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When you’re young and not yet experienced with dating, your view of the whole process is likely pretty straightforward. You meet a nice person, who you ask on a date (or maybe he/she asks you on the date). You go out. You make things “official.” Before you know it, you’re both on the road to happily-ever-after.
But then you grow up, and the actual dating scene looks a little more like this: You swipe right, and so does he. You meet up for a drink. You hook up. You part ways — and maybe you ghost each other.
Dating, as we once knew it, feels pretty much over.
Walk through any bar or restaurant on a Saturday night, and you’re more likely to see singles swiping their phone screens instead of talking to real-life potential matches. Nancy Jo Sales announced the fall of classic courtship in her September piece for Vanity Fair, aptly titled, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’” Aziz Ansari’s new book, Modern Romance, details the pains of sifting through piles of electronic choices, only to ultimately come up empty-handed — and disheartened.
Like tons of other singles, I’ve signed up for the apps and websites that promise easy, endless matches: Match, eHarmony, Tinder, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, OKCupid — you name it, I’ve tried it. I got endless matches, all right, but I also didn’t know which matches were worth my time. Every single one felt virtually the same. Attractive? Sure. Athletic? Yup. “Laid-back guy, who likes sports and craft beer, just looking for a girl to have fun with” — you and every other man, apparently.
The more “options” I had, the more anxiety I felt. It grew so problematic, I had to shut it down.
I quit online dating.
I’m not saying it can’t work. After all, everyone knows that couple who met on an app or dating site and is now happily hitched. But I had a sneaking suspicion that this 21st-century way of dating might actually be stunting our personal growth. Are we now too afraid to approach interesting people in real life because we know we can just go back to the comparative “ease” of approaching people online?
I get it — online dating is the new “normal” in today’s day and age. But I’m also a person who values her time and emotional investment (like most people). I look for that inexplicable “click.” I’m not the hook-up type. Should I give online dating another shot? Before making my decision, I need to understand how to do it the right way — without it being a total waste of my time and energy (or a source of stress). What are the pitfalls — and why might it be better than IRL dating? I asked the experts to break it all down for me.
Pro/Con #1: Sooooo Many Options!
If you prize options above all else, online and app dating delivers that in spades. Within 48 hours of joining Tinder, I had about 200 matches — which, as a writer/professional hermit, is probably more than I’d meet in five years doing the meet-and-greet method. App and online dating is literally a mile-long buffet, with something to satisfy any craving.
Even someone who is really, really good at meeting potential matches in person (which is, uh, not me) would only be able to meet a few people a day, max, says Marisa T. Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab.
“Online sites dramatically increase the pool of eligible partners for those interested in finding a mate,” Cohen tells me. “In a society in which we are often too busy to take a break … online dating allows us to ‘meet’ people without ever leaving home or the office.”
This is the major pro of virtual dating methods, says Dylan Selterman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. It expands your horizons in terms of quantity — and possibly, in terms of quality. “Online, you have more potential options to meet great people you otherwise would not find elsewhere,” he tells me. This is super-ideal for, say, an elementary school teacher who spends most days surrounded by little kids. How else is she supposed to meet that attorney, start-up founder, or construction engineer?
The catch: There’s no guarantee having so many choices is actually a good or productive thing. “Psychologists refer to this as the ‘Paradox of Choice,’” Selterman explains. “More options are not always better.”
Cohen likens the flood of matches to choosing a restaurant for lunch. Say a co-worker asks if you’d like to go to the sushi place a block away for lunch. The next day, that same co-worker brings you dozens of menus from every restaurant in your city and asks you to pick one. Which situation do you prefer?
“Some people get overwhelmed by the amount of choice and approach online dating as a job, trying to get through as many profiles, or setting up as many dates, as possible,” she explains. “You can get jaded by the process. If you go out on a string of bad dates, forgoing plans with friends and family, you start to feel disheartened and even annoyed by the process and time wasted.” (Cohen is clearly in my brain.)
A 2009 study conducted by social psychologists from Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan showed that when we have a large array of options, we may have trouble ignoring irrelevant information. “Their research showed that when presented with larger online dating pool samples, participants spent more time searching through the profiles and had more difficulty screening out inferior options,” says Cohen.
Quantity is a double-edged sword.
Pro/Con #2: It’s So Easy!
I have a lot of friends who turn to apps like Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid when absolutely necessary — a.k.a. when they have broken up with someone or have just been officially ghosted, and they need to move on, like, yesterday.
Sometimes, you just need to feel like you have options — and app and online dating is really good for this. It’s also “convenient”: It’s something you can squeeze in your busy schedule because you can log on at any time of the day. “Anecdotally, I was busy with graduate coursework and teaching full-time, so going to bars was not an option for me,” says Cohen. “Using dating sites allowed me to interact with people and get to know the person before deciding to meet.”
According to modern-dating expert Susan Walsh, founder of the popular relationship site Hooking Up Smart, the Tinders and OKCupids of the world aren’t reinventing the wheel. “Anthropologist Helen Fisher has called these ‘introducing sites’ rather than dating sites,” she tells Yahoo Health. “She believes they’re just a new way for people to do what they’ve done for millions of years: Look at a person to determine physical attraction.”
Although that sounds kind of superficial, don’t kid yourself. Walsh says the evaluation process is really no different than spotting someone attractive in a bar, at the supermarket, or sipping espresso at a coffee shop, and deciding to walk up to them.
Here’s the thing: “It’s very difficult to judge personal chemistry after matching but before meeting in real life,” Walsh says. “Keeping a large number of conversations going is time-consuming and results in a lot of ‘dud’ matches.”
When I first started online dating, I was so pumped at the how simple it was to create an insta-pool of options. My initial thoughts: “Should have done this months ago!” But then I started trying to talk to people on these apps, and it wasn’t at all easy. There was the month-long correspondence with the guy who owned his own construction business, which ended in a “meh” lunch date. And then there were the three weeks I spent talking online to the management consultant, resulting in an in-person date over a glass of wine. It was a glass of wine too long.
In hindsight, all of the pre-date, getting-to-know-you online chatting felt laborious — it could have all been condensed to 15 minutes or less in real-life talk. And come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to a date with either of those guys anyway if my first interaction with them was in person.
I also have a theory about online/app dating: We value a match made in real life much more than one made on our computers or phones because we had to work that much harder for it. If you have to shove anxiety aside to approach someone you like, say, in a coffee shop, you end up valuing that match more because it took effort. To get it, you really had to want it.
I ran this theory by Ivankovich, who simply nodded in agreement. “We are vested in the very things we take the time to invest in with our time, efforts and energies,” she says. “Online anything — while it can take up a lot of your time — it really takes little to no effort to participate.”
And then there’s the concept of what Ivankovich calls our “ADD Nation”: We tend to jump from one activity (or person) to the next if we’re not immediate masters of it or wholeheartedly invested in it. That means everything is disposable, and we don’t put the same grind and heart into developing skills and relationships as past generations did.
Pro/Con #3: You Can Filter!
Whether you value lots of education or a chiseled jawline, dating apps and sites allow you to filter what you do and don’t want. “Some sites use algorithms to send matches that share your interests or have attributes that you have indicated you want or need in a partner. Others simply present pictures and profiles for you to peruse,” Cohen explains. “This allows you to screen hundreds of applicants much quicker than you would in real life. You are able to filter by job, financial status, religion, or ethnicity, giving you more control of the dating situation than if you were set up by friends.”
But here’s the thing: You may be missing out on a good match just because a person doesn’t fit your perfect ideal. “By checking certain boxes, you may be robbing yourself of meeting a genuine person whose values and morals match up with yours — but don’t make the cut when filtering your searches,” Cohen says. “You may be selecting what you view as an ideal partner by only choosing a certain financial or educational background, and won’t even see the profiles of people who, if you met in real life, you would have had a strong connection with.”
Ideal characteristics and commonalities aren’t the only filters through which potential dates must pass, though. There’s also the conundrum of intentions. While you can filter for specific qualities and specific looks, it’s not easy to tell whether someone is hoping to eventually DTR or is only DTF. If you’re looking for casual, there’s not a lot of filtering necessary beyond looks, but Walsh recommends “aggressively filtering” for intentions if you’re actually looking for a relationship. She preaches a very specific filtering method to her young clients to sort the good eggs from the bad: Instead of considering 75 flimsy matches, pare your options down to five solid ones.
When things work out — when you meet someone online with similar intentions and relationship goals — getting on the same page should be simple. “I know of many couples who have met online, and their stories usually reflect a quick expression on the part of both parties that they were interested in something real with one another,” Walsh says. “I get the sense that, instead of the dreaded DTR that couples have in real life, people who meet online are more likely to have an ‘Are we on the same page?’ conversation very early.”
So for someone like me — looking for guys with relationship potential, and hookup buddies need not apply — Walsh says it’s wise to state before you even meet that you’re not looking for a casual thing. Selterman says you can write something similar in your profile, too, if you want to cut down on the noise, though “that has not been tested scientifically.”
“This might turn off some folks, but that might be a good thing as it limits the pool of options a bit, so that the process doesn’t get too overwhelming,” Selterman continues. “Aside from putting that in your profile, you might make it clear during the actual first date or meetup in person that you’re looking for a relationship — not necessarily with that person, but in general. Then it becomes a process of finding a partner with similar desires.”
What Have We Learned?
OK. Given all these pros and cons of online dating, what are the takeaways for me — someone who wants to find a true match, but doesn’t want to waste her time fruitlessly browsing names and faces online?
Be totally honest about what I want. “Don’t pretend to be cool with keeping things casual if you’re hoping for something more,” Walsh says. “When you do like someone, be straightforward and honest. If the guy is not enthusiastic about you, move on.” People typically have an idea of what they want when they enter the online dating world. “They’re either in the relationship market or the casual-sex market,” she says. “No one wants to waste time, so the faster you can sort yourself into the relationship market, the less frustration you’ll experience.”
Give potential matches a legit chance before moving on. Ivankovich says to remember to give time (and a fair shot) to all matches with potential. With so many options and avenues available to them, it’s easy to toss away anything that doesn’t immediately meet “perfect match” expectations. “If you are conditioned to always have what you want and to dispose of what you don’t, you are not likely to work at the compromise that is required for a sustainable relationship,” she explains. “This is the epitome of egocentric thinking, which will leave many feeling alone and lonely in a sea of potential suitors.”
Be smart about the sites and apps I choose to spend my time on. Cohen says to only choose the sites and apps that will give you what you’re looking for to streamline the process. “What I suggest to my friends who don’t want to be so overwhelmed by the choices and process is that they should go for a site which sends the matches directly to them,” she says, noting eHarmony and Coffee Meets Bagel. “If they are interested in as many options and dates as possible, then switch to a profile-based site.” Think: Match, Tinder, OKCupid.
Get out there and try meeting people IRL, too — it could lead to higher quality matches. “I think that it’s worthwhile to pursue both strategies at the same time,” Walsh says, referring to online and real-life dating. “It’s important to be social, network, and pursue your interests. Online apps and platforms should not represent more than about a quarter of your time and effort — although they may result in most of your dates.”
Breathe. Be patient. Selterman drops what is perhaps the biggest truth bomb, though, in my “quest to find the best dating method once and for all” (yep, my phrasing): “There is no ‘superior’ method for dating. If there was, then we’d already have the answer.”
“My advice for anyone who is dating — either online, offline, or both — is to be patient,” Selterman says. “Because online dating involves high-tech gadgets, people might assume that they can acquire a relationship as easily as they can order something on Amazon. Of course, ‘there’s an app for that’ doesn’t apply to dating, because humans are infinitely more complex. I would advise people not to give up too quickly with online dating if it doesn’t work out right away. … Focus on enjoying the dates, and enjoying the moments.”
So, it seems the ultimate lesson here is to give dating time, online or otherwise. While I don’t feel ready to jump back into the online dating world quite yet, Selterman has me convinced that it could be worth another shot in the future.
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