Navigating the New Era of Dating: How Marriage and Family Therapists Can Help


In the United States, 142 million adults find themselves seeking romantic connection (Campbell et al., 2023). Dating, a concept as diverse as the people who engage in it, has evolved across generations, influenced by cultural shifts and historical milestones. Fueled by evolving societal norms, rebellion against traditional courtship, global events, and technological leaps, dating in the U.S. has transformed dramatically over the past half-century.

From the rigid traditions of courtship in the 18th century to the emergence of “companionate marriages” in the 19th century, the pursuit of love has undergone profound transformations (Brand, 2020; Phegley, 2012). The 20th century ushered in a wave of societal upheavals, from women’s suffrage to the LGBTQ+ rights movement, reshaping the fabric of relationships and paving the way for greater autonomy and choice (Francis, 2019; Landau & Smith, 2021).

More recently, empirical investigations indicate an evolving terrain within dating culture, marked by an increasing prioritization of traits such as emotional maturity, mental well-being, and the establishment of substantial connections (Match, 2022; Andini, 2021). For example, the “Singles in America” survey sheds light on changing inclinations, indicating a decrease in women pursuing casual encounters and an increased interest in committed partnerships (Match, 2022). Men, too, are expressing increased interest in finding long-term partners, reflecting a broader trend towards emotional connection and compatibility (Brown, 2022).

The COVID-19 pandemic has also fostered a notable reconfiguration of dating practices, prominently characterized by a shift towards virtual mediums as the principal avenue for romantic engagements (Bandinelli, 2022; Gibson, 2021). As lockdowns and social distancing mandates swept the nation, virtual dating emerged as a lifeline for many grappling with isolation. While some faced heightened loneliness, others found deeper intimacy in their relationships (Dailey et al., 2022; Konrath, 2020). Amid these changes, technology, particularly dating apps, emerged as a significant tool in maintaining social bonds and fostering new connections (Marston et al., 2020). The pandemic accelerated the adoption of dating apps, with usage soaring by 30-31% in the U.S. alone (Bandinelli & Gandini, 2022; Duguay et al., 2022). Once stigmatized, online dating has now become a mainstream phenomenon, with over 320 million users worldwide swiping, matching, and connecting through dating apps (Bandinelli & Gandini, 2022; Shen et al., 2023). However, as the lines between love, relationships, hook-ups, and technology blur, it’s essential to examine how this digital revolution has reshaped the landscape of modern romance (Portolan & McAlister, 2022).

Advantages of dating apps

Dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble have democratized the dating scene, making it more accessible and acceptable (Lunden, 2013; Pamanian, 2022). Dating via mobile apps has become increasingly prevalent, with about one in 10 Americans using online platforms for dating (Shen et al., 2023). What began as stigmatized and niche has now become a mainstream phenomenon, offering users diverse ways to connect (Duguay et al., 2022; Lozic, 2021). Dating apps offer several advantages, including expanded access to potential partners and cost-effective communication (Marston et al., 2020). They allow users to assess compatibility before meeting in person, enhancing the dating process (Andini, 2021). Virtual dating also facilitates intimate communication, contributing to relationship building (Van Ouytsel et al., 2020).


Safety and risks

While online dating offers unparalleled accessibility and convenience, it’s not without its pitfalls. For example, due to the nature of sharing information online, dating apps pose risk of privacy breaches, and related mental health implications (Williams et al., 2021). Exposure to scams and fraud are also prevalent risks, with several publicly known accounts of users experiencing significant financial losses and emotional distress (Buil-Gil & Zeng, 2021; Vogels, 2021). Fake profiles, harassment, violence, and coercion remain persistent challenges, necessitating user vigilance (Andini, 2021; Lee, 2023).

From concerns about dating violence to financial exploitation, users must navigate a complex landscape fraught with risks (Casto & Barrada, 2023). To mitigate risks, users should be vigilant and aware of red flags, such as unsolicited requests for money and inappropriate behavior (Leano, 2021). Additionally, platforms must prioritize user safety through robust security measures and inclusive policies (Lee, 2023). Education and awareness campaigns can empower users to navigate digital dating safely and responsibly (Andini, 2021). By fostering a more balanced understanding of the online dating experience, researchers aim to empower users to maximize benefits while minimizing potential harm (Timmermans et al., 2018).

The role of marriage and family therapists

Modern dating is an ever-changing landscape involving online platforms, shifting societal/culture norms, and diverse relationship dynamics. MFTs can assist individuals in safely engaging with the world of modern dating, setting healthy boundaries, clarifying dating goals, handling rejection, as well as helping clients to understand their dating patterns and behaviors. MFTs can offer guidance and help empower individuals navigating the complexities of modern dating in several ways:

 Risk awareness and education: Therapists can educate clients about the potential risks of using dating apps, including privacy breaches, scams, catfishing, harassment, and financial exploitation. There are also emotional and psychological risks that are inherent in online dating such as rejection, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and insecurities. By raising awareness about these issues, therapists can empower clients to recognize red flags, make informed decisions about their online interactions, cope with rejection, build resiliency, and help embolden individuals to approach dating experiences with confidence.

Safety planning: Therapists can work with clients to develop safety plans for engaging in dating apps, including setting boundaries, establishing communication protocols, and identifying strategies for responding to concerning or threatening situations. MFTs can provide knowledge and resources to help clients proactively protect their well-being. These plans can provide clients with the necessary skills and tools to navigate these challenging situations.

Advocacy and resources: Therapists can serve as advocates for clients who have experienced harm or abuse on dating apps, helping them access resources and support services as needed. This may include connecting clients with legal services, mental health resources, or community organizations that specialize in supporting survivors of online abuse. MFTs can provide an invaluable amount of support by validating a client’s experience and connecting them to resources to help them through recovery.

Providing emotional support: MFTs can provide emotional support to clients who have experienced negative or traumatic encounters on dating apps. This may involve processing feelings of shame, guilt, or vulnerability and developing coping strategies for managing emotional distress. Helping clients process emotionally distressing experiences can aid in recovering their sense of safety and empowerment when they are maneuvering in the modern dating world. Further, MFTs can support clients in prioritizing emotional maturity and mental well-being in their dating practices. This may involve exploring self-care strategies, coping mechanisms for stress or anxiety related to dating, and building resilience in the face of rejection or disappointment.

Building resilience: MFTs can help clients build resilience in the face of adversity, including online dating-related challenges. By cultivating self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-compassion, therapists can help clients develop the confidence and flexibility needed to navigate the ups and downs of online dating.

Navigating relationships online and offline: MFTs can support clients in navigating their relationships, both online and offline. This may involve exploring communication skills, boundary-setting, and conflict-resolution strategies to promote healthy and respectful interactions with potential partners. Also, with the rise of virtual mediums for romantic engagements, therapists can help clients navigate the unique challenges and opportunities presented by online dating and virtual relationships. This may include discussing boundaries, safety precautions, and managing expectations. It is also important to educate clients on practicing digital etiquette to create a mutually respectful environment where genuine interactions have the potential to create an authentic connection.

Exploring commitment and compatibility: MFTs can assist clients in exploring their desires for commitment and compatibility in relationships. By facilitating discussions around values, goals, and long-term aspirations, therapists can help clients clarify their relationship goals and make informed decisions about potential partners.

Exploring relationship dynamics: MFTs can provide a safe space for clients to explore their relationship dynamics, gender roles and expectations, cultural influences, communication styles, attachment patterns, and conflict resolution strategies. By examining these aspects, clients can gain a better understanding of their strengths, areas for growth, how to regulate their emotions within relationships, and how they approach intimacy. With this knowledge, individuals can create stronger and more fulfilling connections.

By promoting open dialogue and mutual respect, therapists can help clients cultivate healthy and egalitarian relationships.

Supporting gender dynamics: MFTs can help clients navigate shifting gender dynamics in dating and relationships, including changes in traditional gender roles and expectations. Acknowledging the diverse ways in which individuals express their gender identity and supporting positive gender dynamics creates a culture of acceptance. By promoting open dialogue and mutual respect, therapists can help clients cultivate healthy and egalitarian relationships.

Affirming identity and intersectionality: MFTs must affirm and validate their client’s identities including their ethnicity, race, gender identity, religion, and sexual orientation. MFTs are responsible for creating a safe and inclusive space where clients feel comfortable in being their authentic selves and engaging with clients who want to unpack how their multiple social identities intersect and impact their experience while dating in the modern world.

Overall, MFTs play a vital role in supporting individuals as they navigate the ever-evolving landscape of modern dating and relationships. MFTs can create a safe space for individuals to create safety precautions, foster cultural competence, affirm identities, encourage self-reflection about dating behaviors, bolster self-esteem and resiliency, clarify values and goals, and engage in authentically genuine interactions in the digital space. Through skill-building, engaging in open communication, and addressing the unique challenges that occur in online dating, therapists can empower clients to cultivate fulfilling and meaningful connections with others online and offline.

Looking to the future

Future research should address gaps in understanding minority experiences in online dating, focusing on inclusivity and diversity (Fedina et al., 2023; Paul et al., 2021). By exploring the unique challenges faced by marginalized communities, we can foster a more equitable and safer online dating environment for all users. In conclusion, while dating apps offer unprecedented opportunities for connection, users must navigate a complex landscape of risks and rewards. By staying informed, vigilant, and advocating for inclusive practices, we can harness the potential of digital dating while minimizing its pitfalls. In an era defined by choice, accessibility, and freedom, the journey to finding connection continues to evolve, thus, we as MFTs need to evolve with it.

From concerns about dating violence to financial exploitation, users must navigate a complex landscape fraught with risks.

Eman Tadros, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, MBTI certified, an AAMFT Professional member holding the Approved Supervisor designation, and a Family TEAM leader. She is the assistant editor for the journal Child: Care, Health and Development. Her research focuses on incarcerated couples and families. She has published 112 peer-reviewed journal articles and various magazines, blog posts, book chapters, op-eds, and policy briefs.

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