The older I get, and the more I learn about how dating and relationships work, the more I realize there really can be no such thing as dating rules.
But this seems to put me in the minority.
“Relationship experts” claim to know exactly what you need to do to impress a date and lock in his or her interest. Your friends may tell you things like, “Don’t respond to his text for two hours"; “Be a jerk. Girls like that"; or “Don’t date just one person. Play the field.”
Why don’t these rules work?
This is the problem: Rules assume human attraction and connection work the same for everybody. But there’s no such thing as one-rule-fits-all. Everyone is looking for a different kind of connection with a different kind of person.
So if you can’t get advice from (self-proclaimed) experts or friends, how in the world are you supposed to get into a relationship?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Relationships don’t happen because you follow a list of rules; they happen when two people feel inspired and thrilled by discovering all they can about each other—and themselves.
This journey can’t be predicted or manufactured. But it can be thwarted.
A relationship needs space and time to unfold in ways that neither partner can foresee. It requires curiosity, openness, and chance-taking—the opposite of what “dating rules” offer. Therefore, rather than focusing on how to make a relationship happen, you should focus on how to stay out of its way.
Here are my "anti-rules" for doing just that:
1. Be open to your undiscovered desires.
Let go of what you think you know about yourself—such as, “I’m an extrovert! I need to be with someone who’s going to listen and let me talk.” Be open to surprise—“Hmm, he’s pretty talkative himself; I thought we wouldn’t click, yet I really love just listening to him.”
We learn the most about ourselves in vivo. Our truest desires—emotional, sexual, intellectual, physical—emerge spontaneously when we’re intensely engaged with other people. And they can contradict our established narratives about who we are and what we need. So throw out the results of that online personality test and be open to what your date can help you learn about yourself.
2. Stop protecting your ego.
Newsflash: Relationships involve the continuous possibility of hurt, disappointment, and embarrassment. But here’s the good part: The ego survives. And yet a budding relationship won’t survive if you waste your time with face-saving, pride-preserving tactics. Waiting a whole day to reply to your date’s text may make you look busy and important—or it may put out the flame. If you had a great time and want to see him or her again tomorrow, why not say so?
Worried about “looking desperate?” Been told you need to “play hard to get?” Don’t be silly. If the seeds of a true connection are there—and again, you can’t control or predict that—he or she will want to see you too, and the relationship will have a chance to move along and unfold. The worst that can happen: He or she says no, you feel wounded, you heal, and you're ready for what comes next.
3. Embrace awkwardness.
Can we just admit that dating is inherently awkward? Spending an evening, or a whole day, with someone you barely know runs counter to our evolutionary instinct to stick with our known pack. So it’s natural to fumble and trip up when trying to find common ground with a virtual stranger.
We’ve all tried appearing cool, confident, and in control. But that may limit how deeply the other person can get to know us. When you accept and embrace the evening’s moments of misunderstanding, miscalculation, and missed or misinterpreted signals, that’s when you’re having a real, human interaction. And that's what leads to a real relationship.
4. See what you see, not what you don’t see.
Getting to know someone involves seeing the person for who he or she actually is. Observe and learn all you can about the person. It’s natural to look for patterns and consistencies, but humans are endlessly complex—and will surprise you.
The man or woman you’re dating may appear to prefer low-key evenings over boisterous nights out; invite him or her to your friend’s birthday blowout anyway. It’s good to pick up on someone's general preferences, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you’ve got someone all figured out. The thrill of a relationship is getting to know someone ever more deeply, yet never completely.
Unlike conventional dating tips, these anti-rules don’t guarantee anything. Dating is not about guaranteed outcomes, but about the unexpected—and the potentially extraordinary. Give them a try—who knows, you might find exactly what you don’t know you’re looking for!