“I have no idea what I’m doing.” That’s what a guy told me after he sat down across from me at a wine bar on a date several years ago. “I’ve just started dating after my divorce. So please bear with me,” he said. I don’t remember much about the conversation or even the guy. But I’ll never forget the effect those sentences had on me: I instantly relaxed, leaned back in my chair, and felt grateful we could ditch first-date rules for the evening.
Of course, people don’t like to think they’re slaves to “rules,” but even the most non-conformist among us know to resist the urge to indulge in long tirades about politics or exes. If we didn’t have our own sense of what’s appropriate, we wouldn’t chastise ourselves on the way back to the car: “I shouldn’t have said that!” or “I forgot to tell her that she looked pretty” or “I should have mentioned that I’d like to see her again. Did I totally blow it?”
The lure of dating rules (I prefer to call them principles) is that they give you confidence that by learning enough skills, you’ll navigate your next relationship better. The most ambitious even hope that by consuming enough advice, you can prevent heartbreak. (Good luck with that one!) Who hasn’t wallowed in a post-breakup pit of despair and vowed “I’m never going to make those same mistakes again!”? But in the quest to pick a good partner, create chemistry, and encourage relationship momentum and pacing, it’s tempting to become so consumed with tips and tidbits about what not to do, it’s easy to feel you’re blowing it.
At its most extreme, you can second-guess yourself during nearly every part of the dating process: Did you answer that e-mail too soon? Did you confirm the meeting place too late? Did you mention becoming exclusive too soon? Did you end the fourth date too late? Never mind all the things that can go wrong once you’re actually in a relationship. Even though I regularly write a relationship advice column and try to come up with useful suggestions based on my own experiences and observations, I also get overwhelmed by how much there is to think about it.
The reality is that there is no “right” way to find and nurture love, and we’re all doing the best we can. There’s something refreshing about admitting this because it’s proof we’re all human and stumbling around like everyone else. Besides, if you think about the best love stories out there, they rarely progressed without a hitch. Ask your favorite couple how they met, and you’ll hear surprising tales of missed connections, misunderstandings, poor timing, awful breakups, crushing separations, bad intentions, bad kissing, kissing other people, marrying other people, infidelity, ambivalence, jealousy, reconciliations, and reunions before they settled into cozy coupledom.
This is a good perspective to remember when you’re fretting over whether you showed too much or not enough interest on that date or in that email or text. Perhaps this is a better guideline: Instead of asking yourself if you did something “right,” ask yourself if you’re doing something “real.” Are your actions a genuine reflection of your heart? Is your behavior motivated by your character? Do you treat others the way you want to be treated? Stick with those principles, and you can’t really do anything wrong.
Did you do anything “wrong” that turned out to be right?
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and Salon.