Special Episode: Returning to Dating After Years Away

The following is the transcript of this podcast episode.:

Jodi: This episode we delve into the topic of returning to dating after years away. Each one of us reacts differently when a romantic relationship comes to an end. Maybe you saw the warning signs, maybe you didn’t? Maybe you were the person who chose to exit, or maybe unforeseen circumstances intervened?

Whether you and …your husband, partner, boyfriend, companion, whoever they were to you – whether the two of you were together anywhere from a few months, to a few decades, it’s usually emotionally painful when the story about the two of you comes to an end.

How we each experience the end of a relationship can land anywhere on the spectrum, from being emotionally debilitating to being liberating or even a relief. Goodness knows, I had my share of breakups. Getting through them, even when I was the one who ended things, was usually tough and it always took time to heal.

You probably know the song “Closing Time” from the late ‘90s, by the band Semisonic. I won’t try to sing it for you. I’d often play that song after the end of a relationship because I really love one line in the lyrics.  The line is…

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Or, to say it a little differently, all endings are also new beginnings. The new beginning – that’s what this episode is about. How you get started dating online, when the time is right for you, and how you get even better at it, if you’d been doing online dating for a while.

Some of you listening are in your late 30s through 50s, and were likely early adopters of online dating sites like Match, eHarmony, Yahoo Personals, Matchmaker, and other early wave online dating sites. If you now find yourself single again, you may be wondering how the heck to master the newer dating app scene? Or perhaps you find yourself an Online Dating Newbie in midlife. You’ve probably heard good stories AND horror stories about what it’s like. Maybe you don’t know where or how to begin.

Well, my guest this episode – Erika Ettin – is a go-to person for people who encounter these online dating challenges each and every day.

Erika is one of the foremost online dating coaches today. She is the founder of A Little Nudge, a consulting company that helps people navigate the world of online dating, from first click to first date. She’s also the author of the book Love at First Site – which is a terrific read — and the co-host of the popular dating podcast So, We Met Online…

Erika studied economics at Cornell University and received her MBA from Georgetown. She started A Little Nudge in 2011 (after a seven-year career as an economist). She is responsible for many relationships, marriages, and the confidence some people simply need to “get out there.”

A Little Nudge has been featured in media around the country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and Good Morning America and we are absolutely delighted to have her as a First Date Stories Featured Contributor.

Welcome Erika and thank you for joining me on this episode to share your online dating wisdom with me and our wonderful listeners.

Erika: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Jodi: Some of our listeners were married or in long-term relationships that started well before online dating began in the ’90s. This is all new to them. Others may have experience with early online dating before the apps like Tinder ushered in the whole swiping era.

But everybody who’s listening has a similar goal, and it’s to meet a loving partner. For those women who have no online dating experience, how should they go about getting started? I’m asking especially for the women who find this whole thing really mysterious and scary or just intimidating.

Erika: So first of all, I’m glad you know that online dating started in the ’90s. Some people don’t realize that it started that early. Match.com came out in the mid-90s. JDate, if you’re looking for a Jewish partner, came out in ’97. OkCupid, early 2000s. So online dating has been around a long time. Tinder didn’t come out till 2012.

There’s a long time between when online dating came out and when the dating apps came out. So now things have really been shaken up. It’s a great question, “How do you start online dating?” If you’ve never done it before, it can be daunting. And everyone has either a love story or a horror story to share. First, I would say, as weird as this sound, try to take everyone’s story with a grain of salt because people love sharing the extremes. It’s like the news, right? You never see the mediocre news. That’s not news.

Jodi: True.

Listen to the Podcast

Erika: Someone is rescuing a kitten from a tree — that’s the feel good — or something terrible. So most dates are somewhere in the middle, right? But people love sharing their love stories, as they should, and they love sharing their bad date stories because they make for good stories. Just remember that it’s just another tool to use to meet people. A lot of people don’t see online dating as the same as meeting someone in person, but the reality of it is it’s just a tool to get you to meet somebody in person. So you’re still going on a first date just like you would in any other circumstance. You’re just using a different tool to get there.

I would say, if you’ve never done online dating before, the first thing is to think about what your goals are when you’re doing online dating. Are you looking for a long-term relationship? Are you looking to just get some dating experience? There are no right and wrong answers in terms of what your goals are. But it’s really helpful to figure out what you’re looking for, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for before you start. And that will help guide you in terms of what online dating site you want to be on.

I tell my clients, for example, “Go in an online dating site that you have to pay for if you’re looking for something more serious.” What are the paid sites? The biggest are Match.com and eHarmony. That way you know people have skin in the game. They’ve put their credit card number in. They have a credit card and they’re somewhat invested at least financially in the process. That’s not to say there aren’t people on any of the free sites who aren’t looking for something serious. But it’s a decent way to weed out people who aren’t going to put any time into it.

Other than that, make sure you’re ready to do online dating because online dating is fairly time consuming. I can’t sugarcoat it. The fact is that there are amazing things about online dating, and there are frustrations about online dating. You will get messages from people who are of no interest to you. I don’t want that to bring you down. Just be ready for this process. Know that it can bring great things, but you have to put the work in to get there. And when I say put the work in, make sure you’re marketing yourself well. Make sure your profile is representative of you or interesting. Make sure your pictures feel really good to you. You don’t want to put up a bunch of selfies where you’d feel meh. You want to feel great in your pictures and then of course that’s only half the battle.

You also have to be proactive about the online dating process. Sometimes people will come to me and say, “Online dating doesn’t work.” And I’ll push back and say, “Well, what site are you on? What are you doing?” And usually it’s, “Oh, I put a profile up and that’s all I did.” Well, of course, it doesn’t work. You pay for the gym, if you don’t set foot in there, you’re not going to meet your health goals, right?

Jodi: Right!

Erika: It’s the same thing with online dating. You have to put up something you’re proud that is representative of you that puts your best foot forward and you have to actually be proactive about the process. Proactive means, depending on which site you’re on, either reaching out to people or swiping on people, communicating with people and actually setting up dates.

Jodi: I know, as you probably do as well, some smart, accomplished women who are single again in midlife. The thing is that they are really reluctant to do online dating because they’re concerned that someone they know professionally will see their profile and that will impact how other people perceive them. What would you say to these women?

Erika: I would say it will impact how others perceive you, but not in the way you think. People will see you and say, “Good for her! She’s using all of her resources.” If somebody is seeing you on there, it means that that person is on there too. There’s no shame in using the tools available to you to meet somebody.

But that said, make sure you’re proud of what you’re putting out there. Make sure you’re putting up pictures that you feel good about. I recommend five pictures. What should they be? A clear shot of your face, a full body shot so people can see what you look like, a picture of you doing something interesting that might generate questions, and then just two other pictures that showcase who you are.

Make sure your profile is unique, that it doesn’t just say generic things like, “I love to laugh and have fun. I’m just as comfortable in a little black dress as I am jeans and a T-shirt. Basically I like to go out and I like to stay in.”

Who can’t say all of those things? Right? Just make sure, as long as you have a great profile pictures, the only thing people can think is, “Good for her. She looks great.” That’s it.

Honestly, people are so into thinking about themselves, they’re not paying attention to you. Everyone is so into, “What are people thinking of me?” I wouldn’t worry too much about what other people think because why should other people’s opinion stop you from putting yourself out there?

Jodi: Exactly. If you want to find a partner, then you need to do things to meet that person and online dating is one of the most effective and efficient ways to do that these days.

Erika: Exactly. And do I think online dating is the best way? Nothing is the best way. The best way is the way you meet someone. I just believe in using all of the tools that are available and accessible to you. And then if you are going to do online dating, my job is to make sure you’re doing it as efficiently and successfully as possible.

Jodi: Let’s talk about the tool aspect of it. Maybe this is a semantics thing, but I’m curious about the difference between online dating sites and dating apps. Is there a difference?

Erika: Well, practically speaking, the difference is that on the sites you log in, generally on your laptop, although they all have apps associated with them. Whereas on the apps they’re only accessible on your phone. The apps are more, for lack of a better word, superficial. It’s more based on the picture than anything else on the apps, whereas the sites that you can access on your computer, they allow for more writing. You can read more about people.

So if someone is like me, for example, I am a writer. I like to see how people write, make sure they can put a sentence together, right? On sites like Match.com or eHarmony or OkCupid, where a longer profile is available, that can tell you a lot about a person. But if you know you’re never going to log in on your computer and you’re only going to open your phone, then the dating apps are really convenient and efficient.

People ask me all the time, “Do different people flock to different sites or apps?” And the reality is no. You’re going to find great, and not so great people, on every site. It’s not like Bumble has a certain class of people or eHarmony has a different class. Not like that at all. Any site you’re on, whether it’s an app on your phone or a site that you can access on your computer, you still have to weed through people because you will find people who are not appropriate for you and appropriate for you on any site. What do you think you’re going to put the time into? Those are the sites I would do.

People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite site?” My favorite site is the one you’re proactive on. I generally recommend doing two sites. So anything more than that can get a little bit overwhelming. I’ve seen people sometimes with 10 apps on their phone and they’ll open one, get overwhelmed and shut them and then never do anything. I recommend two sites, maybe three if you’re really on top of things. But that way you can be proactive at both sites and it’s not too overwhelming.

Jodi: Do you recommend a combination if you don’t know if you want a dating app or an online site? Do one of each?

Erika: I will say, I do have a lot of my clients that are on a combination of Match.com and Bumble, or OkCupid and Bumble, or Match or OkCupid and Hinge. That way, it’s one site where you can write a longer profile and one app where it’s easier and that it’s on your phone, but it’s a shorter profile and you won’t learn as much about people.

Jodi: When you’re looking through profiles you’re personally looking for whether somebody can write, and everybody is looking at pictures. Are there other things that the listeners should be aware of as they are scrolling or swiping through all of those faces?

Erika: Everything is a matter of preference. So everyone has different things they’re looking for in a partner. I’m not usually negative. However, I’m going to say a few things that are red flags in a profile. So a red flag is if someone is really negative in the profile. I’m not looking for this. I’m not looking for that, instead of what they are looking for. That’s somebody I would not select. If someone doesn’t write a profile, how invested is that person in the process? That’s not someone I would choose. If someone only has one picture, why? Don’t they have any other pictures? That is not somebody I would choose. Obviously, if they rant about an ex, that’s a problem.

Jodi: Yes.

Erika: There are few things there that you can think about. But in general, I can’t tell people what to look for, of course. But on most for the dating sites now and apps, they do allow you to answer questions, like demographic questions like location, height, religion, political preferences, things like that. So that way you can search by those criteria. On Bumble, for example, for free without upgrading, you can use two search criteria.

Maybe religion and level of education are important to you. You can search by those two things. If you upgrade, you search by more things. But that way you’re already sort of getting out of the way, things that are important to you. You can do that on Hinge too. You can sort by anything you want on Match, and most of the sites where you log in on your computer. That way you’re sort of already narrowing it down to people who fit what you’re looking for.

Now don’t go crazy with these search criteria. Just because you can search for something it doesn’t mean you have to. I mean they don’t have it anymore, but Match.com used to have a search button by eye color and hair color. I mean that is ridiculous.

Jodi: That is going overboard, for sure.

Erika: You’re not ordering a pizza. You’re looking for a partner.

Jodi: Right.

Erika: Some people are bothered by grammar mistakes. Some aren’t. I can’t tell you what to do there. Some people like when someone says their political preferences in the text of their profile. Some don’t. Again, I can’t tell you what to do there. You need to know what’s the most important to you. But really basic things, you can generally search for through what I call just checkbox questions.

Jodi: When I was in the midst of all of that, I looked at online dating as a job.

Erika: Which sites were you on?

Jodi: I was on Match. I was on eHarmony. Now we’re going way back…I was on Matchmaker.

Erika: Oh, I know Matchmaker.

Jodi: It hasn’t been around in quite a while. That was another one. I did OkCupid briefly and I did Coffee and Bagel.

Erika: Coffee Meets Bagel. Yeah.

Jodi: Right, Coffee Meets Bagel. Yes. I did all of those. I didn’t do them simultaneously. I would go on to one at a time, get off of it, go on another, get off of it, and on and on.

Erika: Not a lot of people do that.

Jodi: Right.

Erika: A lot of people get fed up and then delete everything and then a week later they’re like, “I’ll download them all again.” Remember, this is not an all or nothing thing. You’re going to have some good experiences, and some bad. I will say no one person represents an entire dating site. I get all the time from people, “Oh, I went out with this terrible person from Bumble. I hate Bumble.” Well, no. You hate that person. That person doesn’t represent Bumble. That person should not dictate your future dating experience on Bumble. So just keep that in mind because people tend to generalize a lot about a site based on who they’ve met.

Jodi: I get it. Just because you have this negative association with the person that extends to negative feelings about how you met them.

Erika: Right. And it doesn’t mean that online dating is bad. It just means you got a bad egg.

Jodi: Exactly. What I found to be more of an issue was when sites didn’t have enough men. It was more of the problem that the pool wasn’t as large, or as relevant to, what I was looking for.

Erika: Very diplomatically said.

Jodi: Yes. I would go off sometimes and then come back on later and then the number of guys that were on the site would have changed over time. So that’s got to be an issue always with these different platforms and these different apps.

Erika: Absolutely. I mean if you find that you’re seeing the same people over and over again, switch site. That’s not a big deal. I will say a lot of people also generalize about the “quality” of people and the site, like I’ll have clients say to me, “Oh, the quality of people on fill-in-the-blank site is not good.” Well, no. You’re on that site and you’re good quality. So again, it takes work. It takes filtering through. For every person who’s not for you, you’ll find a person who is interesting to you.

Jodi: Yeah.

Erika: So we cannot generalize about the quality. That’s a huge pet peeve of mine. I get really annoyed when clients say that to me.

Jodi: You’re absolutely right and that’s really good perspective that you share. So being on these sites like we said, it requires you dedicate time. So how much time a week let’s say do you suggest that people spend? Not going on dates but just scrolling, answering, all of that. Do you have a suggestion?

Erika: I don’t have a specific time. However, I do have some rules of thumb if you’re doing the dating app, I call it my “Five or Fifty Rule.” So let’s say you’re on a site like Tinder or Bumble where you’re swiping, or even Hinge. I recommend stopping at the sooner of five or fifty. What do I mean? Okay. You’re swiping, swiping, swiping. You get five matches. Stop swiping. Write to all five people. And then see what happens. Or if you don’t get five matches, stop swiping at 50 people because it can be an addiction at a certain point. You got to stop.

The goal is not to collect matches. The goal is not to swipe all day. The goal is to go on dates. Once you get those five matches, write to all of them. And on Bumble, the woman does have to write first. And let’s say of those five, two write back, which would actually be very good. Response rates are not great. Why? Sometimes my female clients ask me, “Well, I don’t understand. We matched. Why didn’t he write back?”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but women use more discretion when swiping than men do. You see the first picture, you don’t like it, everybody swipes left. Fine. Whereas women, we like the first picture, we then look at the rest of the pictures. We look to see what the person has written. We take the whole thing into account. This is a generalization. But men often, if they like the first picture, they’ll just swipe right just to see if it’s a match then maybe, maybe later they’ll go back and look at your actual profile. And so it’s unfortunate but given that many men do use less discretion, sometimes they’re not actually interested even if you’ve matched. So I hate to say that, but it’s true.

Jodi: You’re being very honest with everybody listening. That’s so helpful.

Erika: Yeah. You write to your five people, let’s say two write back. Of those two, let’s say you’re able to turn one into a date, and I don’t recommend talking for too long on the dating app before scheduling your date because ultimately you don’t know if you’re chemistry until you meet. If one out of every five matches is turning into a date, that’s a great ratio.

Again, the goal is not to collect matches and write incessantly or not write to any of them. The goal is to get dates. That’s why I recommend the “Five or Fifty Rule.” I don’t have a prescribed, “You should be doing online dating for X number of minutes or hours a day or a week.” I would focus more on the outcome. Are you lining up dates, and do online dating with that outcome in mind and stop when you have dates?

Jodi: I think that makes a ton of sense and “Five or Fifty Rule” is a really great framing, a really great guideline for everybody.

Erika: One more rule. A lot of people on the dating apps or sites will say, “It’s so annoying to talk on the app. Here’s my number,” or, “What’s your number? Let’s text instead.” I call texting where dates go to die, because inevitably someone drops the ball, someone says something that gets misinterpreted or someone just keep sending like, “Hi. How’s your day? What’s up?”

This is anecdotal because it’s not statistically significant, because I am a former economist, but 60 percent chance you’re not going on that date once you convert to text. So I always recommend scheduling the actual date on the app and then only exchanging numbers a day before for contingencies.

Jodi: The country is currently practicing social distancing because of the coronavirus. As we distance ourselves physically, people are finding great and creative ways to take things online and to do things in the digital world that are social. Online dating is already in the digital world. I’m wondering what you’re seeing and what you’re thinking about how this reality is playing out and what it means for online dating?

Erika: It’s interesting because when people can’t go out, they are drawn to the online dating sites because what else are they doing. Right? So online dating usage has gone way up. Same is true for bad weather, right? Basically you’re stuck inside, online dating usage goes up. But you can’t go out to meet people. So what do you do? On the one hand, you could just stop using online dating knowing that you can’t meet people any time soon and use the time to your advantage to better yourself, to make sure you’re ready, all of that.

Or do online dating. I wouldn’t do it to just chitchat with people all day and all night. I would have an end goal. But in this case we can’t have a date. So is that end goal a phone call? Is it a FaceTime or a Zoom or a video date? Under normal circumstances, I do not recommend phone calls before a date because ultimately you don’t know if you’re chemistry with someone until you meet in person and it’s too easy to dismiss someone based on something on the call.

An end goal in this weird time can be a phone call or a video chat. But if you are going to do that, make sure you’re still putting your best foot forward as you would on a first date. I’ve heard horror stories of someone showing up to their FaceTime date wearing pajamas and a ripped T-shirt. No, it’s still a first impression. So gosh, darn it, clean up your house. Put your phone at an angle so that someone is not looking up your nostrils. Treat this as the same first impression you’d be making on someone on a date. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can do things to at least stay connected with them. But if that’s not your cup of tea, it’s okay to take a little hiatus from the dating sites until we can actually go meet someone again. In taking that hiatus, do something for yourself to make yourself a better dater when it is time.

Jodi: Wonderful strategies for the listeners to put in motion. I’m thinking about when women look through dating apps or on the dating sites and they’re looking at profiles of men who are roughly the same age as them, especially as women come into midlife, I think they’re often going to encounter what I’m calling “age inequity, which is that the women are going to see that a lot of these men are looking for women who are not the same age as the ladies are.

Erika: Yes, unfortunately.

Jodi: Yeah. They’re looking for women who are 10 to 20 years younger than them and it really throws you for a loop. It certainly did for me. I was dating this guy in my mid-30s and when our relationship ended, well, a while after our relationship ended, I went online and I saw that he…

Erika: What range was he looking for?

Jodi: Okay, 18 to 25 years old. I was disgusted. I was shocked and I know I’m not alone in this experience. So, what do you say to women?

Erika: If someone has their age range settings so far below their own age, that is not someone I would bother with because that’s not someone for you.

Jodi: Well, it was someone for me in that case…

Erika: Well, it was.

Jodi: It was. But yes.

Erika: It is unfortunate. I don’t know what to say about that. There are statistics on that. Did you ever read the book Dataclysm: Who We Are When No One’s Looking?

Jodi: No.

Erika: It was written by one of the core founders of OkCupid and it basically broke down all of the data from OkCupid. Sad as this is, the data showed that as women get older, we find men around our own age attractive. As we get older, we find the similar age attractive to us. Whereas men, pretty much cap out around like mid-20s. So it’s very sad.

Jodi: Yes.

Erika: But if you see someone online with what you deem as an inappropriate age range that they’re looking for, I would not waste your time on that person. There are plenty of men who are looking close to their own age. It does take a little extra searching and I wish I had better advice for that. I wish there were a way around that. But unfortunately, it does get harder for women as we get older because men often are looking for someone younger. It takes a little more digging to find the men who are looking for someone age appropriate.

Jodi: These same women are likely to hear from men who are 5, 10, 15 years older than them. So how should they handle that?

Erika: Say to yourself, “Oh, that’s flattering. Delete.” If that person is not for you, it’s fine. What you shouldn’t think is, “Why am I attracting this type of person?” Good for you. People think you’re great. But I have a lot of female clients come to me and say, “I don’t understand why I’m only attracting these older men.” Well, because there’s no barrier to writing to you. It’s not what you’re attracting.

Most people have success in online dating when they are the ones to reach out to somebody else. Any relationship I’ve personally ever had from an online dating site, I have been the one to express interest first, because sometimes you just have to go for what you want.

Jodi: Hear that listeners? Go for it!

Erika: Don’t base your experience on who’s writing to you because you’ll get frustrated very quickly.

Jodi: What you’re saying is the dynamic that men need to start the chase is no longer the case. I realize Bumble was created to change that dynamic. Women can absolutely make the first move and the results can be really positive and lead to meaningful, loving relationships.

Erika: Of course. You’re not setting a precedent that you’re the alpha or anything if you’re reaching out to express your interest. You’re simply letting someone know that you exist. That’s it. As a woman, of course, it’s nice to feel pursued. I like to feel pursued. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t at least express interest in someone who’s interesting to me.

Jodi: Fabulous! I have one final question. Why do you believe so much in online dating?

Erika: Well, as I said earlier, do I think it’s the only the best way to meet someone? Not necessarily. However you meet someone is the best way for you. But I’m all about using the tools that are available to you. And if you are to use online dating, what I want to make sure is that you’re using it efficiently, successfully. You’re marketing yourself well and you’re not churning. You’re doing online dating with the goal of meeting people. So, it’s not that I am shouting from the rooftop, “I love online dating.” It’s more making people better at using that tool.

Jodi: You are a coach and guide to help them be their best selves and present their best selves.

Erika: Exactly! You’re not going to go to a job interview and have a messy resume and show up like a schlub. Of course not. It’s the same thing.

Jodi: And now that you’ve shared all of this with us, the listeners can absolutely up their game and feel more confident in the way they present themselves and the way they handle themselves setting up that first date.

Earlier on I mentioned your book, which is called Love at First Site. Site is spelled S-I-T-E, which is very clever. Listeners can buy your terrific book on Amazon or in the Shop at FirstDateStories.com. I want to mention that as well that you are a co-host of your own podcast called, So We Met Online…, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, or wherever people get their podcast.

I know you offer a free phone consultation. Can you say some more about the other services you provide and how our listeners can get a hold of you and learn more about you?

Erika: Sure. I do offer a free phone consultation for anyone who’s thinking about working with me or if you just have any questions. I do everything from helping you market yourself, like we talked about….writing your profile, helping choose pictures, all the way up to managing your online dating for you, so all you have to do is go on your date.

I coach clients throughout the process much of what we talked about to understand why this strategy is not working, what can we do better. So anything in the realm of online dating is what I do. You can go to my website, ALittleNudge.com, and that should explain everything further. And then again, if you do want to set up a consultation call, I have a calendar on my website where you can just sign up right there.

Jodi: Thank you so much, Erika, for demystifying online dating and for providing such valuable insights and guidance. I’ve had a lot of fun talking with you on the show today.

Erika: Me too. Thank you so much for having me!

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

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