You are out on a first date with a prospective partner. Over dinner, you enjoyed engaging conversation and great chemistry. But now here comes the bill. Thirty years ago, your server would probably have placed it squarely down in front of the man. Today, it is customarily placed in the middle of the table, creating perhaps the first awkward moment of the evening.
What happens now?
The arrival of the check can spark a showdown if the man grabs it and the woman insists on paying half, or a staredown if he doesn't. Why is this important? Because research indicates that the party who pays for a first date shapes the expectations of what is going to happen next.
True, expectations are also shaped by other factors, such as the price tag and choice of venue. A man who springs for an expensive meal and a bottle of wine served at a candlelit table in a swanky restaurant might have different expectations than a man who is able to grab two stools on the fly in a crowded sports bar.
Yet across the board, unless a couple goes Dutch, both men and women consider who pays for a date—although they interpret the decision very differently.
Research by Marisa Cohen (2016) reveals that women believe that men who pay for a date are more likely to be attracted to them.[i] Yet men view payment in a very different light.
Footing the Bill as a Foot In The Door
Research by Emmers-Sommer et al. (2010) acknowledged that abundant research indicates that heterosexual dating scripts remain quite traditional, with the man expected to ask a woman out, and to pay for the date.[ii] Their study further revealed that although modern singles believe it is appropriate for either party to initiate a first date, in reality, most men still do so.
They found similar results regarding who should pay for a first date. While both men and women expressed their belief in the appropriateness of either party grabbing the bill, they also both reported that they believed the man should always pay for a first date.
Emmers-Sommer et al. also found that men have higher first date sexual expectations than women. They found this to be particularly true when the man pays for the date, and when the date takes place at an apartment, versus in public, such as at a restaurant or the movies.
They discovered even more potentially troubling findings when the woman was the instigator: When a woman invited a man on a date, paid for the date, and had the date at her apartment, men had higher rape-myth acceptance beliefs as compared to dates the man initiated and paid for, or where either partner initiated the date and they went Dutch.
Modern Trends Regarding First Date Funding
Taking these findings in context, there are many first date bill-splitting/paying scenarios that will not necessarily trigger false expectations, which some would argue might be for the best. A 2017 Wall Street Journal article by Khadeeja Safdar ("Who Pays on the First Date?: No One Knows Anymore—Online Dating, Evolving Gender Roles Complicate the Fake Wallet Reach") reported that in an age of evolving gender roles and Internet dating, we are unsure about who should engage in “the reach” for the bill.[iii]
Safdar describes several modern end-of-the-meal scenarios ranging from both parties engaging in a “gunfighter's staredown” once the bill arrives, to disregarding the advice of etiquette experts that “if you invite, you pay” because one of the parties may not realize they are on a date. Safdar even shared the experience of a woman who agreed to a date with a man she met on Tinder, only to receive a $20 invoice via the mobile-payment app Venmo after she arrived home, for her portion of the meal. She didn´t pay the bill, and I am guessing they did not have a second date.
When Great Expectations Are False Expectations
False expectations of a woman´s sexual responsiveness on a first date based on who pays the bill and where the date occurs has intense practical significance in a day and age where sexual miscommunication leads to awkward situations, compromised friendships, or worse. From campus sexual assault to situational acquaintance rape, many first dates with mismatched expectations end in disaster, both emotionally and physically.
First daters are on unfamiliar territory when it comes to reading a dinner partner’s expressed level of romantic interest because at that early stage of a relationship, they are still basically strangers. Consequently, perceptions are often incorrect. Both parties should move slowly on a first date in order to ensure clear communication, avoid false expectations, and promote healthy relational choices.
Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD, or see the full listing of her Psychology Today posts.
[i] Marisa T. Cohen, “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191.
[ii] Tara M. Emmers-Sommer, Jenny Farrell, Ashlyn Gentry, Shannon Stevens, Justin Eckstein, Joseph Battocletti, and Carly Gardener, "First Date Sexual Expectations: The Effects of Who Asked, Who Paid, Date Location, and Gender," Communication Studies 61, no. 3 (2010): 339-355.
[iii] Khadeeja Safdar,"Who Pays on the First Date? No One Knows Anymore --- Online Dating, Evolving Gender Roles Complicate the Fake Wallet Reach," Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition (June 27, 2017): A.1.