Your parents did it. Hitchhikers, rocket scientists, even nuns probably do it, at least once. The topic is dating, and the custom is as old as Adam and Eve.
Dating is the path to love -- and that path, as we know, can be a minefield.
We date and we date, but we don't find Mr. or Ms. Right. In fact, we may find someone a lot scarier.
There's serious stuff out there, like HIV and STDs, date rape, online stalkers. Then there are other dangers -- boredom, disillusionment, getting dumped, or simply getting taken. Two love experts offer their dating advice:
Danger: Blinded by Chemistry
Face it; finding a great mate takes some research. "You're going to go through a lot of people, until you find someone where there is some kinetic thing, some magnetism, some desire to know more," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"You're looking for a connection, someone you're physically attracted to -- who's physically attracted to you -- plus someone who doesn't make you feel bored from the get-go," Schwartz tells WebMD.
Chemistry, mutual interests -- that's all great. "But don't let the love bug mesmerize you," says Paul Falzone, author of the book, Find the Right One and CEO of "The Right One"and "Together," two nationwide dating services.
Falzone tells a story of a North Carolina woman who fell "totally in love" with a Massachusetts man she met online. Six months later, they met. Eventually, he encouraged her to sell her house, pack everything into a truck, and prepare herself and her two young children for a new life. Then comes the email saying, "I can't go through with this. I'm sorry, I'm dishonest, I'm married."
"You have to be very careful," Falzone tells WebMD. "Especially when children are involved, you want to make sure you're doing the right thing." In fact, he advises hiring a private investigator when getting involved with someone new. "People are naÃ¯ve, they will trust anybody. Then after they're snookered, they feel so silly, so embarrassed about what happened."
His dating advice: "You can't change the spots on a leopard."
Danger: Dying of Boredom
A date isn't a therapy session; don't ramble about lost loves or your personal problems too much, Falzone says.
At the beginning, your dates don't need to know about your insecurities, your dead-end job, your failed relationships, he says. It's one thing to show depth of character, but revealing inner demons can be a turn-off. Keep the conversation lively and fun, and slowly reveal the real you.
If you look back fondly on a past relationship, the message comes across that you're not over it -- causing your new romantic interest to feel threatened, jealous, or insecure, says Falzone. Showing bitterness over a breakup can make your date wonder if you badmouth all former flames. Sure, you need to bring up past relationships at some point. But too much too soon can lead to trouble.
Danger: Getting Cynical
Sure, dating can be frustrating, even disillusioning. But don't let it get you down. If you're feeling negative, you'll scare off the good ones. Get out, meet people, and be open to new people and new experiences. You'll meet someone. After all, dating is a process of elimination -- you just haven't met the right one yet.
"I think some people are much more rigid or sure about what they want," says Schwartz. "They don't want to make the same stupid mistakes. But feeling jaded, that's a self-invented problem. There are many good people out there. If you have a 50-item list of criteria, if you're too specific about what you want, too rigid, you're going to find yourself alone forever."
Her dating advice: Look beyond the bald head and other imperfections. "Have an open, optimistic mind. You've got to have enthusiasm, imagination. I know a 50-year-old woman who thought she wanted an intellectual. But she met a cowboy and is having a great time! When people say they're cynical, jaded, they're really scared of having to change a little bit."
Danger: Is It Date Rape?
Here's the really serious stuff -- a woman is vulnerable to rape in her own home, or even if she voluntarily goes to someone else's home. Even if she consents to some activity, that does not imply consent for all sexual activity. When a woman says, "No" or "Stop" that means STOP. Even if alcohol or drugs are involved, even if she doesn't put up a fight -- even if she's a former girlfriend -- it's rape if she says, "No."
You can't be too careful; date-rape drugs such as GHB, Rohypnol, or Ketamine can render a victim unconscious and with limited memory. Using these drugs is a federal crime that carries a possible 20-year sentence.
A few rules:
- Don't accept open drinks, whether they're alcoholic or not, from someone you don't trust.
- At parties, accept only drinks that come in closed containers. Never leave your drink unattended or turn your back on your table.
- Do not drink from punch bowls, pitchers, or tubs.
Another idea: Carry a DrinkSafe date rape drug test package of drink testing strips or coasters in your purse or pocket.
Danger: Equal-Opportunity STDs
Here's another reality check: sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are incredibly common in the U.S. -- even if your social circle is affluent and educated. The most common STDs are: Chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV/AIDS.
To reduce risk, use a condom every time you have sex. Ask your partner if he or she has ever had an STD -- even if the question feels awkward. Limit your number of sexual partners. Don't have sex with someone who has sores on his or her genitals. Don't receive oral sex from somebody with a cold sore. Ask your partner to be tested. Try alternate forms of sexual intimacy.
Danger: Meeting Online
The anonymity of Internet dating has obvious hazards. If you're looking for love, your contact may be looking for just a quickie. Establish upfront what you are really searching for. Talk on the phone first, then arrange a brief meeting in a public place -- for coffee, lunch, or maybe a drink.
Dating advice: Take your cell phone with you. Let someone know where you're going, who you'll be meeting. Arrange to call your friend at a specific time. Park in a well-lit place. When the first date ends, don't let them walk you to your car. You don't want them to know your license plate.
Schwartz is relationship counselor for Perfectmatch.com. "I've used all the dating services ... I think online dating is great, absolutely the best thing of the 21st century. I've met some very special people."
Beyond people shaving a few years off their age, "I've never met anybody online who lied," she tells WebMD. "As long as they haven't said they're 40 and they're really 60. But I've never met anyone totally different than they present themselves."
But if someone lies about his or her weight -- lies to the extreme, that is -- that's what people really get upset about, "It's very unwise for women to substantially stretch their weight. If you're a size 14 or more, it's not fair. Just say, 'I'm heavy but still think I look great. You be the judge,'" Schwartz says.
Danger: Too Many Disappointments
Be realistic, says Falzone. "Keep the relationship casual in the early stages and let it evolve at its own pace. It takes time to build a quality relationship and the job cannot be rushed."
Maybe it's time to look at your criteria, says Schwartz. "It's not that bad out there. Maybe you're not choosing well. If you're going out just to be nice, that's not smart. The cost is repeated disappointment. It will ultimately undermine your sense of well-being and optimism."
Guys, are you going after women who are wrong for you, too beautiful and full of themselves, or are they too professional and you need someone more nurturing? "You have to figure it out," Schwartz advises. "There are too many good people out there for them all to be wrong for you."
A smart friend can help: "Tell me honestly what you think I'm doing wrong here." Listen, and then take their advice. "Or if you think it's deeper, you're being dysfunctional, maybe you need to get to a therapist," she says.
"I've never had trouble finding a guy," Schwartz tells WebMD. "It's because I really like people. I don't get bummed out if this one is not right for me. I know the kind of spark I want. And I don't think it's a mistake if it doesn't work out."
Last bit of dating advice: Keep a good attitude about your past. When people get divorced, they forget the good stuff about that relationship, and it undermines their confidence, she says. "It's all about attitude. You have to feel proud of yourself, feel good about yourself, happy to meet people. If you think they all have to be the love of your life, you're going to be unhappy."
Originally published Oct. 27, 2003.
Medically updated July 2006.