I was walking on California's Stinson Beach in August 2009 when I struck up a conversation with a woman who seemed utterly delightful. Captivated, I invited her to dinner at my house that evening.
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While I ate my dinner, she drank hers — then refused to leave. And, according to her, why should she? My acquaintance of 12 hours bizarrely insisted that we were living together. The situation felt menacing — would I find a rabbit stew boiling on the stove? — so I summoned my next-door neighbor, a woman, for help. The two of us spent 45 minutes coaxing my surprise head case to leave, but it took a threat to call the police to finally get her out the door.
Does it jar you to find a man writing about dating safety? Don't let it. As my fatal attraction to that mad mermaid proved, scary situations can pop up for anyone in the dating world — female or male, online or not. That's why everyone who is part of that world must take some basic steps to ensure his or her physical safety. At the very least, consider adopting the approaches below; all of them draw on my 12 years of recent online dating experience.
1. Gentlemen first. When you've exchanged emails with a prospect and you feel it's time to furnish phone numbers, the man should offer his first. If he doesn't, the woman should ask him to do so. I can't think of any good reason why a legitimately eligible man would withhold his digits; if he does, that's ample cause to feel unsafe. Give the dude a pass.
2. Pick a safe spot for your first date. A busy daytime cafe is ideal. There isn't much privacy, but you'll be grateful for the presence of others if an unpleasant situation develops. If your date refuses to meet at a cafe or insists on a less public place, simply move on.
3. Know when to bail. I once had a coffee date with a woman who grew increasingly angry — and vocal — over her mistreatment by an ex-boyfriend. When she turned her attack on me, I got up and left — and was thankful for an audience to witness my exit.
4. Call for backup, Part 1. If a coffee date shows up with a bad attitude, a bad temper or a foul mouth, head for the door. Do likewise if he talks about becoming sexual after 15 minutes, or attempts to corral you into a relationship. If you feel truly threatened, explain the situation to the cafe manager and ask him or her to walk you to your car.
5. Call for backup, Part 2. I was enjoying a second date at a restaurant when my companion took a call during dinner. I was pretty sure I knew what was going on.
"I'm just fine," she told the caller, then stowed the phone with an apologetic smile.
"What would your friend have done if you hadn't picked up?" I asked her.
"She had instructions to call the police," she replied.
Good tip. Smart woman.
6. Ask the right questions. Certain queries can reveal a lot of info in a short amount of time about a person you've just met. You might ask, for example, if your date has close friends: A "yes" indicates he or she is capable of connecting with others; a "no" suggests a lack of intimacy skills.
7. Be safe at home. As I learned the hard way with my would-be Glenn Close, it's unwise to welcome anyone into your abode unless you know them well. If you're unsure, consider asking another couple to join you.
My current girlfriend (whom I met online, by the way) invited me into her home after only our second date. I accepted, thanking her for her trust, but later mentioned that she could have been putting herself at risk.
We all want to believe the best about people, but a date you don't really know deserves only a modicum of trust. So rather than rolling the dice when it comes to your personal safety, try following the steps above. Who knows? They might even be a shortcut to finding the right person out there.