We all have an idealised image of what relationships should look like. Romantic movies have a lot to answer for. Love at first sight, nuclear-grade chemistry, frissons at sunset – they all sound grand, but of course, it’s never that simple. Life isn’t a movie. Dating is messy.
Especially today, when the dating game’s rules seem to change every few months, even the most tried and tested relationship advice goes out of date fast. It’s not just the impact of porn culture or #MeToo. In the digital age, apps have commodified relationships to the nth degree.
You browse potential partners like you’re looking for a ripe avocado, giving as many a (consensual) squeeze as you can along the way. And in the process, people will lie about their age, send you heavily edited pictures and probably have two or three others they’re talking to at the same time.
It’s a minefield, so we asked experts from different backgrounds and professions to give us their very best relationship advice – nuggets of wisdom handed down, or revelations based on their own experiences. Take heed before you get benched.
1. Be Old Fashioned (In A Modern Way)
Charlie Spokes knows a thing or two about the dating game – she’s the founder of My Friend Charlie, which organises activities and events for singletons to attend and meet face-to-face, rather than from behind the mystery raffle of online profiles.
Spokes’s Grandpa gave her some solid gold advice. “He said that, ‘Whomever you pick, you need to be able to picture yourself sitting opposite them at breakfast every morning. If they pass that test then go for it.’” As an expert of the dating game, Spokes has her own insight into what men can learn from #MeToo, and how the movement and much-needed shift in gender dynamics has changed the way we approach relationships.
“I think everyone can learn from it,” says Spokes. “Mutual respect and consent is vital at every stage of a relationship but it shouldn’t scare decent men away from dating. For Joe Average you can still approach someone in a bar and say, ‘Hi.’ Be mindful of both your body language and theirs, and also know when it’s time to walk away.
“Use your common sense, don’t pester and don’t be over familiar. If you show respect you’re more likely to get a date! The best chat-up line I’ve heard recently was a guy walking up to a girl drinking with her group of friends and saying ‘Hi, I’d really like to buy you a drink sometime but I don’t want to stop you having fun with your friends, here’s my number’. He had a text shortly after and a date the next day! It’s pretty smooth to be honest.”
2. Don’t Do All Your Flirting Through An App
While apps and websites have opened up the dating world, they’ve also changed how we communicate. “Online dating has affected the respect we show one another,” says Nichi Hodgson, a journalist, dating industry consultant, and the author of The Curious History of Dating. “It’s easier for us to forget there’s a person behind the pixels and instead resort to ghosting, zombieing etc as a method of communication.”
And with app-based dating overtaking the traditional methods of seeing someone in a bar and a-wooing them with a chat-up/top class dancing, we shouldn’t let technology impede our ability to meet potential dates face-to-face.
“It’s definitely affecting our motivation and our actions,” says Hodgson. “I think people’s attention spans and conversational skills are ebbing as a result of lack of use. And if anything, it might be partly contributing to some of our confusion over what constitutes healthy, respectful flirting, what good boundaries look and sound like, and how we build rapport.
“In a post-MeToo environment, it might feel safer to message online than to approach someone in the flesh, but there is always a respectful way to offer a compliment or indicate you’d like to get to know someone better. Just be ready and alert to someone indicating they’re not interested – and be able to respect that.”
3. Use Technology To Create Deeper Connections
The effects of technology don’t stop at the initial dating phase. In the modern world, we all know what it’s like once you settle into a relationship: that initial spark of attraction and excitement gets swiftly replaced with just two people on opposite ends of the sofa, engrossed in their phones and not talking. For some couples it can be the death knell for passion. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Dr Robert Weissman is a digital-age sex, intimacy and relationship specialist, and the co-author of a book on the technology and interpersonal relationships, Closer Together, Further Apart.
“If tech is creating a barrier,” says Weissman, “recognise that and set some boundaries around the use of tech. Use tech to become more connected — playing online games, video chatting, sexting.
“I believe that many couples are using tech to further their relationship and develop deeper connections. We now have apps to remind you to call, think about, send a gift to, or otherwise consider your spouse. Today, regardless of how much I travel for work, my spouse and I stay emotionally and psychologically connected via live video chats and online gaming.”
4. Have Standards – It Doesn’t Mean You’re Fussy
Who better to ask for relationship advice than someone who’s been on their share of bad dates? Except as Lauren Crouch AKA @UnluckiestDater says, “There’s no such thing as bad dates, just the opportunity for a good story, a page in the autobiography, and the more terrible the date, the better the story.” Hence the name of Crouch’s blog, No Bad Dates, Just Good Stories.
Crouch has two great pieces of advice for starting out in a relationship. “Being fussy and having standards are not the same thing,” she says. “We’re allowed to have non-negotiables and ideals that we’re looking for, otherwise we settle. Just don’t get to a stage where you’re completely closed off to the idea of meeting someone outside of your ‘perfect type’.”
Crouch also has some advice for the not-so-nice business of ending a relationship: “Have the balls to dump us. We’re grown-ups, we can take it, and women would much rather have a quick message or call telling us it’s not working, than be ghosted.”
But she saves the best advice – perhaps the best piece of advice in the history of human relationships – for last. “Have the ability to laugh at oneself and the understanding that a pizza should never be shared.”
5. Tell The Truth (It’s Easier To Remember)
Roger McEwan is a single dad from New Zealand and the author of The Single Dad’s Guide to the Galaxy. McEwan describes his role as being “a parent, a dad, a father, a stand-in mum, a confidant, always a butler or maid, a teacher and, most crucially, a friend.”
So his take on relationships is appropriately mature. He says the ideal qualities that make a perfect husband/boyfriend/partner/ are: trust, honesty, listening, keeping your word, saying sorry, being empathic… you get the gist. “Ultimately, I think, it can all be summed up in the phrase ‘act like an adult’. Calm, rational, fair, wise, self-sacrificing, patient, reliable, trustworthy and honest are words I associate with acting like an adult.”
As for the best piece of relationship advice ever received, McEwan says, “A line from [David Mamet] has stuck with me for decades. ‘Always tell the truth, it’s easiest to remember.’ It reminds that not only is telling the truth fundamental to a solid relationship, but once you step outside the truth, you start down the helter-skelter.”
6. Don’t Get Hung Up On Body Image
Ant Smith is a performance poet and the author of The Small Penis Bible. He’s opened up about living life with a small penis and the effect that’s had on his own sense of body image, masculinity, and happiness. But after being in a relationship for 20 years, he also understands how to overcome body image issues.
“This underpins just about everything I say in The Small Penis Bible,” Smith says. “Love yourself. If you believe you are inherently unloveable, you will never commit fully to the idea that someone loves you. Easier said than done, for sure; but the key is to judge yourself against the best you can be, not against the worst of what others see.”
Secondly, “Use your words!” says Smith. “Love, whatever it is, isn’t a magic spell that makes two minds speak as one – that comes from familiarity and mutual respect. Love needs to be nurtured and the best way to do that is to be open and plain about your needs. Sure it’s nice when your needs are anticipated (and that comes, in time) but the attitude ‘if you loved me you’d just know’ leads at best to frustration, and at worst to caustic game-playing.”
7. Make The Effort To Look Good – But Keep It Simple
Daniel Johnson is a men’s personal stylist, and his relationship advice is invaluable, because maintaining a long, happy relationship isn’t just about emotions, opening up, and compromise (though a lot of it is about that, of course). It’s also about maintaining your looks.
“Tom Ford said that dressing well is a form of good manners which I completely agree with,” says Johnson. “I think that you should always have this approach in a relationship otherwise you enter the category of ‘given up’, not just on yourself but on the respect for others and especially your partner.
“A few years ago I did research for a book called What Girls Want Men To Wear, which I wrote with a female dating expert, Kezia Noble. We found that the most attractive garment a man can wear is a well-fitted, well-pressed plain white shirt. Wear it with dark jeans and dark shoes (dark brown suede preferably). Keep it simple.”
8. There’s More To It Than Love
You’d think someone who’s professionally attractive would be swatting away prospective partners like horny flies. But male model Sam Way admits that when it comes to relationship mistakes “I’ve had to learn the hardest way – I’ve messed up on love harder than anyone I know.”
Way advocates kindness and maturity, putting the work in: “A relationship is like a pot of honey, if you don’t keep on filling it back up, it’ll go over time,” he says. Not discounting the importance of sexual attraction. “If you’re going to give up intimacy with other people, in the conventional paradigm of monogamy, they better do it for you!”
One piece of wisdom that rings truest for him is disarmingly practical – but will also ring true for anyone who’s been in a healthy, longterm relationship.
“Love isn’t enough,” he says. “It feels like it should be, but the wider context is everything – that includes your histories, the time, the place, where you are, and what you really want in life. We all know, even at the best of times, that those things are hard to work out.”