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Here’s How to Answer, "What Are You Looking For?" When Dating—Even When You’re Not Exactly Sure

psychologist-approved advice for everyone

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Dasha Burobina for PureWow

Every new relationship encounters a pivotal moment: what are you looking for? For women, it’s typically a question we ask when our minds are on commitment. (Better known as the talk.) Yet for men, it can only go one of two ways. He either has his taxi cab light on—and he’s ready to go to Tiffany’s for a ring—or more popularly, he has no idea what he wants. (But he loves having fun with you!!). 

Theoretically, this conversation should be cut and dry. You ask ‘What are you looking for,’ and he answers by saying a) “I want something serious” or b) “I'm not looking for commitment.” In reality, however, you’ll probably get a garbled response that echos the panic of forgetting a school presentation. This is because he can sense you’re looking for more (you wouldn’t be asking the question if you didn’t), and he doesn’t know how to say, “I have no idea what I want” without immediately upending the relationship. 

The best way to reach common ground? Communication. That’s why I spoke to four psychologists and relationship coaches who can help you answer, “What are you looking for” when it comes to dating. Whether you’re a woman who wants something serious or a man who just wants to keep things casual, here is their best advice. 

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Meet The Experts

  • Michael Nettis-Benstock is a licensed psychologist at the Williamsburg Therapy Group who provides individual and couples therapy to adults of all ages. He received his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, and he completed his pre-doctoral internship at the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Currently, he works from a psychodynamic, attachment-based approach in that he emphasizes the role that early-life relationships and experiences have in forming an individual’s experience and connections. 
  • Dr. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn is a Kinsey-certified sexologist, tenured professor of relational communication and award-winning sex researcher/ dating coach based in Los Angeles. She continues to conduct quantitative research at California State University Fullerton and hosts a podcast called Luvbites by Dr. Tara that focuses on sexual wellness and sexploration. Her goal is to normalize sex talks, and help people feel more sexually fulfilled through confidence and communication coaching.
  • Rachel DeAlto, CSP, has a Master’s in psychology and the is the relationship expert at dating app Stir. She has achieved the designation of Certified Speaking Professional® through the National Speakers Association, and she’s the author of relatable: How to Connect with Anyone Anywhere. She has also appeared as an expert on Lifetime’s Married at First Sight, TLC’s Kate+Date, and over 200+ national media outlets. Rachel speaks on relationship building, the power of connection, and authenticity with her most recent TEDx talk: Being Authentic in a Filtered World.
  • Dr. Morgan Anderson is a clinical psychologist, leading attachment theory expert, and top relationship coach based out of  Montana. She created the E.S.L. Relationship Method—Empowered.Secure.Loved.—which is a program designed to get women off the dating rollercoaster, raise their self-worth, and attract the healthy relationships. She is also the author of Love Magnet and host of the Let's Get Vulnerable podcast (5M+ downloads). 

How to Answer 'What Are You Looking for?' When Dating

1. The Core Values Answer: “I Want Someone Adventurous”

“Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want,” DeAlto advises. “It can be tempting to start with all the things you’ve found wrong in previous relationships… things like ‘I don’t want someone obsessed with the gym’ or ‘I definitely don’t want anyone who works too much.’ Instead, you want to focus on what you do want. Something like, ‘I would love to be with someone who has a great work-life balance.” She also adds: “Keep it short and positive. A list of 20 qualities can be overwhelming and off putting. Mention two to three core values you want in a partner. Things like humor, ambition and kindness.”

2. The Clear and Direct Answer: “I Want Something Casual”

“If you know what you’re looking for, try to communicate it as clearly as you can. Honesty is an important step in the process towards respecting yourself and the person you’re dating,” says Benstock. Naturally, Dr. Tara also backs this, explaining: “Honesty is key when it comes to dating success. When people lie about what they actually want, they end up breaking their own boundaries.” The first way I’d answer, ‘What are you looking for’ is to honestly say the type of relationship you’re looking for. For example, ‘I am looking to be in a long-term relationship’ or ‘I am looking for something casual for now because I’m moving soon.’ Honesty is the best policy.”

3. The Flexible Answer: “I’m Open to Something Serious if It Develops”

According to Morgan, “It’s easy to feel pressured to try to give an answer that would put you in a box, and you might feel obligated to say something like, ‘I’m looking for something serious’ or ‘I’m just looking for something fun.” (Wink, wink, guys.) “But the reality is, you can answer this question in a nuanced, honest way that doesn’t put you in a box. You can say something like, ‘I am open to connecting with people and seeing what develops.’ Another way to say this is, ‘I am enjoying connecting and getting to know people, and I am open to something serious if it develops.’ This allows you to be honest about you knowing what you want and what you’re looking for. You’re not pigeonholing yourself into something serious, but it shows an openness that—if the right person wants to build a healthy relationship with you—then you are open to it.”

3 Things to Look for in a Relationship

  • Values: What is important to you? Per Morgan, these are things that really matter in your life (and the life you envision for yourself). “It could be your faith, your family or your physical health and taking care of yourself. Do you value travel or new experiences? If so, you may be incompatible with someone who wants to stay home and live in the town that they grew up in.” She also adds, “Do you want children? What does that look like if so? Knowing what’s a non-negotiable is essential before you start dating. Sometimes we can let the influence of someone we like impact our values.” 
  • Mutual Attraction: “Attraction can come in many forms and goes way beyond the physical, explains Benstock. “Give yourself room to be surprised and don’t limit yourself to ‘a type.’” (Read: Contra-dating.) “Do I feel myself drawn to this person? Am I excited about spending time with them and learning more about them? Do they give me butterflies or kinda make me wanna puke?” According to Benstock, it’s better to be honest with yourself if you’re getting the ick early on (spoiler: it doesn’t go away).  
  • Communication: “Can you be yourself? Do they listen to you? How are conflicts handled?” DeAlto asks. Benstock explains, “The relationship should feel like it’s flowing—and like you’re comfortable communicating more often than not. Is this person effective in sharing their feelings, wants, needs and desires? Are they open and receptive to hearing yours? What about receiving feedback? Are you able to (relatively) comfortably navigate disagreements or painful feelings? If a relationship feels too much like a second job, it’s probably time to take a closer look. Have a conversation about your concerns. If nothing changes, it could be time to move on.”

How to Know if You're Compatible With Your Date

Dr. Tara says, “Another way to answer ‘what are you looking for’ is by starting a dialogue. Maybe ask the other person first, ‘Well, what about you? What are you looking for?’ in order to gauge what type of relationship they are looking for. It can be informative for you to learn about them first—especially when it comes to compatibility.” To that end, she adds, “Usually, you can feel compatibility in the natural chemistry and flow of conversation. But a good way to test this is by checking the reciprocity in communication. You want to aim for about 50/50 on a first date. Reciprocity helps ensure both people on the date are having a full, vibrant, and interesting conversation. A lack of reciprocity is usually indicative of incompatibility. If you ask your date a question, use their response to see if they’re aligned with what you believe in and what you desire for yourself.”

Morgan also notes: “It’s important to be curious without making assumptions. If someone says they’re looking for something casual, you can respond by asking, ‘Are you open to something serious if it develops?’ A lot of us, especially when we don’t get the response we want, assume the relationship is doomed to fail. But be willing to be curious and ask clarifying questions. If you’re hoping for something serious and you ask someone, ‘What are you looking for?’ don’t lose sight of your values. If they say something like, ‘I don’t want anything serious,’ or, ‘I just want to hook up,’ you need to re-evaluate whether you want to invest your time with this person. Ultimately, you want to invest your time in dating people who want to build the same kind of relationship. If they say things like, ‘I am open to getting to know you right now,’ or, ‘I’m enjoying dating,’ or, ‘I’m open to something serious if it develops,’ then that’s a definite green flag.”

The Bottom Line

If you’re still wondering, how do I answer what I’m looking for, it’s really about being honest with yourself. On one hand, that means that it’s OK to pause before you jump into a serious relationship—openness and curiosity are your friends here. It also means dating through the lens of what *you* want you want, whether that’s a life of travel or family with kids. Forget the person you’re seeing for a second and ask yourself: do you envision three kids and golden retriever in the next five years? If so, there’s no time like the present to cut the casual guy loose (read: Soonicorn). If not, it’s best to be clear about where you’re coming from—and make sure the person you’re dating has travel miles to spare

Either way, the lesson is about how communication influences compatibility. (Yes, men, I’m talking to you.) Now more than ever, women seem to be sick of vague responses and confusion when it comes to commitment. They’re more inclined to ditch a first date—especially if he has no idea what he wants. If I were you (guys), I would start to get clear on what you’re looking for. All it takes is the right guy—perhaps in finance, 6’5, blue eyes—to lock down the girl you’ve been stringing along for months. 

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Associate Editor

Sydney Meister is PureWow's Associate Editor, covering everything from dating trends and relationship advice (here's looking at you, 'soonicorns') to interior design, beauty...