Picture this: a girl getting dolled up in front of her bedroom mirror, primping for hours until she is sure she looks perfect. A boy shows up at her front door and nervously knocks, flowers hidden behind his back. He sweeps her away on his arm to a candlelit dinner where they lean in, talking non-stop (interrupted only by a few nervous giggles and blushes). Later when he drives her home (after modestly holding her hand on the way to the car), he walks her to the door, and under the front porch light, she stands on her tiptoes for a kiss.
Sigh . . .
This, dear reader, is a fiction, probably inspired by an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Realistically, she didn’t feel like she looked perfect and probably wished she had more deodorant on. The conversation didn’t always flow easily and was peppered with awkward silences and small talk about the waiter. He probably had a piece of lettuce stuck in his teeth before the main course. And as for the goodnight kiss . . . either it ended in an awkward half-hug handshake, or they bumped noses while mosquitos buzzed around the porch light. And when the door closed and they were finally left alone, they called their friends, bemoaned how awkward they were, and picked apart the character of their date.
The perfect date, as pictured in movies, television, and worst of all in our own imaginations, just doesn’t exist.
This might sound jaded, but truth be told, we walk into most, if not all, situations in life with a preconceived notion of how it will or should be. A first date is no exception. But it’s rare that anything—especially a first date—goes as planned. Women (and men!) have high expectations for the first date, which is totally understandable, but the problem comes when we let our ideal image of what is supposed to happen distract us from the here and now.
First dates are intrinsically a little uncomfortable. The whole point is to get a feel for the other person and see if they are someone with whom you might want to continue to pursue a relationship, all while they are trying to figure you out as well. Many women expect the first date to involve a life-changing, romantic gesture that leaves them practically swooning, but first dates are rarely like that: they are often awkward and don't always go as planned. Even if a date goes well, you may not leave totally sure that you have met someone who you could date or marry.
Leave expectations at the door
Maybe your evening will look like that scene out of Leave it to Beaver. Or maybe you and your date will go play dodgeball with friends, and you’ll be hit in the face and get a bloody nose. Or maybe you’ll walk around your town eating ice cream and accidentally drip melty blue ice cream all over your shirt. Perhaps you’ll go to an outdoor concert that gets rained out, or you will sit down for cocktails in a dark, loud bar and not be able to hear a word of your attempted conversation.
Regardless, planning how it should go or expecting it to go one way rarely pans out. Nervous anticipation can sometimes lead you to two different and unhealthy extremes: first, that it will be a dreamlike fairytale with no bumps along the way, or that it is doomed to be a catastrophe from the second you step out the door. First dates are better when you leave the expectations behind. Whether or not you end up with the love of your life, first dates can help us grow and learn. From both unsuccessful and successful first dates, I’ve learned what I am looking for (or not looking for) in a date. I’ve also learned how to laugh at myself when those awkward or human moments happen, like when I accidentally swore on a date and that turned out to be a turn-off for him.
The best or most memorable moments in life are often the ones that surprise us. Dating can (and I think should!) surprise us. We learn so much about ourselves when we let go, and we may learn that we enjoy an activity or a human quality that we were previously unsure about or even against. Entering with preconceived notions is like bringing an obstacle that goes between you and your date. You can still find your way to them, but it makes it more difficult.
So, I found things that helped me distance myself from unrealistic expectations. I would work hard to shut down negative or idealistic thoughts by engaging in realistic self-talk. Furthermore, I found that distracting myself as I got ready for a date with something that brought me joy (such as music or podcasts) helped me relax. And finally, I would muster all my self-control and not stalk my date on social media—remember, a person’s persona on social media does not define who they are.
Pack your standards
While this may seem obvious, sometimes we think that leaving expectations out of the equation means leaving behind our standards because it all comes as one package. However, standards and expectations should be distinguished. For example, maybe you were hopeful that your first date would be full of non-stop, interesting conversation. Instead, more often than not, silence ruled, and it was awkward. However, when looking back on the date, you realize that the little conversation you had was meaningful, and he displayed an attractive character.
When deciding whether or not to give him a second chance, expectations might dictate that it wasn’t what you hoped for, and your dreams for this potential relationship have been dashed. Whereas, standards might encourage you to give him a second chance because what you did see and did like was appealing. Expectations are often rooted in fantasy, whereas standards are rooted in reality.
Standards are what actually help us to know if the person is worth pursuing again, even if the date ends awkwardly or roughly. Our standards are generally born from our convictions, the things that are of most value to us, and are directed by our moral compasses. Asking the question of whether or not the date was actually bad, or if it was just nerves and he deserves a second or even third chance, can help you discern the conflicting head and heart emotions that come with the first date territory.
My first boyfriend and I never really had a discernible first date (oh, to be dating without a drivers license again). My second boyfriend pulled out all the stops; he took me to a very fancy restaurant (I was wearing jeans) and paid a mustachioed man to serenade us while playing the accordion. However, the perfect setting and the expensive food covered in squid ink could not mask the lack of connection between us, and it couldn’t save the relationship from fizzling out only a couple months later.
My now-fiancé and I bonded over cafeteria food one late college night. We sat surrounded by fellow students watching a football game, and ate slowly while asking each other about our lives and our families. It wasn’t until afterward that we realized it was an unofficial date. That date was an accident, and I am glad that it was. I didn’t spend hours primping—in fact, I had just stepped off a plane. I hadn’t had time to think about the conversation in advance, and it was all very natural.
We didn’t learn everything about each other during the first date, and even though we did feel a spark, we have encountered bumps along the way. Five years later, we love reminiscing about our first moments together because, even though the memory includes awkwardness, it was organic. We didn’t have a chance to set unrealistic expectations, and as fate would have it, this is the relationship that has lasted.
In many cases, though, you will know about the date in advance, and so it’s harder not to build those expectations. Because every person is different, there are many different ways to defuse the tension that can come with bringing unrealistic expectations to a date. Maybe you need to limit the time you spend getting ready or avoid researching your date on social media or even Googling the location for the date. Maybe you need to find a distraction to avoid pre-date jitters in an activity that you love.
I can’t tell you what to do, but I can leave you with some wisdom I received from my mom. When we listen to music, we don’t try to guess what note will come next, and we don’t criticize the artist’s choice of notes or instruments. We have a receptivity to music that we do not always have toward people. With people, especially in the case of relationships, we often let our expectations about what a person should be close us up to something that they have to offer.
Being open to people as we are to music can lead to clarity and wisdom that we might not otherwise have. We may not be able to completely abandon our idealized image of how a date should look, but being receptive and open to our date is not only a good life practice, but also leaves a promising opening for dates to come, whether with this man or someone else.