Ah, the first few weeks of dating. So exciting, but so nerve-wracking. The major question a lot of us find ourselves asking during this delicate time: How enthusiastic should I be this early on?
If you’ve struggled to find a happy medium when navigating a new relationship’s early days, you’re far from alone. Mixed messaging about what you “should” and “shouldn’t” do when you’re first dating someone can feel paralyzing.
“A lot of people struggle with the ambiguous emotional stages of early dating, worried if they come on too strong they’ll scare someone away,” said Samantha Burns, licensed counselor and relationship coach and author of “Breaking Up and Bouncing Back: Moving on to Create the Love Life You Deserve.”
“The problem with playing it cool is that you’re not giving enough ‘green light’ signals that clearly show you’re interested in the person you’re dating. They may assume based upon your apathetic behaviors that you’re just not that into them, and the relationship never develops.”
“Whether or not you’re over-eager or you’re wanting to find a connection or a relationship, it’s something every dater… can relate to,” she said. “I’ve experienced it from both ends of the spectrum—trying to be that cool girl, detached, playing the game, and from the perspective of being a dating coach, where I advise against the game-playing and the manipulative stuff.
“It always felt inauthentic and just exhausting and you don’t really know why you’re doing it. … When it gets too manipulative and too game-playing-y, it becomes about manipulation and not about whether there’s a connection.”
But by showing up as your authentic self, you can attract people who like you for you—no “playing it cool” necessary.
“There’s so much game-playing and dating ‘rules’ that are misleading and create dysfunctional dating dynamics,” Burns said. “The only rule you need to follow is to show up vulnerably and authentically, which is the only way to create true connection and intimacy.”
If every new romantic partner sweeps you off your feet, you’ve probably been advised to calm down and take it slow. But “there’s no magic equation here,” Steinberg said.
“This notion that (enthusiastic people) have to be so detached, I think that it sort of takes away from something that’s really important in creating emotional bonds between people, which is vulnerability,” she said.
Being vulnerable by “saying you like someone, or that you had a really great time” allows you to “bond and connect and fall for each other,” Steinberg said. It’s the only way to move a relationship forward and beyond the superficial. If you’re willing to be enthusiastic and vulnerable, you’re pointed in the right direction to make a real connection with someone.
Vulnerability is scary for a lot of people because it comes with a downside. But even the downside has an upside.
“Dating with vulnerability of course means there’s the potential for rejection and to be let down,” Burns said. “But the mental reframe when you’re hurt or doubting yourself is that this is actually a positive outcome because it means you’re not wasting time on someone who doesn’t want to be with you, and you get to focus your attention only on those who see and value all of your worth.”
Vulnerability and authenticity go hand in hand. Dating authentically “means not being a chameleon and adapting to whoever you think the person you’re dating wants you to be, but showing up as the real you,” Burns said.
It’s best to let your true qualities shine. The right person will be drawn to them.
“If they don’t like who you are, then they aren’t the right match for you, it’s as simple as that. If they adore this genuine version of you, this authenticity will allow you to create a connection with no string attached.”
For a relationship to succeed, both people need to be equally excited about each other, Steinberg said. But if it feels unequal at first, don’t lose hope. It can take a little bit of time for the relationship to get calibrated.
“I’ve seen people get über excited about somebody right off the bat,” Steinberg said. “It’s okay to be excited about that, you made a connection and that in itself is something to celebrate … But I think you probably can start to feel really excited about somebody when you see consistency over a period of time—(if they’re) consistently asking you out and communicating with you, paying attention to you and listening to you.”
By date five, you can usually recognize if it’s a good match worth your time and energy, both experts said.
Sometimes “one person starts out a little unsure where the other person knows sooner,” Steinberg said. “By the fourth, fifth date… maybe the one who was less enthusiastic is starting to feel more of a connection and both people are enthusiastic about each other. …
“You never know what might turn on, you never know what might be sparked.”
Being your authentic, enthusiastic self is great. But you should pay attention to patterns that emerge in your dating life. Is your eagerness consistently pushing people away?
“When you desperately want to be loved, I see people make the mistake of being overly eager or worried about the status of the relationship and where it’s going,” Burns said. “They then come off as needy or insecure, and the people they tend to be attracted to can come off as distant and noncommittal. This push and pull dynamic is based on something called your attachment style, which affects your desire for and comfort with closeness and intimacy.”
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It just means you need to do some self-evaluation.
“If you kind of feel like you’re in that desperate (space),… examine what’s beneath that,” Steinberg said. “Once you unpack that a bit, you might be able to sit back a little bit and give the person a little space.”
If you want to slow yourself down, dating multiple people at once can “(allow) you to get a good sense of all the types of people out there, and (prevent) you from putting all of your eggs in one basket and rushing the vetting process,” Burns said.
“In the early stages of dating, you want to maintain your sense of identity and independence, which means you’re not ditching your friends for a date or waiting anxiously by the phone for someone to call and ask you out,” she said. “You make plans in advance for a date, you show up emotionally available and curious about the person sitting across from you, you communicate about your feelings as they develop, but you don’t play games or ghost.”