Dating in the Digital Age

Never have people had access to as many potential love interests as they do now. For most of human history, one’s village, social class, geography or neighboring tribe may have yielded 3-5 potential mates, from which your ability to choose would still be limited by your family or tribe’s influence over the process. Now you can find a mate in literally any corner of the globe. Possibilities for finding someone special are staggering and seemingly endless. So why then has online dating become such a thorn leaving some people weary, sad, hurt and even hopeless?

A common story I hear is that people online are flaky, insincere, misrepresentative of themselves or downright rude. If the majority of single people have an online presence, statistically speaking, is this not just a sample of the general population and not a phenomena of online dating? The people online are the same people in the bar, near your cube at work, or walking their dog down your street. The guy you bought your mattress from off Craigslist may also be the person you see on your next date. Okay, that happened to me. But see my point? Here’s where I think online dating can get tricky: People can be more dismissive online. It’s effortless to ghost (disappear) and almost effortless to breadcrumb (barely string someone along). And because we’re dealing with volume, just as the potential to meet someone amazing increases, so does the potential for rejection and disappointment. Math is not cruel, nor personal, but it feels that way because we are sensitive beings engaging in the inherently vulnerable task of saying, I like you, I wonder if you might like me too? That is brave. So how do you find the 20-foot waterfall (and then take a picture by it with your new love) and not step on the land mine or trip over a boulder? I want you to find the waterfall!

Let’s liken dating to hiking. It’s good to have a compass, the right sturdy shoes, perhaps some rain gear, and a basic understanding of safety in the wilderness. The compass, or at least a trail map, is really really important if you’re trying to get to your destination (the waterfall) or not get lost. The compass is what do you want in a relationship and what kind of person fits this bill? If this appears deceptively simple, it is. Want to know what was important to me? Creativity, stability and most especially kindness. Why? Because it might be the person you spend the rest of your life with and life is much easier with a kind person. So, get specific, but keep it simple. People frequently date and pair up with people who don’t fill the bill (not the person you can collaborate with in making life dreams come true) and then conclude that all people are bad. So, know where you are going because that is how you get there! Mystery can often lead to heartbreak. What you see is usually what you get, so open up those beautiful eyes.

Now let’s talk about gear. Like a raincoat or the right shoes, we need certain protective layers to travel this rough terrain. I can’t lie to you, there might be a boulder, a swift moving stream or sudden storm. But with the right gear, we will be okay! Let’s say you meet someone who seems spectacular, you go on a few dates, and then poof you never hear from them again! This sucks and it’s painful. This is also where it’s incredibly important that you are kind to yourself. You put on the nice cozy fleece, which can be positive and gentle self talk or time with friends and family. We are biologically wired to develop strong attachments to others and it’s inherently painful when these bonds are threatened or severed. It can leave us feeling depressed, anxious and fearful. But we can and should lean into our other nurturing relationships which will calm our nervous systems. With the right supports, we are confident and resilient to try again (and again). Let’s also think about the potential hazards I mentioned. While the wilderness can be awe-inspiring we do have to use a degree of caution. While we take in the vista we also have to be aware of things like how swift the water crossing is, or a snake on our path. In the dating world, this means noticing any red flags (aggression, controlling behaviors, jealousy, substance abuse, etc.).

Now let’s talk about the journey itself. While the waterfall or summit is perhaps the destination, there’s a lot of interesting and enjoyable things along the way, like spending time with someone you’ve never met before. We’re social creatures, remember! Sharing a drink or a dinner with another human being, even if it’s only once, can be nice. I learned how to make Russian soup with the Craigslist mattress guy, heard about another person’s thesis in optic science (something I know nothing about), and got sold on the joys of Iceland from someone who traveled there frequently. One of our dearest friends is a girl my partner went on an online date with 14 years ago. And now we have a place to stay in Spain whenever we want! What I am encouraging you to do is shift your perspective. And to challenge the negative story you might be telling yourself when a single date isn’t the waterfall.

The cognitive and emotional work some people may require in order to feel safe during this process is like condition training. We all have different temperments, tolerance levels for disappointment and resiliency factors. Like building muscles via working out, our brains have a similar capacity to strengthen via new ways of thinking and being, which in turn create new neural networks inside the brain. Try challenging the negative cognitions (thoughts) when they come up; i.e “I will never find somebody.” Chances are you WILL find somebody because you’re already on the path! You’ve got your map and your legs are moving in the right direction. Watch out for the common cognitive distortions like ‘black and white thinking’ or ‘all or nothing’. Notice what happens when you engage in these thoughts and the emotions they provoke. For people with deep emotional wounds or relational trauma, therapy can be very helpful. Sometimes we get stuck, frozen with fear or sadness, and need a guide…

Happy trails to you!