The post-first-date waiting game was grueling. I would check my phone obsessively. As the days passed and it became apparent that I would not see this person again, my extreme anxiety would turn to a deep hurt. I would sob and ask myself: What is wrong with me?
I wish this question was unique to my own neurosis. But it isn’t. If you are dating, and it isn’t resulting in an insta-spouse, all the books, blogs, TV and movies tell you that you must be flawed. Just turn on any season of “The Bachelor” and see the women who have not been handed a rose sobbing into the camera. So many of them choke out the same question: What is wrong with me?
At first, I tried to figure out what exactly was wrong with me. I read ridiculous amounts of dating advice. Maybe I was too confident. I pretended to be more demure. Maybe I wasn’t showing enough interest. I made an effort to touch my date at least five times. Maybe I had deep rage toward men. I dug deep in therapy to exorcise my demons. Maybe I was picking the wrong place (ahem, the Internet) to meet these men. I met one in a supermarket and then one on the sidewalk and then one at the gym. Same result. Lots of first dates. No seconds. Lots more tears. Lots more soul-searching.
And then one day I went out to breakfast with my friend Jenny, who was certain she had the answer. “You just need to be more girly,” Jenny said. “Liz, men like skirts and heels.”
I protested. I felt beautiful in my jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. I was a tomboy, and I was fine with that. I never had problems getting attention from men — only second dates. But Jenny wouldn’t let up. For an hour, she enumerated the tweaks I needed to make to my appearance.
When I got home, I was pissed. Jenny had been telling me I had to disguise my true self to find a man. I wanted a man who loved my tousled beachy hair and my ability to get ready in three minutes. If finding a boyfriend meant having to rock heels every day and spend more than five minutes on my makeup, I would stay single forever.
“How dare she?” I thought.
But then I realized her comments were versions of my own internal thoughts. Hadn’t I been telling myself the same thing? Hadn’t I been spending entirely too much time combing my soul for flaws? Hadn’t I been trying on personality traits that weren’t my own as a way to get the guy?
I liked myself. I liked my quirks, my sometimes strong personality, my inability to endure high heels. I prided myself on being thoughtful, curious and kind. I would want to date me. Why, then, was I continually trying to morph myself into someone I was not?
It was my big epiphany: Nothing was wrong with me. I had been asking myself the wrong question all this time.
I had been so concerned with what my dates thought of me that I hadn’t been concentrating on my own feelings. My guiding question should have been: How did I feel about these men?
After realizing that, my dating game changed. The next date I went on, I relaxed. I stopped analyzing my every move. Instead I focused on the man in front of me. I listened when he told me who he was. I noticed his behaviors, how often he would say please, how often he asked me about myself.
And I made it a point to really let him know who I was. I wanted him to see me — my tomboy nature, my intellectually curious, confident, mellow self. The man I would want would want me back.
And guess what? That next date asked me to dinner later in the week. And then the next. My luck had changed. Suddenly, it seemed like I couldn’t go on a first date without an offer of a second. Now, it was my turn to say no. By refocusing my attention on how I really felt about these men, I realized that I wasn’t drawn to a lot of them. I thought back to all my previous failed dates. Had I even liked those guys?
My new approach to dating isn’t foolproof. There is no foolproof method to getting a man or getting a second date. Dating isn’t a game of mastery. It is a process of finding the right fit.
I still have those dates where the man never calls. But now, I don’t cry. And I definitely don’t wonder what is wrong with me.