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When a long-term relationship came to an unhappy end, 43-year-old Katia suddenly found herself in "uncharted waters" as she struggled to deal with a baffling array of dating apps and the confusing -- and mostly unwritten -- set of rules governing modern dating behavior.
Needing someone more experienced to guide her, the 43-year-old corporate executive turned to a professional online dating coach.
How should she describe herself in her online profile? What words should she use, and which photos should she post? What sort of messages should she send -- or not send?
How could she seem interested in someone without coming off as needy? And what should she do if she doesn't hear back after that crucial first date?
Before the advent of dating apps -- and the explosion of texting -- none of these questions really mattered, or even existed.
"It's exhausting!" laughed Katia, who declined to provide her last name.
From the men who abruptly go silent online (famously known as "ghosting") to the mind-numbing lists of seemingly standardized questions ("check this box if..."), Katia said she was "shocked by some of the behavior I was seeing."
If there is little data on the number of such online advisors or their success, dating coaches seem to be everywhere, part of a booming business in personal development.
"She's helped me understand what's the modern-day definition of asshole," Katia half-joked, while insisting that their talks were "more significant and profound than any of the conversations I've had about the logistics of all my dating... What are my needs? What are my standards?"
Katia continued: "She's been helpful in just the day-to-day details of like, 'No, that's actually normal,' or, 'This guy, I agree, he was kind of an asshole.'"
Having a dating coach, she said, wasn't really so different from having a sports coach.
- 'Wild West' -
Dating coach Sabrina Zohar doesn’t really think of herself as an influencer or a therapist -- but with more than 450,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 800,000 on TikTok, people are keen for her takes on modern romance.
She had originally dreamed of becoming an actress, then studied psychology for a while before turning to business.
After herself struggling through a difficult relationship, she started a podcast and posted videos about the world of love and dating, often drawing on personal experience.
"I've been that anxious girl that literally couldn't function or sleep at night because I was waiting for a text from somebody," she admits.
But she has turned those bad experiences into a wealth of knowledge for her clients.
"I'm going to show you something about me so that you feel safe to share something back," she tells them, "and I think people feel very seen and heard."
"So I've been able to kind of condense that and, I think, create a new medium of helping people that is actually giving them tools" to navigate an online dating world she likens to "the Wild West."
Zohar said she conducts about 15 sessions a week. Most of her clients -- both women and men -- are aged between 27 and 44, paying from $35 for a quick answer to a question to $6,600 for unlimited follow-up.
- 'Professionalized skill' -
The success of dating coaches doesn't surprise sociologist Amanda Miller, a relationship specialist.
She said two phenomena had "collided": the explosion in dating apps -- with the often contradictory expectations of their users -- and the pandemic, which upended many social interactions.
"I think we got very much more comfortable during the pandemic with apps-based services," she said, partly as a reflection of the "American efficiency-capitalist-model -- we want this quick and fast and cheap."
"Does it take the romance out of it? Not necessarily. In the past, our elders or even our good friends might have given us the same kind of advice. Now we see this as a professionalized skill set in a different way," added Miller, the sociology chair at the University of Indianapolis.
It was this professional aspect that brought James, a 54-year-old who declined to give his real name, to a dating coach. He soon found himself doing some "deep emotional work."
"She has much of the knowledge that a therapist will have, but her approach is more, 'How do I apply this to everyday life -- now,'" said James, who runs a startup in California.
In just months, he said, his coach has helped him deal with his anxieties and feel more confident -- good skills to have when the modern world of dating remains a lot more complicated than simply swiping left or right.