When Cherie went to a coffee shop to meet up with a man for what would be their first date, she expected him to be on time (or at least close to it). An hour later, he finally appeared. Normally she would’ve bailed before that point, but something told her to stay — and since that bad date is now her husband, it’s a good thing she did.
First impressions matter, no doubt — why else would we spend so much energy on acing that initial encounter? — but a first date doesn’t have to be perfect to work. Sure, you want to give yourself the highest odds of success on connecting with someone, but since life isn’t the movies, it’s unlikely that everything will unfold perfectly.
Reason #1: It can take time to develop chemistry with someone, so don’t worry if you didn’t feel any “sparks” yet
Cherie’s experience of nearly getting stood up for coffee didn’t end there. Once her date arrived, they had a decent conversation. “There weren’t immediate sparks; I think real love does take some time to build,” says Cherie, 42, of Milwaukee, WI, who has a book out on relationships called Internet Dating Is Not Like Ordering a Pizza
. She gave her date a hug as they were leaving; he didn’t reciprocate. He later admitted that he was so surprised that he couldn’t move. “He was really worried I’d yell at him and storm off because he’d made such a bad first impression,” Cherie says.
There are two big reasons why people don’t go on a second date, says Dr. Rachel Dinero, assistant professor of psychology at Cazenovia College. One is that they weren’t attracted to their date; the other is that they didn’t feel a “spark.” If it’s the former and you don’t see your attraction potentially growing, Dr. Dinero says that’s understandable. Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a clinical psychologist and author of Dating from the Inside Out
, agrees: “If there’s zero physical attraction, then why bother?” But if, like Cherie and her husband, you just don’t feel fireworks going off, it’s worth giving it another shot. That’s something that often takes time to develop and may come with getting to know the other person better.
“As far as being representative of how the relationship is going to be, [first dates are] not very important,” Dr. Dinero says. “I don’t think anyone would want to be judged on one hour of interaction.”
Reason #2: You were both probably too nervous to really relax and be yourselves around each other on your last date
The biggest first-date factor that contributes to people acting differently than they might in other situations is nerves. That’s what happened to Raeann, 24, who lives in Berkeley, CA, when she finally met in person someone she had been exchanging messages with online. “It was extremely awkward and boring,” Raeann says. “There was forced conversation the whole time and I was miserable. The fact that we’d already been emailing for a couple of weeks caused a lot of pressure... that made it worse.” After he texted her that night and said he’d had fun, she knew she’d never see him again, since clearly their idea of “fun” was wildly different.
But then they resumed the emailing, and a couple of weeks later, they hung out again. Raeann was feeling the just-friends vibe, but as time passed, a romantic connection evolved and they began dating. “I would’ve missed out on something great if I didn’t try again,” she admits.
“It can take a lot of time for people to form connections, especially if you’re talking about people who meet online,” says Dr. Dinero. “When they meet each other in person and it’s not there, it’s largely because they’re both nervous; neither of them are really feeling like they’re able to be themselves.”
Reason #3: Communicating clearly with someone you don’t know very well gets easier with practice
Back in his 20s, Bert, now 46, of Houston, liked to go on double dates when meeting someone for the first time. “It was easier on everybody, and the ladies typically felt better when there was another woman,” he says. But in one particular instance, it didn’t go quite so well. “She spoke two words the whole time,” Bert remembers. “It was just like pulling teeth to get any kind of interaction. I just thought, ‘Man, we aren’t hitting it off; we’re completely not compatible.’” His date, Joelle, also remembers it as a bad experience. “It was awful,” she says. “They all spoke Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish. It was just uncomfortable; I just had nothing to say.”
Although both Bert and Joelle never planned to see each other again, they later reconnected at a party and started talking on the phone, which led them back to dating... and, ultimately, marriage. “First impressions aren’t always the best impressions,” Bert says. “My dating advice is, you’re certainly not going to lose anything by going out on one more date — it may be the difference between finding your soul mate or a good friend.”
“I always say to give people three dates, unless there are some real red flags,” says Dr. Sherman. Changing settings can be a big help, too. If Bert and Joelle had tried a one-on-one date for their second outing, she likely would have felt more comfortable talking around him... and they may have had an easier time connecting with each other.
Reason #4: A little humor goes a long way in helping you move past any first-date awkwardness
Inviting his date to an art gallery exhibit seemed like a good plan to Gary, 50, of New York City, until they got there and found that the collection involved visitors peering one person at a time into a dozen small dioramas that showed bedroom scenes decorated to represent a different emotion of love, from lust to jealousy to infatuation. “It was pretty intense, and clearly not appropriate first-date material,” Gary says. “She was stunned and actually thought that I was testing her somehow. It certainly didn’t help us get to know each other.”
Now married for 21 years (he called and begged for a second date; she acquiesced), they look back and laugh — but at the time, it was embarrassing. When something happens to make you red in the face, don’t let it be the elephant in the room — address it and move on. “If there’s an embarrassing moment or you feel you’ve botched the first date, use humor. This can lighten the atmosphere,” says Dr. Jonathan Alpert, a licensed psychotherapist in New York and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days
How to know when it’s time to cut your losses
Sometimes, even despite the best efforts on everyone’s part, a date really is bad enough to make it both the first and the last for the two of you. “Avoid a second date when you feel the other person is from a totally different planet than you,” Alpert says. “If there are fundamental differences in your beliefs, goals, values, and how you view the world, it simply isn’t worth pursuing.”
And, of course, if you feel you are in any danger, your core beliefs are disrespected, or there are other red flags, don’t feel pressured to give someone another chance. Only you can tell when it might be worth another date and when it’s a better idea to move on.
Haley Shapley is a freelance writer based in Dallas.