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Young woman online dating on her phone

Are you single, hoping to meet another person for partnership or romance or sex? If so, chances are your search has been waged online. In my Vancouver-based psychotherapy practice, I specialise in relationship counselling. I hear a lot about dating, and a lot of it seems to take place online.

There was time that online dating sites like OK Cupid, Tinder, Bumble, and the like were thought of as playgrounds for the young. Those days are over. While millennials are still the most frequent online daters, people middle aged (and beyond) are swiping right on an ever-widening pool of candidates.

How I wish that my next line could be, “and they all lived happily ever after!”

It’s inevitable that at least once a week, one of the clients whom I see in therapy will announce that they are done with online dating. More to the point, they are done in.

What is it about online dating that upends us so? For some insights into how to navigate online dating with your soul intact, I approached Rachel Scott, Vancouver-based yoga instructor and author of “Head Over Heels: A Yogi’s Guide to Dating: A Cheeky Mindblowing Map to Relationships. Together, Rachel and I discussed the following travails typically encountered when we take our pursuit for a partner online.

Rachel Scott

Rachel Scott, author of “Head over Heels: The Yogi’s Guide to Dating”

Digital Dopamine

One of the main problems with online dating is also its main allure. It’s…online.

I know – it’s 2018! But online interactions are fundamentally different than our IRL dealings (that’s in real life, for you analog types). Texting and messaging  – particularly when we don’t know someone well – lends itself to a quippy banter in which zingers and emojis are privileged over the more transparent and candid dialogue that takes connection to a deeper level.

Even that first impression – the online profile – is worlds away from the cobbled together impression we get from getting to know someone offline. If you think I’m being dramatic, here’s a chilling statistic: 53% of people lie on their online profiles (this includes deceitful photos). Yikes.

And then there’s that other problem, that thing in your hand on which you might be reading this article. We’re on our phones all the time anyway, so why not check that dating app? It’s not a sign of weakness or out of whack priorities that we become so subsumed by our phones, by the way; it’s actually our reptile brains. Scientists suggest that the reason we check our phones so compulsively is that dopamine – a chemical in our brain associated with pleasure and reward – is released every time we check our phone screen.

How do we online date without becoming addicted?

Rachel, who has logged some serious time online in her pursuit for a partner, offers some very practical tips:

– Set a time during the day to check your apps. Don’t leave it on constantly.

– Don’t leave the app on your home screen where you can see alerts. Put it a few pages back so that you’re not distracted. People on the other end of the line actually like it when you don’t respond instantly.

– If you’re over analyzing an emoji, that’s a sign that you are tipping into anxiety. If you have a  question, then ask. Set a standard for good and open communication that feels safe and respectful.

Online Dating and FOMO

Perhaps the malaise of our times, Fear of Missing Out wreaks havoc on our dopamine-greedy psyches when it comes to making decisions and commitments. This is particularly true when the options are abundant and accessible.

FOMO could mean prolonging that “where are we going” convo just to make sure there is nobody better out there, or it could mean downloading yet another dating app to make sure your bases are covered. There will always be more profiles to view, more messages to send: And dating someone who is distracted by FOMO means that we’re with someone who is one foot in, one foot out.

How to avoid getting snagged by FOMO

At the crux of FOMO is an over-investment in the ideal. Pairing up used to be – and, I would argue, should still be –  about finding a reasonably good match. Do we share values? Do you make me laugh? Is there basic chemistry? Let’s give it a go then! Perfection doesn’t exist – not in us, and not in our partners (or potential partners). But that abundant roster of eligibles makes it hard for us to commit. There might be someone better, if I just keep swiping!

Accepting limitations to the idea of a ‘perfect match’ is a radical notion in this era of #Soulmate #BestWife #BestBoyfriendEver (kill me now, readers – these are actually in high circulation). Here’s an idea: aim for #LetsGiveThisAShot or #GoodEnough.

Rachel Scott encourages those online dating to “give up fantasy in favour of the possibility and the power of the present moment. Learning to stay means letting go of the romantic notion that there is something better that we’re missing out on, a greener lawn just around the corner.”

FOMO is going to taunt you when you can’t let go of “what if there is something better out there?”. Once you’ve forayed into third or fourth date territory, why are you still online? Deactivating your profile might help you focus on the prospect right under your nose. If you can’t bring yourself to do so, you might need to ask yourself what your hesitation is about.

I’m just not that into you. Now what?

If we date, we will inevitably need to reckon with the tender issue of what to do when “I’m just not that into you.” Unless we hit the jackpot on our first try, this is almost certain to happen at some point.

I’m an optimist, and I’d like to think that it is avoidance (and not sociopathy) that leads people to invoke that most dreadful of online dating transgressions: ghosting. Ghosting is when you make a connection with someone, go on a few dates, and then that person completely disappears. The person stops responding to messages and stops answering the phone. Ghosting is by far the most emotionally-damaging underbelly of online dating. Although, if you ask me, ‘submarining,’ the phenomenon in which someone you’ve been seeing completely ceases communication, only to resurface and act like nothing has happened (the dating version of gaslighting) is just as skin crawl-y.

How do you deal with ghosting when dating?

“Ghosting is cowardly, and unfortunately, typical,” my go-to dating expert Rachel Scott says. Rachel gives this advice to those impacted by ghosting: “if you’ve been hurt by a ghoster, then it’s appropriate to be expressive. However, remember that ghosters are ghosting because (obviously!) they’re not good with conflict and communication! So communicate for yourself; not because you will get a reply. Be the adult.”

In her own dating chronicles, Rachel also found herself the recipient of ghosting. “When I was ghosted on,” she shared, “I sent a text message that said, ‘I see that you’ve dropped communication and I assume that you are no longer interested in connecting. That’s fine, but I would have appreciated the courtesy of more proactive communication.’”

Rachel also advises: “if you dislike being ghosted, then you have to set a good example and not ghost yourself. Set a standard for being honest and compassionate in your communication.”

Thinking of giving up on online dating?

You’re not alone – it is typical to experience dating fatigue.

If you’re taking a break because you’ve decided that you don’t want to date or be in a relationship right now, fair enough! Use the break to recharge and reconnect with yourself, or focus on building friendships.

If you still long for a relationship, but the process of online dating is doing your head in, focus on savvy dating and self-preservation instead. To this end, I hope the above suggestions help you to salvage your spirit in the process of finding love.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.