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The buddy system

Dating doesn’t have to be terrifying, when it involves some friends and a little creativity.

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The concept of a “friend date” isn’t so bizarre if you regularly take your best pal to a movie. The concept of “regular dates,” however, is a different story. This tiny shift brings about a lot of anxiety. What is the difference between a fun and memorable evening with a friend and entertaining someone you’d probably like to kiss? The disparity is all in our heads. But how do we reconcile this difference while maintaining our pride? Some people in our fine city want to actively bridge the gap between the two—blur the lines and inject a sense of electric anxiety into their “friend dates.” They do it for entertainment, recreation, personal study and as a way to have one of those “classic” dating experiences that expired in the 1950s. Dating with friends (or dating your friends) has to have a degree of foolishness, if only to keep the smiles on everybody’s faces.

Robbie MacGregor whipped up a deep-fried date idea for his two closest friends, called The Three Piece Challenge. The two willing participants would offer themselves up for a friendly double-date to anyone who would buy them a three-piece fish-and-chip dinner. “Anyone could ask participants out and they had to agree. The challenge was gonna be interesting because there was to be one proviso, and only one proviso—you had to be willing to foot the bill for a fish-and-chip dinner. Basically, if a person could agree to pick up the tab on, like, the least expensive, most quintessentially north-end meal, we assumed they were sufficiently committed and participants would be sufficiently motivated.”

It was an exercise in fun that never saw the light of day, but the planning and discussions that preceded it revealed how hard it is to achieve any reasonable facsimile of a traditional date. When the built-in tension of a first date was applied to this friendly challenge, it became more like a game, like going to see a horror movie for the fun of being scared.

In September of last year, friends, roommates and insurance agents Craig Martell (self-proclaimed “embarrassingly super-romantic”) and Sam Donnelly were reading Archie comics and lamenting the lost art of dating. Frustrated with the claim that flowers, a box of chocolates, a candle-lit dinner and a “date” movie are just too cheesy to pull off these days, they came up with a plan. “We just missed the nervous energy: ‘Am I gonna kiss her at the end of the night or what?’ Dates sort of suck and we wanted to do that again. But it’s way harder when you’re 26 and failing miserably,” Martell says. He started a thread on popular messageboard halifaxlocals.com, pitching the idea of a “fake date” for any interested parties. It would be a double-date with him and Donnelly. The one stipulation that was vehemently adhered to was that there would be no kissing, hand holding or blowing of any and all parties at the end of the night. This was a fake date, after all.

Martell admits, “One of the main reasons I put that stipulation in is because ’s super cool and charming. He’ll get someone trying to make out with him and I’ll be like, ‘This sucks.’” The thread was very popular and the response was more than either expected. Martell calls it a “cult phenomenon,” and says people still ask him about it, which surprises him. “It seems like everyone would rather have their romance lived vicariously through someone else, or some movie or something. Let’s bring back the romantic date, let’s hold radios above our heads outside of windows.”

Also touched with all the traits of a Cameron Crowe or John Hughes movie is The Blind Date Dinner Club. Susan (not her real name) and five of her friends started the club in the summer of 2004 and were immediately faced with an almost overwhelming amount of interest. Of course, no club would be complete without badges. They stitched sweet little embroidered patches that they all wore on their cardigans.

“We decided to arrange a series of bi-weekly group dates that would last through the summer. We drew names and were each responsible for finding a date for the person whose name we drew.” The folks would be matched and they would be required to make a dish to bring to the potluck dinner date. Again, being in a group and going through the dating process with a friend was essential—as were copious amounts of wine. “Once we were in a group environment, the mood shifted, and we all felt less alone. It being Halifax, a lot of the dates would find themselves in familiar company. It feels good to be surprised, willingly embarrassed in front of your friends, to meet new people, eat home-cooked food and indulge in a bit of mischief.” Although the club is traditional in one sense (blind dates, home-cooked meals), it was definitely of a tongue-in-cheek nature. As with the other projects, friends were involved, and the archaic qualities of dating become part of the game.

“Like everything old and quaint, we tend to take it as whimsy. However, there must be something pretty fundamental about courtship because it spans so many eras and cultures.” Susan admits that when it comes to dating, “The more you do it, the easier it gets. We definitely felt pretty nerdy at first because asking a date on behalf of a friend is very junior high school. We sort of hid behind the premise of the game, and that gave us some safety.”

While these ideas are all in the name of fun, it’s telling that most of us feel the need to shield ourselves from rejection and from appearing too earnest. Concocting an elaborate scheme for a date provides enough of a buffer to combat some of the usual anxiety. MacGregor notes, “I think a lot of people wouldn’t mind having an excuse to ask out a friend. Turning dating into a game, or a project, makes it pretty much impossible to judge the daters and prevents people from reading into the occasion in the usual ways. It seems like a lot of people are of the opinion that you only hang out with/date people you want to fuck, and maybe have relationships with, when the reality of a first date is, you usually don’t know somebody well enough to know what you want.” When dating becomes a game played with friends, it proves to be much more secure and rewarding than learning about someone via an internet dating website. And also way more fun.

Stephanie Johns goes on semi-regular dates at Robie Food. They aren’t particularly creative, but they’re still nice.

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