There’s a lot of pressure this time of year to go on a great date. But even when we have the best of intentions, we can still come up short.
Renowned relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman has an interesting theory in this area. He credits our "emotional bank account" as a good indication of whether or not a relationship will be successful.
The idea is that as long as relationships stay in the "green" (think bank account balance), partners will be satisfied and look at their partner with more compassion and understanding. It’s when the relationship starts to go towards zero, or in the red, that partners report dissatisfaction and feelings of disconnection.
So how can you keep your relationship—or even just your date—in the green? Try these tips.
#1: Ask questions
According to author Parker Palmer, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is.”
When you ask your date about themself, it shows that you’re interested in their joys, their hurts and their fears. Being an engaged, active listener is crucial.
Here are some good questions to get you started (whether it’s your first date or your 50th):
- What are some of your top priorities in the next few years?
- Of your friends and family, who do you think has the best relationship and why?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
- What do you think your mission is in this world?
#2: Be vulnerable
Being tuned in with your date is a great first step—but that’s not all. As much as your date wants to be seen, they also need to know that you trust them to know your authentic self.
Vulnerability needs to be a two-way street for it to be successful. A way to do that is to be authentic (not rehearsed) when your date asks the questions. Your date wants to witness you, not just your best qualities. This is what builds connection. Brené Brown, a leading researcher of vulnerability, suggests, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
That said, being vulnerable can be difficult. It invites shame and is often viewed as a weakness. Because of that, we tend to numb out vulnerability. Alcohol and other substances can be used as agents to numb. A common theme among bad date stories is that their date had too much to drink. So try to avoid alcohol or keep your drink limit to 1-2 max. Remember, your date is spending this time with you because they chose to be there with you! Showing them who you are is the best thing you can give them.
#3: Put away the phones
This goes back to the importance of active listening. Active listening demands that the listener gives the speaker their undivided attention. If you’re on your phone, it’s clear that your attention is elsewhere.
Not only is it distracting during your date to be on your phone, but research suggests that simply having your phone out and next to you will have negative impacts on your relationship. In one study, researchers asked two strangers to engage in conversations to get to know one another. The variable was that on some of the tables, there was a phone that just sat there, out of the way and not going off.
The study found that the pairs with the phone present rated lower for relationship quality, trust, and perceived empathy within their date when they were discussing a “personally meaningful topic.” If you’re looking to connect with your date in a more meaningful way, phones are better kept off and out of sight.
#4: Express admiration
This time of year, there are plenty of prompts to tell our partner how we feel about them. It’s estimated that lovers will exchange 190 million cards this year, which comes out to about $1 billion.
Of course, expressing admiration doesn’t have to look like a poetic greeting card. The more intimate, the better. Tell your partner something that has meaning to both of you. Do they like to know how important they are to you? Or maybe to know that you want/ desire them? Perhaps to hear how much they are respected? Whatever it is, make sure it’s personal and comes from the heart.
Be vulnerable and authentic in your expression. If not, your admiration can come across as flattery, which is often perceived negatively and as manipulative. Expressing love or admiration is an act of vulnerability. Dig deep, and you could be surprised by how that type of sharing will bring you two closer together.
#5: Make it personal
When it comes to planning what you’ll do, it’s important to show your date that you know and care about what interests them. The activity doesn’t need to be lavish (unless that’s what your partner is interested in). It just needs to be thoughtful. If you aren’t sure what your date is interested in, don't be afraid to ask. That shows a willingness to get to know them and an ability to admit your blind spots.
It's worth it!
Going on a date -- whether with someone new or someone you’ve loved for years—is a great way to build a connection with another person. Making the effort to plan the date, listen, be present and be vulnerable may feel like a risk, but it’s one that could lead to a fuller, richer relationship in the end.
Erin Maher, LMFT
Erin is licensed in the state of Iowa as a marriage and family therapist. She uses an experiential approach called emotionally focused therapy (EFT) to work with couples. She also uses sex therapy to work through sexual health concerns. Erin works with adults and questioning adolescents - individually, as couples, in groups or as a family.