Dating: the pleasures and pitfalls

Dating can be a great way of meeting and getting to know a potential partner.

Online dating has made it possible to meet more new people than ever – and more easily too.

And while that’s allowed us to have more control over the types of people we meet, and to think in more detail about the sort of partner who might work for us, it has also come with a few challenges and pitfalls.

Feeling the pressure
In some ways, dating is a somewhat artificial way of getting to know someone. Going on a date can sometimes feel like a fairly formal interaction: you meet up, you spend time together and, hopefully, you figure out whether you want to meet up again. Dating can sometimes feel like a means to an end: figuring out if you could work as a couple.

For this reason, it can sometimes feel quite pressurised. It can be fairly anxiety-inducing, and, somewhat inconveniently, it can also make it difficult to actually settle into the experience of getting to know the other person.
Most of us don’t like the feeling of being judged. And many of us may feel uncomfortable judging someone else! But dating can so often feel that this is what you’re supposed to be doing: that you’re supposed to be figuring out, ideally in as short a time as possible, whether you and someone else could ‘work’.
 
The dating format doesn’t do much to help. As a social interaction, dating can be fairly intense. Often, you meet and talk for a few hours. The classic scenario is going to a pub or restaurant, where you sit opposite each other, looking directly at each other. It’s something you might not do that often with close friends, let alone complete strangers. For people who might usually struggle to engage in long conversations like this, going on a date can be stressful. And even the most confident person can find themselves sweating over the prospect of an ‘awkward pause’ in the conversation.

Our online experience

Online dating has, in some ways, further complicated things. It can put emphasis on presenting yourself in quite a specific and somewhat artificial way. When we put together an online dating profile, we often choose to create a precise image of ourselves. We include the information that we’d like people to know, and leave out the information we don’t. We select pictures of ourselves to support this impression.

It’s quite different from meeting someone in ‘real life’, where it’s not as easy to manage other people’s impressions of us. When we meet someone in, say, a pub or at a party, we see what they actually look like, we hear what they actually sound like, and we pick up on their body language. We get a more distinct picture, more quickly. Of course, real life interactions contain a lot of artificiality too – we all try to present ourselves in a certain way when out and about – but the details can be quite different.

As a result, when we come to meet someone who we’ve met online, it can take a while for that sense of artificiality to wear off. Many have been through the experience of meeting someone to find out that they aren’t what they thought they would be like at all. It can be quite jarring or even disappointing. The temptation can be to reject this unexpected person out of hand and go back to our search. But this may not be a fair response – someone being different doesn’t mean they’re not interesting or appealing in other ways – but it’s also not a surprising one in the circumstances.

That leads us to the other big pitfall of online dating: being too prescriptive. Many of us enter the world of dating with some idea of the kind of person we’d like to meet. Being able to scroll through hundreds upon hundreds of profiles online can reinforce the sense that we may, if we look hard enough, meet that exact person. We might find ourselves going from date to date, waiting until we stumble across that person who is just ‘perfect’.

In some ways, this sense of prescriptiveness has dovetailed in the modern day with old-fashioned ideas around ‘the one’. A while ago, we might have come to believe someone was ‘the one’ because we spent enough time with them to really get to know them – and then might ask them out. Now, we might risk feeling that ‘the one’ is out there, but only if we trawl for long enough.

Manage your expectations
So, how do we mitigate these potential problems? While it might sound like these pitfalls make dating a minefield, in some ways it’s just a case of sorting out how we think about dating, and what we hope to get out of it.

We feel anxiety and pressure around dating because we think we’re working towards a definite ‘purpose’. But if we take that big objective out of the equation, things can suddenly get much easier. When we don’t worry quite so much about where dating is ‘going’, what we’re left with instead can actually be a fun, useful and exciting experience. When you put yourself under less pressure to figure out what you think about this person, you may find you can just be yourself and have a good conversation. Counter-intuitively, this can then make it easier to get to this point anyway – as both of you may then be able to relax a little and begin to properly connect as people.

It can, in fact, be useful to verbalise this attitude at one point early on when dating – not as a way of pushing the other person back or directing how they should approach things, but simply as a way of saying what works for you.

Be open
The second, and equally simple, principle you might like to apply is to try to know the other person, and allow them to know you. As we’ve already said, dating – and online dating in particular – can create an artificial environment. But – at the risk of stating the obvious – dating isn’t shopping, and people aren’t products.

Put simply, it can take a while to get to know someone. Try to open to the possibility of letting this happen, even – or rather, especially – when you aren’t yet sure how you feel about them. You may find that someone who, on first impression, wasn’t totally grabbing your attention, begins to reveal hidden depths after you meet a second or third time. Someone who seemed nervous and hard to understand on a first date might then settle into things on a second.

We know this can take a bit of a leap of faith, but it can also give you the chance to properly figure out how you feel about someone so you can make an informed decision about whether you’d like to keep seeing them. Sometimes, it can be as simple as going on two or three dates with a person, instead of just one.

And a big part of this can mean being willing to let go of – or at least be flexible on – the idea of your ‘perfect person’. It can be really easy to get caught up in this idea. But it can also be really limiting. Responding to a new person with a knee-jerk reaction – noticing something you don’t quite like and deciding immediately to move on and resume your search – can mean you end up writing people off without giving them a chance to show who they really are. Given a little time to be themselves, it could be that the people you’re meeting are closer to what you were after than you realised. Or – and just as importantly – they could offer you something you didn’t even know you wanted.

Mix things up
If you find you’re struggling to relax during a date, consider changing the sorts of dates you go on. Sometimes, carrying out an activity at the same time can help, as it means you’re not having to make conversation the whole time, and, conversely, it can also give you something to talk about.

It doesn’t have to be anything expensive or even particularly adventurous: going on a bike ride, or for a walk, or visiting an art gallery together can be great ways of making things feel fun, interesting and casual – all the while allowing you to get to know each other.

Moreover, although it may not always seem so these days, it’s still perfectly normal to prefer meeting in a more natural environment. Often, this can mean just being social by doing things you like: joining a club or making an effort to join in with group social occasions. This can give you the chance to get to know someone a little without having to enter into that more formal ‘dating dynamic’.

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