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What are We? Defining Dating Relationships in the Age of Tinder, Bumble, and Coffee Meets Bagel

Dating applications have significantly changed the dynamics of dating. There are many ways to describe the state of a relationship without using the word relationship. With dating terms such as ghosting, mosting, caspering, crumbing, and love bombing, it should be of no surprise that the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act does not define dating relationships, nor does it provide factors for a court to consider in determining whether there is a dating relationship.

Andrews and Beyond

To obtain a restraining order a victim must demonstrate that he or she is a “victim of domestic violence,” that defendant committed a predicate act and that a restraining order “is necessary to prevent the victim from an immediate danger or to prevent further abuse.” A “victim of domestic violence,” includes an individual “who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship.”

In 2003, a Burlington County trial court judge took upon the arduous task of defining dating relationships by adopting a factor-based approach in Andrews v. Rutherford. The trial court in Andrews, keenly aware of the changing dating norms, indicated that such factors should be liberally construed.

The Appellate Division decided J.S. v. J.F.in 2009 approximately two years after the first dating application was launched. The defendant in J.S.alleged the victim was a paid escort, and therefore did not meet the victim’s definition. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s finding that the parties were in fact in a dating relationship but declined to adopt the standard set forth in Andrews. The Appellate Division noted that while the factors may be useful, “courts should vigilantly guard against slavish adherence to any formula that does not consider the parties’ own understanding of their relationship as colored by socio-economic and generational influences.”

The Appellate Division revisited dating relationships when it decided S.K. v. J.H.There the Appellate Division adopted the Andrews approach. In a footnote, the Appellate Division reasoned that because the Legislature had not reacted to the Andrews decision, the Legislature’s silence was an indication that Andrews had properly interpreted dating relationships.

Evolution of Dating Applications

Dating applications such as Tinder or Bumble are location-based phone applications in which users “swipe” on profiles ─ swiping left on a profile means the swiper is not interested and swiping right means the swiper is interested. Many use the applications to meet new people and potentially engage in some level of courtship. The remaining dating application population does not adhere to traditional dating rules.

Virtual dating is not a new concept. In a first non-commercialized attempt at a matchmaking service, in 1959 a couple of Stanford students used a punch card questionnaire and a mainframe computer to match 49 men and 49 women. In 1965 a couple of Harvard students also used a computer and a questionnaire for a social experiment dubbed “Operation Match” for which millions of daters used the paid service.

By the 1990s with the launch of the Worldwide Web giving rise to the ease of communication, there were multiple online dating services such as Match.com, JDate, and EHarmony. Because of the popularity of smartphones, many dating websites such as Zoosk started offering mobile apps. In 2009 Grindr, the first purely dating application was launched. In 2012 Tinder became the first dating app to use the swiping matching system. Following a rift with the founding members, a former member of the Tinder team launched Bumble.

Dating applications had not been developed in 2003 when Andrews was decided. In fact, online dating, which included dating websites and chatrooms were still relatively taboo at that point despite the existence of popular movies such as You’ve Got Mail and Must Love Dogs. Online dating sites and dating applications were also not popular during the J.S. decision. Location-based dating applications became extremely popular in the very year that S.K. was decided. By 2014, two years after S.K., one application claimed to record over a billion “swipes” a day.

Dating Application and Case Law

In instances in which there is a level of courtship, i.e. conversation on the application and through voice calls, as well as in-person dates, the dating relationship analysis is like the non-dating application analysis. The parameters of a dating relationship, however, become significantly murkier with interactions that do not follow the traditional practice.

The S.K. decision presents a problem for a potential dating application domestic violence victim because the court adopted the Andrews dating relationship analysis all while simultaneously holding that there was no dating relationship because the incident occurred on the first date. In so doing the court noted that applying the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to a “single date would give too little weight to the word relationship.” The decision would most certainly serve as a sword for those defending the purported domestic violence dating application aggressor while limiting a victim’s ability to seek protection.

People interacting through the dating application often communicate with one another in other digital forms of communication such as social media, video calls, voice calls, and/or text messages. With the use of video calls, the parties meet each other’s friends and family. They are also able to perceive where they each reside, where they work, or where they seek entertainment. The parties have, thus, potentially forged a bond beyond a “mere casual fraternization” despite never having physically met. To preclude an individual who has otherwise satisfied the Andrewsfactors and who has been subjected to physical, verbal, economic, or emotional abuse that occurs on the first date or through one of the dating application platforms, would be contrary to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act’s goals of protecting the victim to the greatest extent possible.

Dating Relationship Evolution

In the recent decision of T.M. v. R.M.W. a victim involved in sporadic, private sexual relations “with few, if any, of the traditional elements of a dating relationship” set forth in Andrews was deemed to be in a dating relationship. T.K. was the first decision since the adoption of the Andrews factors to discuss non-traditional relationships within the confines of the Andrews factors. However, despite affirmatively applying the Andrews factor to a non-traditional relationship, the T.K.court acknowledged that one date is insufficient.

When representing a dating application victim who has never met her aggressor or who was subjected to an act of domestic violence on the first date, the domestic violence lawyer should highlight the meaningful digital interactions to overcome the first-date or no-date hurdle. This includes obtaining the parties’ digital footprint to demonstrate the parties, in fact, shared a special bond that was over and above mere casual fraternization.

Despite the one-date insufficiency ruling set forth in S.K. and acknowledged in T.K., the lawyers of Velazquez Law are prepared to emphasize the remedial purpose of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. If you think you are the victim of dating application domestic violence, please call Velazquez Law, lawyers in Morristown and Millburn, for your consultation.

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