Dating: Here's Where You're Messing It All Up

Oct 03, 2016 |Rory Tyer
A young man staring at his phone

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge online dating as a lost cause.

Growing up, I imagined many ways I’d meet my wife. What I never imagined was that my first sight of her would be in a square profile box on the search results page of an online dating website. In August of 2013, after nine long months, five different sites and maybe 30 first dates, I met Heather. We were married in May of 2014, and we’re living proof that sometimes online dating does actually work.

I had my first foray into the online dating world in 2013 when it was already well established, but not without its share of skeptics and naysayers. Even now, despite the Christian use of online dating being much more widespread, I still meet people in the church who don’t know much about it or feel embarrassed by it, as if online dating is the ultimate sign of desperation or loneliness.

Despite the stigma it may have, online dating can be a good tool when used wisely by mature people. That’s a broad statement, so I want to unpack it with the help of an unlikely ally: actor and comedian Aziz Ansari who published a book on relationships and the internet age called Modern Romance. Ansari got the idea for his book after realizing texting had introduced a whole new dimension of stress into relationship communication. I could relate; I, too, have watched a text status change from “Delivered” to “Read” and then waited, heart furiously pounding, for a response that never came.

We’re surrounded by promises that technology is gradually making everything better, but technology also gives us more reasons to be anxious. So Aziz teamed up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and together they scheduled focus groups in multiple countries, moderated a huge subreddit thread on relationships, and conducted a few dozen interviews with academics and researchers to paint a sweeping picture of love in the time of social media.

Online dating has become a massive enterprise. According to Modern Romance, between 2005 and 2015 more than one third of couples who married in the U.S. met online; as of 2015, 30 percent of Americans who describe themselves as “single and looking” have used an online dating site. ChristianMingle.com currently has more than 15 million registered members, and sites like Match and eHarmony boast millions more.

But still some Christians object. Through the years, I continue to hear the same three arguments against online dating, and I think it’s time we address these concerns.

1. Online dating conflicts with waiting on God.

Some Christians worry about taking things too much into their own hands, acting out of a place of fear rather than having faith God will provide a spouse in His timing. This raises the larger question of what it means to know (and do) the will of God. Garry Friesen argues that where Scripture is clear, we should obey; where Scripture is not clear, we have the freedom and responsibility to make choices fueled by biblical wisdom. According to Friesen, in all things we are to trust God and His sovereignty through the consequences of our decisions.

2. Online dating is consumeristic.

It can feel a little too much like shopping, especially when it’s already pretty easy to reduce dates down to a few boxes on a checklist. With thousands of profiles to browse and all the essential information outlined right beside a headshot, you must fight the temptation to treat looking for a spouse like a trip through a buffet line where you browse all the options and then return to your favorites. Instead of immediately viewing someone through the lens of what he or she has to offer you, try stepping back and getting the whole picture. Look for the little details that make them unique (and lovable). Actively remind yourself that each of your dates or matches is made in the image of God and is therefore deserving of love, just as you are. Don’t make concessions on your deal breakers, but always deal kindly with those whom you’re interacting.

3. Even when limiting the pool to professing Christians, people can have horrible online dating experiences.

These can range from mediocre dates to interactions that qualify as harassment or even abuse. Who would want to sign up for all these different sites just to get rejected (or worse, harassed) by people they don’t know?

If you’re one of the many (millions, probably) who’ve had negative experiences online dating, it’s important to remember your worth isn’t dependent on your marital status. All the research in Modern Romance points to one obvious conclusion: Broken people who make unwise decisions will bring that brokenness into their dating relationships. And many of you have stories that, unfortunately, speak to that truth.

Contrary to what your experience may indicate, online dating really can be a great tool. If you desire marriage and haven’t been called to celibacy, online dating is simply another opportunity — like a singles ministry gathering, a coffee shop conversation or the recommendation of a friend — that connects you with like-hearted people who also desire marriage.

But what does it mean to date wisely? This is the closest I’ll come to doling out practical advice because dating will (and should) look different for each of us. Across the board though, we can always be reevaluating our boundaries and expectations.  

You cannot be successful in dating (including online dating) without maintaining healthy boundaries. These boundaries require self-awareness, which is often learned through honest conversation and accountability. Before diving into the dating world, work through questions like the following with someone you trust to learn more about yourself and your boundaries:

  • Am I looking for someone who shares my faith? If so, what kind of theological differences am I willing to accept?
  • How much of my personal history should I share in the beginning of a relationship (or in writing before our first meeting)?
  • How much time should I be investing in finding prospective dates, and what is my limit of “too much” time?
  • Am I consumed with anxiety, guilt, self-loathing or sadness before or after a date? If so, what’s fueling these feelings, and what can I do differently to keep them at bay?
  • Am I comfortable telling dates I’m interested in pursuing more or that I’m not romantically interested in them?
  • Am I able to maintain some critical distance? Or am I too emotionally invested in the responsiveness and acceptance of my dates?
  • Do I seek to honor God with my body and with my emotions? Am I consistent with my standards? 

While establishing and maintaining these boundaries is vital to your success in pursuing a romantic relationship, dating also requires you to cultivate realistic expectations. Instead of heading into a date with lofty ideals and inevitably winding up disappointed, here are a few things you should expect during this process:

1. Expect to be ignored and rejected. It happens to everybody at some point. Expecting it doesn’t always make it easier, but it can help soften the impact.

2. Expect to invest a significant amount of time and energy. I’ve heard it takes seven to nine first dates in order to procure a second date. I went on well over 20 first dates in nine months (that’s one every one to two weeks!), and I don’t regret a single one.

3. Expect to be overwhelmed. It’s often more paralyzing than freeing to have unlimited options. Are you getting so many messages you can’t read them all? Have a friend help you vet the ones that may be worth pursuing. Tired of waiting for that one match to finally message you? Women, feel free to send the first message in order to get someone’s attention — by putting yourself on a man’s radar, you’re giving him the opportunity to pursue you. Consider only investing in one or two dating sites instead of five or six. And, when needed, unplug completely — take a break and schedule something restful and life-giving instead of another weekend of dates.

4. Expect to learn about someone else. I quickly realized I had to treat first dates less like auditions and more like adventures. This philosophy helped me relax and let go of the need to perform. It also made my dates more comfortable when they realized I wasn’t interviewing them for the position of “wife.”

5. Expect to see the downside of people. Though more women have negative experiences in online dating (with women of color receiving the fewest matches and most harassment), anyone can experience the cesspool that is the dark side of the internet. People lie about their job, relationships status, spiritual maturity and even physical appearance. They can harass you for not responding to a message, or they can pick apart your profile or photos, sending insults that tempt you to immediately close your account. But, as in dating offline, these people exist alongside wonderful, edifying people who are genuinely seeking the same thing you are: someone to love. Ignore the rude messages, report harassment as needed, and remember that the good ones are worth the work.

6. Expect to wrestle with uncertainty and ambiguity. Sometimes you’re not sure if you should invest in a second date. Sometimes you’ll get mixed signals. Sometimes you’ll wonder if it’s worth the risk. All of these things are to be expected (though that doesn’t help answer the questions).

Even when it’s intimidating and overwhelming, online dating is just another tool for people to meet one another. The same principles that have helped Christians live wisely for thousands of years apply to our clicks, winks and messages. If you’re single and actively pursuing dating, my prayer is that your identity would be firmly rooted in Christ and His resurrection (and not in the amount of time it takes to get a text back or the number of dates you’ve burned through without getting asked on a second). Both men and women need to be reminded that our worth as humans doesn’t come from our desirability or our relationship success. Your deepest need is not to find a significant other; your deepest need is to be remade in the image of Christ.

Copyright 2016 Rory Tyer. All rights reserved.

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