I was never a big dater. Historically, I have had one of two extreme reactions when encountering someone with the potential of a romantic connection- crush and obsess or run the other way. (Or, in some instances, crush and obsess, then run the other way.)
As I got older, I kept hoping I would become someone who “dates”, but it never really happened. Even in the early stages of my relationship with my now-husband, we didn’t stay in the dating phase very long.
It’s funny to say that I didn’t really learn how to date until a few months ago when I began dating my daughters.
When we adopted our son three years ago, I got to do what I am good at. I got to fall hard and fast for my son. I crushed majorly for this boy, and everything moved so quickly, which made it even more intensified. With my girls, it hasn’t looked the same. For dozens of reasons, it has had to be gradual, careful, and slow. I knew that if I came across too strong, I would freak them out or shut them down. But I didn’t want to be stand-offish or seem disinterested either. “Ahh! How do I do this?!” I realized early on that I needed to learn how to date my daughters.
I worked hard at it and, after 32 years, I finally figured out a few things about dating. So in the spirit of generosity, I will share my findings with you.
- Be attentive, but don’t smother or overwhelm. When we first met the girls at a park, I wanted to run over and begin connecting immediately. But that was about me, not them. So I tried stepping back, but still engaging. I let them come to me, and when they came, I was ready and eager to receive them. Luckily, they didn’t have phones or I am sure I would have been blowing them up. I couldn’t see them every day, so I couldn’t really smother. It forced me to slow down, which also made me more attentive and purposeful.
- Make appropriate amounts of eye contact, but don’t stare. This was hard because, of course, I was mesmerized by their sweet little faces, and I wanted to remember every detail about them. But I knew that if I stared at them, it would be weird. So no staring. (Or at least wait until they are asleep.) When they did engage me, I looked right into their eyes so they could see they had my full attention- that there was nothing more important to me in that moment.
- Keep things light and fun. DON’T GET TOO SERIOUS TOO FAST. When dating, if things get too intense too quickly, the tone is set. In my counseling office, I have seen this lead to an unrealistic expectation of relating that often results in conflict and tension. When it comes to kids, it is important for adults to remember that trust and connection are established initially through positive, warm interactions, not big DTR’s the first time you meet.
- Physical intimacy should not be forced and it should occur in stages. I am affectionate. I love to hug, and it is not uncommon for me to want to put my hand on a shoulder during an informal conversation. But there is a natural progression to physical intimacy that is important to honor. It’s not just about me, so forcing my way of physically relating onto others (especially children with trauma) is not just inappropriate; it could be harmful. Physical boundaries may be something people need help with if there is a history of inappropriate relating (both for kids and for grown ups), so asking permission is healing and empowering. Asking “Would you like to high five or hug goodbye?” reminds the other person that you value their boundaries and aren’t trying to take power from them.
- Saying “I love you” too soon may seem desperate or insincere. As I have stated, I fall fast. I crush hard. I love easily. But I had to find other ways of telling my daughters how much I care so that when I said “I love you”, they would not only believe it; they would rest in it. I wanted to be able to back up my words with tangible examples of my love and commitment to them, and that takes time and work. My husband and I decided not to say those words for a while when we got together because we had said them too quickly in the past. We had to find other ways of communicating how invested and connected we felt. And when we finally said it, we knew we meant it.
- Doing fun and exciting activities too often during the early stages sets an unrealistic precedent for the future. If your first date is a flight to Mexico on a jet, it doesn’t bode well for your bank account or your relationship. For my first date with Dave, we went to Moe’s. It could only go up from there. We made a decision not to woo our daughters with presents and extravagant outings because we weren’t trying to impress them. This wasn’t a fling. We were in it for the long haul, so going to parks and hanging out at our house felt like real life. And that’s what we wanted to build with them- a life.
- Don’t shut out your friends and family when you start a new relationship. (or two) It’s easy to isolate when you are dating. It is important to pour into new relationships, but over time it can become secluding and alienating. For us, exclusive bonding was and still is crucial. We need to solidify our roles in our children’s lives, and that takes priority over incorporating other new dynamics into the system right away. But because of our deep desire to stay connected to our loved ones and invite them into this process with us, we have had to find other ways to include them- sending updates, texting pictures, asking for prayer, looking at family photos, Facetiming, and casual group activities without too much pressure or expectation. We don’t want to do this alone. And we want to model community to our girls.
- Past relationships need to be honored and not minimized. When starting a new relationship, we don’t usually want to dwell on past loves, but if we don’t at least acknowledge them, the relationship will suffer. Making it clear from the beginning that there is room in the relationship for the past creates an environment that is open and promotes healthy relating in the future. My children have all had lives that precede me. So has my husband. This in no way minimizes my relationship with them, and talking about the past when it comes up teaches them that it is not “off-limits” and it doesn’t threaten what we have. It makes it stronger and more authentic.
My season of dating my daughters is coming to a close soon. As fun as dating is, I look forward to the relief and comfort of making a symbolic and formal commitment to them. I remember so vividly a conversation Dave and I had one night before we got engaged. I felt angsty and unsatisfied about this “in-between” stage of our relationship, and he looked me right in the eyes and said, “This stage won’t last forever.” I felt such relief and peace in that moment. I hope my daughters feel that soon, too. In the meantime, I will enjoy this stage for what it is. And I will keep falling more and more in love with my daughters.