About a year after my last relationship ended, I finally tried online dating. I’d given myself a lot of time to enjoy being alone, to relish having no drama in my life after an extremely toxic, dramatic, life-draining person finally exited the stage. It was a fantastic choice to make for myself, empowering and affirming, and one that I’d never made before. Between my marriage ending and the toxic person showing up, I was either dating or involved somehow with guys, barely giving myself a chance to breathe on my own. I was scared to—I’d been with my ex-husband for 12 years, it felt unnatural to be alone. So I attached myself to someone who wasn’t good for me rather than face those fears.
As well as never choosing to be alone, I realized I’d also never dated consciously. What that means to me is keeping it light, having a sense of adventure, watching my triggers and reactions, adapting the process as I go and putting myself first. I’d always approached dating haphazardly and intensely, usually plunging immediately into serious relationships, allowing myself to be swept away in a wave of Romance. All things considered, it had never worked all that well. So when I signed up for Match after my year without dating, I committed to a different approach this time.
I didn’t meet anyone online I wanted to date long-term, but I met some extremely nice men. I went on a lot of first dates and several second dates, was rejected a few times, and really listened to what my gut told me about each guy. I didn’t let myself get swept up in a wave of flattered attachment, but gave myself time to think through each encounter and write about it. I trusted my instincts over my emotional reactions—emotions are fleeting and can be charged up by alcohol or attention. They can lie. My instincts, on the other hand, are usually right on.
While online dating was a positive experience overall, getting me out of my routine, forcing me to interact with different men, making first dates feel normal rather than terrifying, I found it also required a large amount of time and effort, and ultimately felt somewhat contrived. Instead, I took a month off to focus on myself, and then started to get out into the world more. A single friend and I agreed to try to go out once a week—to happy hour, a concert, a new restaurant, an art show. Now when I go out, I smile at men and talk to strangers of both sexes. Maybe one to two out of every 10 interactions with men turn into a possible date, but that’s about the same ratio as I was experiencing online, and it feels a lot more easy and natural.
Whatever way we choose to meet people to date, it can be challenging to keep it light and not get caught up in societal pressures or ego games. Dating brings up our deepest doubts about ourselves, and it makes us vulnerable to getting hurt. Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget that it’s supposed to be fun to socialize with the opposite sex. As I continue to navigate this process, these are the things I’m continually reminding myself to do in order to date consciously.
Stay clear. Clarity keeps me honest, aware and centered. I’ve learned to limit my drinking on dates, to watch and listen carefully, and to think before I make promises or agreements. I’m clear on what I want beforehand and write down my thoughts about it afterward. If something is disturbing or disconcerting me, however trivial, I take the time to look at why, and make choices accordingly.
Be authentic. If I’m not comfortable being myself, flaws and all, there’s really no point to any of it. We all want to be liked, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our authentic selves—which means honestly expressing what we feel and believe and who we are. (Added bonus, self-confidence is extremely sexy!)
Don’t rush. It’s all too easy to feel the pressure of time pushing me forward, counting down on some kind of doomsday clock for singles—until I remember that there’s no rush. There’s no need to rashly jump into a relationship before I know it feels right, even if I like the guy a lot. Being alone is just fine—the world is not going to explode if I don’t get paired up tomorrow. If I find myself in a slow period with no dates, I enjoy it, to the point where I’ll even schedule time off from dating.
Know what you want. I believe that taking the time to clearly establish what you want in a partnership and partner is critical to finding it. Rather than specific demographics or traits, though, I focus on core values, feeling that true compatibility will come down to that. If we both value kindness, we’ll be kind to each other. Laughter, we’ll laugh together. Family ties, personal accountability, friendships… and so on. If we share our core values, the outer details will most likely fall into place.
Define acceptable and unacceptable. We all have deal-breakers in terms of behavior and boundary crossing. One person’s acceptable might be another person’s unacceptable. I trust my instincts and experience to tell the difference.
Remember it’s not personal. Being rejected sucks, nobody enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable part of the process. In order to open ourselves up to new people, we run the risk of being rebuffed or dismissed. I remind myself that it really has nothing to do with me and is out of my control. When I’ve rejected men, it hasn’t been because there was anything wrong with them, I just didn’t feel like we were compatible.
Trust your instincts. It’s all too easy to get swept away by emotional or physical responses, or to get caught up in our yearning to be loved. As powerful as these feelings are, they don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart, but our instincts always do. Underneath the fast-beating heart, the pull of attraction, the longing, there’s a wise, kind, rational voice that will lead us to make the best possible choices for ourselves.
Pay attention. Just as I always try to make sure my actions are matching my words, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it pays to watch and listen to others. A person may be fulsome in their compliments and earnest in their expressions of interest or devotion, but ultimately hurt, disrespect or betray you—and whatever they said to the contrary, their actions were showing you the truth all along.
Be happy going in and happy going out. I still get mildly nervous right before each date. There’s a self-conscious, socially-awkward teenager inside of me who desperately wants to be liked. What helps most is to remind myself that it really doesn’t matter. That may sound strange in such a personal thing as dating, but it’s true. Big picture, each date is just an experience. If it’s good, that’s great, it might lead to another date, and it’s nice to connect with someone. If it’s iffy or uncomfortable, that’s fine, I don’t have to see that person again. When we aren’t attached to an outcome, any outcome will be the right one. Before every date, I state my intention of being happy going into the date, and happy when it’s over, whatever happens, and find that it ends up being the case.
Though my eventual hope is to build a caring, authentic partnership, that’s a long-term outcome, not an agenda I apply to dates. Instead, I try to embrace the benefits of my singlehood, enjoy the process of dating, and stay balanced in the experience.
We’ll see how I do.