Would I ditch a date after 51 minutes? I’ve waited that long to be asked a single question

<span>Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Fifty-one minutes. It’s too long for a meeting, close to perfect for an album, and a solid result for a 10km run – but a date? You can only hope that it’s not a personal best.

A new study suggests that 51 minutes is all the average person can manage of a date that has started to go downhill. The survey of 2,000 adults (carried out by the breakdown provider Britannia Rescue – used to facilitating hasty getaways, I suppose) found that a fifth had departed a date midway through, with commonly used exit strategies including sudden headaches and getting a friend to fake an emergency.

Personally, I tend to have the opposite problem: my dates start at a respectable 7pm and end, much less respectably, at midnight or later, as I try to figure out whether we are compatible by way of several pints and sheer willpower. Try as I might to occupy a relaxed middle ground, I seem incapable of approaching dating with any other attitude than “go big or go home”. Part of my difficulty is that my “openness to experience” – a trait said to be prized among my millennial generation – means that I am highly motivated to see through situations that might fairly be deemed subpar. Where others may be making their excuses at the 51-minute mark, I have waited almost as long for my date to ask me a question.

It’s not desperation or politeness that keeps me stuck in my seat and ordering another round; more a pathological curiosity to see what happens. You always have to have hope, of course – but as soon as that’s been dispelled, why stick around? For that reason, I am cheering on those daters who who can leg it for the exit within the hour.

Dating has changed a lot since the pandemic, in some ways for the better. After many apps expanded their functionality through lockdown, more people now feel open to arranging a preliminary phone chat or video call before meeting in person: they are often as effective a way of gauging initial interest, and much more convenient. Likewise, sober dating is on the rise. It is much harder to look past a lack of chemistry at a cafe or museum, and easier to make your escape. (Leaving after one latte is more than generous with your time. Leaving after one pint? Unforgivably brusque.)

The top reasons given by the Britannia survey respondents for wanting to make a quick getaway were a date who was rude (48%), constantly checking their phone (37%), or creating an awkward atmosphere (36%): more than reason enough to call it quits, I’d argue, especially when there are so many other things we could or should be doing.

Ultimately, seriously searching for love takes time and money, and many of us are finding ourselves increasingly short on both. It’s no wonder that a potentially good but more likely mediocre meeting with a stranger might hold less appeal than 51 more minutes of sleep and £51 more in your bank account. Tellingly, “dating-app fatigue” is on the rise, with many likening it to admin.

It’s not only time that is the relevant concern here. In Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, academic Sheila Liming argues that our relationships also need space if they are to reveal themselves fully and extend a reward. No one benefits from someone enduring, to the bitter end, a date that they don’t want to be on. But I sometimes wonder if, more often than not, we might not be giving ourselves a chance to enjoy it.

Related: ‘You have to set time aside for friendship’: the radical power of hanging out

The Britannia survey, sure enough, found that 44% of those polled reached for excuses such as feeling unwell, a work deadline or broken-down car to get out of going on a date at all. The more theatrical claim to have been mugged. You can’t help but think that those imaginative powers might have been put to better use picturing how the date might actually go well. (Manifesting, I believe gen Z call it. Hey, I’ll try anything.)

Certainly Logan Ury, a behavioural scientist and the dating app Hinge’s director of relationship science, advises always agreeing to a second date (unless the first was truly atrocious), for a chance to see beyond the nervous butterflies – but even two meetings are a small window on a whole person.

I often think back to the beginnings of my closest friendships. I would never have dreamed that I’d have a complete grasp on their character after one or two meetings, and I’m forever grateful that they extended me the same courtesy. Yet it’s standard practice to make a call on a date, even long-term compatibility, after less than a day’s investigation.

Sometimes, of course, it is immediately clear – in which case few would blame you for crying “pet healthcare crisis” or suddenly remembering that there’s somewhere you need to be. But it’s a reminder to be open to possibility, to being surprised and potentially swept off your feet. After all, you are never less likely to lose track of time than when you’re watching the clock.

  • Elle Hunt is a freelance journalist