Going on a first date is exciting. There's a certain romantic mystery about it -- what will this new person be like? Will you hit it off instantly and talk nonstop over dinner until the restaurant is ready to close and the waiter herds you out with an indulgent smile? The truth is, that scenario is more likely to appear in a movie than in real life. Sure, you and your date may find common ground and feel some chemistry, but love at first sight is unlikely -- and could even be dangerous. Getting to know someone takes time and a cool head. If you feel like you're being swept off your feet, take a step back. When hormones speak louder than reason, it's time to be on guard. In a worst-case scenario, you may be under the spell of a charming sociopath, or you might jump into a physical relationship you'll regret later. Don't cheat yourself out of the chance to get to know someone who has long term relationship potential by letting romantic impulses take over.
Here are some things to look for on a first date that can give you a better clue to a person's true nature than alluring cologne or a sultry smile.
May I take your order?
If you're dining out at a restaurant on a first date, look at the way your date treats the wait staff, valet, and others. If he behaves like a gentleman with you but makes a scene when the wrong appetizer is brought out, or complains about everything from the wine to the dessert, that's a danger sign. People whose anger is out of proportion to the "offense" tend to be abusive. And according to psychologist Joseph Carver, PhD, the way your date treats the wait staff is often an indication of how he or she will treat you after you've known each other a while.
Playing the blame game
It's not unusual to talk about past relationships with people you meet on a first date. Sometimes it can tell you what sort of person your date is attracted to, whether he or she is looking for a serious relationship, or has a history of brief serial relationships. But if you notice that your date consistently blames past partners for relationship failures, that should be a red flag. Likewise, if your date blames his or her boss or coworkers for trouble at work, or blames other family members for trouble in the family, this is not someone you want in your life. Psychologist Noelle C. Nelson, quoted in an article on Livestrong.com, says that people who always blame others are likely to switch that blame to you once they get to know you. Save yourself some headache now and make it an early evening.
Stories that tell the tale
The little stories and anecdotes your date tells can reveal a lot. Are her stories full of jealous or catty observations about others? Does he brag about the bar fight he won? If your date's stories leave you feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable, that's a sign this date's not a good match for you, and you're better off moving on.
Too chummy too soon
It's one thing to feel chemistry with someone when you first meet, but be careful -- con artists and sociopaths are skilled at seduction. Be especially wary if someone asks a lot of questions about your past relationships or sexual practices, and if your date wants to get too close or keeps touching you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable, don't hesitate to call a cab and go home. If you're meeting someone for the first time, or you're chatting with someone you met in a bar, never go to the restroom and leave your drink unattended. That is often the way date-rape drugs are delivered.
A few too many
Sometimes nerves can cause a person to have one too many cocktails, and certainly a first date can make a person nervous. Still, if your date drinks way too much on your first date, that's all the more reason you should keep a clear head. He might pressure you to drink with him, and even order a drink for you when you've said no. Don't give in to the pressure. Order a soft drink for yourself or sip a glass of water. And consider this -- a person whose drinking is way out of control may also have a problem controlling anger or jealousy, too. If your date is just a little tipsy and from what you know of him this isn't a pattern, maybe you'll want to consider a second date. But make it with another couple, and don't let anyone who has been drinking drive you home. It's a good idea to always have enough money with you that you can call a cab and go home by yourself. If your date appears to be getting belligerent, ask your waiter or a staff member if there is someplace you can wait until your cab arrives.
If this sounds like being overly cautious, it's not. One study of date rape revealed that 75 percent of men and 55 percent of women had used drugs or alcohol before the assault. Rohypnol, a sleeping aid not legally available in the United States, and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a sedative that's prescribed to treat narcolepsy (a rare sleep disorder), are often used in date rape. Slipped into a date's drink while her attention is diverted, these drugs can cause sedation or even unconsciousness. Once she's awake, a woman is unable to remember what happened while she was passed out.
Dating should be a pleasurable period of getting to know one another -- not a time to fear getting emotionally or physically abused. But particularly among young people, dating violence is an unfortunate reality. According to a national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 10 teens were hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the year preceding the survey. At this age, kids are still learning about interpersonal relationships, and if they accept that violence is part of the package, it can influence their adult relationships as well. Additionally, teen victims of dating violence are more likely to do poorly in school, engage in binge drinking, get into fights, and even attempt suicide.
The danger of dating violence doesn't stop with teens. According to the CDC, more than half of the female university students surveyed at a large urban university had experienced some degree of sexual assault, and 12 percent of those assaults occurred on casual dates.
Older people are not immune, either. People who begin dating again in midlife often find that the dating landscape has changed considerably since they were younger. There's more reason to be cautious, no matter what your age. According to a source at the AARP, HIV and AIDS are increasing in people over age 50. Practicing safe sex is critical for all ages.
With all this to keep in mind, how can you relax and enjoy a first date? It's not so hard if you just follow a few basic guidelines.
Choose a safe, public place for a first date, such as a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a museum. Drive yourself there so you can leave when you want.
Don't let your date rush you into having sex. This holds true regardless of whether you're dating someone of the opposite sex or the same sex -- don't be lulled by a false sense of security into thinking that a same-sex partner will have the same strength as you do and so wouldn't be able to overpower you.
Accept drinks only from the waiter or bartender.
Think about your exit strategy ahead of time. Let your friends know where you are, and ask one of them to be available to take a call from you while you're on the date. Carry cab fare, or make sure you can get to your car or public transportation easily.
If you're an older person returning to the dating world, watch out for anyone who asks about your finances or wants to involve you in investment strategies. Widows whose husbands handled the finances are particularly vulnerable. Consult a financial services professional for advice, never give someone you are dating information about your bank account or investments. In 1999, a 61-year-old man was sentenced for the third time for cheating women out of their money. He had been married 11 times and had posed as a fireman, a race car driver, a contractor, and a pilot. Con artists like these can often be extremely charming.
Always trust your instincts. If something feels a little off to you, steer clear, or even do a background check on the person. Often you can do this yourself for a small fee online. Or hire a private investigator -- it could be money well spent.
Practicing a little caution won't guarantee that your first date won't be a dud -- but it can help prevent it from being dangerous.
Midlife Dating Dangers: Four Things to Protect. ThirdAge.
Teen Dating Violence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 7, 2010.
Warning Signs of Dangerous Relationships. Noelle C. Nelson, PhD.
Warning Signs That You're Dating a Loser. Joseph M. Carver, PhD.
Dating Violence. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Date Rape Drug (Rohypnol). National Women's Health Information Center. HHS Office on Women's Health.
Talking About Dating Violence. Office of the Attorney General, Washington, D.C.
Sexual Assault/Rape: Alcohol and Other Drugs. UC Berkeley. 2003.
National Women's Health Information Center. Date Rape Drugs. December 2008.