A cheat sheet for dating in a digital world

Human beings are wired to be in relationship.  Connection is fundamental to our wellbeing, and people who are in positive relationships are healthier mentally and physically. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives,” and the University of Utah, “Loving relationships make us happy, but they also keep us healthy. From improving our immune system and blood pressure to helping us heal quicker and enjoy life longer; a happy relationship is life’s greatest medicine.”

How did you two meet?

Technology has drastically changed our lives, for better and worse.  It has had a profound effect on relationships, particularly on dating.  Google says that around 40% of American couples now first meet online; 20% of those in current committed relationships met online; and in 2015, 7% of marriages were between couples that met on a dating website.  My recently married daughter and her husband are included in this group, so I have seen that dating apps can lead to finding a good partner.

Twenty years ago, or even less, most couples met through friends, family, at work, or in college.  Sometimes couples would meet each other at a bar, or a party. It wasn’t easy, but it was expected that you had to put yourself out there, and ask someone out, or exchange phone numbers face to face.  Now, what I hear from my young, single clients, in their 20’s and 30’s, is that they would never consider entering a prospective relationship directly, in person. I hear: “No one would approach a stranger to chat, it would be uncomfortable and weird, even creepy.”.

In the current world of the #metoo movement, it’s unfortunate that we haven’t figured out how to respectfully ask someone out, but I understand why people are nervous about it.  No one wants to be considered creepy.

It’s possible, as explained in How Tinder Changed Dating for a Generation (2018), that dating apps have erected walls between the search for potential partners and the normal routines of work and community. But it’s also possible that dating apps thrive in this particular moment in history because people have stopped looking for potential partners while they go about their work and community routines.

The least bad option for finding someone.

If you are single and dating, many clients say, you must use a dating app.  Plus, it’s easier to go back home, sit on the couch and swipe, than to go to a bar and look for someone to go out with.

I believe the dating app behavior mirrors how our relationship culture has evolved.  With the emphasis on digital communication, we insulate our vulnerability.  The remote quality of the communication makes it easier to be rude, uncaring and hurtful.  “Ghosting” (when you just stop responding) is the norm with dating apps.  Ghosting is when you’ve just decided you don’t want to communicate or see the person anymore, and you stop responding or block the person from communicating with you.

IRL; ISO, VBD!

Actually seeing someone in-person has been replaced by swiping on the app, or text messaging.  It has become very easy to hide behind the technology and just opt out of even slightly difficult conversations.  When a person has no connection with you, and they are not part of your social network, they have no accountability.  Who is going to call out bad behavior?

Some apps, like Bumble, are trying to address the ghosting problem, by prompting people to respond, even with canned suggestions of how to end an online “date”, but it’s easy to see how this will feel insulting to the recipient.

The problem is that difficult conversations start to feel almost impossible.  With the protection of technology, you don’t have to explain your feelings to anyone or acknowledge your part in the breakup.  Meeting people who have been the recipient of these behaviors, I see how confusing and discouraging it can be to have no idea why someone just blocked you.  And, people admit that they don’t want to know why.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Honest communication has become a frightening experience to avoid if possible. The worry is that people don’t use the very tools that create a good relationship in the first place.  We all need to practice navigating emotionally charged conversations.  We need to learn how to speak directly, clearly, and thoughtfully to communicate our needs, desires, and expectations.  I encourage my young dating clients to do this, regardless of how long or in what context they’ve met their date.

Depending on one’s personality, a ghosted person either decides that there was something wrong with their online date (blame), or something wrong with them as the recipient (shame).  Without much experience in couple relationships, people can see things in very black and white terms. As Jenna Birch said in Navigating the Love Gap, “The short-lived relationship cycle is so oft-repeated that I cannot believe how many people in the dating pool have struggled with this. After multiple disappointments, anxiety starts to set in around the two- or three-month mark in every budding relationship. Are all those positive vibes going to turn on a dime?”

So many apps, so little choice

The pool of endless dating possibilities can make it too easy to just replenish your dating pool. There’s Tinder, Bumble, Coffee meets Bagel, Hinge, The League, OK Cupid, Match, eHarmony, JDate, and more.  So many choices can make us endlessly question our choice.

Many times, people don’t want to break it off completely. They want to keep you around on their terms, without a commitment or any specific obligations.  And, many people are just looking for a partner for the night, so people looking for serious relationships and a real connection are often bitterly disappointed.

On the other hand, dating apps are a huge convenience in our over-scheduled lives.  Apps expand the dating pool well beyond our typical social groups, allowing us to match with people we otherwise wouldn’t meet.  Conversely, it might allow you to narrow your field to people with similar interests.

Tips from Users

I asked some savvy users for their best advice in using dating apps, and this is what they said:

  • Expect it to be time-consuming, sometimes draining, and that most dates will not be a good match.  That is the nature of the experience.  Go with the attitude that you are just going to be curious and get to know someone, maybe even a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

One wise user said, “I liked that I ended up getting to know people from so many parts of the country and world, and who worked in so many different industries, that I would’ve never gotten to know otherwise.  And going in with the expectation that it probably wouldn’t be the right person for me, made it less disappointing when it didn’t work out.”

Look at it as a tool to meet people.  Focus on the bigger picture. It’s a numbers game, and it’s rare that people are really into each other.  If it doesn’t work out, move on, and eventually, you will find someone who clicks.

  • For safety,
    always make sure someone knows where you are, and that you will contact that
    person when you get to the location and get home.  Share your experience with friends.  It makes even the boring or awkward dates
    more fun.  You will feel less alone when
    you know that you’ve had similar experiences.
  • It’s okay,
    maybe even preferable, to schedule several dates in one week, when you have
    more time.  This puts less pressure on
    each individual date.
  • Set a high bar when screening your selections, so that you don’t get burned out.  Find out what you can via chats before you agree to meet in person.  Even if the person doesn’t turn out to be a match, you will still have an interesting conversation, and maybe make a friend.  It also keeps you positive about the experience. Consider choosing just one dating app that features like-minded individuals. You can opt for one that offers fewer, more organized or selective matches, like Once or Hinge. Apps like these require more than just pictures.  If someone fills out an information section and takes time to answer questions thoughtfully, they are typically more committed.
  • Keep in mind that meeting people in real life (IRL) is always a better way to judge interest, yours and theirs.  Remember that about 90% of communication is non-verbal, so you’re never going to really know a person until you meet them face-to-face.  (This may seem to contradict the previous tip, but everyone has non-negotiables that they can hopefully screen out via text.)  If you’re unclear, then, make a phone call, or schedule a video chat.  Filter Off, even encourages this type of chatting from the start. It may feel awkward at first, but experts say this is the best way to evaluate compatibility and build a connection early on.
  • Bonus: You’ll spend a lot less time decoding messages, and many misunderstandings will be avoided. If you have trouble screening out the bad apples and seem to be spending too much time with someone who turns out to be a bad match, use the acronym, CARRP. Are they consistent, available, reliable, responsible and predictable?  This requires a few in-person meetings.  Actions and patterns of behavior speak louder than words.

I was encouraged to hear one of my “experts” say, “I think you can still meet people the old-fashioned way too — e.g. going out/sports leagues/dinner parties/pottery classes/etc, so I’ve found it helpful to do that in addition to app dating.  I think you can find the right partner through either path!  Once it clicks, it doesn’t really matter how you found them!”