Verywell Loved is a series on the dating and relationship topics people are talking about, with personal stories and expert advice to help you better understand your own experiences.
Swipe left, swipe right, like a photo, start the chat, ghosted, repeat. There is a collective exhaustion around dating, and while finding love has never been easy, the mainstream strategy for courtship and potential mate shopping has managed to eliminate a huge component of what makes falling in love special: the mystery.
Like so many of the technological conveniences we hold dear in the 21st century, dating apps strive to streamline a very nerve-wracking part of life, but for too many people they ultimately cause more dissatisfaction than they are worth. A Pew Research Center poll found that 45% of Americans who had used a dating site or app in the past year reported feeling frustrated by the experience, whereas only 28% reported feeling hopeful.
But with more than 40 million users on dating apps and websites in the United States, and two years of on-again, off-again pandemic isolation and restrictions, it’s clear that these apps have served a purpose.
As life continues its return to normalcy, more and more people have voiced their desire for more organic, IRL mingling and match-making. So, a new question must be asked: Are we ready to ditch the dating apps for good?
The Gamification of Falling in Love
Whether or not dating apps are destined to become a thing of the past, their impact on dating habits and the ways we connect is undeniable. Clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, notes that most people take an optimizing approach to dating apps, which creates “an endless odyssey for love.”
Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD
Online dating creates the illusion that there will always be something better.
“Online dating creates the illusion that there will always be something better,” Romanoff says. “It reinforces the notion that the harder you work, e.g., search and go through more people, the greater the reward, e.g., find the most ideal partner.”
The act of swiping itself has introduced an element of “winning” or “losing” to the dating process, as well. The same mechanisms that keep us coming back to social media apps for likes or validation are activated when we match with someone we’re interested in. And that rewarding feeling is addictive.
“I’ll get eight or nine matches and feel this rush of adrenaline and power from being liked, but it’s hard to translate that energy into actually focusing on one person,” says Ella, 25. “Then when I’m actually seeing someone, I keep thinking about all the other options I have and it keeps me from being fully present.”
Faulty First Impressions
When you stop viewing other users as people but rather as profiles, it removes the human aspect of dating altogether. You don’t have to interact with the person at all to make a snap judgment about their potential to be a worthy life partner.
“The ease of access to a seemingly endless pool of dating options has caused people to have unrealistic standards when it comes to getting to know another person and approaching dating,” Romanoff says. “It’s also become more superficial as value is placed into six photos, education, and job title. This is hardly a way to discern compatibility or genuine connection, but it’s become the baseline for worth.”
Research shows that physical attractiveness is one of the largest predictors of dating decisions made on apps like Tinder and OKCupid. And while physical attraction certainly factors into connecting with someone in person, it’s a shallow decision-maker.
“I met my current boyfriend in real life but if I saw him on a dating app I don’t know if I would’ve gone for him,” says Sarah, 33. “He’s good-looking, yeah, but his energy and personality bring so much more to the table, and I just wouldn’t have gotten that from looking at a couple of pictures.”
I think we’re all terrified of making mistakes in love and we build up these walls and want to be entirely sure about someone before making any kind of a leap.
Not only have dating apps totally redefined the concept of first impressions, they eliminate much of the mystery that often makes dating so thrilling. They’ve effectively sterilized romance, love, and sex, says Anna, 27.
“I think we’re all terrified of making mistakes in love and we build up these walls and want to be entirely sure about someone before making any kind of a leap,” she says. “But this pre-planned perfectionist culture is what’s keeping us from finding magic in unexpected connections.”
Romanoff notes that this perfectionist mindset and tendency for pre-date sleuthing can have more serious consequences than just bad first impressions. In fact, these habits can create entire dating delusions.
When so much energy is put into “getting to know” a person before actually meeting them, two personas are forged: the real version of that person and the idealized version you’ve created in your mind.
“Dating tends to fail because the person rarely lives up to the idealized version we create and want them to be,” Romanoff says. “In a way, we’re not so receptive to learning about the other person, and instead we are dating our fantasy version of them until we realize, with disappointment, they are not who we hoped they would be based on the story we strung together.”
The Algorithm Match-Maker
Users aren’t the only ones to blame for this loss of mystery and magic—artificial intelligence plays a role, as well. It’s common knowledge that potential mates presented to you on dating apps are chosen by that app’s algorithm. This method of selection relies on data that users provide, as well as information from their social media accounts and their habits within the app.
Essentially, when it comes to dating apps, everything is calculated. The person whose profile you’re swiping through has been selected for you. It’s a less personal, modern-day version of the set up, which has gone nearly extinct as a social concept. This leads us to our next question, why don’t we set people up anymore?
In sitcoms and rom-coms from the ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts, the plot so often includes single characters getting set up by their coupled friends who know someone from work or bumped into an attractive stranger in a coffee shop. And when they’re not being sent on blind dates by their friends, they’re begging their friends to please stop setting them up on blind dates.
And forget sitcoms, the early 2000s saw the boom of the blind date as an entire genre of reality television. (Remember “Next”, “ElimiDate”, or even “Date My Mom?”) Despite the fact that most episodes of these now-notorious shows are almost too cringeworthy to watch, they represent a time when the closest things to the apps were VHS dating services or the earliest versions of match-making websites. The set up was the live version of a dating app algorithm.
I’m not sure how we’re supposed to fall in love if we can’t even make eye contact with one another in public.
But now that the apps have become so common, the set up has fallen to the wayside. In fact, for many people, meeting a potential match organically and in person feels more difficult than ever.
“It’s tough to meet in person these days not just because everyone is on the apps but because everyone is so online in general and constantly looking at their phones,” says Tim, 21. “I’m not sure how we’re supposed to fall in love if we can’t even make eye contact with one another in public.”
Taking It IRL
Breaking the cycle that dating apps have created will require many people to get out of their comfort zone. Pursuing connections in the real world, away from the security of dating apps, can leave us feeling like we’re flying blind and vulnerable.
“The ease of swiping takes out the emotional component, including the risk and reward adrenaline rush of approaching potential partners and the value that’s placed on making these hard-earned connections,” Romanoff says. “Ideal partnerships are made, not simply found.”
The reality is that dating isn’t always easy. Dating apps create the illusion that people are disposable as soon as they appear imperfect, but forging a deep, meaningful connection requires effort, patience, and empathy. People are imperfect—that’s what makes us human. And the most human aspects of dating are often the most surprising and rewarding.
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