Why we date

Hint: it’s not always for marriage. 

This is the third and final post in a series of posts on dating in the Internet age. You can read the first and second posts here.

Most of my friends are active, if casual, daters.

My startup founder friend dates to prove that he has a life outside of his job. (He doesn’t.)

Another friend goes straight to work for dating: she has an unofficial policy of dating only her co-workers, always in secret. (“It’s hotter that way.” Also: messier.)

Then there is the friend who has decided she is in search of A Lover. Not a boyfriend, not a play date, not merely a hook up, but a lover. You are either Lover material or you are not; she will know when she meets you.

In my case, you might say I have been dating for the sake of dating: to meet new people, try new places, and explore this great, still new-to-me city of San Francisco. (I’m a recent transplant from New York. And no, I don’t miss it.) I deeply like people and understanding where they’re from and where they’d like to be going, so I date to hear people’s stories, to share my own, and yes of course, to form a connection and fuel an attraction — not primarily for marriage, but for now. (In other words, I fit right in with that breed of San Franciscans “allergic to relationships.”)

Of course I have friends in search of the Big Love too, but they are the minority. They date seriously and steadily, sometimes staying in relationships far past their known shelf life, but they try. They give it their all. They are, in my circle at least, the outliers.

Older generations lamenting the current dating scene seem to enjoy blaming our fondness for singlehood on the Internet. In their view technology has made our attention span too short: our 15-seconds-or-less mode clouds how we think about dating. We have too many options and are too indecisive and picky. If a pick-up line is longer than 140 characters we cannot compute.

Has the Internet really made us more complacent in our hunt for the Big Love? It’s true that we have access to more singles now than our mobile web browsers know what to do with. No doubt about it, technology has made it easier for Millennials to keep searching and swiping for our next date, hang-out, relationship, etc. We talk about sourcing and our need for dating CRMs. We talk about being high touch. We talk about building a pipeline of steady dates and filling the bench. We talk about closing the deal.

But we also talk a lot about finding ourselves — and that’s a subject far more complicated than access and availability. What if we’re just not ready?

A recent entry in the Vows section of the New York Times captured a sentiment I hear often from many of my 20-something friends about courtship: despite a solid foundation, the new bride admitted she didn’t initially have the “emotional bandwidth” to date the man who would become her husband — not before figuring out what to do with her life; not before becoming the person she was meant to be; and certainly not before dating other people first.

If you are in your twenties today, you’ve heard this rationale before: many of us date while we build our “emotional bandwidth” for the day we’re ready for something more serious outside of ourselves. It takes time to be in a relationship and to invest in another person—especially when you are working very hard at investing in yourself—and so we date casually while we shape ourselves into the beings we long to be.

I think everyone dates, in a certain sense, to figure themselves out — that’s not a generational thing. I don’t think this need for emotional bandwidth is a singular result from growing up in the Internet age; maybe those of us taking our time were late bloomers from the start. Like our parents, we’re searching for what makes us tick and what makes us complete, in relationships and independent of them — we just happen to be doing it in a very public way. We blog about it, we tweet about it, we post Facebook updates coded in meaning about it. We are more vocal about what we’re feeling and thinking, in a lot more places.

Certainly the Internet has made it easier to express and project our work-in-progress, still-evolving selves. In some ways it has also helped us refine the stories we tell about ourselves, and attempt to honor and live up to them. Every online profile—dating site or not—is an opportunity to tell the story of the best version of yourself, to act out and become the person you want to be. Of course as with anything posted online, this is done with varying degrees of thoughtfulness and authenticity. But do a quick scan of your online dating profile and take note of the qualities you’ve called attention to. Consider that the features we highlight in ourselves are often the ones we seek in others, too. (And especially the ones we don’t have yet but wish to cultivate.) If that’s not a useful exercise in understanding your relationship psyche, I don’t know what is.

Somehow this thoughtful exploration of self—online and off—has been maligned as immaturity: delayed adulthood at its worst. But is it such a bad thing to take our time figuring ourselves out? Is it selfish to date while learning about ourselves? Is it selfish to date to learn about ourselves? I don’t think so, as long as our intentions are sound and our expectations clear.

Admittedly it happens that when you are half-formed and figuring yourself out, there’s bound to be some collateral damage; there are no guarantees our search will run smoothly. (Apologies in advance to those who date us during this phase.) If you are on the receiving end, sometimes you just have to accept that you were part of someone else’s life lesson. That’s okay. Someone else will unwittingly be part of your life lesson, too. That’s how the circle of life lessons works. You build empathy along the way.

Which is why even though the codes for how we date are constantly changing and the reasoning behind why we date wildly inconsistent, if there’s one point not up for discussion, it’s how to behave towards those you date, sort of date, hook up with, whatever. If there’s one thing I’ve learned to be universally true about dating, it’s this:

You must always, always, always be kind, in every interaction.

What does it mean to date with kindness? Wherever you stand in the dating cycle, be honest and direct. If there is chemistry, ask for another date. If a transactional hook-up is what you’re both looking for, go for it, but remember to confirm you are aligned. If you see friend potential, I have heard it is possible to “flip to friend,” but I have never attempted it. If you are not at all interested in seeing that person again, that’s okay, too. Say so (kindly), and avoid the slow fade out — but do say so. (If an emoticon’s enough, an emoticon’s enough, but be honest about when it’s not. Most likely, it’s not.) And remember that while deciding not to text sends as strong a signal as any well-composed message you could have sent, it’s not the nicest — or the classiest—way of calling things off.

These are small gestures but important ones, because for all we poke fun at our married friends and joke about sourcing matches, in the end we are all still fragile, insecure little beings, for whom everything can mean something, despite our best efforts to resist interpretation.

Feelings: an epidemic among us

In short, never assume the other person is on the same page, and do your best to clarify expectations.

As for the date itself (and I really hope this isn’t news): Look nice, wear a watch, bring cash (offer to pay), be kind, be receptive, don’t show up more than 10 minutes late, and never cancel at the last minute. Listen more than you speak (unless it’s really, really awkward), and remember that the person in front of you had plenty of other things they could be doing on a Friday night instead of taking a gamble to get to know a stranger. Even if you know within the first five minutes that you’re not interested, be fully present. (Screw the Lemon Law. You do owe it to this person to engage.) Ask good questions and listen hard to their responses. Say thank you. Say goodnight.

And try not to over-think it afterwards. We are all just figuring it out, Internet age or not.

Share your thoughts and stories on dating in the 21st century with me @xsvengoechea.