There was a time when dating seemed lovely. Do you remember that time? It was probably before any of us actually started going on real dates. For many of us, it was around age 10 when we dreamed about relationships through a romanticized lens provided by television, music, and magazine covers. But when those dreams met with awkward reality, we learned that dating was actually hard. And we eventually learned that even with the right guy (maybe he's even our husband), we will never have a great date simply because we are "on a date." It requires something more intentional than that.
Despite what The Bachelor may suggest is true, a memorable night doesn't need to include sunsets, white beaches, or helicopter rides over the mountains. Some of the most enjoyable, intimate moments in a relationship can occur over a cup of coffee and a deck of cards. Why? Because the success or failure of a date doesn't hinge on what we do nearly as much as it does on the unseen mess we may bring along with us. We can either contribute to a great experience or unknowingly sabotage the great date that might have been.
So what can make the difference between a dud of a date and an experience of real connection? Try putting these five tips into practice.
1. Don't compare him or the date to unrealistic expectations based in fantasy.
We have the ability to ruin a wonderful evening before it even begins simply by comparing what is real to what is not real. We may watch and read fiction (and yes, that includes "reality" TV) and then let that form the basis for what we think romance looks like. Then when our men show up looking nothing like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, we forget that they aren't supposed to. (Truthfully, nobody looks like that. Ryan Gosling doesn't even look like that!) It's a mistake to use fictional characters to form an imaginary vision of pursuit and passion.
We often don't stop there. Instead, we top it all off with an envious pass over our social-media newsfeeds, taking notice of Instagram pictures of rose bouquets or couples in restaurants. Meanwhile, we forget that we weren't there on the nights that wife cried to her husband because he never brought home flowers. We forget that we can't see the argument the couple had 20 minutes before snapping a picture of their "perfect dinner."
From a wealth of misinformation, we can convince ourselves that everyone else's dating life consists of some mysterious quality that ours is lacking and must measure up to. Before we've even left the house, we've poisoned our expectations and set ourselves up for disappointment.
Perhaps what's most at stake here is that we ultimately end up missing the tender gestures actually set before us: the dinner reservations made, the beard that was trimmed, the phone he turned off, or the non-poetic encouragement he tried to offer. By overlooking these moments, we not only voluntarily give up our own experience of romance, but we also leave these men feeling unappreciated and foolish.
2. Look each other in the eye . . . a lot.
Eye contact is intimate—which is also the reason it can be hard. Our books, phones, and computer screens aren't staring back at us, forming thoughts as we speak. Fixing our gaze across the room may feel more comfortable, but it's also disengaging and will inhibit our ability to connect.
Interestingly, I found it much easier to maintain eye contact with my husband before we had kids. Now I'm tired before we even leave home that I find myself resisting the energy required to focus on him. I also feel a bit unnerved by a confident and intentional stare coming my way after spending the day texting him and sharing nearly all of my face time with those under the age of four. But I'm learning that purposefully making eye contact changes the tone and brings tenderness into a moment that may otherwise be void of it.
3. Don't live stream.
No one else needs to know what your dessert looks like. That romantic walk you took around the river? Let it stay between the two of you. Your date doesn't need an instant audience. Instead, post a picture of tomorrow's sunset so that tonight's can be a memory you share only with him.
We sacrifice intimacy when we invite the world into what should be a private moment. Rather than sharing the highlights with our friends over coffee two days later, we choose to step out of our date in order to broadcast it to people that aren't there. I have to wonder, what conversations might we miss in those moments? What memories could we have made had we only stayed more fully present, just the two of us?
4. Take some degree of ownership.
I realize that there are men who love to plan every detail. They initiate each step, prepare ahead of time, communicate clearly, and leave no stone unturned before the night out. . . . And then there's the rest of them—dare I say, the majority of them.
As women, it's easy for many of us to switch between two gears. The first gear sounds like this: "You plan everything for our date, but if it falls apart, I'm going to silently sulk and roll my eyes." The second gear is something along the lines of, "You can't do this properly. Move over so I can fix it." Neither is healthy and neither will lend itself to an enjoyable time together.
Offer suggestions, ask what you can plan, and if you have kids, talk about whatever details need to be considered for their arrangements. This goes back to the expectations dilemma. Somewhere along the way, especially in the church, we developed this idea that men are supposed to be all and do all and never miss a beat. It's unfair and we need to let it go. Rather than lay the entire weight of the date on your man, accept a degree of ownership and offer to help pull it together.
5. Keep it separate.
Like most healthy things, a great date has boundaries. The world of smartphones has created a culture of constant accessibility with no off-button to be found. Designating lines to create sacred space is a responsibility we must own in our relationships.
If we are going to enter into an atmosphere that is precious, fun, and set apart from the day-to-day, we need to leave a few things out. Specifically in our conversations, we must choose to break away from the daily grind—the unpaid bills, complicated schedules, troubles at work, kids' routines—and leave those concerns at home for the night. Keep this experience separate. Keep this sacred.
Ditch the clichés and aim for real
The hope is that any good date will draw us toward the person we are with. Hopefully we will laugh and share and walk away feeling that we are more known now than we were before. My two most memorable evenings out with my husband didn't involve any of the classic date elements (although those certainly have their place). The first was a night we played cards in Starbucks and spent two hours not talking about our kids. The second was a night we were delayed by standstill traffic, had only enough money and minutes to pick up dessert to eat in the car, and basically spent the majority of our time moving through a difficult conversation about an unhealthy dynamic in our relationship. Both nights ended the same as we found ourselves enjoying and appreciating each other more.
Great dates go beyond romantic clichés. They are, at least in part, built on the ways we fashion our hearts as we come to the table—hearts that will either throw up walls or draw us closer together.
Cara Joyner is a writer and mother with a history of work in student ministry. In recent years, she has come to raise her boys and pursue new ministry opportunities while staying actively involved in her local church.