Part 4 of the safe, sane and consensual relationships series.
Here are some of the best strategies we have figured out over the years for making the dating process and early stages of a relationship smoother.
Strategy 1: Figure out how you feel.
Talk to yourself. Write it out. Talk into a recorder, film a video, or talk to a plant. Sit down by yourself and let the thoughts and feelings flow out of your finger tips. Write pro and con lists. Ask yourself what course of action makes sense and for which goal. Put it away. Read it the next day. You will learn a lot about how you feel.
Strategy 2: Use your Safety Net
Talk about it. If you have people around you who have more experience and with whom you are comfortable, talk with them. One of the surest signals that I am about to do something stupid, is when I feel edgy and do not want to talk about my confusion with my mentor. It usually means I decided on something that is a bad idea. Use your safety net to sanity check you. Beware of people that your friends and mentors dislike; they may see something you want to overlook.
Strategy 3: If you do not have a safety net, grow one.
Try going to a meetup, or joining clubs (book club, hiking, cycling, community service, etc…) of people with common interests (other than drinking and dating), take a class at a community center or on udacity and participate in discussions. One of the main things that predators seek is people who are isolated and don’t have support. Work on not being easy prey.
Strategy 4: Try to avoid going on dates with new people when you feel fragile.
Easier said than done. Especially when someone feels fragile and insecure most of the time. Try making sure that the reason you are going out with this person is that you like the person and want to have fun with them, and not just to feel better about yourself or to not be alone. Dating people you are not interested in or lukewarm about is, at best, a waste of everybody’s time. Try to be rested and not acutely distressed; it makes you less vulnerable and more likely to make good decisions. Keep it short at first: lunch dates out, not dinner and a movie.
Strategy 5: Listen to you mixed feelings and anxiety.
The back of your brain is smart. Listen to it. For me, mixed feelings usually meant I was more into the idea of being liked than into the actual person. Anxiety signaled danger. You don’t always need to stop, but these are crucial for pacing. Do not escalate until you feel sure, comfortable, and safe. I understand that you may never feel perfectly safe, but make sure that the experience is within your normal range and a deliberate choice—not out on the edge of what you can tolerate.
Strategy 6: Plan your boundaries and venue ahead of time.
It is really hard to make good decisions when stressed, anxious, turned on, tired, or otherwise impaired. Decide before you go out what you are comfortable with for the night, write it down and put it in your wallet. Pick the appropriate public or private venue. Meet them in a restaurant for conversation. Meet them for a drive or a movie if you are okay being touched. Meet them in their house or yours only if you are comfortable with sexual activity. While it doesn’t guarantee it, it is incredibly likely that things will go further if they are in private. (If you are making out in a bed or on a couch, chances of sex are high). Escalate from conversation to sexuality at a pace that you are comfortable with. Or, don’t escalate if you are not.
Strategy 7: Enlist them as an ally.
It would be awesome if by the time issues of sexuality and romance came up, you knew each other well and trusted each other. If that is the case, communicate and ask them to help you keep things in the parameters you are both comfortable with. It is very hard to escalate too fast if they are helping you not to. Do not use this as your failsafe, but if you find someone who is cool with it and can execute it, they might be a keeper.
Strategy 8: Test what happens when you say “No” or disagree.
I once dated someone who was amazing in every way we interacted for almost 2 years. The thing I did not notice is that he was so smooth that in 2 years he never did anything that forced me to say “no” or disagree on anything important to me. The relationship fell apart 3 weeks after I ended up in a situation where a “no” was unavoidable. I realized that he did not care to stop what he was doing, compromise, or let me have a divergent opinion. You want to be with someone who can take a “no” gracefully and accept disagreement. Ultimately you also want someone who can lose with dignity and meet you at least half way—if not more—when you need them to.
Strategy 9: Appropriate self care and a planned exit.
So, later when you should go home and you are exhausted or impaired, how will you do so safely? Decide ahead of time when you are going home and how you are getting there. Bring extra money for a cab or public transport, or secure a ride ahead of time. Don’t just crash in a stranger’s house because it got too late to conveniently get home. Set things up so the easy default is getting to your own bed alone, and you need effort to make something else happen. You can always decide later to put in that effort, if it is worth it to you on that occasion.
Strategy 10: Figure out what kind of relationship you DO want?
The most crucial things to know are what kind of person you want to be, how you want to be treated, and by what kind of person. While specifics may require some adjustment, the standards should not be flexible. If you know what you want ahead of time and believe that you deserve good things, you start out safer.
Often there is a question of what it is like to be a “real man” or “real woman,” which drives the social choices for many—from our own clothing to how we treat other people. This line of thinking works poorly. I like the question of what it takes to be a good person and a good partner instead. This article is excellent for thinking about masculinity, and about what kind of person one might want to be (or be with). The same article would work well enough as a guide for women, especially the list of desirable traits in the second half. What makes a good person is gender-independent.
Part of why this is important is that people have a tendency to ignore what they do want in favor of what they think they should want. For example, a male-bodied person may feel that he has to initiate sex with, or accept sex from, any female-bodied person who offers, because that’s what men are supposed to want. Conversely, a female-bodied person may feel that if she hasn’t kissed somebody by the third date (or invited them in, or had sex with them), she is “leading them on” or “teasing”, as opposed to getting to know them. All of these stereotypes and standards are 1) wrong, and 2) get in the way of your ability to understand and stay in touch with what you actually want.
If you are not sure whether someone you are interested in is a good idea, ask the following question of yourself: How would you feel if this person was trying to date your 16-year-old sister, your brother, your best friend, or someone towards whom you feel protective. If your reaction is mixed or negative; reconsider whether this person is a good choice. While keeping in mind that there’s no single “right” way to be, there’s no single “right” way to do relationships, and that people you consider dating should be good enough that you would want them dating people you love.
Please help create a consent culture by sharing, commenting, and talking about this with others.