Dating. Now there’s a word that can strike dread into the hearts of many.
Online dating. Does that amplify the dread? For many, it does, especially if you’re old enough to remember the pre-internet days. For most of us, searching for a partner is inherently nerve-wracking. I mean the vulnerability and uncertainty are palpable. Technology hasn’t helped. While it’s made it easier to see who is available, technology has increased the uncertainty factor. And when there’s uncertainty, we know worry and anxiety may not be far behind.
Dating is Like Exposure Therapy
It makes sense that putting yourself out there, literally and figuratively, can feel uncomfortable — I’ve been there! It occurred to me one day, as I was having another awkward phone conversation, that this felt an awful lot like an “exposure,” which is therapy-speak for doing something you’ve been avoiding because of anxiety. Then it occurred to me (only half kidding) … no wonder online dating feels like work … it’s just like exposure therapy!
But the silver lining is this: exposure therapy is highly effective, and I know what to do. In my therapy practice, I use it to help people face their fears (or other stuff they’ve been avoiding). There’s more to the overall therapeutic technique, but for the purposes of this article, think of it as learning how to do difficult/unpleasant/uncertain/uncomfortable things in a systemic way.
Technology Makes Dating More Difficult
If online dating fills you with anxiety, you’re not alone, and it’s not all in your head. Technology does actually increase dating’s uncertainty factor. Online dating focuses on the option, and I’ve heard it described as the “Amazon Prime” mentality: if you don’t like someone, send them back for another one right away. You may not even know you’ve been returned. You’ve simply been left wondering why the person disappeared (when that happens to you, you’ve been what’s called “ghosted.”)
In that vein, it hinges on instant connection and chemistry (characteristics, by the way, that research has shown aren’t exactly markers of long-lasting relationships). I also would argue that social media and texting have made it easier for people to avoid basic manners like picking up the phone either to get to know someone or to express that they want to go in a different direction. Technology has made avoiding too easy — and that has consequences on many levels. To the person who’s doing the avoiding (be it in initiating subsequent dates, returning texts, initiating communication), they’re likely trying to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings, but for the person who’s on the receiving end, it can be a different experience. In the absence of information, they may be telling themselves a story based on their fears (“I’m not [fill-in-the-blank] enough,” “If I only did [fill-in-the-blank], they would have texted/called”).
5 Tips to Stay Grounded While Dating
In a culture of ghosting, simmering, and bread crumbing, try these 5 tips to stay curious, open, and grounded.
- Be aware of your mindset. Remember willingness? If you’re in a headspace of “I really hate that I’m single, and all these people look awful,” everyone will meet your expectations. If you can approach it with curiosity and compassion, you may be surprised at what you find. Give yourself permission to acknowledge that this may feel like hard work AND remember why you’re doing it (because connection, relationships, intimacy are important to you, for example). Some people find online dating really fun, but, if this isn’t your experience, accept it and work on moving toward what’s important.
- Try to be outcome neutral. This one is hard. When we seek something too much, we become outcome-obsessed and forget the process. We’re bound to be disappointed. Revisit #1.
- Stay in the moment. No matter where you are in the process — initial emails, texts or dates — it’s so important to ground yourself in what IS versus what IF or what COULD BE. This requires a lot of mindful attention and bringing yourself back to the present whenever your brain tries to take you to the future.Psst … when you’re looking at someone’s initial pictures and imagining if your friends (or kids) will like him, you are definitely not in the moment!
- Work on changing your behaviors first, and your thoughts will follow. Identify what behaviors are making your anxiety worse and aim to stop doing them: constantly checking texts, rehashing the date with friends, texting for reassurance. When the urges are strong, remember that you are stronger and that you can ride them out.
- Expect this will be hard. Learning anything new is hard and requires repetition and consistency. Finding a quality partner, however, contributes to the quality of our lives, so don’t give up. Tread lightly and remember to have fun!
Learn to Embrace Uncertainty
We have to face our fears around the uncertainty of what will happen. We don’t know if the other person will like us, or if they’ll call. We could even have a great time and yet they still don’t call (which is common). Many times, our fears will come true. You will have a great time, and they won’t call or, you’ll have several great dates and then get ghosted. What happens then? In the face of not knowing what’s going on, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of replaying the date, analyzing the conversations, looking at text chains. Behaviorally, you might text them (or blow up their phone) trying to get some sense of what happened (as if radio silence wasn’t the answer you needed). Since we tend to pick a certain type of partner, this pattern may repeat. This is when, for the anxious dater, online dating starts to feel less fun and more like a chore. Our focus must stay on how can we bounce forward and not backwards?
I’m not going to address how to have a better picker in this article. I want to encourage daters to consider dating as an experiment in learning to tolerate uncertainty. If we dig a little deeper, that’s generally what’s driving the anxiety. Questions like Will I always be alone? Am I lovable? Will they call me? What comes next? Talk about a giant future trip.
As always, remember that you’re not alone. If you’re stuck, let’s connect.