At the beginning of relationships, heterosexual men and women tend to follow traditional gender roles. File picture: Pixabay

Washington - As a relationship writer who's single, I spend a lot of time talking to men and women about how they date. One particular conversation on gender roles has been playing on repeat in my mind.

I was at happy hour with two women, and we were talking about who gets the check on the first date. Both brilliant, successful feminists, I was surprised that they were adamant they would not go on a second date with a man who didn't foot the entire bill during their first encounter.

Why, exactly? I pressed them on their attitudes. As I dug deeper, I realised their answers had nothing to do with gender roles or favoring a traditional setup. It was more or less simple conditioning. "I've so rarely had a man not pay for the first date. I'd feel like he might not be interested enough if he didn't," one of them explained to me.

At the beginning of relationships, heterosexual men and women tend to follow traditional gender roles, according to Marisa Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab. "If you look at first dates, gender scripts are responsible for many of the differences between men and women," Cohen says. 

"These scripts enable us to control a situation." Following a script over and over again - a man asks a woman out, plans the first date, pays for it, follows up within a few days - gives us a standard by which to compare dates and prospects.

"The main gender differences are that men are the initiators and women are more likely to react to the men's advances," she says.

In one study, Cohen gave participants 30 behaviors that could occur on, before or just after a first date and asked them to indicate how likely the behaviors signaled that their partner was into them.

Women picked nine behaviors as signaling interest, such as: discussing future plans, complimenting appearance, focusing on similarities, offering to pay, suggesting to extend the evening, going in for a hug or kiss at the end of the night, and following up quickly after a date. 

On the flip side, men listed just four behaviors as signs of interest: taking note when their dates were open about themselves in conversation, made references to sex, offered to split the check and responded quickly to follow-up contact.

Cohen also asked about signs that a date wasn't interested or attracted during a first date, and women noted six signs, including discussing exes, waving goodbye instead of hugging or kissing goodbye, not initiating contact after the date. Men, on the other hand? They listed no behaviors to indicate a woman might not be interested.

In essence, if you invest in those you're most interested in and behave in ways that feel in line with the kind of relationship you want, you're probably going to find the best connections. 

Laurel House, a celebrity dating coach and relationship expert, believes in "clarity, honesty, strategy and authenticity," she says. "What, how and when to do things should be based on what each person feels is most true to them."

So if you want to ask him out, ask him out. If you want to call him, do it. If you want to pay the bill, step up and offer to pay - if you truly want to. "Even if a woman does offer or do the 'fake reach,' and then the guy says, 'Yeah, okay you can pay half,' it's an orange flag against the guy," House says. 

"Some women say that they are happy to pay, but they will never go out with the guy again. So I say, 'Why did you offer then? Why did you set him up in a trap to fail?' "