What I Learned From My 5 Worst Dates

I was in my college's dining hall, on the very first date of my life. We were eating under bad fluorescent lighting surrounded by handfuls of random fellow students. My date reached across our plates piled high with limp pasta and wilted salad and looked deep into my eyes. He told me he was in love and wanted to marry me.

Just what every girl wants to hear on a first date. I nodded, not-so-subtly removed my hand from his, and asked what his last name was.

This was, of course, only one of many bad dates -- which, in an era of heightened matches and lessened connections, is kind of par for the course. The good news is that bad dates carry lots of valuable wisdom that extends far beyond a few precious, cringe-worthy moments. In no particular order, here are my top-five lessons.

Sometimes, it's totally OK to get up and leave

I met up with a man I'd met online at Blue Dog -- where I should really stop going for first dates in general, since I love it there and these bad memories are ruining my happy place. This particular date had clearly lied about his age. It was so obvious, my head was swimming with where this guy might have been when JFK was assassinated, or what it was like to watch the moon landing on TV.

Granted, I'd had weird vibes about him throughout the day of back-and-forth texts, but decided to go anyway. He was 30 minutes late, and greeted me with his own reservations: "You know," he said by way of introduction, "I had thought of canceling but decided to show up. I just think we should go Dutch. It's not going to work out."

"There's never any reason to torture yourself."

I should have left, I know. But I stayed. My date spent the remainder of our time together grilling me on why I'm not married, why I don't have children, and do I want children? Oh -- and then he told me he'd found me on other dating sites, as well. Before we finally parted ways, he asked why I seemed so angry.

NEVER be afraid to just cut dates short if you're not feeling it. I mean, I had 48 Hours Mystery TiVoing at home! But I felt bad leaving. Now I know there's never any reason to torture yourself.

Always, always keep yourself safe

A guy I'd been on a few dates with told me he'd like to take me on a drive. I foolishly agreed, and quickly discovered we had arrived at a dark, secluded beach.

"When I told my mother about this date, she bought me pepper spray."

He told me he'd always wanted to take a beautiful woman to this spot. My nervous response was to ask him whether she was in the trunk. I was completely creeped out. Seriously: third date, darkened beach, fog…

When I told my mother about this date, she bought me pepper spray. This was way before smartphones or Uber and I still had my red Nokia brick phone, may it rest in peace. There's a reason they never run out of programming ideas on the ID channel.

Don't wait until you're stranded to recognize red flags

A 40-something-year-old man invited me to a Labor Day party at a fancy hotel, where he decided to drop ecstasy in the bathroom.

Yeah, at almost 30 I was more than capable of reading the red flags -- like the time he'd grabbed my arm to keep me from leaving his house. This guy clearly had a problem with self-control. Why else would a middle-aged guy be acting like a 20-year-old with a substance-abuse issue? Long story short, the security guards told me he had to leave but I could stay. I left -- alone -- and never spoke to him again.

Red flags are important enough that you should be looking for them early on -- preferably before you're stuck somewhere with a guy high on ecstasy who has temper problems.

Immediately ditch anyone who shames you

I got involved with a man who seemed like a really great guy, and who I found absolutely hilarious. He was my first long-term boyfriend, and we joked around constantly. But I quickly lost the ability to see when he'd crossed boundaries with his attempts at humor.

"'You're about six chips away from obese,' he told me."

One day I was sitting in his passenger's seat at Whole Foods (supermarket date!), when we saw an obese woman struggling to get out of her car. Without missing a beat, my funny-as-hell boyfriend turned to me.

"You're about six chips away from obese," he said. I felt my stomach drop. This was the last in a series of comments from him and his father, who'd told me to go on Survivor to lose weight. So, yeah, charm runs in that family. Being a big believer in eating your feelings, I gained more weight during that relationship than any other in my life. Some stuff just will never be funny, whether you mean it to or not.

Don't DWG (date while grieving)

I made the brilliant decision once to get involved with a guy whose ex-girlfriend (and one of my best friends) had recently died in a car accident. At the time, we were absolute messes reaching out for comfort without any clue how mismatched we were. Our first date was to the El Capitan Theatre, a classic Los Angeles landmark, which was playing a 2003 kids movie called Brother Bear. The film has a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which should give you a clue on what we were in for.

We were the only adults without children in the entire theater. At the end of the movie, he sat there staring at the credits, ignoring me when I asked if we could leave. When we finally did get up, he was upset that I didn't find the joy in watching a movie for 3-year-olds… and proceeded to throw a temper tantrum outside on the corner of Hollywood Blvd.

I got a good reality check that day -- that at 25, building a relationship on extreme emotions doesn't give you stability at all. Best to let yourself grief and go through your shit before taking on anyone else's -- or laying yours on a partner.

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Meredith Lee is a Thrillist contributor who is single and forced to date a lot when she really wants to stay home. Follow her or send her snacks on Twitter: @meralee727.