Drawing of a man and a woman

Emotional consent could be the answer to bad dating and time wasting

Should emotional consent be addressed in the same way as physical consent when dating new people? Women share their experiences about the lack of trust, respect and, ultimately, communication in the modern dating landscape. 

You match. You realise after a few flirty messages that, actually, you’re interested in what this one’s got to say. And did you just let out an audible LOL at something they sent? You doublecheck their profile – no mention of Louis Theroux or The Tiger King, which is, depressingly, quite refreshing in 2021. You take it to WhatsApp, continue chatting and agree to a first date. You’re nervous but you meet up at the pub and, miraculously, the IRL conversation is just as enjoyable as the messages you’ve exchanged. You meet again the next week, and it’s just as naturally fun, comfortable and, let’s be frank – sexy, as the first time. You like them, it’s clear they like you, especially after that kiss. 

You start seeing each other once, sometimes twice, a week for a couple of months, and you start regularly having great sex. You’ve not even really stopped to think about where it’s going, you’re just enjoying the moment. You don’t want to put any pressure on it, you just want to respect it for what it is – two single people who are on the same page about liking each other and that have a growing connection. You trust them. You trust this. 

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Then something happens. They tell you they’re seeing somebody else. Or they reveal they’re not ready for a relationship just yet. Perhaps they say it’s only a casual thing. Or they update their dating app. They may even ghost you. They just do something that makes you reconsider everything. But how did this happen? Were things ever actually mutual? Did you have to label this? Should you have voiced your boundaries and terms? Was it wrong to trust that their actions and words truly reflected who they are and what they wanted? 

Ultimately, would you have consented to this treatment if you could rewind to the start?

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This is a situation that I hear about time and time again, through friends, friends-of-friends, colleagues, and women sat behind me on the bus or in the queue at Tesco. Heck, it’s a scenario I’ve endured on more than one occasion. After chatting it through over many glasses of wine, voice notes and sunbathing sessions, this behaviour – people acting like they’re on exactly the same page as you until… well, all of a sudden, they’re just not – has become prevalent in modern dating. 

Don’t get me wrong, people don’t owe you a relationship just because you’ve enjoyed dating each other for a few months. But, surely there’s a certain level of trust and respect that gets broken each time someone you’re dating sends mixed messages, ghosts and drops you because the grass might be greener with someone they just matched with? And yet, it seems this bad behaviour can be excused because, well, that’s just what we should expect in the era of swipe dating.

Recent research by Tinder showed that, rather than specifying whether they’re looking for a relationship or something casual, a growing number of its users are instead using phrases in their bios such as ‘see where things go’ and ‘open to’. The number of daters looking for ‘no particular type of relationship’ was up nearly 50%. On the one hand, this can help lower expectations and take off pressure. But does it also enable a dating culture that excuses people from taking accountability for their behaviour?

My friend Fran*, 29, says that most ‘relationships’ she’s had in the past five years are relationships in all but name – and it’s the naming of them that seems so hard. She believes that the lack of honest conversations about feelings and intentions is what leads to people ultimately being allowed to pull shitty moves, such as ghosting.

“Being ghosted was definitely his way of saying ‘it’s casual’ without language,” she tells me when I ask about a guy who I know left a sting. “I feel like that’s the crux of it though, modern dating is language-less, we’ve been schooled on consent to use our voices – to say what we want, what we don’t want – it’s our right and we deserve it. But so much of modern dating via apps is voiceless, things happen and change, people flitter away without any conversation about what it was and what went wrong. It leaves people with all of this unaddressed emotion that’s never been let out to air while dating; nobody wants to name anything but everyone wants great sex and fun dates without ‘getting into it’. Being ghosted is the ultimate jeopardising of emotional consent – it’s like ‘I’ll take what I want and when I don’t want it, I’ll disappear’, it leaves people feeling robbed and an entire dialogue open-ended and unfinished.”

Nailing the big issue that prevents this dialogue from opening, she adds: “At the start of things you suspend your cynicism. You want to believe things will work out, you’ve been told not to push it, to take it slow, that the start is always like this – nervous, fragile and easy to break – so you allow the sex and the dates and the messages to continue without the language, without conversation, without labels or definitions.”

Two people holding hands.
Emotional consent: is a lack of communication allowing people to act badly in the early stages of dating?

When I talk to Kate*, 24, about it, she totally agrees that emotional consent is an issue within modern dating that we don’t properly address: “Giving emotional consent means that you are open about your feelings and your boundaries. Like, is it OK for someone to sleep with someone else? Are you open to them falling in love with you? That kind of thing. As with physical consent, that comes down to communication.”

However, like many people who have been in this situation, Kate admits that she never instigates these discussions, and instead just assumes what’s going on: “I would not describe my experience of dating as one full of healthy conversations about our expectations, needs and wants. Being able to say to someone, ‘Yes, I’m happy for this to be totally free from longterm emotions’ or, ‘Yes, I’m open to the idea of one day making this serious’ would obviously limit the risk of humiliation, wasted time and heart ache. 

“The problem is that setting these boundaries (for me) is hard, not because I don’t respect the people I date, but because I don’t know what I want myself. As with sex, I suppose it’s about constantly consenting as you move through the different phases of the relationship rather than a simple, ‘This is what I want’ at the beginning.”

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For Kirsty, 34, who knows that she sometimes only wants a casual thing, she ensures that she is very clear about this from the start: “Sometimes, depending on where I am in my life and how busy things are for me, it changes. I think it’s much more important to be totally clear if all you want is something casual. Interestingly, it feels to me that as I get older, the implied position is that you’re in a space where you’re looking for something more serious, so if you’re not you must make sure that’s being heard loud and clear.”

Psychotherapist and love addiction expert Talitha Fosh says that, yes, this type of behaviour is something that has become more and more common, mostly because there are now so many opportunities to meet and move onto the next someone. 

She says it’s easy for people to hide behind the apps, and to create a profile that hides so many things about who you really are and what you really want: “This can create an issue as people aren’t entirely aware of what the other person is looking for and they won’t be aware of one another’s attachment styles. For example, if you have an avoidant and anxious attached pair who have matched, it can seem very exciting at first and as if they are both on the same page, however after a while, the avoidant will take a step back and this will confuse the anxious attached who will only be going by the previous behaviour of the avoidant.”

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Two people talking
Dating experts say we need to voice our intentions when we start dating somebody new.

The main issue here is communication – we’re so reluctant to label anything, be clear on what we want and call out behaviours we don’t want to accept. Fosh says that, despite it being a frightening thing to do in the early stages of dating, it’s important to use your voice: “This is because we are afraid of rejection and feel that if we put ourselves out there and are consequently rejected, it means something about us personally. However, how I like to look at is that if we are totally honest, ourselves and upfront at the start of a relationship, and the other person doesn’t want to take it any further, at least we know we have done everything we can by being ourselves and we can find solace in the fact that she or he wasn’t right for us.”

It does sound pretty terrifying to say those words out loud, right? But Fosh adds: “It can also save us a lot of time and energy worrying about do they or don’t they. We tend to do other people’s thinking for them or try to control another person’s thought process. This is impossible and can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. Therefore, if we are able to put ourselves out there to begin with and be clear as to what it is we want, then there is nothing else we could have done if the relationship doesn’t continue the way we wanted it to. That’s not to say that it isn’t painful and upsetting. But we are in charge of how we react and making a choice to not make it our fault or take blame.”

It’s a two-way street, but perhaps the first step in helping to ensure a good level of emotional consent is by taking accountability of our own intentions and actions. You can only ever hope and trust that the other person will respond by being as equally honest and open. But if they don’t, or if it turns out later down the line that they didn’t, at least you’ll know you did the right thing, and that they were definitely the wrong thing for you.

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Images: Getty

*Name changed at contributor’s request