Just as it’s much easier to fire off cutting snark than offer constructive criticism, advice on dating and relationships tends to focus on the negative. So many warnings on what not to say or do, the ones to avoid, the dangers. But what about the good stuff? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear we’re getting something right, receive a little encouragement or, even better, a handy guide to best practice. We know all about the red flags, but their more positive, cheerleading green cousins are just as important. We’ve scorched the earth, here come the green shoots. I’ve trawled expert advice, the soothsayers of social media, idiots with broadband, and even delved into my own experiences for the ultimate list of romantic five-star ratings that say, hey, maybe this is going somewhere. Never accept any less than the absolute best in show.
The biggest green flag on someone’s dating profile is variety: plenty of pictures with friends, family – maybe even pets – so you can get a handle on who they are and how you could fit into their life (and also whether they have any good-looking friends who might suit you better). Images should be super-fresh – no decades-old selfies snapped in smeared bathroom mirrors, and no photos with exes. An open mind is good, too: according to dating app Bumble, a third of its users are more open to travel and start a relationship with people from different places – a sign its criteria aren’t ridiculously prescriptive. Just think: long-distance lovers might bring you something interesting from the big Robert Dyas in their town.
Pleased to see you
This always applies, actually – whether first laying eyes on you sauntering into the bar, or 10 years later, in the car park, in sideways rain, with 10 carrier bags, your face longer than the queues for the toilets at Latitude.
They compliment you
And I don’t mean “nice arse”.
They’re keen to impress
Playing it cool is so boring, so over, such a cliche. We’re not teenagers any more. Play it hot. Wow one another. They should dress for the date as if they mean business. Personality should be fully electrified. Humour should be on its A-game.
Pleasant, non-honking breath that shows they’re intimate with their toothbrush and that they care about how they’re perceived, not just the faux minty tang from a hastily sucked Polo seconds before arrival. Smoking should only be done glamorously, at will readings or during multimillion-dollar jewellery heists, or wretchedly, in Paris, lamenting an extramarital bunk-up – so let’s have none of that.
You both share
Jokes, traumas, saliva. Sharing is caring. Unless it’s food of course.
Refuses the menu with calories on it
Or at least doesn’t read it out like they’re announcing the lottery numbers.
Asks for extra gravy
You need someone who’ll brave the truth: there’s never enough gravy. You need a warrior to go into battle and ask (politely) for more of it, or indeed anything. Mild-mannered types happy to simper, “Oh yes, it’s delicious, thank you,” as they miserably chew stony, desiccated roast potatoes, or a yorkshire pudding with the texture of a duvet, need not apply. See also: is willing to request a nicer table when the maitre d’ plonks you by the toilets in a restaurant that’s also hosting a private party for people who eat only half-defrosted seafood.
Doesn’t flinch when you order something no sane person would eat on a first date
If they can’t handle your “orders a tripe and kidney tempura platter for three”, they don’t deserve your “offers up three-quarters of a tarte tatin – no strings, lots of custard”.
The conversation flows
BUT you shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of a comfortable silence. (If silence is mortifying to you, a tip from me: talk about how you find silence uncomfortable! Make a joke about it! The best way to talk your way out of a wordless lull is … to talk about talking. Try it.)
They’re not afraid to look silly
A first date is all about embarrassing childhood stories and gigantic screw-ups at work. Yes, we want to hear about the time you wet yourself in the middle of Waitrose, aged 26. Or accidentally sexted your boss. The self-deprecating little failures we’re prepared to reveal say a lot about how we handle difficult situations in the day-to-day.
They’re not afraid to talk about the future
Yes, even on a first date. Let go of the mindset that it’s somehow “crazy” or “stalkerish” to talk about long-term hopes – they don’t have to relate to the person in front of you. Want to get married one day? Tell them! Excited about finally getting to change a baby’s cataclysmic nappy on the hard shoulder of the M6? Be open! You’re not asking them to sign a contract, it’s part of you, it’s conversation; you know where you are with someone who can tell you this on a first date. And if your aspirations don’t align, you know not to bother with a second date. (Please consider the alternative: deranged couples who daren’t have the “talk” and so casually mention at their youngest’s christening that they never really wanted to get married or have kids.)
They’re interested in you
They ask you questions about you, get you to elaborate, and stay awake. There should also be eye contact (and some subtle checking you out across the table when they think you’re not looking).
Not just a good listener, but an active one
Anyone can sit and nod and keep stumm for 10 minutes while their date unloads a forensic rundown of every trivial grievance they’ve experienced since graduation, but are they listening? Do they check back in, recall names and places? Can they cross-reference your ding-dong with Rita from accounts in 2017 with Simon from HR being snappy with you at the last work barbecue before Covid? Keeper!
You laugh a lot together
In man/woman dates, often a man will act as if he’s the standup comedian and the woman is his receptive audience, but laughter should be an exchange, not a broadcast. Jokes drying up? Drop a banana skin on the restaurant floor and see what happens. Laughter must be genuine, too – no polite tittering at gags that land harder than your Uncle Steve after 10 pints of IPA. (LGBTQ+ people: don’t worry, we’re always funny.)
They stay off their phone
That thing should be on silent, in a pocket, or a bag. Not face down on the table. Untouched. Ignored. Even if there’s a fire.
We’ve all been on that date that drags harder than the middle of Titus Andronicus, but when you feel as if you have only just arrived – indeed, maybe your arm is still in one sleeve of your coat – and waiting staff are mopping over your Grensons and switching the lights off, this is green for go.
They verbalise what they’re feeling
Verbalise. (I feel I should be wearing loose-fitting hessian when I use that word.) Anyway, this is a fancy way of saying that they tell you they’ve had a good time, you’re great, and they’d like to see you again. Obviously if the date has felt like 90 minutes circling a hell-mouth with someone who has the personality of a bottle of antibiotics, and their verbalisations are delusional claptrap, this flag turns from green to red.
You don’t want the date to end
You try desperately to keep the conversation going. What’s your favourite colour M&M? What does outer space taste like?! Have you ever toasted a bagel with a pair of straighteners? Are you the Kelly, Michelle or Beyoncé of your family? Alternatively, you prolong the night by bar-hopping between increasingly insalubrious places, until you find yourself in a pub by a market, downing shots next to a man who just delivered 200 animal carcasses from Jutland.
Open and honest
So many of us hesitate to express our feelings; it can be hard to break the habit. When someone first starts being open and confessional, you might be nervously peeking around for hidden cameras in case it’s a TikTok stunt, or dismiss it as vapid psychobabble. But it’s good to tune in, say how you feel – so long as it’s constructive and not just repetitive moaning about your ingrown toenail.
Not afraid to disagree
Surrounding yourself with yes men and women is an extremely dangerous habit to get into. So long as they’re respectful of your point of view – assuming it isn’t a horrible one – then why not duke it out and try to win each other round or, better still, agree to disagree. (Note: some things are not up for debate, like basic human rights, and which was the best Sugababes lineup.)
Has a decent relationship with their ex …
… or at least manages to mention them without frothing at the mouth. Obviously beware if they over-eulogise their ex, or still take them on surprise trips to Sorrento, but residual loathing or anger from past loves will end up tainting your relationship. The cleaner the slate, the greener the flag. (Maybe put your foot down if the ex seems to be staying over a lot, until one day your partner says: “Imagine if you two … kissed?”)
You’re on a similar wavelength
Dating people just like yourself is boring – just hump a mirror and have done with it. But avoiding conflict means sharing similar values at least; it may help if you’re also on a common footing when it comes to finances, the demands your job exerts on your free time, and how many hours you’re prepared to binge on Netflix. (Three episodes of 45 minutes in one day is enough for anyone! Go outside! Touch the bark of a tree! It smells weird in here!)
Talks positively about friends and family
Only if they’re in their lives, of course. If they aren’t in touch with family, they should feel able to talk about it.
You can be yourself with them
The joy of being able to tell someone anything, without judgment. Yes! Vengaboys’ We Like to Party! was top five in my Spotify Unwrapped! I’m not sorry!
They’re kind to others
The biggest tell of how we might act inside a romantic relationship is the way we treat others outside of one – even tiny interactions with baristas, shop assistants, and the man who sings through a traffic cone outside the big Boots at Piccadilly Circus.
They have good morals
“Not a murderer” probably isn’t enough.
Good argument etiquette
Look, we all have barneys every now and again, but does your partner give you enough space to vent? Or do they constantly interrupt, get defensive, storm off or, worse, order you to calm down? Nobody’s perfect, of course, so if they lose their cool or have difficulty expressing themselves, they should be willing to work on it.
Pro tip: telling someone to calm down during an argument is like cheerfully chucking phosphorus on to a bonfire and expecting to retain your eyebrows.
Is witty without being mean
And I say this as a gay man whose personal pH levels make lemons seem positively sickly. Twenty-four-hour bitching is exhausting – you want isolated incidents of sharp snark that won’t draw blood.
Doesn’t run for trains
Instant tick. Wait for the next one!
Sniffs the milk before pouring it into your tea
An age-old defence mechanism since cave-dwelling times, this means they truly care about your wellbeing.
Never tags you in pics without permission
And understands that you’re happy in your delusion that you always look exactly like your filtered front-facing camera selfies, and not the reality: a Crimewatch photofit of 10 Habsburgs.
Asks before they send nudes
And, should you say yes, sends good nudes. Lighting! Composition! Context! Anything but a slightly out-of-focus strolghino or two sad trifles snapped in a bathroom lit like a cup final.
Thanks people for birthday messages on Facebook
Yes, Facebook is moribund and only his grandmother actually does this, but we should definitely ride for someone with such good manners.
Can keep houseplants alive
Not just your average succulent that anyone can cultivate with an old Gü-pot’s worth of water once a week. I’m talking orchids, fiddle-leaf figs, azaleas. Pick someone who can rear a Boston fern to maturity and you’ll definitely have a terrific nurse when it comes to flu season.
Dogs like them
But please check their pockets for sausages.
Culture and style
Never listens to voicemail
This person is smart, aware that only sociopaths (and helicopter parents) leave voicemails and should not be indulged.
Is willing to try stuff
Curiosity is hot. Try everything. Awful pop-ups with bewildering “fusion menus”. White-water rafting. Acupressure pilates. Kimchi-flavoured Fanta. A Jane McDonald festive spectacular. The three most romantic words are not “I love you”, they’re “let’s do it!”
Doesn’t mock the (terrible) things you love
However, if they use the term “guilty pleasure” – jail. Life in jail. Pleasure is pleasure. We don’t have to pretend to be cool. We’re 38. (I am not 38.)
Owns decent utensils
Must include a set of tongs for flipping bacon/burgers/whatever. Truly the sign of an evolved person who has their shit together is that they’ve graduated beyond using a fish slice for everything (which they erroneously call a spatula).
Folds up their T-shirt sleeve (once)
It’s sexy! Looks as if they’ve made an effort!
Refuses to dress sexily in the gym
You’re not meant to look good in the gym, it’s not fair on the rest of us. You’re supposed to appear moments from spontaneous combustion, wearing faded Bermuda shorts and a free beer-festival T-shirt that says Real Ale Con 2018 – Beauty and the Yeast.
Believes the greatest duet of all time was when Beyoncé sang with Alexandra Burke in the 2008 X Factor final
Acknowledges how lame their social media presence is
I’m sorry, we cannot be in denial about this; it doesn’t matter how many followers you have, our behaviour on these platforms is not normal and we must stop taking it seriously.
Is not on LinkedIn
Knows the difference between Debbie Harry and Blondie
Doesn’t mess you about
Is there when they say they’ll be there, doesn’t play games, texts back within acceptable parameters, doesn’t go off-grid unexpectedly, and when they’re not with you, you don’t feel anxious. You trust them, basically. A lover who’s consistent, reliable and tells the truth is a bigger mental health and energy boost than any wheatgrass smoothie or reiki session.
The little things
They don’t wait until they’re in the doghouse before doing something nice for you. It’s not about being showy or realising your dreams (a giant Ferrero Rocher and a cat that will finally love you back). It’s helping you out, or showing they’re thinking of you. A good luck text before a work presentation, a voice note saying they had a great time last night, taking one annoying errand off your to-do list. Tiny gestures make a big impression.
They give you space
The obsessive honeymoon period is great when you’re in it, but they should know when to back off so you don’t have to entirely abandon the life you had going on before they showed up. Your friends still exist.
They have their own stuff going on
As appealing as the idea of being adored sounds, we’re not Agnetha and Frida from Abba. Someone with a well-rounded social life, or at least commitments that regularly take them away from your loved-up bubble, is much healthier than making you their sole focus, stuck to your side 24/7.
They make you feel good about yourself
When you’re with them, things they say, how they treat you, and their general vibe should make you feel elevated, appreciated and strong. If you go home from a date feeling like you just did three rounds of Squid Game, it might be time to look elsewhere.
The sex works
Chemistry’s a thing. Being in tune between the sheets is a big tick. Even if you don’t share exactly the same desires or fantasies straight off, as your relationship evolves, you will likely grow together if you have a strong foundation.
They include you in their life, and want to be in yours
Taking someone on means you take on everybody around them. They don’t have to love everyone, but must be willing to get involved. Yes, that includes listening to your dad explain, in minute detail, while dinner rapidly congeals, the state of traffic on the Edinburgh bypass – especially by Dreghorn Barracks, pheweeee, pal – and pretending your best friend doesn’t have the most annoying laugh this side of a pack of delinquent hyenas watching reruns of The Young Ones.
You accept it’s all a work-in-progress
We’re flesh and bone, not marble and stone. We’re obsessed by instant sparks and thunderbolts, but a big green flag is acknowledging that you won’t get everything right first time, but by listening, and being patient, you’ll soon learn that taking the last Jaffa Cake is indeed a crime worthy of the death penalty.
Going the distance
Shoulders the burden
Paying bills, cleaning and going to the shop because you forgot milk are common triggers for resentment if one of you is doing more than the other. They should have a fair and/or equal approach to life admin, or if they don’t yet, be willing to learn. Quickly.
They call you out on your bullshit
It’s your party, you can cry if you want to, but don’t expect everyone else to stick around. At first the idea of your every whim being indulged can be appealing, and we’ve all acted like a spoilt toddler at times. Anyone who really cares about you – and stands a chance of not wanting to dump you in the queue for a Cronut at a local artisan bakery – will give you the odd reality check. Go for a partner who reminds you that, no sweetie, it’s not all about you. (If my boyfriend is reading: this does not apply to me, thank you for your understanding.)
They admit when they’re wrong
Still, by a country mile, the sexiest thing anyone can do – other than a fan dance to Gala’s Freed From Desire – is to say, “I got this wrong.” We’re humans, we’re fallible, there is no medal for being right all the time; admitting we ballsed it up is not a weakness, it’s a superpower. That said, no excuse for getting things wrong all the time. Like, learn from the mistakes, don’t just make them over and over. Being willing to work on issues is important.
There’s a distinct lack of drama
There are too many couples who thrive on drama, constantly scrapping and reuniting, or mooning over exes who barely know they’re alive. It’s not sustainable to live like Burton and Taylor (by which I mean Richard and Elizabeth, not Menswear and Swift). Your worth as a couple is not down to how passionate your rucks are – I said rucks – and how frantic the making-up sex is. Life should, on the whole, be drama free, with the odd dip and leap, rather than constantly rocketing between Everest and the Mariana Trench. There’s an old saying that you need to graft to make a relationship work, and, frankly, it’s bollocks. If you wake up every day feeling like you’re about to do a double shift in the salt mines then … maybe you’re in the wrong relationship. There’ll be the odd moment of mid-stakes conflict and drama while you figure each other out, but if external forces out of your control allow, the rest of it should come easily.
They talk you up
When good things happen to you, it’s as if they have happened to them. They’re proud of you, encourage you to be independent and successful, and shine a light on you when you’re being too modest. Everyone needs a hype man, someone sending positive chat about you into the universe and, yes, annoying their friends by mentioning you constantly. What? Have a partner who doesn’t strive to make their social circle convulse with envy whenever your name comes up? Couldn’t be me.
Others talk them up
Engineer an evening with their friends as soon as you can and observe how they talk about them. Obviously you get the odd coterie powered by the depressing renewable energy that is banter, a deep, throbbing magenta flag in itself, but nobody normal would slate a friend to a new partner. You can get an idea of what someone’s like just by the tone close pals or family use when talking about them. (Do listen out for casual references to multiple previous partners who went mysteriously missing, or died in freak accidents.)
Puts the lid back on the toothpaste
It’s just good manners. And if they don’t? Put the flat up for sale, call your brief and destroy everything they love.
Will never make you go on a picnic
Oh yay, let’s eat some ludicrously tiny carbs outdoors. No. It’s wasp Glastonbury. Let’s not pretend this is fun.