Online Dating - the Secrets to Success
I'm a huge fan of online dating. I have several friends and many clients who have found love that way. And when it works, it works well; a recent study suggests that couples who meet online are more likely to move successfully through the infamous 'seven year breakpoint' than couples who meet in traditional ways. But online dating is often challenging.
For many, the journey, however hopefully started, often becomes a yo-yo of frustration and self-doubt as well as excitement and hope. In my work I've come to recognise 'online dating disillusionment' when I see it - and I see it across the board, male and female, young and less young.
And yet online is now the second most common way of meeting a partner. Why? The answer lies in social change. A hundred years ago people typically married once and stayed together for ever; nowadays we typically have five extended 'dating windows' in life, from first love to post-retirement divorce. A hundred years ago, folk lived in stable communities with ample time to socialise and so mate; nowadays we work long hours, return home to private lives, relocate often, and meet diminishing numbers of possible spouses. Result: more dating need with fewer dating opportunities.
Spoilt for choice
Cue the raise of matchmaking websites, claiming large numbers of potential partners, all easily accessible and pre-sorted to enable compatibility. (Or, with even greater accessibility, the Tinder type of matchmaking apps which pare the whole thing down to the bone and get one judging on appearance alone.) And these claims are largely well-founded.
Even smaller sites number hundreds of thousands of members. All sites (and apps) are accessible 24/7 at the click of a mouse or a swipe of the finger. And on the sites at least, we can even screen out partners who don't share our love of marathon running or our decision not to have children. This is undeniably a cut above the chance meeting at the pub.
But all these advantages also contain hidden disadvantages. The ability to view hundreds of thousands of profiles can create a 'shopping mentality', where we become increasingly overwhelmed or make our initial selection on criteria irrelevant to long-term happiness; the apps in particular lead us to judge on appearance rather than the more crucial personality. Ease of accessibility may mean we rush into looking for relationships without the time to pursue it seriously, or without being emotionally ready or even available. And matching programs, however sophisticated, simply can't tell us whether a real-life meeting will result in love at first sight or instant loathing.
It's not just that the online dating process per se creates problems; it's that as a society, we don't yet know how to make it work. Ten years ago, online was seen as suspect; now it's highly acceptable, but we are only 10 years along the learning curve. Not only may we be uninformed as to how the system works - as an example, many don't realise that online, women as much as men are expected to take the initiative. But also, we may lack the ability to make the system work - sites brutally penalise those who are not adept with words, while apps like Tinder make no allowance for the fact that some people's gorgeousness simply doesn't shine through on a 'selfie'.
This may seem like bad news. In fact, the underlying message is positive; that personal deficiency is rarely at the heart of online failure. In short, it's not your fault! My coaching clients and my class students alike are typically bright, competent, attractive people. Their lack of success in online dating is not down to their lack of relationship potential, but because the system hasn't yet fully developed, because society hasn't yet mastered the system, and because individuals haven't yet realised that what's most crucial is emotional resilience.
For here's the thing. The secret to online dating lies not so much in the practicalities - which site to choose, how many words should a profile be - but in the ability to ride the roller coaster. It's not just that you need to be on stable ground before you even start the online journey. It's that the journey itself is likely to be a challenging course in self development.
Going online, you'll need to rediscover who you are; particularly if you have come onto the dating scene after a longish period of partnership, you may be very different from last time you courted. You'll need to be authentic about what you want from a relationship or risk making wrong decisions and breaking other hearts as well as your own. And you'll need to handle the hard fact that you will not necessarily be 'chosen' by those you like, and that those you 'choose' may not necessarily like you.
Which is why, although online dating appears to be an immensely personal adventure, I deeply believe that it benefits from external support. If you are starting on the adventure, gather as much information as possible about how to do it; if you are drawn to professional help, use that to prepare emotionally for the journey and to gain support for it.
In particular, find a friend, one who is starting on, or one who has successfully navigated ,the road, to commiserate with you. But also, to celebrate with you. For - I repeat - dating not only can work, but often does work, and work well. But you do need to keep with it...
Click here to buy Susan Quilliam's Relate Guide To Staying Together: From Crisis to Deeper Commitment
Illustration: Bollywood Love is a word-sculpture by Helen Kirwan-Taylor.