The Problem with Shopping for Relationships Online

4 things to explore if you’re looking to meet someone online

First off, a disclaimer: I am NOT against online dating. Like most of you, I know many truly happy couples who only connected thanks to dating apps and websites. These sites can offer a wonderful way to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise. They open up a world of possibility that can be hard to access in a room full of people much less from the sofa of your apartment.

However, this ease of access can be a double-edge sword, especially in a space where rejection doesn’t have to take place face to face and things like ghosting exist. Seeking a romantic connection online is as easy as a swipe on a screen, and the choices start off almost endless. This can lead many people to get caught in a web of “perpetual window shopping.” Some researchers have expressed concern that “relationshopping” causes us to objectify potential partners, seeing them as products with certain features rather than people with complex qualities. You may have trouble slowing down to get to know one person for fear of missing out on someone better. On the flip side, you may use the coming and going of others to turn against yourself, lose confidence, or even give up online dating altogether.

In order to make sense of this new age of digital connections, you may be tempted to look outward and try to analyze the mystifying behavior of others. “Why is he so eager to meet me in person right away?” “Why did she just drop off the face of the earth?” However, as with most things relating to romantic relationships, the better choice may be to look inward.

What you may find if you dig deeper into your online dating behavior is that what you think you’re looking for isn’t always what you’re actually seeking out. While that first swipe may seem like a random act of instant attraction or openness, what you invest in the other person after that depends greatly on your own psychology. You may think you want a long-term loving relationship, but the likelihood of finding one can be minimized both by your actions and inactions. That is why it’s valuable to examine how you use online dating and be willing to explore what you’re really looking for. Here are some things to consider:

1. Be Wary of Perpetual Window Shopping

While I don’t advocate for people to “settle” and overlook flaws left and right, I do know people who get caught in a cycle that makes it hard to stop “shopping” for prospective partners. Many of these same people say they’re looking for serious, long-term companionship, but they’re nervous about letting go of the search or even taking a break to see if a relationship could develop. They’re quick to assess the in-person dates they go on, and don’t take the time to give it a try with any one person unless there are “big feelings” right off the bat.

While some people feel a spark the very second they meet someone, every relationship builds at its own pace. It takes whatever time it takes for two people to come to know each other and realize their feelings for each other. I’m not just talking about deep feelings like love, but more subtle feelings like curiosity and attraction. The early stages of meeting can be awkward and unfamiliar. But just because something doesn’t start with fireworks doesn’t mean they won’t eventually go off. When people fail to take time, they’re not likely to get to know each other or hit it off. Their fear of missing out on someone better can lead them to miss out on something really great.

2. Ask Yourself What You’re Really Looking For

As much as we all like to think we’re the reasonable ones looking for something that makes sense, we don’t always make choices that are in our best interest. Think about the people who’ve most attracted you on dating apps. Do their qualities line up with what you’d tell a good friend that you want in a partner?

I can’t tell you how many people have spoken to me about just wanting to meet someone kind, serious, responsible, reliable, someone who is direct in their communication and doesn’t play games. However, when they’re chatting online with someone who seemingly meets these traits, they tend to think, “Why is this person so interested? I’m not sure if I like that. I shouldn’t lead them on.” On the other hand, they feel intrigued by the people who come and go, show attraction one minute and disappear the next. Chats with these types of people draw them in, and they find themselves having thoughts like, “Oh, they’re back! They’re definitely the most interesting person I’ve talked to.”

There are many reasons that people who show interest can seem dull to us, while the one person giving us, at best, intermittent reinforcement seems so sparkly and irresistible. However, the most basic explanation is that we all have attractions based on our own personal comfort zones and defense systems. We go for what “feels right” even when it feels terrible. We’re drawn to people who make us feel familiar ways about ourselves, and sadly, most of us don’t hold ourselves in very high esteem.

So, whether it’s based on our own insecurities, our early attachment patterns, or our own underlying fears around intimacy, many of us are just as likely to choose people for the wrong reasons as we are for the right reasons. That is why it’s valuable to look at our patterns and see what common threads tie us to certain people and profiles, and whether these are the types of connections that are likely to lead to what we really want.

3. Re-check Your Checklist

Many people keep some version of a running checklist in their mind when looking for a relationship partner. This list can manifest itself quite literally in dating profiles. While looking for someone with similar interests or political views may seem like a good start to finding a match, you may be going about these lists the wrong way and narrowing your choices where they need not be. For instance, you may look for someone with a certain look or type of job. You might put together a collection of “shoulds” or deal breakers in your mind that actually serve as barriers to exploring what would really make you happy.

For example, a woman I know in her 60s tended to write off any men online who were her contemporaries. “He’s too old,” she would say. “We won’t have anything in common.” Or “He sounds too eager to meet up.” She would then choose more aloof men who were often younger and more casual in what they were looking for. While technically, they fit her criteria of being energetic, handsome, and independent, none of the relationships ever panned out or made her feel good. When she finally took a friend’s suggestion to accept a dinner invitation from one of the men she’d written off, she came to find that she had more in common with him than anyone else she’d met. He too possessed a lot of the qualities she was looking for, but he also had ones that surprised her, that she really enjoyed. In their following years together, she often marveled at how, had she stuck to her list, she’d never have met this person she came to really love.

While being open and being selective can seem like juxtaposing actions, the point of these suggestions is really about being more self-reflective and thinking about what inside you draws you to certain people and patterns of behavior. It’s about asking yourself if your lists and attractions are really serving you, or if in some way, you are seeking out something old and familiar that doesn’t get you where you want to go.

If you start to notice or catch on to tendencies that are limiting you, you can try out something (or someone) different. You can stop hanging on for that one exciting date, text message, or chat from that match who then turns cold or vanishes from your life for weeks on end. Instead, you can go out one more time with that person who was really interested in you and nice to you, but who, for some reason, didn’t feel as electric on your first date. You can take more risks while being more mindful.

4. Do NOT Listen to Your Critical Inner Voice

Sadly, in direct correlation with its ability to connect us with more people, online dating also gives us the ability to disconnect. Most people who’ve dated online know what it’s like to get excited about someone, only to have them stop chatting, texting, or calling, often without any explanation. This type of indirect, insensitive behavior can set your inner critic off to the races. It is so important that you don’t allow your “critical inner voice” to take the wheel when it comes to your pursuit of a relationship. Putting yourself out there is a simultaneously a vulnerable and courageous act, and you need to be on your own side. You are not foolish for giving someone a chance, and you are not unworthy because that someone didn’t choose you.

Standing up to your inner critic isn’t about turning against anyone else or getting cynical about dating in general. It’s about tuning out a destructive internal enemy, noticing when it creeps in, changes your mood, or alters your natural behavior.  It’s about having the kind, compassionate attitude toward yourself that you would toward a friend going through the same thing.

While many people have horror stories around online dating and are certainly not responsible for the odd, rude, insensitive, or outright cruel behavior of people with whom they’ve chatted or connected, as with any type of dating, the only person you have 100 percent control over is yourself. How you treat others and how you react to their treatment is up to you. By knowing yourself better, you can reshape how you approach any type of dating or relationship. It is the only true formula to increase your chances of finding what you really want.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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