'After Wasting 4 Years on Dating Apps, I Found Love Using My '333 Strategy''

By the time I was 27, two exes had asked me to marry them and I was being asked out on dates by new men on a weekly basis. Like clockwork, I'd go out on a Friday with friends, chat to new people, by the end of the night, a date was locked in, same again on Saturday. I didn't go out with everyone that asked, but it was so easy to meet people.

In 2013, I noticed a shift. It was happening less and when out, people were on their phones instead of looking up and making eye contact, including me, only I was on Facebook or texting and they, that I later learned from a flat mate at the time, were likely on a dating app. I'd heard about Tinder before and thought of it as a "hook-up app," which wasn't for me.

Getting asked out in person declined to once a month, and my roommate told me that everyone was using apps, so I caved in. At first it was fun. Swiping was easy and before I knew it, I had 50 matches and the following day, an inbox full of messages. Some led to dates, others went nowhere.

Haifa Barbari Spent Years on Dating Apps
Haifa Barbari spent four years on dating apps searching for a partner before she developed her own strategy for dating. Haifa Barbari

My dating app journey started off wonderfully. I loved picking my outfit, the anticipation of a potential new partner and the new places I explored with others. It was fun, light and I didn't take it seriously at first. But then a female work colleague told me she had a date lined up every night of the week to have her dinner paid for, and a male friend shared he was swiping daily to meet people just for sex. I would laugh at these stories to mask my worry that every guy I met only wanted an instant hook up.

Based on my friend's stories, I wouldn't go home with anyone on the first date, which more often than not resulted in the guy never texting me again. If they did, they would invite me back again after the next date. It was hard to get to date three with the same person. In the space of three years, I went out on approximately one date a week, sometimes two. There were periods when I dated exclusively or was in a relationship, but those never lasted more than six months. Looking back, I'm glad. They were mediocre partnerships with people I was not compatible with in the long term.

But at the time, I put up with behaviors that should have been red flags, likely out of fear of having to re-enter the dating world. One boyfriend, who I ended things with after 4 months, repeatedly canceled plans at the last minute, without apology or providing any clarity on when we'd see each other next. The same man would give me the silent treatment for days if I raised it as an issue.

After a couple of years of this cycle, I began to notice I had developed a fear of people disappearing. I stopped being excited about the potential of meeting someone and instead, constantly felt stressed about whether I'd see them again or not. So, I became overly giving from date one onwards, intent on showing how great I was and completely ignoring whether the other person was a good match for me. By my third year on dating apps, aged 30, my only priority was getting a guy to like me and "stay."

Nothing drastic happened to "change" me from someone who had been proposed to twice, to someone worried about doing something wrong and losing a potential partner, but after researching the impact of dating apps, I suspected that I had developed what is called "dating anxiety." Studies have shown that higher levels of depression and anxiety have been seen in those who use dating apps which have swiping as the core function. In my case, this manifested itself in fear of being "ghosted" and repressing my own needs out of fear of losing my new partner.

It felt like the dating game had changed so much that it was becoming even harder to find authentic, lasting relationships. I'd hear stories of people giving up at the first challenge they faced in a new relationship, reasoning that it would be easy to find a replacement. I too was guilty of that "disposable dating" behavior.

It's not surprising that dating has evolved that way; dating apps are often designed to keep you hooked. The dopamine hit of getting a match can keep users coming back. And, as I researched more I discovered that certain apps had even used a strategy of creating fake profiles to encourage people to sign up for subscriptions.

So, four years on from my first swipe, I remembered the woman I used to be and realized I missed her. I took a dating break to rebuild my confidence and find a way to make the apps work for me. I started with changing my mindset. For example, instead of wondering if someone liked me, I flipped the narrative to: "Do I like them" and "Why"? to focus on the qualities of a good match. I read books to help me learn more about changing behavior and invested in a coach to re-teach me how to communicate my needs without worry. I felt ready to not only get back out there, but also to try and find a way to improve the hot mess that is dating these days.

My mission to begin with was to create a more human dating app. I did further research and interviewed men and women across the U.K. and U.S. and I saw that while we all seem to want love, making assumptions about each other that can stop a good thing before it starts. Over time, I came to the conclusion that the world didn't need another dating app, instead I decided to use them to my advantage.

Haifa Barbari Spent Years on Dating Apps
Haifa Barbari has had two committed relationships since adopting her '333' dating strategy.

In 2017, I created my "333 dating strategy" to help navigate the dating world. My dating game completely changed, and I started to see results almost immediately. My strategy means dating three people at a time; anything more than that becomes hard to manage. I would date them for at least three months before making any commitment, because, I reasoned, by that stage I would have likely seen their best side and their imperfections, and be able to make a decision about whether we could develop a healthy relationship together. Lastly, I decided I would give each person I was dating three chances when something came up that bothered me, each time using healthy communication to try and resolve the issue. I felt like this would help me overcome any "disposable dating" mentality I had developed and assess my partner's emotional availability.

I felt confident again. I remained present on each date, sharing stories and actively listening to what my date was saying, instead of being concerned about what would happen next. I noticed I was excited about dating and consistently enjoying them. I felt like me. Three months later, I met my first long-term boyfriend in years.

Jason and I met on a dating app and I was honest about wanting to take my time getting to know each other. He later told me this put him at ease and that he appreciated that I wanted to get to know him. The pressure was lifted from us both and three months in, he asked me if I was ready to stop dating other people. I was actually dating someone else who also wanted to be exclusive, but I chose Jason because we had both chemistry and compatibility.

Ultimately, we separated in 2019, because he wanted children and, when faced with a very real conversation about it, I didn't see that in my future. I took a dating break during the pandemic and in September 2021, I began using my "333" strategy again. Three months later, I was spending New Year's Eve with a lovely new man and we're now together exclusively.

The biggest change for me is experiencing deeper, more authentic connections with people I meet. Whether that's friends, partners, or even work colleagues. I have close relationships that feel strong and fun. Anything other than that, I simply wouldn't want in my life.

I am a coach now myself and I have used my strategy with my clients. They have said it helps lift the pressure and helps them stay aware they need to assess whether someone is a good match for them, and know when it's time to walk away, without self-blame.

I remember my first one-on-one client, Sarina. She went from being in tears to facing and changing her dating fears and habits. Six months later, she was in a new relationship, feeling secure and confident.

Our dating culture has changed and it's not going back to the way it used to be. Until dating apps take some responsibility for the new world they created and genuinely help people use them healthily, I believe the key to success is to stay vigilant in maintaining your wellbeing on the path to love.

Haifa Barbari is a dating wellness coach and the founder of self-coaching app Be What Matters You can find out more at bewhatmatters.co and follow Barbari on Instagram @thehaifab.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.