Four minute read
Perhaps never in history has a product been so widely used, and so well hated. Few of us, if we’re looking for a relationship, relish the thought of getting onto a dating app. As we curate our profile and photoshop our picture, we find our hearts sink at the thought of the obstacles that lie in our path.
If you’re looking for a long term relationship, dating apps are almost indispensable, but at the same time, frustrating and humiliating. It’s easy to begin to think that there are no good potential partners out there, just people who will use and abuse you. You’ll run into people who will ghost you, cheat on you, keep you at a distance, proclaim their interest in you but refuse to meet, give lame excuses for canceling at the last minute, break up the moment things start getting serious or just use you for sex. Why, oh why, you might ask, are there so many awful people out there?
One answer that might surprise you: Statistics.
Stick with me here, and try not to let your eyes glaze over at the thought of math. Imagine an app for, say, straight people. For simplicity, let’s say it only has two men on it (and an unlimited number of women). One of those men —let's call him Steady Eddie — has no problem with intimacy, has reasonable expectations of a partner, has no objectionable characteristics and is genuinely looking for a permanent relationship. The other man, however, wants a relationship but after a few dates he inevitably loses interest and moves onto the next woman. We’ll call him Flaky Fred.
Steady Eddie may swipe right on perhaps 100 women. He has a text exchange with 20 of them, goes on ten dates and clicks with one woman. And then he’s off the market and deletes the app.
Flaky Fred has a different story. He also swipes right on 100 women, texts 20 and goes on ten dates. But he doesn’t click with anyone, at least not for long. And so he goes back to the app and swipes on another 100 women, texts another 20 and goes on another ten dates, again without success. Frustrated, next time he swipes on 500 women, texts 100 and goes on 50 dates.
In this two-man world, only a few women get to interact with Steady Eddie. But an awful lot encounter Flaky Fred. And they get the impression that men on this app are flaky.
Scale this up to the real dating app world and you can see what happens: most of the Steady Eddies (as well as the Steady Ediths) find a partner and drop out of the dating pool fairly quickly, while many of the Flaky Freds (and Flaky Florences) remain behind and keep looking. And if you’re on that app, the chance that you’ll meet one of the Flakys far outweighs the chance of meeting a Steady. It can feel like there are no potential partners out there.
One of my clients, over a period of five years, swiped right on 35,000 women. That’s almost 20 a day, every day of those five years. He texted with thousands of potential partners and met many hundreds of them, none of whom met his impossible standards. You can bet that others like him, both men and women, are out there, each one interacting with thousands of others on these dating apps, and giving rise to the impression that the vast majority of people on the apps aren’t suitable partners.
Here are some other reasons why dating apps are such unpleasant places:
People become commodities
One of the great thing about apps is that you can contact virtually unlimited numbers of potential partners. So much better than in the old days when you’d meet only a few dozen through mutual friends, school or the workplace, right? But there’s a problem with that. Unlimited numbers of potential partners cheapens the value of anyone you’re talking to today. Why invest in being kind and gentle to someone when you can spend your precious time finding new, more suitable potential partners? In the past, mutual acquaintances would act as a brake on your worst impulses: if you ghosted someone those acquaintances would find out and you’d acquire a reputation. On an app, there's no cost to being cruel.
Anonymity also provides an easy way out for those who struggle with conflict. If you find it hard to tell someone that you don’t want to date them, it’s a lot less painful to just ignore their messages knowing they’ll eventually get the message, give up and leave you alone. And if they get mad at you? Never mind, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. And if you feel guilty about it, you can reassure yourself that everyone else is doing the same thing anyway.
Race to the bottom
Hurtful behavior generates other hurtful behavior, which then becomes the norm. If you know that there’s a reasonable chance your date will cancel your Saturday dinner with an hour’s notice you might protect yourself by lining up two dates for that Saturday dinner. If one cancels, you're still in good shape. If neither cancels, you tell the less promising date that you're not feeling well, probably with an hour's notice. So in order to protect yourself from a Saturday evening alone feeling like a loser, you end up making someone else spend their Saturday evening alone feeling like a loser. And they in turn learn quickly that they need backup plans too. Pretty soon, everyone is double and triple booking themselves, cancelling others and being canceled on.
And when everyone is doing this, it becomes accepted and expected behavior. Bad behavior drives out good, and, no matter how honorable your intentions at the beginning, you may well find yourself lying, canceling and ghosting with the best of them. But the sting of being lied to, canceled on and ghosted never goes away, even though your friends tell you not to take it personally. And you end up hating those dating apps and all the people on them.
Everyone puts their best foot forward on a dating site. But sometimes that best foot is a fake foot. So you may be having a wonderful and exciting text exchange with someone whose entire story is untrue, whose photo may be created by AI, and whose gender, sexual orientation and age are not what they claim. Sometimes catfishers have criminal motivations, while other times they’re living out a fantasy or just trying to feel better about themselves by attracting interest from others.
Catfishers (at least the non-criminal kind) know what they’re doing is hurtful, but the short term pleasure they get out of positive responses to their profiles is so tempting it overwhelms the knowledge that they’ll suffer long term guilt and shame. If you’re on the receiving end of these falsehoods, you may never find out what was really going on: all you know is that your hopes for love have been dashed.
The dating app world may be full of unpleasantness, but these days, it’s hard to avoid. It seems we can’t live with the apps, but we can’t live without them either.