Counseling Today, Features

Finding love in a ‘swipe left’ universe

By Bethany Bray November 28, 2018

When it comes to dating, it’s often said there are plenty of fish in the sea. But when you’re dangling a fishing pole in the seemingly vast ocean of online dating and not getting many nibbles, it can leave you with a seasick feeling. Or perhaps you’ve heard tales of other people connecting with really nice fish, but whenever you cast a line, all you seem to reel in are sharks and slippery eels.

Online dating can be a great way for people to meet those who are outside of their usual social circles and connect with potential partners whom they might never have crossed paths with otherwise. At the same time, getting to “happily ever after” can be an emotionally charged experience fraught with rejection and anxiety-provoking scenarios.

As with conventional dating, online dating carries with it the inherent risks of having bad dates and encountering hurtful behavior. But with online dating, the always-on nature of the technology allows users (perhaps encourages users is even more accurate) to check, recheck and overanalyze whether a potential match has viewed their profile, responded to a message or blocked the match entirely.

Yes, online dating carries the potential for disappointment and anxiety, acknowledges Rachel Dack, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in helping clients with dating, relationship and intimacy issues. However, she believes that online dating is a risk worth taking — if approached in a healthy way.

There are “normal highs and lows associated with online dating, and, unfortunately, many of those situations are unavoidable. … It’s helpful for counselors to understand that, oftentimes, online dating takes years [before finding the right relationship]. Helping clients with patience and setting realistic expectations is key,” says Dack, who writes and contributes relationship pointers for eHarmony and DatingAdvice.com. “Often, social media and pop culture can offer an unrealistic picture of it. It’s helpful to reframe a client’s view. It’s really important to normalize the online dating experience, including the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Fifteen percent of U.S. adults have used an online dating website or app, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Since 2013, usage of online dating has nearly tripled among adults ages 18-24 and doubled among those ages 55-64.

As online dating grows more widespread, it is also becoming more socially accepted. Pew reports that nearly half of all Americans know someone who uses online dating or has met a romantic partner online.

Online dating offers users opportunities to enter the dating pool at their own pace, pursuing and accepting as many messages and matches as they choose, notes Dack, a member of the American Counseling Association.

“It can be overwhelming to have as many choices as we have online, but at the same time, it’s an amazing opportunity to meet people,” she says. “Online dating can be a powerful tool for clients who are more shy or introverted and unlikely to approach new people in public. There can be a large sense of comfort found in starting communication [with a potential match] on a phone or computer and setting the pace for what communication looks like. You can get to know someone slowly, over time, instead of trying to approach someone and make decisions right away.”

 

Getting up to speed

The online dating market is a crowded one, with dozens of apps and programs available. Some require payment to join, and some are free. Some match users on the basis of sophisticated algorithms, whereas others allow users to “swipe” through profiles and choose only those that appeal to them. Certain apps are designed to allow only female users to make the first move of contacting another user. And yet others cater to LGBTQ consumers, those looking for matches of a certain religious faith or other demographics.

Although it isn’t necessary for counselors to know the nuances between all of these options, they should have a basic understanding of what online dating is and how it works so they can connect with clients who present with issues related to online dating in therapy sessions, says Mark J. Taliancich, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in New Orleans whose doctoral dissertation was on online dating. He suggests that counselors search for information online to bring themselves up to speed. Although scholarly research on the topic is limited, especially as it pertains to online dating’s connection to mental health, he says an internet search will yield plenty of consumer-focused reviews and news articles that detail the online dating experience and the pros and cons of different platforms. Should clients raise an issue specific to the online dating app they are using, Taliancich suggests having them talk through their experience in session.

Kathleen Smith, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., agrees. She says counselors should engage these clients by asking why they chose a particular app or platform and which features appealed to them. “It’s not the client’s job to teach you how it works, but also don’t just pretend that you understand,” Smith says. “Just having a basic knowledge can be important. [Online dating] is not just exchanging messages. Know which are the most-used apps and their features.”

Taliancich also stresses that counselors should drop any outdated or stereotypical assumptions they might harbor, such as the misconception that online dating is used only by people who are desperate or awkward and can’t find dates any other way.

“It’s similar to a multicultural issue, or working with a client who has an aspect of their culture that’s not familiar [to the counselor]. It requires doing a little research, a little homework. Realize that there’s a different process to each app,” says Taliancich, the clinical director of counseling solutions for the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Don’t go off of assumptions or things you’ve heard. It’s really easy to say ‘online dating is dangerous.’ But when you dig down into it, it’s as dangerous as traditional dating. … Two common criticisms of online dating are that it’s dangerous and people lie [about themselves]. I would argue [those things] can be true of traditional dating just as much.”

 

Diving in

The nature of online dating can exacerbate mental health issues, including struggles with anxiety, self-esteem and setting boundaries. For some clients, it can also dredge up feelings related to past experiences with rejection, abandonment, loss or trauma. For example, a lack of replies to messages could be especially damaging to a client who has issues with self-worth or rejection. Similarly, selecting photos for an online profile can bring up issues for those who struggle with their body image.

“Dating can be a very triggering and uncomfortable experience based on [individuals’] personal mindset about themselves,” Dack says. “A lot of negative feelings [about yourself] can be reinforced through online dating.” At the same time, she adds, “If you’re working to be your best, that’s what you will attract. [Clients’] attitudes about themselves and connecting to others are a major factor in meeting others and the dating process.”

Counselors can help clients work through past issues that spill over into their online dating experiences and prepare them for the challenges that can be a natural part of dating, Dack says. She emphasizes the need to offer both a compassionate and realistic approach.

“With rejection, reinforce that it’s a normal part of the dating experience and probably has nothing to do with them. But [for some clients], their past is going to make them believe that it has everything to do with them,” Dack says. “Hold space for the client to feel their emotions about the past and really grieve and work through it.”

“Online dating is setting you up to get rejected more frequently — remember that,” she adds. “It’s really hard for us to grasp the concept that not everybody is supposed to like us or will like us, and that comes [up] with online dating.”

Smith says she has similar conversations with her clients, the majority of whom are women in their 20s and 30s. She counsels clients that it’s more important to focus on themselves and becoming the person they want to be rather than on what they think a potential match might be looking for.

“The ability to step back and remember yourself versus being anxious about how to make a person not break up with you, that puts the focus on things that are easier and calmer,” says Smith, whose doctoral dissertation was on cellphone use and anxiety. “Help people recognize that dating, especially online dating, is an anxious process. It’s very risky, and you can only control 50 percent of the process. If your anxiety spikes during the process, it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. You’re putting yourself out there and engaging with someone you don’t know who is allowed to reject you. It’s what you do to manage it and respond to it [that matters].”

 

Navigating the ups and downs

Counselors can help clients maintain a healthy perspective and remain true to themselves even as they navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of online dating. The following takeaways can provide some guidance.

Get to the why: One of the most helpful questions counselors can ask clients about online dating is why they chose to sign up in the first place. The answer can provide insights into the person’s goals, intent and motivations, says Taliancich, an adjunct professor in the master’s counseling program at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans.

“It’s entirely possible to dive into online dating and never have to spend a night alone,” he says. “People can go on four, five or six dates a week, for whatever motivation. But it can be a way to escape something or not deal with another issue. There is a range of motivations, just as with traditional dating.”

At the same time, Taliancich stresses, counselors shouldn’t assume that every client makes a conscious choice to date online versus pursuing more traditional methods. For younger, more tech-savvy clients in particular, online dating may be the more accepted way to meet people. Others may simply feel it is the best option open to them for any number of reasons, such as there being no eligible matches in their immediate social circles.

Set a good pace: “Helping people get the right pace is a conversation I often have [with clients],” Smith says. “Make sure they focus on work and friends and the life they had before they started to date. Clients often focus on whether a relationship will work or not, but breaking it down into manageable steps can be helpful. People tend to be so terrified that they don’t [date] or are so obsessed that they turn dating into a full-time job and get burned out and frustrated. I have conversations with clients about taking breaks when they need to. There’s so much data, you can spend forever looking at it and go on tons of dates. It can be very overwhelming for people when they see so many potential matches and they forget themselves and what they’re looking for.”

Conduct a time check: It’s important to ask clients how much time they’re spending on online dating apps, Taliancich notes, because in many cases, they may not even realize the degree to which it is eating into other aspects of their life, such as schoolwork or connecting with friends. He explains that the apps draw people in with behavioral “rewards” for staying engaged, such as notifying them that a match has viewed their profile or the app has developed a batch of new matches for them to view.

Smith works with clients to monitor and create boundaries for the amount of time they spend focusing on online dating. This can be especially important for clients whose anxiety fluctuates according to the number of responses and attention they receive from matches. She recommends asking clients, “When does [online dating] get in the way? How can you direct yourself away from that when you need to?”

It can also be helpful to remind clients that they can turn their app notifications off entirely or change the settings so they don’t receive messages that are particularly triggering, such as when a match looks at their profile or blocks them, Smith notes.

“How [a client] engages with the apps and technology is such a good marker for their anxiety,” Smith says. “Ask them questions: ‘How often do you look at the app?’ Gauge how much of their time this is taking up. Are they dating reactively or thoughtfully? People might not own up to that at first, but if you ask, it may be surprising how much they are focusing on it.”

Know your client: Clients who have struggled with anxious or obsessive behaviors in the past may find it difficult to resist checking and rechecking a dating app for messages or new matches. A counselor who knows that a client is sensitive to rejection can help prepare that client to manage his or her reaction when the inevitable happens.

“If it’s someone you’ve been working with, you’ll know how likely they are to be compulsive or sucked into that experience,” says Taliancich, who met his wife through online dating. “People who feel invested by chatting with someone, they can take it a lot harder when they don’t get a response or [the match] stops replying. It feels a lot worse for them because the rejection feels a lot stronger — feeling that stab, over and over. Whereas people who don’t feel as invested in that initial part tend to navigate it a little easier because it doesn’t feel as much like a personal affront [to them].”

Similarly, Smith notes, clients who have a history of relying on relationships to regulate their moods may find it easy to fall into bad habits with online dating. “Your mood will ascend and descend based on dates, inevitably, but if your sense of self is coming from dating, it will be worse,” she says. “Have the client ask themselves, ‘If I’m not paying attention, what might happen? What do I need to be aware of, be mindful of? How can I be my best self?’”

Celebrate goals, not boyfriends or girlfriends: Clients may assume that success in online dating equates to finding a steady relationship. The reality, though, is that it simply won’t happen for everyone. Instead, Smith urges her clients to learn from each interaction and to celebrate each goal they reach.

“There’s also successes such as being able to go out on a date when they haven’t in a really long time. Celebrate that. Or have the goal that I’m going to do this [go on a date] and be OK the next day. And that’s great,” Smith says. “Having those clarifying experiences, even if they’re breakups, I would see as a victory. Next time, things will go more smoothly.”

Turn “failure” on its head: Smith recalls one client who began dating a match whom she really liked. However, he wouldn’t respond to her messages consistently, which “was driving her up the wall,” Smith says. Eventually, the client was able to talk calmly to him and explain what she needed, and the pair came to the mutual conclusion that the relationship wasn’t going to work out. Although some might have considered that a failure, Smith helped the client to see it as a success: She had learned for next time what she wanted and needed in a match.

Likewise, counselors can help their clients reframe some of the things they experience in online dating. “Everyone in life has to learn that rejection and disappointment is inevitable. You learn that in different ways, and dating is one way,” Smith explains. “If you can find humor in it, that can help. Set a goal of going on one terrible date or being rejected a couple of times. It can help to laugh at it a little. It makes it not so intimidating. You don’t necessarily have to get better at rejection, but know that it’s not a failure. Knowing that you can only control 50 percent of the process, it’s more about managing yourself than trying to control another person.”

Stay true to yourself: Smith sometimes suggests that clients create a list of “guiding principles” they can focus on during dating and refer back to when they start to feel anxious. The principles can be as simple as “be honest” or “be kind.” Other clients may need to add more specific benchmarks, such as, “Don’t check my dating app more than once each day.”

As Smith explains, the guiding principles can offer reassurance whenever clients have a bad date or other negative experience. “Focusing on what they can control in the dating process can help them calm down and feel less anxious,” she says. “Measure progress not on whether a person liked [you], but ‘Was I the person I wanted to be? Was I myself?’ If you’re doing that, then you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Similarly, Dack works with clients, particularly those who struggle with anxiety, to create predate rituals that can help them focus on goals they have set. The rituals — perhaps listening to a favorite music playlist or repeating a positive affirmation — help them prepare and quiet down their predate jitters, she says.

Use role-play: Dack suggests that counselors use role-play exercises in session with clients to prepare them for interacting on dates. She asks clients some of the sensitive questions that might come up (for example, “How long was your longest relationship?”) and gives them feedback on their responses. This can help teach clients what levels of self-disclosure are appropriate when meeting a potential match and how to express themselves in healthy, genuine ways, she says. It can be particularly beneficial for clients who struggle with vulnerability or who view being vulnerable as a weakness.

Dack notes that questions about past relationships — or a lack thereof — can dredge up feelings of shame for those who view themselves as inexperienced. “We want to help them feel vulnerable and authentic while being confident about what they have to offer. With men in particular, there are societal expectations and poor dating advice telling them to portray themselves as super successful, masculine or strong. Sometimes, this can come off as sales-y or disingenuous,” she says. “I encourage my clients to be more open and real.”

“Remind clients that it’s important to be authentic and truthful, but there are layers to sharing,” she continues. “It’s important to share at an appropriate pace. [Find] balance in disclosure. Also, reading your date’s body language and responses is an important skill. My approach is very direct and feedback-oriented so [clients] can practice self-disclosure in a healthy way and learn what comes off as fake or manipulative.”

Be mature rather than anxious: Smith uses the word “mature” with clients to describe behaviors and reactions that are the opposite of anxious. This often comes up in conversations about online dating, she says. For example, when a match doesn’t text after a date or respond to messages right away, the client might be tempted to react in anxious ways: checking and rechecking the app, obsessing over the date’s social media accounts or barraging the person with follow-up messages.

With clients who find themselves overthinking aspects of the dating process, Smith says it can be helpful for a counselor to ask, “How would you know you are doing this as maturely as possible? How would you interact with this differently than you are now? What’s the mature way? What’s the anxious way, and how do you know the difference between the two?”

“Believe it or not,” she says, “there is a mature way to interact with these apps. The word ‘maturity’ helps people figure out a way to not let it take over their life or not make them want to throw their phone across the room. The more maturely you engage with it, the better the chance that you will match with someone who is mature and handling it well.”

Interrupt the negative spiral: Clients may approach online dating with negative assumptions that it won’t work out, especially if they harbor feelings of self-doubt or shame associated with being single, Dack says. Those feelings can be exacerbated when clients experience rejection or when they aren’t getting many responses from potential matches.

“They may be operating on a narrative that they’re not worthy,” Dack explains. “It can be very challenging to hold on to the belief that love will happen for you. That can be a very challenging belief to sit with. Feeling good about yourself and believing you have something to offer is a key part of dating success. But if it’s not going well, it’s hard to feel good about yourself. They may take the ups and downs personally.”

Counselors can equip clients to quell this negative cycle by teaching them how to use positive self-talk, Dack suggests. The intervention can help clients overwrite the negative thoughts and messaging that “can get particularly loud with bad dating experiences,” she says.

Dack works with clients to create positive affirmations that they can refer to whenever they’re feeling low. For instance, she says, counselors can help clients replace thoughts such as “I’m going to end up alone” or “I’m doomed in the love department” with messages such as “I am open and ready for love,” “I am committed to connecting with others,” “I am worthy of the type of relationship I’m looking for” and “I choose to accept and grow from my challenging relationships and breakups.”

In session, counselors can listen to clients’ language and point out cognitive distortions to help steer them away from negative thought patterns. For example, a client might remark “My dating life never goes right, so why bother?”

“They’re in an internal conflict because they really do want to date and find a satisfying relationship. It’s important to change any self-defeating narratives because these beliefs are going to make them feel worse,” Dack says. “Offer a realistic perspective while trying to step out of their self-narrative. If they say, ‘All men are jerks,’ break that down [with the client]. Look for exceptions and positives that can foster hope and clear out mental blocks.”

Helping clients focus on what they are able to control in the experience can also shift thinking away from the negative, Dack adds. For instance, they are not able to control whether a match responds to a message. However, they can pick and choose which dating apps they use,
what they say about themselves in their online dating profile and other aspects
of the process.

Accept some anxiety as natural: Counselors who understand online dating can help clients set realistic expectations about the process and prepare them for the reality that meeting new people and opening themselves to rejection is bound to involve some measure of anxiety, Dack says.

“With anxious clients, it’s important for counselors to understand that dating is basically exposing them to constant anxiety — everything from waiting to hear back from a date to showing up for a date and figuring out the frequency of communication,” Dack says. “It can be mentally exhausting, but it can also be really good. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. The anxiety about it is natural to living a full life. Anxiety is normal in dating, and it doesn’t have to keep you from dating. The more skill and intention that clients bring to their dating life, the better it goes.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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