So you spent the summer dating a litany of grad school students whose names start with the letter J. The bartender at the uncannily expensive dive bar on your corner has publicly acknowledged the fact that you seem to go on a lot of first dates. Your swiping arm is verging towards carpal tunnel territory, and you’re tired of blinking past photos of struggling actors in fedoras. You have dating app fatigue — consider this our official diagnosis. But rest assured, this is reversible.
Cuffing season is nearly in full swing, and soon, the scent of romance will begin to replace that of late-summer body odor in the air. Your last several-hundred app dates have taught you a thing or two about ghosting politics. And buzz has been circulating around Facebook Dating, the OG social media platform’s latest feature designed to make your IRL love life a little bit better by way of the internet. Hope springs eternal! So what’s next?
In pursuit of an answer to that very question, we called in an expert — Sandi Kaufman, licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist — for a little advice on how we can actually build relationships in the midst of the Wild Wild West that is online dating — rather than continue to add names to our impressive rosters of J-name conquests. Below, consider her counsel on finding love via the internet.
Be Specific When Curating Your Profile
Here’s a thing Kaufman comes across in her own dating app usage with wild frequency: Photos of dudes holding enormous fish. For whatever reason, this is an image that countless single users have deemed both hot and approachable.
“I really cannot explain the men-with-fish phenomenon, but I see it all over my dating apps,” says Kaufman, laughing. “There might be just as many women with fish on other people’s apps! But I think there’s a valid learning lesson here about how we set up our profiles.”
Kaufman explains that the internet famously gives us the freedom to curate the way we’d like to frame ourselves (case-in-point: Instagram). Our dating app default photos are the creme de la creme of our accumulated Facebook profile pictures, and our bios commit to showcasing some aspect of our personalities — sharp wit, terse sarcasm, unrelenting “chill” — that we find generally attractive. But while we build out these profiles — and assess those of our potential suitors — Kaufman suggests that we take the time to think through what is (and isn’t) real.
“If you just pick someone you’re attracted to without judging the rest of the criteria, that’s all fine and good,” she says. “But if you actually want to meet someone you could have something serious with, make sure your photos and your bio are telling a real story about you and that you’re using that same criteria to look at other people’s profiles.”
She suggests uploading images that incorporate your most prized hobbies or your favorite venues. And as for bio copy, she recommends referencing some of your more specific qualities or preoccupations, rather than listing attributes in stuffy cover-letter formatting. In short, steer clear of “must love dogs,” and lean a little harder into your affection for eggplant parm and pop punk bands of the early 2000s.
However obvious it may seem, at the crux of the matter is common ground. Few things are quite so foundational in the early stages of a relationship than mutual interests. And without a profile that speaks some truth about your priorities, it'll likely be pretty difficult to find someone who aligns.
Don’t Get Lost In Pre-Date Banter
There’s a bizarre phase, unique to online dating, between matching with a potential partner and actually enjoying a conversation in the flesh. Here, you make judgments about one another in two dimensions in order to determine whether or not you’ll enjoy one another in three dimensions. This can be tough to navigate.
“There’s no right way to do this,” Kaufman says. “But it’s important that you find a way that feels comfortable for you. For me, I like to make a phone call. I think it’s the best way to vet someone. Younger generations tend to think that sounds like hell on earth.”
If the audio thing isn’t for you, she suggests putting a limit on how much you’re speaking to another person, so as to avoid putting too much pressure on your IRL meeting. It’s best to save some portion of the getting-to-know-you back and forth for your first real-world encounter.
Beyond that, she notes that plenty of us, while using The Apps, are involved in any number of conversations at once. “Some of my clients will be talking to anywhere from three to 30 people at the same time,” she continues. “I think it can take some of the joy out of seeking out a partner if you have that much going on.” For her, five is the magic number. It lets you keep a few eggs in a few baskets without overwhelming you to the point of full-on yolk taste aversion. “You’re busy!” she says. “Spend your downtime on friends and hobbies, not the dating version of busy work!” Dating should still bring us some pleasure of the romantic variety, and treating flirtatious encounters like Excel spreadsheet entries is probably not the most joyful angle of approach.
Of course, Kaufman is well aware that social anxiety can be thoroughly prohibitive when it comes to dating — and that there’s something far safer about wading your way into a relationship by way of text message when the in-person encounter causes you stress. “I had a patient who spent a long time — almost three weeks — texting constantly with someone from an app,” Kaufman says. “Eventually she became terrified to actually meet up with him for fear of shattering something that felt so good over text message. I had to remind her that the texting wasn’t real. It was a fantasy land until she knew if the chemistry existed in real life.”
So yeah, the banter is important. Take it at your own pace, follow rules that put you at ease, but try to remember that you are talking to real people. If real-life chemistry is your endgame, don’t lose sight of that.
Treat The First Date Like A Job Interview
Alright, we’ve made some progress here. Now, this is no longer a computer game — this is a date date. There will likely be food or drinks or a cultural activity involved.
“The advice I give for app dates isn’t really different than the advice I’d give to clients who are nervous about any other kind of date,” says Kaufman. “And usually, for those with some sort of social anxiety, my trick is just breathing.”
She explains that staying focused and present is often the secret when it comes to making connections — and something as simple as reminding yourself of your breath can make all the difference when your brain is off on a hamster wheel tangent, deterring you from making casual conversation with the person opposite you.
“For clients who are especially nervous about app dates,” Kaufman continues, “I remind them that they don’t actually need to think of this like a date. It’s really more of a job interview. This is the predate — it’s when you’re vetting a person to see if you’d actually like to see them again in a romantic capacity.”
She says that normally, in an app-free world, you’d date someone who you’d already vetted — and approved — as a potential partner. So this first meeting is just that: a first meeting. It need not be made into a grand, intimidating thing. It’s just the preamble to an actual date. And if you think of it that way, some small measure of the pressure is lifted.
“That also helps with expectations,” she explains. “Because you’ve been talking to someone online, you build up this big idea of who they’ll be in person. Sometimes it can be really disappointing if they’re not as you imagined them.” Treating date #1 as a security pre-check guards you against the gap between your expectations and the reality that is a fish-brandishing bro.
There Are No Hard & Fast Rules For Following Up
“We’re always complicating this part of things,” Kaufman says. “If we think of the first date as a job interview, then whatever comes next doesn’t have to be full throttle, it’s just the next round.”
As she sees it, there’s no official decorum — no three-day texting rule or gender-specific mandate. If you enjoyed a date, you need not follow up and say, “FYI I want a winter wedding and do you have a family history of chronic illness?” Instead, you can start with the truth: “Thanks, I had a nice time.”
Further, it should come as no surprise that Kaufman is not a fan of ghosting. “In the simplest of terms, it’s rude and hurtful,” she says. And having worked with plenty of clients who have found themselves “ghosted,” she’s thinks that perhaps, to survive in the app dating economy, we ought to arm ourselves against this sort of thing. If we find ourselves ghosted early on in a virtual relationship, she thinks it’s important that we learn ways of merely letting go (breathe, man!). Further along, when the act is more egregious, Kaufman suggests reaching out and (politely) requesting closure. This is very much your right — and it will certainly feel better than allowing yourself to sit and stew while you wait for contact.
“People ‘ghost’ for any number of different reasons,” Kaufman says, “but for the most part, it comes from a pretty classic fear of confronting emotion. Unfortunately, that’s one of the hard lessons you learn through dating. And I think we’d all be better served if we learned it, told the truth, and moved on to the next thing.”