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It’s a now-familiar tale: You go to dinner with someone you met through Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, or any number of other popular dating apps. Things seem to go well — the other person is sweet and charming and seems enthusiastic about seeing you again. Still, a few days or weeks after your date, you haven’t heard back from them: Your messages go unanswered, your calls unreturned.

You’ve been ghosted.

If you’ve tried online dating, you’re in good company. A 2019 study found that three in 10 adults in the United States have ventured into that milieu. And since the pandemic began, that number has climbed even higher.

Often, these forays are successful: The same study found that nearly 60 percent of online daters reported positive experiences. If you’re looking to make a romantic connection, it’s easy to think that “getting on the apps” is the way to do it.

But online dating can involve a darker side, too. Maybe you’ve heard the horror stories about ghosting, breadcrumbing, or benching (if you haven’t, see the obstacle below for definitions of these terms). Maybe you’ve experienced some yourself.

Or maybe what started out as a fun adventure has become more rejection-filled and time-consuming, making the search less enjoyable and leaving you feeling burned out.

We spoke with two relationship ­experts to suss out the sources of stress and offer coping strategies, so your online-dating experience can be more mindful, thoughtful, and rewarding.


OBSTACLE #1: Ghosting (and benching and breadcrumbing).

Ghosting, or exiting a burgeoning relationship without a word, is a routine occurrence. Clarissa Silva, MSW, a behavioral scientist and the creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, says that 80 percent of Millennials report having experienced it (or one of its derivatives, benching or breadcrumbing) — as have 50 percent of Gen Xers.

“Benching” means putting someone “on the sidelines” but not ending things completely, so you can play the field while keeping the other person as an option. “Breadcrumbing,” according to Silva, is “seducing a person into believing that they’re in a serious relationship, while keeping that person at bay, with no intention of having a real relationship.” Any of these can send even the most well-adjusted person into a spiral of insecurity or shame.


SUCCESS STRATEGY: Stop taking it personally.

Key to moving on after being ghosted, benched, or breadcrumbed is to understand that it has nothing to do with you. Stop replaying events, rereading texts, or otherwise ruminating over the situation. And definitely don’t make excuses for someone else’s poor behavior; that will only prevent you from being open to a better option.

Caveat: If you simply can’t move on without reaching out once, send a message that empowers you. Something like, “I get it if you’re not feeling a connection, but I’d appreciate you being direct about it.”

Whether they respond or not, you did your best and can now move on with your self-esteem intact to find a better match.


OBSTACLE #2: People not presenting their true selves.

Whichever site you’re visiting, you’ll get more attention if you include photos, but sometimes those photos enable kittenfishing (also sometimes called “catfishing light”). Kittenfishing, whether it’s deliberate or unintentional, involves presenting yourself as different than you really are. This could mean using only out-of-date photos that barely resemble the current you, or portraying an aspect of your personality in a way that isn’t quite true — for example, claiming to be a world traveler when you’ve hardly ever left your hometown.


SUCCESS STRATEGY: Connect via video before meeting.

A video hang before meeting in real life is a great idea, says relationship scientist Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, LMFT, because it allows you to get a sense of the other person with much lower stakes than an IRL date.Another plus: If you’ve got kids or need to travel a long distance, there’s more involved in just getting to a date. In that case, it’s nice to get a sense of the potential beforehand.

Meeting over video will also help you determine whether you’re being kittenfished. If you connect with someone based on something specific in their profile — maybe you went to the same college, or you both love zydeco music — lead with that in a conversation. It’s not that you’re trying to catch them in a lie; you’re discerning what you truly have in common.


OBSTACLE #3: Rejection.

The fast-paced digital realm means even more opportunities for rejection. Silva warns that repeated rejection can lower your self-esteem and increase insecurity, depression, and anxiety. There’s the other side of the coin as well: Maybe you’re a people-pleaser who has a hard time saying no to a date request even if you’re not feeling it. That can create a cycle of guilt and resentment.


SUCCESS STRATEGY: Accept that everyone gets rejected at some point.

You’ve had to reject people yourself, right? Though the person was perfectly fine, you just didn’t click. Think of rejections like that — for whatever reason, you simply weren’t right for the person. You will be right for someone.

“Let go of the need to understand why the person didn’t want you,” says Silva. “Sometimes we really don’t know why the situation worked out the way it did.”


OBSTACLE #4: Gamification.

It’s easy to forget that there are real people behind the photos and to get wrapped up in the “game” of mindlessly swiping through profiles — perhaps you never make it to the dating part, because you’re too absorbed in swiping right or left. “Online dating is a wonderful way to meet people because it gives you access to people you may otherwise not cross paths with,” says Cohen. “But it does come with downsides, and one of those is the gamification of it. It passes the time, and it becomes addictive. When you match with someone, it’s a little dopamine hit for you. It’s like any other game app you have on your phone.”


SUCCESS STRATEGY: Remember that this is real life.

If you’ve begun to think of dating as a game and people’s photos as avatars, it’s time to inject some empathy and mindfulness into the whole endeavor. Remind yourself that there are real people — with real feelings — behind the profiles.


OBSTACLE #5: Online-dating fatigue.

Writing witty and appealing profile text, choosing the most flattering photos, drafting first messages to potential dates — all these things take time and effort. Online dating “gives the illusion of many choices while making it harder to find viable options,” says Silva. Fewer options means the odds of a successful date go down, which can damage your self-esteem and affect your decision-making around potential matches. You may find yourself lowering your expectations further than you want to, or you might lose hope for finding a match at all.


SUCCESS STRATEGY: Give yourself a mental reset.

If you find yourself experiencing online dating burnout, take a break. Reconnect with other parts of your life. Then, when you go back to online dating, Silva says, “treat dating like it’s a social experiment, like you’re collecting data on what you want and don’t want.” And remind yourself that it’s OK for it to take time, she adds. “What other decision takes decades to get right?”


This article originally appeared as “Finding Love in the Digital Age” in the March 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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