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How to Thrive (Not Just Survive) in Today’s Dating World

Here are six strategies for staying happy and healthy as you look for love.

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If you are looking for love, and your head is spinning, there's good reason. The dating landscape has changed more in the last 15 years than in the previous 100. Love today comes with a seemingly endless number of options — how we seek love, whom we love, and how we define our love, to name just a few. Widely expanded choices bring new possibilities but also added confusion, as the rules of engagement are vague and idiosyncratic: What seems obvious to partner A may be a nonstarter for partner B.

Consider just a few of the complexities of loving today:

  • Later age of entry into marriage. Today the average age of entry into marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women, versus 27 and 25, respectively, just 15 years ago. People spend more years as single or dating adults today than ever before. My friend and colleague, Esther Perel, calls this “sexual nomadism.”
  • A lower rate of marriage. In 2012, 50.5 percent of adults were married. Compare that with 1960, when 72 percent of adults were married. It should be noted that even given this reduced rate of marriage, the majority of Americans continue to report that they want to get married.
  • Changing gender and sexual norms. This includes greater visibility of members of the LGBTQIA community, as well as the fact that 40 percent of households today include a female breadwinner. Such seismic shifts in gender and sexual norms mean that once-rigid scripts for dating and mating are being rewritten.
  • The integration of technology. According to research by Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012), more couples than ever are brought together by swiping right. In fact, “meeting online has not only become the predominant way that same-sex couples meet in the United States but meeting online is now dramatically more common among same-sex couples than any way of meeting has ever been for heterosexual or same-sex couples in the past."
  • The presence of new relationship statuses. Some of these are passively created ambiguous relationship statuses, like “friends with benefits” or “eff buddies.” Others, like consensual non-monogamy, are more intentional and increasing in visibility.

Lots of possibilities. Lots of confusion. Here are six suggestions to help you survive and thrive:

1. Transition from URL to IRL ASAP.

Loving in the age of technology brings the ever-present risk of getting stuck in a screen-to-screen romance. Think of your phone as a means to an end. Dating apps can help you with the search for love, but love needs face-to-face time if it is to take root so transition from screen-to-screen (URL) to in-real-life (IRL) as soon as possible.

2. Be present.

Love requires us to be willing to take some amount of risk, and it is helpful to develop a set of strategies to help you feel ready to put yourself out there. Think about what helps you feel courageous enough to show up for a date with an open mind and an open heart. And when you do show up, it’s important to really show up. Having practices and rituals before and during a date that help you stay present can go a long way toward increasing the chances of real connection.

  • Do you need a mantra? (“I am open and ready to connect.”)
  • Do you need to take dating and other apps off your phone temporarily to help you resist the urge to see what else is happening mid-date?
  • Do you need to decide ahead of time how many drinks you’ll have?
  • Do you need to remind yourself that chemistry takes time to unfold?

3. Watch for signs of burnout.

Just because you can go on five first dates in a week does not mean that you should. It’s important to check in with yourself to see whether you’re getting burned out. Symptoms can include:

  • Feeling ho-hum before a date instead of nervous, excited, or open.
  • Feeling pessimistic about love.
  • Making sweeping generalizations about large groups of people (“Men are out for one thing,” “Women are high maintenance,” “People over 40 have too much baggage”).

If you’re feeling burned out, take a break and spend some time figuring out what will help you shift yourself from fried to curious.

4. Avoid assumptions.

As mentioned above, we live in a time of shifting relationship roles, especially regarding gender, which means that we cannot rely on traditional scripts (she waits to be asked out, he pays for everything). Remember the old saying, “When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Avoid making assumptions about how a date “should” go, regarding, for example, who pays, where you go, how long the date lasts, and when/if/how physical intimacy should happen. If you have expectations, voice them. If those expectations do not align with your date’s, negotiate or go your separate ways. Intimate relationships need clear and direct communication, so you may as well start off on the right foot.

5. Keep the “me” in “we.”

In my book, I make the case that your best and most personalized guidebook for navigating this modern love landscape is relational self-awareness. This is a commitment to taking a curious and compassionate stance with yourself, so that you can view your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as data points in understanding who you are and what you need. It is really easy to get hyper-focused on what the other person is doing, feeling, and thinking. Start to notice when you are getting really focused on the other person, and remind yourself that every interaction is a combination of “the stuff I’m doing” and “the stuff you’re doing.” Instead of focusing on what the other person is doing or not doing, try this technique developed by my colleague and friend Eli Finkel: Tell the story of what’s happening from the perspective of a neutral third party who has both of your best interests at heart.

6. Align your intentions, your words, and your actions.

If you know that you are ready, willing, and able to be in a committed romantic relationship, do not agree to a friends-with-benefits situation thinking that it is the best you can do. Similarly, if you know that you are not interested in partnering with someone right now, do not string them along because it feels convenient or interesting. If you are not sure what you want, do not be afraid to say, “I’m not sure what I want, but I am excited to be here with you right now. Let’s see what’s possible!” Be the change you want to see in the dating world by standing in your integrity every step of the way.

Love has always been, and will always be, compelling, confusing, and magical. Love is powerful. It moves us, transforms us, and cracks us open. Whether we are talking about a first date or a lifelong love story, our best and bravest work is to understand and care for ourselves in such a way that we are able to make choices that honor each other and that respect love’s mysteries.

More from Alexandra H. Solomon Ph.D.
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