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Dear Miss Information,
About six months ago I went through the worst breakup ever. I'm twenty-six and I had been with my boyfriend for seven years. I recently tried to start dating again (after a few months of sobbing and a hell of a lot of counseling). I felt like I was finally ready to at least meet some new people and have fun.
I've since learned that dating is not fun. I've never really "dated" guys before, so I feel like I was naïve about the whole thing. I liked one guy, and after the few times we went out (which were great), we were speaking almost every day. Then he stopped speaking to me all of a sudden — and I don't think I came on too strong, since he initiated a lot of the messages/texts/calls. Other guys have huge laundry lists of "must-haves." Online, they ask for photos and then never speak to me again. I get hit on in bars, but I've never had good experiences with that either.
The impression I'm getting is that men only want to date for casual sex or are totally shallow. I'm ready to give up on dating already, and I've barely started. I can't figure out if I'm just not ready or if this is how it is for most people who are new to dating. I'm not sure what perspective to take, or what a healthy attitude towards dating looks like.
— Once Bitten Twice Shy
Dear Once Bitten Twice Shy,
When it comes to dating, much time, energy, and ink is spent on "playing the game" — "Don't come on too strong! Be coy! Play hard-to-get! Tickle his penis with a feather!" All of this advice is noise that distracts from the actual issue at hand. In the wake of any given relationship, down to a ten-minute coffee date, ask yourself: "Did I behave in a way I believe is true to myself?" and "Am I proud of my actions?"
If you answer "yes" to these questions, then, regardless of the outcome, you win. You were authentically you, you did the best you could, and your dignity is intact. (If you answered "no," then examine what went wrong. Were you trying too hard to impress? Were you downplaying your actual opinions? Did you go wild-eyed and threaten to kill his dog? Address those pitfalls and make sure you don't carry them to the next relationship.)
"Failures" are more often circumstance (i.e. he's not in the right place, you're not in the right place, lack of chemistry, whatever) than anyone's individual fault. If he stops calling? That sucks, but it doesn't mean you're not awesome. Maybe he's the not-awesome one. There's no point in dwelling. You're going to fall flat a million times before you find the right person; it's to be expected. (Incidentally, look forward to running into him in the grocery store in six months when you look like shit. That's when it always happens.)
Rather than writing off all men, getting hardened, or turning cynical, chalk up each of these interactions to "learning experiences." If you trust yourself, each interaction will bring you closer to being more authentic, treating others well, and experiencing disappointment without internalizing it. It all adds up to developing the courage to connect with another human without being constrained by fear of failure. It's a tall order for all of us, best summarized by this classic piece of rhyming verse. You're welcome/I'm sorry.