Dating, touching, "sparks", and so on... what should I be looking for?
August 17, 2013 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm an late-20s-guy finally starting to date for the first time. Overall, I'm finding the process fun, but as someone completely new to relationships and how they form - and someone who's self-analytical to the point of over-analyzing - I feel a little uncertain as to what's expected of me, and how I should behave on the first few dates. I've found a few useful resources on the Internet, but there's a lot of creepy advice out there, and I'd like to get some feedback from real people. So: when should I expect to feel a "spark"? Do you start touching your date in small ways before you feel a connection, or do you really only do that if you feel something? And what are the expectations surrounding that first kiss?

In some ways, this is a followup to this question from about a year ago. In summary: after going through a bit of a quarter-life-crisis, I've finally started making some needed self-improvements - lost a bunch of weight, got a better job, moved out. And, at long last, actually trying to meet people and start figuring out what I want out of a relationship. My self-confidence is generally pretty good, and I'm rather happy with where my life is right now and the direction I'm headed.

But because I've literally never dated before or had any sort of relationship, I'm flying pretty blind on how things work. I understand that nothing happens overnight, things are just going to feel awkward, and I just need to have fun, keep at it, gain experience and learn - and I'm fully committed to that. But I'm still a bit uncertain on a few specifics, and could use a bit of advice.

My main source of advice on all this has been Nick Notas' The Dating Specialist. He generally has a strong emphasis on self-confidence, making connections, respecting women, and having fun, which means most of his stuff comes off as way less PUA-ish than a lot of advice you find. Still, some of it reads as a bit pushy to me - lots of "touch her early on if she's comfortable", "try and kiss on the first date", "don't be afraid to be sexually flirty"... but I can't tell if that's just how it is if you want to build that connection, or if that's just his style of being a bit of a player, and it's OK to take things slower.

Right now I've been doing OKCupid dates, with not too much more of an expectation beyond having a good time, meeting people, gaining confidence, and seeing where things go. And that's been going well thus far, with a handful of OK first-and-second dates, and one good first date with a commitment for a second.

But really, we've just talked. The farthest I've gone physically has been a hug with a kiss on the cheek as a goodbye. I've enjoyed myself, but I wouldn't say I've felt a strong spark or connection with anybody just yet. And having not really ever had that happen, I'm not sure what to be looking for.

So, of course realizing that every man and woman and relationship and date is different - what is acceptable, and generally expected of me? Obviously I should not be trying to stick my hand down my date's pants the first time we meet - but should I be making more of an effort towards small touches? I feel a bit afraid and intimidated - like I'm invading someone's personal space with attention I'm not sure someone wants - but is this actually socially acceptable, and should I just be pushing through that fear a bit until I get more comfortable with it?

Or, am I way overthinking this? Is this something that will just feel way more natural when I feel a connection, and I just need to keep meeting different people - and people I like enough multiple times - until something happens... and the "touch early" crowd is really just rushing through things? I really can't tell if I'm just scared to show my intentions, or if I just haven't found the right person.

Put more simply - does the connection/spark come first and/or naturally over a few dates, or do you have to work towards it?

The same thing goes for that first kiss - at no point yet have I personally felt comfortable enough or like I've been at a good kissing point, but I can't tell if I'm just too oblivious to know those moments, if I'm not doing a good enough job leading us to that point - and if I'll be too afraid to go through with it when the moment comes - or, if that's something that will come up naturally, and I just need to be patient until the right person and moment comes along.

Finally, I hear mixed things about this - but if I do feel like I like somebody, is it OK to just say "hey, I'm kind of inexperienced in dating - don't mind me if I'm a bit slow to warm up?" Or is that kind of thing too much of a turn-off too often?

Overall, I realize there's no one right answer to any of these questions, and more will become clear as I get more experience. And I want to make it clear that I am *not* interested in going full-on pick-up-artist here. I'm just trying to figure out what's realistically expected of me on the first few dates, and what I should be looking for as I move forward.

(As an aside - words cannot describe how amazing the response to my last question was. Even though I decided to hold off for a while, it was a really remarkable and affirming response, and it gave me a ton of confidence going forward.)

Finally, If there's any followup, I have a throwaway at Thanks in advance, guys.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
am I way overthinking this? uh, yeah.

There's no set time for kissing/touching/sex. Just do what makes you two comfortable and happy. Move at your own pace.

I think from your question (big assumption from me) that you're a virgin? That's something you want to discuss after several dates when you become closer. Having little to no sexual experience is NOT a big deal (You're a late bloomer! You're discerning!) if you're honest about it.
posted by fireandthud at 8:50 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like one of your key points of unease is a lack of confidence that you will be able to read how well things are or are not going. Reading up on body language was really helpful for me when I hit a similar dating stage and had a similar issue.

I'm godawful at reading nonverbal cues. So it was revelatory to me to note things like "her feet are constantly pointing toward the door" as a red flag that the date was going poorly. Or the first time a girl sidled into my immediate personal space and looked up at me while tilting her head down. (That one generally means, "kiss me.")

Body language is kind of fluid and cannot be relied on solely, and you certainly can't make evaluations based on single cues. But, if, like me, you don't have a well developed innate sense of reading people, it can give you one more set of data to try and pick up on how things are going.

And finally, to answer your primary question ("does the connection/spark come first and/or naturally over a few dates, or do you have to work towards it?") the easy answer is that the spark should come naturally. That said, it's entirely possible to get too far in your own head and kind of, if you'll pardon the phrase, stand on your own dick. What I mean is that it's sort of a requirement for adult dating that your sense of confidence and self-regard should come internally, from you, and not be something you are hoping to get from the people on the other end. Try to remember that growing confidence you're building in yourself and also that people who go on dates with you are already interested in you.

Congrats on getting yourself together! Go on out and have fun.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:50 AM on August 17, 2013

Also, no matter how long a dry spell you're coming off, resist the urge to go into dates like they're your first job interview after a long stretch of unemployment. Be wary of your inner desire to make things go well at the expense of giving yourself and the person you are with the legitimate opportunity to just get to know each other and see if anything sparks.

People are awesome. Go meet a bunch of them. Treat them kindly and with respect and you'll make friends along the way. When you meet someone with partnering up potential, odds are, no one will have to explain or decode that for you.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:59 AM on August 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

If you want to know whether there is a spark on your part. Close your eyes, imagine you are sitting next to them on a park bench, you reach over and hold each other's hand. Just think about holding that hand for thirty seconds, or thirty minutes...

If edge of your lips has started to curl up into a smile there's a spark - at least on your part.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:00 AM on August 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

You have a lot of (good!) questions here, but I want to step up and say that a lot of behavior that is creepy in non-date situations is 100% not creepy when you're on a date. Be sexually flirty! Be open to kissing! Be open to touching! Obviously be respectful, and don't be crass, but this is the situation where all that stuff is perfectly fine. The only caveat I'd introduce there is to be sexually flirty if you're feeling it, be open to kissing her if you want to, and be all touchy if you are moved to be touchy. In other words, let that develop organically, rather than from a sense of trying to "close a deal." Remember, the date isn't about you "winning" her, it's about the two of you mutually deciding if you want to pursue further companionship. Feel free to pull back if you're not feeling it.
posted by KathrynT at 9:01 AM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

i would NOT come right out and say you are inexperienced with dating. i would say if you are out on a date, having a good time, and feel the urge to brush her shoulder? touch her arm? etc? then do it. if she's into it she may reciprocate in kind. if she's not into it she will let you know - either verbally or with body language. watch for crossed arms, pulling away, etc.

and if you're not feeling the urge to pounce right away, that's okay too! the way that i approach dating is i'm out to meet new people outside my normal social circle - some of these have potential, but in different ways - friend potential, makeout potential, dating potential, relationship potential. you can never tell right away but that's why we go out there and do it - just try to read the current situation and follow your gut. read the signs as they are given and respect when lines are drawn. listen to how you feel, take things slow if you need to (believe me, i think it's cool if a guy gets to know me without trying to get in my pants right away!). try not to overthink and just go with it. good luck :)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:06 AM on August 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

The spark comes naturally. It can be good to give it time to learn more about the other person and "give things a chance", but realistically that's going to happen in the first two or three dates.

I mean, either you're attracted to someone or you're not. If you hang out with someone a few times and you don't feel attracted to them, then you're probably not ever going to be attracted to them and you should move on for the sake of both parties' sanity.

Re kissing/touching/sex and that whole progression, it's different for everyone and you should do what you feel comfortable with. But this is how I happen to feel about it:

If there's no physical touch at all on the first date, that would make me think the other person wasn't attracted to me and that things weren't going well. I mean, don't grope anyone, but just natural touch. Sit a little closer than you strictly have to. Touch their arm when you're making a conversational point. If I'm going on a date with you, it's because I'm open to the idea of there being something sexual between us. So don't be shy.

Kissing, like touching, if that doesn't happen by the second date, I'm going to wonder whether we're just friends or these are actual dates or what. If I'm going on a second date with you, chances are I think we're going in a romantic direction, and kissing is part of that.

Sex is much more highly variable. I have to remind myself a lot not to sleep with people on the first or second date. Others take a really long time to work up to it. I absolutely would not overthink "when to have sex" if you are having a lot of trouble with "when to touch" or "when to kiss". You'll get to sex when you get there. Trust me, you will know.
posted by Sara C. at 9:08 AM on August 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Based on your previous question, I'm assuming you still haven't kissed anyone on the lips. "Do what comes natural" is great for other kinds of physical contact, but I had my first kiss slightly later than some and still remember how unnatural and terrifying the prospect seemed, and that only intensified the longer I went unkissed. It is going to feel weird the first time you kiss someone. I say that not to scare the pants off you but just as a way to acknowledge what is likely going to happen. In retrospect, after I finally was kissed, I realized that there had been a lot of long, lingering stares with people where I should have just done it. In general, prolonged silent eye contact with close physical proximity is the space where kissing should go. JSYK.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:47 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're on a date with someone you met in real life, you know there's a mutual attraction, so it's okay to be a little touchier and more flirtatious than you would normally be. Plus, you know them, so it's probably a little easier to read their moods and suss out their boundaries. I'd take a little longer to ramp up the flirtation on an internet date, because you are still strangers to each other and there's so much figuring-each-other-out that has to be done in a short period of time.

I think "connection/spark" might be more usefully framed as "attraction." You usually know when you're attracted to someone within a few minutes of meeting them, right? Usually, it takes the form of a desire to make out. Occasionally, an attraction can grow over time, particularly if a person has some amazing other attributes, but internet dating is such a numbers game that it rarely makes sense to pursue a 'potential' attraction as opposed to an actual one. If you don't want to make out with someone after a date - even if you're not quite there yet on readiness or logistics - I wouldn't call them for a second one. I would, however, try to get at least one kiss in by the end of the second date. Maybe this will come completely naturally, but if not, an obvious moment is when you are saying goodbye. Hug her, and if she doesn't pull back right away, cup the back of her head and give her a brief kiss on the lips. Closed mouth, no tongue, not *that* different from the kiss on a cheek you'd give to a close female friend. If she doesn't pull back after that, go in for a 'real' kiss.

I think it's fine, somewhere around the third or fourth date, to say, "I'm not super experienced with this, do you mind if we take it slow?" Some people might not be okay with that, but I think it's worth doing, if only so you feel like you're being honest with them, as opposed to trying to fake a comfort level you don't possess.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:49 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is entirely subjective and depends on the person you are going on a date with. You have to consider that people come from all sorts of backgrounds and have had all sorts of experiences, so I would say don't rule someone out as disinterested if they are not automatically touchy-feely. I am not an immediately touchy-feely person--I prefer to get to know someone a bit before having any physical contact--in fact, I have been freaked out and have pushed people away if they tried to touch me too early (first 3 dates or so). I think, for me, this comes from having grown up in a northern city in which people are more physically distant as well as coming from a family that just does not hug/touch a lot.

Point is, I think you just have to feel it out and see how it's going--go with the flow. I personally think that getting too physically involved with someone too soon can cloud your judgment about them--but this is just me--and that is one of the reasons I prefer not to be physical for a while. That said, with my last partner I tried to hold off on any touching for the first few dates, but by date 4 we finally kissed--and it felt right. I think if I had had no desire to touch him by that date (I think I had started thinking about it on date 3), I would have probably noticed that I just wasn't attracted to him.

Overall, try not to sweat it and to just respect the other person's boundaries while paying attention to your own reactions to the situation. As others have said, you definitely don't want to force anything. If you get involved with someone you're not actually excited about, someone is probably going to get hurt later on down the line.

Also wanted to add: my first kiss for my last relationship was incredibly awkward even though it wasn't the first kiss ever for either of us. This turned out to be ok and was actually something we could joke about together later on. I think as long as you stay respectful even physical contact initially gone awry will work out! Respect is key, though.
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 9:53 AM on August 17, 2013

For a first date/meet-up, I actually suggest skipping the coffee and doing something active - mini-golfing, a museum, a walk in the park, etc. This will give you a chance to stand near her and use your presence to show you're interested. I've found that chatting with someone over coffee/dinner isn't really a way to build attraction. On the other hand, if you go to a museum, you can stand close to her and point out some sort of interesting display. See how she reacts when you stand near her...does she move in closer or back away?

The added benefit of this type of date is that you don't need to stare into each other's eyes. For me, this is lower stress since it's more casual.

Lastly, I always find first kisses to be awkward. I don't think she'll assume that because your first kiss together is awkward, that it's your first time kissing anyone.
posted by parakeetdog at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Update from the OP:
I'm seeing a few questions on previous experience, so let me clear that up real quick. Up until a couple months ago, I had literally _no_ experience - no kissing, no sex, nothing. However, whilst on vacation I had a very, _very_ drunken one night stand where I can remember a few brief snippets - us kissing, me touching her leg, brief seconds of various deeds done in the bedroom - but overall, barely anything. The fact that I apparently managed to pull this off once before but have absolutely zero idea how is both a _constant_ source of bemused frustration and also is, perhaps, vaguely inspiring (in a "well, it happened once when I had no judgement whatsoever, so I'd think I _should_ be able to make this happen again...")

So, on one hand I feel like it's a technical victory that I'm not a virgin, and no longer feel a strong need to bring _that_ part of it up with a partner; on the other, I have no idea what the hell actually happened and can't derive anything useful from that experience for the future, except a definite boost to my self-esteem (in a "hey, I _am_ desirable to the opposite sex!" kind of way).
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:22 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's easy on dates to become totally focused on how you feel about the other person -- whether you think they're attractive or funny, or whether you think your friends and family will like them, or wondering what they think about you.

This is easy to do, but it can also be like looking also the wrong end of the telescope. The thing to try to keep in mind while you're on your date (and after it's over) is not quite so much how you feel about them, and more about how you felt about yourself while you were on the date. Did being with this person make you feel relaxed, or tense? Did you feel free to express yourself, or did you feel you were being judged a little? Basically, did you enjoy yourself -- and not just for the fact that you happened to be on a date with someone, but in the case of your actual interactions with this particular person?

Of course, this isn't to say that you shouldn't pay any attention to your date's body language, or that you don't need to listen to them or think about whether you find them attractive or if you have things in common. But it is important not to do that at the expense of paying attention to your own feelings and reactions on a date. Whether or not you feel good about yourself when you're with another person is a crucial indicator of what kind of potential connection really exists.
posted by scody at 10:28 AM on August 17, 2013 [18 favorites]

*through the wrong end of the telescope
posted by scody at 11:01 AM on August 17, 2013

You ARE desirable to the opposite sex. Not all of them, no, nor should you be. There are several types of people you can get along well with, to varying degrees of 'ok' to 'great!" So, sounds like you are doing what you should be: Learning, practicing. Experiment a little, probably with more touching. Get a better feel for when they are open to it.

Make a list of traits you want in a lady. All of em. It will help you narrow down the good dates vs ok ones.
posted by Jacen at 11:57 AM on August 17, 2013

1. There is abdolutely nothing wrong with, eg. at the end of a date when you're getting ready to part ways, simply asking "may I give you a kiss goodnight?" (or goodbye, or whatever the appropriate term is for the given context).

2. Do you have a friend who is decent at reading social cues, who would go sit at a bar where young couples meet, in a corner booth or something, with you and people watch? You could try to interpret various interactions based on the body language that you see, and check your interpretations against your friend's interpretations.
posted by eviemath at 2:28 PM on August 17, 2013

As frustrating of an answer as this might be, I really think that when it's right with someone, you just feel it. Not necessarily on the very first date, but certainly on the first few dates.

One of the most significant parts of this for me is that there's a certain ease to things when that spark is there. I say this as someone who is somewhat socially awkward (probably even socially anxious) and struggles to carry on conversations with many people -- when I met my husband, we talked for hours. In fact, we even did that cheesy thing where we looked up and suddenly realized we were the last two people in the restaurant. In a way that I can't even describe all that well, being around him felt really easy and right, practically from the moment we met. On our second and third dates, I was also really excited to see him again, which I think is important. You shouldn't force yourself to like someone when it doesn't come naturally.

Of course, that's not to say that everything has to be perfect from the beginning! People can have off days/nights, and outside circumstances can mess with things too. (My husband and I actually had pretty crappy second date, for example. Turned out to be an anomaly, but it definitely messed with my head at the time!) So don't necessarily make the very first date into an all-or-nothing scenario. But if you've been on three or four dates, and you don't find yourself excited to be around the person, the spark probably is not there.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 3:39 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you might benefit from reading the first AskMe answer I ever wrote.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:27 PM on August 17, 2013

One of the ways I notice a 'spark' is when it's easy. I find myself talking to them for a while - I don't pay much attention to time. I want to talk to them again. Physical attraction and the like generally takes more than a date or two, though.

As for touching and such, it's usually safe to assume that casual touching is okay on a second date, if you're feeling unsure, and a kiss isn't a bad idea either.
posted by Ashlyth at 6:53 AM on August 18, 2013

Still, some of it reads as a bit pushy to me - lots of "touch her early on if she's comfortable", "try and kiss on the first date", "don't be afraid to be sexually flirty"

Just FYI this kind of behavior isn't inherently creepy so long as you're respectful of personal boundaries, actually paying attention to how your date is responding, and backing off if she isn't into it. What makes it creepy in PUA stuff is the insistence that you do it regardless of what your date thinks and in such a way that pressures her into doing things she might otherwise say no to.
posted by Ndwright at 7:10 AM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

OK, this is dating 101, but don't be insulted, because I also got a late start. Before patting someone on the arm, holding hands, anything like that. Try sitting next to her. At a movie or on public transportation. Do your upper arms touch? Shoulder to elbow. On the second date, it's OK if your upper arms touch. (Unless you are in a religious sect of some kind.) Do you LIKE having your arms touching? Does it turn you on? By which I mean. Does it make you think about sex (with her)? Or at least about hugging her or some such? OK, good.

OK. So you like. Stay like that for a while. If she doesn't like it, she'll change position. Stay like that for a couple of minutes and THEN try leaning slightly, or otherwise shifting slightly so that she is almost imperceptibly leaning on you. She will move for sure if she doesn't like. But if she changes position, no biggie, whatever, two adults over the age of consent watching a movie, so our arms were touching, big deal. Can't fault a red-blooded man for a little too much arm in a movie.

Now, seriously, if you are out on a date and you DON'T like leaning against your date, then this is maybe a problem and you should find someone else to date. DON'T think, oh, I miss Woman X I used to be obsessed with. No, no. Even if it's true. Instead think, this is cool, I could possibly have sex with this person if all goes well.
posted by skbw at 5:06 PM on August 18, 2013

Also, this is why the Lord God Almighty invented movies and public transit and commanded "His" people to use them. Even a park bench can be a little hairy if you're not used to dating. Movies and the train, you've got no choice but to test the waters. Incorporate them into your dates. No opposable thumbs. No kissing (until you feel up to it). Start with just sitting there.
posted by skbw at 5:09 PM on August 18, 2013

You seem also to be asking about spark. Now, you probably know about the listen-here-take-off-your-clothes-so-I-can-see-your-nudity sort of lust that occasionally strikes when, say, one is confronted with someone totally inaccessible. This is, IMHO, setting the bar a little high for OKCupid. Back to basics. Would you give it to her if she was willing? If she said, "Hey, wanna fuck," would you say "sure, why not"? If the answer is yes, then you're good. More is a bonus for a population of online people you're just seeing for the first time.
posted by skbw at 5:20 PM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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