Every date is full of expectations. Think about what you’re actually doing: Meeting a person, possibly for the first time, to make what hopefully isn’t small talk while seeing if you have something that falls between chemistry and cosmic connection. It’s a big ask, one that’s only amplified by the unrealistic standards — be sensitive without being overly emotional, look good on a date but not like you tried too hard — that are everywhere in modern dating culture.
These standards can make dating feel like a tightrope walk for even the most calm and confident among us. While the standards themselves are not necessarily new, pop culture and social media have turned the volume on them way up. “Our grandparents may have compared themselves to their neighbors and friends, but we compare ourselves to celebrities and those we have never met from across the globe,” says therapist Megan Little, Ph.D., LPC. “And these comparisons are always immediately accessible.”
Self-compassion is key, but it’s also important to know you are hardly alone. That’s why we surveyed 50 young daters to pinpoint the five most impossible dating standards we pretty much all face. Chances are that on your next date, the person you’re trying to impress is feeling them, too — and that’s one more thing you have in common.
1. Be sensitive but not overly emotional.
If you’ve ever been told you’re “too sensitive” or felt overwhelmed by emotions, you likely know this catch-22. It’s a standard women are particularly susceptible to, as we are frequently called out for being too emotional in the office, in pop culture, in politics, and in relationships. Emotional restraint has historically been the antidote, but even that can backfire: A 2016 study found that when women don’t react with emotion in the moment, they are perceived as less intelligent and emotionally competent, a finding that did not hold true for men. It’s an impossible balancing act, no matter which way you turn.
Writer and yoga teacher Sonya Matejko, 28, says she grew up thinking her sensitivity was a weakness she had to hide. But after years of letting this pressure to disguise her true self drive her dating life, she decided to take a romantic hiatus in her mid-20s to establish her own standards.
“I’ve become a lot more mindful about how I spend time and notice how interactions make me feel,” she says. “The greatest expectation I have for myself today is to be as authentic as possible and embrace vulnerability. Now I know to be open to people who appreciate and are drawn to that. It allows me to connect to people on a deeper level.”
2. Look good on a date but not like you tried too hard.
This idea is everywhere in society. It’s “I woke up like this” personified. Little says the feeling is especially acute when a date appears to put in less effort than you, because it can leave you questioning “where their level of investment and interest stands.”
This nonsense robs us of time and mental space that could be better spent on things like putting together an outfit we love and feel good in. If you can dress for the job you want, why not dress for the date you want? That’s what Sophie, a 27-year-old copywriter, has learned to do.
“‘Wear a no makeup-makeup look on a first date’ is a sentence I definitely read in a women’s magazine at one point. But it might as well have said, ‘Look, it’s better to appear like you’re not fussy, like you could watch sports and drink beer all day in a slinky tank top and jeans without complaining,” she says. “But I don’t care if I look like I’m trying too hard anymore. I went on probably 45 first dates in 2018, and I wore false lashes and sparkly eyeshadow on all of them. If I have to dull down that side of me to appear more desirable or low-maintenance to someone on a first date, then he’s probably not the one for me anyway.”
3. Be smart but not intimidating.
There’s never been any question that Emily, 29, is smart, but since she became a lawyer, certain guys find her intimidating. “I’m a corporate attorney, and — I admit — I can be a little too direct for some people,” she says. “I like to debate things, and people have said they were intimidated when they met me, so I have toned that part of me down when getting to know people, especially on first dates.”
However, it’s a behavior she hopes to stop. “I really want to be in a relationship where I can be 100% me 100% of the time, so it does not make sense to tone any part of me down.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between being your brilliant, capable self and talking ad nauseam about a topic the other person isn’t interested in. “Coming off smart and intelligent is great. However, you may be speaking with someone who is not as knowledgeable in that subject, and it can come across in a condescending way,” says celebrity matchmaker Rori Sassoon.
If that’s the case, adjusting the conversation to a more palatable topic is the polite thing to do; however, if you find yourself doing this repeatedly or having to do it for a subject that’s important to you, consider it a sign to move on. It’s never worth minimizing your brilliance to be more likable. It will only hinder your attempts to find a fulfilling relationship.
4. Have your shit together without being boring.
Being a full-fledged adult and being predictable have nothing to do with each other. Nonetheless, the pressure to achieve that just-right balance of the two can feel intense. Morgan Mandriota, a 26-year-old sex and wellness writer, vacillates between worrying she won’t come off together enough because she’s a freelancer with a flexible schedule and worrying she’ll appear too set in her ways. “I’ll never lie about what I do on dates, but I’ve definitely simplified it,” she says. “I just never want to [seem] predictable or too available.”
While there’s nothing wrong with making conscious attempts to mix things up, it only works if you are enjoying yourself. Everyone defines “adventure” differently, and the goal is to find someone whose definition matches yours, not create the illusion you’d like to jump out of a plane when all you really want to do is take a last-minute weekend road trip.
5. Be exactly the person you are in your dating profile.
When we fill out a dating profile, we package our lives, posting our best photos and using our funniest one-liners. It’s an effective way to capture the attention of potential dates, but it can leave us feeling like we need to live up to the persona we created.
Beverly Friedmann, 30, knows this feeling all too well. She worries she won’t be as “lively” on a first date as the person in her profile and agonizes over “awkward pauses” and conversations that don’t flow perfectly. “I tend to be naturally shy, so anxiety can certainly be a hindrance to having a fun and exciting date,” she says.
To minimize this pressure, Beverly takes plenty of time to establish common ground before meeting a date, and she does her best to ensure anyone she goes out with is genuinely good-hearted. “As long as they seem like a relatively kind person, the worst that can go wrong is meeting a new friend.”
This is a good way for us all to approach dating. Even if you do end up on a date with someone who has unfair and unrealistic expectations, remember it says more about them than you. The only standards you need to live up to are your own. “Happiness within yourself is where love starts, says dating coach Lisa K. Stephenson. “If it is not there, it will not be anywhere else.”