Online dating and the new pre-romance culture

What makes online dating so hard? I’ve been thinking about that recently, as I work with clients trying to help them understand the process and get the right mindset so they can make the whole thing work for them.

I put together an article for The Australian for Valentine’s Day which explained the new rules, some ideas about the etiquette of online dating. The basic idea is that it’s not actually about romance, nor initially about dating. In case you missed it, here’s what I wrote:

The amazing internet and phone based systems now working so well to bring our huge pools of singles together are many steps removed from the courtship that once ushered in romance for most people. Literally millions of Australian singles are involved in this new process of screening and connecting, a pre-romance culture which creates opportunities for budding romances to emerge down the track but only if people understand the new rules. And that’s not so easy.

Take Brian 60. He’s recently divorced, a brand new online dater from the Blue Mountains. He meets an attractive woman and has a couple of dinners with her. They’re in regular contact and he notices she’d taken down her profile from the site – although she hadn’t mentioned this to him. As it happened he also took his own profile down because I was in the process of revamping it for him. Just after their third dinner he went back online with his new profile only to receive a very indignant letter from her complaining this was “yuk” behaviour on his part, particularly since he’d raised the question of a possible sleep-over, which she’d refused.

So she was clearly counting her chickens, assuming their three dinners meant there was already some of sort of implied commitment, a budding romance. Maybe she thought she was signalling a similar pledge by removing her profile and she’d probably concluded that when he went offline, he was sending the same message. But nothing was said and the whole thing came badly unstuck.

The etiquette of taking profiles up and down is only one of a myriad of new behaviour patterns ready to trip up newcomers who have no idea of the ground rules on this playing field. Boy, is it complex. You see, if you are seeing someone after meeting online and decide to take your profile down it’s kind of like putting up a sold sign – except that your date might not realize they are the buyer. This unilateral decision to announce you are forsaking all others is really a kind of ambit claim that you may hope will encourage your intended to come along for the ride. Of course one-way wooing has always existed, with men on bended knee having diamond rings flung back in their faces.

But there’s much more to this business of profile signalling. For instance sex is often the tipping point. Many don’t want to keep meeting new prospects when a relationship becomes intimate so when things become hot and heavy, down comes the profile. There was one man who took a different tack – namely using sex to decide if it was a good prospect before removing his profile. This met with a variety of responses: “Reactions post-coitus were weird. One immediately demanded commitment – I debated and said no. Several informed me they wanted a lover only and did not care what else I did.” During his few years online he met over a hundred women before hitting the jackpot. He’s soon to get married.

There’s also the confronting business of going out with not just with one person but with many people at any one time. That’s very different from “real life dating” where we’d often find this prospect rather shocking. But it’s actually an essential part of making this process work. Going on the first few dates with someone you’ve met online is actually “pre-dating” – it’s just about putting out feelers and seeing if there’s any chance of a mutual spark.

A woman called me the other day, so excited about having met a wonderful man just after she’d started online dating. She explained they’d talked and talked, and had so much in common. She felt so attracted to him. They kissed when he took her home and were planning to meet up again soon. “I definitely don’t want to meet or go out with anyone else,” she said, announcing she was taking down her profile.

I tried to dissuade her, suggesting that although it’s hard to keep meeting other people when you are weak at the knees over someone you’ve just met, it was always good to have a Plan B or C to ensure a softer landing if things didn’t work out. Sure enough, within the week her wonderful man had announced it wasn’t right for him and she was left bereft

It’s not easy teaching people to lighten up, change their attitudes and expectations. They can’t afford to see this process in terms of seeking romance and facing endless rejections. Everyone online is constantly making choices, always deciding between the many prosects presented to them. It’s just too harrowing to put too much emotional investment into all these early choices, particularly since the chances are always high they won’t work out. That’s not because people won’t commit because they have other options and fear the grass might be greener elsewhere. Rather, finding mutual attraction which leads to a strong, lasting connection is simply never easy – online or in real life – and more so when two strangers come together with no prior knowledge of each other.

Online dating is a numbers game and the best way for people to be successful and protect themselves emotionally is to assume everyone needs to approach lots of people in order to increase the odds of finding that rare compatibility. This means they all end up chatting to a couple of possibilities at any one time, going out with them a few times and only then deciding whether to try an exclusive connection.

Sounds ghastly? Well, it’s certainly a culture shift that’s daunting for newcomers. But many learn to make it fun, enjoying meeting so many new people, acquiring more friends, having the fun of getting dressed up to go out on dates. It’s not about the search, finding The One, but adding a new dimension to their social life.

It doesn’t help that the online dating sites oversell their services, promising magical short-cuts using matching algorithms which actually don’t work, and suggesting the process is instant and easy. It’s hard to get good data on how successful online dating actually is but 2014 Nielson research for the Fairfax-owned RSVP site found almost half (43 per cent) of singles who’ve tried online dating end up having dates while 52 per cent achieve short-term relationships or lasting friendships, and about 10 per cent long-term matches.

Low figures, perhaps. But unsurprising given the huge slice of our population now online – RSVP claims over 2 million members – which invariably includes the mad, bad and ugly, who aren’t like to meet with much success. And even the more desirable folk often fall down because they fail to learn the rules of this system. I constantly meet people who tell me they’ve tried online dating and it didn’t work for them. It invariably turns out they did everything wrong, from using a boring cliché-ridden profile, to giving up after a few rejections. Having worked with over 150 people teaching them how to navigate this terrain, it turns out that it’s not the most gorgeous ones who do well but rather those willing to put their heads down, be persistent and cheerful and  learn the language and mores of this new world.

That means understanding that meeting many prospects also means handling a lot of endings and people find that very hard. Online dating is plagued by the problem of the disappearing man – or woman. You’ll be chatting to someone online and things seem to be going well and they suddenly vanish, removing their profile. Or you’ve had a couple of dates and all was looking promising and then he just doesn’t call or she is suddenly too busy to ever go out.

That’s about people not knowing how to kindly extract themselves. Not knowing how to write that a gentle email or text saying generous things but explaining that the spark wasn’t there. I suggest it’s often kinder not to do this in person. An email message gives the recipient a chance to recover and respond graciously. I have a female client who makes a habit of writing charming little notes to men who disappear on her, explaining she quite understands that it might have been difficult for him to explain they weren’t quite right for each other. She receives many grateful messages from relieved men.

For all the stories playing up the brutal, shark-ridden waters of online dating, the reality is most singles online are normal people with good intentions who struggle to get a grip on the new protocols. It doesn’t help that they are often surrounded by well-meaning married friends who haven’t a clue about this new reality, full of foolish advice. “Oh you don’t need to worry about your weight. He’ll be attracted to your bubbly personality.” Women’s bodies do matter (as do men’s, although possibly less so.) Similarly men’s missing teeth or women’s bad manners.

It’s a steep learning curve. While it’s a miraculous thing to encounter so many dating prospects, we must keep in mind that these early links are fragile and exploratory.  Understanding the new culture gives these embryonic relationships a chance to flourish.