Since 1992, The New York Times’ “Vows” column has featured how couples “got from dating to ‘I do.’” When the column started about three decades ago, it was common for romantic relationships to start through mutual friends, family, or in college before getting hitched.
Not long afterward, however, the plots of those stories began to change with the growing popularity of the internet. By 2018, 7 of the 53 stories featured in “Vows” and 93 out of the 1,000 couples profiled in the Times’ wedding announcements met on dating apps, The Atlantic reported1. Just the year before, only 71 of the couples announced met on dating apps.
The New York Times and The Atlantic are just some of the news sources that have noticed the change in dating statistics. In The Knot’s 2019 Jewelry and Engagement Study, 22 percent of couples met online, which was up 5 percent from 2017.
With a religion and culture that advocates for dating and marriage, Latter-day Saints aren’t left out of these online dating statistics. From Mutual to LDS Singles to social media and everything in between, the virtual world has brought new meaning to Latter-day Saint dating, too. With these changes come some successes, but also frustrations, challenges, and misconceptions. So, with both the turn of a new decade and Valentine’s Day upon us, it seemed about time to get a fresh look at the topic.
Three Latter-day Saint therapists recently shared with us their thoughts about how to approach dating in an age that is increasingly virtual. Are there ways to meet people outside of dating apps? At what point do you know when you are actually interested in somebody or if you are just wasting time by going out with that person again?
Here’s what they said.
There’s an app for that
“Technology has been the biggest change [to dating], and with that comes pros because . . . you can access more people,” says licensed clinical social worker Loni Harmon. “And you can have more opportunities to date in your busy lifestyle, but I think the con with that is that a lot of people use that as a crutch, like, ‘Well, I’m online, so therefore I’m trying.’ So, they don’t go to meet people organically anymore.”
According to a study by Pew Research Center in October 2019, a whopping 48 percent of single American adults ages 18–29 have used a dating site or app at least once (compared to 15 percent in 2015). That number drops to 38 percent for ages 30–49, and just 16 percent for ages 50 and older.
The increase in use of dating apps must mean they’re doing their job by helping people connect and even, in some cases, eventually marry. And yet Pew Research studies show that of the 4,860 Americans on dating apps that they surveyed, only 12 percent find a committed relationship or marriage out of online dating. And while 57 percent say they have positive experiences from dating platforms, 45 percent who used a dating app or site in the past year said their recent experience left them feeling frustrated.
Harmon says some of the challenges of using dating apps are in large part due to the lack of human connection in the process.
“Your best way of meeting someone is going to be face-to-face interactions, getting to know them, getting a feel for them, trying to figure out if you’re attracted, if their vibe is there,” she says. “And there’s just so much more pre-elimination work that you can do online that it fuels the fire of more isolation . . . there are so many more options, but yet you’re still not dating, so you feel even worse.”
Marriage and family therapist Melanie Cox agrees that it’s easy to overlook someone on an app, largely because that person is two dimensional when it’s just his or her face on a screen. This being the case, people often end up swiping past someone based on visual preferences rather than personality deal breakers.
“It increases a lot of perfectionism about dating of like, ‘Oh, I have to find . . . the best match for me. We like the same stuff. We have the same sense of humor. He likes the same shows, he eats the same food, we have the same lifestyle, and same hobbies, and same interests,’” Cox says. “And there’s this ideal out there . . . I feel like it’s a little bit more tantalizing now.”
That’s not to say dating apps are always a negative thing—it just means daters need to be more intentional when using them. Sometimes this looks like setting goals about determining to go on a number of dates through an app, says licensed marriage and family therapist Jordan Johnson.
Johnson also advises users seek out apps that give a more well-rounded perspective on an individual, rather than swiping based on appearance and a witty line or two. Additionally, it’s important that single adults take their time with the process.
“It’s kind of the. . . analogy of baking a cake, right? You want to prepare the ingredients, you want to do what you can do and put it in the oven, and you’ve got to have time for it to rise,” he says. “When you talk to somebody or get to know them, and if you’re chatting back and forth on an app . . . there should be a get-to-know-you period.”
If you are on a dating app, then be on it, Harmon says. Many people have dating apps on their phone but haven’t checked it in weeks, finding comfort in knowing that it’s simply an option. But in those cases, it’s better to take a break altogether.
“You can’t just be on there and not respond,” Harmon says. “You’re not online. You have a profile on and you’re taunting people with your unavailability.”
The art of casual dating—wait, what’s that?
At times, there can be a lot of pressure to date as a single adult in the Church. Not only are you looking for someone you’re compatible with, attracted to, and who has similar values to you but there’s also that tiny nagging reminder that the person sitting across from you at dinner could be your eternal companion one day.
“I think essentially, we’ve lost the art of casual dating. And I think we’ve lost the skill of using a date to create friendship,” says Cox. “We have such a scarcity mindset of, ‘Oh, to be accepted I have to be married. [To] be married, I have to go on dates. No one’s going on dates with me, this person’s my only shot.’”
But casual dating doesn’t have to be a lost art, she says. We’re just out of practice communicating. Take a young single adult ward for instance: While it used to be a resource that encouraged dating in Latter-day Saint culture, many single adults are now worried their relationship will become awkward if the date doesn’t work out—let alone if a relationship goes south—which can affect their involvement with their ward activities and diminish their opportunities to practice communicating.
If it comes to that point, Cox says, the clearer you are, the better. If a date goes well but you haven’t heard from the person in a while, check in to see where they’re at. If they’re dating someone else, don’t take it personally. Or if a relationship didn’t work out, it’s okay to stop going to activities for a time where that person may be, just let them know you’re taking a break so he or she can be more comfortable in that setting.
“It’s hard and super uncomfortable,” says Cox. “But being willing to do that for the sake of ‘You’re a person, I gave you a shot and you deserve the respect of communication.’ If you don’t ghost someone, then seeing them at church isn’t awkward.”
A date doesn’t have to be complicated, says Johnson, although Church members often make it out to be.
“There’s something that nonmembers have that we don’t and that is that they commit to one night or one date or one lunch and we are potentially committing to eternity, right?” he says. “And so we do that on the first date and it adds pressure that we don’t need to have. . . . but I think being intentional and committing to one night as well, or one date, or committing to one lunch—and that’s it.”
Single adults don’t need to be afraid if they don’t have the answers to whether or not they should keep dating someone, Harmon continues. It just means they can find out more about that person—their likes, dislikes, how they complement each other—essentially, “trying the person on for a fit.”
“I’m always teaching clients, ‘Do you have enough information about this person to go on a date? How was that date? If it was great, then go on a second date. If you’re still unsure, that’s normal,’” Harmon says. “There’s a phase of dating called ‘uncertainty’ and people I think take uncertainty as being it’s a ‘no,’ and they just don’t do their homework with dating anymore. They want to turn it over to God, like ‘Tell me if this is the right thing.’”
The very nature of building a relationship takes time, Harmon says. Rather than observing someone at church you’re potentially interested in from a distance for days, weeks, or months, take a step closer and actually get to know the person. Plus, people often “behave differently inside of a romantic relationship,” then they would in another setting, she says.
“With the dating cultures now, we want something fast. We are so easily satiated. You know, ‘I can get this in the microwave, I can order Prime in two days,’ and getting to know someone takes time and it takes consistent effort,” she says. “People often think it has to be so fast—‘We meet each other, we spend all night talking, the next six days are spent incessantly texting each other and being in love,’ and that’s what being in love looks like. So, if it doesn’t happen super fast, it’s not real love. And that’s just not true.”
Casual dating sounds all right, I guess—now, if I could only meet people to casually date . . .
Dating apps not your thing? It’s not the only way Latter-day Saint singles can meet people these days, although it might feel like it. From setups to ward and region events to Facebook groups and even blogging communities, broadening your network can go a long way towards meeting someone you end up dating.
When attending activities, go to a church event simply for the sake of the event, says Harmon. Intend to meet people while you’re there, but remember you’re in it for the experience—that way, if a date doesn’t come from it, the activity won’t feel like “it’s a total waste of your time.”
Cox suggests leaning into all kinds of relationships to increase dating potential. Whether that means getting recommendations from a friend or hosting an event, there are plenty of options.
“Doing small things, like, ‘Hey, let’s do a dinner where only half of the people here know each other.’ Or ‘Let’s do a small game night where everyone brings a stranger.’ Or initiating activities where you’re . . . broadening your social circle for the sake of friendship, but also for the sake of ‘Hey, my circle isn’t cutting it, I know all these people now, let me use my other relationships as a way to meet new people.’”
Keeping in mind the different methods of how men and women communicate is important in all stages of a relationship, says Harmon. While men typically like to problem solve on their own, women reach out to all of their resources when things get tough in a relationship.
According to Johnson, women have more influence in the dating process than they realize. So when attending an event like institute, he says it’s a good opportunity for a woman to find two or three people in the room they want to go on a date with and send that message by focusing on uplifting the other person during their interaction.
“When you make somebody feel great . . . they’re going to say ‘Whoa, I really enjoyed being around this girl. Maybe I want to get to know her better.’ And if it’s not a fit for him, or for you, it’s just a good experience. It’s kind. It’s a good thing to say.”
For men, Johnson says that rather than worrying about how to ask a person out or how to make the “right connection,” that “if it’s right now, it’s going to be right later.” In the end, they have nothing to lose by simply taking the leap and asking a woman they’re interested in on a date.
The worst scenario is being stagnant, because “the key to this game is just movement,” says Johnson. If someone is feeling burned out with the dating scene, he recommends doing a personal inventory and identifying one’s roadblocks. Getting feedback from others about one’s dating strategy or even doing counseling can help someone get back on their feet.
“The Lord’s going to help us in the process too as we do our best to act,” he says. “You can’t steer a parked car. So just take a leap and move forward.”
What if I’m burned out with dating?
Many daters have had more than a few scarring dating experiences, says Harmon. And while it’s never fun being rejected, it’s vital that single adults realize the emotion is a universal experience.
“We’re so sensitive to rejection that in order to get married, to get to the other side, you really have to develop a healthy sense of normalization of rejection and a resiliency to it—not that you have to be okay with it, but just work through it,” she says. “You’re not going to be a fit for everybody. That’s okay.”
If it is time for a break, take that break, says Cox. While dating is encouraged in the Church, she adds that it’s healthy and oftentimes much needed to step back every now and then.
“It’s really easy to get discouraged in dating,” she says. “I think normalizing that if you don’t feel like dating right now or if you feel burned out . . . that doesn’t mean you’re never going to want it—sometimes taking a break for your own mind, that if you’re feeling too hurt or too dated, maybe allowing yourself space to say, ‘This isn’t what I want to be spending my energy on right now’ doesn’t mean that you’re an apostate member of the Church. It doesn’t mean you’re getting kicked out.”
In the meantime, work on other aspects of relationships, like creating healthy boundaries in friendships, learning how to say “no” in a kind way, and seeking for feedback from friends and family on how to better support them. Keeping the big picture in mind can also make a difference.
“We often define ourselves by certain milestones of, ‘Oh have I had a boyfriend? Have I kissed someone? Have I been married and divorced?’” says Cox. “There are so many different labels that we assume mean a lot, and so I think [we need to have] patience with ourselves that those things don’t determine marriage happiness.”
Sometimes, Latter-day Saint adults doubt their faith when dating doesn’t turn into marriage, says Harmon. Because singles have such a deep desire for eternal marriage and family, they often feel an equally deep pain when it doesn’t seem to be happening in their lives.
“It creates resentment because people feel this anger towards God sometimes,” says Harmon. “I get a lot of people that get stuck on the ‘getting married is a blessing’ and so therefore I’m doing something wrong. I’m not blessed enough to be married.’ And that . . . really gets people feeling disconnected from God.”
Relying on the Atonement of Jesus Christ can help when approaching dating, says Cox. As human beings who are not perfect, she says it’s key to remember that a few missteps are simply part of the game.
“We’re only going to get better at this as we practice, as we learn, as we try, as we fail and probably hurt people on accident,” says Cox. “And then we try and involve the Atonement and do better the next time and say, ‘Wow I can see I didn’t handle that . . . I was really afraid of being honest,’ . . . and utilizing what the Atonement is for of working on mistakes and changing mistakes and not seeing failure as a doom, but as the point. We’re supposed to mess up and make mistakes and practicing that in our dating is going to make us way more equipped for healthy marriages later on.”
Ultimately, connection is part of who we are as human beings, Harmon adds. Taking time away from dating is fine, but don’t give up on it entirely.
“Remember you are hardwired for connection,” she says. “You’re going to circle through this, you’re going to come back, and you’re going to want it. It’s part of your Heavenly Father’s plan. It’s part of how your DNA works. So, embrace the fact that today, in this moment, you don’t want to do it, but then let’s make a plan for when you’re ready to do it so that you can feel like you’re putting your best foot forward.”
When you are ready to get back into the swing of things again, Harmon says to seek out a person who brings a quality relationship to the table—even if it doesn’t end in marriage.
“The realistic expectation is that you should shoot for the moon,” she says. “You want to be happy. Don’t settle for someone you’re not happy with. . . . Just keep going.”