone on a few dates with someone and was liking them, I’d let them know that I likely wouldn’t respond to texts in the morning — that if they really needed me, they should call.
Note: Setting boundaries — especially with someone you barely know — is much easier said than done. I failed at this one more often than not. But when I was able to do it, my dates often accepted my boundaries or even said they appreciated them.
Tip #5: Be honest about what you want and ask for consent
As I’ve written about before, I used to experience “performance issues” in bed. It showed up when I was on first or second dates and having sex for the first time with someone.
It wasn’t until I went to a therapist that I started feeling more comfortable in these situations. The therapist made me feel normal. Like nothing was wrong with me. Sure, what was happening wasn’t ideal. But it was happening. It was the truth.
When I moved past the shame and started to look at the truth, I realized that oftentimes with someone I was attracted to, I would rush toward kissing and sex because that’s what a man is supposed to do. It wasn’t always what I actually wanted. It was a message I received from society about being a “real” man.
I started asking myself what really turns me on, and I realized that I like to move slow. I need to feel safe enough to gather the vulnerability that intimacy requires. I need to feel emotionally connected with the other person in order to “perform.”
Then I started experimenting: What if I just tell my date what I want and see what happens? And it worked!
At the end of first in-person dates, if I was feeling the vibe, I would say something like, “I really want to kiss you” and wait for a response. This allowed me to stay at a pace that felt comfortable, build some healthy tension, and — this is really important — check for consent.
This isn’t always going to work. Men are socialized to think we should be able to discern what a woman wants and give it to her without her asking. This socialization effects women too. One time I asked a woman at the end of a first date, “Is it okay if I kiss you?” She seemed stunned. “You’re really going to ask me?” she said. I felt horrible, lame, and weak — less of a real man.
But, as I wrote above, the clearer I am about my own needs and wants, the better the outcome — while dating, in relationships, at work, you name it. Using these five tips, dating can be a practice space for improving your life.
This post was previously published on Jeremy Mohler’s blog.
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