Last week, TikTok was in an uproar over “West Elm Caleb,” a serial app dater who multiple women accused of ghosting, lying, love-bombing, and (in one case) cyber-flashing. The hashtag received over 59 million views and sparked a flurry of reactions and commentaries.
The situation raised a variety of questions about privacy, ethics, and harassment. One common question was: Why did so many women–including those outside of New York–become “emotionally invested” in this unfortunately not-that-unusual dating saga? The answer may lie in the frustration of attempting to find partners via a medium that delivers no consequences for deceitful behavior. While online dating is now the most common way for everyone–queer or straight–to meet, it comes with clear risks, including a primary focus on looks and race, as well as the stress that comes from putting time and energy into people we can’t necessarily take at face value.
In the past, I’ve encouraged intuitive dating, which includes setting intentions, being mindful of your energy levels, and working on your past wounds to draw in the best partner. Today, I want to share some specific red flags for app dating that may indicate someone is being manipulative or dishonest. Hopefully, these will help you feel more empowered in what can be a confusing and anxiety-producing realm.
- Too much interest too soon. The phrase “love bombing” was brought up a lot in conjunction with West Elm Caleb. The term refers to someone with narcissistic qualities using excessive flattery or grand gestures early on in a relationship in order to eventually manipulate or abuse a partner. While love bombing generally occurs in longer-term abusive relationships, it’s helpful to note if someone shows an excessive amount of interest or enthusiasm early on. Compliments and flirting are one thing, but if someone is trying to make you feel like you’re the only one for them, it can indicate something is off. For example, if someone continuously tells you that you’re perfect in the first few weeks of dating, it’s necessary to question their logic: How can they know you’re perfect when they don’t truly know you? They could be attempting to break down your defenses in order to manipulate you. Or, less intentional but still concerning, they could be projecting feelings onto you, instead of finding out if you’re actually a good match.
- Sense of urgency. Something I’ve heard about from clients–and which is part of the West Elm Caleb story–is that people can imbue a sense of urgency into contact and meetings. For example, if someone urges you to meet up that night, and then again the next day, that may be something to question. When we don’t have much information about someone, it’s often helpful to slow down in order to glean more contextual clues from both what they say and how they act. You don’t need to message back and forth for weeks, but even conversing over a few days will give you a clearer picture of the person you’re chatting with.
- Actions not matching words. There are examples of this that are clearly red flags, such as if someone tells you they’re only seeing you, but you later find out this is not the case. Less egregious examples can abound, particularly around planning. If someone keeps telling you they want to plan a date, but they never suggest a time or place, this may indicate that something is off—similarly, if someone does schedule a date, but then they cancel last-minute without rescheduling. In these instances, you are seeing that their words (“I want to meet up”) are not aligning with actions (meeting up).
- Pushing your boundaries: Cyber flashing, particularly someone you haven’t met, is a clear violation of consent (and is illegal in some states). In a more general sense, if someone does something unusual or inappropriate, they could be pushing your boundaries in order to see how you respond and if you might be easy to manipulate or control. Other forms of boundary-pushing could include unloading private information quickly, questioning your comfort zone (for example: “Why aren’t you comfortable spending the whole weekend with me?” when you’ve just met), or texting you dozens of times a day when you only respond twice. Someone who is potentially a good date or partner will attempt to match you conversationally and respect your boundaries–and if they’re not sure what your boundaries are, they’ll ask.