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Illustration by Chris Delorenzo

Courtship Anarchy: Dating in the Digital World

Is it a purple-eggplant or a row-of-hearts relationship? Do you text, Snapchat, or FB Messenger? And what context does this particular “hey” belong in? The early stages of dating and love have always been difficult to navigate. What complicates them now, says LA-based psychotherapist Shira Myrow, are the new customs of meeting online and conducting the bulk of early-dating communication via text. This new digital distance gives us a lot of space to excessively self-edit, imagine what isn’t, project fantasy, and ghost at even the hint of some small disappointment.

While texting and swiping may appear to sidestep the initial discomfort and risk that come with vulnerability, they ultimately hold us back. Myrow works with clients to help them recognize precisely what they’re doing online, dating-wise, and to help them learn to treat the whole process in a healthier way. It’s not the technology that’s inherently bad, she says. It’s that seeing and hearing a potential partner in real life involves a lot more risk, vulnerability, and humanity than a simple text or like.

A Q&A with Shira Myrow

Q

What is “courtship anarchy”?

A

The combination of texting and dating apps has created a profound change in courtship. Collectively, we’re already so immersed in it, it’s hard to perceive that change. It’s similar to the way mainstream porn has become a form of sex education. Even if you personally don’t watch it, porn has altered the broader landscape of sexual attitudes and expectations.

Our phones have disrupted traditional protocols around courtship and dating, and we have dispensed with some of the most basic forms of social etiquette that evolved around more direct forms of communication. It’s led to confusion about what rules apply, and an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. I call it courtship anarchy.

Q

How do you think apps and phones have changed dating?

A

It’s an interesting paradox: Tech has become this extraordinary mediating interface in our effort to find and connect with others, escape our loneliness and boredom, and distance ourselves from one another—all at the same time.

These are the three broad shifts I see, and they all have costs.

An expanded network. The internet has increased our opportunity to date by providing a greater pool of potential sexual partners, which is exciting and fascinating on one level. On another, though, it reinforces a consumer mentality around dating that often focuses on convenience and instant gratification. Shopping for romance, relationships, or even just casual sex doesn’t always yield meaningful results.

A rise in avoidance behaviors. We even have a new lexicon for them: “ghosting” (ending all communication abruptly and disappearing), “icing” (communicating with less frequency and/or truncated responses, which creates distance, longing, and anxiety), and “simmering” (communicating sporadically, like if you’re pursuing someone else but want to keep your options open).

These are all avoidance courtship behaviors. Someone might not want to respond right away for a variety of reasons: They’re at work or at school, or they want to write just the right response. Or they might be trying to project an air of nonchalance, not wanting to appear too available or desperate for attention. People ice or simmer with the intention of stringing someone along, instead of letting them know they’re not really interested. It’s much easier to mask ambivalence and ambiguity when you’re not physically with a person. When you’re on the receiving end, you don’t know how to interpret those behaviors, again because you’re not looking at or even hearing the voice of a live person. This confusion can send us into a tailspin of obsessive anxiety trying to rationalize or figure out what the avoidance means.

Smaller (emotional) risk. Texting relationships have an aspect of controlled exposure, with a lower risk of rejection. Face-to-face encounters have a much higher risk. But if we don’t practice in real life, then we lose the muscle of social and emotional intelligence in dating. And we miss all kinds of important signals.

Q

What does this change mean, practically?

A

It’s not that we need to give up dating apps or texting as a form of communication. It’s that we need to find a way to stay connected to our moral compass, our integrity, and our intuition. It’s important to be able to notice if we’re acting compulsively and to be able to draw limits with ourselves and with others.

“Disjointed, abbreviated, and edited communication on different digital platforms creates an illusion of coherency, but the net experience is fragmentation, along with a lot of speculation.”

Our use of technology also diminishes our capacity to attune to ourselves and others. By attunement I mean a quality of attention that is connected, present, and responsive. When we communicate primarily through our phones and screens, we don’t have the benefits of body language, eye contact, and all the other expressive ways our bodies communicate to help us understand each other. These are not only essential qualities of our shared humanity but also critical in courtship, intimacy, and love.

Q

In your practice, do you notice people treat people they meet on an app differently than they do people they meet in real life?

A

Yes. Some of my clients conduct the bulk of their early relationships over text. Once they have met someone in person, they have the opportunity to reconcile their online communication, their online persona (or edited self), and the projections that have been brewing in the subtexts of their texts, with a real-life person. That’s always a moment of truth, when you finally meet someone in person and experience the disconnect between who you imagined them to be, who they presented themselves to be, and who’s actually in front of you.

In that moment, you may experience natural anxiety, self-consciousness, and curiosity fueled by the unknown. The unfamiliar allows us to project our fantasies onto one another and drives desire. You can try to be aware that you have preconceived notions about who this person might be; stay open and present in the moment.

Disjointed, abbreviated, and edited communication on different digital platforms creates an illusion of coherency, but the net experience is fragmentation, along with a lot of speculation.

If your texting conversations have become emotionally or sexually intimate, it’s still hard to determine whether you’ll feel sexually attracted to that person when you finally meet them. You may walk away feeling disillusioned and disappointed (or you may be the one that’s rejected). Or: There may be a connection, if we’re willing to take the risk, and the anxiety and vulnerability that comes with it. As much as we want to inoculate ourselves against vulnerability with our devices, vulnerability is the very nature of courtship.

Q

Is there ever an appropriate time to ghost someone?

A

One distressing by-product of our digital culture is that it enables many people who are either oblivious, ignorant, or simply unwilling to behave appropriately. They may do or say things over text or online that they never would in person because the new layer of distance makes empathy more difficult.

That said, if you’re confronted with someone who isn’t respectful of your choice to disengage from a relationship or set a boundary, that’s an appropriate time to ghost. You don’t owe someone you meet on an app anything, and you’re definitely not obligated to be in conversation with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable.

If you’re simply no longer interested, though, you can draw a boundary around privacy or closure with integrity, clarity, and brevity, just the way you would with someone who you met in person. Even though you may be disappointing the other person, create boundaries or closure by being direct and respectful.

Q

How do we adjust our behavior?

A

Just practicing mindfulness can increase self-awareness and help us act more consciously, even in dating situations where anxiety is really high. If you don’t want to text, pick up the phone. If the person you’re interested doesn’t want to talk—to get to know you in real time—that’s valuable information.

I also suggest taking a step back and moderating how much time you’re spending behind a screen, and asking some self-reflective questions. Take breakups, for example: I have some clients who do it over text. There’s no closure. They just shut down the conversation, without the ability to process with the other. It’s an attempt at a controlled, conflict-free, frictionless universe.

“As much as we want to inoculate ourselves against vulnerability with our devices, vulnerability is the very nature of courtship.”

Avoiding the difficulty of a conversation may be easier in the moment, but we miss out on asking one of the hardest questions: What wasn’t working? Not just what he or she wasn’t doing right, but what was going on inside the relationship’s dynamic? Avoidance can ultimately lead to emotional arrested development: We miss out on growth and self-discovery. We don’t learn from our mistakes. Being authentic is not only having the courage to show up as yourself but also being compassionate and honest with others. And the only way we learn to attune to ourselves and one another is by practicing.

Doing the Tinder dance may temporarily absorb the energy and curiosity we have for connection, but it doesn’t always deliver it. The apps don’t always deliver real connection, and they’re not actually designed to. They’re designed to keep us clicking and swiping. And that leaves many people feeling frustrated, lonely, and depressed.

Courtship can be daunting. We don’t always know where our boundaries and limits lie, but we discover where they are through these encounters. Intimacy and vulnerability are scary, yet that’s where we’re able to see and be seen, to discover who we are, and to experience the deepest rewards of love and connection.

Shira Myrow is a mindfulness-based marriage and family therapist and meditation teacher. Myrow is the founder of the LA-based Yale Street Therapy Group and the curriculum director for Evenflow, a meditation platform and app.

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