I spend a lot of time talking with my clients about relationships. Not only the relationships they are currently involved in, but the relationships they would like to have. Specifically, people to date, with the goal of finding that one special person.
Inevitably, these conversations turn toward what clients are doing to meet people. And, of course, online dating — using dating websites and apps — comes up.
My clients have experienced the broad spectrum of outcomes with cyberdating. Some have met the person of their dreams through the magic of the internet. This includes some of my friends. Others are in the midst of online dating, having some hits as well as some — or many — misses, but forging on. But there are also those who struck out repeatedly, to the point that they have given up on finding love and companionship, in cyberspace, if not in life.
And through their experiences, I have learned quite a bit about online dating: the challenges, the risks, the rewards. I am going to share what I’ve learned with you.
In my discussions with my clients, one theme continues to emerge. Websites and apps reduce to a datum, a piece of information, to be browsed, evaluated at a superficial level, most likely to be passed over. Be prepared to be commoditized.
Question: How does it feel to be browsed like you were a cardigan sweater instead of a living, breathing human being? I am not a techie and I have no idea how dating sites and apps are developed; the underlying technology is a mystery to me. But dating sites seem awfully close to shopping sites. Like it in red? You’ll love it in blue. Wait! How about green? But before you make that purchase… how about considering a V-neck? Wait! Take a look at what’s catching the attention of other shoppers.
That works fine with sweaters. But when applied to human beings, this approach can seem pretty dehumanizing. Yep, it kind of is. Get ready to be treated like a commodity, where for the most, your looks are the key to admission. Followed by a catchy profile, if you actually get browsed, that may or may not actually describe the flesh and blood person lurking in the background. And a first date that feels like you are indeed that red cardigan being tried on for look and fit, with the return label plainly in sight. Sorry, that’s the deal. And the best way to deal is just to accept the underlying premise of online dating.
As I always say, having realistic expectations is the key to happiness. Or at least a way to avoid disappointment. So when you encounter someone on a site or an app that has potential but they don’t respond to your like or wink or like or swipe, chalk it up to the commoditization of online dating. It’s not you, it’s your persona.
And speaking of managing expectations: Relationships develop organically.
That’s right, over time. One step — one date — at a time. Cyberdating might give you a jump start on meeting potential candidates. Pre-screened, so to speak. Who knows, if you have a high tolerance for caffeine, you might even interview two or three candidates at strategically located coffee shops on a single Saturday afternoon. But after that, you still have your work ahead of you to know if that first click on a pic and a profile is going to lead to a person you really click with. No more skipped steps. High tech will now yield to the nuances of human connection. You know, patience, transparency, openness, discernment… and a whole lot of other human qualities for which there is not yet an algorithm.
The key element in your online dating adventure is having an optimal profile, or so my clients have taught me. Some sites/apps provide you the opportunity to provide some detail about yourself, others less. What you’re looking for. One or more painstakingly curated pics. A few sentences to describe yourself, the catchier the better. Your initial worthiness as a potential date all based on the information, verbal and visual, you provide in your profile. The pressure is on.
Here are some ideas I have picked up for building your own profile:
Be honest in your stats. As you complete any stats in your profile, e.g. interests, ask yourself if you are being honest about yourself, or if you are presenting the you that you aspire to be. Are you really a sports fan? Actually reading literary fiction? Don’t set yourself to have to backtrack at your first meeting.
Be honest in your profile description. I have had clients tell me that they had friends edit their profile descriptions to the point that it didn’t sound like them anymore. Write a description of yourself that you feel encapsulates who you are and why you are looking to do some dating. Use your own language. You don’t have to emphasize your shortcomings, but also don’t present yourself, for example, as a glib hipster when you aren’t. That profile description your friend with a PhD in English literature or a snarky blog crafts for you may not be the best way to present who you are.
Be honest about your appearance. Post some candid shots that show you at your best, living the truth of your life. Like shots of you doing something you enjoy, or on a vacation. Avoid shots that you might use for a business bio if they have been excessively photoshop-ed. Showing the real you will help you to avoid potential dates feeling like they got the bait and switch. Sure, appearance is an important element of attraction, if not the first element. Present yourself in the best, but also the most realistic light.
Be honest about your station in life. You worked hard to achieve wherever you are in your life. Be upfront and proud of the choices you have made. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you aren’t by implying you have a higher title or salary, or trying to subtly brag about your achievements or what you own or where you vacation. You’re looking for someone who connects with who you are, not with your paycheck. On the other hand, also watch out for people who are interested in you because of your professional status.
Be honest about your age. How many times have clients told me they shaved a few years off their age? Often. And how many times did these same clients admit that they backed themselves into a corner, either on the first date or after a few dates? All too often. Be honest about your age. Any potential date that has a problem with your age needs to move on.
If you have a chronic condition, disclosing your diagnosis is up to you. If you feel better about including your chronic condition in your profile, so that you don’t have to bring it up later, that’s up to you. If your chronic condition affects your appearance, for example, or limits your activities or mobility, then you may indeed feel more comfortable having potential suiters be aware. On the other hand, your chronic condition doesn’t define you. You are a whole lot of qualities, interests, and experiences beyond your medical diagnosis. So use your judgment here.
Having said that… let me say a few words about your HIV status. Some of clients who are HIV-negative want that to be clear in their profile, and want to limit their contacts to others who are also HIV-negative. While I find this to be an outdated attitude and potentially preventing them from meeting some great people, it’s their decision and, again, no judgment. On the other hand, I have HIV-positive clients who include their status in their profiles, as a way to get the disclosure thing out of the way upfront, or may even seek out HIV-positive dates on the sites and apps they choose to use. And I have others who choose to keep their HIV status to themselves, with the intention of disclosure if and when that first meeting leads to a deeper connection. You’ve already heard the guidelines on disclosure. So I’ll leave you with the operative word: choice.
At some point, hopefully, your dating efforts in cyberspace are going to result in a few connections. When that happens, you are faced with the first steps of courtship. The online dating world has its own courtship ritual that occurs before the first date. Understanding and accepting how it works is going to make the whole process of having a successful first date a lot less stressful. Here are some insights I’ve picked up into taking the leap into real time:
Don’t get caught up in endless texting. It’s all too easy to fall into a routine where you and the person you met through the site or app start to develop a nice texting or emailing relationship. The danger here is that you may create a persona (here’s that word again) of who you are that is not actually who you are. And the person you are texting or emailing may be doing the same. This isn’t intentional, but is the by-product of communicating without engaging all five senses. This can lead to avoidance of meeting, for fear you will break the magic, or instant disappointment when you do meet.
Encourage meeting up sooner than later. If you do meet someone who, after a couple of texts or so, seems like someone you would like to meet, encourage them to meet for coffee or a drink. If they are hesitant, or keep canceling, this tells you a lot.
Consider a phone call before you meet. I know we live in the age of texting, but you can learn a lot about someone by hearing their voice. So ask your potential date if you can have a brief phone call (or even Zoom) to introduce yourself and explore setting up a time to meet. You may find that talking them makes you even more eager to meet, or you may find the opposite. Keep in mind this works both ways. I have often had clients tell me they wished they had asked for a brief phone call with someone they met online. It would have saved a wasted meeting with someone they wouldn’t have felt comfortable with or interested in meeting.
Avoid expensive first dates. Clients frequently complain about spending a lot of money for an expensive dinner with someone who, within the first five minutes, they realized they didn’t want to spend an evening with. If you really hit it off at coffee or cocktails, you can move on to dinner if both of you have the interest and the time. But if you don’t, you can end on a handshake and move on with your evening, without having incurred a big hit on your credit card and the resentment that may accompany it.
Coffee dates (or park dates) are a low risk and low cost meeting option. Meeting in a café for that first meeting has worked well for my clients. And no, I don’t own stock in Starbucks. You can only drink but so much coffee, so you are out only a few bucks, especially important if you are doing a lot of online dating. And you have an easy out before the time starts to feel like an eternity. With many coffee shops only open for take-out during the COVID-19 pandemic, a meet-up at a public park is a good alternative. Even better if there's a coffee kiosk nearby!
Be careful about your alcohol intake on the first date. We live in a drinking culture, so it may feel natural to meet a first date for a drink. Or two. But limit yourself to that drink or two, even if that means scheduling another obligation to help prevent you from staying at the bar too long. After a couple of drinks you are at risk for saying something you didn’t intend to say, or oversharing, or otherwise turning off a person you may be hoping to impress. And the cost of drinks can quickly add up.
One more caution: think carefully before you hook up. My clients often talk about how that first online date quickly evolved, or devolved, into a hookup. No judgments here. But keep in mind that a date that begins with sex may mean establishing a relationship that is essentially founded on sex and that doesn’t move much beyond sex. Sure, sexual attraction is an important component of chemistry. But if that hookup has the potential of leaving you feeling guilt and shame the next day, or questioning where to go from here, then it may not be the most auspicious beginning. Reminder: relationships develop organically, and a hook up can throw a wrench in that process. But it's also not a rulebreaker for many, so if it happens don't freak out and see how you, and your date, respond in the following days.
Make it fun. Not only your first date, but the whole process of online dating. View this as a way to meet people you might want to bring into your life and you into theirs, maybe as friends, maybe as dates, maybe as professional contacts. Focusing on the fun factor will help you to not only make this process more enjoyable but also to have a positive perspective on the dates that don’t work out.
Keep the stakes low. Don’t make online dating all about finding that right person to spend your life with. Don’t make every contact, every first date, a decision about whether you are a lovable person or not. Online dating is a way to meet people. That’s all. What happens after that is totally unpredictable and can’t be forced. Avoid placing a deadline for when you need to be in a relationship. This will help you to avoid placing unrealistic expectations on your online dating as well as the people you meet online. You spent an hour with someone you didn’t know. That might just have to suffice as the benefit. In other words, be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the right one!
Accept that first online dates have a job interview quality. You are asking the other person to demonstrate whether they are a candidate for further dating. And they are asking the same of you. Yep, not unlike a job interview. Go with the flow by keeping things light and casual the first time around. Get to know each other, first on the surface level — job, interests, favorite vacation spots, etc. This is the foundation for potentially going deeper, maybe not on the first date, but potentially on any subsequent dates that may follow.
Leave your agenda at home. Be careful about asking questions that might imply you have a timeline for getting married, or having children, or needing to know whether they would be willing to move across the country when you get your next job offer. Don’t scare a potentially interesting person away on the first date by coming at them with an agenda. And if you sense they are coming at you with an agenda: “Check, please!” By the way, if your agenda is getting in the way of building healthy relationships, you may need more therapy.
Remember that attraction is all about chemistry. And chemistry is difficult to define. It’s there or it isn’t. I have had clients tell me the person they met online showed up for an initial meeting, took one look at them, apologized (or not) and walked away. Brutal, right? Others have said they observed their companion’s eyes glaze over during their conversation. Others experienced enthusiasm from the other person, enthusiasm that they sure weren’t feeling themselves. This is called chemistry. Or lack thereof. That person who has a great dating resume online, who “on paper” looks absolutely perfect for you, may seem anything but when you meet. The chemistry just isn’t there. By the way: A scant few said they both went home and took down their profiles because they knew they had met the person of their dreams. That is also called chemistry. Or maybe destiny.
Don’t take anything personally. Just don’t! It bears emphasizing that chemistry is unpredictable. You may also be the perfect on paper/on the screen, but the person you met may not only be feeling it for you, but may also recognize that on their first sighting of you, or soon after you begin your conversation. How many sessions do I spend with clients who have had their self-esteem shattered by their cyberdating experiences? A lot! One more time: It’s just chemistry. Recognize it as such and move on. This is supposed to be fun, right?
A caution. Many people on online dating sites or apps want to want to be in a relationship but they don’t really want to be in a relationship. They aren’t willing to step out of their comfort zone and take the risk to actually meet people to date. Or they are super busy and don’t want to take the time (avoidance, yes). Or they just have a lot of baggage that they need to deal with before they try to get in a relationship and they haven’t admitted that to themselves yet. Be prepared to meet a lot of people who seem to be okay with occasional or even regular texts or email, but can’t quite commit to meeting, if not avoiding the topic altogether. Or who ghost you before or after the first date. Be aware of when it’s time to move on. If someone puts up a wall, that doesn’t mean you need to be banging your head against it.
Here’s a final question to ask yourself: Is online dating right for me? If you are going to try to meet the person of your dreams online, three key qualities are needed.
For one, patience. As I mentioned previously, developing a relationship of any kind has to happen organically. Placing expectations on the other person to be the person you need them to be, or placing a deadline on yourself for finding your soulmate, is a recipe for failure. Love happens over time, in its own time. This means you need to be patient as you meet people and patient as you see how, and if, a relationship is going to develop.
You have to have a thick skin. People aren’t always very responsive or very nice. Believe, I’ve heard some pretty awful stories about first meetings. But what I always advice my clients is, again, to not take things personally, to pick themselves up and move on.
And consider approaching each new person you meet with “beginner’s mind.” That means no assumptions. That next person may be different from that distracted, disconnected, or obviously disappointed person you met on the last first date. On the other hand, they may also not be as smitten with you. Stay open to new experiences, new energy. Let people surprise you.
And if the whole online dating thing just isn’t working for you… Consider that the online world may not be the best place for you to connect with potential romantic partners. I have clients who, after repeated bad experiences, finally realized the online world just didn’t work for them. They went back to flesh and blood meetings with people where they could activate their five senses from the get-go.
So if you find you do a whole better meeting people in real time, that’s a useful insight to have. And then, get out there and meet people. They’re not going to come knocking on your door.
You, Cyberdating, and the Person of Your Dreams.
Here’s what I advise my clients: Stay connected with your friendship network. People to date will come and go, until you meet that right person, but your friends are always there for you. Having a strong emotional support system helps you to keep your perspective, and maintain your objectivity, as you meet people in cyberspace. Or to put it another way: Having a significant other brings additional quality to your life. But that person doesn’t give you a life. And being immersed in your life makes you that much more attractive out there in the dating world. Speaking of the right person…
The right person for you is out there. Actually, in my opinion, there are numerous people out there with whom you could have a satisfying longterm relationship. So, swipe away. And see what happens next. Keep it fun. Keep it real. And keep it sane.
Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC, CEAP, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He often works with couples who are living with a chronic condition. He maintains a website, JustGotDiagnosed.com.