Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

I seemed to miss the whole “Ring by Spring” phenomena. How does one find a significant other post-college (post Calvin, if you will…)? I’m thinking about trying online dating, but find myself a bit overwhelmed by the number of options out there. Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, Match, OKCupid…??? The list goes on and on. Any advice?

Single by Spring(le)

Dear Single,

Let us begin by acknowledging that of everything that can be said about dating, the opposite is (almost always) also true. Let it also be said that there are no “standard” relationships, or paths to relationships, from which one might extract guiding principles. One navigates the chaos of the dating world 87.3 percent by guesswork and happenstance.

And with that caveat, we may begin.

I, Katie, married a Calvin boy. We technically started dating after college—and then promptly moved to different continents (note: I do not recommend this strategy)—but we did meet in college. Therefore, to expand the pool of expertise addressing this critical question, I have enlisted Brenna Case, my dear friend and the recipient of all my unsolicited dating advice. She is both an excellent counterpoint and an online dating savant.

I, Brenna, am worried that ‘savant’ might give the impression that I’m now snugly settled with someone I met online… which Single by Spring(le) should know up front is not the case. But I’ve been on and off dating apps for nearly three years now, so I have many opinions and I guess that qualifies as expertise?

Katie: this is the internet. Opinions definitely qualify as expertise.

Brenna: excellent, then let’s talk apps.

First thing to know: there’s no silver bullet. People on OKCupid are not categorically wittier than people on Hinge, and people on Bumble are not hotter than people on Coffee Meets Bagel—in fact, if you’ve got more than one profile, you’ll likely bump into the same people on different apps. You may find more marriage-ready folks on subscription sites like Match and eHarmony, and presumably some farmers on Farmers Only, but from my experience, it’s tough to differentiate dating apps based on who uses what.

I’ve found it more helpful to think about how I want the work (and it IS work) of online dating to affect my day-to-day reality. Swipe apps like Bumble and Hinge are CRAZY addictive because they’re designed as games. Okcupid is a data dump, with all the pros and cons that go with it (you can spend a loooong time on a single profile). If you’re feeling paralyzed by sheer quantity, Coffee Meets Bagel is easier to put down once you get through the daily lineup of Suggested Matches.

But figuring out which app to use is not as important as figuring out how you want to approach online dating. Some Basic Guidelines:

  • Whenever possible, be compassionate to the people you come across. Putting yourself out there is a scary, vulnerable thing: if you feel intimidated, chances are the people you’re chatting with have similar feelings.
  • Be compassionate to yourself, too. Know your limits and your boundaries and stick up for yourself. If you’re not ready to take a conversation offline, you don’t have to give out your number, or agree to a date.
  • DO IT WITH FRIENDS! It is way less stressful when you have someone like Katie to brainstorm pick-up lines with. You will also occasionally need someone to talk some sense into you:

The dispiriting reality of online dating is that typically, it’s a marathon rather than a sprint. One of my former roommates was online for five years before she met her partner; another was on for three. Saying “don’t give up/just keep swimming” sounds trite and I’d punch anyone who said it to me, personally, so I will not say it to you.

Here’s what I’ve got instead: it is my fervent belief that there’s more to online dating than ending up with someone. My experience has not yet produced a life partner, but there have been other pleasant outcomes, such as:

  • Found a good boba place in Raleigh, which I did not think possible
  • Was eventually cajoled into watching The Great British Baking Show and fine, I am big enough to admit that it is as great as every single guy said it would be
  • Learned a lot about the North Carolina Democratic Party, urban planning in New York City, and the finer points of snail-based marine biology via dating very interesting people
  • Can rest easier at night knowing that because of my own online cajoling, a couple of guys have now read Gilead or Lila and the world is incrementally better for it

It is so hard, in the midst of it, to see online dating as anything other than a means to an end—but it became much more palatable for me once I began to understand it as a life stage in its own right, full of the sort of curiosities and quirks and pangs that make any experience meaningful. I’m coming to terms with being a person who’s been on dozens of first dates, who’s had the “do you want kids? do I want kids? do we want the same things?” conversation more than once, who’s cultivated a whole working theology on How to Break Up Well just from doing it so many damn times. I’ve had my heart broken while dating online, and I’ve let some people down. Those experiences have taught me how to be much more honest and generous in difficult conversations, and more up front about my own needs—which has, in turn, made me a better sister/coworker/friend.

Katie: We should say that neither of us have spent a great deal of time praying for a life partner, but know from—well, life—that the suspicion that God is holding out on you, or failing to answer sincere prayers for a promised good, can be destabilizing and anguishing. We do not have answers for that problem.

We can only say this: I, Katie, while happily partnered, have sometimes felt that other people are Having More Fun living with roommates and meeting new people and going on exciting and glamorous dates, and by getting married at twenty-four, I have missed out on the Joys of Youth.

…And at twenty-nine I, Brenna, spend a lot of time being jealous of people whose relationship energies are going towards Building Something Good, rather than Fencing Out Unhealthy Options. I’d also love for people to take me seriously as a functional adult, as I suspect they would if I were partnered (or like, a dude).

Katie: So we remind each other, often, that there is no singular or necessary way to be twenty-two, or twenty-six, or thirty—one of the vagaries of being young in the present age is how fractured and idiosyncratic that experience feels. You are not missing out on the Right Way to be a person. You are already a person. Be good to yourself, whatever person you are, and be good to whatever people you are or are not dating online.

Recommended reading (because homework is what the people want):

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