Lessons from a relationship expert to help you navigate online dating – ABC Everyday

I’m not a dating coach. I don’t usually offer advice or share my opinions on how to get there.

So when the producers of ABC’s newest dating show Better Date than Never asked me to coach, I was initially hesitant.

As a therapist, I help people come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions about how to live their lives, with a boost from psychological science.

But to my surprise, this was the kind of approach they wanted to support people who are meeting for the first time. I said yes.


Here are some lessons shaped by my experience in the therapist’s chair and by the amazing clients who have invited me into their world.

It’s hard to feel “enough” in apps

In an increasingly digital world, the chance meeting of an intimate partner can seem impossible. As a result, most of us bite the bullet and join one of the many dating sites or apps.

Many of us are so focused on predicting another’s desires, trying to fit the mold of our date’s desires and whims, that we completely lose sight of everything we bring to the table.

The Better Date Than Never program helps people like Olivia gain the confidence to go on their first dates.)

Much of this focus arises from the shaky parts of our self-concept: “I am me [insert vulnerability here] enough?”

And for clients who used to date as cisgender or straight and now don’t (as we saw in Better Date Than Never), this can be an even bigger challenge.

It’s hard enough to step into the dating space as our true selves, let alone when we’ve spent our entire lives masking who we are.

We struggle to capture our complex identities online

In his TED talk, Love, no matter whatAmerican writer Andrew Solomon shares a concept that I have used many times in the therapy room: vertical and horizontal identity.

He describes vertical identity as the elements “transmitted generationally from parents to children … such as ethnicity, often nationality, language, often religion.”

Horizontal identities, however, are learned through peer encounter, as they are often foreign to parents who have no lived experience of these things.

These aspects of ourselves, Salomó importantly emphasizes, are what “people have always tried to heal.”

As a young man I kept my sexuality a secret; a way to feel safe. So, the first time I heard those words, they pierced me. They brought me back to the relentless refrain from my own childhood: “I’ll never say anything, no one will ever know.”

This sentiment is echoed through what I see in my clients: the challenge of accepting and integrating exiled parts of their identities. These parts have been suppressed and repressed by fear and shame: their own and the world around them.

So, after spending our whole lives pretending we’re not, how on earth are we supposed to choose something as seemingly simple as a profile picture?

The questions I hear over and over again

What apps should I download?
How should I set up my profile?
What, if anything, should I write about myself?
How many photos should I use and what should they capture?
How quickly should I respond to a message or match?
Should I message them if they match me?

I’ve heard this list, and many like it, over and over. And it’s impossible to find answers while the “should” is behind the wheel.

This insidious little word has a ridiculous amount of power over how we navigate the immensity of modern dating. And I think it’s time to take a stand.

Elan wants to help people like Charles come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions about dating.()

Years ago I had a teacher who, upon hearing the use of the word “should,” would immediately ask, “Who are you quoting?”

The word “should” reveals how we measure ourselves against another’s truth, as opposed to our own.

The ways in which family, friends, education, politics, religion, and the media shape the beliefs within us are endless. However, how often do we stop to reflect on these guiding forces and ask if they still serve us?

How do we untangle ourselves from these slippery little “shoulds”? Especially when we are in the tender space of stepping out of the shadows to let the world see us, perhaps for the first time.

Remember to include yourself

Dating is a vulnerable game. It has to be, if we want to reap the rewards. And yet, this emotional exposure can send us into a tailspin of scarcity, shame, and self-doubt.

So when a panic attack of “shoulds” rises to the surface, or we get stuck in a loop of “I’m […] enough?” remember to include yourself in the conversation.

Take a moment, breathe, and refocus on asking yourself, “What do I want?”

And whether the answer is to call it a night, invite someone back to yours, or schedule round two, listen to the desire bubbling up inside you and dare to find the courage to honor what you’ve heard.

That would make this dating-free trainer proud.

Best date ever now it’s in iView. Elan Zavelsky is a counselor and psychotherapist in Brisbane.

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