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If only someone would invent this: a special "redial" function for when you first start dating someone. Not only does it call back whatever number you just called, but it also takes back whatever you just said. See, the early days of dating can be so exciting that all those fizzy feelings risk going straight from your head to your mouth without checking in with your brain. Suddenly you hear yourself saying "We..." or "...boyfriend..." or "I spent all day baking you these!" and you'll hear him say, "[Awkward silence.]"
"If you call someone your boyfriend before he's settled into the role, he may feel like he's playing catch-up with your emotions, and just bail out," says dating expert Robin Gorman Newman, founder of LoveCoach.com. "Less is more when it comes to love."
Dangerously loaded words can even pop out with the best of intentions. Take, for example, the time -- years ago -- an old boyfriend and I were looking for two seats next to each other on a crowded Greyhound bus. Thinking my fib would make the request more compelling, I announced to the entire bus: "Could someone please switch seats so that my husband and I could sit together?" Totally worked. At the moment, I thought it was brilliant -- less so, two weeks later when he broke up with me.
The trick is to stop yourself from saying too much -- without stopping yourself from being yourself. The key distinction: This isn't about playing all icy and mysterious to keep him interested. It's simply about sticking out the early days without sticking labels on things.
"Guys mostly go with the flow, and if they feel you have a defined agenda, romance can go out the window," says Newman.
Remember, this goes both ways. "I hate it when a guy you've been seeing only a short while calls and say 'Hey, it's me,'" says Lori, 35, a TV writer in L.A. "Whether I recognize the voice is beside the point; it's a completely presumptuous thing to do. That kind of forced familiarity is a turn-off. Plus, who said I wasn't still dating other 'me's?'"
Even more loaded than "me" is the word "we." Saying "we" is such a common -- and large -- pitfall that Cindy Chupack, producer of Sex and the City and author of The Between Boyfriends Book: A Collection of Cautiously Hopeful Essays (St. Martin's Press, 2003), coined a term for it: "premature we-jaculation." Two little letters, so much significance! Of course, I'm not talking about, "We have a reservation at 8." I'm talking about, "We love Norah Jones, too!" or "Are we busy on Friday?" That kind of intimacy can intimidate someone who's still getting used to the idea of thinking of him- or herself as part of a unit.
"We" can be weighty even when it's only implied. "The first time I met his parents was on his mom's birthday. The three of us met for dinner, and when she opened his card, it was signed, 'Love, Chad and Kara,'" recalls the 25-year-old sports promoter. "It freaked me out -- I was afraid that he was ahead of me in the closeness department."
So there are the little words that hint at where you stand -- and then there are the big questions that attempt to determine where you stand for sure.
"You don't want to overthink a relationship, and by trying to put a label on it, you potentially add pressure to the situation," says Newman. For both of you, actually.
On the one hand, at some point everyone's entitled to know "what the deal is." But there are ways to find out that work better than others.
"After three dates, he called me up at work and I said, 'Hey, it's not a good time, I've got somebody in my office,' and he said, 'Okay, just one question. I just want to know where we stand,'" says Gail, 32, a copywriter in Morristown, New Jersey. Let's just say there was no fourth date.
The thing is, we tend to forget that -- believe it or not -- part of the fun of dating is not knowing where you stand. And isn't fun the whole idea? Women, especially, love to organize and schedule things: to know where a call, a flirtation, a date, a new relationship "is going." Yes, you shouldn't waste your time, but you should also enjoy the moment! Try to resist the urge -- in your mind or out loud -- to label and file and know.
Also, at the end of the day -- with someone you like, with someone who'll last -- there really is no such thing as a totally fatal blooper. When something feels right, you'll naturally feel more patient, and if something pops out, you can't go too far wrong. Remember Kara, from above? That guy's still her boyfriend; Mom's birthday card was just a speed bump along the road. And then there's Colin, 35, an educational consultant in New York City, whose now-girlfriend took him to a party and introduced him as her "boyfriend" before they'd had That Talk. Oops! By all unwritten rules, she'd said too much, too soon. But guess what: He was stoked. After the party, he said, "Hey, did I get upgraded?" and she blushed a million shades of crimson. Then he said," No problem! Will you be my girlfriend?"