The Dating Game

Illustration by Allegra
Illustration by Allegra

It was springtime, and every bit of me wanted to be whisked away by a wave of romance and wonder so overwhelming that I wouldn’t be able to breathe. It would ache in a good way every time I imagined his gorgeous face. The flowers were slowly budding out of their September shyness, and I wanted to be right there with them.

I was attracted to him right away when I spotted him at the jazz club, but something wasn’t quite right. Our introduction was super smooth, but by the end of the night the source of my discomfort finally hit me: I knew his name. He was a former friend’s ex.

There’s an unwritten rule about not dating your friends’ exes, and the fact that he was her former situation meant that he was completely off-limits to her friends. Even though she and I weren’t speaking at that point, I had dated her older brother a couple of years earlier, and I didn’t want it to seem like I had it out for her by hooking up with this guy too. I refused his request for my number and thought that was the end of that, until he called me a few days later (a friend of mine who didn’t know about any of this gave him my number). I couldn’t even pretend to be offended, because I hadn’t stopped thinking about him since that night. We went on to have a year-long relationship, and it was one of the best I’ve ever had.

I was prepared to deprive myself of a good thing because I didn’t want to be a terrible person by dating someone my former friend had been so smitten with, and I wasn’t trying to be about the drama that would come with her finding out. But what if the person you shouldn’t date is the perfect person for you at that moment in times? I normally prioritize friends over guys, but what if this guy and I were meant to be?

Dating rules seem to have been created to prevent heartbreak, but most rules are awful and you’ll break up with people anyway. It seems like every magazine, book, and pop song is invested in girls and women finding the One. These unsolicited cheer squads seem to be rooting for our victory and tirelessly coaching us with messages repeated so often that they begin to sound like common sense:

  • Girls, never make the first move or he’ll think you’re fast.
  • Boys want to feel challenged; do you really think he wants to introduce his mother to an easy girl?
  • If he likes you, he’ll call first and he’ll definitely ask you out on a date.
  • You should never date your friend’s ex.

We’re made to feel like every move we make should be calculated, like dating is a game of heteronormative chess in which the ultimate prize is a dude. But none of this advice takes into consideration what girls might want.

I’ve tried to follow the rules a few times, so I’ve had my share of days and nights where I dashed to my phone every time it lit up because I thought, Yes, he finally made the first move and now we can get on with this! I soon found that sitting tight, not being able to focus on the task at hand, and waiting waiting waiting felt so torturous that a loud voice inside me screamed, THIS IS SO STUPID. But how else was I ever going to get a man if I didn’t follow the rules? I couldn’t do the unthinkable and actually text or call the dude myself, since that would make me seem way too eager, and besides, Ladies know how to keep a man guessing.

I obviously ditched these rules at some point, because here I was dating my friend’s ex. There’s a song called “Certainly” by Erykah Badu; in it, she sings, “The world is mine when I wake up,” and I pretty much live by that phrase. It’s not as selfish as it sounds—I just enjoy my freedom. For most of my life I’ve gone after what I wanted, but when it came to this one relationship, I had to act like I didn’t know what to do with my heart.

Those times when I chose not to make the first move, the guy usually took ages to make contact. Somewhere on a planet parallel to Dating Advice For Girls, there exists Dating Advice For Boys where play it cool and show her you’re a busy dude are the prevailing principles. It’s no wonder that some of the crappy bits of high school were marked by periods in which my closest friends, who were obviously playing from the same game book, were in blossoming relationships, while I remained single, wondering major why I was so damn undesirable. Most of my friends started dating in eighth grade, and even though I was more nonchalant about relationships I wanted boys to think I was attractive, too.

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Nova—aka Lebohang Masango aka Su$ie Somalia aka Coltrane's Naima aka the Gangsta Girl From Ipanema—is a poet, writer, dancer, and anthropology student from Johannesburg, South Africa. She's passionate about jazz, tea, cake, literature, and Africa. She Tumbls here.

30 thoughts on “The Dating Game”

  1. word. i’m in my first relationship and we did not play by the rules at all. he stayed over the first night we met, straight away we knew we liked each other and neither of us played any games. he text me first but i asked him to go on a date first. we never wait to reply to texts, we’re both very honest and have never been afraid to say we like each other or miss each other. every time i’ve played games with a guy, or they have with me, it’s ended in nothing. there is no point!! only issue i have with is dating a friend’s ex. you have to be sure otherwise you could lose a friend over nothing.

  2. I swear, Rookie has perfect timing. Just the other day I was telling my friend about a date I went on and she was shocked that I was the one who drove, he didn’t open my door, and we each paid for ourselves. She then proceeded to give me a lecture on what she thinks the rules are.

  3. I love this article. Whenever my friends are saying to my other friends, “No, wait 3 days to text him” or “Don’t text back right away!” I just get exhausted by it and can’t help but roll my eyes and think “What’s the point? If he likes me and I like him, then why don’t we just do what we want?”

  4. wow, i relate to this completely. all the relationship and dating games drive me crazy. and as much as i hated it, i harbored jealousy for my friends for being noticed by boys. I would never try to compete with other girls or get with a friend’s ex because i was so afraid of causing drama. but i’ve sort of realized that the right thing comes along on it’s own time, when you are honest with yourself and forget how it’s ‘supposed’ to happen

  5. All of my friends always insist on waiting “certain” amounts of time before even responding to a text from a guy, or they feel like they have to solve every problem with a guy over text RIGHT THEN. Like, respond right away if you want to, or don’t respond if you want to. I always figured everything about dating was much more chill, but as it turns out people can be really uptight!

  6. Ahhh this is so perfect right now because
    #1 there’s this guy I really like but I’m not sure if I want to have a relationship with him
    #2 Harry potter reference
    # 3 really good advice that actually makes sense!

    And the part about you getting into soccer because your boyfriend liked soccer reminds me so much of Ann in Parks and Rec. She has all these phases that directly relate to her current boyfriend. Hilarious on TV but not very smart in real life!

  7. As always great article.
    I’ve never used some of the “dating rules”.
    If I like the guy, I call him. I have got nothing to lose. And I don’t regret anything. Always take a chance whenever you can.

  8. Wow, thank you for this article! ^^
    I’ve never been in a relationship before, mostly because I’m shy. Since I’ve never fallen in love, and since noone seemed to have a crush on me before, I just figured that relationships weren’t for me, like, I have a lot of strengths, but getting involved in relationships just isn’t one of those. But now I feel like I really want to do it. I want to try new things and be brave, and I’ve also met someone I’m interested in… the problem is, he told me he didn’t want to step into a relationship right now. Still, I thought I had some chance, because we have been flirting and we cared for each other and it was fun. But the next time we met, he just seemed generally uninterested, he didn’t talk to me at all. Since then, I can’t stop thinking about him. I want to know if he likes me but only as friends, or if he doesn’t really like me… or if he DOES like me, but still doesn’t feel like being involved in a relationship right now. If I knew it for sure that he wasn’t interested in me at all, at least I could move on and find someone else. But I just don’t have the courage to ask him out or anything.
    Hopefully this awesome article will help me to be more open about my feelings.

    1. I think it’s unclear whether or not he’s interested or you, but he has told you explicitly that he doesn’t want a relationship. If that is what you want with him, you have to be careful. Why does he not want a relationship? That might be something you want to inquire into, because there are people who just got out of a relationship or emotional attachment and aren’t ready to dive back in, there are people who say that because they don’t have feelings for you, and there are people who say that because commitment can be a little frightening (or at least, the thought of it).

      In the end, even if you do want to date him, you might just have to respect what he told you. There are circumstances where the person might just be scared, but aside from feelings (yours or his), take into consideration what you’ve heard.
      It could be so much more fulfilling to pursue someone who’s open, as much as it’s hard when you have feelings for someone else.
      It’s a tough situation, but I feel that the best thing is to be honest with him but also respect what he wants. It might hurt, but there will always be great things ahead. :)

  9. Great article! I think I “broke a rule” by initiating the first kiss between my boyfriend and I, and I have zero regrets about that. :) I tend to feel weird about splitting the bill, so I just treat for about half of our dates. He still pays for things more often than I do, but I let him because he says that’s something that he really wants to do for me and feels happy about because for him it’s an expression of love, not an annoying culturally-induced obligation. Which I know, because we’ve talked about it. Because communication and honesty are the BEST THINGS EVER for any relationship. :)

  10. I LOVE THIS! In some ways I go by mainstream dating rules I guess, but in other ways I don’t. For example I asked my friend out on a date this summer, which was lovely but our romance ended quickly. Now I’m going out with his best friend (he said he was fine with it, though), but all of our friends are freaking out and acting like it’s *only* on me. LIKE DATING IS NOT ONE SIDED. SURE, MAYBE IT’S A LITTLE WEIRD THAT I’M DATING HIS BEST FRIEND NOW. BUT HIS BEST FRIEND CHOOSE ME TO DATE? IT’S NOT LIKE I AM FORCIBLY DATING HIM GEEZ PEOPLE ARE STRANGE

  11. I really liked this article it was very real and spoke about the way dating really is and should be. Life is not a movie no matter how much we want it to be nor should we expect a perfect romance like what we see on tv or read about in books. Being real with your significant other is extremely important because if we aren’t being real what are we? I don’t want anyone to like a fake me more than who I really am. My name was used again as a fake name I think this is turning into a conspiracy.

  12. Where has this been all my life?? This helps me so much with the relationship situation im in right now. I can also relate to it big time because the relationship im STILL messily in started around the same time yours did in the spring… I wish I had read this 4 months ago!!! Thank you

  13. THIS IS AWESOME! Seriously so important for people to read.

    I think that the heteronormative and lame dating advice that women get also contribute to the whole “Woman in Love” thing that Anna talks about in this article: http://rookiemag.com/2013/09/goodbye-googly-eyes/. We’re made to be totally reliant on the male for our happiness by these rules, and so we lose our independence as lovers and HUMAN BEINGS and our male lovers gain power over us.

  14. One time a cute guy who I’d never met gave me his number and I’d always heard that you should wait two weeks to call/text after someone gives you their number. WTF two weeks?! I text him the next day and we ended up dating for a while and he told me that he thought I wasn’t ever gonna text him cuz I didn’t text him the first day. And as for the paying for dates, I definitely always try to be as equal as possible. If you’re in a relationship you should be equals and therefore one person shouldn’t have to pay all the time, totally unfair and outdated. And as for the dating friends exes, just do what you want unless it is a particularly sensitive situation.

  15. Wait…are you reading my mind? Great article, I always struggle with dating rules because I hate ‘acting’ how we are expected to act. I can’t do the patient/coy thing but to be honest I’d rather a guy liked me for me than for the ‘Cosmo’ version that I’m not very good at pretending to be.



  16. Good article! Totally agree and wish more young women would realise the control they have over relationships, rather than always waiting for boys to kick them off.

    Just a little note though – you’ve got a typo on “important” in the paragraph beginning “If you’re dating for the first time…”

  17. “Remember when Ron had to wear Voldemort’s horcrux around his neck and he became insanely jealous and suspicious of Harry and Hermione’s friendship? I started feeling that sort of resentment about my friends. With a self-esteem that delicate, thoughts like I’m actually thinner than Friend A and I totally kick Friend B’s ass in class so why am I single? creep up so easily. I adored my girls and had always shared in their happiness, so this small knot of jealousy was really annoying. I never thought about making the first move because none of them were making the first move in their relationships, and I wanted exactly what they had.”

    This paragraph really got me. For so long I kept OD’ing on the Bitter Pill and all the while trying to play by the Rules According to Cosmo–no wonder I was single!

    But those days are behind me–it’s just dropping the Rule Book that takes some time.


  18. I finally see something similar in Chinese culture and in American culture. It is so true that many teen girls date like following some rules. But, a lot of times when we are really facing a relationship, we tend not to think too much about those rules and end up in breaking those rules. And I totally agree that we should be ourselves. Pretending to be a perfect girlfriend is going to make you exhausted. I like those suggestions you made at the end about what we are thinking and what we should really do. Doing what your hear tells you to do just makes everything much easier.

  19. This is excellent advice…I’m so glad somebody wrote about this! All those outdated rules were preached to me when I was growing up and I was so inundated by submissive ideals I started off dating with such a warped sense of inferiority!

    Thankfully my common sense kicked in pretty fast and I started going after what I wanted on my own terms. And besides..nobody ever tells you just how incredibly sexy confidence can be!


  20. Love this story!! Especially the part about how you don’t have to wait for the guy to make the first move. I had a really great summer romance this year, and I initiated it by writing the guy a letter telling him that I liked him. He wrote back saying that he felt the same way but would probably have been too shy to say anything if I hadn’t made the first move. After that we spent the summer holding hands and cloud watching and having picnics at the local botanical gardens and going for long walks together. It didn’t end up working out (he moved away at the end of the summer), but I’m really glad that I wrote that letter :)


  21. Hello, everyone! I am so glad you all seem to have enjoyed the article. The last thing that dating should be is stressful and put pressure on us to the point where we’re bending over backwards to achieve impossible standards. I think relationships are so much better when they are an extension of a friendship. Oh, and serenaaa, I am South African and the fact that the experiences are so similar just shows how widely the commonalities reach, right?

  22. I do agree with this to a certain extent, but not really about the idea that dating friends’ exes should be ok. Whilst I understand the acceptable boundaries of your situation were different given that you and the ‘friend’ were not speaking at the time, I generally think it is a good idea to steer clear of one’s friends’ former flames. I went out with a boy for a little while and though we didn’t reach the stage of ‘love’ or anything, I think I would be pretty hurt if a friend decided to begin a relationship with him. Having a relationship with someone who hurt your friend is a big no to me, unless you have your friend’s blessing.

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