Modern dating is difficult. While people have more options than ever through dating apps and online platforms, the experience of trying to date can leave one feeling like dating is no longer fun, exciting, or hopeful. It may have come to feel more stressful and frustrating than anything.
A research study focused on the apps Grindr and Jack’d found that the nature of browsing to seek out a relationship on apps is a contributing factor to users feeling frustrated. This is in part because browsing on apps is a very different experience from the social and environmental norms of relationship development offline for users looking for “more durable relationships” (Yeo & Fung, 2017.)
Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March of 2020, the app Tinder reported its highest user record, with over 3 billion swipes within one day. It is predicted that heightened use of dating apps will continue following the end of the pandemic (Wiederhold, 2021.)
I often hear therapy clients discuss the desire to meet someone “in the wild”, and yet it can feel like everyone is using apps as the primary way to actually end up scheduling dates.
With many factors of dating that can feel out of one’s control, here are a few things you can do to prepare for the various experiences that might come with the process of dating, both on and off the apps.
1. Get Clear About Your Intentions
It can be helpful to get clear with yourself about your intentions of dating at this time in life. This can change over time, and it’s okay to allow yourself the permission to change your mind or your approach. For some, they may be seeking their partner for life, while others may want to explore what dating feels like after some time away from it, and others may be seeking a more casual relationship. There is no right or wrong intention. At the same time, it is important to try to identify people that align with your needs and wants in this process. A difficulty with many apps or even an initial in-person meeting is that you are getting limited information about people’s expectations for dating unless you ask.
Many people may feel nervous about asking someone what they are looking for fear of coming off as “too much” or asking too soon. This can lead to an unagreed upon “situationships” or relationship dynamics where expectations, intentions, boundaries, and hopes for where things are going are unclear.
Exploring these questions with yourself may be helpful in seeking clarity around your dating process:
- What might it be like to share your intentions or hopes with your potential date from the start?
- If the thought of that feels scary right now, can you get curious with yourself about that automatic reaction?
- What did you feel in your body when you thought about sharing your intentions about dating even before a first date or during the first or second date?
- Can you name your most feared worst case scenario that could occur?
- If that worst case scenario happens, how could you imagine yourself coping effectively with it?
- What information might you gain if the worst case scenario actually happened?
Research shows that, “conscientiousness was correlated with finding a romantic relationship” (Bonilla-Zorita, Griffiths, & Kuss, 2020.) When you swipe through other people’s profiles without clear intention, you may be more likely to seek dates that are not able to meet your wants or needs at this time. This can lead to a cycle of frustration, disappointment, and dissatisfaction with dating.
2. Determine your needs
Determine your flexible and inflexible needs in a relationship and partner. This concept comes from a research-based approach to relationships called The Gottman Method (Benson, 2017). The concept can be adapted for use even before a pair has “made things official.” These needs may vary at different points in life depending on your current intentions for dating.
Grab a pen and paper or use a notes app in your phone and create a list with two columns:
- The first column will be for your flexible needs. For example, if you are seeking a life partner, think about what you would like in a partner but could live without. Some flexible needs might include certain physical characteristics, hobbies they are interested in, or their feelings about pets.
- The second column will be for your inflexible needs. Think about what you would absolutely need within that relationship. Some inflexible needs might include a religious background or spirituality practice, political stance, someone that wants children or does not want children, financial status, or other value-based needs.
If you often find yourself dismissing potential matches or frequently avoiding second or third dates, this exercise may also help you determine whether or not another date might allow you to better learn if someone can meet your inflexible needs.
3. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a popular topic these days, but when it comes to dating, what does this actually look like?
As previously noted, being intentional about one’s needs and wants can be a helpful practice when it comes to dating. At the same time, it’s also important to leave space for humanity and to really get to know someone. Being mindful or being present can help you do that.
Some things that might take you out of the present moment while dating could include:
- Treating the date like a job interview with a mental checklist in your head about whether or not the person is meeting all your needs and wants.
- Fear of how you are being perceived.
- Thinking about what you’re going to say next before the other person has even finished talking.
- Going into future scenarios about this person being “the one.”
- Alcohol and other substance use can cloud attunement to feelings, body sensations, and thoughts about an experience.
- Belief that you have to make a decision about the person right away.
I encourage many clients to think about the first couple of dates as just collecting information, which can mean information about who the other person is and collecting information about how your body and energy feels with that person. After the date, you can further assess your feelings about the date and whether or not that person is looking for the same things you are.
If you notice yourself getting distracted on dates, experiment with some of these mindfulness techniques that can bring your mind back into the room and your date:
- 5,4,3,2,1 is a grounding practice in which you notice to yourself:
- 5 things you can see around you
- 4 things you can physically feel around you
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste (if applicable)
- If you have a cold or iced drink in front of you, try putting your hands on the cup and notice the cold temperature. Use of cold temperature is actually a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) distress tolerance skill, allowing you to better tolerate distress and anxiety in the moment and calm the mind and body enough to utilize other skills. It’s also potentially a distracting sensation, forcing you out of your thoughts at least temporarily.
- Shift focus back to the person in front of you and what they are saying. Part of mindfulness at its core is about increasing your control of where your attention goes. Maybe you will notice that you are actually having fun or notice that something feels off. The more attunement to your body and the present moment, the more you can trust your own instincts and gut reaction. As Brianna Wiest, the author of the book The Mountain is You, aptly puts it, “Your ‘gut instinct’ can only respond to what’s happening in the present” (2020).
In Part 2 of this series, I will share more about navigating some of the potential roadblocks when it comes to relationships and dating.
Benson, Kyle. Reaching a Compromise: The Second Part of the State of the Union Meeting. The Gottman Institute. (2017.) https://www.gottman.com/blog/reaching-compromise-second-part-state-union-meeting/.
Bonilla-Zorita, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D.J. Online Dating and Problematic Use: A Systematic Review. Int J Ment Health Addiction 19, 2245–2278 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00318-9.
Wiederhold, Brenda K. How COVID Has Changed Online Dating—And What Lies Ahead. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. Volume 24. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. (2021). DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2021.29219.editorial. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/cyber.2021.29219.editorial.
Wiest, Brianna. The Mountain is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage into Self-Mastery. Thought Catalog Books. (2020.)
Yeo, Tien Ee Dominic. Fung, Tsz Hin. “Mr Right Now”: Temporality of relationship formation on gay mobile dating apps. Mobile Media & Communication. Volume 6, Issue 1. Sage Journals. (2017). https://doi.org/10.1177/2050157917718601.
Wildflower Center for Emotional Health is a therapy practice with offices in Chicago (River North) and Oak Park, IL. We offer in-person services at each of our locations as well as online therapy to anyone in Illinois. We specialize in perinatal and reproductive health, trauma and PTSD, anxiety and depression, relationships, sex and intimacy concerns, and more.Learn More