My now-boyfriend and I casually dated for about four months before we decided to officially become boyfriend and girlfriend. What do I remember most from those four months? The pressure. Ugh. God. So. Much. Pressure.
Before I left my office for our first date, I recounted every detail of the way we met to my coworkers and, of course, as soon as I got to work the next day, they started with the questions: Did I like him? Did I think he was “the one?” I remember wanting to scream, “WE’VE ONLY BEEN ON ONE DATE!” As our summer fling progressed, so did the pressure to DTR from everyone around me.
I’m obviously not the only person who’s experienced pressure when it comes to dating, whether it be the pressure to look a certain way, the pressure for the first date to quickly develop into something more, or the pressure to appear perfect at all times. When it comes to these seven sources of stress, it’s best to cut yourself some slack and let go.
1. The pressure to look a certain way
Bella, 18, worries that once she gets to know a guy IRL, he won’t like her body. Jane, 24, notices the pressure manifesting itself in the people she matches with. And she sees it in others, too; it turns out that the men and women she meets IRL sometimes used older or heavily edited current pictures of themselves on their profiles, all in an attempt to look like the most Likeable version of themselves.
“The first thing people notice about somebody — especially in a two-dimensional photo — is how [they] look and, with all of this editing software, it’s very tempting to put your best foot forward,” says Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Single and Happy.” “I’ve had patients say, ‘[you] can’t really tell what my body looks like from my face picture, and someone is going to reject me the second they see my body.’” One particular patient of hers had been off of dating apps for two years because she was so afraid of being rejected for her looks. “I encouraged her to go back, and she is [now] dating someone exclusively who was, like, her third date on the app,” says Taitz, adding that she urges patients to notice that these sorts of insecurities are “just thoughts” and should not have the power to stop them from dating altogether.
If you’re feeling the pressure to look a certain way, Gary Brown, Ph.D., a dating and couples therapist in Los Angeles, says its worth remembering that people who fit our societal ideals of attractiveness are actually few and far between. “Most of us are average,” he says. “Guess what? ‘Average’ people are [dating] every minute of every hour of every day. And they find people they are compatible with. Looks are nice, but they are not going to be determinative of long-term happiness. Who you are as a person — your values, your character, your ability to connect with people — will be more important. Be a good person, and let that be more than enough. For the right match for you, it will be.”
2. The pressure to get social media right
Especially during our late teens and early 20s, many of us feel as if we should be active online without ever appearing obsessed with our digital lives. Take 19-year-old Havi, for example. She spends a lot of time worrying about when it becomes no longer “weird” for her to interact with guys she likes on social media. Just recently, she says, “I wanted to send a weird ‘Shrek’ meme and I was like, ‘he’s not ready yet.’”
“The anxiety is there because [when you interact on social media], someone could easily save it or show their friends,” says Taitz. The beauty of an IRL conversation or even a phone call is that it’s inherently private. With social media, the line between public and private suddenly blur.
When faced with the dilemma of whether to connect on social or not, Taitz suggests thinking about how close you’re hoping to become with this person. “How we act affects how we feel,” she says. So, if you do go ahead and send that meme, it may leave you feeling more connected to your crush. If you opt out, it may leave you feeling less vulnerable and connected. There’s no right or wrong answer — it just depends on the sort of relationship you’re looking for. That being said, if you are trying to get close, Taitz recommends prioritizing IRL interactions. “Part of connecting with someone is opening up and ideally, that can be in real life,” she says.
3. The pressure to be forward without being creepy
Brian, 27, is now in a relationship, but in his single days, he felt torn between these two sometimes seemingly opposing goals. “When I was single, I felt like there was an expectation for me to make the first move and keep the ball rolling with women I was interested in,” he recalls. “But then when it comes down to it and you’re actually being forward with a woman you like, there’s this huge fear that you’re going to push her away by coming off as that creepy guy who won’t leave her alone.”
Taitz notes that the pressure for people, especially straight men, to not be creepy is a huge step forward for society as a whole, because it suggests “increased mindfulness around being respectful toward women.” The key distinction between making the move and coming off as creepy, she says, is being gentle.
“The definition of creepy is too much too fast,” she says. “If you’re gentle and respectful, that’s the perfect way to be endearing.” Let’s say you’re tempted to approach someone somewhere seemingly random, like the bank. You can say something along the lines of, “Hey, I know this might seem like a funny place to talk to someone you don’t know, but I thought that when you came in that we might connect. It would be really cool if you were open to getting a cup of coffee at some point. Here’s my information — I don’t want to put you on the spot.” Even if you don’t follow her exact script, Taitz believes doubling down on gentleness and kindness when approaching someone you’re interested in will “kill the creepy factor.”
4. The pressure for the first date to “go somewhere”
On one hand, there’s pressure for a first date to prompt a second date — otherwise, it seems we either wasted our time or are being rejected by someone we just allowed ourselves to be vulnerable with. “First dates are fun, but there’s almost always this dark shadow that tags along on the date,” says Marc, 29, of the “anxiety” he feels about whether or not there will be a second date. “As a result of this shadow, I tend to talk about one topic for far too long and I feel like I come off as a dull person.”
At the same time, we fear being burdened with the guilt of having to be the one to reject the person who just allowed themselves to be vulnerable with us. “The biggest pressure I feel after chatting with someone on the apps is around not really liking the person that much in person and having to deal with rejecting or ghosting them after the date,” says Nora, 27.
Niloo Dardashti, Psy.D., a psychologist and relationship expert in New York City, believes we need to change the way we think about first dates. “I tell people to try to [adhere to] the sort of Buddhist concept of not being attached to the outcome,” she says. “Easier said than done, of course, but you go in with the idea that I’m not attached to an outcome. This is one evening in my entire lifetime. I’m going to go on this date, and I’m just going to see what happens. I’m just going to be, see how I feel, and see how the other person is.’” This shift in perception will take away a lot of the weight we place on what every date means, leaving us feeling lighter.
5. The pressure to complete the requisite amount of small talk via text
Marc feels a lot of pressure to maintain small talk via text when really he just wants to dive in to the things that most matter to him. “Most times, I’d rather not discuss my favorite concert or what my last meal on earth would be,” he says. “Why should we be limited to quick-response questions? I’d rather discuss politics to see if we have similar views.”
Similarly, Greg, 27, wishes he could just cut to the chase with his matches. “There is pressure to do a lot of small talk,” he says. “People think it is weird to ask someone out right away on a dating app because they ‘don’t know you.’ But how are you going to get to know me over text? I would rather meet up in person and figure out who you really are than see messages that 20 of your friends might have helped you craft.”
Brown suggests people go with their guts and introduce conversations about what actually matters to them. In fact, he says opting out of small talk can actually be a good thing. “It’s good that you don’t want to treat your life like a stale sitcom with witty and often hurtful, sarcastic banter.”
6. The pressure to be just sexually free enough
“I hate when a guy assumes that just because I go on a date with him, it must mean that I’m seeking a committed relationship,” laments Jane. “Like, they’ll abruptly let me know they’re not looking for a serious girlfriend in the most patronizing way, and it’s like, uh, who said I was trying to marry you, dude? I’m playing the field, too!” Similarly, Dana, 36, admits to feeling judged for writing on her Tinder profile that she’s open to hookups. Many times, her matches don’t believe that she’s being honest. She says that, oftentimes, people call her “bold” for being so upfront about her desires. “This judgement may stem from the idea that women are not supposed to be bold or ask for what they want,” she muses. “This is an old, patriarchal way of thinking, and I won’t submit to it.”
“Women deserve to focus on what they want without falling into worrying about what others think, especially given that this seems like such a double standard,” says Taitz. People are at different places in their lives and are seeking different things, and as long as you are respectful and safe, that requires zero apologies.
7. The pressure to play your cards exactly right
Alyssa, 19, worries that the guys she likes will stop liking her “out of nowhere.” When this happens, as it inevitably does to all of us, she desperately tries to figure out what she might have done wrong.
“There is something to be said for being self-aware, but there is also something to be said for [not] being hyper-vigilant about every little thing you do or say,” says Dardashti. “That can work against you because in trying to be perfect, you’re not being authentic. The more you give off the vibe that you need to be something that you’re not, the more you exude a lack of confidence in who you are. And that’s a turnoff.”
Rather than striving for perfection, Dardashti suggests gauging your own interest in the person you’re seeing. “Let’s say you’re interest is a nine out of 10,” she says. “Ask yourself, how would I be acting if my interest was a five out of 10 or a four out of 10? You might be more loose, or you might be less worried about everything you do, and therefore you might appear more confident.” This mental exercise reduces the pressure that naturally comes along with having intense romantic feelings for someone by serving as a reminder of how you’d act if you felt like you had less to lose. “Just ride with the waves, and if you fall over, don’t dwell on it. Visualize yourself getting back into yourself, centering yourself, and being who you would be if you didn’t feel this pressure.”
No matter what dating pressure you feel most intensely, experts agree that as nauseatingly cliché it is, your best bet is to just be yourself. And, TBH, it’s also your greatest shot at making any sort of meaningful connection. I know it’s easier said than done, but yourself is the only thing you’ve been your entire life. You’ve got more practice than you think.