Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How the Heck are We Supposed to Find Romance in this Minefield?

My Partner and I split the bill on our first date. It was at the kind of restaurant where you pay at the counter, so there was no awkward fumbling of the wallets while sitting across from each other, but still. He made it clear that he had no intention of paying for me, and I made it clear that I had no intention of letting him.


That first date really set the tone for our relationship. Since that moment, I have known that every time he picks up a bill, surprises me with flowers, or even cleans the bathroom, it is because he very specifically and purposefully thought about me and wanted to do something special. I also know that I don't owe him anything* – not then, not now, not ever.

I think this is really important – it's so easy to walk away from a first date where one person  (a guy, in this scenario) picks up the tab and you feel like you owe him something. It could be anything from a second date to a kiss to a coffee after dinner, but it's still something you owe the other person. I can't tell you how many times I have ended up doing something stupid because of some unfounded sense of "fairness" to a person who bought me a meal.

The person who pays has perceived power. This is a fact, whether we call it gallantry or not. How can you possibly begin a relationship between equals when the power balance is tipped before the end of your first date? No really – I am asking! I am guessing the answer has something to do with trust and/or shameless gold-digging, but I am talking about a date that will hopefully lead to a relationship. If a free meal is your objective – go forth and prosper, this advice will not help you.

Since we don't live in communist China, it's unlikely that your income (and/or debt) will be an exact match to your date's. Factors like gender and age can widen the gap even further. I'm not suggesting that you foray into credit card debit to pay for your lobster  and filet dinner at the country club, or that you limit potential dates to people who are your financial twin. I am suggesting the following:

  • For first dates, stick to more casual outings – like lunch at a place where you pay at the counter, or an afternoon picnic where you prepare the meal beforehand. This will not only keep the bill reasonable, but you will both be more comfortable in a place that isn't screaming "high expectations!!!!" at you from the moment the escargot show up. Pull out that show stopping dinner later on when you know it's worth the investment (and you know each other well enough to laugh together when you accidentally shoot a snail at someone across the room).

  • Plan to pay for your portion on a first date. If you are facing a drastic income gap and your date has insisted on a place you can't exactly afford, offer to pay the tip, or for the drinks. I promise – you will absolutely feel more comfortable if you do this, and it shows your date that you are taking them seriously.

  • If you do find yourself on a second, third or tenth date with someone who makes a lot more than you and wants to pay for nicer places, think about how it makes you feel. Then talk to them about it. Compromise is the key to success in any relationship, including your relationship with your bank account. Maybe you skip fancy desserts and you treat Richy Rich to froyo and a walk after nice dinners.

The bottom line is that money plays a huge role in our relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Finding romance (read: a relationship that actually works in real life) is tricky enough, so let's get smarter about defining power and money dynamics in our relationships early and often.

You stay classy,
Double E

*Except maybe to love him – which I promised to do of my own free will without any prompting with gifts.

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