“What do you believe in?”
A loaded question to receive over text at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. I told him as much, but I also appreciated the candor.
Conventional wisdom says it’s taboo to bring up anything that’s not easy, breezy, and beautiful on the first date, much less before the first date, as in this case. But when it comes down to it, most of us aren’t dating to actively waste time. Why tiptoe around what matters to you?
Everyone has read some version of “Top 5 Things to Avoid Discussing on The First Date,” spanning hot-button topics such as exes, money, politics, religion, and marriage. Watch out, these articles warn: bringing up these topics will kill the vibe; you’ll scare them off; it’s all too heavy. First dates should be about having fun, right?
But for many of us, these topics are vital to our self-concept and our direction in life, making it counterproductive to hide those things from a potential partner. If something is a deal-breaker (wanting kids, vaccination, extreme aversion to dogs), it’s likely worth laying your cards on the table upfront.
Cutting to the Core
Traditionally taboo first-date topics generally boil down to fundamental principles and basic core values, such as: whether you’re dating to find a life partner, what you believe about the world and its inhabitants, how you define success, and so on.
Do these seem too heavy? Good! Light, airy, insubstantial small talk does nothing for developing connections (though it’s a relatively safe way to measure someone’s general personality and your initial rapport together). Cutting through the typical first-date small talk can be a breath of fresh air.
In fact, Duke University professor and behavioral economist Dan Ariely recommends it. Ariely led an experiment in which online daters could conduct conversations using only a set of pre-determined questions designed to be revealing and possibly provocative (such as, “How do you feel about abortion?” or “What are your innermost fears?”). Participants reported livelier conversations and more satisfaction with their interactions.
“By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more,” wrote Ariely in his debrief.
I spent a few months trading messages with someone equally passionate and opinionated about politics as I am, and we also shared some similar views on religion—both things that are extremely important to me. Though we didn’t correspond often, we both admitted to feeling like we knew the other person on a much deeper level than our relatively limited interaction could have allowed. There was an undeniable connection.
When we finally got coffee, we talked about family and work and other niceties. But for us, discussing politics was just as much of a given as the former two. The conversation also delved into past relationships and sexuality, which took me by surprise. (If I’m being honest, I wasn’t exactly prepared to discuss it.) In the end, I was glad to have everything out there. All things considered, it was evident that we’re truly better off as friends, and I’m thankful that we both realized that fact quickly.
While exploring potential relationships, each person needs to know themselves well enough to be honest and open about their wants and needs. It’s essential to have a strong sense of your values, and to be comfortable enough with your authentic self to reveal your authentic self. Even though it can be uncomfortable—and sometimes disappointing—to be so honest with a potential partner, it can also be liberating and self-affirming.
The “C” Word: To Discuss or Not to Discuss?
Another topic that can be tricky to broach in the early stages of a connection is readiness for commitment. While many dating apps ask users to state what they’re looking for—a relationship, casual dates, friends-only—it can still be daunting to share with someone new that you’re looking for something serious.
Jen, one of our Keepler team members, knows this well. When she was single, she immediately fell head over heels for Craig at a karaoke gathering. Flirty, fun, and adventurous, he was exactly her type. The only problem? He didn’t want a girlfriend, and he made that clear right away on their first date. Although that didn’t gel so well with Jen’s search for a husband, she decided to keep dating him anyway to see where things went—mostly because she liked him so much.
Jen and Craig spent the next four months talking and texting daily. They went out several times a week to the movies, Six Flags, and parties; he even accompanied her on a birthday weekend to Catalina Island with a group of close friends. From Jen’s perspective, it seemed unlikely that he would be dating anyone else, simply based on the amount of time they were spending together and how close they’d grown.
But when Jen left town to lead a writing workshop in Chicago, she had barely been gone a few days before she heard that Craig had kissed a friend of a friend. Jen was devastated, but when she confronted Craig about it, he was baffled, as they had never been exclusive in his eyes.
“That situation brings to mind the Maya Angelou quote: ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,’” says Jen. “Looking back, I don’t fault Craig at all even though his actions were deeply hurtful to me at the time. Had I been more upfront about my intentions from the beginning, we probably could have become great friends rather than spinning our wheels in a relationship that was doomed to fail.”
So how can we summon the confidence to broach “serious” topics from the start? Think about the long game. We tend to avoid talking about the principles and values close to our hearts early on because we’re worried about how the other person might view these deep-rooted beliefs. The prospect of getting rejected for your worldview or the way you define yourself feels like an awfully deep cut—but think about how much deeper that cut would be if it came from someone you had begun to build something with (as in Jen’s case).
Temporarily compromising on or ignoring things that are ultimately irreconcilable only leads to disappointment. Recognizing when you’re not compatible with someone early on can save you a lot of heartache in the long term.