The other day, one of my 30-something patients came in with an interesting dating story. Bette (not her real name) had met a young man, let's call him Jim, at a friend's party. He'd called her soon after and they made plans to go out.
They had a great time on their first date, spending the entire afternoon at a music festival and then going for dinner. At the end of the evening, they hugged goodbye and Jim suggested getting together for a movie the following weekend.
A few days before their second date, Jim called to cancel, saying that there was a family situation he had to deal with and that he'd get back to her, soon. Nearly a month went by and Bette heard nothing from him.
She'd written him off when, out of the blue, he called to see if she wanted to get together for that movie. Her gut feeling said it was "not a good idea," but she decided to give him a second chance.
Again, they had very nice time, despite there being no kiss goodnight. He suggested that she come over for a barbecue on the weekend and that, too, was a great success. Next, he invited her to come over for drinks a few days later.
Over margaritas, they sat side-by-side on the couch and the conversation flowed freely. As Bette was leaving, she had to ask, "Are we dating or just friends?" Jim said that he was sorry if he'd led her to think that he wanted anything more than friendship, but that he'd very much like to keep seeing her as a friend.
In my office, Bette and I discussed what had happened and why she was feeling so aggravated. I suggested that there had been several problems with Jim's behaviour.
First, he'd spent a lot of time with Bette right from the start. This made her feel like they were building a romance. Second, Jim had disappeared for several weeks and when he called again, he didn't give either a proper explanation or an apology for this behaviour. Third, he was never clear with Bette about his intentions; in fact his behaviour was pretty confusing.
In our session, Bette and I talked about how dating could be more user-friendly. One idea we agreed on was that if a man asks a woman out, he should be the one to let her know (kindly) whether he sees her as a friend or potential romantic partner. Only a very rude man would make the first overture and then put a woman in the position of having to clarify things.
Bette and I agreed that bad behaviour at the beginning of any relationship is an indication of the person's character. Early on, we show the other person who we are. A reasonable, respectful person would want to put their best foot forward. If someone can't be bothered to behave nicely at the start, how can we expect them to treat us properly as things progress?
We also discussed how Bette was too accepting of Jim's thoughtlessness and too patient with his lack of clarity. She ought to have listened to her first instinct to say no when he called after several weeks of silence, or at least, should have confronted him on his rudeness.
Bette and I agreed that there's no point in going easy on someone when they behave badly in a relationship because when we tolerate disrespect, we give the other person the impression that they can continue to mistreat us.
Bette needed to face how confused she was becoming as a result of Jim's mixed signals and she should have acted sooner, either to end things or to call him on his contradictory behaviour. We've all got to see that there's no point in hanging in there, hoping that the person we like will become the person we need.
Out of our discussion I had an epiphany: I realized that in the 21st century we need to adopt some basic, common-sense rules for dating. If men and women were to follow four simple rules, I think that fewer feelings would be hurt and a lot less time would be wasted.
Rule number one is to be clear with the other person about what we're looking for. Leading on the other person just isn't fair.
According to rule number two, we ought to be especially considerate towards someone if we're just looking to be friends. We shouldn't monopolize the time they could be using to meet a potential romantic partner.
Rule number three is to be on our best behaviour at the beginning of any relationship. This shows the other person that we have good intentions.
Rule number four is to be much less tolerant of the other person's bad behaviour. While it's appropriate to forgive the odd misstep in the context of a long-term, loving relationship, bad behaviour, especially at the beginning, should be seen as a huge red flag.
Jim was taking advantage of Bette, enjoying her company without considering her feelings. He was probably keeping things vague so that he could have a full-time girlfriend without having to commit to a real relationship.
Perhaps he rationalized to himself that by not being physically demonstrative, he was giving a clear enough message. Unfortunately for him, Bette's frustration with the situation spoiled the good thing he had going.
According to the new rules of dating, everyone would see that mutual respect is essential and no one would settle for less than courtesy and consideration in friendship or in romance. With these rules in place, someone like Jim would find it that much harder to string a girl along.