How Long Should a First Date Last?

Dating is filled with uncertainty. It makes sense: there are so many variables. Picking the right place to go, coming up with interesting conversation, and even just your mood on the day of the date can make the difference between a good date and a bad date.

And you might not think the length of the date matters one way or the other, but even the best date can go south if the date starts to drag…but then again, what if it’s going well? What if it’s one of those one-in-a-million nights where neither of you seems to want the date to end.

interracial couple on a lunch date

If you’re planning an upcoming first date, here are some tips on deciding how long it should last.

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Match the length to the occasion

Let’s start with the basics: do you know what kind of date you’ve got planned? Are you going with dinner and a movie, a ball game, a hardcore hike? In some cases, whatever activity you’ve got planned will dictate the minimum length of the date. For example, the classic dinner and a movie will probably be about three hours: two hours for the movie and another hour for dinner.

There’s a reason it’s a classic: there’s a set beginning point and a natural end to the date. It leaves very little room for a misstep. While there’s a little flexibility in how long a meal might last, once the check comes, there’s a natural end to the night. Whether one or both of you doesn’t feel the spark or you just don’t want to overdo it, using the end of the meal as the end of the night gives you a natural, polite way to say goodbye.

If you choose a less conventional date, things may be a little less clear. Some people like to spend hours in a museum, for example, while other people may zip through in half an hour. That in itself may be a great way to tell if you and your date are suited for each other. But in some situations—most situations, actually—it may not seem particularly polite to dip out as soon as you can tell someone isn’t for you.

Open-ended dates can make it awkward to say your goodbyes if there doesn’t seem to be a natural out.

That said, if you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe on a date, etiquette goes out the window: you’re completely in the right to end the date, hurt feelings or not.

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If it goes well…

If you and your date are both having a great time, there are very few reasons to enforce a hard stop to a date. Unless you’ve got someplace to be, enjoy each other’s company and enjoy getting to know each other. While there are definitely social dynamics at play, dating doesn’t have to be a chess game where every move is part of a larger strategy. It’s okay to throw caution to the wind every now and then.

Sometimes the sparks fly, and you end up on one of those one-in-a-million dates that could change your life. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to let a night like that end. If you’re confident that’s what’s going on, there’s no reason to force a Cinderella-style exit.

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If it doesn’t go so well…

On the other hand, if you’re not enjoying yourself, there are plenty of ways to end a date early. Even in dates without an easy out (again, back to dinner and a movie), there’s almost always a respectful way to say “thanks, but no thanks.” There is no minimum length for a date.

That said, being polite is always a good move. Outside of feeling unsafe, don’t just excuse yourself to go to the restroom and leave out the back door. If you’re not comfortable saying “thank you for a nice evening, but I’m just not feeling a connection,” it’s perfectly fine to tell a small white lie, like telling your date you’ve got an early day tomorrow or that you’ve just realized you’re late for an appointment.

Some people will take the hint—and they may even be feeling the same way and will be grateful you took the initiative to bring things to a close.

If someone doesn’t take the hint after that, it’s still best practice to stay polite, even if you’re not comfortable being direct.

You can be polite without sending mixed messages: you can tell the person you’re not interested, or if you don’t feel like you can do that, you’re not obligated to keep the conversation going. Let the person know you’re not available (“sorry, just saw your text! Thanks for the invite, but I’m swamped for the next few weeks!”), but if they persist, you’re in the clear to stop responding.

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Consider a multi-part date

One way to give yourself options whether the date is good or bad is to plan ahead and come up with a few different ideas that might go together well. That way, if things do go well, you have the option of keeping the date going, but if not, the date can end naturally—ideally something a little more fluid than dinner and a movie. Think lunch and a walk in the park, with the possibility of coffee after.

It also lets you and your date see each other in a few different settings, which can give you both perspective and an opportunity to see multiple sides of each other. For example, you may not be great with initial small-talk over dinner, but you may loosen up over a few rounds of bowling.

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A good rule of thumb: Leave them wanting more

If all of these variables make your head hurt, here’s the bottom line: when in doubt, keep it short. Trust your instincts, but too short a date is better than too long. Even early on, the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder” rings true.

There will always be time for a second date as long as you don’t overdo the first one.