The Ultimate Guide to Dating in the Digital Age

By Shirin Ali, MD

Who hasn’t struggled with dating in the digital age? Whether you are looking for a casual encounter, a long-term relationship, a play partner for BDSM, or someone to go see a flick with, it’s easy to be frustrated and fatigued by the dizzying array of apps, websites, dating coaches, pick-up artists, and notifications that keep blowing up your smart phone.  Our technologies make it both easy for us to connect and also to disconnect from one another. Here are some things to keep in mind while dating these days.

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You’re meeting a stranger

It’s important to remember when doing online/app dating that you are actually meeting a stranger. I’m not saying this to cause ‘stranger danger’, but to point out that you actually don’t know this person before meeting him.  It’s rare these days to hear of someone going out with a person they met at work.

In fact, most people meet potential dates through digital media. However, because so much communication happens in the form of rapid-fire text messages, exchanging photos, or messaging through apps, a false sense of intimacy is quickly created before you have even met in real life. Communicating in this way can also amplify the desire for immediate gratification and constant access to someone you barely know.

Creating a Fantasy

Because people who date rarely have a shared context of school or common friends, it’s much easier to create a fantasy of the other person before meeting.  People clearly present idealized versions of themselves on social media and apps. One of my patients told me about a person who had two different profiles on the same dating website, one looking for a fling and one looking for a relationship, each listing different hobbies and interests. Another patient talked about how much a guy she dated hated his mother, while his profile had very sweet looking photos of the two of them hugging each other at Christmas.

The words and images one presents hook the imagination of the person looking at the profile. The fantasy may start even before a message is exchanged. This happens in a matter of minutes. Prolonged messaging before meeting perpetuates these fantasies and can obscures incompatibilities that would quickly surface if you met in real life.   

It’s About More than Checking the Boxes

Singletons describe wanting to meet someone who ‘checks all of the boxes,’ which can include height, education, ethnicity, age, fertility, kinkiness and more.  The ‘advanced search’ feature on websites and apps facilitates searching for those people who meet your specific criteria and amplifies this problem. This, along with the numbers of people that are online, leads to the idea that you can keep swiping to find someone better or more ideal, reinforcing the notion that there are unlimited possibilities out there.

However, the truth is that endless possibilities make it difficult to evaluate the connection with the person sitting across from you. If you’re interested in a relationship yet are dating multiple people for weeks and weeks, you will not have emotional bandwidth to figure who is right for you. Part of the point of dating is to figure out if the other person has the capacity to attach, if you can have fun together, if he can relate to you, respect you, and communicate with you an honest and dependable way. This takes presence of mind and heart and investment of time. The check boxes are no substitute for finding out how someone relates to others. You actually have to relate to the other person to find out.

I’m going to move on to some dating tips gleaned from accumulated experience from colleagues and patients to help you navigate some of the challenges of dating in the digital age.

Dating Tips for the Digital Age

  • Don’t let digital communication or messaging go on for too long. Limit yourself to a few messages back and forth before moving onto a phone call.
  • When you have a short phone call, listen to their laugh and see if you enjoy the back and forth to the conversation.
  • Try not to overtext, i.e. more than three texts without a response. This makes you feel bad if you are the overtexter or can make the other person feel overwhelmed.
  • Don’t inhibit your usual pattern of communication. If you haven’t heard from someone, you won’t drive them away by asking when you can get together again. You might provoke an answer from them, whether affirmative or negative, rather than them ghosting you.
  • Evaluate the quality of their relationships as they come up—with family, friends, and exes. Do they speak to their ‘close friends’ once a year? Someone who trash talks an ex may not realize what they contributed to the break up.
  • Thinking about being exclusive does not have to mean that you are committed forever. It just gives you a chance to see what the connection is really like.
  • Be up front with what you are looking for, whether it’s short or long term, meaningful, or casual. It’s only fair.
  • You won’t scare off someone who wants to be with you by expressing your desires.  The best thing about dating now is the many ways people can be with others and find others. You can find what you’re looking for with some effort.

Happy dating!

About the Author: Shirin Ali is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is on the faculty of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she teaches about schizophrenia and psychotherapy. She is also an advanced candidate in adult psychoanalysis at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

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