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The psychology of online dating

What happened to the days when you’d meet someone at work, through a mutual friend, or even at the local bar? Nowadays, online dating is no longer seen as something for ‘desperate lonely singles’ as it once might have been. Instead, it’s become just as normal as having a social media account. However, there are a few key important psychological differences when it comes to online dating. If you’re new to online dating, keeping these in mind, whether you’re looking for love or simply hoping to meet people and see what happens, is important for your own well-being.

One of the side effects of our social media-driven age is that we tend to get to know people quite differently than we did just a couple of decades ago. This means that we feel much more connected to people, without ever having met them. On dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble and the like, there often tends to be a rapid exchange of texts and personal information within the first day or few days. So, when you’re heading off for your first date, you feel as though you already know a lot about your match. It’s important, not only for your own personal safety but for your mental health, that you keep in mind that you are in fact meeting a stranger. The version of themselves that you see while texting might be very different from the reality. So, keep your expectations realistic and know that you’ll have to get to know the offline version of your match, even though it may seem you already know a lot about them.

One of the more unfortunate side effects of online dating is that, just as people are easy to come by on these apps, they’re also just as quickly gone. There’s even a term for it: Ghosting – When someone suddenly disappears without explanation. Online dating has created a bit of a virtual reality ‘window shopping’ experience for finding a date, and as such, many people can tend to be a little flaky, unreliable, and quick to move on. Despite having spent days or weeks getting to know someone through an intense amount of messaging, you might find they’ve suddenly disappeared from your matches one day, without so much as a goodbye. This can be hurtful and a big blow to your confidence and self-worth. Psychologically, the reason this happens is that people feel more removed from reality, and thus from normal socially acceptable behaviours. Much in the way that we might swear and shout at bad drivers from within the confines of our car or make a nasty comment to someone who’s upset or offended us on social media – whereas we’d be very unlikely to do that face-to-face. Online dating can make people less compassionate and polite. If this happens to you, remember – it’s not a reflection on you. It’s just a normal part of online dating.

When faced with a huge number of match options online, it can be easy to fall into the trap of ‘box ticking’ when looking for a date and a potential partner. Some apps even let you filter your matches by things like ethnicity, height, religion, education and more. Whilst it’s important to know what you want in a partner, it’s also worth remembering that there is simply no such thing as perfect. Once, when we got to know people more organically, we could decide whether or not we liked someone based on our face-to-face interactions with them. Online dating means that you have to decide how you feel about someone after seeing a few pictures and maybe reading a short bio about them. If there are ‘deal breaker’ values you have for an ideal partner, that’s fine. But just be sure to look beyond the superficial aspects and set aside the time to get to know people a little first. You might just find your perfect match isn’t who you’d imagined.

Note: Never accept abusive behaviour from online dating matches, and if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, be sure to report them.

There’s a reason that online dating apps are so successful – they’re addictive. The effects of Tinder and other apps like in on our brains is both fascinating and a little worrying. According to Psychology Today:

“Tinder hijacks the brain’s system of reward learning to keep individuals hooked. Tinder sends notifications when a user has a new match. When users first begin to receive such notifications, their dopamine neuron firing rate does not increase until the user views the profile of the individual with whom they matched. However, over time, the user may begin to experience a reward response simply from the notification.”

The trouble with this is that we can begin to associate our own self-worth with the notifications we’re receiving from online dating apps. This means, when we’re not receiving them, it can have a negative effect on our self-worth.  And another issue that is very real to consider – is that when you may start dating someone, they could still be on the dating sites seeing if they can find someone better since it is so addictive and easy to do – it’s like a neverending smorgasbord!

 How to avoid the negative psychological effects of online dating

The key to avoiding the feelings of low self-worth and addiction which can be a result of online dating is to treat dating apps like any other social media app:

  • Limit your time on the apps (set yourself an alarm if you need to)
  • Remind yourself that online dating, just like social media, is not the real world
  • Keep in mind that your value is not based on others’ reactions to you online
  • Limit the number of matches you make and the number of conversations you’re involved with at any one time (focus on only as many as you can manage and maintain meaningful conversations with)
  • Know what you’re looking for and be honest with your matches about it (to avoid disappointment on either side)
  • Know that your worth is not based on whether or not you’re single

Although there are many success stories, navigating the psychological minefield of online dating can be tricky. There is countless research to suggest that not only is it addictive, but it changes the way we think about ourselves, about dating, and about having a partner. These effects can quickly and almost imperceptibly have a negative impact on our emotional and mental health. If you feel that you’re struggling with your self-worth or experiencing other side effects of online dating, seeing a counsellor can be incredibly beneficial. To find out more about how a counsellor can help you, get in touch with us at Integrated Health Specialists today.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen