The SF Marriage and Couples Center is a great place to get support while going through the ups and downs of online dating.

The SF Marriage and Couples Center is a great place to get support while going through the ups and downs of online dating.

The Perils and Pleasures of Online Dating

            I am old enough to remember the first bulletin board systems that came before the internet. There were crude games, geeky tech-focused chat rooms and a lot of chat rooms for flirting and looking for love. My first experiences with this were humiliating and soured me on the whole thing (still shaking my fist at you, Jennifer and Robin!). However, even I have come to see that online dating is real venue for making connections of all kinds. An estimated 1 in 4 relationships start in an online dating app these days, and I’d wager the percentage is higher here in San Francisco, where tech thrives and millennials abound.  Though this blog is usually about relationships in full swing and sometimes in turmoil, I’d like to spend this one talking about how to engage in finding relationship in the jungle of online dating apps. Since this is a counseling center’s website and I am a therapist, I will mostly focus on taking care of your psychological health in navigating online dating, and less on the ins and outs of finding true love in the ether.

            First, I want to call out some of the flaws and biases in online dating. It is well documented that racial bias is alive and well on the internet, and unfortunately this can also impact folks’ experience of online dating in very hurtful ways. It is best to know about this before you get started swiping. You may (as this article suggests) want to try a race-specific app to weed out discrimination, fetishization and other racist bullshit that has been reported by many People of Color looking for connections on mainstream sites. I am not a Person of Color, so I do not have direct experience with this, nor do I meant to presume to tell you as a POC how to navigate online dating or anything else. The data and the anecdotal experience shared with me by friends and clients alike leads me to believe that this is an important factor to consider if you are POC. Therefore, it feels important to name. The article above includes a graph that shows how racial biases showed up in a review of OKCupid’s data. I hope everyone (but especially White people) will take a look at it and take a pause to consider your biases. Try to take this awareness into online dating and be mindful of how your biases inform your dating choices. Many people have a type, or features we are attracted to. Why not spend some time thinking about whether or not those things are racist, sexist, transphobic or ableist? Just a thoughtJ

            The next step is to select the right dating app for you! There are so many and they are remarkably varied. I recommend you check out these links (here, here and here) to get started familiarizing yourself with what types of sites are out there. I do not necessarily endorse any of the rankings these articles provide, but I think they are a good place to start thinking about your relationship. Not your relationship to any person you’ll meet, but your relationship to the app itself, which will likely be some kind of roller coaster ride. It really helps to be honest with yourself about what you are looking for and find and app that correspond to that desire. If you are not sure what you are looking for, I would recommend starting with Zoosk, Match, Coffee Meets Bagel or OKCupid. Those sites seem most geared to finding authentic, tender connections, which seems like a better place to start than a hook-up site like Tinder, Pure or Grindr, unless you know for sure you want a hook-up.

            The relationship with the app(s) will take some getting used to. Whether you are getting an overwhelming number of matches (see articles for which sites help for this issue) or not as many as you’d like you will probably find your heart racing as you open the app, just as it would if you were actually having a date. That is what I mean about having a relationship with the app. You’ll want to both allow the fun tingly feelings of getting matches and messaging cute people, and notice them and revel in them as part of the process, but you’ll also want to set boundaries with the app, just like any partner, especially if you notice your ego is being puffed and popped in a way that is causing emotional turmoil for you. Maybe set aside a certain number of hours a day to not engage with the app. Try only messaging one or two people at a time if you are spending too much time on it. Above all else, keep a barometer on how much of your self-worth is getting tied up in this thing. If you notice that you are hitting highs and lows that feel uncomfortable, unusual or just plain scary, maybe take a week off and spend time with people who actually know you in the real world. Identify which of your friends is the most intrigued listening to your dating saga and speak with them regularly to ground the experience and reality check how invested you are getting. When you are dating the dating app, remember there are other fish in the sea. If this app is not giving you what you need and boundary-setting isn’t the issue, try a different app or two.

            Online dating culture is different than other types of dating I have engaged in through my 40+ years. There is less accountability and less communication than I’d like for you, my dear reader. People will disappear (ghost) on you before, during or after your actual dates with no explanation at all. You will have what seem like good dates and never hear from the person again. They may send you some rude message to blow you off, or a splendid messaging relationship online can go on forever without ever meeting in real life (IRL). I beg you for the sake of your precious heart not to take these things personally. The culture we have created on the internet is really toxic in some sectors. People feel free to be their worst selves in comments and online harassment every day. Some of this culture of brazen disregard for others has most assuredly bled into the realm of online dating.  With so many fish in so many seas of data, some people can’t seem to find a reason to be kind. Just understand this is not about you. If you have it in you, you can be the person who models kindness and communication. Though, honestly you will have to navigate how much you put into that carefully or you will end up bitter that no one (or next to one) reciprocates your thoughtfulness.

            Making online dating psychologically meaningful might involve work in therapy. I know. You’re shocked. I am recommending therapy again. But really, the stuff that comes up when you are putting yourself out there like this is a gold mine of neuroses, attachment wounds and projections to be mined in therapy. Let’s say you are someone who naturally undervalues their appearance or has some reluctance to shine and be beautiful. This will be evident in the way you set up your profile. The pictures you use will be dark or fuzzy or weird. Your best picture will be buried five back, or you’ll neglect to mention that you speak 7 languages and won a triathlon last weekend. If you let your therapist (or even a good friend) see your profile and give you feedback/ reflections/ask questions you can find out more about how you see yourself. All of the many anxieties and highs you experience in this process will be windows into your attachment style. Uncovering the reasons why we feel the way we feel about getting attached or having a hard time getting attached is the fastest route to the fears and hurts that most hold us back. This can be a profound intentional experience of seeing in a real-time experiment how your attachment system works, not only is this incredible opportunity for therapeutic work, it is also a time when the extra support just might be really nice. I recommend you keep a journal of thoughts and feelings related to dating to discuss with your therapist (or confidant). You might also want to journal any dreams that come up during this adventure.

            Remember that IRL dating still happens! I know folks who seem so attached to online dating that they forget to look up to co-workers, friends, neighbors and other community members who already know them for potential dates. If for whatever reason online dating is taking a toll on your system, it can be grounding to reach out to real people who you know in the real world. This is still a thing that happens and I hope it continues to be so! So whether it means putting down the app or supplementing that experience, go ahead and just flirt with a person you think is cute sometimes. For some people this might be next to impossible. For others it may feel incredibly grounding to enjoy the real time, irreplaceable feedback that you get from someone’s facial expressions and body language in an IRL encounter. In fact maybe you are someone who really shines in an intellectual setting where you can be known deeply and online platforms will never be ideal. Join a book club, go to discussion groups! Be in your element! Same goes for those who thrive in sports settings, cocktail parties, activism, in affinity groups or at kinky play parties. I still believe group spaces (online or IRL) where you share strengths, challenges and/or interests with others are a more certain way to find a promising relationship.

            In conclusion, good luck in the rising and falling tides of online dating. Never forget that you are a whole person, not just your profile and that you have control. You can delete the apps, you can ask for exactly what you want and you can block anyone treating you badly. All of this can actually be a great time to solidify your self-worth and practice boundary setting. Enjoy J

Written by Alice Phipps

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and currently is the content writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center