Dating in Today’s World Takes Courage

“Why am I even doing this?” This is a question that is often raised in my work with people who are dating to find long-term partners. It comes from people of all genders, orientations, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses, and from clients who are using dating apps as well as those who have eschewed them. Perhaps you’ve even asked this question yourself.

In many ways, dating feels harder than ever before. While many understand the long-term benefits of partnership, it’s the interpersonal work that needs to be put into the process that can outweigh the potential of having the ongoing emotional support of a loving partner.

Modern dating means learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, standing firmly in your beliefs, and navigating the beliefs of others in very politically divided times—all the while cycling through the countless disappointments of app dating. These days, getting and staying motivated to date even when it feels hard—and people are difficult to deal with— is recognized as an achievement in itself. It’s the age of “Dating People When You Hate People”—and it’s time we take a closer look at the social structures and movements that are creating this less-than-optimal dating landscape.

After suffering the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, some rushed out to be social and get re-connected to the world at large. But others have grown accustomed to having their relationships and social communication take place from the comfort of their home and smartphones. research showed social anxiety levels increased as pandemic restrictions lessened. That means that regular social interactions, even with people we know and love, have felt harder now for some people, especially those who suffered from general anxiety before restrictions were put in place.

If those situations increase anxiety, think about how meeting new people or putting oneself out there for dating might feel. Some clients express anxiety at the idea that all of the effort they’re putting in will actually result in them meeting people in person, which is, I remind them, ultimately what they want. We often discuss ways for managing anxiety, or recognizing it in others, so that dates can go a bit more smoothly.

Another source of stress for daters is finding people with whom they are politically aligned. Vaccination status became a political talking point where daters debated public health and individual freedom. Racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 have made daters hypervigilant when meeting new people and matching on the apps. They want to find partners who are sympathetic to their political ideologies and minimize their interactions with people with opposing views. As we move closer to the rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, daters are more selective when selecting partners.

Historically, online dating has resulted in more connections, but it remains to be seen how the apps will impact the rates of people selecting partners across political lines. We may see further polarization—daters want to know where you stand on a wide range of issues. Dating apps have responded by adding features like profile badges and stickers that signal everything from vaccination status to personal identities and causes that are not just important to daters, but non-negotiables in partnership.

But all of this adds layers onto an already emotionally draining process; Do you, for instance, pass on someone who looks politically aligned but who hasn’t explicitly stated their political values in their profile? Do you take that extra step to bring up politics right when you match, or do you risk your time and energy on someone who you may not share the same values as you? For a lot of daters, this layer of calculation is added to every single swipe, which increases the energy expended on these decisions. Some might argue that it’s good to take your time to thoughtfully consider each person, but the sheer volume of these decisions on apps is on a scale unheard of until fairly recently. It’s also one of the reasons why so many people experience dating burnout.

For all of the potential benefits of technology bringing disparate daters together to form long lasting love, the overall feeling about dating right now is defeatist. Things feel particularly daunting in heterosexual dating. My male clients feel challenged by how to present themselves and are wary of what topics are off limits, being careful not to seem overly aggressive or creepy. They also experience disappointment in the low number of matches they receive, which can feel disheartening. I recently spun this as a positive to a client. He was distraught by how few matches he was receiving, but I reminded him that as someone who has anxiety, maybe managing one to two connections a month was better for him in the long run. This didn’t take the sting of feeling like he isn’t being chosen away, though.

My female clients express disappointment in the men with whom they match, citing low communication engagement, ambivalence when it comes to commitment, and a general inability to be appropriately emotionally vulnerable. While the dominant cultural narrative is that single women are just too picky and need to lower their expectations, according to recent research, for women “dating expectations refer less to a laundry list of must-have qualities and more to basic standards of how they wish to be treated.” This deep sense that women will never meet a partner who can provide a basic level of respect is leading some women to contemplate opting out of dating altogether and indefinitely. So many women I’ve worked with feel a deep sense of despair at their prospects of meeting a man who will express consistent interest, honor his commitments, show up to dates, and be good to them. They do the work of sorting through matches only to be let down over and over again for what seem to be basic standards of dating.

The effort that is required of today’s dater far surpasses that of previous generations. There are more challenges to starting the process as social barriers feel higher and higher. There are also more ways to feel caught in a loop of trial and error as the tools we use for romantic connection only seem to find more ways to keep us apart. But in times when dating feels draining and inhumane, it’s important to keep things in perspective—finding a romantic partner may be tough, but there are other relationships that singles have that can support them as they make their way through the dating trenches. Many daters turn to trusted friends to help connect them to potential romantic partners. Or they take breaks from dating to refocus on themselves and their mental health. As someone who sees what it’s like on the ground as daters navigate their personal challenges and those placed on them by society, I can say these are the bravest and most resilient daters we’ve seen yet.