Dating guides frequently give strict rules about how to behave around prospective partners. There are dictates about who should pick the restaurant and pay the check, how far in advance the date should be requested, and how long to wait before sending the follow-up text.
We're advised to be open, but also mysterious. To wear makeup, but don't try too hard. And always, always be positive.
In my book, It's Not You, I rail against the dating gurus who tie us in knots of self-doubt with their narrow and often contradictory prescriptions for how to be lovable. Readers have questioned me about this. After all, doesn't dating require a bit of salesmanship -- choosing a nice profile picture, cherry-picking your favorite books and movies (your love of War and Peace is well documented, Bridget Jones's Diary not so much), wearing smart clothes, and emphasizing the parts of your life that are going well (your promotion at work) over those that are not (your ongoing feud with your sister)?
It's true. Showing up to a date in a wrinkled t-shirt and unwashed jeans is a bad idea. So is complaining about your back pain or your ex-wife.
But here's what's interesting about this question: Why do we assume that our best selves are fake? Why is the "real" you the one who falls asleep in front of the television with potato chip crumbs on her sweatshirt and curses her boss under her breath? As opposed to the one who rescues stray dogs and looks damn fine in a halter dress?
At the Buddhist meditation center where I study, I frequent staff weekend retreats. At the beginning of each program, we're asked to create an uplifted environment. We make sure the cushions are straight, the flowers are fresh and the dining room chairs pushed in. We wear nice clothes and try to ensure that everyone who comes in the center feels welcome and comfortable.
Are we being fake? No. We're merely treating ourselves and others with respect. We're turning our attention not to what others think of us, but to how can we give them the best experience possible.
I think this principle applies perfectly to dating. Too often, dating is presented as a business transaction. We set our terms and conditions ("He'd better pay for my drink or I'm outta here") and calculate our advantages ("I hope she realizes she's not getting any younger, whereas I have all the time in the world").
We try to sell ourselves. Our pitches will vary depending on how confident we feel or how hot our date is. Sometime we take on the slightly hunched or overly slick demeanor of the seller ("I have to get her to like me!"). And sometimes we see ourselves as the "buyer," with the power to coolly evaluate whether or not this person is worth our time.
Seeing ourselves and others as commodities makes dating stressful and no fun. So instead, why not see the date for what it is: a meeting of two people, trying to connect. Instead of attempting to impress or get the upper hand, why not simply treat your date with kindness and respect? Wear a nice dress. Take an interest in her job. Compliment his wine-choosing skills. Ask if she's warm enough by the window.
It's not about scoring brownie points or playing by the rules. It's about making the evening as pleasant as possible for both of you. That way, no matter what happens, you both win.
This post originally ran on eHarmony.com.
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