6 Rules for Protecting Your Soul and Sense of Self in the Magical Universe of Online Dating

In a perfect world, nobody would choose to go shopping for a mate online. But this ain’t no perfect world. The author offers insight and advice for those who have yet to take the plunge.

I first ventured onto Match.com a year after my marriage ended, having played through the requisite clichés (crying in the bathtub when I was without my kids; medicating away that pain with the company of an Aussie playboy; recovering from that adventure with its opposite—an achingly dull relationship with a nice beige fellow who eventually asked me if he was my “experiment in vanilla”—he was; running like mad for my independence; and ending up back at the kitchen table on alternate Saturday nights). I signed up at the suggestion of my wise friend Sherman, a professional dater if ever there was one; he’s spent no longer than three years in a committed relationship and, like me, has logged enough time on Earth to remember when a new show called The Partridge Family premiered—this guy has been dating for 30 years. Sherman mocked me, older-brother style, through my first few dating scenarios, observing that my dating age was 25 (the age at which I had met my husband—and though it was 18 years later, I was not much wiser about the ways of the world). In my time on the site, I gleaned some wisdom, and I share it with you now in the hopes that it will save some newcomers the agony—and get them closer to the potential ecstasy—of the psychological beating we call online dating.

1

In Person, He’ll Look a Bit Worse Than the Worst Picture.

overhead-shot-of-woman-sitting-in-bed-typing-on-computer
Photo by Vincent Besnault/Getty Images

This insight came from Sherman, and it’s spot on. Maybe it seems like not that big a deal. And in the scheme of things, it isn’t. But that first moment can be crushing. No matter how prepared your brain is for it, your stomach and heart will fall. It helps to be ready—to approach the interaction with “beginner’s mind,” as is so often suggested in yoga. Who would post pictures that don’t really look like them and have to face a disappointed expression upon meeting a potential romantic partner? Almost everyone, it turns out.

2

A Phone Call Is Worth a Thousand Dates.

Do the voice check! I learned this the hard way, when I ended up on a date with, essentially, Charles Nelson Reilly. I kind of wished someone I knew would walk into the restaurant just so I had a witness. The phone also helps screen out lunatics and a-holes. In five minutes your gut will tell you plenty. Talk about something in the real world (as in, not his profile, not your profile): “How’s your day going?” Remember that most people are NOT your soul mate. This is a quick way to find out.

3

You Don’t Have to Write Back.

You’re too nice. I haven’t met you, but I’m going to make that assumption. Match.com is not the place to be your best self. There’s a no-thanks button, and you should feel free to use it. Now and then a message tugs at your heartstrings (“My wife died last year, and you’re the first person I’ve written to on here”) and then maybe you want to write a more personal “not interested” response. If so, keep it short and shut it down—be mercifully uncharming. It doesn’t take much to ignite emotion in people on these sites—most of us sign on when we’re feeling vulnerable and needy. It’s like feeding a squirrel. You don’t want to encourage him to come back tomorrow.



4

One Drink, Then Other Plans.

I find it absolute torture to sit and talk to someone I have no connection with, so I slip into interview mode. This has the effect of making someone feel “heard” and “understood,” no matter what body language I use (arms crossed, body facing away, fingers raised in front of face in shape of shield). Yagotta have an exit strategy. He’ll think it’s going great! He’ll want to order food! But you are taking care of YOU and so to avoid the horror of having gotten dressed up and made up and being out for only, say, 20 minutes, you will have made plans—actual plans! This is not a lie!—with friends who make you laugh. And you will see this unworthy but perhaps perfectly fine fellow from 6 to 6:30 and then say,“Gotta run!” And you will run—run like the wind—to real people in your real life and real fun that will minimize the blip of weird interaction with a stranger you just had. It’ll erase it. Go straight home, and it vibrates all night, demanding food (Oreos) and wine and way too much introspection. Don’t give it anything! On the flip side, if you’re having fun (I guess some people do) you stay till 7, and you make plans to see each other again. You know how to do it. Liking someone is easy (and rare). Wanting to escape is the default. So set yourself up well.

5

Only Go on Match When Your Laptop Battery is Low.

Like junk food, Match is designed for mindless repetitive consumption. Click, click, scroll for the reward. Nothing there? Click, click, scroll again. And again. And again. You’re safest with an unplugged computer. Let it die in your lap (and it will), then go to bed. Limit your sessions or you will look up and have lost a night and be very, very sad.

6

Filter, Filter, Filter.

Instead of seeing Match profiles through rose-colored glasses, know that if the guy doesn’t ignite a 200% surge in your heart, there’s probably not even a good coffee chat on the horizon. Here’s a starter list of the things that can be wrong with a guy’s match profile. Add your own!

Signs you should keep driving:

  • too many pictures (self-centered)
  • only one (something to hide)
  • arms crossed (emotionally unavailable)
  • sunglasses (ditto)
  • no smile (bad or missing teeth)
  • shirtless (no explanation needed)
  • polo shirt (okay, that’s a personal trigger)
  • standing by car
  • with a woman whose face is blocked out (are you kidding me?!)
  • with a woman whose face ISN’T blocked out

Here’s the part where I get humbled (cue your choice of Wilco riff). Last year I fell in love (and I remain in that state) with a wonderful person I found on Match. It was early winter—sweaters, flannel shirts (where is she going with this? Has she lost her mind?). Stay with me. Months later when the weather warmed up, I saw Mr. Wonderful emerge from his bedroom in… a polo shirt—one of many in his spring wardrobe, it turns out. I froze. My God, I thought. I almost missed him. If he had been wearing that in his profile picture, I would have passed him by. I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. I should be disbarred (I’m not a lawyer, but that’s what came to me). In my attempt to manage the difficult, vulnerable experience of looking for love online, I nearly shut myself off from the possibility of finding it. I guess somewhere between full armor (outlined above) and no-skin-with-nerve-endings-entirely-exposed (my natural state as a human being) is a sweet spot. A state in which we’re protected but receptive. And everyone has to locate that point on her own personal online dating tolerance matrix (ODTM—trademark pending). But I don’t know a human alive who couldn’t use some version of a bulletproof vest. As long as it has a tiny door over the heart, ready to swing open when the right eyes look back from the screen.