Dating is a game of Choose Your Own Adventure.
Through a series of decisions we direct a relationship's development. The tone is set by the initial approach, then there are subtle cues that communicate type of interest and levels of investment. We craft the relationship through quality, quantity, and timing of contact.
Maybe you're just living and seeing what happens, or maybe you're looking for something specific. Both are cool, but the key is to have your behavior align with your intended outcomes and that means dating with some type of ambition.
Why should I date with intention?
This is, simply, identifying your goal and aiming towards it. This increases the odds you'll get what you want. And this is not only in your own interest, but it also leads to more ethical dating. Half-assed game playing leaves a trail of jaded, disillusioned hearts in your wake - who then go on to hurt other people. Defensiveness and cynicism beget more of the same and pollutes the dating pool like a virus.
We also want to avoid the traps of the Relationship Escalator, the idea that there is a correct path and timing for every couple. Avoid doing things just because that's "what people do." Making commitments based on what is expected or what others your age are doing is a good way to end up deeply unhappy.
What are the options?
Ultimately, every relationship is unique, so the options are endless. There is no limit to how you can spend your life, build partnerships or feel connected to others. But there are some big categories we can consider for illustrative purposes.
Trying to put a ring on it
If your goal is marriage and family, dating is relatively straightforward and not wholly unlike trying to finding the right candidate for a job vacancy. Your ideal partners are more likely to hold traditional ideas about dating – so you can use the conventional "rules" as your guide more than most.
For instance: hooking up on the first night of meeting could very well lead to marriage, but more often than not: it doesn't. Many folks will assume it's only a one-night stand and that you're only focused on short-term interactions. Make your intentions harder to misread.
If you're actively looking for a commitment: you can communicate that without scaring people off by going on dates that allow for substantive conversations. Dinner is better than a movie, hiking is better than a nightclub. The location doesn't have to be stuffy, but be able to talk so you can get to know each other.
Follow up quickly after good dates, try to schedule the next one right away to demonstrate that they're a priority. The time you spend together can be silly, fun and light, but the way to communicate serious interest is through making plans and following through as promised.
Trying to chill
Unlike everyone on a reality TV game show, you ARE here to make friends.
Maybe your primary concern has to be career, school, art, or kids and you don't currently have energy to devote to another person. Or you are waiting for someone really, really special and want to play the field in the meantime. Maybe you're just not built for serious relationships. That's all fine: there's no law against being single.
Look for friends with benefits set-ups or hook up apps, as opposed to dating sites. For you, dating is about fun but will come with a dose of responsibility: to give full disclosure.
Make your desire to stay available known so others can make informed decisions. Use the actual words: "You're cool, but I'm not looking for anything serious" or "I like having sex with you, but I don't have a lot of time to devote to a relationship." That is not, however, cart blanche to ignore their text messages for days or meet up only at your convenience.
Polyamory/open other configurations
Some people want commitment but aren't meant for monogamy. If you desire intimate, invested relations but know that it won't be sustainable with only one person forever: now is a great time to be alive, since polyamory is better known in the past. Be open about your desires as early as possible. If it's a dealbreaker for a potential partner, it saves you both a lot of time. Or, if they're undecided on the matter, they can contemplate what it would be like to share you as you get to know each other.
The opposite of a good idea would be developing a serious relationship with the plan of waiting to spring the idea of non-monogamy on them. Certainly existing couples have opened up to include other partners, but if you know what you want from the jump, there's little benefit to starting off a new situation with inauthenticity and manipulation.
What if I don't know what I want?
There's nothing wrong with just living your life and responding to situations as they arise.
Be open to the possibility of feelings that don't make logical sense and trying things that are new and even scary.
Chemistry can't be forced, even with general compatibility and good looks.
Our culture has expanded to recognize an ever-widening variety of lifestyles and it may take time and many, many errors to recognize what works best for you.
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.
She has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Franky Bradley's (1320 Chancellor St.)