Split the check? Dating conundrums in the era of gender parity



Girls like cooking, dressing up, and being asked out; boys like sports, tinkering, and being in charge, which includes handling and investing the money. These are the messages most of us over 50 years of age grew up with. They remain firmly planted in our brains, even as etiquette rules change to meet our new gender-equal economy.

Nowadays, more women work and want to be viewed as equals; some even have become the major breadwinner in heterosexual couples, do their own investing, and earn more than their male peers and potential dating partners. It’s important also to consider cultural differences such as beliefs, behaviors, and values based on nationality, religion, gender, race, political affiliation, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and individual family rules.

Yet, old rules evolve all the time. This begs several questions: Should the guy still be the one who always pays, or only initially? After all, splitting a check at a restaurant, the cost of tickets for a play or sporting event, or the price of a trip may be the equitable thing to do, but how do you bring it up? What about gifts? How much to spend? What if you spend more than he does or vice versa? Is that okay? Or is it not worth a big debate? Then, again, if these issues are shoved aside, will resentment build?

What about a gay couple? Who pays then? The one who asked out the other or one who seems to have the bigger bank account and how do you judge that when you barely know their name?

We wondered about this when we each dipped our toes into the dating pool after we both became single. Barbara had been married for 31 years before she was dumped and dated up a storm but now has been with someone for years but remains unmarried with each living in their own homes. Margaret was married for 42 years before her husband died and approached dating more gingerly. She wasn’t interested in it until she ran into a high school acquaintance whom she dated for three years.

We each hadn’t dated since the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Those were the days when a waiter or maitre d’ would never consider handing the bill to anyone but the guy. We weren’t totally clueless, however, about some of the dos and don’ts. Some rules will never change. We knew—from our mothers–not to order the most expensive glass of wine or entrée on the menu and not to order an appetizer or dessert if our date didn’t. However, after decades of our spouses handling the bills, we weren’t sure what to expect with a first date, sometimes a second, or even a third date.

Our new status and independence as singles, however, made us pretty savvy about sharing meal expenses with female friends and sometimes their spouses. We also knew how to calculate a good tip without bringing out the tacky little plastic card with the proper percentages listed or asking who at the table had an accounting degree.

What we each found over time is this rule: there are no rules and your decisions shouldn’t be angst-producing. It doesn’t require studying algorithms, reading surveys online, and polling lots of friends. It’s only a meal or a ticket or several.

We chose to go with our gut, basing our decision on who called whom for that date, what the initial phone, text or email conversation suggested, and whether the guy only wanted to have coffee, tea, or wine and seemed to be reluctant to invest too many dollars for a meet-and-greet, what the face-to-face chemistry indicated, and if there seemed to be enough of a click to lead to a second date, then a third.

The biggest clue came as we sat back, waited to see whether the guy asked the waiter for the bill or quickly reached for his wallet to pay when presented with it rather than dawdled a bit to see if we’d reach into our purses to split it, or horrors–even pay.

On those early first and second dates, we knew to bring along a credit card and cash just in case. And Barbara did use hers one time when the guy explained he had been out of a job for a year and really couldn’t afford the coffee and nibbles they ordered. She was sympathetic and sweetly covered the entire amount.

Barbara, more the dating expert, also discovered a huge difference between the fiftysomething guys she initially dated to the sixtysomething ones years later. Many of the older guys were eager to meet her and take her out for a nice meal rather than a quick look-see over coffee or wine. They were aging, life was getting shorter, and had already raised children in most cases and perhaps had more discretionary income. In fact, some of the meals were quite expensive. But on third and fourth dates, she liked to reciprocate and handle the bill. Full disclosure: she also had a vast majority of first dates, having decided she preferred her own company to some of the guys she met online.

As our dating experiences increased, and we shared tales of our adventures with friends, we found that many, even married couples, were eager to hear about the new etiquette for paying and not just for meals. They wondered how we split costs for gifts, groceries, travel and other expenses. We found again there was no single solution, but again we trusted our guts, based on the burgeoning relationship—or not, and the guy’s attitude.

It’s something to chew on and consider if you’re single and starting to date. And as we age, we each have more friends who are finding themselves in this situation. The backward steps this country is taking on certain issues may also influence this divide, too.