How to Not Hate Dating

Take it easy, be happy alone.

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Lee Celano / Reuters

If I've learned anything over the past two years of writing about dating, it's this: The secret to a happy dating life is to not worry too much about dating. A totally frustrating and difficult-to-follow edict, yes, but also the only thing that I can say with complete certainty is true for all women.

If you look at people who are happy with their dating lives, whether they are single or in a relationship, there is one trait they all have in common: a certain lightness in their approach to their romantic lives. These people, quite simply, don't seem to sweat it so much. They don't let their relationship status define them. They don't compare their dating lives to those of other people. They don't freak out about being single; they don't worry if a date goes poorly, if a flirtation turns sour.

Perhaps more important, people with happy dating lives aren't overly concerned about how their own actions will be perceived by potential mates: They text when they feel like texting, they have sex when they feel like having sex, they break up when something isn't working. Which is not to say that their lives are devoid of the heartbreak and frustrations normally associated with matters of the heart--of course not. But in general, they take things in stride. Dating is a source of amusement and romance, not of frustration and stress.

Unfortunately, this ineffable quality, this "lightness," is difficult to conjure or to fake. If dating is something that's stressful to you, and if you're frustrated with your current romantic status, it's hard to just decide to not worry about it so much. "It will happen when you least expect it" is perhaps the most infuriating thing a single woman who is tired of being single can hear, because, at that point, you're never not expecting it. You walk into a party and you hope for it; you scan the room looking for it; say you start talking to a guy and, despite all logic or attempts at restraint, you find yourself thinking, Is this it? Is it him? Is this finally it? When you want something badly, it's hard not to take it seriously.

But what the phrase "It will happen when you least expect it" really means is, "It will happen when you just stop worrying about it." It will happen when you let your guard down for a second, when you're thinking about something else, when for a moment all the stress and frustration and heaviness part like clouds, and some guy gets a glimpse of the real you that's been hiding underneath. I promise that's the corniest thing you'll read in this book, but it's true, it's true, it's true. It might not be immediate, but once you stop stressing, at some point it will happen.

It's the exact same reason that sometimes "breaking the seal" after a dry spell will usher in a glorious era of promiscuity, and why sometimes you start getting hit on by everyone the second you get into a relationship. In college, I noticed I had an excellent track record of getting asked out at parties-- but it only happened when I had a crush on someone else. I'd be so busy scanning the room for the object of my affection and concentrating my (probably intense, probably creepy) thoughts on him that I could be completely light and relaxed and natural with whatever guy I was engaged in conversation with. When, at the end of the night, he'd ask for my number, I was always delightedly caught off-guard. "Was that romantic? But I wasn't even thinking about it! I wasn't even worrying about what was coming out of my mouth, and whether it was attractive or funny or flirty!" But that's what people are attracted to: someone who's confident and relaxed.

On dating profiles at How About We, where I work, we ask people to finish the sentence "I want to be with someone who wants to be ____." The most common answer is overwhelmingly: happy. People want to be with people who are happy. It's what they're looking for when they meet people at a party or on a first date, even more than good looks or funny jokes or a smooth, alluring flirtation. People want to be with someone happy, because if you're with someone happy, then maybe you can be happy, too.

You have to figure out a way to be happy without a partner, without a date, without sex, without a response to that text or a "like" on a Facebook picture or a flirty exchange on GChat. Because the sooner you lower the stakes on all that, the easier it will be for you to attain. I promise. A guy who's moping around, who's given up dating as "hopeless," who thinks all the girls in his city "suck" or are "taken already," is simply going to have a much, much harder time finding someone. No one wants to be with that guy.

So how do you practice "lightness" when you're genuinely fed up with dating, when you're seriously afraid you might never meet someone, when you've tried everything and you're sincerely doubtful that a hippy-dippy state of being is going to dramatically change your dating life?

It can be a slow process, but you have to try to get to the point where you are okay just being yourself, no matter how desperately you really do want a relationship. It might be hard work. It might take a long time. It might mean investing in your friends, in your hobbies, in whatever it is you do that makes you happy and relaxed. But not only will dating be easier when you strip away some of your stress and anxiety, but in the process, you yourself will become even more of a person that other people want to be around -- maybe even date.

This is an excerpt from Modern Dating: A Field Guide.