College life doesn’t always prepare us for post-grad relationships. When you're in school, you more often than not end up hooking up with one of your pals, and either it turns into something serious or you enter a friends-with-benefits situation.
Then, suddenly, you’re thrust into the “real world” and expected to initiate romantic involvement by sitting across from a total stranger sipping merlot and discussing your taste in music. You don’t have any friends in common, and you actually have to make plans to see each other again because you won’t bump into him or her in class the next morning.
Post-college courtship can be weird — but it's not all bad (I promise). Follow these 21 guidelines to master the D word and make the most of your real-world romantic life.
1. Pursue activities you enjoy
Maybe you love 19th-century literature, or maybe you’re psyched to start rock climbing. Whatever your passion, turn it into a hobby and find people with similar interests. You’ll up your chances of meeting a partner you actually get along with because you’ll already have something in common.
That does not mean you should show up at book club assuming you’re going to meet your soul mate. “Focus on making friends, not on finding romance,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (a.k.a "Dr. Romance"), psychotherapist and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again . “If you make the friends, and there are enough people of the other gender, the dating will happen.”
2. “Cultural” events can turn into meat markets
You know how I just said you should pursue enjoyable hobbies as a way to meet potential mates? Do it, but know that lots of other people are probably doing the same thing. This Men’s Health article tells guys to join volunteer organizations to meet women; this Ladies Home Journal piece tells women to find men at blood drives. (Personally, I think dating is painful enough without having to stick a needle in your arm, but who am I to judge?) So don’t be surprised if you get hit on multiple times while you’re trying to do a good deed by cleaning up your local park.
3. Online dating isn’t for desperate losers
Everyone knows someone who met her husband/wife/life partner/cat-sitter on the Internet. Whereas online dating was once a somewhat laughable pursuit that folks were a little sheepish about, today more than 20 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have tried it, and that number is only growing.
Sure, it might feel strange to browse photos of eligible people like they’re boxes of cereal at the supermarket. But online dating is a way to simultaneously expand your options beyond friends of friends and narrow them down to people with specific interests, personality traits, or demographic characteristics you're looking for. Worst-case scenario, you’ll come out of it with some crowd-pleasing horror stories.
4. You can date more than one person at a time
In college, it’s kind of tricky to date or hook up with multiple people at one time — odds are pretty high you’ll run into one of your flames while making out with another one at a party. But, after graduation, the rules change. As long as you haven’t agreed to see anyone exclusively, it’s totally OK to date around (this is apparently known as “multi-dating”). Still, as sex therapist Ian Kerner tells Men’s Fitness readers, you should assume that your date is doing the same thing to you.
5. Get comfortable being alone before you start dating
One of the worst reasons to start a relationship is because you’re afraid of ending up alone. In fact, if the thought of flying solo frightens you, no partner is going to be able to fulfill you emotionally. According to psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author Julie Orlov, M.A.O.L., M.S.W, if you’re uncomfortable being by yourself when you aren’t dating anyone, you’re still going to feel alone when you have a partner. Before you go frantically searching for a boyfriend or girlfriend, Orlov says you should “know that you can take care of yourself emotionally [and] financially.”
6. Don’t ditch your life for anyone
Dating like a grown-up means knowing how to set boundaries between you and the people you’re seeing. As a single college graduate, you probably already have a well-rounded life — a job you love (or at least need), a circle of close friends, and maybe an exercise routine that keeps you healthy. If you start noticing that you’re frequently ditching friends, falling behind at the office, or skipping workouts to make time for dating, something’s wrong. Consider taking a “dating hiatus” or at least scaling back the romantic activity and focusing on you for a while.
7. You probably won’t get married at the same age as your mom did
So you’ve hit the number at which your mom got married and your grandma already had two kids. Don’t freak. Ladies (and gents) are getting married later and later, for a variety of reasons. Right now the average age of first marriage for women is about 27, but if you’re still single in your late 20s, that’s OK, too. There’s no need to make every day a speed-dating adventure until you find the one — as mentioned above, the key is to balance your romantic pursuits with the rest of your (awesome) life.
8. Things are still complicated
Dating in college is complex (when it happens at all). Are you just hooking up and free to get with other people? Are you hooking up exclusively, but still not in a serious relationship? Was it just a one-time thing? If you think that graduating from college is going to make defining your relationships easier, think again. Suddenly there are new issues to complicate things, like what it really means to move in with someone you’re getting sort-of-serious with and disagreements over wedding planning. Just because we’re a little older now doesn’t mean we aren’t people anymore, with all those pesky feelings and disappointments that being human entails.
9. Birth control is worth the price
Here’s a stat that might surprise you: Unmarried people in their 20s are less likely to use condoms than adolescents are. They’re also at greater risk for exposure to sexually transmitted infections, which makes sense in light of the condom use stat. Avoid making a common mistake and pick up a pack of Trojans (or whatever your contraception of choice) on your next trip to the drugstore or visit to the doctor. Condoms may no longer be cheap or free at the campus health center, but birth control isn’t an area to scrimp and save. Whatever the price, it’s a lot lower than the cost of a baby or treatment for an STI.
10. Meeting people at bars probably won’t lead to a relationship
After college, it might seem like letting someone buy you a drink and trying to chat over blasting music is the only way to find potential dates. And while this endeavor can be a lot of fun and a great tool to blow off the stress of the work week, research suggests these meet-ups rarely lead to anything serious. According to one survey, only nine percent of women and two percent of men say they’ve started a relationship at a bar or club. To avoid ending up disappointed after a night at da club, be honest with yourself at the outset about what you’re likely to get out of the evening.
11. It’s (sort of) OK to Google someone before a date
It’s scary to date someone with whom you don’t have any friends in common. What if he’s a serial killer?! That’s why it can be tempting to type your date’s name into the search bar and see what comes up — and why nearly half of women say they do it. But you shouldn’t necessarily rule someone out based on the results of your Google stalking.
As Nicole B. Ellison, Ph.D., an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tells Glamour readers, “Technology makes it very easy to eliminate people on the basis of what, in the grand picture of a relationship, might end up being a pretty negligible point.” So take his high-school performance in Rocky Horror Picture Show and her dog’s Instagram account with a grain of salt — you might end up laughing about it later.
12. It’s fine if you end up on an “accidate”
If it didn’t happen to you in college, it’s bound to occur at least once afterward. An “accidate” is an interaction between two friends that’s actually a date, even though one or both people involved aren’t aware. More than two-thirds of people between the ages of 18 and 59 say they aren’t sure what defines a date — so don’t be totally shocked if you go for drinks with your “buddy” from painting class and he or she tries to smooch you at the end.
13. People will bemoan your ability to date normally
Your mom, your boss, your great-aunt’s physical therapist — sometimes it seems like everyone off the market has something to say about your romantic life. These days people are usually concerned that all the kids care about is sex and that, in fact, dating is dead. Which is why, of course, you don’t have an S.O. Whether or not these opinions have any basis in truth, take them with a grain of salt. The only person whose opinion really matters is yours — and if you feel like you’re doing the best you can at this dating thing, then you’re fine.
14. Money may be an issue
Money can totally be an issue in college dating. But many college students don't have much money of their own, so finances don't pose too much of a problem. Once everyone graduates and gets jobs, finances suddenly turn into a universal hot-button topic. If you thought dinner for two at the campus cafeteria was pricey, "real" dating is a whole lot worse. A Match.com survey estimates that singles spend about $738 a year on dating-related activities.
Finances can become an even bigger problem down the line: Some women say that relationships can get weird when their male partner earns less or isn’t as ambitious as they are. Avoid these tricky situations by being honest with yourself about what you need money-wise from an S.O. and reconsidering a budding relationship if you notice that someone acts sketchy about finances.
15. Stop judging your friends based on their dating lives
Want to act like a real adult? Make a pact with your friends not to be harsh on each other when you dish about your romantic escapades. Research has found that college students (women and men) lose respect for individuals who hook up with a lot of people. Graduate from this judgmental stage of life by allotting your friends a little leeway when it comes to love — after all, you wouldn’t want someone giving you the stink-eye while you’re doing the Walk of Shame back to your apartment.
16. It’s OK to admit you’re still confused about safe sex
Now that you’re an adult, you should know everything about the birds and the bees, right? Wrong. In fact, many 20-somethings say they never went through a sexual education class, in high school or afterward. That’s possibly why today’s 20-somethings have higher rates of STIs than pretty much any other age group. Start fessing up to what you don’t know, whether that means asking your doctor what it’s like to go on the Pill or looking up what the phrase “dental dam” actually means.
17. Be honest with yourself and potential partners
Before you start dating around, it’s a good idea to figure out what you value in a partner and a relationship. That way you can avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting swept off your feet by someone who can’t satisfy you in the long run. As Orlov puts it, “You don’t want to get too invested emotionally in someone who may still be wanting just to have fun if you’re looking for a more serious … relationship.” According to Orlov, it’s appropriate to ask someone questions about what they’re looking for by the third or fourth date.
18. Man (or woman) up and reject people
Because college relationships are often less serious than post-graduation partnerships, ending things can be easier. Maybe you start hooking up with someone else or maybe one person graduates. But part of creating an adult romantic life is having respect for other people’s feelings, even if it seems overly formal. That means actually telling them when you don't want to go out with them again rather than simply disappearing. As Tessina says: “Plenty of people who are past school still flake out, but it’s unkind. … It’s much better to be a grownup and just say, ‘No, thank you.’ Then the other person is freed up to find someone else.” Look on the bright side: Rejection can actually make us better people.
19. You might need some time to get the hang of it
So you went on your first real, out-of-college date, and it sucked. As in, you spilled wine all over your skirt, snorted while you laughed, and accidentally talked for 15 minutes about the last guy you hooked up with. Don’t beat yourself up.
Instead, remember that romance is a “learning curve,” according to Peg Streep, an author who blogs about modern relationships and is writing a book about millennials. “The more practice you have at it,” she says, “the better you know yourself and your own responses and the better you are at judging whether or not the person you’re sitting with is actually someone you want to continue to see.” That said, cut the guy or girl who looks like he or she is about to pass out at the table some slack. Says Streep, “the bad news is [your date] probably has just as little dating experience as you do.”
20. Caring is not a sign of immaturity
Some relationship experts say growing up means quitting the dating games, and it’s certainly worth trying. But the reason you’re waiting exactly 3.1 hours to return his or her call is probably because you like that person, and you don’t want to get hurt. So don’t berate yourself for wondering if that emoticon means he or she likes you. Those games might seem childish or college-esque, but they're actually just human.
21. There are no rules
Surprise! You can read all the dating advice you want, but in the end it’s up to you to decide whom you date and how you do it. There will be successes and failures, satisfactions and disappointments. But you tackled college and you can rock this, too. Good luck!
Image: Dawn Foster/Bustle