Mistakes I’ve Made with Cyber Intimacy And How I Learned to Protect My Heart

person lying on the ground next to a phone and a bouquet of pink flowers

I’ve done it all. Went on countless OKCupid, Tinder and Bumble dates. Met people off of sites like Adult Friend Finder. Dallied with KIK sexting buddies.

And I’ve made a ton of mistakes in the process. Here are five of them, and what I’ve learned about protecting my heart online.

1. I’ve Objectified People

This isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve exchanged pictures with strangers where we’ve intentionally gotten off on each other’s bodies, as well as the thrill of anonymity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with objectification when it’s consensual.

Where it becomes a problem, to me, is when someone is seeking a more holistic connection, you know this, and don’t give it to them.

Especially if you’re looking for casual encounters online, you need to be on the same page with whoever you’re talking to.  But this can be tricky, because  we don’t always know what we truly want and what we’re looking for is subject to change.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone complain that someone they’re talking to or starting to date said they were looking for one thing, but now they seem to have different expectations.

Well, it happens. Our desires are dynamic.

Instead of simply getting upset about this, I try to cut people some slack. And I check in more often about what someone wants. I also check in with myself about what I want. And yes, it changes frequently.

2. I’ve Made LOTS of Assumptions

When I am really interested in someone, I will read into every message they send. It’s easy to do because there’s little else to go on.

In person, there are so many other cues about how people are feeling. Their body language and tone of voice, for instance. Conversations tend to flow easier, as well.

But online, you’re left to make a lot of meaning out of very little. This leads to a lot of assumptions.

I’m guilty of freaking out when someone doesn’t heart my text message when they usually do. Does that mean they didn’t like what I wrote? Are they mad at me?

Another example: They said they’re tired and don’t feel like making plans today, so obviously they’re not really interested in me after all or else they’d rally.

What I’ve learned is to question myself whenever I’m feeling hurt, afraid, offended, etc.  Truth be told, I’m not really perfect at this, but it is a really good practice to develop.

When you catch yourself reading the same text over and over again, ready to screenshot it to a friend, just take a step back. Maybe ask a clarifying question before getting upset.

3. I’ve Dwelled on Silence

Similarly, I am the KING of reading into silence.

It’s been six hours and they haven’t messaged me back, they obviously aren’t interested. 

Notice a pattern here?

When we’re dating online, we’re all looking for people who are interested in us in one way or another. And if you’re looking for something that’s more than a hookup, you’re looking for people who are willing to invest in you.

Putting yourself out there can be really vulnerable!

So the same advice applies here. You have no idea why someone isn’t responding quickly. Cut them some slack and question your assumptions before getting upset.

Of course there are times when someone just stops responding. (Guilty). Once again, it’s unhelpful to dwell over why.

The really really important thing to remember when dating (online or in person) is that no one gets to decide for you what you’re worth. And any amount of rejection does not diminish your worth, your desirability, and your lovability.

When dating and facing rejection, you have to find other ways to shore up your self-confidence and self-worth. Building self-confidence and self-worth are things that most of us will spend our lifetimes working on. That’s normal.

4. I Thought Digital Intimacy Was Safer

Obviously it is physically safer for many reasons. But that can lead us to assume it’s also emotionally safer.

Maybe a little? But the risk of emotional damage is still high.

If you’re craving a genuine connection, you’re still opening yourself up the same way you would if you could touch and smell someone. The desire is still there and that’s what counts.

See, I crave being vulnerable. I love bearing my soul with people. It’s my nature and something my loved ones tend to love about me. But especially when dating online, I can become vulnerable too fast, before people have earned my trust.

In the middle of a flurry of messages on OKCupid, I’ll get caught up in a good conversation and say something that makes me feel vulnerable … And then anxiously wait to see how they’ll respond.

Or worse, I’ll start exchanging pics with someone and sexting because they seem sooo into me, only to be ghosted and left feeling super hurt because we shared something intimate right?

So what’s the solution?

For starters, I’ve found it useful to recognize when I’m becoming vulnerable so that I can consciously make the choice or not to go there.

I recommend learning the signs (for instance, if you’re nervous before sending the message). Then stop and really ask yourself if they’ve earned your vulnerability. Then own your decision and start setting boundaries accordingly.

Personally, I’ve decided that I’m not interested in getting overly sexual or flirty before meeting someone. It can lead them to make the wrong assumptions about what I’m looking for. Even if I’m looking for something casual, I still want our connection to be grounded in mutual respect and the beginnings of a real friendship before jumping in bed. So I save my flirtations for a real date when I can get a read on someone and explain myself well.

You’ll figure out what works for you.

5. I Did It for the Wrong Reasons

You know the sage advice don’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry? Well, don’t start flipping through Tinder when you’re especially lonely or horny.

You might be wondering, isn’t that the point? You’re looking for someone because you’re lonely or haven’t had sex for three months?

Sure, but … are you also working on pleasing yourself and becoming satisfied with your own company?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t date if you’re lonely and horny. But being lonely and horny is the perfect time to really thoroughly investigate why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.

They’re often coverups for larger emotions and general dissatisfaction in life.

I know this from so much experience, I should have a PhD in the subject.

For years, when school or work wasn’t going well, I would seek out people online to make me feel better about myself. I wanted a stranger to offer me attention so that I’d feel sexy and successful. Or at least distract me from the things that weren’t going well in my life.

As a consequence, I put a lot of pressure on a stranger to meet needs that had nothing to do with them.

I’d feel lonely when I was depressed or anxious, which would lead me to feeling horny. My body’s way of telling me that something is wrong, why not seek help? But it wasn’t the kind of help I needed.

So how did I stop this cycle? A lot of self-reflection, therapy, and other self-work.

But the first step is to start questioning why you’re seeking companionship. There’s probably layers of answers to this question, so it might take a while for you to get to the really true reasons.

And please, please, please be gentle with yourself. We were designed to need others. There’s nothing wrong with that. And dating means taking some risks. Letting people in is not easy.

If you’ve had a rough go of things, you should be proud that you’re willing to keep going! Keep making mistakes … it’s the only way to get better at anything, including dating.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.