There are certain topics that the media, movies, friends, and society have trained us to never, under any circumstance, bring up on a date—at least an early one. Marriage, desire for kids, religion, politics, and money are all off-limits. While playing it cool can be relatively easy your goal is a casual arrangement, what if you’re looking for something specific—like, say you’re a 40-year-old woman who really wants to have kids with a partner or you’re not interested in dating someone with religious beliefs different than your own? In that case, biting your tongue until several dates have passed and it’s socially acceptable to broach what’s been on your mind since day one can be, well, torturous. So what if you just…didn’t stay mum?
While the early dates are about discovering whether there’s a mutual attraction and potential to have fun with the other person, feeling unable to express what’s on your mind can lead underlying anxiety to develop, says clinical psychologist and relationship expert Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD—who, with her husband John Gottman, PhD, wrote Eight Dates, a guide to improved communication within a relationship.
So, how do you find your answers in a way that won’t totally freak out your date? Below, Dr. Gottman, Dr. Schwartz Gottman, and clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, PsyD. all give their best tips.
Know your nonnegotiables
If you’re dating with the intention of starting a serious relationship, Dr. Irwin says it’s important to figure out what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on in advance. For instance, imagine you’re a dog lover, through and through. “Ending up with someone who doesn’t like animals would be a big problem down the road,” she says. “Or maybe someone would never be able to date someone who voted for Trump. For someone else, that might not be a big deal. It’s very individualized.”
That’s why Dr. Gottman says it’s important to talk about issues you know are important to you. But…how do you bring them up?
Starting the conversation
Unfortunately, there’s no widely accepted timeline or method for going about this: Dr. Schwartz Gottman maintains that touchy topics aren’t first- or second-date material—where the focus should be on having fun and seeing what you have in common—but are rather fifth-date territory. Dr. Irwin, on the other hand, says things aren’t so black and white. “It’s different for everyone,” she says. “If someone has a very direct personality and doesn’t want to waste their time, then the first date actually might be the time to do it.”
Most of the time, she says, you’ll sense a natural window of opportunity to ask. But if you do need to force it, be direct and respectful. “You could say something like, ‘I know this isn’t typical first-date conversation, but here’s the deal: This is what I want and what I’m looking for. I’d like to know what you’re looking for, so we can respect each other’s time.'”
“The goal is to open the heart, not be confrontational.” — Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
The key to asking deep questions is to allow for open answers that give way to a deeper, more expansive discussion, instead of pointed questions, Dr. Schwartz Gottman says. “If you’re talking about money, for example, there’s a difference between asking what kind of budget they keep and asking what money means to them. The goal is to open the heart, not be confrontational.”
If being direct isn’t your style, you can look for clues about a potential partner without having to verbalize them. “Maybe you just watched a movie about a big family and he says, ‘Man, having a big family like that would drive me nuts!’ If you know you want to have a lot of kids, that’s something to pay attention to,'” Dr. Irwin says. Another clue? The way he talks about his friends’ lives. How do they live? Does he want what they have or something different?
How to keep the convo from taking an awkward turn
If you ask what’s on your mind, and your date answers with something totally in line with what you want to hear, great: Consider yourselves a human version of the emoji with heart eyes. That said, Dr. Schwartz Gottman warns that if your date’s answers are a little too perfect, it may also be a red flag. They may just be telling you what you want to hear and not giving you any authentic answers. Keep your BS detector on.
But sometimes, you’ll get response that isn’t even close to what you want to hear. “If you ask a loaded question, you have to be prepared for a loaded answer,” Dr. Irwin says. If this happens, stick with plan A of being direct and respectful. “You can say something like, ‘Thank you for telling me that. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.'” Then, move on to something lighter.
The bottom line? If something’s important to you, you should be empowered to ask it. Just make sure to do so with kindness and respect. That way, even if you don’t turn out to be a perfect match, the date won’t have to end on a sour note.
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