As a relationship writer who’s single, I spend a lot of time talking to men and women about how they date. One particular conversation on gender roles has been playing on repeat in my mind.
Why, exactly? I pressed them on their attitudes. As I dug deeper, I realized their answers had nothing to do with gender roles or favoring a traditional setup. It was more or less simple conditioning. “I’ve so rarely had a man not pay for the first date. I’d feel like he might not be interested enough if he didn’t,” one of them explained to me.
I’ve often felt similarly. Maybe you have, too. The world is changing quickly, but dating is not changing quite as fast, says Elizabeth McClintock, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Women have made larger strides toward equality in public life, education and employment than they have in private life, relationships and family,” she says. “Our understandings of what is romantic are gendered, and sexual scripts are gendered.”
At the beginning of relationships, heterosexual men and women tend to follow traditional gender roles, according to Marisa T. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab. “If you look at first dates, gender scripts are responsible for many of the differences between men and women,” Cohen says. “These scripts enable us to control a situation.” Following a script over and over again — a man asks a woman out, plans the first date, pays for it, follows up within a few days — gives us a standard by which to compare dates and prospects.
“The main gender differences are that men are the initiators and women are more likely to react to the men’s advances,” she says.
In one study, Cohen gave participants 30 behaviors that could occur on, before or just after a first date and asked them to indicate how likely the behaviors signaled that their partner was into them.
Women picked nine behaviors as signaling interest, such as: discussing future plans, complimenting appearance, focusing on similarities, offering to pay, suggesting to extend the evening, going in for a hug or kiss at the end of the night, and following up quickly after a date. On the flip side, men listed just four behaviors as signs of interest: taking note when their dates were open about themselves in conversation, made references to sex, offered to split the check and responded quickly to follow-up contact.
Cohen also asked about signs that a date wasn’t interested or attracted during a first date, and women noted six signs, including discussing exes, waving goodbye instead of hugging or kissing goodbye, not initiating contact after the date. Men, on the other hand? They listed no behaviors to indicate a woman might not be interested.
Women were tuned in to their dates’ signals of attraction and investment; men took note of less and even reasoned away or glossed over signs of lack of interest. This could be ingrained defensiveness, per one theory of evolutionary psychology, Cohen says. “It is more costly to men to misperceive sexual interest,” she explains. “When it comes to an evolutionary view, they would lose mating opportunities. On the women’s end, they may be more cautious, looking for the man who will provide for them in the long term.”
Of course, a lot of our gender roles have survived through socialization. Mimicking the study’s findings, I posited a theory to McClintock — that following a script or waiting for clear signs of interest is more of a defensive gesture than it is true distaste for egalitarian dating. She tended to agree. “More people are open, at least in principle, to the idea of women asking men out,” she says, for instance. “But male initiation is certainly a strong norm, and I agree with your intuition that this is in part a self-protective behavior.”
If men are traditionally “expected to be sexually and romantically assertive,” McClintock says rejection may be less of an issue for them. “Not that they enjoy it, but it is an expected part of being a man and dating women,” she explains. Women, on the other hand, probably don’t need to initiate to create some romantic success, so taking leaps of interest feels that much harder. She says that because “it is unusual for women to initiate, and women are assumed to only initiate if they have strong feelings, rejection may be more consequential for them, whether emotionally or socially.”
That feels true when I watch my normally assertive girlfriends fret about whether to send that first text to a guy they’d like to date.
If gendered norms remain, men stay in the position of pursuing and women in the role of rejecting. Men are active in their romantic choices and women more passive. For me at least, that is not the role I want to occupy, especially when it comes to online dating. “The assumption with online dating is that we are seeing many people simultaneously, until we ‘define the relationship,’ ” Cohen says. “Therefore, you may not want to stand on ceremony and wait for someone to call you.”
Apps have disrupted our dating scripts. When I wrote my book on modern dating, I noticed that people who followed felt connections and invested in prospects with vulnerability, even if they weren’t totally sure of the other person’s interest, typically had the best success. It did not matter what trajectory the relationship took or what “rules” they broke.
If you’re looking for genuine interest, playing “hard to get” has been scientifically faulty for a while now — even before the infamous bestseller, “The Rules” came out in 1995. Back in 1973, social psychologist Elaine Hatfield and her team showed that men were most interested in a woman who was hard for others to get, but moderately easy for them to get a date with.
In essence, if you invest in those you’re most interested in and behave in ways that feel in line with the kind of relationship you want, you’re probably going to find the best connections. Laurel House, a celebrity dating coach and relationship expert, believes in “clarity, honesty, strategy and authenticity,” she says. “What, how and when to do things should be based on what each person feels is most true to them.”
So if you want to ask him out, ask him out. If you want to call him, do it. If you want to pay the bill, step up and offer to pay — if you truly want to. “Even if a woman does offer or do the ‘fake reach,’ and then the guy says, ‘Yeah, okay you can pay half,’ it’s an orange flag against the guy,” House says. “Some women say that they are happy to pay, but they will never go out with the guy again. So I say, ‘Why did you offer then? Why did you set him up in a trap to fail?’ ”
Admittedly, I used to follow the script. I waited for men to ask me out, to call or text after a date, to pay and to “define the relationship.” Over the past couple years, I’ve thought long and hard about what kind of relationship I’m looking for, and I try to treat dating as a trial run to that partnership. Therefore, who makes the first moves (or feels allowed to) is symbolic. As Cohen mentions to me: “Research does show that those in egalitarian relationships experience greater relationship satisfaction.”
Those who’d rather participate in egalitarian dating can wait for the norms to shift, or we can start seeing whether our potential partners respond to those behaviors right now. “The slogan that ‘the personal is political’ argues that our choices in private life have broad consequences for equality, or inequality, beyond our own relationships,” McClintock says. “Our choices certainly have consequences within our relationships. So, yes, if you want a very egalitarian union, you should probably consider acting in an egalitarian manner.” However, she says people surely “vary in defining their goal of an ‘egalitarian relationship,’ so their strategies for achieving that ideal will vary, as well.”
For me, it’s not been about the price of the bill or adhering to a norm to prove interest. It’s about showing appreciation for someone’s time and effort. By asking men out, splitting checks or texting first, have I deprived myself of information that might speak to their level of interest in me? Maybe. But then, of course, the foundation of any relationship is putting yourself — your authentic self — out there.
Just the other night, as I was wrapping up this story, my date asked what I thought about who should pay in this day and age. I did not hesitate to split the check for drinks and shared apps while explaining my egalitarian mentality. He agreed and seemed somewhat relieved.
When we got a nightcap, he insisted on grabbing the check. It all felt just right.