I dabbled in online dating before my marriage. Back then it wasn’t socially acceptable, to the point that my ex and I didn’t tell people we’d met online. Now everyone expects you to date online, but a lot has changed. If you haven’t dated online before, it’s a whole new world. Even for the experienced, apps, etiquette, and expectations shift regularly. People now text the person they’re dating all the time and this remains kind of wild and weird to me. But welcome to the present, I want you to enjoy it, so here’s a primer to help you get started and get comfortable.
To start: who is this post for? This post is for you if you are looking to get into online dating after divorce, with or without kids. If you are totally new to online dating, great. If it’s been more than 5 years since you were online dating, also great. All ages, genders, and sexualities welcome.
Start When You Are Ready
There is no official time when you will be ready. Do not date because other people are wondering why you haven’t started yet. Do not date because it seems like it’s been long enough. Date because you are ready to date.
Dating can be a very long slog. It can have high points and low points. You need to feel ready for that.
I started dating almost immediately after splitting with my ex-husband. I know people who have been divorced for years who are still not ready. Both of those are fine.
Set Up a Separate Email Account
This is one of the first things I did and I’ve never regretted it for a second. My regular email is the one I have pulled up at all times, the one with my name on it, the one that’s tied to my Google profile complete with picture. So before I started online dating, I set up a new email account that’s not tied to my regular one. I used an email program I don’t normally use so that it wouldn’t ever come up as my “inbox” or “email” app on my phone and I wouldn’t have to toggle between accounts.
For the separate email I have a similar username to my online dating profile, and I do not list my full name. (I list my first name and last initial.) I can go on with my normal life and dating will not intrude into it. I can opt in to plenty of email notifications from my dating app but I won’t get push notifications from the mail app so I can ignore until I feel like dealing with them. I very much prefer the compartmentalization of dating into one tidy email box.
Create Your Profile
You do not have to create it all right away, I regularly tinkered with mine for months and I still check it every now and then to see if it needs a tweak. You can leave it blank and just browse for a while if that helps you feel like you’re getting your feet wet.
I recommend using OKCupid. It has basically everything you need in the free version, it lets you screen very effectively, the match algorithm is pretty good, the pool is large, it has more options for sexual orientation and gender, and people there are more responsive than Match or Tinder in my experience. If you find the app version of OKCupid a little confusing, the desktop version is easier.
On OKCupid one of the first things you want to do is answer a bunch of questions. At first this will be tedious. But once you answer enough questions (100 or so should do it) you won’t need to do it ever again! It’s a one time thing and it is crucial because this is where your match percentage comes from and it helps you screen out the most obvious bad fits. These are questions that will make you wonder who on earth would say no, but believe me, someone will, and you definitely don’t want to be matched to that person. You can answer questions before you fill out much of your profile, which is great because you’ll already be able to start seeing who you match with and how well it’s working.
OKCupid gives you some prompts for profile creation, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and if you’re worried you can always send your profile to friends for their comments. Reading other people’s profiles will help you see what makes a good one. The worst profiles I see are the ones that say they enjoy things that literally everyone enjoys and have qualities that basically everyone thinks they have. (“I enjoy spending time with friends.” “I love going out, but I also enjoy a quality night in.” etc.) Try to give a picture of your personality. And remember that taste and personality are not the same, so do more than list your favorite music.
Do not lie. Do not lie about your age, your height, your relationship status, your parenting status, etc. Anyone who will screen you out based on one of these factors is not someone you should be dating anyway. And the people who don’t care about those things will care that you lied about them.
Once you browse around a while you will start to see the trends. Climbing mountains, running races, monuments, beaches, dogs, cats, yoga poses, low cut tops, shirtless flexing, etc. Do not feel like you have to define yourself by your profile pictures. Do not feel like you have to impress anyone. The goal of your profile pictures is to let someone have an idea of what you look like that is accurate enough that they can pick you out on a first date.
Selfies in a well-lit room are great. If you wear your hair a few different ways, if you are prone to grow then shave a beard, or if you make other regular changes try to have pictures of yourself in various states. If at all possible, don’t have other people in your photos, especially not your primary profile picture. If you don’t have pictures of you that fit the bill, just take a few or ask a friend to take some. It’s not rocket science or professional portraiture, just a decent pic of you.
If you have pictures that show your personality, great. If you like to add snarky captions, fine.
Do not use pictures that are more than 5 years old unless you look exactly the same. Do not use the best pictures of you that exist.
Do NOT put pictures of your kids in your profile. This is not the place for that. It already says if you have kids in your profile. These sites are full of weirdos you don’t know who can see your pictures. So let’s just not.
Writing and Responding to Messages
The first thing you need to know about online dating is that there will be people who try to game the system. The second thing you need to know is that women who date straight men will get the most messages and straight men will get the least messages. The second thing is connected to the first.
More women get messages because more men are trying to game the system. They figure the best way to get a date is to put out as many messages as possible. The good news is this is an easy system to fight. The first step is to set a message filter. Anything with a match % below 70 doesn’t go to my inbox but a “Filtered” folder in OKCupid. To set up filters, hit the settings button while in your inbox. You can filter within your parameters or by match %. Going paid unlocks more filters.
The second step is simple: never respond to a message that could have been copy/pasted to 100 other people. Because if it could be, it probably was.
If you receive a message and it feels… off in a way that you can’t describe, good news: you do not need to respond to it. The social contract of online dating is that you are never obligated to respond to a message.
If you aren’t happy with the number of messages you’re receiving, good news: you can also write messages. Writing messages is kind of scary, which is why some people resort to the super boring opening line of “hey.” But if you’ve received a “hey” you know how useless it is, so avoid that. My best advice on writing messages is to find one or two things in the person’s profile that sound cool or interesting, things you’d like to do or have a conversation about. You can ask them an opinion or say you enjoyed something that’s they’ve said they like. A lot of people write me asking for a book recommendation, which is a very very very good way for me to smile and write you back because I LOVE books.
If someone doesn’t write you back, never fear. This is a long game. It’s not the end of the world. I recommend not getting too invested in any one message. I will usually send 2-3 messages in one go and then try to immediately forget about them. Low stakes is the name of the game.
Straight men: I know it feels like online dating is stacked against you, and it may be, but the fault here lies with other straight men and not women. If men weren’t trying so hard to game the system, women wouldn’t be so bombarded, and it wouldn’t be so hard for a well-meaning message to get through. If creepy guys weren’t sending women messages over and over again, they wouldn’t be so worried about their safety. It is not hopeless, women are not to blame for not writing you back, and you can absolutely meet someone you connect with. But if you decide it is all a big plot by women against men, I would suggest you take a break from online dating for everyone’s good.
Messaging vs. Meeting
Here is a story that happens to almost everyone in online dating. You start messaging someone, they are incredibly charming, you keep messaging, you share details of your lives, you message for weeks, and finally when you get to meet in person you are convinced this is IT this is THE ONE. Then you meet in person and the date is so bad you cannot fathom how you got to this place.
This, my friends, is chemistry. It is very, very real. And internet chemistry is not the same as irl chemistry. This is where you have to make the very important meeting vs. messaging decision.
Personally, I set a high bar for responding to a message and after that it’s a very low bar to meet. If someone doesn’t creep me out intensely after I decide they’re worth talking to, I will suggest we meet for coffee within a message or two. I am very frank about it and say that I like to check in person chemistry sooner rather than later. It is rare that people have a problem with this, I suspect because they have also had that horrific date I described above. (It was one of the worst dates I’ve ever had.)
For a first meeting, coffee is always a safe bet. Buy your own coffee, you can offer to buy the other person’s if you like but going dutch is generally the expectation. You can always say you have somewhere to be in an hour to have an out if things aren’t going well.
Intro to Ghosting
Ghosting is an essential part of online dating these days. It allows you to draw the kind of wide net you need to in messaging and meeting people without having to awkwardly remove yourself from every conversation. It is acceptable to ghost in many situations.
Ghosting means that you stop talking to a person. You can ghost while messaging but before meeting at any time. The only exception is if you have planned a meeting with someone. In that case, if you change your mind you’ll need to say so.
You can ghost after meeting someone if it was only one meeting. Sometimes you can ghost after two dates. If you liked the person just fine and had a nice time but didn’t really feel a spark, ghosting is okay.
If the person messages you to talk about going out again, then you should reply with a simple refusal along the lines of, “Enjoyed meeting you, but I didn’t get the connection I’m looking for.” If you’re only a few dates in you can do this via message or text and it’s okay. The old rules of having to do this in person or via phone call only apply if you’re past the very early stages.
People You Know
If you are in an area where you know a lot of people, you will inevitably see some of them pop up. This is not horrifying or awkward, it is just you both existing as single people. I just hide their profile and then act like we have not run into each other on a dating app. There is no need to make it awkward, it is okay to be two people who are both single. But since people may share some details about kink or other NSFW topics in their profile or questions, it’s best to hide before you peruse and just be chill.
The odds are very good that any time you set up a new dating profile you will be matched with your ex. I have basically stopped setting up new profiles when I am curious about a new dating app because this happens so predictably every time.
If your ex is dating, this is a thing that will happen. It is best to hide or block that profile so you cannot look at it. They will probably see you there, too. But you can pretend that they never do and this is definitely my recommendation.
Once you’re on an app you like, just stay there. Forget your ex is also on the app. Do whatever mental gymnastics are necessary.
No, I’m not talking about the old school version of internet dating safety where you tell your friends where you’re going and all that. I mean, you can if you really want to, but these days people meet people from the internet constantly and serial killers aren’t using online dating to identify victims. (Also there is a clear digital record of all of it! Not a very smart serial killer strategy!)
What I’m talking about is creeps and stalkers. They may not be more than just kind of skeezy or a little off, but if you decide you do not want to talk to a person sometimes that person will keep talking to you anyway. Sometimes you will not realize someone is creepy until things get physical. Some people are very good at keeping their inappropriate behavior confined to the bedroom and can come off as pretty normal and okay in conversation.
You can never 100% avoid creeps, but you can take steps to make sure it’s harder for them to access you.
I never give anyone my phone number until after I’ve met them and feel comfortable with them. If they are confined to contacting me only through online dating messages I can block them. (One unfortunate thing is that most dating apps still don’t have a strong enough block function, but you can keep their messages from getting through at a minimum.)
I also don’t give people my address or have them pick me up or drop me off at my house. I’d rather not split a cab if it means they find out where I live. I’ll just take my own, thanks. If someone offers to buy you an Uber or Lyft home on their account, they will see the destination you go to, so accept carefully.
Find out if you are easily google-able or if someone can find you on Facebook. Adjust your non-friend and friend-of-friend Facebook settings. And in those situations try not to give someone your last name.
If you are a queer person, you can actually set your profile so straight people can’t see you which may help you avoid a large amount of creeps, who are often of the cishet variety.
And of course, use the kind of normal care you’ve always used in dating. Don’t let yourself drink too much with someone you don’t know well. Leave a situation if you feel weird about it. Etc. Etc.
If you have kids, do not hide this fact. There are people who won’t date parents and if that’s the decision they’ve made, you do not have a chance with them.
Do not use your kids’ names or identifying information in your profile. Do not put your kids’ pictures in your profile.
I mention in my profile that I have kids, that I have joint custody of them, and that anyone dating me can basically not worry about that because I do not introduce my kids to people I date. I do it in one sentence so it’s just a small portion of my profile, just as it is a small portion of my conversation when I’m on a date.
If you have not already, have a conversation with your co-parent about when you introduce your kids to new partners. (My agreement is 6 months, I feel like that’s pretty reasonable.)
Initially I worried that people without kids would find it weird to date a parent but that honestly hasn’t happened at all. When I date other parents we do have that additional thing to talk about, but many people I date don’t have kids and there’s no weird distance between us because we are both adults capable of talking about a variety of things.
Do keep the conversation about your kids minimal on early dates.
The “Rules” No Longer Apply
If divorce has made you wonder if you even want to date again, I have good news for you. The “rules” as you probably knew them last time you were dating no longer exist.
You no longer have to date around until you find the perfect person, date, fall in love, move in together, get married, whatever set of steps you were supposed to follow. You probably feel like you were sold a fraudulent deal there.
These days that set of rules is called the relationship escalator, this idea that you step on and then you must move up a very specific path at a certain speed. Now is a good time to rethink whether you want a relationship at all and what you may want from one. It can be hard to separate your brain from the cultural expectations around relationships. It definitely takes time. But it’s a good thing to process and you can work through that while you date.
One of the nice things about online dating and specifically about OKCupid is that you can find people who are not interested in having that specific culturally mandated package. Most dating apps are still incredibly heteronormative or binary. We have made a slight amount of progress in that many apps now let you look for same-gender partners, but most still let you only select one gender. But great news! You can date as many genders as you want and you can identify as such in your OKCupid profile with a label like bisexual or pansexual. If you are trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid you can say so. And if you are anything besides 100% straight you can say so. If you are questioning your sexuality or gender late in life, you get a fresh start to declare your identity on your dating profile to be whatever you want it to be (including “questioning”). Even if you are not fully out to friends, you can be out on your profile.
Next, you can date looking for love, you can date looking for sex, you can date looking for neither, and you can date looking for both. Aromantic and asexual people date, too! You may even realize that you are one of those people once you are not forced to step onto the relationship escalator. There are also demisexual people who only feel sexual attraction with a strong emotional connection. If you have struggled in the past to reciprocate romantic or sexual feelings, it may be worth doing some reading to see if you align with one of these groups.
Finally, you can date without the usual expectations around commitment. You can date many people at once. You can also be committed to many people at once. OKCupid lets you designate your “Relationship Type” as Monogamous or Non-Monogamous. Non-monogamy is a really big category with many different styles. If you are reconsidering the idea of having one partner for the rest of your life, this may be a good category for you. If you decide to do some research, you will find most discussion of non-monogamy is framed around polyamory, although that is only one form of it. People burned by divorce or parenting young children may find that solo poly, for example, is a good fit. If your friends ask you if you have a new person in your life, saying you are “dating around” is an acceptable answer that people will hear with smiles and nods.
If you don’t think you will be able to find anyone else interested in non-relationship-escalator-relationships in your area, you honestly may be surprised. While it’s always easier in big cities, there are many nontraditional communities even in more rural areas.
If you are sure you are a cisgender straight person who wants love, sex, and a committed long-term partnership, that is okay! There are lots of other people like you! You are still the most common type of person dating online. But do read people’s profiles with the understanding that they may not all be cis, straight, and monogamous. You may find a trans person or a queer person is a great fit for you. It won’t make you any less of your identity to date them just like it won’t make them any less theirs.
Yes, I know you’re an adult but if you’ve had just one partner for a long time you may be out of the habit. Always use protection with new partners, not just birth control but barriers as well.
If you have more than one partner in a 6 month period, get tested for STD’s. I shoot for every 6 months, as a rule. If you don’t have a regular physician or insurance doesn’t cover more than once a year, there are usually community health organizations where you can get tested.
Always have your own protection. Don’t just assume the other person will have it.
Insist on protection, and if a potential partner is trying to avoid it or go without it you may want to reconsider the entire relationship. A lack of responsibility and safety around sex doesn’t bode well for long-term compatibility.
Ask your partners about their STD status and preferred protection. You can do this before sex. If you want to do it via message or text and not in person, that’s just fine. It’s sub-ideal to have this conversation in the heat of the moment.
Remember your first love when you were a teenager? Remember how silly and moony you were about the whole thing? You may expect that having all those years behind you means you are no longer susceptible to acting irrationally about a romantic partner. You are probably wrong.
It’s really important to ask yourself early on what you want in a partner and what you want in a relationship. Because if you start falling for a person, you will immediately stop thinking about those things and focusing on this person and how perfect they are. Setting up your expectations early will help you look for those potential red flags and set out guidelines and rules you’ll be able to follow even when your heart tells you to break them.
You’ve probably learned a lot from your marriage and your previous dating life. You probably have a pretty good idea of the mistakes you don’t want to make again. But don’t assume you won’t make those mistakes. It is really easy to forget just how irrational dopamine can make you. Think back to the earliest phases of your previous relationships and consider the things you could have done to make the relationship better or see that this partner wasn’t a good fit.
A therapist is also useful for processing those previous relationships and helping you set healthy standards for yourself. If you are coming out of a particularly difficult relationship involving trauma, domestic violence, emotional abuse, etc. this should be a high priority.
Friends, Family, and Everyone Else
Everyone is going to want to know about your dating life. It will be the first question people ask you now. If they are partnered and haven’t dated in a long time, your friends and family will start looking for fun stories so they can live vicariously through you.
You can share as much as you like! Tell them everything, tell them very little, it’s up to you.
If you would like to keep your dating life private or limited to your closest friends, it’s easy to say something like, “Oh, more of the same,” or “Not much to talk about.” Shut it down quickly and simply.
You also get to decide who you introduce to your friends, when you do it, and under what circumstances.
Keep in mind that sharing information about people you’re dating on social media will invite a lot more questions. It’s also something you should ask your date about before you put up their picture, mention them by name, or tag their account. If you have a very large social media presence or you have public accounts, this is even more important.
I will probably continue to add to this post as more subjects occur to me. There is a lot to consider in the world of online dating, especially if you’re just getting into it. Feel free to add thoughts or questions in the comments below.