Why You’re Frustrated with Dating Apps

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Why You’re Frustrated with Dating Apps.” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome back to the blog! In this blog post and the next, we are focusing on early-stage dating. Despite the fact that I have been married for 25 years, I love talking about dating. I am cheering the loudest for those of you who are searching for love. Always have. Always will. Dating and Relational Self-Awareness go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Let me tee up this blog series:

  • This is Part 1, Why You’re Frustrated with Dating apps.
  • Next is Part 2, 12 Strategies for Swiping with Relational Self-Awareness.
  • Last is Part 3, How to Bring Relational Self-Awareness to a First Date.

We’re going to start things off here in Part 1 by having a frank and practical discussion about one of so many technologies that have redefined our modern social landscape:

Dating Apps

This article is not about whether dating apps are good or bad for society, whether they make it easier or more difficult to find potential partners, and it’s certainly not about how they are designed. 

My goal with this article, however, is to help you improve your relationship with these apps, if you choose to use them. I want to talk about what it is about dating apps that evokes anxiety and frustration and how you can use dating apps as a helpful tool, to think of them as one of many spaces in your life that you could potentially connect with an interesting human, rather than feeling trapped in what feels like an endless game of swiping that leads nowhere. I think it’s important for us all to talk about this right now, because I don’t know about you, but I’ve been noticing more and more conversations about how burnt out daters are feeling on these apps in the last year or so. I want to validate this sentiment, because in some ways, the design of these apps is conducive to those feelings of overwhelm and intangibility, and that’s not any fault of your own. And, I hope to empower you to take back your agency and reimagine (wink wink) the way you interact with these apps.

Context of Dating Apps

First, let’s back up a bit. How did we get here? In some ways, making use of dating apps is not at all significant because people who are looking for love have always had an intermediary of some kind:

Historically and in many parts of the world today, family members arrange marriages for their young adult children. Historically and in many parts of the world today, matchmakers have set the community’s young people up with each other. Years ago, people looking for love placed classified ads in newspapers. Then with the creation of the world wide web, dating websites. And today of course dating apps have become the high-tech intermediary. Here’s a timeline and a few fun facts about online dating just to contextualize us a bit more:

  • 1995: The first dating website was match.com which went live.
  • 1997: JDate was created.
  • 1998: The movie, “You’ve Got Mail” with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks really put online dating on the map.
  • 2000: eHarmony was launched.
  • 2007: Smartphones hit the mass market with Apple’s launch of the first iPhone.
  • 2007: the year that a company called Zoosk launched the world’s first dating app.
  • 2009: Grindr launched.
  • 2012: Tinder launched, which was the very first swipe-based dating app.

According to FinancesOnline.com, there are more than 1,500 dating sites and apps available today. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 3 in 10 Americans have used a dating app. When you look by age, these numbers look a little different: 48% of 18- to 29-year-olds have used a dating app versus only about 16% of those over 50. And adults who are LGBTQIA+ are about twice as likely to have used a dating app as adults who identify as heterosexual (55% versus 28%).

Here’s our both/and: making use of an intermediary when you are looking for love is not new and using a smartphone is radically different from using a matchmaker or submitting a newspaper ad. Why? Because dating apps create a sense of endless options which can spike anxiety, urgency, and indecision. They also create the possibility to have lots of “open tabs” at once which can lead to burnout and pessimism. They cultivate the sense that my job as a dater is to swipe until I find the right person which can shift attention away from the most important task of dating which is becoming the right person.

Dating apps have turned up the volume on themes that have always been there when it comes to dating. It has always been easy to bring a consumer mentality toward dating, meaning that people tend to look at a partner, thinking to themselves, “What can you do for me?” versus looking at a potential partner and wondering, “What kind of love story could we create together?” A large part of our Relational Self-Awareness work is becoming that which we are seeking in someone else.

I think that dating apps have amplified that consumer mentality because the energy of technology tends to be quite self-focused. When we are on our phones, we are often shopping for things for our lives or posting photos of our lives. The energy of technology is about me and the energy of love is about we. This attitude is exemplified by the common phrase, “this person checks all of my boxes.”

But the mere act of swiping on a dating app fuels a sense that your job is to hang back and sift through. There’s a kind of invulnerability in swiping. And dating itself is inherently vulnerable. Which is precisely why you are at risk of getting a bit stuck in the swipe. To avoid the vulnerability of dating. As a defense against the vulnerability of opening up to someone. The swiping is way easier than the meeting. The swiping is lower stakes than opening up to a new person. And again, what is different today versus 10 years ago when Tinder launched the swipe-based app is that the tech companies are playing into all of this. The apps have become gamified. The apps are designed in such a way as to capitalize on keeping you stuck and ruminative and dissatisfied. The more you focus on finding someone who checks all of your boxes, the more perfectionistic you become. The more perfectionistic you become, the more likely you are to rule someone out within moments of meeting them. The more likely you are to rule someone out, the more you’re going to be back on the app swiping some more.

  • Do I want you to partner with someone you find pleasing and attractive? Yes.
  • Do I want you to create a relationship in which you are invited to be your you-est you? For sure!
  • Do I want you to hang in there with someone who does not feel like a compatible or viable partner? Absolutely not.

But I want you to take responsibility for your experience on the dating apps by viewing them for what they are: a tool. All technology is a tool. Your dating apps as a means to an end. A way of getting from point A (swipe) to point B (meeting across a beer or a coffee or an appetizer). Your dating app is neither a gift from the heavens, designed to deliver you a soulmate. Nor is your dating app there to provide commentary on your worth or your desirability. You are not your profile. All your profile is there to do is catch enough of someone’s attention that you have the opportunity to engage with them so that the two of you can figure out together the goodness of fit. That’s it. You are not your profile. Just like you are projecting a lot of meaning onto someone’s profile pics, and your projections speak to your fears and how you’ve been socialized, the swipes that people are making on your profile say a lot about their fears and their projections and how they have been socialized. They don’t know you. Their swipe is not commentary on YOU as the unique expression of the divine that you are! A dating app is merely a tool. Use it as such.

My Instagram Data

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know that my Instagram feed is sometimes my living laboratory. I post questions and stickers in my story in order to put a finger on the pulse of what feels alive and present for people…. At least people who like to get nerdy about Relational Self-Awareness. A few months ago, my team and I posed some questions about dating apps, and I’m going to share that data in the hopes it will normalize your experience. Just for context, this data reflects the responses of a few hundred people from around the world. I asked:

  • If you are currently in a relationship, did you meet your current partner through an app?
    • 48% said yes and 52% said no.
    • What this says to me is use a dating app if it is working for you, but don’t for a moment kid yourself into thinking you “have to” use an app.
  • Then, because I have heard a number of stories over the years about couples who met on a dating app but who went on to agree to sharing a cover story about how they met, I decided ask people who met their partner an app, “Do you feel any hesitation sharing that you met your partner on a dating app?” A full 52% said NO. But a full 48% of people said yes. This number surprised me a bit given how common and normalized it is. We are so at risk of fearing judgment, aren’t we? We cling so tightly to the notion that there are better and worse love stories, don’t we?
  • I then asked, with whom are you hesitant to share that you met your partner on an app?:
    •  and the overwhelming response was family. In fact, over half, 53%, said family.
    • 15% said their friends
    • 2% said their therapist
    • And 30% said “all of the above.”
  • I asked this question, “Has the prevalence of dating apps reduced opportunities to meet potential partners in real life?”
    • YES: 57%
    •  NO: 16%
    • SOMEWHAT: 27%

To me, the takeaways from this data are:

  • If you feel self-conscious about dating apps, you’re in good company.
  • If you turn to dating apps because it feels hard to meet people in real life, you’re in good company.
  • And, at the same time, let’s keep working together to celebrate all of the ways of meeting!

Zoom Out

When we are talking about societal attitudes toward dating, we have to make sure that we talk about dating apps in a larger social context. Match.com has been collecting data about dating for over a decade. And when I read the 2022 dating report two really important dating shifts stood out to me:

1. The overturning of Roe v. Wade:

Two in three single women will not date a partner with opposing views on abortion. 80% of people dating report that the overturning has affected their sex lives. What’s the takeaway here? If you are a man who dates women, or a person who cannot get pregnant who dates people who can get pregnant, it is on YOU to be proactive about naming your stance. Put it on your profile. Bring it up early in your interaction. I have heard too many stories of straight women doing double triple over-time trying to figure out how to bring the topic of reproductive justice up to the men they are trying to date because they know it is a dealbreaker, but they worry that the men they are trying to date are going to see it as a political statement. As the 60s feminists said, “The personal is political.” Dating is about a lot of things, and one of those things is sexual intimacy. Therefore dating is about what the heck would we do if there was an unintended pregnancy. So if you are a man who dates women, take that emotional labor off of her. She’s likely tired—tired of having her bodily autonomy be the centerpiece of so much political discourse and tired of having to figure out how to get the information she needs from a potential partner without making it “awkward.” Part of privilege is the ability to have your politics and your love life feel like they are separate spheres, so I get that this might be a weird ask that I am making. But, trust me, your willingness to take the lead on stating where you stand is going to go a long way!

2. Increase in the collective consciousness around self-work.

I’ve been a therapist for many years, and I have been saying a lot lately, that us therapists are finally the cool kids. Lots of people used the pandemic lockdown as an opportunity to work on themselves. They read, journaled, did therapy, listened to podcasts and they are coming out of the pandemic with a commitment to creating healthy relationships.

This Match research found that 87% of singles say it’s important for both partners in a relationship to prioritize their mental health. They also found that people are less focused on appearance and more focused on cultivating a connection. The percent of men and women who report that they fell in love with someone they were not initially attracted to is higher than ever. Attractiveness isn’t even in the top 5 traits people are seeking. Instead it’s:

  • Someone they can trust and confide in (94%)
  • Who is comfortable communicating their wants and needs (92%)
  • Who is emotionally mature (92%)
  • Who can make them laugh (92%)
  • Who is comfortable with their own sexuality (89%)

The Strain

I want to talk now about the strain of dating apps. And then let’s talk about how Relational Self-Awareness skills can help. Like I said before, dating itself is inherently vulnerable. You are opening yourself to another person. There is the insecurity of, “Are you drawn to me?” The responsibility and self-trust required to ask, “Am I drawn to them?” You have limited control over the outcome. Dating is incredibly growth-promoting. In fact, I think that the best approach is to view dating as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and other people. Growth is vulnerable! Dating also requires you to sit with uncertainty. Uncertainty can create anxious thoughts that fast-forward you (“What if I never find someone?”) or depressive thoughts that lead you to look in the rearview mirror (“What did I do wrong that I am this age and single?”)

And by the way, the last few years of living through, you know, a whole ass pandemic has been a masterclass in uncertainty and decision fatigue, and I think dating can mirror those painful feelings. No doubt that’s why Pew found that fewer men and women were looking for dates or a relationship in 2022 when compared to 2019 (49% looking in 2019, 42% looking in 2022)

  • Men: 60% down to 50%
  • Women: 38% down to 35%
  • Match/Kinsey Data (2022): Most ever who reported not wanting and not seeking a relationship

We also are not going to blame dating apps for dating strain. We are not going to expect dating apps to rescue us from dating strain. But a lot of people find that dating apps amplify dating strain. A Pew survey from 2020 revealed that 35% of dating app users leave the apps feeling more pessimistic about dating and 25% say they feel more insecure after using a dating app. It’s vulnerable to put images of yourself out there and to know that someone is looking at you and swiping left on you. I want people who are dating not to tie their self-worth or their attractiveness to their matches, but this can be a bit easier said than done.

For straight folks, gender role scripts about who is allowed to initiate contact / responsible for initiating contact also make their way onto dating apps. Men can feel fatigued by the responsibility of sending messages.  Women can feel fatigued by fielding inbound requests. Recent data from the Pew Research Center found that roughly six-in-ten men who have online dated in the past five years say they feel as if they did not get enough messages, while just 24% of women say the same. Meanwhile, women who have online dated in this time period are five times as likely as men to think they were sent too many messages (30% vs. 6%).

Because racism, sexism, and homophobia exist both in the real world and in online spaces, people who occupy one more more marginalized identities (women, people of color, people who are queer) are at greater risk of having frightening or upsetting experiences on dating apps. And the impact of those experiences can linger and become cumulative. About three-in-ten or more online dating users say someone continued to contact them on a dating site or app after they said they were not interested (37%), sent them a sexually explicit message or image they didn’t ask for (35%) or called them an offensive name (28%). About one-in-ten (9%) say another user has threatened to physically harm them. These rates are even higher among younger women. 60% of female users ages 18 to 34 say someone on a dating site or app continued to contact them after they said they were not interested. 57% report that another user has sent them a sexually explicit message or image they didn’t ask for. 44% report that someone called them an offensive name on a dating site or app. 19% say they have had someone threaten to physically harm them.

The final dating app strain I want to mention here is ghosting. Dating apps don’t cause ghosting. Ghosting started long before dating apps. But because dating apps perpetuate contact that is high volume and low accountability and connection that is high quantity, low quality, people tend to not feel particularly beholden to each other. And because so much communication is mediated screen to screen rather than face to face, it’s easy to just fade away. 

Bottom line is that ending well, ending maturely, ending thoughtfully is a skill. Ghosting reflects (1) a skill deficit, (2) an empathy deficit, (3) dating burnout, or a mix of all three. And being ghosted sucks because it sucks, not because you suck! I do think there is a growing collective consciousness that ghosting says nothing about the ghostee and everything about the ghoster. One of the helpful side effects of navigating the modern dating world is that you may find yourself developing the skill of learning how to take other people’s behavior less personally and recognizing that people’s behavior is by and large a reflection of the degree of their Relational Self-Awareness.

The risks are real and the strain is real. The potential benefits are also so very real.

Conclusion

We did it! Thank you so much for reading this article. If you’re dating, I hope reading this helped you feel seen and supported. And if someone in your world is dating, I hope this blog post will help you be a better ally and cheerleader to them. Make sure you read part 2 of our early dating series. We’re going to pick up where we left off, and I’m going to offer you 12 strategies for swiping with Relational Self-Awareness, strategies that are designed to support your emotional health and help you create an awesome connection with someone. And then lastly, it will be part 3, How to Bring Relational Self-Awareness to Your First Dates. See you soon!

couple, our physical and mental health is linked. This can be a negative or a positive. Remember that the support you can give your partner is a powerful tool and that this might be an opportunity to work together to be healthier or just to navigate a challenging conversation with empathy and intentionality.

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