Is dating confusing for you? How do you find safety? How do you keep your self esteem high?If you are just beginning to date for the first time, newly single, long-term single, or somewhere in between, there are many facets of dating that can be both exciting and challenging. For example, when to have sex? And what does “having sex” actually mean to you? Do you want to be friends first and leave all physical contact for after you get to know the person or go with the flow of expressing your sexuality as you choose to? Or, how do you decide something that is in between these two? How has this worked out for you? What about all the physical complications and what about birth control?Besides all the questions above, there is also the question of attraction. How does attraction work? Why do you keep meeting the same “type” of person even if he/she is not working out in the long run? How important is the physical side of things for you? How much do you worry about your own looks?For straight women, it can feel like men have the advantage in the dating world. Women often wonder why the man didn’t call back, even after a very nice time. Women worry about how much to call, how assertive to be, how to get the man’s attention. On the other hand, some women find it hard to be friendly with men because of the unwanted aggressive attention that comes with that.For gay women, it can be hard to find comfortable ways to meet other women, and to have privacy in an often interconnected world where many of the people you might be interested in have already been involved with you or each other!Amidst all the personal considerations, I believe a touchstone to continuously return to is how to find safety for yourself and how to keep your own self esteem intact. What do safely and self esteem mean to you?More on sexualityI wonder how women are deciding about when and how to be sexual when they are dating. It seems to run the gambit from no physical contact and “just friends” until you feel you know the person well, to intercourse at the first date or at a party. Here are a few guidelines that might help you decide what feels right to you:1. Consider how you think and feel about your sexuality. Are you able to enjoy yourself or do you feel inhibited, shy, or ashamed? Do you find yourself worrying about how your body looks so that you are self conscious and not able to let go and relax?Sexuality combined with anxiety is usually not very satisfying. Sometimes women who feel anxious about sex use alcohol or drugs to help calm down and let go. Although it can seem to be helpful, there are risks associated with using substances to relieve anxiety. It is important to recognize what you are doing and think honestly about whether it is working well for you.2. Consider how far you want to go in a sexual encounter. You may feel pressure from your date or more generally from our culture to have intercourse or oral sex. However, there is something to be said for kissing and cuddling. Sex is not only about the “end result” but also the sharing of intimacy and emotional connection. If you feel pressure to go further and you are not sure you want to, I believe it is perfectly legitimate to want a partner who will accept and respect your decisions especially when you are dating and getting to know each other.3. In high school and college these days there are risks that are important to understand and protect yourself from. Kelci Lynn in her article, “College Dating, 10 tips for dating safety” has some great ideas for taking care of yourself. Her main point is to have contingency plans in case you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Some of these include letting someone else know where you are going and when you plan to return, going out with a group, being careful not to drink too much, watching your drink to make sure it doesn’t get spiked, and having cell phone contact with a friend who can rescue you from a bad situation.It is unfortunate that women are thinking more and more about strong protections in the world of dating. It’s important not to feel too discouraged.If you do want to be sexual and don’t have a steady boyfriend, how do you feel after sex with people you don’t know well? It is important to be able to distinguish between the need to have sexual encounters because you feel lonely, insecure, or social pressure to act a certain way, and engaging in sexual activities because you enjoy it and can make sure you are safe and respected. Remember, it is perfectly okay to say “no” at any point. If you find that you are unable to stop yourself from having sex with people when you really don’t want to, that may be a time to get some help, possibly therapy, about this.Many women prefer to know the person they are being intimate with. This adds to the safety and mutual respect of the experience. I would also recommend some discussion about history, physical and sexual. This can feel extremely uncomfortable, but not impossible! Remember that not all sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented by using condoms!It may feel like dating has become a minefield of danger and complication these days. It is important not to give up on figuring out what you want for yourself to stay safe and have positive experiences. It is also very important to learn how to forgive yourself if you had a bad experience or an STD scare and to learn from that experience. And of course, it is also important to have a trusted method of birth control in place.When to start over with someone elseIf you are single and looking for a partner, it can be very hard to know when to continue seeing someone and when to move on to someone else. A big part of this difficulty can be the fear that there will not be anyone else if you let go of the person you are with.What can help you decide if you are investing in someone who is not right for you? As a start, ask yourself, does this person have personal qualities I respect and value aside from money or looks. Does he/she listen to my concerns and make an effort to meet me half-way when conflicts arise? Do they show signs of addictive behavior without any desire to address this? Do I ever feel afraid that the person would physically hurt me?Although of course no one is perfect, certain behaviors/problems can cause serious relationship problems. However, if you are tired of looking for someone, have had a history of relationship disappointments, or feel wowed by someone physically, it can be tough to decide to turn away from them or return to single life that seems so much more difficult than having a partner.Although women have many more freedoms and rights in our society currently, there are still ways that women can feel “less than” men. If a woman wants to be in a relationship and doesn’t find someone, she can easily feel there is something “wrong” with her. It can feel like the whole world is in a couple except for you. And the pressure to find someone can be very intense.How to cope with the pressures of datingFeeling secure on your own is the best way to cope with the pressure to find a partner. Once you are in a relationship, it is very helpful to feel like you could survive a break-up and continue to have a meaningful life. If you find someone you are very drawn to, the fear of loss can be very anxiety producing. Learning how to have a good life as a single person is recommended.It is helpful to work with yourself about what other people think of you. It is so easy to worry and project that others think you are a failure or that something is wrong about you. How can you soothe yourself, believe in yourself more, and learn how to turn what seems like failure into learning experience? There may not seem to be an easy way to do this. One suggestion is to understand and discover how you feel about making friends, both with yourself and with others. It may sound trite, but John Gottman, a noted marriage therapist and relationship researcher says that one of the most important parts of an intimate relationship is the friendship of the partners.If you find that you have good friends, both male and female, it is important to give yourself credit and find optimism for yourself. If you need help to have more friends, this is a goal you can work on. Even if you experience shyness, have had rejection, or difficult endings with friends, it is never too late to examine how you are in relationships with others and find ways to improve.Finally, even with all the complexity, anxiety, and personal challenges, dating can still be fun. Intimate personal contact with other human beings is a big part of the joy of life. However, romantic fantasies can cause emotional pain and stress if you are not prepared to do the emotional work that relationships inevitably bring. Self knowledge and awareness, finding ways to like and enjoy yourself, and the ability to say “no” when you need to, are all important parts of finding the right relationship for you. And then there is the magic of connection and attraction. Enjoy yourself and stay safe.There are 4 blogs that make up this article, Dating 101, Dating 102, Dating 103 and Dating 104.