The Rules Of Dating Around

Newly single and baffled by casual dating? Here’s wise advice on how to play the field—not the fool.

By Hillary Quinn

ere's the line Bob Jennings of Everett, WA, uses when he begins dating someone new “I’m really not ready for commitment.” Fresh from a dicey divorce, Jennings explains that he wants to find a partner for life — eventually — but plans on taking his time to avoid another mistake. Problem is, despite his well-intentioned honesty, Jennings’ no-strings tactic doesn’t seem to be working; he routinely finds himself causing heartache and wonders how he’s managed to hurt so many feelings while trying to meet his soul mate.

“The best way to figure out who’s right for you — especially if you’re interested in making another serious commitment — is to try to get to know a variety of different personalities,” says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of
“If that kind of open-ended timeline isn’t OK, then please know I’m not the right person for you.”
Washington and author of Everything You Know about Love and Sex is Wrong. “The problem is, everyone wants monogamy at different points in a relationship, and if one person is feeling more invested than the other, you’ll run into conflict.”

For Jennings and others, these thorny relationships start simply enough. “I find a woman who seems interesting, we go on six or seven dates, have good chemistry, and sometimes even sleep together.” That’s when things often begin to fall apart: when the relationship becomes intimate. One person nudges toward commitment, his or her date explains that he or she isn’t ready to settle down, and, since there seems to be no middle ground, both often carry on with two different sets of expectations that go unfulfilled. In the end, no one gets what they want. “It’s really uncomfortable,” says Jennings. “Sometimes I feel that it’s better to be alone than to date people and hurt their feelings.” Fortunately, there are guidelines for navigating the game without coming off as uncaring.

Watch your language
When you say, “I’m not ready for a commitment,” your date may hear, “I’m not ready for a commitment right now… but I might be ready soon.” Dr. Schwartz suggests a clearer alternative that doesn’t leave room for interpretation: “I want you to know that I’m trying to figure out who’s right for me, and I’m going to make myself take a long time before I commit to anyone. If that kind of open-ended timeline isn’t OK, then please know I’m not the right person for you.”

Ditch the details
It’s one thing to tell someone you’re dating others; it’s another to give him or her details of your encounters that cause self-doubt and comparisons. When Jennings confided to one woman that he had only “cuddled” with another date, she went into a rage. “I thought I was doing her a favor by explaining that I wasn’t sleeping around,” he says. Dr. Schwartz explains that too much information, while well-intentioned, simply results in jealousy. “If your date asks about it, just say, ‘Yes, I’m involved with others, but I’m a private person and not comfortable going into the details. I want you to know I respect your privacy as well.’”

Make decisions that are true to you
Relationships evolve naturally over time; just because you’re ready to pair up doesn’t mean your partner is on the same path. If
“Men more often presume that sex is a ‘commitment for right now.’”
you want a commitment and your partner says “I’m not ready,” don’t fool yourself into thinking it means “But stick around in case I change.” Your options are to date the person casually or date someone else who is ready to commit—don’t assume time will change his or her mind. “If you’re not equally involved, pushing won’t do the trick,” says Linda Haywood, of Concord, NC, who has dated a handful of men since separating from her husband last year. “I once had a guy say after our third date that he wasn’t going to see anyone else and he’d expect me to do the same. It turned me off big-time.” When a relationship is right, your timing will work naturally with clear communication about what you each would like—not with ultimatums or demands.

Put sex on hold
If you’re looking for wide-ranging dating experiences without high drama, it’s wise to hold off on intimacy until you’re committed to one person. “Most women will begin to expect monogamy as soon as you have sex with them—especially divorced women over 40,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Men more often presume that sex is a ‘commitment for now’ than for a life together.” Since reason often goes out the door in the throes of passion, it’s best have a frank discussion before doing the deed. The strategy works for Valerie, of San Mateo, CA. “To me, the whole thing is an interviewing process. When I start to connect with someone, I will literally say to him, ‘Are we ready to just sleep with each other?’—as in, knowing nothing more will develop. Once I know where he stands and I can figure out my feelings, then I know whether to proceed or not.”

Know when to pull the trigger
If you’re a person who’s interested in eventual commitment, after five or six dates you should start to sense if the person you’re seeing has long-term potential. If he or she doesn’t, it’s time to get out—no matter how much you enjoy the company. After all, “dating around” means actually dating different people—not seeing one person steadily and using “dating around” as an excuse to avoid real commitment. And staying attached actually hinders your own search for the right person. “At that point, you’re just leading someone on, even if you’ve explained that you’re seeing other people,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You have to protect yourself and your interests—and respect those of other people.”

Hillary Quinn is a Seattle-based writer who has written for many national magazines, including Self, Child, Elle, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Maxim.

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