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4 Ways To Gauge Someone's Emotional Intelligence On A First Date

Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. & Signe Simon, Ph.D.
By Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. & Signe Simon, Ph.D.
Simone Humphrey, Psy.D., and Signe Simon, Ph.D. are psychologists and couples therapists working in private practice in New York City. They're the co-founders of the relationship education platform LOVELINK.
Image by Lauren Naefe / Stocksy
July 6, 2019

First dates are often overwhelming, not to mention awkward. Making casual conversation with a complete stranger and then determining whether or not you like this person romantically? No pressure! Dating involves asking yourself big questions, like, What should I be looking for in a partner? How do I know if we're compatible? What makes for a successful long-term relationship? 

It's no wonder people have long checklists of what they're looking for in regard to appearance, job, style, taste, interests; the list goes on. But here's the bottom line: All these checks are perks. The most important factor for a successful long-term relationship is emotional intelligence.

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Why emotional intelligence is the most important thing to look for in a partner. 

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to a person's ability to manage and communicate their emotions respectfully as well as the capacity to have empathy for others. Emotionally intelligent couples are able to maintain a deep respect for one another, communicate their emotions effectively, read their partner's emotions accurately, and hold healthy boundaries.

Rather than shared interests or attractiveness levels, research consistently points to the above relationship qualities as predictors of relationship satisfaction. Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading experts in marriage research, has studied couples over the last four decades, seeking to understand what makes a marriage successful. His lab identified1 that the three major factors contributing to relationship satisfaction are:

  1. Treating your partner like a good friend
  2. Handling conflicts with compassion
  3. Repairing and connecting after conflict
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Another study2 found that when both partners in a couple score high on a performance test of EI, they tend to be happier and more satisfied with their relationships in comparison to couples that both score low on measures of EI. Thus, EI and relationship success are critically linked together. 

So, now the question becomes, how do you assess for emotional intelligence on a first date? There are actually a few pretty solid clues you can catch early on: 

1. How they respond to staff or uncomfortable situations.

Notice the way your date responds to uncomfortable or awkward moments, such as the wrong order or a waiter accidentally spilling a drink on the table. If your date becomes explosive and uses aggressive language, yells, or curses out the waiter—or alternatively is passive-aggressive with staff—this reveals your date's inability to manage their emotions.

On the other end of the spectrum, if your date constantly complains about the service or the environment but avoids any conversation with staff, they may have difficulty with being assertive and asking for what they need—an important skill in long-term relationships.

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2. Listen to how they talk about their exes.

Should a discussion come up around past relationships in the first few dates, listen carefully to the way they talk about their exes. Conflicts are rarely one-sided in relationships—it takes two to tango! Blaming an ex entirely for the erosion of their relationship lacks any accountability for their own role.

Another way to think about it is if your date is talking about past relationships with only negativity, you're next!

Furthermore, if you sense there's still significant hostility around the breakup, they likely still have more to process. Additionally, while relationship to family members may not get discussed on a first date, the same principles apply and will likely come up as the relationship progresses. 

3. Boundaries.

Healthy boundaries in a relationship have a natural evolution. Self-disclosures become more vulnerable and intimate the closer and safer you become with a partner. Similarly, physical touch is a collaborative development, in which partners are attuned to the consent and comfort around moving forward sexually. Emotional intelligence means maintaining healthy boundaries early in a relationship.

Notice your level of comfort around your date's self-disclosure and use of touch. Do they share too much soon? Do they stand too close to you or touch your leg too early in the date? Tune in to your own reactions to their stories or behaviors. If you are typically an empathic person and notice that your response to a deeply traumatic story is feeling overwhelmed, it's likely you are feeling an inappropriate boundary crossing. Listen to your intuition. 

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4. How they listen to you.

Just as important as it is to find out more about your date, it's also important that they learn more about you. Emotional intelligence includes being curious about others and being able to listen and ask questions. It also involves the ability to internalize and understand another person's experience. Responding to your experience with relatedness, such as "Wow, that must have been tough" or "I would have felt the same way" speaks to the insight and attunement your date has to your stories. In contrast, a date that has difficulty listening or responding to you might dismiss your emotional experience or leave your statements unacknowledged by relating everything back to themselves. 

That said, easy on the judgments on date No. 1. 

Here's the catch: It's perfectly normal to be nervous early in a relationship, and your date's behaviors on the first date may not be an accurate representation of their emotional intelligence. It is common for people to talk too much or even appear uninterested in asking questions when they are anxious. So while it's helpful to keep in mind the above red flags and cues to evaluate emotional intelligence on the first date, if you're unsure, schedule that second date!

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Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. & Signe Simon, Ph.D. author page.
Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. & Signe Simon, Ph.D.

Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. and Signe Simon, Ph.D. are psychologists and couples therapists in New York City and founders of the relationship education platform LOVELINK.

Humphrey earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Rutgers University and has held clinical positions at Columbia University Medical Center, Veteran Affairs hospitals, and Newark Beth Israel Hospital. Currently, she works in private practice at Therapists of New York, a group practice in midtown Manhattan. She specializes in couples therapy, challenges in self-esteem, and the treatment of trauma, aiming to help people feel confident and authentic with themselves and in their relationships in order to create a more meaningful life.

Simon earned her doctorate in counseling psychology from Fordham University and has worked at The Ackerman Institute for the Family, Brooklyn VA, Center for the Intensive Treatment of Personality Disorder, and Beth Israel Hospital. Currently, Simon works at New York University and Vienna Praxis, a private practice in downtown Manhattan, working with individuals and couples. She aims to connect her clients with their inner resources and deepen self-understanding to be able to find greater intimacy in relationships.

As experts in romantic relationships, Humphrey and Simon offer regular workshops in deepening connection to the self and to others, co-host a love and sex podcast, and have made several appearances on the Today Show.