11 Online Dating Rules For Actually Finding A Relationship, From Experts

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Young Woman Checking Her Phone In The Morning With a Cup of Coffee

Online dating—aka meeting people through dating apps and websites—can feel like an overwhelming, chaotic mess when you jump in for the first time, and it can be disappointing when you don't connect with anyone right away. But trust the process: Committed couples are meeting each other online all the time these days, and as many as a third of U.S. marriages start online now. So it's worth giving it the ol' college try.

If you're new to dating apps or just looking for advice on how to navigate the process with more success, here are a few online dating rules to keep in mind:

1. Know what you want.

Online dating works best when you actually know what you're looking for. Are you interested in finding a committed relationship? Or are you more interested in casual dating and sex? Or maybe you're just looking to meet interesting new people?

Set a clear intention for what you're looking for. It may even be helpful to sit down beforehand and journal a little bit about what kind of relationship you want and who would be the ideal person to do that with. That way, you can be thoughtful as you evaluate people's profiles and decide whether to swipe right (connect) or swipe left (pass) on someone. Focus on matching with people who actually align with your dating goals.

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2. Write a profile that mirrors what you want.

Put some thought into your profile! If you're mostly looking for fun and laughs, a short and witty profile might be perfect. If you're looking for a deeper connection with someone, write a longer and more thoughtful profile that showcases who you are, what you like to do and think about, and what kind of person you want to invite into your life.

Relationship therapist Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, notes that it's OK if your profile doesn't speak to everyone. "Write a selective and well-tailored profile," she writes at mbg.

3. Use clear photos of your face, ideally smiling.

It's good to have a variety of photos of yourself on your dating profile. Make sure your face is clearly visible, and don't make the first photo a group shot where it's not clear which person is you. Smiling photos tend to appeal to most people—it makes you seem approachable and fun. If possible, showcase some of your personality in the photos too: a shot of you laughing, a shot of you outdoors if you love nature, or a shot of you in PJs with a decaf coffee if that's your ideal Friday night.

"Make sure that your photos are current and realistic," Milrad adds.

4. Send messages freely.

People can sometimes be shy when they first start online dating, not wanting to send any messages out or respond to any of the messages that come in. But you're not going to meet anyone until you actually engage. Sending someone a message does not mean you automatically want to date them; think of it more like starting a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you at the coffee shop.

So message anyone that tickles your fancy, and do respond to any messages that are interesting to you or from someone that intrigues you. (Some dating apps will only let you message people when you've already matched or indicated interest in each other, which is all the more reason to reach out once that happens! You already know there's mutual interest.)

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5. Write an interesting opener.

When you message someone for the first time, don't just say, "Hi" or, "Hey, what's up?" Make it engaging! Show that you've read their profile by commenting on something they've written or about a specific photo of theirs, or better yet, ask a question based on it. You can also ask something specific about shared collective experiences—an upcoming holiday, the unpredictability of the pandemic, or something specific to your city.

6. Don't bother with people who aren't interested in you.

If someone doesn't respond to your first message or two, leave them alone. They probably haven't checked the app and will see your messages when they get back on, or they've seen your messages and simply aren't interested. Respect their time and accept their rejection.

"There are a million possible reasons that person didn't write back, and 99.9% of the time, that has nothing to do with your attractiveness and value as a person," dating coach Andi Forness writes at mbg. Move along! There are plenty of fish in this online sea.

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7. Don't bite off more than you can chew.

Some people struggle to turn people down and end up getting lost in endless conversations with a bunch of people, all of whom they feel lukewarm about. This isn't productive either—it can lead to what Milrad calls dating app burnout, where you're sinking a ton of time and energy into the process, talking to a million people at once, and not really deeply connecting with a single one of them.

"Set a limit for how many people you will be dating at once. It is difficult and time-consuming to manage the dating process with multiple people," Milrad says. "If you start to feel consumed, exhausted, or discouraged, take a break. Delete all your apps and cleanse for at least 30 days. It's OK to take a break every once in a while. It doesn't mean you've given up completely. You're just giving yourself a chance to reset."

8. Be honest and transparent.

Let people get to know you! Get into real conversations with people, ask them about their lives, and tell them about yours. Authenticity and vulnerability are what will help you form real relationships.

Be sure to also talk about what you want from dating and what kind of potential relationship you'd be interested in having. It's important to be transparent: If someone says they're interested in getting married in the next year when that's nowhere on your radar, tell them that. If someone says they're just looking for something casual, don't play along hoping to trick them into a relationship—you're just going to get yourself hurt or cause unnecessary drama for the other person.

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9. Meet up as soon as you feel comfortable.

People can get trapped in an endless text conversation that goes on and on for weeks, never moving it into real life or waiting so long to go on the date that it puts unnecessary pressure on it to go perfectly. It's also easy to sink weeks into texting and messaging someone regularly only to realize there's no chemistry in person when you finally go on the date.

"You want to be face-to-face with someone as quickly as possible. That's how you figure out physical attraction and body language," former eHarmony CEO Grant Langston once told mbg. "You're not here for a pen pal. Once you've figured that out, just go and have that cup of coffee or go on that walk."

A first date doesn't have to be a big thing, by the way—it can just be a short walk or even a video date.

10. Define the relationship.

Once you've been going on dates and talking to someone for a while, start having conversations to define the relationship. That doesn't mean you need to immediately jump into an exclusive commitment; it just means talking openly about why you're spending time together and how you each see the relationship progressing.

Here's some questions and inspo for what to say:

  • Are you looking for a long-term, committed relationship right now?
  • How do you see us and what we're doing right now?
  • Right now I'm enjoying getting to know you, and I'm liking what we're doing so far. I'm not quite ready to label it yet, but I could see this turning into a relationship if things keep going well. What do you think?
  • Are you seeing other people right now?

This can certainly be scary, but it'll save you from sinking time into something that you see as a potential relationship when the other person is not on the same page. In general, dating tends to be more successful when people are willing to be vulnerable, says sexologist and sex coach Gigi Engle.

"You can't have real relationships and meaningful connections without vulnerability," she writes. "At the end of the day, it's about allowing yourself to take an emotional leap of faith and risk getting hurt in the name of finding real love."

11. Be patient.

These things take time. You might not meet someone for your first couple months of online dating, and that's OK. There's a whole culture around dating apps that might take some time for you to adjust to, and if you haven't dated in a while, dating itself is a process that takes some time to warm and ease into. Be patient, keep engaging, and stay positive. If you need to take a break for some time, do that and come back when you're ready to dive in again.

And don't forget to have fun! That's what dating's all about.

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