Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Hi. I'm a 21-year-old college junior who has never dated seriously. I'm pretty independent, but I think I'm beginning to become upset that I'm not conforming to social norms. I am average looking but have difficulty making connections. Basically, what I'm looking for is someone who shares my interests and I haven't found anyone yet.

But my question is: By waiting so long, am I going to have a hard time finding someone because of my lack of experience? It's a little embarrassing and probably fairly uncommon for someone to be in their twenties without ever having dated. I know I am being irrational, but I feel that I am doomed to be alone, because I have waited too late to have a courtship.


Dear Monica,

Your situation isn't as uncommon as you think. We've met many men and women who've delayed dating until their twenties - until they were ready for a serious relationship that could lead to marriage.

That didn't keep them from having an enjoyable social life -- it's just that they weren't into "hanging out" with someone on a superficial level; or getting emotionally involved with someone before they knew the direction they wanted their lives to take; or casually dating someone when they knew the courtship would be short-lived because neither dating partner was ready to make a long-term commitment.

While some people might think that this lack of "experience" is a handicap, based upon our years of working with singles, we disagree. People who begin one-on-one, serious dating with a sense of eagerness and optimism often have an advantage over someone whose approach to courtship is jaded by the emotional baggage left over from break-ups and disappointments.

In some ways, the playing field is relatively equal for "more experienced" single men and women who have decided they are finally ready for serious, goal-oriented dating and for young adults who are first entering the dating scene and are looking for a marriage-oriented courtship. Both groups have to learn the course that a successful courtship should take. It may surprise you that most men and women who have been casually dating or "hanging out" are as uninitiated about successful dating techniques as their inexperienced peers, but it is the truth. The vast majority of single men and women in their twenties, and we would venture to say in their thirties and forties, have no idea how to date in a way that enables them to develop a long-lasting, healthy, caring and committed relationship with another person. Dating for marriage is very different than the male-female interaction that has been a part of their lives until now.

We're not the only ones to have made this observation. Social scientists who have reviewed data from the Rutgers University National 2001 Marriage Project Survey, and from a recent survey by the Institute for American Values for the Independent Women's Forum, came to the same conclusion -- that one of the reasons singles today have so much difficulty when they begin to date with an eye toward marriage is that they don't know how to do so.

So, we suggest that you stop worrying about your lack of experience and instead focus on getting ready for successful, marriage-oriented dating. One way is to develop your conversational skills so that it will be easier for you to open up on a date. Some of the columns in the Dating Maze archives (#s 6, 20 and 71) have some good suggestions for this.

The next way to get ready for dating is to develop a social network of people who can help introduce you to dates. Since you seem to be the kind of person who feels a little uncomfortable or shy in a new social situation, we think you will have an easier time meeting appropriate dates through introductions rather than relying on clubs or large social gatherings. The truth is that networking is an ideal way for most singles to meet. Although there are "success stories" from people who met each other at a social event, more often than not those who meet in these venues and decide to date soon discover that they aren't that well suited to each other.

Our final recommendation for getting ready to date is to get to know yourself well. By that, we mean spending some time thinking about and then writing down your character strengths and talents, the values that are important to you, and your goals for the next six months, one year and five years. Then, a few days later, read through what you have written to help you gain some clarity. We made this suggestion last year to another one of our Dating Maze readers, and a couple of people wrote back that they thought this was too hard for them to do. Its true that this is a time-consuming exercise, and it may not be easy to sort through your priorities. However, if you aren't ready or able to figure out what is important to you and the direction you'd like your life to take, you aren't ready to date seriously.

That's because the starting point for any good "match" is commonality of values and goals. When two people have comparable ideals and their lives are both moving in similar directions (rather than on a collision course!), they have a foundation for building an emotional connection and then a life together.

Of course, the man and woman also have to be companionable, but compatibility is something they can only discover after they've met and have started to go out with each other. We feel that couples who start with common values and goals -- and then see if their personalities jell -- have a definite advantage over those who feel a strong "connection" early on, start to build an emotional attachment, and then discover that their expectations and ideals are not at all alike. This can lead to a heartbreaking split, or, possibly worse, a marriage in which there isn't a strong foundation that unites them.

You used one word in your letter that we do not feel should be emphasized too much when you are seeking a marriage partner: "interests." We both have seen that common interests are not as important to a relationship as are common values and goals. Even the most happily married couples usually have different hobbies, tastes, entertainment preferences, etc., and may have only one or two common interests. So, we suggest that you concentrate on looking for someone who wants the same general things in life as you do. If your personalities are also compatible there is a strong likelihood that the two of you will find a lot of common ground.

We hope our answer had helped lessen your anxiety about beginning to date and will help you get started.

All the best,

Rosie & Sherry