Poking around the ice in our drinks, sitting over low candlelight, my date and I played 20 questions: first-date edition. What we do. Where we’ve been. What we want. I mulled over sustainability and the importance of eliminating food waste as if our little café table was my TED Talk stage. His response was minimal but quick-witted, and all I really remember is laughing to the point of drooling. I texted for a second date a few days later and he responded, “Ugh, as long as you don’t talk about food waste anymore.” I laughed some more.
Two years later, on our final date, I took the stage again. This time, I delivered a passionate monologue about pizza crust. He chewed his sushi, nodding his head along to my speech. But I knew he wasn’t listening. And I realized he would never engage in a passionate dialogue about the things that mattered to me. The topics that, as a farmer and a writer, I was building a career out of. But in fairness to him, he told me he didn’t care about what I wanted to discuss 730 days ago. I hadn’t listened.
Why had I ignored the warning signs the first time? Maybe if I had taken my rose-colored I-would-love-a-funny-boyfriend glasses off then, my mom and I wouldn’t be heaving boxes of cookbooks down three flights of stairs now. With that relationship — as well as all of my belongings from our shared apartment — in the rearview, I could see that my ex’s and my first date was a minefield of red flags. And I wish I had had the tools to recognize them before getting in too deep, instead of mistaking them for a field of flowers.
Before You Even Meet
Thanks to the information provided in someone’s profile, you can determine whether there are any big no-nos before choosing to Like or Nope. “It’s a red flag if they don’t write much or even anything at all,” says dating coach Donna Barnes. “Commonality is what makes a relationship last long-term, so you should look for things you have in common.”
But sometimes it takes matching to reveal what won’t fly. Dave, 30, recalls one conversation where discussing logistics for a first date turned into a Mayday alert. “I suggested a spot, she turned it down, she offered an idea that sounded good so I agreed to that. For some ineffable reason, she walked that back. Indecisiveness, specifically with something as inane as where to go for drinks, really gets under my skin. To me it signifies a personality trait that doesn’t mesh well with my personality.” Despite the initial differences, the conversation pressed on and the setup for a date continued.
That is until Dave’s match’s questions became more of an interrogation and resulted in him receiving a text containing a picture of a handwritten list of all the common cis male dating profile stereotypes that irked her. Standards, Dave mentions, are something everyone has. But he was confused as to why he was receiving the note. “Was it to show that I don’t tick many of the negatives in her eyes?” Dave pondered. Regardless, Dave decided to capture the flag and cancel the date.
“Pay close attention to the behaviors you don’t like,” Barnes cautions. Flip-flopping over plans could foreshadow a future of flakiness. It’s also important to pay attention to how you and your date communicate. “Warning signs [of poor communication] include a lot of criticism and contempt,” says marriage counselor and dating coach Samantha Burns. If your initial dialogue is freckled with bitterness and not-so-nice generalizations, it’d be wise to move on.
On The First Date
Your chat banter sparks emoji fireworks. Words move from app to text, and nobody cancels or changes the agreed upon date. Now you’re onto a second round and thinking how nice it is to be elbow to elbow instead of 5 to 10 miles away from this person.
You only have to harken back to heyday of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to know what to do next. In a 1997 segment, Oprah and Dr. Maya Angelou, outfitted in pajama sets, discuss Oprah’s recent relationship woe.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned … when people show you who they are, believe them,” Oprah shares. Dr. Maya Angelou responds, “If a person says to you ‘I’m selfish’ or ‘I’m mean’ or ‘I am unkind’ — believe them. They know themselves better than you do. But more often than not, those of us who don’t trust life say don’t say a thing like that. You’re not really crazy … and as soon as you say that, that person — POW. And shows you.”
If your date is mean to a waiter, snarky to a stranger, playfully trashes your card or Jenga game because now that you’re winning you must be cheating, hear that. Do not assume this window of viciousness is momentary. That is who they are.
For The Future
Avoiding red flags successfully is an independent journey, because we all have our own meter for what’s tolerable. Pinpointing these will ultimately help dictate what will and won’t work for you, says Barnes.
“One of my exes was only two months out of a three-year relationship, which I ignored,” says Jordan, 26. ”It turned out she was basically a serial dater, and it was not a good situation.” You can’t physically identify someone who isn’t going to take your relationship seriously before bouncing to the next option, but for Jordan, doing things differently meant changing how she communicates. “Ask them questions about their dating history,” Jordan advises. By nudging her dates to be transparent upfront and doing the same herself, Jordan is able to secure more clarity about whether she is going to be a rebound before getting hyped about a potential new partner.
Achieving self-awareness starts with recognizing your pattern. “Make a list of all the people you have dated and their key characteristics,” says Barnes. “Then circle all the common traits. You’ll start to see your pattern. The traits you don’t like become your deal-breakers.” Barnes cautions that no matter how attracted you are to a potential partner, no matter how many abs they have, you should think carefully before you date them if they display any signs of a deal breaker.
It looks like I have homework to do.