On Dating Rules

About a month ago, shortly after writing this blog post, I tweeted the following request:

The response was fascinating, not least because it confirmed something I’d been thinking even as I tapped out the tweet on my phone. Here’s a small, representative sample of what people said:

“I am not that comfortable with having a guy front the bill. I like to split the bill. I pay my half, he pays his. I won’t ever bite a dude’s head off for wanting to pay for me, but I have never and will never expect him to take care of it just because.”

“I think a first date should be paid in rounds or halves…[but]…in my opinion a man should always pay for the first drink. I like it when it’s not completely equal, when the men pay attention to when you’re about to finish your drink and offer to get the next one. It’s a nice feeling, it shows – in my opinion – that the guy is having a good time and is interested.”

“If I’ve been taken out for dinner by a gentleman, they tend to be precisely that and have always paid. They’ve asked to take me out for dinner and chosen the place, so I believe that’s right. I’m quite traditional, I suppose and get extremely annoyed when women mount their high Shetland Pony of feminism on this particular issue.”

“I find it so annoying that this is a ‘thing’. It harks back to daft old fashioned ways of dating from when men were in charge. I don’t think you should ever assume a man will pay for a first date. You wouldn’t go out with a friend and wonder who was paying, you’d go with money in your pocket because it’s fair to pay your way – so why would you assume someone you’ve never even met would pay for you? By the same token, really don’t sweat the small stuff – play it by ear. If the bloke really wants to pay then let him, don’t be a twat and make a song and dance about it on principle, just say ‘thank you’. But also, be intuitive and pay the whole bill yourself sometimes if it’s appropriate.”

“This is the bane of my life. I believe that if a guy asks you out then really I’m expecting him to pay. I find it very unattractive when someone isn’t generous. Recently I went out with a guy and he came in as I was at the bar ordering; I asked what he wanted, and when the bartender brought our drinks he didn’t offer to pay. I paid. From that we went round each but I was a bit put off. I’m a feminist and wouldn’t expect to always be paid for but it’s manners and a good first impression.”

Conclusion: even women are all over the place on this subject. So much so that as a guy it can often feel like a bit of a minefield: take the initiative, pay the bill, and risk being side-eyed as a chauvinist; or casually suggest going Dutch and leave your date silently fuming at your lack of generosity.

That was going to be my original angle, anyway. I had my sleeves rolled up, ready to dig into both sides of the argument, with the ultimate aim of calling for some sort of consensus – some sort of compromise – which would enable all of us poor benighted men to know exactly where we stand. ‘Just get together, decide among yourselves, and let us know the outcome,’ I wanted to say. ‘We don’t care what that outcome is, we just don’t want to think about it any more!’

Stirring stuff…with one tiny drawback. Because whenever I sat down to write the damn thing, a giant wave of apathy just swept right over me; I’d sit here, fingers poised over the keyboard, waiting for the words to form in my head, only to realise each time that as much as I’d love to work up a mental sweat on this one, ultimately I Just. Don’t. Care.

To some extent that’s economic privilege talking, along with the experience (and thickness of skin) I’ve built up over the years. For the most part I can afford not to care, and of course that makes it a lot easier to avoid at least some of those awkward post-dinner moments; if I’m unsure – and that happens much less often these days – I’ll generally err on the side of picking up the bill, even though it jars a bit with my overall outlook on dating etiquette.

Either way, I stayed in that holding pattern all the way through till Sunday night, when I stumbled into a Twitter conversation about another hot-button dating topic: first-date sex. It was sparked by this particularly unpleasant tweet…

…after which, things kicked off in predictably riotous fashion. And that was the lightbulb moment. The more I thought about it the next morning, the more I just felt thoroughly depressed by the whole fucking concept of dating rules – and not just because most of them are rooted in outdated gender-based bullshit. It’s more that they miss one of the fundamental truths about how we approach pretty much any human interaction…

…actually, no, that’s not the fundamental truth. That’s just because I like pirates.

The fundamental truth is pretty closely related though, and here it is: there are no fucking rules! Trying to codify dating – something so deeply personal – is like trying nail jelly to a wall; it will always slip away from you, because we are just not wired to let other people dictate our social interactions. In that sense, we are cats rather than dogs: herd us at your peril!

Dating rules often do one of two things, neither of them good. They tell us that men and women are fundamentally different (“don’t put out too quickly, he won’t respect you”, “always pay, she should be treated like a lady”) or they ask us to insert structural gender politics into what, for most of us, are inherently individual choices (“while the wage gap exists, men should still pay”, “letting him pick up the bill just reinforces the patriarchy”). In doing so, they not only heap even more pressure onto those interactions – because we’re all working from different manuals, they also fail the basic test of pretty much any set of rules: things become less safe, less fun, and somehow less clear to just about everyone.

I’m not saying there can’t – or shouldn’t – be dating dealbreakers. We all have our lines in the sand, many of which will appear arbitrary or shallow to other people; even if, in reality, they merely align with our own moral and aesthetic values, both voiced and subconscious. I won’t date someone who smokes cigarettes, for example, or who votes Conservative. I probably won’t date someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, or who only wants to have sex with the lights off. Fair or not, those are things that matter to me – in isolation and because of what they tell me about our general compatibility – and that makes them hard to ignore when assessing potential partners.

What’s important to keep in mind though is that those aren’t dating principles – they’re preferences. And more to the point, they’re my preferences. If I wind up having a drink with someone who doesn’t share them – or doesn’t fit them – that’s just how the game works. Suck it up and move on.

Are there exceptions? Sure, I’d say so. Violent? Racist? Violently racist? I’ll call you a terrible person, and my conscience will be clean when I do so. I’ll probably tell other people that you’re a terrible person too. Don’t offer to pick up your half of the bill, on the other hand? Insist on a three-date sex rule? Meh, I’m not ecstatic about either, but I’ll live. I might even go out with you again.

What I won’t do is seize on that preference and universalize it, or extrapolate it out into a wider assessment of your ‘dating character’. I might be mentally rolling my eyes while you talk about it, but in the end that’s just how you’re wired, or what you think/feel/believe. With a few big exceptions, moral absolutism has no place on a first date: if your values are different to mine, I should be able to accept that without feeling like I’ve been personally wronged in some way.

In the end, “should men pay on a first date?” and “should women have sex on a first date?” are (or should be*) fundamentally meaningless questions, because the answer will always depend on the individuals concerned, and on the situations in which they find themselves. Even asking them has the potential to do damage, because in doing so we risk implying that external moral judgment – whether good or bad – can be applied to those actions…when in fact they really ought to be navigated and negotiated between the two (or more) people involved, according to their various, respective preferences.

So yes, by all means have your own dating rules, and draw those from whatever sources and principles you like. Always pay your share on a first date or never pay. Fuck someone you just met if you feel like fucking them, or don’t fuck anyone until date three. Unless and until it affects me, I don’t care. What I do care about is people who use their own set of dating rules to judge the behaviour of others, or to tell them what they should be doing. There is no ‘should’ in dating: there is only what works for you, and no-one else gets to decide what that has to be.

That’s why my initial take on this was off the mark. Asking y’all to decide on a common approach just doesn’t work with this kind of thing. Awkward or not, we’re going to have to keep figuring it out as we go along.

*A small caveat: there is obviously value in asking/discussing stuff like this where doing so illustrates – and challenges – harmful conventional wisdom. When we ask “should women fuck on a first date?”, we’re often really saying “hey, let’s have a conversation about slut-shaming and why it sucks”…and that’s definitely not something we should shy away from doing.

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3 Responses to On Dating Rules

  1. I don’t get why women get to call this any more than men do, though, thinking about it. Whether or not a woman believes a man should pay/share etc. isn’t really any less relevant than a man believing they should pay/share, if we’re being equal about things. Should people put their preferences/beliefs on their tindr profiles so everyone’s forewarned?

    Fuck, I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about any of this.

  2. @19syllables says:

    I am ill-qualified to comment on this, but I imagined dates were a chance to find out about each other. Not so much looking for the best-fit answer to get you to the next date/sex, but to find out if you’re on the same page. Surely the “who pays the bill” conversation is part of the “I like a man to take care of everything” vs “I like to stand on my own two feet” conversation. Probably better to address such things early on. Embarking on stuff without it? That way, there be dragons (because I like pirates too).

  3. The questions “should men…” and “should women…” had me bristling, so I was relieved to see your conclusion that “there is no ‘should’ in dating” 🙂

    Money and sex are, to a greater or lesser extent, still taboo topics, which by definition would mean that they are Not To Be Discussed. Having rules is a way for people to know what to expect (whether you like it or not) in the absence of clear communication, but rules only work well when everyone generally agrees on how things should work.

    I guess clear communication is the price of authenticity.

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