Protect your emotional health, create positive and fulfilling online experiences
The online social world is as much a part of daily life as IRL (in real life), yet the two experiences are fundamentally different. The cues and strategies to safely and successfully navigate one do not translate to the other. Most of the attention goes to protecting against scammers. Yet what is really at stake is how to get into the dating game while staying true to ourselves.
With the high price of public disclosure, nowhere are we more vulnerable to losing sight of ourselves than online dating. ‘Putting yourself out there’ is an act of vulnerability. Doing so in an environment dotted with encrypted VPN’d scammers and predators takes online dating risks to another level.
Yet people find happiness and fulfillment online. Sixty percent of people online report positive experiences. Fifty-four percent of online daters say their online relationships are as successful as the ones that begin in person. Thirteen percent have gotten engaged or married.
Success depends on having the skills and resiliency to take on the emotional, financial, and physical risks of online and in-person dating. Having an eyes-wide-open approach will help to take what serves and protects while leaving the rest behind.
Nature of relationships
The purpose of dating—whether online or IRL—is to discover, explore and grow interpersonal connections that feel good and are supportive. Should this purpose shift to avoiding being alone, avoiding addressing uncomfortable feelings, playing out pre-scripted expectations, or masking insecurities—we increase our risks of being taken advantage of and decrease our chances of finding a healthy, fulfilling relationship.
The strength of our relationship with ourselves determines the quality of our relationships with others. Knowing and valuing ourselves means that we are connected to our likes and dislikes. When what feels good and what hurts or what works and doesn’t work drives our decisions, we stay protected, build confidence and have clarity. We can recognize the moments when others may be trying to take advantage of or manipulate us. We can choose what in the relationship we are willing to take on and what we are not without being swayed by someone else’s desires or reactions. In this place of self-knowing, we get an emotional center that allows us to give and receive without anxiety or guilt. Without this grounding point, we become easy bait for those who consciously or unconsciously are looking for someone to sway, blame or hurt.
You are your greatest asset when it comes to your happiness, fulfillment and safety. This doesn’t mean that you are an island and don’t need a partner. It also doesn’t mean that you will always be able to protect yourself from the hurt committed by others. It does mean that you hold the most power, control and influence to be your best advocate, lover and protector.
Before putting yourself out there, it’s worth asking how you like being with you. Take note of how you talk to yourself and whether it is kind, loving, joyful and full of grace and forgiveness. Are you clear on what works for you and what doesn’t, or do your thoughts and behaviors sometimes get you hurt or in trouble?
If the answers are not what you are looking for, then an option is to put dating on hold while you take a practice run at dating yourself. Take the time to figure out what you need and what feels good to you. Align your behaviors and learn how to set boundaries to meet your life goals. All of this will help you discover how you show up for yourself and, thus, for others at work, at home, with friends or when dating. Working with a professional can fast-track this process, and you can always start dating again anytime. Sometimes a reflection time out is what saves you time in the long run.
The research is clear: Those who date online are more likely to be distressed, anxious or depressed; three times more likely to experience stress than those who stick to IRL dating. Those who are most vulnerable are
- Those with a preexisting mood disorder
- People seeking validation or attention
Online dating is an act of navigating other people’s expectations and perceptions. To reduce our vulnerability, it is helpful to recognize that swipes are not approvals and ghosting is not rejection. Without these distinctions, we can get swayed into changing our looks and behaviors that aren’t authentic to our values and beliefs. Knowing who you are and how you want to behave for yourself reduces this vulnerability. When you know what you stand for, you are less likely to change to become click-worthy, which is never a measure of what really matters in a relationship.
IRL vs. online dating worlds
As for opportunities to meet people, online wins over IRL hands down; however, online puts you in an immediate information deficit. There are many ways people can remain anonymous and cover up aspects of their lives and only a few tools to vet and validate. Without a common friend, work colleague or auntie to vouch for characters, you are strangers at first contact and will return strangers should you part. Freed from any risks to personal reputations or comforts online, behaviors go unchecked and kindness goes unrewarded. Online may be faster, but it is rougher than IRL.
Roles, purposes, expectations
If we take psychology at its word that interpersonal connections are at the core of relationships, then the strength of relationships depends on the connections that satisfy each partner’s ideals (American Psychology Association).
Ideals can be broken into extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic ideals are those you can see, such as someone’s financial or career success, where they live, or their attractiveness. Intrinsic ideals are those you feel, such as if someone is warm, kind, smart, witty, vulnerable or forgiving. Extrinsic ideals are easier to discover. They are at the surface level and relatively easy to vet. Intrinsic ideals lie beneath the surface. They take time, effort, trial and error to discover and validate.
Online dating apps are great for matching extrinsic ideals. IRL is better for matching the nuances of intrinsic ideals. Research on happy, fulfilling relationships is beginning to show that the strength of intrinsic ideals has a greater influence on relationship success than extrinsic ones.
Swiping favors extrinsic ideals. It also promotes binary, snap decision-making habits that suppress three-dimensional, in-depth decision-making. Left unchecked, the instant gratification of swiping tips us toward objectification and promotes disposable relationships as it diminishes the decision-making practices required for intimate and fulfilling ones. Swiping shapes what we see as well as what we look for and value as increases our access and choices.
According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, having limitless choices turns conscious decision-making into reflexive actions. In his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, Schwartz discusses how when faced with endless choices, humans make no choices and become stressed, burned out and anxious—a phenomenon now dubbed ‘Swipe Fatigue’. Although autonomy may be critical to well-being, there are limits when it comes to happiness.
Unconscious IRL advantage
Online dating platforms are taking notice of the choice paradox, swipe fatigue and consumer demands to get matched for intrinsic ideals. Today’s app versions offer more opportunities for people to demonstrate their values, interests, and life approaches and movements like Slow Dating, similar to Slow Foods, are catching on. However, new features and approaches can’t overcome the fact that profiles are created consciously and purposefully.
Only in IRL, with its real-time feedback, multi-sensory, co-created experiences, can people dive deep into intrinsic ideals. In IRL, the unconscious rises to the surface, influencing banter, touches, missteps and connections that become synergistic giveaways and cues.
Finding true love is less about sight and lightning bolts. It’s more a treasure hunt that requires a concerted, sustained effort with some fun and intrigue along the way.