I’ve been feeling a little burnt out on dating apps, so I’ve started dating within my IRL communities. Recently, I went out with some girls from my improv group, and have encountered a new, more modern problem: Everyone is so used to ghosting their app matches that no one knows how to break up in person!
These girls never come out and say, “We’re better off as friends.” Instead, they give me mixed signals or just cold-shoulder me. The result is that we end up in this ambiguous place that strains the dynamic of the whole group. That makes me feel self-conscious — I feel like everyone knows what happened, and I don’t want to get pegged as a serial dater.
Is there a way I can enjoy my IRL communities while exploring romantic connections? Is there any way we can stay friends? Should I start having girls sign a contract that if the dates go badly, we’ll both Eternal Sunshine them from our brains?
Dear Serially Confused,
You call this a modern problem, but I think what you’re dealing with is sort of premodern. Back when we all lived in little villages or whatever, everyone knew who everyone else was dating, and you couldn’t just avoid your ex because she was your neighbor or the blacksmith’s daughter. You had to just suck it up and figure out how to behave.
You say that “no one knows how to break up” and that your dates aren’t up front about their feelings, but I think the real issue is that you don’t know how to act around people you’ve had ambiguously romantic interactions with. Maybe you’re out of practice: After so many years of the dating apps, we’re all pretty used to ghosting and receding back into our respective lives, maybe throwing each other an Instagram like every now and then. But when these behaviors bleed into real life, they can cause trouble, and if you can’t stand the ambiguity, you’ll have to take a more active role in addressing it. Luckily, there’s a straightforward way to do that: communication.
I know it may seem like common sense, but I think we could all benefit from a refresher after a decade on the apps and a couple of pandemic years that made us all sort of socially awkward. So here’s what I would do: If there’s someone you’re feeling weird around, text them and see if they’re open to speaking. Once you’re face-to-face, communicate directly about how you feel. Stacy Hubbard, a therapist and relationship expert, suggests starting the conversation by sharing your feelings, then asking open-ended questions like “What was your expectation of our relationship?” or “How do you feel about what happened between us?” Give her a chance to speak, and make sure to listen without getting defensive. Once everything is out in the open, it’ll be easier to figure out how to move forward.
Say you talk it out and find you’re not on the same page. Maybe you want a relationship and she doesn’t — maybe it’s the other way around! Either way, you might decide to stop hooking up (if you haven’t already). It’ll be awkward at first, but people have survived worse, and they have some advice for you. Take Cami, who hooked up with a friend who was about to become her roommate. The friend started dating someone else shortly after they moved in together, and Cami had no idea how to act.
Like you, she couldn’t just ghost, but that ended up working out for her. Since they lived together, they were “forced to talk about practical matters and just hang out and shoot the shit,” she says. Of their transition back to friendship, Cami explains, “It was sort of ‘fake it till you make it.’” It won’t be easy to share a space with these girls, but you could try Cami’s approach: Just act normal until you feel normal, and maybe everyone else will follow suit.
Of course, reverting back to friendship after romance isn’t always possible, especially if stronger feelings have taken hold. Take Maria, who joined a salsa-dancing group a couple of years ago and has since been intimate with some of her fellow dancers. “For the most part, I’ve stayed friends with everyone except one guy that I did try to date seriously,” she says. After their breakup, she “would be intentionally friendly toward him in class and at hangouts.” Eventually, that really deliberate courtesy paid off, and while they aren’t close, it was better than shunning him in front of the group and making everyone feel weird. Now they can “still share the space in a friendly way,” she says, and both of them still enjoy their salsa classes.
As for your feelings of embarrassment around other members of the group, know this: People just aren’t as invested in your romantic life as you think they are. Maria was also wary of the other dancers judging her, but she quickly turned a corner. “I realized that a lot of people didn’t actually care as much as I thought,” she says. “Other people were also using the group to date and hook up.” In short, Serially Confused, you’re only human, and you’re doing something really normal by pursuing connections with the people around you. Give yourself a break!
So how should you move forward? Here’s what I advise: In the future, instead of having to do damage control post-hook-up, you should tell your next crush what you’re looking for before you get intimate. After sharing your intentions, Hubbard recommends saying something like “If it turns out that it doesn’t work for either of us, let’s just be honest. No hard feelings.” It’s not exactly Eternal Sunshine–ing it from your brains, but it’s as close as you can get without some otherworldly intervention.
At the end of the day, dating IRL is not without its own challenges — meeting people by joining clubs is great, but don’t join something, clock all the people you think are attractive, and ask them out. You have apps for that. Joining a club means you’ll get to know a lot of people over time. The same is true of school or work. Personally, I think a potential romantic connection could be worth the risk of some temporary bad vibes. Maybe you feel different, in which case you can just enjoy your improv group without entertaining the possibility of falling in love. The choice is yours.