Conscious Dating

dating 101: fantasy and flattery

I recently came across the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” in which Anna interviews celebrity guests and then together they give callers dating advice. It’s always entertaining and often insightful. On one episode, she and Chelsea Handler were reminding a young woman that when a guy is in, he’s in, and if he’s not, then (say it together!) “he’s just not that into you.”

This truism has been well-covered in a book and movie, but hearing it in this particular context made me start thinking about why we need it in the first place. Why do we so often require this reminder in our romantic lives?

Why does a person who’s clearly not interested in us inspire us to be so completely interested in him or her? What’s the deal with crushing on people who couldn’t care less, who may be totally wrong for us? Or, conversely, stringing along someone who we really aren’t that into ourselves?

The reasons may be different for everyone, but I know that in my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

The fantasy part created inauthentic, irrational crushes. I didn’t honor the reality of the other person and what they could truly offer me, but focused on the perfect fantasy of them. This created a sort of painfully sublime ideal of romance made up of genuine attraction + timing/proximity + vulnerability + pure imagination. I’ve had crushes on men I’ve never met or barely knew, men who were clearly a bad idea, men I knew were absolutely not interested in dating me, because they told me so—and yet I wasted weeks if not months feeling all sorts of gushy emotions toward these dudes, dreaming of how incredible it would be to have them like me back, believing that would bring me true happiness.

Is there any benefit to a crush? I guess it can be a nice, light distraction from more serious life problems, but in general they don’t do a lot for us, especially if we’re actively dating as adults. And at their worst, fantasy-based attachments can take us to some pretty damaging places. The truth is, it’s entirely possible not to develop romantic feelings for people we barely know or people who aren’t interested in us, no matter how “perfect” they seem on the surface.

The flattery comes in to play when the opposite happens: someone makes it clear that he or she really likes us—paying us compliments, flirting, asking us out, fanatically liking every single one of our posts. We can’t deny that compliments and attention feel good, giving us a nice ego boost, even if we don’t share the attraction. It’s alluring in its way—it’s flattering. We feel pleasure, validation, gratification from their positive attention. Which isn’t a super healthy or grounded state of mind. In my experience, feeling flattered made me far more grateful than was warranted—I believed I owed the guy for liking me, and that clouded my judgment. I’d conclude that I was single, they were the only guy interested in me at that moment, it felt good to be admired… what did I have to lose?

Well, a lot—namely my time and energy. Just like with a fantasy-based crush, we’re still in the position of wasting time and energy on a potentially limited relationship, distracting ourselves from other possibilities. Sure, there are stories of X who wasn’t that into Y, but gave Y that third chance and they fell madly in love and adopted triplets and a Beagle. It’s definitely a good practice to keep an open mind and give someone different a chance. However, when you reach that tipping point and know in your gut that it’s not going to happen, whether before the first date or after the fifth, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to continue. We can honor their attraction to us, appreciate it, and still remain steadfast in our goal of finding a true, authentic partnership.

So these are a few of the reasons why we might do this to ourselves. We sometimes look for distractions, we’re romantic and imaginative, we have a lot of love to give and want to give it, we feel flattered and like we have nothing to lose.

But how do we not do it? How do we not fall into these traps, when it’s so easy to slip off-balance either way?

When I started dating after my last relationship, I thought really seriously about this. I knew how likely it was for me to develop crushes, and how easy to succumb to flattery. Months before I even considered going on a date, I made some resolutions to help navigate the dating rapids.

I resolved that I wouldn’t talk myself into being interested in someone just because they were interested in me. Not out of niceness or misplaced gratitude, not because I was flattered, definitely not because I had no other prospects. I would acknowledge my appreciation and give myself permission to kindly and firmly detach.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t waste time or attention on any man who didn’t show me he was truly interested—who wasn’t “that into” me from the start. I would reserve judgment, and pay close attention to what his actions told me about him. It might take a date or two to figure out, but when someone’s in, they’re in, and when they’re not, they’re not.

If I didn’t believe he was genuinely interested, or found I wasn’t that interested myself, I’d call it early on.

In all situations, I committed to listening to my inner wisdom and following its guidance. These resolutions served me well time and time again, saving me from attaching myself to incompatible men and allowing me to enjoy the process as it unfolded.

Of course it’s disappointing when a somebody you like doesn’t like you back. Disappointing, but not devastating. When, after our third date, I ended things with one sweet, delightful man who really liked me a lot, I knew I was letting him down. It wasn’t easy to cause him pain, but I wasn’t right for him. The truth is, nobody who doesn’t want us can be right for us. They just can’t. That’s how you know. Whether or not they’ve raised expectations by what they’ve said or done, and no matter how wonderful, charming, sexy and perfect they seem, you can accept this truth, close that door yourself, feel the hurt and disappointment, and hopefully even learn from the experience.

As Chelsea Handler told the podcast caller: life’s short. Move on. If someone doesn’t want you there’s just no point wondering if they might someday, or why they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Stop wasting time and see what life offers next.

On the flip side, it’s fine to go out with someone we’re undecided about who likes us, but if we’re not paying attention, it’s a relatively short step from feeling flattered, relieved and grateful to convincing ourselves to get entangled.

Conscious dating invites us to walk a steady line, balanced between all extremes. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions from the moment we meet someone new, stay open to facing every truth that arises—including that someone we’re attracted to doesn’t feel the same or isn’t available—and use our energy, time and attention wisely. You might have the most amazing first date ever, which is thrilling. Enjoy the thrill—and then sit down with it afterward, honor what your instincts are telling you, give it some room to breathe. By the second or third date, this person might have lost a lot of their appeal as you begin to understand your real compatibility.

Being with someone we know in our innermost wisdom isn’t right, for whatever reason, closes us off to the possibility of meeting someone who is right. You never know who might show up next, or what you could be learning and experiencing in the interim.

Not allowing ourselves to be swept up in either fantasies or flattery allows us to step back and see what’s really going on. It gives us space to listen to our instincts, and make the best, healthiest, most empowered choices possible.

 

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

 

why dating myself changed everything

It was a Friday at the end of July, 2013. The evening before, my two-year relationship had finally ended. I still think of that Thursday as my own personal day of liberation.

He was still living with me, would continue to live at my apartment for the next four days before he moved out to live with his parents in a nearby town. But I woke up that Friday morning with a weight off my shoulders, a feeling of such blinding lightness and release that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget. I don’t want to forget it.

Before I got ready for work, I wrote a group text to my closest friends letting them know what had happened. None of them were surprised, all were relieved and hopeful. We’d broken up briefly a few weeks before, at his pleading and promises I’d agreed to give him a second chance. He blew it, of course, and I was done.

The song lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” pretty much describe the relationship and everything I feel about it, and him, now that it’s over. I’m not sorry it happened. It changed me and set me on a revolutionary course in my love life.

Once we’re out, the best thing that can result from a toxic relationship—or really any relationship, toxic or not—is a reevaluation of everything we believe about love and partnership. Clearly I didn’t know what I was doing, between my disintegrated marriage and my stint as punching bag and “sugar mama” (ugh) to a charming and manipulative thief. At first I was so giddy with relief and confused by the pain of detachment, I couldn’t think further ahead than a few weeks.

I read a lot of rich, validating books during those first months—books about breakups, about choosing yourself, about narcissists and emotional abuse and boundaries. And I realized that I’d never actually taken the time to think about what I wanted in a relationship. I mean, what did I actually want?? I knew what I didn’t want—a lying scumbag or a man-child like my ex-husband. But where did that leave me?

I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could possibly do for myself was not to date for a while. A long while. To remove myself from the dating arena entirely until I’d figured a few things out. But I didn’t want to be single by default again—killing time until the next guy showed up, using my energy to look or long for him. I wanted to be consciously single, to feel empowered by my choice not to date or enter a new relationship.

More than that, I wanted to date myself.

From my senior year in college on, I never had a chance to really be single—not involved with or distracted by a man or men. Between my boyfriend who became my husband who became my ex, to the men I dated while we were separated, to the man I ended up allowing to live off me for two years, I hadn’t ever truly taken a break from romantic encounters, and certainly not on purpose. I was a late bloomer in dating, didn’t have a boyfriend until college, but of course I didn’t spend those early years consciously creating a healthy sense of self-worth, I mostly had a series of crushes that went nowhere. When my husband and I split up, it would have been a great opportunity to take a long, honest look at myself.

Instead I was scared of being alone, lost without my married identity. I wanted to find what I thought I was lacking pronto—a new partner who would take me away from myself and all the unprocessed emotions from the last few years of crisis, loss and separation. So I ran headlong into the lion’s den and held myself an anxious, unhappy prisoner there.

In my heady sense of freedom when I finally got out, I vowed never to make those mistakes again. I had a second chance to embrace the kind of growth and self-awareness I could have prioritized after my marriage ended, and I was going to take it—joyfully, purposefully, powerfully.

I gave myself a year, though was open to ending that year early if I felt I was ready. But I intentionally set out to date myself for a year. This meant consciously giving myself all the time, effort, attention and affection that I’d previously given to men. Not being distracted by a lack of men or my interest in men, but focusing on what I needed—and giving it to myself. Recognizing what healthy partnership means to me and what I want it to look like. Loving myself in every way, learning what it means to be the partner I need. Identifying and writing down my core values. Writing letters and journaling to process pain, anger and shame from my past. I made an empowering playlist which I listened to while I walked my neighborhood, cleaned my apartment and sat dreaming in my living room. I learned to trust my instincts, to recognize and honor my own boundaries.

I invested in a relationship with myself in a way I’d never imagined possible.

About midway through this year, on a particularly festive New Year’s Eve out with two friends, I ended up kissing a stranger at midnight, who then asked for my number. I gave it to him—not because I wanted to, I didn’t, but because I hadn’t prepared a response. He texted the next day and asked me out, to which I never replied. I was hung over and full of chagrin, and took stock of where I was. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but did it mean I was ready? If not this guy, would I want to say “yes” to the next one?

The answer was a very emphatic “no.” I wasn’t ready to give this up yet. I wasn’t ready to stop pouring my energy into me—relishing my alone time—living my life without the drama that dating and relationships bring. Of course there were lonely moments, but I had friends, family and pets to help me through those—not to mention myself. I lived through holiday weekends alone, I learned from the lonesome moments. I thought about a future partner, but I didn’t feel the lack of one.

Eleven months after my breakup, I went to a Match.com rafting event with a girlfriend. I enjoyed it, and found I was interested in what online dating could offer me. I was ready to dip a cautious toe in the pool—but this time I was prepared. I was going to do this differently and I knew exactly what that meant—conscious dating, open to adaptation as needed. I wrote my New Rules in Love and read them over daily. When I started communicating and going on dates with men, I listened to my gut—my best and truest ally—and never doubted or second-guessed what it told me. If it said never see this man again, I would tell him it wasn’t going to work and move on. I journaled before and after almost every date, keeping a clear perspective on every experience, discussing my reactions openly with friends.

And it was fun. I had fun meeting different men—always a little nerve-wracking right before the date began, but once it started I was fine. I allowed myself to say both “yes” and “no” frequently, dating from a place of strength and abundance and confidence, rather than fear and lack. I took breaks from dating for weeks at a time, hiding my profile and giving that energy back to myself. I eventually stopped online dating after six months, it was just too time-intensive for me, but it was a good way to get back in the game. After that I met men in the real world, which took intentionally accepting invitations to social events and creating my own opportunities to go out and talk to strangers.

When I met the man I’m with today, I knew immediately and instinctively that he was a good person. We chatted, exchanged numbers, met up casually at a concert the next week. Eventually I texted him first—but not out of desperation; I had another date that week with another man I’d met. After my first date with my current partner, I knew something was very different—and even then, we both took our time. We didn’t rush, nobody got love-bombed. Every step of the way going into this relationship, I used my conscious dating techniques. I continued to remember what mattered to me, to invest in my own wants and needs first. Even as my life opened to include him, even as we compromised and became closer, I made myself a priority. We’ve been living together for more than six months and I’m still doing that. It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had—because I’m also still in a great relationship with me.

I believe he and I work because we share the same core values—ultimately I think that’s what creates the best chance for compatibility long-term. We have our issues, we talk them out. I see us building a life together, and I feel hopeful and excited about the future.

But at the same time, I know I’ll be OK no matter what happens. I’m not afraid of losing him. This isn’t cynicism or pessimism or denial; it would be devastating and heartbreaking beyond belief if we broke up. But I’d still have me. I’d still have a full life and as many chances for happiness, fulfillment and joy as I do with him. I’d still have a whole identity, something I never understood or valued before.

Dating myself was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I wouldn’t be the partner I am now without that experience, wouldn’t be in the relationship I am, wouldn’t be the person I am. Whether we’re on our own by choice or not, we don’t have to just live through singlehood because that’s what fate handed us, to sit resignedly in the Singles Waiting Room until we can board the next dating train. Societal pressures aside, being single has advantages we often fail to appreciate, not the least of which is a chance to intentionally prioritize ourselves.

If we redirect the energy we’d give to a partner or dating into ourselves, instead—into our ambitions and desires, our growth, our finances, our friendships, our hobbies and travels—for even one month, it might just lead to some pretty amazing results.

Dating ourselves isn’t solely a means to building a better, healthier love life in the future. It’s a radical and empowering re-imagining of our beliefs about love, partnership and fulfillment.

And that changes everything.

six bright red and green flags of dating

Dating can be daunting and complicated.

It isn’t easy to find the balance between enjoying it and not letting it run our lives, between giving time to it and time to everything else that matters to us, between being open to possibilities and protecting ourselves, and between releasing our pasts and learning everything we can from our experiences. It requires time, attention and effort. There’s no one right way to do it, there’s no perfect recipe for a great social life. I found that what worked for me developed over time, with a lot of trial and error.

I think the hardest part for many of us, especially those of us who’ve made appalling mistakes in the past, is learning to trust our own judgment—again or for the first time. Every encounter and every person is different. How do we know for sure that we’re making the right decisions for ourselves?

Thinking about this recently, I decided to create a list of some of the red and green flags that I learned to watch for through the process of dating. These may or may not be helpful to anyone else, but they they gave me confidence and helped me keep my balance.

Red Flag #1: Love Bombing.
The other person overwhelms you with attention, compliments, praise and expressions of devotion. This is called “love bombing,” and anyone who’s experienced it knows how GOOD it feels. Suddenly you go from being alone to deeply attached, you belong to someone who adores you. All your free time is absorbed by them. They talk about the future—forever—love. They’ve never met anyone like you before, you’re The One. You’re breathless with excitement and giddy with romance, devouring every word. Before you know it, you’ve become dependent on the heady drug that is their affection, and find all your boundaries and values flying out the window in order to keep it coming.

The catch? It’s not real. No matter how quickly two people fall in love, if it’s a healthy and sustainable relationship, one person won’t overwhelm the other with attachment. Every relationship has its own pace, fast or slow, but the key is that both people are comfortable and clear-headed about what’s happening. If it feels like too much, too soon, then it is, and chances are this person wants something. To sleep with you, manipulate you, condition you, use you in some way to their advantage. No one ever needs to be love bombed in order to fall in love.

Green Flag #1: An authentic pace.
Sure, being swept up in romance is fun and exciting, it’s a natural high unlike just about any other. But what’s the hurry? This person is basically a stranger, no matter how great they seem. It’s a good sign if they make it clear that they’re in no rush. They show you that they want to get to know you better, but that’s it. They don’t have an agenda. This flag indicates maturity, integrity and respect, not a lack of desire or interest. You can let the relationship unfold as it will without stressing over it or feeling overwhelmed by it.

The flip side is someone who drags their feet, who does NOT show you that they’re interested, who leaves you guessing because they’re playing games or aren’t really sure what they want. Your best bet is to watch for the indications that they really do want to date you. They contact you and respond when you contact them. They follow up when they say they will. They end a date by talking about the next one. They don’t make big promises and don’t break the promises they make. Their actions speaking for their intentions. Beyond the almost unavoidable “how much does he/she like me?” question we all ask ourselves, you shouldn’t have to guess whether or not they’re interested in you.

For both of these flags, your own responses will tell you everything you need to know. Do you feel dismissed and confused? Valued and respected? Overwhelmed and anxious? Does this person frequently disappoint you, or consistently follow through? Are you deeply attached by week two, terrified that it will end? Are you willing to let the relationship unfold at its own pace, whatever that may mean?

Red Flag #2: Boundary Crossing.
You’ve just met a very attractive, charming man or woman who’s knocked you off your feet—maybe even love-bombed you, but it’s too late, you missed that red flag. Or maybe they didn’t love bomb, you watched for that, they courted you or responded to you in a mature, open way that clearly showed they like you. You’ve gone on one or three or five dates, and are starting to think that this could really have potential. And then something happens that makes you uncomfortable. They tease you—about something you’ve made clear is important, or belittle you in a teasing way. They make an unkind comment about your appearance, or job, or friends—as a joke, maybe, but it still hurts your feelings. They do something—flirt with a bartender, go a little too far physically, “accidentally” leave you with a big tab—that disturbs you and makes you uneasy and resentful. You may seem “over-sensitive” to someone who has different boundaries, but that doesn’t matter. You were made uncomfortable.

If you’ve already established for yourself what is and is not acceptable behavior and what they do falls squarely into the unacceptable category, now’s the time to cut your losses and walk away. There’s no value in rationalizing or making excuses—it’s appropriate to end it now, no matter how nice you thought they were. If their behavior is in the gray area for you, daunting as it may be, it’s probably best to address it head on. We have the right and responsibility to speak up for ourselves when our personal lines are crossed. Either it was an honest mistake and your budding relationship will be the stronger for the conversation, or it wasn’t. If the other person is defensive, plays the victim, blames you (or anyone else) or is in any way crazy-making, this is definitely not a good bet for a future partner. If speaking up scares them off, what are the chances you’d work through even bigger conflicts in the future?

Green Flag #2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Self-respect in dating matters. Coming from a strong place where you value yourself and believe that your wants, needs, opinions, feelings and ideas are important is the best guarantee that you’ll choose similarly strong people to date. One way to recognize this is that you feel utterly respected by the person you’re dating. You know they value who you are—not who you could be if you were more successful or skinnier, not you with less flaws. But YOU. They show respect for your time, your priorities, your family, your responsibilities, your choices. Making plans with them doesn’t require you to rearrange your life, and vice versa.

We all know when someone is disrespecting us. Crossing boundaries, consistently showing up late or cancelling plans at the last-minute, trying to negotiate when we say “no” or convince us that we’re in the wrong, playing any kind of mind game. No matter how attracted we might be to them, disrespect is disrespect. You deserve better than that—and someone who starts out disrespecting you probably won’t stop.

It’s on us to own our own boundaries and self-worth. We deserve to feel empowered to define our deal-breakers and enforce them, to recognize when someone has crossed a line and decide for ourselves what to do about it, and to only let people into our lives who show us unwavering respect, who we respect in return. Without a strong foundation, a relationship will crumble, causing far more heartbreak and stress than speaking out or ending it early on would.

Red Flag #3: Your Gut Says “No.”
Whether it’s the first date or the fiftieth, there’s one very simple and beautiful way to decide if someone is right for you—whatever “right” means at that moment in your life. Your gut will tell you. Even those of us who have made some truly horrible decisions when it comes to dating can trust our instincts—there was nothing wrong with what they told us, what was wrong was that we didn’t listen to them. Haven’t we all kicked ourselves, saying “I KNEW I shouldn’t have done that,” and we were proved right? Our instincts are our best friends, best guides and best allies. They only have our very best interest at heart. There’s nothing complicated about our instincts, they don’t have conflicting loyalties. They have one job: to lead us to make the choices that are aligned with who we really are. That’s it.

Maybe by the third date, you believe that the man or woman you’re dating is pretty awesome, but something inside you is saying “Nope. No. Not.” Instead of accepting this and open-mindedly investigating why, you argue with it—”But she’s fabulous!” “He’s such a nice man!” Say you’re successful (as so many of us have been) and manage to ignore and override your inner guide, pushing yourself forward into a relationship regardless. What good can come of it? You’re never going to change your instinct’s mind. Something is telling you not to be with this person. Maybe they’re actually a sociopath, or maybe they’re a fantastic person who just isn’t right for you. Either way, your gut will be your best resource for deciding whether or not to pursue a relationship.

Green Flag #3: Your Loved Ones Say “Yes.”
This is much less important than listening to your own instincts, but it’s still a good indication of relationship potential. Not everyone in your life has to love your significant other like you do, but it’s a big flashing green flag if those in your inner circle, the people who love and value you the most, like what they see when you’re with this person. They should see you being yourself, feeling comfortable and confident, remaining committed to your values and priorities. Sure, a relationship requires us to make some compromises, but a healthy relationship never requires us to compromise ourselves. Our partner should share our core values, not challenge or negate them.

Whether or not a relationship is meant to work out long-term, having the support and enthusiasm of both partners’ friends and families will only add to what you bring to each other. If your partner can be friends with your friends, and you with theirs, that’s an extremely positive sign—because if they can’t, or they aren’t interested in building those connections, what does that mean for their friendship with you?

There are a lot of forces pushing on us when we’re single. Society wants us to be paired up, as if we all have sell-by dates and will expire if we’re not happily partnered. The world at large favors couples, outside of our own desire for companionship. So we’re really good at talking ourselves into and out of things, often with the help of our advisers, often just in our own minds. We might pass up a potential date because she or he doesn’t fit our projected ideas about who our partner “should” be. We might get married against our instincts because we rationalize that it’s better to be with someone than to be alone, convincing ourselves that we’re in love. We might date the wrong person for years, just because we don’t have a logical reason not to.

The point is, this is your life, you live with the consequences of your dating decisions—not your family, not society at large. Whether or not you’ve made mistakes in the past, you get to learn the lessons offered and start again. In this complicated thing called dating, your instincts, your values and your awareness are the most dependable tools for finding the right balance, and right partner, for you.

conscious dating

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.