Skip to main content

When it comes to dating, I’ve found that you don’t even have to go on a date to feel emotionally exhausted. So many of us have had enough ambiguously platonic “hangouts” to feel romantically hopeless—without ever even entering into real dating territory. Before too long you begin to wonder, why date at all?

I found myself in just such a situation not too long ago. Tired of the disappointments, false starts, and no-gos that seemed inherent in dating, I swore it off altogether. I told myself this was just a break, a dating "fast" if you will, an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to recalibrate. I decided to take a step back so that I could take a fresh step forward.

The trouble is, rather than preparing me to get back out there, my dating fast became a reason not to date at all. Although I hid my true motives under the guise of self-discovery, I was really not dating because I had given up.

I’m not the only woman who has bowed out of dating altogether. Kerry Cronin, a professor of Philosophy at Boston College, made the news a few years ago by assigning a pretty radical project to her senior seminar. The assignment: ask someone out on a date. Something simple in theory but nerve-wracking in application. What Cronin was really getting to the heart of was a behavior that she’d been observing all around her on campus. Cronin identified three groups of students in the college dating scene: people hooking up; couples partaking in codependent, pseudo-married relationships; and single people opting out of dating altogether. These people who “opt out” are either too busy or just can’t seem to find the right person, so they give up. 

My own dating fast ended when I realized, a semester later, that besides a little extra cynicism nothing much had changed in my outlook. It occurred to me that maybe what I needed wasn’t a break from dating but a return to healthy casual dating. 

Verily contributor Meg T. McDonnell describes casual dating as something different than hooking up and even just hanging out. “Dating is supposed to be an opportunity to spend time with another person, one who might see the world differently than you. Asking questions and fully engaging with the other person can open your mind to new ideas, introduce you to different ways of living, and help you understand the experiences that led you both to where you are today” Meg explains.

I resolved that the best way to grow and correct your dating foibles is to date differently rather than not at all. It’s important of course to take a moment to reflect on past relationships and identify problem areas, but I believe it's just as important to get back out there. At the end of the day, dating is a social activity. It’s a way of meeting new people and building new relationships—a skill you’ll need your entire life whether or not you get married.

The truth is, somewhere between the avoidant dating fast and the forced forty days of dating, is the healthy practice of casual dating. A practice that, if you take Cronin’s advice, can be far more rewarding than a break from dating will ever be. Here are five things dating well can teach you better than any dating fast.

01. Realistic Expectations

Besides the man-hating reasons for not dating, there are definitely more personal ones as well. The possibility of getting hurt. The inability to be vulnerable with someone. Call me a romantic (or the total opposite), but I have a lot of trouble motivating myself to date anyone who’s not Prince Charming.

While a dating fast can tempt you to idealize love and marriage, dating can pretty quickly give your romantic perceptions a dash of realism—after all there’s no better way to get over Prince Charming Syndrome than to go out with some not-so-charming fellows. Practicing healthy dating keeps your expectations in check to avoid early heartbreak while also giving you a chance to find the one you’ve been looking for.

02. Perseverance

Part of the Prince Charming true love theory is that love just happens. It doesn’t require pursuing or effort and it definitely doesn’t require dating. But if you get into the habit of just waiting for your Prince Charming to come rescue you, you’re pretty likely to settle for the first guy that comes along. 

Cronin says college campuses today are “places of great intensity but not of great intimacy.” This means that while taking that calculus test was hard, dating may actually be harder. As for the millennial mindset toward dating, Cronin thinks she might have a theory about that. From the college professor perspective, we’re a very hard-working generation. Part of the reason we may not like dating is because, unlike other areas of our lives, the effort we put into dating someone doesn’t necessarily correlate to some tangible measure of "success."

Persistence is necessary for success in dating. There’s no way that not dating can make you more comfortable going on dates, so the only thing to do is jump in feet first. 

03. Self-Awareness

A first date done right is all reconnaissance work, according to Cronin. In other words, it’s a basic get-to-know-you for the other person but ultimately a great way to learn about yourself along the way. After a few first dates you get used to answering the standard questions. Where are you from? What do you do/study? Who’s your favorite Jonas Brother? (Answer: none). But you also might start to recognize a pattern that reveals something about yourself.

In my own experience, I have a tendency to be overly self-deprecating, which doesn’t create a great first impression, especially on a date. Dating and meeting people in general has taught me to take a step back from my own ability (or attempts) to make people laugh, especially if the joke's on me. Although I think my sense of humor is really important to who I am, showing that I’m a positive, self-confident person is much more important. This self-reflection that comes from dating creates a sense of personal growth that I’ll never find by shutting myself off to potential relationships.

04. Sacrifice

One of the most important, and most difficult, things about building a relationship with anyone, whether they’re a date or a coworker, is sacrifice. Part of the reason my dating fast didn’t work is that I got too comfortable with the idea of only thinking about myself.

But remember this is casual dating. It's a low-risk way to learn about what it means to compromise and balance your needs with someone else's. It’s learning how to give up the little things and think of others first that builds up your endurance for the really big things. And, at the end of the day, if you really care about someone, then sacrificing something for them is going to be just a little bit easier.

05. Partnership

It’s true: Dating is practice for marriage. While you don’t have to make lifelong commitments to anyone, actively dating is a great way to see how you can create a purposeful relationship with a potential spouse. Although it may seem like a no-brainer, dating demands that you do activities with someone else, someone new. Whether it’s eating ice cream or going rock climbing, you have to learn to work together either through strategized teamwork or just making conversation. So, if you see yourself walking down the aisle someday, you may want to think about getting back in the dating game.

But it can also work the other way around. You could discover through dating that marriage is not the right thing for you. Dating can be a very effective way to discern if you even belong in a relationship right now. And that decision will be a lot harder to make when you don’t know what dating or a romantic relationship even entails.

Say what you will about dating, but when it’s done right, it’s definitely worth the risk. And as far as “finding yourself,” I think dating goes a lot further toward that goal than most people think. So take a break from your “dating fast,” and grab a cup of coffee with that guy you've been thinking about—he may be the first of many or the one that says “I do,” but there’s no doubt you’ll learn something along the way.

Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan