Dating is difficult. If you just came back from a rough first date, or spent a Friday night alone wishing you had somebody to love, you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to find a date worth keeping.
It gets more difficult once you’re out of college. When you’re in school, it seems as if there are tons of young smart people around. You are all in the same phase of life, and you are living in a context designed to help you meet new people. Co-ed dorms, fraternities/sororities, endless numbers of clubs and student groups—these are all designed to help you connect.
After you graduate and get out into the real world, it’s different. You’re trying to advance your career, so you are busier. Your friends and potential dating partners are busier as well. You don’t live in the same building with hundreds of potential dating partners. There aren’t as many contexts designed to help you meet new people. You are more on your own.
It’s not surprising that many adults struggle to date and find a spouse. I met my wife in my early 30s, so I spent about 10 years dating post-college. Some of it was fun and exciting, but there was a lot of struggle and difficulty as well. Here are 7 lessons I learned along the way:
- Get your numbers up. This first point is simple, but incredibly difficult for many people. Remember how I said that in college, you have plenty of ready-made contexts to meet new people? Post-college, you have to make more of an effort yourself in order to meet new people. This means that you have to consistently put yourself in contexts where you are meeting new people, and take the initiative to talk to new people. Psychologist and relationship expert Henry Cloud suggests that if you’re serious about dating and finding a partner, you should make it a rule to meet 5 new people each week. “Meeting someone” means that you have enough of a conversation where you could ask for their phone number if you sense a connection and want to check it out more. A lot of adults struggle with this. We have a tendency to get in a routine where we go to the same gym class, the same church group, the same workplace, etc. and we may not meet ANY new people. Meeting 5 new people each week might mean you have to go to different gym classes, different church groups, join an online dating service, etc. It means you need to talk to the person standing in front of you in line at Starbucks. You need to be intentional about meeting new people every day. Get comfortable with it. Why is getting your numbers up so important? Because dating is ultimately about finding someone you connect with. And the reality is that we don’t click with everyone we meet. To give ourselves the best chance to find someone we connect with, we have to put ourselves in contact with a large number of people.
- Be open. At some point in my dating journey, I remember reading a book by the founder of E-Harmony, who recommended that I come up with a list of 10 “Must-Haves” and 10 “Can’t-Stands.” The heart behind this exercise was to self-reflect and get a sense of what kind of person you are looking for, so you don’t waste a lot of time dating people who aren’t a good fit. But I think in today’s dating climate, we are too fixated on our “list,” and this can stop us from being open to someone who might be awesome for us. For example, when my cousin was in college, he had a long list of dating requirements. Two of his rules were that he didn’t want to date a girl who was short (He’s 6’5”) and he didn’t want to date a girl named Karen (His mom’s name). He ended up meeting this awesome short girl named Karen, but he wouldn’t date her because of his list. It took Karen going out with someone else to make him realize that he actually really liked her. To his credit, he threw out his list and they got married. Bottom line: If you want to find love, be open. It’s okay to have a sense of what you are wanting in a spouse, but don’t cling to your list too tightly. Unless you feel unsafe, go out with anyone at least once (probably twice, anyone can have a bad day). Be open to talking with someone and make a connection—you never know what might come from it.
- Aim for connection, not perfection. Sometimes people struggle with dating because their standards are too unrealistic. In our dating culture today, we are exposed to an overload of options, especially if we are doing online dating. When looking at several potential dating partners, it’s easy to pick out various characteristics that we like and don’t like. We might be drawn to someone, for example, but wish they weren’t divorced, or were taller, or made more money. We forget that when you fall in love with someone, you have to take the whole person, which includes both strengths and weaknesses, cool things and flaws. Nobody is perfect (including you). So don’t aim for perfection—you won’t ever find it. Instead, make connection with a real person your goal. Accept the fact that connecting with a real person will involve engaging and accepting a variety of traits and characteristics. That’s part of being in a real relationship.
- Prioritize emotional health. In the dating process, we often focus on superficial characteristics. Is she hot? How much money does he make? How cool/fun/outgoing are they? While it’s natural to notice these superficial characteristics, don’t forget to pay attention to the person’s emotional health, because that will be a key determinant of your relationship over the long haul. For example, is your date self-aware? Can the person balance closeness and autonomy? What happens when you have a disagreement? Does the person “fight fair?” Do they listen to you? Are they comfortable sharing their feelings (even difficult feelings such as anger and sadness)? Do they support you when you are struggling? How is their relationship with their family? How do they treat children? Do they do anything that gives you an uncomfortable feeling in your gut?
- Have fun. People often put too much pressure on themselves and their dating partner by getting too serious too fast. Or they ask themselves questions like, “Is this person THE ONE?” when they haven’t even gotten to know the person yet. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself at first. It’s just a date. Have fun. It’s okay if you go out on a date and don’t want to start a relationship with the person. That’s the point of going out on the date—to check it out and see. If you are following point #1 and getting your numbers up, you will likely go on multiple dates that don’t lead to anything more serious. That’s part of the process. So have fun with it. Did you like your meal? Did you enjoy the movie? Did you learn something about yourself and the other person? Let that be enough. Even if you had a crappy time, appreciate the fact that you have a funny story to tell. Give yourself (and your date) a break and have fun.
- Bring in your community. Dating can be a tough go. Don’t go at it alone. Invite your community into your process. Let your friends and family know that you are open to dating and starting a relationship. Ask them to keep their eyes open for you. Be open to being set up on a blind date. You are just one person, and the circle of people you know is limited. But the people you know also have their own circles of people they know. One way to get your numbers up is to have your community help you out. Plus, your friends and family know you and probably have some insight into who might be a good match for you.
- Be the partner you hope to find. I want to end on this one, because I think it’s very important. This suggestion is based on the principle that we tend to attract someone who is similar to us. So as you date, keep working on yourself. Think about the kind of partner you hope to find, and work on being that kind of person yourself. For example, if you are looking for someone who is emotionally healthy, make sure you are working on your own issues. Go to counseling so you can get yourself to a healthier place. If you want someone who is committed to their faith, make sure you are going to church yourself and are involved in serving your faith community. If you want someone who is in good shape, make sure you are going to the gym regularly yourself. If you want someone who has a great career, make sure you are working to advance your career as well. We tend to attract who we are. So work on being the partner you hope to find.
Dating post-college isn’t easy. It’s tough out there, and the feelings of loneliness and isolation can be difficult to deal with. If you are actively dating, it takes a lot of energy to put yourself out there time and time again, hoping to find someone you can build a relationship with. Let me know what you think of these 7 suggestions, and how they are working for you.