Let the woman pay

The idea that the man has to foot the bill on the first date is outdated

I like to demonstrate my financial worth and fitness as a future life partner by paying my share of dinner - maybe my companion's as well.

Knowing this, two girlfriends tried to explain why I should back off and let the man pay more often and definitely for the first date.

Why?

So he can demonstrate his financial worth and fitness as a future life partner.

The roadmap for heteronormative gender relations is littered with old-fashioned signs. One that flashes "Danger" for many women is a man's willingness to split the bill on the first date.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Women friends tell me they will play the game. They will touch their purses, politely offering to go Dutch.

But if the offer is accepted and both parties pay their share, it will mar the evening for these women.

"He's not being chivalrous," says one.

"It will register in my mind," says another. "There might be another date, but what if we split again?" She shrugs. That road is a dead end.

The man must pay on the first date. He cannot opt out.

"It's a social obligation," both men and women tell me. "If the woman pays on the first date, it sends a message."

And apparently not this message: The woman is happy to spend time with the man and doesn't need his money.

"No, it signals that you're not interested. Or that you're a sucker." Because a woman is a sucker for paying on the first date, but the man isn't.

Here's the thing.

I think it is simple courtesy to pay my share on the first date.

The person who picks up the cheque should do so out of genuine affection and not social obligation - or worse, lascivious expectation.

If on the first date, neither party is emotionally invested yet, why put the burden of financing the evening on the man? Both parties have taken time out of their busy schedules to gamble on a couple of hours with a stranger. Why should he be out of pocket at the end of the evening?

"You're overthinking this," friends tell me. It seems like such a small thing: As to who picks up the cheque the first time you meet a stranger.

Why not let the man pay?

Why not let the woman pay, at least for her own share?

It seems to me that society still conditions us to think that money is how men demonstrate a fine and generous spirit. A woman is ungenerous if she denies a man the chance to be lavish.

This is dangerous thinking in a time when the roadmap to navigate relationships is getting out of date. New signs are required and some old ones should be retired.

The women, who would discount a man for going Dutch on a first date, tell me they would reach for their wallets by the second date or even the third. By then, it is clear that the relationship is headed towards romance or a close friendship.

"You're meeting regularly, so it isn't fair to expect him to pay all the time."

No, just the first time, as if it should really matter in an age when women are in the workforce alongside men, when female identities are also linked to job performance and earning capacity.

Women may earn almost as much, as much, or maybe more than their male colleagues.

Women I know - including me - may date or settle down with men who earn less or who may not be as well-educated.

Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. Since I entered my 30s, I have seen several relationships founder in the trap of entrenched gender expectations.

Some of my friends held the household together in the last economic downturn after their husbands were laid off. Some husbands coped by becoming expert cooks and fanatically house-proud.

Others found ways to assert their masculinity that ended in the divorce court.

Then there were the female professionals who became stay-at-home expat wives when their husbands found jobs overseas. Unable to secure the right permits to allow them to work in these countries as well, they fell into depression. One asked for a divorce, but her husband sensibly negotiated a compromise where she returned home to pick up her career.

Society does not make it easy for couples like this, who work hard to let both partners find emotional and career fulfilment.

Take, for example, those of my friends who returned to work after giving birth. In some cases, the husbands stayed home with the children. Older members of the families spoke of the situation in hushed tones, unable and unwilling to recognise that this was a choice the couples were happy with.

It was impossible for these elders to understand that a marriage might thrive when the wife works and the husband picks up multi-coloured blocks at home.

For this same reason, another friend puts cash in her husband's wallet before they go out to dinner with relatives. That way, he can pay the bill at the end of the evening and face is saved.

"I would love it, if my wife earned more than me. I would love to be a kept man," joked one friend I tested this column on.

Fine words, but this same platonic friend always palms the cheque at dinner when I try to pay.

Another happily married male friend arm-wrestled me for the bill at his birthday lunch. "I should be paying," he told the service staff, who wisely stayed out of the battle.

There is paying for a friend out of affection, once in a while, and then there is enacting a response learnt long ago, which is that a man is emasculated if a woman pays for dinner.

When I was a child, my father's take on the domestic finances was: "What I earn is my wife's. What my wife earns is also hers." Both my brother and I took this maxim to heart.

Then about 20 years ago, my parents decided my father would work from home and help care for his mother while my mother took on an exciting new job.

My brother and I had to readjust our thinking about domestic partnerships as well. Selflessness in a man was no longer an open wallet. It was the willingness to wake at 4am and start the stove, so his wife could have a cup of tea before dashing to the airport.

Selflessness in a woman was no longer being the social and domestic anchor. It was spending many lonely nights away from home in foreign hotels, it was working late hours and early mornings and weekends.

My father thinks men should offer to pay on the first date - and if they're dating me, also bring gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, I suspect.

He also thinks it is fine if a woman pays for dinner - "If she wants to, why not?" - but is suspicious of any woman who would want my brother to have his wallet out all the time.

Pay, don't pay, go Dutch - the money is not as important as whether or not you enjoy spending time together, he says.

And with that, I solved the first-date problem of who should pay.

Instead of dinner or coffee or a movie, I suggest hikes, runs or some outdoor activity that requires both parties to bring their own packed breakfast or lunch.

The neat corollary is that it allows both to demonstrate cooking skills and fitness. I think these are more essential requirements in a future life partner than the ability to pay for dinner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Let the woman pay'. Print Edition | Subscribe