After our third date, Alena and I continued seeing each other once or twice a week for a few months.  She lived in Maryland and I was in DC, so there were times that I stayed over her place, and she stayed over mine.  Alena, living on a teacher’s salary, lived in a dangerous, dicey area in Suitland, Maryland.  I would normally not visit that area late at night but when you’re in love, you take chances and do stuff that you normally don’t do.  We went food shopping together at the Pentagon City Costco in Virginia, and that always took up half the day since it was an exhausting three State shopping trip driving the food back to DC and Maryland.  When it got rainy and then snowy hauling all that food around, it was definitely an early test of our patience with each other. :-)

We went on a lot of different dates in the beginning, and after about the tenth date around the second month, we decided to make it official – like Facebook official.  Some of the most memorable dates we had early on were:
Dates from left to right: Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Washington, DC, Dinner at Gordon Ramsay's Maze in New York City, Attending a taping of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, National Portrait Gallery, Maroon 5 concert, First Trip together at Atlantic City during holiday break

Over the years, we also had a lot of fun, awesome get togethers with our family and friends:
Photos from left to right: Group mustache photo at Ocean City, John's 30th birthday at Banana Café, Dim Sum in NYC with parents, Japanese dinner at Tsunami Sushi, 2014 Halloween Party, masquerade ball, Medieval Times, Puerto Rico vacation, golf at Top Golf

Going from Dating Casually to Being in a Relationship

- Take one date at a time.  In the first few months of dating, it’s tempting to jump right into a relationship, but the best thing you can do is live in the moment and have a great time with the person you’re with.  Sooner or later, you’ll find out more about the person’s day to day lifestyle and what makes them tick.  And you’ll find out more about what you both love and want long term.  It’ll become clear to you both whether you should continue on being exclusive or call it quits. 

- It’s best to go on different dates and see that person in different contexts.  Anyone can seem attractive and interesting when you first meet them.  Most people don’t want to look bad in front of a stranger and is on their best behavior.  The important thing is to see how they react in all contexts – at home, at the grocery store, on a trip, when their exhausted or stressed, etc.  For me, there was no single epiphany that made me realize that Alena was someone I should commit to.  It was a series of hints and signs from our different dates that all gradually formed a picture that was clear – she had everything I was looking for, and nothing that was a real dealbreaker.

See if your date gets along with your close friends.  After several dates, when the time is right, have a group hangout with your date and close friends.  See if your date gets along with them.  Your trusted friends will tell you the truth on whether you two are good together.  And if you're invited to hang out with his or her friends, see if you get along with them.  It's not a perfect litmus test, but friends don't let friends date douchebags.

- Let’s talk about sex.  Every couple is different with sex.  Some couples have sex more often in the beginning and then it levels off to a regular amount.  Some couples decide to wait for months or if they’re really conservative, until marriage.  Some couples have sex frequently and keep that going.  My take on sex is that it can enhance a relationship or make it more complicated.  If a couple is finding out with each date that they have a lot in common, and are a match for each other, the sex only makes the relationship better.  If the couple finds out gradually that they are not a match, but are hooking up a lot, that makes it a bit more complicated to break up.  That’s why I’ve advocated in earlier blogs to not hook up too soon.  If things are going well, it’s good to flirt and make out in the first few dates and keep it romantic, but it’s best that both people have a good idea that there’s potential for something real before going all the way.  Also, for the ladies, if you wait a little bit it’s a way to test the guy’s patience to see if he’s really in it for you or for the sex.  Of course, none of this matters if both people are just looking for a fling.   
It’s the most romantic time of the year, and for many couples, it means spending their whole paycheck on an expensive dinner, a fancy bouquet of flowers, and gourmet chocolates.  While all these things are nice, it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to have a memorable and romantic Valentine’s day.   

In the end, your significant other just wants to be loved and cared for.  Below are 8 of my favorite affordable, romantic Valentine’s day ideas:

1.  Cook dinner at home.   Make a dinner that your loved one would like.  This is how Alena and I spent our first Valentine’s Day together, and she loved it.  I made Alena a baked salmon dinner, and we also enjoyed some wine and a small box of chocolates, with candles and our favorite music in the background.  For young couples with kids, get the kids involved in making or decorating a dish or dessert, and remember to save time for the next idea or two after they go to bed, or get a babysitter for the evening.

2.  Massage each other.  Get some scented, massage oil, and give each other a relaxing, sensual massage.

3.  Movie night.  Cuddle up to one of the 50 Greatest Date Movies of All Time.

4.  Take a spontaneous trip to a nearby park or beach.  With the low cost of gas these days, hop in the car with your loved one, and with your favorite music playing, drive to the nearest park or beach to watch the sunset.  Or wake up early and drive to a nearby park to watch the sunrise.  Depending on the weather and your location, go for a walk and take pictures together. 

5.  Do an act of service.  Surprise your loved one by doing a chore exactly how they would do it, before they can get to it.  It'll be much appreciated.   

6.  Write a love letter.  Write a letter to your loved one telling them 10 things that you love about them and read it to them after dinner.

7.  Exercise together.  Go running, kayaking, hiking, or biking, do yoga, etc.  It’ll bring out those feel good endorphins and help put you both in the mood.

8.  Dance.  As a former professional dancer and dance teacher, I can’t have a list without this one.  Put on your favorite dance music and dance at home, or go for latin or ballroom dance lessons.

Saving Money and the Environment While on Your Valentines Date

Lastly, if you want to go a step further and save money and the environment (which may turn on someone who is into combating climate change), check out this quirky blog I wrote few years ago while working at the Energy Department to Save Money by Saving Energy during Valentine's Day.

To the Singles

Last but not least, to the singles out there, Valentines day may feel like a bummer, especially if you're single, looking, and haven't met that person yet.  I know - I've been there time and time again.  But I also believe that this blog will help you meet the right person (I have you in mind in writing it), and when you do, all those solo Valentine's days will fade into the background.  For now, love your life, your friends, and your family, work hard and achieve your goals, follow this blog, be brave and put yourself out there, and enjoy the best things about being single.