CBT for online dating: my contribution to the book ‘Leap Year – Change Your Life For Good’

Bestselling author Helen Russell has written a new book Leap Year, about ‘how to be more resilient and change your life for good’ – in it she gets guided-self-help advice from various experts for various issues, and then she, or her willing guinea pigs, try out the advice and report outcomes and results – in a fun and very real and useful way.

I contributed in the Relationships chapter as the ‘CBT for online dating’ expert. Read the extract below to see if my strategies gave a good outcome.

Below is a text extract with my bit – and below that are images of page scans…

from page 71:

Several perpetually single friends have had their expectations warped by Hollywood depictions. These are intelligent, attractive men and women. But they’ve been duped into waiting for a man or woman who comes complete with a Tom Hanks voice-over to narrate their happy ending, or someone with perfect skin and caramel limbs who even looks good by harsh daylight. Or a unicorn. On top of this, films typically end at the beginning of a relationship with the implied summary of the next forty-plus years as ‘happily ever after” when, in real life, that’s when the hard graft starts.

Films make us believe that it’s all about finding ‘The One,’ says Wendy, ‘but picking a partner is only about 10 per cent of having a healthy relationship. The rest is about relationship skills – and these can be developed.

One of the best ways to do this is apparently with CBT, which stands for cognitive behavioural therapy and not, as one friend who’s a member of the BDSM community recently assumed, ‘Cock & Ball Torture’. Just so we’re clear.

CBT is a form of psychotherapy originally designed to treat depression, but now used for a wide range of issues – from panic attacks to problems with low self-esteem. It helps to change unhelpful thinking and patterns of unhealthy behaviour, replacing these with new habits that can actually help us. It’s also a popular form of relationship therapy – and is even used to help build confidence in dating and starting over after a split.

Veronica Walsh is a cognitive behavioural therapist who has specialised in this and she’s also the most no-nonsense Irish woman you could ever hope to encounter. So I get in touch for some tips I can pass on to Recent Dumpee and a newly divorced friend who’s having a tough time.

‘Dating is stressful and change is hard’, she kicks off briskly, ‘and many single clients still strive for what they describe as a ‘normal life’, by which they mean a monogamous, long term relationship, usually marriage. But this isn’t the norm any more. We’re not our mothers’ or our grandmothers’ generation. Many of us don’t marry – and nearly half of those who do end up getting divorced. The idea of a relationship for life is often not going to happen, so shouldn’t be an absolute demand on ourselves that we pursue at all costs. Once we get our head around this, it frees us. Because being happy single is always better than being unhappy with someone else.’ This is a sentiment I’ve long agreed with, having grown up with a solo mum and seen various friends split up over the years. [Veronica explained the following about the brain]: developmental molecular biologist Dr John Medina has studied the impact of stress on the brain and found that being in a bad relationship, long term, is akin to sleeping in the same bed as a sabere tooth tiger. For years. This is because our brains are built to deal with stress that lasts about thirty seconds – enough time for the sabre tooth tiger to eat us or for us to run away. What we’re not built for is prolonged stress, which has been proven to make us sick and even shrink our brains.

‘Hoping that something will work out won’t make it better, says Veronica of ‘toxic’ relationships, and positive thinking doesn’t work when it’s not true and we don’t believe it. We’re not robots. Or the Dalai Lama. So while it’s normal to get stressed or angry, if you’re always stressed or angry, you need to make a change.’

Veronica tells me that the key to success in relationships is the same as the key to success in ‘life generally’: ‘it’s knowing how you’re wired’.

‘CBT is about the awareness and management of how we explain the world to ourselves – because when stress becomes a disorder it distorts thinking. CBT undistorts it. So I get people to track their thinking in a journal and examine it for unnecessary negativity and distortions. Then you need to consider how believing those thoughts impacts on your feelings and behaviours’ she explains. ‘The real magic happens when people reframe that thinking – when they examine it for evidence and undistort it. You ask yourself questions like, “What drama do I actually create for myself? Do I self-sabotage? Do I try to read minds, imagining that I know what other people are thinking?”’.

‘Loads’, ‘Yep’, and ‘Of course!’ spring to mind when I think of my own answers, so I’m reassured when Veronica adds: ‘And if you’re guilty of some – or all – of those, that’s perfectly normal, we are irrational beings. But we’re all irrational in our own ways, so it’s important not to predict what someone else is thinking or feeling. I see a lot of people making magnifying statements or restricting the way they think – so they’ll say: “Oh, men only want to date twenty-year-olds”, or, “I’m not successful enough to find a mate,” or whatever. But these statements are never true.’


‘Never,’ she insists. ‘Something may be twenty per cent true, fifteen per cent of the time – but those kind of beliefs and statements are never a hundred per cent true. Men and women aren’t so different when it comes to dating, I see men who are lonely, who have been cheated on, or who think they have no luck dating – the same as I see women like this. So you can’t make statements that are black or white about what men want or what women want. And actually, when you put pen to paper and examine the evidence in a more detached way, people usually come to this conclusion themselves.’

This is heartening.

‘Next you have to ask yourself, “Is there an alternative view? A different way I could approach this?” The answer’s usually “yes”. So you write that down, too. And once you’re thinking differently, you’ll feel and behave differently too.

Veronica guides me through the advice she’d give Recent Dumpee.

‘You need to approach the whole dating thing with a sense of humour – especially online. You’re essentially exchanging romantic ideals with someone you don’t know and imposing your life-rules and expectations on a stranger, so it’s important to allow yourself to be amused – even bemused – by the situation.’

Veronica advises clients not to think of a first meeting as a ‘date’ at all: ‘It’s not courtship – you don’t know them! And there’s no use emailing for ages beforehand and falling in love with a fantasy of someone. You need to meet in real life and treat the online part merely as a useful tool to bring about an interesting experience.’

‘Okay’, I say, ‘so you’re meeting someone new, you’re not expecting much, and you’re trying not to judge. What then? What if you start feeling wobbly?’

‘Well that’s when you use your new skills to become your own coach,’ she says: ‘I get people to ask themselves, “what would I advise my best friend here?” Because we’re always kinder and more generous to our friends than ourselves. Then you go back to your thought-tracking. You can do this during the meeting to stop you mind-reading, or negatively predicting, and then afterwards to work through any negative thoughts that might have other explanations. But mostly, you should try to enjoy yourself – remember, it should be fun!’

I thank her and hang up, keen to relay these pearls of wisdom.

Recent Dumpee accepts her assignment to try tracking her thoughts and keeping a journal with far less reluctance than I had feared. A week later she drops in to conversation: ‘Of course, one of the key self-sabotaging behaviours in my last relationship was picking fights, but really it was all down to my fear of abandonment…’ I blink several times in wonderment, before she cottons on: ‘Yeah, okay, it’s been slightly helpful, I suppose…’ She’s getting better at coming up with alternative ways of seeing the world too, and by writing these down, she recognises that she can sometimes be (in her words) ‘a bit bonkers’.

‘It turns out that the guy on reception at work wasn’t ignoring me because he’d heard something bad about me—‘

‘What? How did you come up with that?’

‘I just reckon he must know stuff, what people say when they wait for the lift, that sort of thing. Anyway it turns out he just had conjunctivitis. But the good thing is,’ she goes on, ‘I’d stopped worrying about it hours before I found this out because I’d been writing down alternatives for why he wasn’t making eye contact.’

‘Was conjunctivitis one of them?’

‘No. Although “sudden diagnosis of a life-threatening tropical disease” was.’

‘Overdramatic much?’

‘Maybe I’ll work on that one next…’

And so she does. And the next time we speak she sounds dangerously Dalai Lama.

After a couple more months, Not-So-Recent-Dumpee tells me she’s ready to ‘get back out there’. Despite reminders that it’s okay to be single, that there is no ‘normal’ any more, and that being in a relationship means having to share your Netflix with someone (annoying), she wants in. And having reached her mid-thirties without taking a shine to any of her friends or her friends’ friends, she’s prepared to try her luck online. So I wave her off into cyberspace, like a nervous parent packing off a child on the first day of school.

One in five straight couples and three in five same-sex couples now meet online and there are sites available to cater for every preference – from the conventional Match.com or OK Cupid, to Uniform Dating (’for singles in uniform & for those who like them’), Clown Dating (‘everyone loves a clown – let a clown love you…’), and Gluten Free Singles (‘enjoy life with a GF partner’. I wasn’t aware you could imbibe gluten that way… but still, you live, you learn.) Were I to have my time again, there is a wealth of uniformed, gluten-free, clown-based riches I could scarcely have dreamt of when I last dated.

I discover that it’s a pretty good time to be taking a leap online, for both women and enlightened menfolk, with biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher recently proclaiming that: ‘The era of the macho man is over.’ Many men are now apparently looking online for women who are intelligent, ambitious, self-sufficient and not too good-looking. Really. Because if you’re unambiguously beautiful, most men – or women – will assume that there’ll be competition, so are less likely to make contact. Uploading a profile picture that actually looks like you, flaws and all, means you’ll appear more accessible, and there won’t be any ‘surprise reveal’ when you meet in person.

An encouraging 86 per cent of straight men surveyed from online dating sites said that confidence and self-assurance were what they’re looking for in a woman. Single straight women online said they wanted more time with their friends… [there are several chapters here explaining stats of online daters and profile outcomes…]

‘All a profile really reveals is whether or not someone can spell and master basic grammar,’ Recent Dumpee reports. ‘”Your” vs. “you’re” is a classic.’ We both agree that it’s vital to instantly reject anyone whose stated hobbies include ‘banter’, since proficiency at human interaction and a decent grasp of conversation should be a given.

‘And I’m blocking anyone who sends unwanted photographs of their genitalia,’ she tells me.

‘Why would someone do that?’

‘You’d have to ask Craig from High Wycombe,’ is all she says, darkly.

Would-be daters whose profile pictures include the arm/torso/cheek of their ex are similarly discarded, because if someone hasn’t been single long enough to have a solo photograph taken, then they haven’t been single for long enough.

If a gent meets these basic requirements (i.e. they can spell, look vaguely human, and avoid ‘banter’ and pictures of their ex and/or penis), Recent Dumpee will proceed to phase two: meeting up. Numerous studies concur with Veronica that it’s good to meet sooner rather than later so you don’t fall madly in love over email and then realise they look like Shrek in real life. Unless of course, Shrek works for you and you just don’t know it yet. Because researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois found that, just like in the real world, online daters don’t always know what they want as a mate, despite thinking they do. We have such a strong idea in our head of the ‘type’ of person we’re after that we routinely overlook positive characteristics in people who may actually be good for us.

Resolving to keep an open mind, Recent Dumpee gets Out There to meet potential suiters IRL (in real life).

A week later, she tells me she’s had coffee with an opera singer, beer with a banker and carrot juice with an Olympic rower. It’s all very exciting.

‘So? How did they go?’ I am near bursting with vicarious date-curiosity. Date-osity, if you will.

‘Not bad,’ she says: ‘I just thought of each of them as new people I was meeting. Then if I got the fear or worried about whether they noticed the huge spot that appeared on my nose midweek, I imagined you telling me that I looked “okay” anyway…’

‘”Okay”? Surely my virtual voiceover of encouragement in your head is more complimentary than that!’

‘All right then, “nice—“’

‘Try again.’



‘Right, so I imagined you telling me that I looked hot and that I was funny and interesting and that cockwomble had his own issues and that was probably why he dumped me, and that we’re all a bit mad in our own ways, but that it’s going to be all right. And then – it was.’

‘That’s great! And were they nice guys?’

‘Mostly’ she says. ‘I mean, one had Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” as his ringtone, but you can’t win them all. Right?’


A fortnight later she tells me she’s going on a second date with someone who ‘doesn’t appear to be a mentalist…’ This is progress.

[end extract]

[The book continues with Helen, having been ‘impressed by the impact of CBT on my friend’s dating life’ explored CBT for managing her own marriage in a healthy way with new thinking and behaviours….. Buy the book Leap Year by Helen Russell on Amazon.com]

Page Scans – simply click on each page-set to open a new window with a high resolution readable image – or download an image PDF here: FILE – and/or if you want more you’ll have to buy the book!

Did you like that? Kick back and play the YouTube of Helen giving a GoogleTalk about Leap year here:

Interested in a CBT session with me? check out my website for one-to-one session info – in office or online – at CBTandFeelingGood.com

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