You love your independence, but you want someone who you can depend on. You like the idea of coming home to a partner, but you enjoy doing whatever with whomever you damn well please. Sound familiar?
I’ve been there before – TBH, I’m still here. The thought of linking up with someone sounds really nice, but I don’t know if I’m ready to settle down quite yet (I’m only 27). That doesn’t mean I’m not dating around and seeing what happens, though. I hardly think that not knowing what you want means you have to call it quits until you figure everything out.
Still, dating when you want a relationship but also kind of don’t can complicate things, especially when you find a person you’re sort of, definitely interested in. You want to honor where you’re at without causing anyone else unnecessary damage in the process — all while staying true to yourself, being open-minded to what’s out there, and not leading anyone on (including yourself). Here’s how.
1. Be honest with everybody.
Avoid misunderstandings down the line by sharing where you stand within the first couple of dates. Kevin, 29, who’s dating around until he finds what he wants, tries to be upfront about his intentions with his dates, and he says that’s all he can ask of anyone else. “I don’t like wasting a woman’s time if I know it’s not going anywhere. If we vibe well and her personality is great, I’ll try to date her. If not, so be it, and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Dating coach Elsa Moreck confirms that transparency is key, noting the importance of clearly communicating your intentions on the regular. “Have daily and weekly check-ins with yourself. Pause and ask, ‘How do I feel about what I’m doing? Am I still enjoying it? What do I intend to get out of these experiences?’” She recommends having the same check-ins with those you’re dating by simply asking them how they feel about where you two are at. If you’re not on the same page, and don’t see yourself getting there anytime soon, speak your truth so you don’t cheat yourself or your partner(s) out of finding a better fit.
2. Forget about finding The One.
There’s societal pressure associated with settling down before you hit 30. However, dating uncertainty is super common among people in their 20s, which can frustrate both those who are in limbo and those who aren’t.
Emily, 28, refuses to date men who don’t know what they want. “After [texting] this guy that I’m out of the hookup part of my life, he says, ‘I’d like to meet my girlfriend, but you can’t force that, you know? It has to happen naturally.’” Although she’s afraid that she might’ve been a little rash, she ignored that last message and moved on.
Maybe I’m biased because I’m in the same boat as the guy Emily decided against continuing to date, but he does bring up a good point. You don’t have to make each date an audition for your soulmate. “Thinking that dating is all about finding The One can cause a lot of stress and anxiety,” says certified life and relationship coach Jonathan Bennett. “It’s OK to go on dates for the purpose of meeting new people and seeing where things go.” Added pressure will only cause more frustration.
3. Know yourself, but stay flexible.
Dakota, 27, is actively working to overcome the unrealistic relationship expectations her parents imposed on her. “Through my time spent dating, all my expectations have taught me is that they’re the thief of all happiness. The only expectations I have in any relationship now are for myself,” she says. “I can’t control people, but I can control how I allow them to treat me and respect the boundaries I set for myself.”
To do that, matchmaker and dating coach Laurie Berzack, MSW, suggests getting clear on the most important things you need in a partner, whether that’s compatibility in social lives, intellect, sense of humor, or religion. Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, adds to keep in mind that your wants, needs, and expectations can easily change over time and the course of a relationship. The key is to allow things to progress organically without throwing hard guidelines into the already complicated mix.
4. Prioritize fun over romance.
If you don’t know what you want, Bennett suggests making your goal to simply have fun. This could mean going on new adventures or doing activities that cater to your shared hobbies and interests, like checking out a pool hall or hitting a brewery. “If you’re confidently enjoying life, you’ll be more likely to meet great people,” he adds. That can help lead you to whatever it is you’re seeking. Josh, 25, isn’t sure if they want a relationship, but notes that “anything you can fulfill through a candlelit dinner conversation can be fulfilled at a dark, dreary, cheap dive bar.”
5. Practice kindness and patience.
Mixed emotions are extra difficult to navigate when you don’t want to send mixed signals to someone you like. But even when your feelings continue to flip-flop, your goal should be to remain open, curious, and compassionate. “You’re doing yourself a favor by not rushing into anything new, so be kind to yourself even when your choices seem to go against the grain,” says Moreck.
6. Take your time.
Are you focusing on self-care throughout this emotionally tricky process? Or do you feel overwhelmed by the number of dates you’re squeezing into your schedule? Be easy on yourself by dating at a frequency that caters to your needs. Consider planning only one date per week and taking days between hangouts to give yourself time and space to emotionally recharge and process your thoughts. “I’ve found that it’s important to look back at my behavior, avoid isolation, and have a support system of people I trust,” Josh adds. “I’ve made the mistake of treating dating like exposure therapy, and it doesn’t work. I’m only capable of so much.”
And that’s OK. Until I find someone who wins over my conflicted heart, I’ll happily commit to grabbing margaritas with potential partners and staying true to myself.