Dating services have been around for decades, but it's only been in the past 6 or 7 years that they've really taken off online. Here are a few tips we've cobbled together that should help you safely navigate what is, for many, new online terrain.
Staying Anonymous for Awhile
Most online dating services use a double-blind system to allow members to exchange correspondence between each other. This allows members to communicate, but without knowing each other's email addresses or other identifying personal information. It's best to use the dating service's internal, secure messaging system until you feel as though you know the person to some degree. This ensures that when you do run into the inevitable creep online, you remain anonymous and safe.
Prince (or Princess) Charming may very well indeed be waiting for you online, but you should also set your expectations just a little bit lower. Most of your dates will turn out to be duds. That's just the statistics! So it helps prepare yourself if you remember that going into the online dating process. Don't believe that everyone who shows interest in you is worth your time. And don't get disenchanted if your first date decides they don't want a second. It's easy to believe they are rejecting you personally, but it's for the best. After all, you're looking for a good, mutual match, not someone to swoon over. (But hey, if you find someone to swoon over, that's cool too!)
Being realistic also means setting realistic expectations about geography. The Internet allows us to search for and communicate with people from all over the world, regardless of their proximity to us. Unfortunately, that makes a real dating relationship difficult once you have to translate it into the real world. So if you're not willing to fly to Paris to meet Mr. Frenchie, then don't look for anybody outside of your local community. Keep in mind, that 50 mile drive for the first date might seem like no big deal, but imagine doing that multiple times a week if things got serious. It can (and has) been done, but know what you're getting yourself into beforehand.
Use Common Sense
It's funny I have to write those words, but they are just so important. We sometimes feel like we've made an "instant connection" online with someone we've only just met. Some of that feeling is a result of the disinhibition that's a part of being anonymous on the Internet today. So go slowly with new contacts and get to know the person via messaging and emails first. Then proceed to phone calls if you still feel safe, attracted, and curious. Finally, setup a first date when the time is right.
Don't agree to do something just because it sounds like fun or exciting if it's really not you. The point of online dating isn't to reinvent yourself or to try out everything new under the sun. It's to find someone you're most compatible with, which means being yourself. So while it may sound romantic to agree to fly off to the Bahamas on a moment's notice with someone you barely know, it isn't very good common sense to do so. Keep your wits and instincts about you.
Proceed Slowly and Listen to Your Instinct
As I wrote above, you need to take things slowly, even when it seems or feels right immediately, or the other person is pressuring you into meeting more fast than you are comfortable with. Take things at your pace. If the other person is a good match for you, then they will not only understand your pace, but will often mirror it! Always talk to the other person by telephone at least once before agreeing to meet for your first date. Ask for a photo (if they didn't provide one in their profile) so that you can be assured of meeting the right person. Be on the lookout for inconsistencies in their history or any stories they tell you of their life, background, or growing up. Ask informative questions of the other person to ensure they match what and who they say they are in their profile.
Don't feel the need to give out your phone number if you're not comfortable doing so. Instead, ask for theirs and remember to put in the code for blocking caller ID before making the call. There's no need to be paranoid about your privacy, but at the same time, it is wise to take simple precautions that will ensure you remain safe until you are completely comfortable. Some people also use a cell phone or even a public pay phone to ensure their potential match can't get their home telephone number. Do what feels best and right for you.
Remember, you don't have to meet everyone you communicate with online. Some people will obviously not be right for you and you can politely say so before ever progressing to a phone call or first date. Online dating empowers you to make choices that are right for you. So feel free to make those choices, even if you are typically unuse to doing so.
First Dates Should Be in Public
This is a no-brainer, but sometimes, even the obvious needs to be said. Never agree to meet at the other person's place or to pick them up. Agree to meet in a public place. Most people find a restaurant is ideal, as it gives you both something else to concentrate on from time to time to break up the awkward moments. It also ensures that both parties are on their best behavior, while still allowing you the opportunity to see how your match behaves in a public situation. Be an astute observer during that first date, and don't drink too much (if you drink at all). The purpose of a first date is to not only see if there is a mutual attraction, but to learn more about the other person in their own words and see how they communicate their intentions non-verbally. By paying attention to all of these cues and information, you will learn a lot more about your match.
If you need to travel to another location on the date, always take your own car or transportation. Always arrange for backup transportation (e.g., a friend) if you've relied on public transportation for a meeting. Let a friend or two know that you'll be out on a date and if possible, have your cell phone with you at all times, on and charged. (If you don't own a cell phone, ask to borrow a friend's for the evening, or purchase an inexpensive pay-as-go type from your local Wal-Mart or Best Buy). You hope these are mostly unnecessary precautions, but better safe than sorry.
Be on the Lookout for Red Flags
Not everyone has similar morals or outlooks on life as you do. Some folks can do a pretty good job at hiding their true agenda, even if you've followed most of these tips. First dates (and second dates and even third dates) are for people to be on their best behavior, so you may not always see the "true self" behind the person you're sitting across from. Sometimes, though, people can't be on their good behavior for that long and signs begin to appear. Look for:
- Avoids answering directly to questions, especially those about issues that are important to you. It's okay if people joke about their answer, but eventually they need to get around to answering the question or explain why they feel uncomfortable doing so.
- Demeaning or disrespectful comments about you or other people. How your match treats others can be a telling sign into their future behaviors.
- Inconsistent information about any basics, especially anything within their profile. This especially includes marital status, children, employment, where they are living, but also things such as age, appearance, education, career or the like
- Is nothing like the way they describe themselves in their online profile.
- Physically inappropriate or unwanted behavior (e.g., touching, kissing).
- Pushes quickly to meet in person.
- Avoids phone contact.
Be Sexually Responsible
Inevitably, some online dating is going to lead to a sexual relationship. This is not the time to start being coy. Know your partners' sexual background by asking direct, frank questions about the number of partners he or she has been with, whether protection was always used, how well they knew the people (was it mostly serious relationships or just one night flings?), and whether they have any known sexually transmitted diseases. Yes, it's not easy to talk about these sorts of things, but it's important to do so before your first night in bed. When in doubt, definitely use a condom.
If you've made the decision to date long-distance, make a note of it in your profile. Since travel is usually expensive for most people, be realistic about your ability to see the other person. Ensure you feel completely comfortable with the other person before making your first trip to see them. If possible, make all of your travel plans yourself and arrange to stay at a hotel. Get a rental car if you need to get around town with your date. Avoid making dates at your hotel's restaurant or having your match meet you at your hotel. Only after you've met and feel completely comfortable should you share such information with the other person. While some of this may seem a bit silly at first, you need to protect yourself until you are certain the other person is legitimate and you are comfortable with them.
Remember, you're the only person you have to answer to at the end of the day. If you don't feel comfortable in any particular situation, that doesn't mean you're a bad person or you're not ready for dating. It simply means that you're not comfortable with the other person in this situation. You don't need to apologize for needing to leave a date or anytime you feel you are in a threatening situation. Your safety should always be something that is on your mind throughout the entire dating process. Relax your guard when you've met the person face-to-face and feel entirely comfortable with who they are and how they relate to you and those around you.
As the old saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Don't pin all of your hopes on one person, until you're sure your feelings are returned. Keep an open mind, an open heart, and most of all, your common sense.