One of the reasons online dating is so popular is that depending on which site or app you use, daters can gather information up front about the suitability and attractiveness of a prospective partner. On the flip side though, many people find dating challenging due to feeling as if they can’t trust the information in profiles. Experiences of feeling misled, used and disappointed are a turn-off.
‘According to their profile, we like and want a lot of the same things, work in a similar field and have a similar sense of humour—and yet, they were so awful to me. How could I have got it so wrong?’
‘He described himself as a religious, hard-working, family-loving vegan looking for love. Why did he ignore me after I declined to sleep with him on the second date?’
The internet has created a shift in who knows what and our ability to gather trusted information.
We used to fear being sold a lemon when we were buying a car. While that can still happen under certain circumstances, by and large, we can gather a great deal of information (including about many other items and services), making it trickier to be screwed by the salesperson.
There’s no longer, as the economist George Akerlof showed in his study of how the used-car market used to work, an asymmetry in available information. Nowadays, we can research most things and sometimes know as much as, if not more, than the seller. That, and there’s plenty of laws, warranties, guarantees and the threat of a poor rating or review. It doesn’t mean we’re ‘fully informed,’ but we’re certainly more armed.
Despite this, we still don’t know a great deal more about our compatibility with someone than we did pre-internet. We like to think we do because of the photos, the info we gather, plus the chatting before meeting up, but we don’t.
Being used, misled and disappointed isn’t new.
It’s always been possible to have “amazing” dates and never hear from them again. There were warnings about those who were only “out for one thing”. Some folk have always been good at talking out of their bottoms and it not being spotted for a while.
Many daters, past and present, have fallen into the trap of believing that information gained through dating sites/apps protects them against problems. It doesn’t.
It feels as if we get to know people a little before we engage with them in real life. We believe that our attraction to specific profiles or our isolation of particular traits and lifestyle signals that seem like ‘commitment indicators’, will save us from spending time on somebody who isn’t a good fit.
Granted, if someone acts shady before we’ve even met or we feel turned off by their profile (or our searching), it spares us from having to interact in real life. But once we decide that we’re going to engage with somebody and possibly meet them, we are stepping into the same Great Unknown of getting to know someone.
When we meet somebody, they don’t come with a service history or log book.
There’s no verification; there are no benchmark test results for their levels of honesty, integrity, emotional availability, etc. They might be all of the things that they have put down; they might not.
Each party holds and distils their information. Each of us is the thinker of our thoughts, feeler of our feelings, holder of our needs, desires and expectations. It’s all relative though, because it depends on self-awareness, self-knowledge, our availability and integrity.
Sometimes we don’t know what information we’re holding; sometimes we’re ignoring information because we’re unaware that it matters or because we’re prioritising something else; and sometimes, whether we admit it or not, we’re spinning that information.
We’re not always aware of our intentions, motives, fears and biases.
We might be incredibly honest, but that doesn’t mean that the other party is.
We might be super aware of our intentions and values, but someone else might not be.
Someone can share plenty about themselves, and we still have to get to know them based on our experience of him/her. No matter the dating site or app, there’s no getting around this.
If they’re different to what we expected or how they portrayed themselves, it’s not that they’ve changed; we’ve got to know them.
If we look at dating as a discovery phase, then in theory, because each party is supposed to be getting to know each other, then there isn’t that imbalance. There isn’t that asymmetry of information. Of course, this isn’t true in practice, and it’s for these reasons:
1) Not everyone approaches dating from a confident, honest or authentic place.
Many daters, for example, treat dating like an audition for the starring role in someone else’s life. “Choose me!” Problem? It affects the information they gather and convey.
2) Regardless of our intentions or knowledge, sometimes the other party possesses far greater material knowledge than we do.
If they know that they’ll be cutting and running at X point or that their previous partners experienced the same issues with them that they’re claiming are in our imagination, we’re not a party to this hidden information.
The answer when it comes to trusting what we find out through online dating is to avoid extremes. There’s no need to carry on as if everyone is shady, but we also don’t need to be naive.
We can’t avoid disappointment because it’s part of the journey to getting closer to the right relationship.
We can, however, stop setting ourselves up for disappointment by not treating online dating as if it’s Compare The Market! What we look for or disclose about ourselves on dating sites/apps isn’t necessarily what we (or others) need regarding compatibility. Instead of treating dating profiles as if it’s their relationship credit score based on facts, we must expect to perform due diligence. The discovery phase of dating means taking it as a given that we will have to get to know someone in person and that may or may not meet expectations.
Adulthood is about unlearning all of the unproductive and harmful lessons that we picked up in childhood.
We have all made assumptions about what we need, how relationships work and what love takes. To find the right partner and enjoy mutually fulfilling relationships, we have to correct any misunderstandings that our assumptions represent.
When we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or we know that we’ve ignored information but proceeded anyway, there’s always an imbalance. We can’t deny, rationalise, minimise, assume and excuse and expect to feel confident and trusting.
And you might be wondering — how do we achieve that symmetry of available information in our relationships?
Through trust and vulnerability. We have to be open to knowing more than we already do as well as more than what we assume. We’re always finding out more about those we love and care for (if we’re showing up and taking an interest). Mutual trust happens when each party has consistently shown up over time. That’s not something we’re going to get from a dating profile or a handful of dates.