Before You Date

Bev, a flight attendant who has never been married, is at home for a week and sitting down for coffee with her younger sister, Dorothy. Before they’ve even added cream and sugar, the conversation turns to their usual topic: relationships.

Bev begins by announcing she has been using the online dating service Dorothy recommended. “I know it’s working for you,” she says. “But I’m not sure about me. I’ve been trying so long to find the perfect person that, at this point, I’m not sure anything could help—not to mention I turned forty last month.”

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“I’m a year older,” Dorothy reminds her. She is now dating a man, divorced like herself, whom she met online.

“I’m happy for you,” Bev says. “But what about that guy you met last year?”

Dorothy gives a nervous laugh. “Turns out he was married. He conveniently forgot to include the fact on his profile.”

“I’m sorry.” Bev shakes her head. “I’ve heard too many dating nightmares. Maybe I’ll just stay single. I love my job, and life’s not so bad.”

Dorothy agrees the horror stories exist, but still thinks the risks are worth it. “Didn’t you find anyone interesting?” she persists. “You wanted to find someone creative.”

Bev responds by reeling off a list of men who responded, mostly artists and musicians. Because of her work schedule, she was only able to meet one. He was attractive, but she realized he was financially unstable. “If we got together, I’d have to support him. Obviously that’s not an option.” A musician she spoke with came across as arrogant, and she sensed several others were really looking for younger women. She concludes by saying, “Maybe I’m too old to share my life with someone. Besides, who says there’s such a thing as a good marriage?”

If you’re excited about dating, Bev’s situation and her conclusions may sound a bit extreme. But I’ve included her story because I meet so many people—especially those who’ve been dating for a while—who have become overwhelmed and feel defeated. Some are ready to call it quits. Others are just setting themselves up for future failure. What these individuals have in common is that they are unclear about why they want to date, the kind of person they want to date, and the kind of relationship they wish to end up in.

The topics I’ll cover in this article are all ideally ones to think about before you begin dating, to help you gear up for the process. However, even if you are actively dating, it’s not too late to go back to basics and resolve any issues and concerns you still have. Or if, like Bev, you’ve come to a point of feeling your years of effort have been in vain, then please don’t despair: there is hope! This article’s exploration of relationship basics gives you a foundation on which to build.

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We begin by looking at common assumptions people bring to the dating process, especially assumptions that can undermine their chances of success. I’ll also go into more detail about the scientific principles that underlie the psychobiological approach, discuss the pros and cons of online dating, and dispel some myths about dating and relationships.

Your Starting Point

People have many reasons for dating: they may want to get married, start a family, avoid being alone, establish independence, expand their circle of friends, or seek new experiences. All these are valid reasons, but in this article I’m going to assume you want to date because you are serious about finding a committed partner. In that case, it’s helpful to start by examining the ideas and preconceptions you have about the kind of partner, and kind of relationship, you want. Your ideas are what you bring to the table, and as such they play a role in determining where and with whom you end up.

I’m going to venture out on a limb by saying this: the chances are pretty good—whether you admit it or not and whether you are male or female—that you are looking for one special person, not two or three or more. Chances are also pretty good that you are seeking both some degree of relationship permanence and some degree of interdependency. At the same time, I would hazard a guess that you are wondering if this kind of committed relationship is possible for you. Even if you want to believe it is possible, you may wonder if it is really worth pursuing. Maybe you feel you’re not “made” for relationships. Or you think pairing up is a trap you’d be smart to avoid. In short, like Bev, you may be experiencing a big dose of dating-and-relationship skepticism right about now.

There is a reason that seeking a partner isn’t as straightforward as, say, going through the process of buying a new car or new house. When it comes to courtship, biological and social influences can be at odds. It may be that your biological hard wiring leads you to want a committed relationship, but that the prevailing mores in your social group carry a strong pull in the opposing direction. For instance, if you’re a young person and your friends spend more time socializing in groups than dating, you are likely to do the same, regardless of other inclinations you may feel. Similarly, if you watch movies or TV shows in which multiple partners, or many partners in quick succession, are the norm, that may have an impact on your choices. These kinds of social trends can cast doubt on what you otherwise would consider the best way to form relationships. In the pages that follow, we will look more closely at this dichotomy.

Exercise: Your Dream Partner

I’ve just shared a few ideas about what I believe drives people when they think about finding a partner. But what counts is what you want. The following ten questions can help you gain clarity on that, and that clarity can help keep you grounded throughout the dating process.

  1. What is your ideal partner’s appearance? Include age, gender, hair, height and weight, style of clothing.
  2. Where or how do you think you are most likely to meet your ideal partner?
  3. What are your ideal partner’s main personality traits?
  4. What is your ideal partner’s prior relationship history?
  5. What is your ideal partner’s financial status? Occupation? Hobbies? Interests?
  6. How would your ideal partner treat you? Treat others?
  7. How much time would it take after meeting your ideal partner for your first kiss? Sleeping together? Living together? Engagement? Marriage? Children?
  8. What would your ideal partner say or do first thing each morning?
  9. What would your ideal partner give you on your next birthday?
  10. How would your ideal partner react if the two of you had a disagreement?

You might want to write down your responses to these questions, or record them on your phone, so you can revisit them later, as you get further into the dating process. Be prepared for your answers to shift as you gain greater clarity about what you want in a partner.

Pair Bonding

When I said I was going out on a limb by suggesting you’re probably seeking a single special person, I wasn’t saying anything particularly revolutionary. At most, it was a low limb on a short tree. In other words, when I say this, I have science on my side. In particular, the various scientific disciplines that contribute to a psychobiological perspective have a lot to say on this matter. Let’s look at some of the facts and findings.

One relevant science-based fact is that humans are dependent animals. You might prefer to say that we are interdependent, which sounds more appealing than “dependent.” In fact it is more accurate because others also depend upon us. However, we don’t start off as interdependent; we begin our lives dependent on another person to fulfill our every need.

Psychologist John Bowlby (1969) was one of the first to study the human tendency for pair bonding—that is, the formation of a close relationship between two individuals. He developed attachment theory to explain why we bond in pairs, starting with our very first relationship outside the womb. We cannot survive and thrive without that special relationship, which usually occurs with our mother. As we grow up, we are born into a larger-sized womb (the world). The initial bonding that began immediately after birth gradually delivers us into a world of increasingly larger numbers of things and people. But the fact that we started off as one person bonded with one primary other influences everything going forward.

Perhaps the most significant influence that initial relationship has is on how we form romantic relationships. As adults, ostensibly, we date because we want to be in a primary relationship with one other person. To be successful, that relationship needs to be reliable, safe, mutual, trustworthy, dependable, and rewarding. In other words, it needs to be secure functioning. Of course, some people did not have the benefits of safety and security in their first relationship. As a result, they may carry a fear—conscious or unconscious—of getting hurt again. The best way they know to protect themselves from another broken heart is to avoid getting too close to one person. They may think they want to find a partner, yet feel conflicted about doing so. The good news, at least from the psychobiological perspective, is that although the residue from early experiences can make the dating process more challenging, most people are able to go on and form secure and loving relationships. It just may require a bit more effort.