The way I see it, dating is full of stages. And those stages come in no particular order. Sometimes, your first time having sex comes months into casually dating. Sometimes, your first time having sex is what sparked your dating in the first place. The variations are endless. But no matter what order you choose to do things in, each unique stage of dating tends to be attached to certain emotions.
Going Into The First Date
According to Niloo Dardashti, Psy.D., a psychologist and relationship expert, how you feel leading up to a first date is determined by “how nervous you are and how much weight you’re placing on what [the date] means.” Making the first date a bigger deal than it needs to be in your mind is inevitably going to result in more nerves, say both Dardashti and Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Single and Happy.” That said, if you flip the script and treat the date like it’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to meet someone new, “you might feel content or happy,” Taitz says.
After The First Date
When things go well, you inevitably arrive at the question of what now? “For a lot of the people who I see, it leads to a lot of anxiety,” says Taitz. That this anxiety stems from feeling like the stakes just got way higher — suddenly you’re concerned about whether or not they like you back. This anxiety may leave you replaying the date over and over again in your mind’s eye — and trying to figure out all of the different ways you may have messed up. Such overanalysis, Dardashti explains, is common.
The First Kiss
Of course, a first kiss could come way before a first date. In fact, I’d say that’s the majority of my experience. But no matter when the first kiss happens, it’s an important emotional gauge. “Oftentimes, it’s not like it is in the movies where you feel all those sparks and butterflies [as soon as you kiss],” says Dardashti. That being said, if you feel absolutely nothing, it’s a pretty big red flag. “Then I’d say run,” she says. “Take that seriously.”
If you do feel something, Taitz explains that, much like the first date, those sparks could either cause joy or anxiety. “If you’re really participating in the moment, that could be really joyful and nice,” she says. “[On the other hand], someone just emailed me telling me that they’re really stressed out because they really thought this guy was great, then they kissed and he didn’t text them after, so they thought maybe they were a bad kisser.” To avoid these feelings of anxious paranoia, Taitz recommends trying to focus on how you feel rather than how the other person may be feeling.
The First Time You Have Sex
OK, let’s say the two of you do it for the first time and it’s, um, not great. That’s totally normal, according to Dardashti. “There’s definitely a lot of times where the first time is not ideal,” she says. “Keeping that in mind is important if you’re comparing it to this Hollywood, picturesque sex scene between two people [making love] for the first time.” Dardashti notes that those sorts of comparisons can be a setup for feeling disappointed. The fact of the matter is that, more often than not, sex with someone new is awkward. “You’re trying to get in tune with each other’s bodies, so it’s not like the movies where everything is perfect and you both climax at the same time,” Dardashti adds. “Just know that it may take a while before you get totally in tune with each other’s bodies and style of sex.”
Having Sex More Regularly
At this point, emotions inevitably start to shift. Ideally “you’re feeling a deeper sense of intimacy with them,” says Dardashti. If that’s not the case, she warns you might be getting bored of the relationship. “You can go on lust in the very beginning, but lust doesn’t usually last very long,” she says. “In order for lust to turn into something that sustains the physical chemistry, there’s got to be some stimulation on some other level.”
Taitz warns that if you’re still focusing exclusively on how the other person feels, sex isn’t going to stop the anxiety you may have had in the beginning. If you find yourself feeling this way, she recommends focusing on your own feelings and sensations because “that’s all you know for sure.” Any theory your brain is concocting to explain your partner’s behavior is an assumption and nothing else.
There’s always that in-between stage after the first date and before things either fizzling out or deciding to be together. How you feel at while casually dating depends entirely on the situation. If you’re seeing the person because you want to be dating someone but don’t necessarily like them, you might feel unfulfilled. If you feel more warmly toward them, continuing to date casually could create a sense of comfort, says Taitz. She recommends asking yourself, How is this working out for me? Is this really what I want? Is this making me feel better [than I was feeling before I met them]?
In general, one of the benefits of continuing to date casually is the opportunity to take a romantic interest off the pedestal and start seeing them “as a real person,” says Dardashti. Goodbye, rose-colored glasses.
At the end of the day, any budding relationship is going to go one of two ways: it’s going to end or it’s going to turn into something more. If you find things are fizzling out between you and the person you’ve been seeing, you’ll likely feel disappointed. While Taitz notes that this is totally unwarranted, she often observes people feeling ashamed that things didn’t work out. “You could feel embarrassed, like [when you think about the fact that] you’re going to have to tell your friends when they ask what’s going on,” she says. You may also fear that this fizzling out is bound to happen the next time you start seeing someone. But if you weren’t that interesting in the person you were sort of seeing, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief for being able to move on.
Opening Up To Each Other
There comes a point in every relationship — sometimes it’s on the first date, sometimes it’s years into it — when people start really opening up to one another. You’re no longer (only) bonding over your shared love of chicken nuggets and “Riverdale.” Instead, you’re talking about real things — your fears, your struggles, your desires. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. How you feel “really depends on how they respond and what you’re seeking,” says Taitz. “If they’re judgmental, interrupt you a lot, or say something that’s not what you wanted [to hear], then it could lead to more distance [between the two of you].” If you feel in any way rejected by your partner after sharing something personal, it can be frightening, Dardashi adds.
If they are the one opening up to you, the emotional impact depends on how you’re feeling about them at the time. “If you’re already feeling connected with them, it’s going to make you feel closer and more connected,” says Dardashti. “If you’re feeling suffocated in any way or like you’re not sure [about being with them], you might feel more pressure.”
Hanging Out With Each Other’s Friends
My boyfriend and I just so happened to meet when we were both out with all of our friends. For other couples, meeting and spending time with each other’s friends can come weeks or months down the line. Naturally, this can be anxiety provoking as you are opening yourself up to being judged by new people who are close to someone you may have real feelings for. It can also make you feel more attracted to the person you’re dating. If you like their friends, it can make you feel like proud to be with this person, says Dardashti. That pride may make room for an emotional attachment to the other person that goes beyond your physical attraction to them.
And just like dating casually helps you see someone for who they are, introducing your partner to your friends helps them see you as a real person. “They’re seeing you interact with people who you interact with regularly, which gives a sense of who you are on a more real level rather than just the [idealized version] of who you are,” says Dardashti. However, if you’re not sure your friends will like your romantic interest, the introduction could be cause for some nerves. “A lot of people, especially if they are full of self-doubt or feel like they don’t have good taste, put a lot of weight on what their friends think,” she adds. “You might feel anxious or ashamed that your friends are going to think you deserve better.”
You’re in love. Or, at the very least, you’re in strong like. And you’re ready to tell the object of your affections. Dardashti warns admitting you have real feelings for someone “can feel very exposing and very scary. If you’re saying it, hopefully [the relationship is] at a point where you’re both feeling somewhat attuned to the fact that the other person is feeling it too. In that case, it feels good to say it. It feels good to hear it. When it’s not surprising, it’s not as fraught with fear of how the person is going to handle it.” If the two of you are on the same page, hearing “I love you” or anything along those lines can create a feeling of security,
However, if you hear that the person you’re interested in has strong feelings for you before you know if your feelings are equally as intense, it can create some major anxiety and guilt, Taitz explains.
How you feel about this depends on how it came about in the first place. If they asked you to be exclusive and you weren’t really down but said yes because you felt too bad to say no, then you’re probably going to feel trapped within the relationship. On the other hand, if you mutually agreed to be exclusive, you may feel a sense of relief, says Taitz. “That would lead to some reduction of anxiety because there’s something about just doing one thing in the moment that’s less stressful,” she says. “Dating one person that feels less stressful than dating multiple people.”
Slapping A Label On It
“This is a really validating experience that leads to more joy,” says Taitz. But make no mistake about it: You shouldn’t expect all of your nerves to automatically dissipate. “It can definitely create some cold-feet-type feelings for people, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing,” says Dardashti. “Anytime you’re making a commitment like that, it can be scary and exciting. It can be both.”
While these are typical emotions to experience at different stages of dating, don’t fret if yours don’t quite align. “You could feel something strongly, even if it’s not logical,” says Taitz. “Our emotions don’t necessarily follow that much logic.”