It was Saturday night, and my dinner-party guests had all gone home—except one. To my excitement, the cute grad student from my journalism program was lingering. He smiled at me in the candlelight, and my stomach flipped. I was being seduced! But when he leaned in to kiss me, I blurted, "I just broke up with my boyfriend and I'm kind of vulnerable." Uh, talk about TMI.
My missteps got worse. I sat beside him in class, sent flirty texts, and tried to ferret out his weekend plans. He didn't reciprocate. Two weeks after our initial hookup, I talked him into coming over. As we started kissing, he pulled away. "This isn't going to work," he said. "You're getting too attached." Then he bopped me on the nose like I was a child—or a small dog.
I'd never felt more humiliated, but that bop summed up the experience of being single for the first time as an adult, at 28. Fresh from an eight-year relationship, I was longing for the early-20s experience—wild nights and random hookups—I'd missed spending quiet weekends at home with my then-boyfriend. We'd begun dating sophomore year of college, after a summer of exchanging letters stuffed with dried rose petals. He was my first long-term boyfriend, the first guy I slept with, and we lived together after college in pseudo-married bliss, refinishing furniture and inventing names for our future children. I was living in "boyfriend-land," a magical place where we shared our lives, sheltered from the harsh realities of the dating world. So what that he couldn't commit to marriage?
In the end, I needed commitment. So I left, blithely unconcerned about my romantic future. I was a sophisticated woman: I'd published a nonfiction book, would soon sell my first novel, and I was working on two advanced degrees. But dating for the first time turned me into an ignorant tourist in a foreign country where I didn't know the local customs. I was clueless: a girl without game.
Turns out, I was in great company. The number of unmarried cohabitating couples in the U.S. has exploded, from about 500,000 in 1970 to nearly 5 million today, just as the median age for a woman's first marriage has hit 26—later than ever before. Now couples are more likely to move in together without agreeing on their life goals first. "The less-committed partner can hide out in the relationship for a long time," says Scott Stanley, Ph.D., codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
Stanley says inertia, convenience, and financial benefit can cause a relationship between 20-somethings to drag on—for four to seven years for more than 50 percent of cohabiting couples, according to one study. When they would otherwise have broken up, some couples resolve to get married after years of dating because they figure it's the next logical step—leading to early divorce. Other women move in with college boyfriends thinking ring, like I did, only to be disappointed. Then there are serial monogamists who jump from one guy—and apartment—to the next, never pausing to play the field. In each case, when the relationships end, floods of young women are unleashed upon the dating scene without a clue about what to do there. And the pressure is on to find Mr. Right. These single gals worry about their biological clocks and whether or not all the good men have been taken. So should we all just have heeded Mom, and put off sharing a toothbrush jar until the save-the-dates went out?
WHEN SHE WAS 29, Aviva broke up with the man she thought was The One. After six years of sleepovers, he still wouldn't commit to marriage. The breakup was devastating, but Aviva quickly moved on. "I felt this gripping fear that I was going to be an old lady before I found anyone," she says. So after two weeks of crying, she forced herself onto a dating site, telling herself there were plenty of great guys out there. And she found one.
But as they made plans to meet up, she freaked. "It was my first date outside a relationship—ever," Aviva says. "I didn't know how to act."
The two had great chemistry over dinner, but at the end of the night, "he pecked me on the lips," she recalls. She flipped out again. Taking her cues from Hollywood chick flicks, "I thought if the guy likes you, he gives you this passionate kiss," she says. When her date left, she immediately texted to ask him what had gone wrong.
Luckily, he wanted to see her again. And she wanted to see him—all the time, calling and e-mailing constantly and jonesing to spend every night with him. He lived one state away; she dropped everything to see him.
After a month, he dumped her, claiming the relationship had too much drama. She was crushed but finally realized what went wrong. "I was this freight train when I should have been a limo," she says. "I expected too much."
"When you've had deep intimacy with someone, all you want to do is re-establish that bond right away," says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. "But you have to calibrate the pace with the person."
And for women leaving early marriages, interacting with a new guy can be hard, too. After JoVann Seals, 31, a former NFL cheerleader in San Diego, divorced her husband of five years—whom she'd dated since high school—she found herself unprepared for the bar scene. One night a man she was talking to leaned over and kissed her. She was mortified. "I'd never kissed anyone besides my husband," she recalls.
Clueless to the secret signals of the dating world, Seals had been blinking "green" all night: She latched on to the man early and engaged in intimate chitchat, ignoring everyone else. Naturally friendly, she laughed, joked, and smiled freely. And she left to go with him to a second bar, a sign to any red-blooded male that sex is inevitable. Her behavior screamed I'm hot for you! "I just thought we were talking," she says.
"Dating is a skill," says Finkel. "The more you do it, the better you get." Finkel suggests women ask friends for help—yet that can bring pitfalls, too.
While Moster's friends love hearing about her dating pursuits, "They get frustrated when I cry about the same problem again and again," she says. They tell her a guy's indecision is a bad sign or that she's rushing into things.
But taking any advice isn't easy, especially when you're tethered to a ticking biological clock. "I want to have kids right away, and I know it gets harder to conceive with age," says Seals. And Katie Gill, a 27-year-old copy editor in Arlington, Virginia, who recently landed on the market for the first time since age 20, is dating under similar constraints. "If I hadn't been in two long-term relationships, I would be married by now," she says. "Sometimes I worry that I won't find The One."
The newly single face challenges in the bedroom, too. For Gill, the hardest part has been resetting her libido. "I had sex every day for seven years," she says. Resisting that was hard for Gill, having learned that "guys lose interest if you give it up too early."
Stanley suggests that after a few dates, women clarify the relationship so they know how to act. "Yet some women don't do this because they're worried they'll get the wrong answer," he says.
In the end, dating is a marathon, not a sprint. And Moster learned that you can't force things. "Panicking isn't going to help me find him," she says.
As for me, I met Jason on okcupid.com. I liked the photo of him nose to nose with a kangaroo. He liked my Decemberists T-shirt. We talked for hours on our first date. But soon Jason grew cagey about the length of his last relationship.
When he finally gave the number—nine years—I laughed.
OK, I might have been a girl without game. But here's what I've learned. For every one of us out there, there's a boy, newly single and guileless, just waiting to sweep us off our feet.