Sharon Rosenblatt, 31, a director of communications in Connecticut, had an experience similar to those of my clients. “I used online dating for seven years,” she said. “Sometimes it was fun, but it was also very time-consuming and exhausting. It’s easy to get discouraged.”
Research backs up that conclusion. A 2013 study of online daters conducted by the Pew Research Center found that one-third never met anyone in person and three-quarters never forged a relationship. Other research showed that almost half of the messages on dating apps were never reciprocated and only 1.4 percent of app conversations led to a phone number exchange. So it’s not just you: Very few app exchanges result in a face-to-face meeting.
How can you improve your chances of finding a partner online without burning out? Here are some strategies that could help, based on psychological science and my therapy work:
Figure out your motives for online dating and be honest about them
This may seem self-evident: Aren’t we all using online dating to find love, or maybe just a hookup? It turns out that the answer is much more complicated. Research suggests that people use dating apps to escape loneliness, anxiety or boredom. Others use them for entertainment, socializing, self-esteem enhancement, trendiness and excitement. And some people are just plain curious about who’s out there.
What are your reasons for using online dating? Are you in it to distract yourself from negative emotions, have fun or find a serious partner? The point of this clarification is not to judge yourself, but to be honest with yourself.
It is also important to be honest with others. You may fear that revealing your true intentions will limit your pool of potential matches or make you stand out from other online daters. But chances are that hiding your goals will leave you with unmet needs, mounting misunderstandings and little energy to keep trying.
“Once you are clear about what you want and what your expectations are, and you are brave enough to communicate them, you will have a much better chance of finding a partner,” said Adele D’Ari, a clinical psychologist who has treated individuals and couples in the Washington area for three decades. When Rosenblatt started being totally honest about what she wanted and valued, she told me, “I stopped wasting everyone’s time and opened a path to finding a partner.”
If you believe you’re ready to pursue a serious relationship, date with a purpose. Make sure that your photos are flattering but not too revealing and that your profile doesn’t contain grammatical mistakes. Send personalized messages rather than generic one-liners. And reply within a reasonable time — research suggests that playing hard to get doesn’t work.
It’s natural to want to present yourself in the best possible light. But when you start to hide traits and interests that you fear would be perceived negatively, you sabotage your chances of successful online dating. The goal is not to get the highest number of matches, it is to attract the people who will fit well with the real you. And your guess about what other people may find (un)attractive is just that, a guess.
For example, research shows that highlighting rare or unusual interests leads to greater online dating success — so trying to be like everyone else doesn’t pay off. And a recent study found that, contrary to popular belief, highly educated women are not “penalized” on Tinder.
“What finally worked for me was being completely myself — quirky, silly, smart. That led me to a wonderful man who appreciates all those qualities and we have been together for two years,” Rosenblatt said.
Finally, if you are outright deceitful in your online profile or texting, you run the danger of a face-to-face meeting going very badly. But even small omissions or embellishments — which studies find are common — are not likely to work in your favor, because nobody likes to start a relationship admitting or condoning a lie.
So, ask your friends and relatives to describe your qualities and quirks, put it together with a frank self-assessment and create an authentic profile. “Eschew social expectations and let your traits speak for themselves,” suggests Joanne Davila, a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University and a co-author of “The Thinking Girl’s Guide to the Right Guy.”
Limit time spent on apps and the number of people you correspond with at any given time
It’s important to remember that online dating is designed to be addictive — the longer matchmaking sites can keep you clicking, the greater their opportunity to make money off you through advertising or signing you up for special subscriptions or added features. The sites’ ease of use, endless stream of profiles and intermittent reward in the form of a mutual match or a message may lead you to swipe frequently or spend hours browsing through profiles. But more choices are not always better.
People are often overwhelmed by too many options, even though they may not realize it. An average Tinder user swipes on 140 profiles a day, according to a 2016 research note by Cowen and Co. A 2019 study by Dutch researchers Tila Pronk and Jaap Denissen from Tilburg University found that online daters became more likely to reject the profiles the longer they swiped — a phenomenon they called “rejection mind-set.” “When people notice that they are rejecting more and more profiles, their dissatisfaction with the dating pool increases and they become very pessimistic about their chances of finding a partner online,” Pronk said.
You can take steps to avoid becoming overwhelmed and pessimistic. First, time how long you scroll through online profiles before becoming overloaded, irritated or exhausted and start rejecting most profiles. Then select a period 15 minutes shorter and pick a time of day when you can devote your full attention to this process. Your online dating searches should occur no more than once a day. That way, “you can be fully present, and give each new potential partner an undivided attention, even while examining their short profile,” Pronk said.
If you are not getting enough good matches, relax your criteria and initiate contact
Research suggests that both men and women tend to pursue people online who are more desirable than they are. Attractive and rich online daters are chosen and contacted at a much higher rate than others.
We are more likely to modify our behavior based on cues in the environment at a bar or party; for example, if three men are trying to talk to a beautiful woman, it’s unlikely that a fourth one will try his luck. But online, “context is lacking and the price of rejection is low, so we keep reaching for the stars,” says Paul Eastwick, an associate professor of psychology and relationship researcher at the University of California at Davis. The problem with this approach is that we might pass on people who don’t meet our criteria on paper, but might prove compatible in person. “Compatibility cues — what we might call ‘click’ — are easily picked up face-to-face. Our idea of what we like quickly gives way to how we actually feel around that person,” Eastwick said.
If you think your online dating pickings are slim or you’re meeting people you don’t click with, try widening or changing your criteria. For example, you could extend the age range of potential matches or swipe when you find yourself in a different part of town.
Meet online matches in person as soon as possible
The two most common complains I hear from online daters involve frustration about how rarely they meet someone in person and how even more rarely they end up liking the people they meet. Research shows that interest generally wanes after the first real-life meeting. This is especially true if the online communication lasts longer than three weeks. Eastwick explains that we are bad at predicting whom we will like in person and that a prolonged texting period builds up unrealistic, idealized expectations.
Meet your potential match as soon as you feel comfortable that the person will not pose a danger to your safety. This has the added benefit of reducing or exposing any deception in online self-presentation. If the person you’re corresponding with refuses to meet within a few weeks or — as is often the case — evades the invitation or keeps postponing, it’s time to move on. Quickly.
Jelena Kecmanovic is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. You can find her @DrKpsychologist.