The Modern Dating “Rules”

What even are they in a world of dating apps?

Christina Carè
Dec 6, 2018 · 9 min read

Growing up in the nineties, I absorbed information about dating and relationships from sitcoms. Lighthearted discussion of ‘first date’ rules, and ‘third date’ rules, gave me the notion that people followed a particular way of doing things, for the most part. There was an appropriate time to have sex for the first time, an appropriate time after which to meet friends and families, etc.

But then I grew up, and became an adult, in the 2010s.

In this time, the cutesy sitcom-peddled scenes of chance meetings in coffee shops and whatnot were pretty firmly thrown out the window. Instead, we’ve got more online dating sites and swipe-based apps than you can poke a stick at, each promising a slightly different version of ‘filter out baddies’ and ‘date goodies’. Some claim to have your personality in play, others mess around with existing social networks (via Facebook or similar), and others claim to be exclusive, or cater to very specific kinds of hookup, or promise more ‘serious’ pundits. Amongst all this, it also just so happens that I moved to London in my mid twenties, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, with a high degree of people who are single.

Cue two years of bizarre dating antics. I’ve already written about some of the amazing choice words I received in this time — the weird things men have actually said to me. But I wanted to tackle here the modern rules of dating — what even are they?

Dating profiles are helpful only to a point — most people are trying to get past this as quickly as possible, and you should too.

The first thing to say is that the dating profile has become the lens through which we are first exposed to people, if you’re going down the online dating route (and let’s face it, this is how most people tackle dating in big cities like mine). This is a very peculiar lens, because it is a cultivated set of information you choose to reveal about yourself. It obviously doesn’t include a lot of the negative truths about who you are as a person — but nor does it include the really magic details that make you interesting and unique. Dating profiles tend to be as generic as humanly possible. Sometimes, people don’t write anything, depending on the platform. So the profile is a really limited first glimpse. This makes it really hard to figure out if you have any interest in someone.

But by the same token, you can get some insight into the general values/ideals of the person in question. For me, the more specific and random the details included, the better, because this was an easier way to filter out generic sports dudes (sorry, generic sports dudes, I’m just not into it). If they just wrote something like “I like drinking and football”, it was easy enough for me to swipe left. Whereas if they said, “I like learning German and I’ve been to Germany twice,” then fab, yes, I can start with that. These are also general things, and don’t give me any sense of that person’s true self, but is enough of a starting point to proceed — I like languages, so this person wins out. It sounds a little cold, but it is a kind of quick calculation about the likelihood of your getting along. And the point is then very much to move things beyond the dating profile as quickly as possible.

It’s about figuring out what you think might be valuable, but not letting that determine too much at this initial stage. After all, you’ve got to talk and meet, potentially, in order to really know anything (though you can get plenty of red flags via text, too). Here’s where most people drop off the list right away, and why people tend to keep big lists of potential people to pursue…

Everyone will likely be dating a thousand other people, so be mentally prepared for that.

I have to say that I was never any good at dating more than one person at once. It’s just too hard; but a lot of people do it. In fact, pretty much everyone does, these days. So be mentally prepared. They are trying to fit in getting to know you around getting to know however many other people, as well.

I found this challenging because I really filtered initially and then wanted to commit to getting to know a person one at a time. But alongside this choice of mine, I had to accept that basically nobody else was doing likewise. The men I was dating were all dating many women, and in a few instances, they picked those women over me. That is completely fine — that’s dating, after all. I did the same, slowly filtering out people who didn’t interest me. But it took time to accept that they were maybe distracted by many other choices and I felt pressured at times to ‘stand out’ amongst them. Eventually, I got over this. I am who I am, they are who they are, and if we don’t work, we don’t work. Coming to terms with this was very powerful.

If you’re going for a very specific kind of relationship, there’s probably a specific place for you to look for that. Go there.

This applies equally to people who are looking for a specific kink to be fulfilled as it does someone looking for a more traditional heterosexual relationship. Do everyone a favour, and make this clear in your profile or go to a place where you can specifically get that relationship type. Don’t waste people’s time by asking if they’re up for a “cuckhold relationship” when they have literally written “I’m looking for a [singular] nice guy/gal to travel and spend time with.” Maybe that person does want that kind of relationship, but unless they’ve explicitly said so on their profile, it’s really unlikely. Equally, I described myself as a feminist in my profile. Specifically because if a man approached me with, “Are you looking for marriage and a man to cook for everyday?” I could be real clear about that. “No thanks, I’m looking for an equal partner.” Straightforward.

My experience of online dating was to be harassed by dozens of people who were actually looking for a specific kink or a specific kind of relationship setup that they either weren’t honest about on their profile, or which I had not at all mentioned in mine. So save yourself and everyone else time by either specifically looking on a platform designed to fulfil that request, or by only pursuing people who have stated that is what they are looking for.

There is no ‘first date’ or ‘third date’ rule any more

The big thing I noticed is that first and third and whatever date rules are entirely out of the window. In my experience, there were guys I went on 6+ dates with and never slept with — these inevitably dissolved into nothing, as the chemistry was absent, but the point was that sometimes sex happens and sometimes it doesn’t, and nobody seems to have a clear number for when this should happen, any more.

The truth is that in my last long term relationship, we slept together after the very first date. We were together for 3 years. And in my current relationship, it’s been the same thing. We’ve been together about 9 months so far. So really, the ‘right’ time to do anything is no longer a thing — it’s about who you are as a person, what you value, and how you want to get to know someone else. I’ve written more about the question of when to sleep together here:

If they don’t answer in a given time frame, move on. If they cancel, move on.

Learn to balance interest with disinterest. I know this is really hard — I found it almost impossible. But it is something you have to get to grips with in modern dating. People will blank you, people will be unresponsive — especially on dating apps, where the sheer number of people does mean that it’s hard to sustain conversations with everyone for a long period.

Equally, if you get past the texting stage and into the actual meeting stage, and they tend to cancel, take this as a sign. Make a decision for yourself: how long are you happy to keep chatting via text before you speak on the phone, or meet? How long are you happy to wait for them to actually agree to meet, if they cancel? These are really important rules to set yourself to avoid major disappointment and heartbreak in future.

You’re pretty unlikely to hear anything if they don’t like you.

The sad truth is that people are crap at confrontation. And having to say, “Hey, sorry, I don’t think this works for me,” is something a lot of people struggle to say. This is equally true of women as men — ghosting is everywhere. I know it’s really awful, and it is a tribute to one particular person I dated a few times who actually called me up and said, “I’m really sorry, I’m getting more involved with someone else.” It was disappointing at the time but really the best way to go, and the clarity was very much appreciated.

I did my best to do the same with others, but of course there are times when it just doesn’t happen the way you hope. I went on about 6 or 7 dates with someone who I then questioned, “Is this going anywhere?” (though in gentler words). He wasn’t sure and I told him to think about it and let me know. I never heard from him again. So there we go, that was my answer. Not a very adult answer, but an answer nonetheless.

We can all do our part to try and change this. To try to operate with honesty and transparency, and just say what you feel when you feel it. But of course it is hard, and of course sometimes you just don’t know 100%. But wherever possible, I believe it’s time to change this reality — make it a rule to be clear and to let people know.

Real life always trumps online. So don’t just use apps.

I think this should be a rule for anyone who is really wanting to find a match. Dating apps are a gateway, but in the end we all have to actually get to know each other in real life, anyway. So balance your online activities with real life activities. After all, if you’re doing things that you find interesting anyway, that’s a fantastic way to incidentally meet people.

As an introvert, this was always really important to me — it meant that I found going out and meeting new people far less taxing. It became one of my personal rules for socialising. Real life gives you so much more to go on than a profile anyway, so balance your energy. Put time into things that make you happy, or online dating can become quite depressing, quite fast.

In conclusion…

Make your own rules, and make them clear.

As I’ve already alluded to a few times, it really is up to you to figure out what you’re willing to put up with, how long you’re willing to wait, what is for you a good or bad sign. Figuring out what you value, what interests you, what you’re hoping to find, are all really important. They will inform your own approach, your own rules, to a world in which “rules” are largely irrelevant.

Romance is still totally possible, so don’t lose hope.

Finally, I want to reiterate: romance is possible. Love is possible. If you’re in dating hell right now, I feel you. But I know love is out there for you, so don’t give up if this is something you want for your life. Of course, it helps not to focus on it too intently — these things have to happen, as annoying and frustrating as that can be to hear at times. But I want you to know that it will, if it’s something you really honestly value and desire. And if it’s not something you need in your life, all power to you! Everyone has to figure out their own way.

I began to think that I preferred life as a single person. But then I happened to meet someone I thought was entirely wonderful. It happened for me after two years of complete rubbish (and a solid year before that of really rather awful/silly relationships). Three years of moving from pointless relationships to singledom to dating hell and finally through to a partnership that continues to blossom. I hope you can take hope from that. It will take time, but you will get there — wherever it is you hope to end up.

Christina Carè

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Trying to live better. Writing on Mental Health, Relationships, and Living Ethically. Editor/Podcaster. If you’d like to support me: