Why dating apps aren't the cause of all of your dating problems. And why the solution to your dating problems revolves around one important ingredient: vulnerability.
Over the past two weekends, I surprised myself by being very active on Facebook - I generally dislike Facebook, and while I use it for work, I try to steer well clear of it in my free time.
These weekends, however, were different. I let myself get sucked in, and ended up joining a handful of new groups and spending some time scrolling/reading through/commenting on people’s posts, as well as creating a few posts of my own.
One thing that I saw in particular piqued my curiosity - and after spending more time mulling it over, I realized that not only was it interesting to me, but that it might be an instructive tale for my readers as well.
Since joining a few friendship and networking groups, I've actually been floored at the number of women who I've seen complaining about online friendships with other women in the same language that they use to talk about love.
What really struck me about this discourse was how closely these women's complaints resemble the complaints that I regularly hear from daters.
In the past week or so, I've read complaints from women about other women, women they've met via social media and Facebook groups, ghosting them or flaking on plans; I've also seen posts complaining about not finding close friends in these groups, even after the women created posts asking for friends. In the posts, the women declare that they've "tried everything" - on and offline - to no avail; nobody seemed to want friendship.
My first reaction to seeing these posts was to feel sad - especially after the disconnected year we had in 2020, we don't need more loneliness.
But, in spite of my concern, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the eerie resemblance of these complaints to ones that I hear regularly from my dating clients. That I was hearing the very same complaints, but in a new arena of human connection - friendship-seeking, rather than partner-searching - felt uniquely eye-opening to me.
So - what exactly is going on? Are people just lonely? What are our expectations around love and romance, and how are they different - are they different - from the expectations we have of our friends?
This whole conundrum intrigued me so much that I did what I usually do as an Enneagram 5 when I can't stop thinking about a puzzle - I pulled out my computer, opened Google and my Notes app, and set out to get to the bottom of things. And while I didn't get to the very bottom, I did reach a few conclusions about loneliness, disconnection, and expectations in modern connection. I also concluded that disconnection is more than just a dating app problem - it represents a fundamental shift in the way that modern city-dwellers meet, find love, and forge friendships.
What else? Read on.
What the Facebook posts from these frustrated women tell me is that the issues that we - and even I, as a dating coach - tend to think about as "dating problems" - ghosting, flaking, loneliness, and the strenuous amount of effort involved in cultivating relationships - are not in fact actually dating problems - they're human connection problems.
Here's the thing. I tend to believe that whether we're dating or looking for friends, we don’t create authentic closeness by asking people to “be close” with us. We create closeness by sharing ourselves gradually over time.
In this sense, expecting ready-made closeness when we create a post in a friendship group or create a dating profile is, in a sense, a version of false vulnerability - yes, we’re being vulnerable with how deeply we desire friendship, but we’re also attempting to “leapfrog” over the sharing and the meet-ups and the time spent creating connection that real, authentic relationships take.
Because I've met many of you and know that my readers tend to be emotionally adept and self-aware, I have a feeling that many of you tend to think this way already.
And yet - even those of us who recognise that we can’t just make a post in a Facebook group and instantly end up with 10 best friends may still find ourselves discouraged that we’ve created a Bumble profile - like, a whole WEEK ago, no less! - and still we haven’t deeply connected with any of our matches.
Or that dating is terrible - but we really, really, for-gods-sakes-enough-already want a relationship. Isn't there some way to get to a relationship without having to do all of this work?
Or that we're continually "putting ourselves out there," but that there don't seem to be any takers.
So - while we likely recognize that this doesn't fully make sense, we still catch ourselves thinking this way. Why?
One reason for our malaise could be that modern society is much more fragmented than it used to be.
Unlike our grandparents, and even some of our parents, many of us no longer live in the small communities where our parents grew up, and, as a consequence, most modern city-dwellers don't have intact networks of family, friends and neighbours to draw on for both new friendships and for finding love.
In fact, for most modern city-dwellers, the old, organic networks of family bonds and neighborhood support have been replaced by professional ties, old college friendships in scattered locations, and, of course - the people we meet on apps and via social media.
Many of these new forms of relationships are fundamentally different than the relationships our parents relied on for connection and support - these relationships tend to be formed more slowly than our more organic connections, and usually under circumstances that are less permanent. In the case of social media relationships, there's a sort of ephemeral quality to them - a sense, that if this connection doesn't work out, there's always the possibility of more connections.
Modern dating - and to some extent, modern friendship-creation - follows this new, inorganic "app dating model" of connection - we can't meet people and expect that we'll immediately become close with them, because these people are, unlike the people we might meet through friends and family - literal strangers.
In short - many of the same rules that govern our in-person, community-founded relationships don't apply in this new world of virtual relationship-building. And many of us are experiencing a uniquely modern cocktail of anxiety, loneliness, and frustration accompanying that loss. Alongside, of course, a generous serving of fatigue.
Most of the friends and clients I speak to about disconnection and dating blame dating apps for this new, piecemeal reality of dating, but I believe that the true cause runs deeper than that.
On the one hand, dating apps do contribute to a "fast food" culture of modern dating, but, on the other, they're a symptom of that culture - how else are modern city-dwellers (or, for that matter, daters who live in smaller towns and cities with demographically limited dating pools) going to connect with other like-minded daters? Many of my clients can speak to this too - as busy professionals trying to climb the corporate ladder, start a side hustle, run a business, make it to the gym, and sometimes even take care of families, all on the same day, meeting people organically isn't so much a dilemma of desire as of finding the time. Under these circumstances, dating apps and social media become the most viable and efficient way to connect with other people who are also looking to connect.
In this respect, the question of modern dating culture vs. dating apps becomes a chicken-and-egg conundrum - are dating apps driving disconnection, or are they a tool to stay connected in a disconnected world?
Personally, I tend to believe both.
So - we're all feeling frustrated and burnt out. What's next?
So - as has been the case since Gutenberg and the printing press, or the invention of writing, our world has changed, and technology has helped to drive that change. I personally don't think that that's a bad thing as much as it's a new reality. It does make certain aspects of our dating realities more difficult, but it makes others easier - after all, are any of us really pining for the days when our mothers and grandmothers had to wait by the phone for a new flame to call?
As thankless - and, at times, excruciating - as swiping through new faces on an app can be, as an introvert, I for one am grateful that there's a way for me to connect with potentially-interesting strangers while watching the reboot of Gossip Girl in my pajamas.
In fact, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest trying to embrace (or, if we can't do that, at least give some thought to accepting) this new reality and the new kind of vulnerability that it brings to relationships.
A new kind of vulnerability
All human connections involve vulnerability - vulnerability isn't new or exclusive to app dating. All authentic human relationships require sharing and meet-ups and time spent creating connection: modern relationships - and modern dating - are no different in that respect. Which, unfortunately, is why we can't just bypass vulnerability by choosing not to date, or by swearing off dating apps entirely (although, TBH, sometimes that sounds kind of great).
Many modern connections do, however, involve a new kind of vulnerability.
Online networks displace us from seeing people in the context of a community and enable a loss of accountability. Virtual connectivity demands our acceptance of the reality that, in connecting, we're meeting literal strangers for the first time, again and again and again. For this reason, online dating requires a different kind of vulnerability than meeting that friend-of-your-mom's-cousin for coffee, or connecting with the cute architect from your spin class who also happens to know your roommate.
The friend-of-your-mom's-cousin, while still a stranger, comes with an alibi. Strangers on the internet could be literally anyone, and should be scoped-out accordingly.
For this reason, meeting a new app-date or cyber-friend can feel scarier (and more vulnerable!) than meeting someone you met organically, or through friends.
But, like the in-person connections we're familiar with, we can learn to adapt to this new kind of vulnerability. We can take our time getting into new relationships, and make sure that, even if we feel an instant connection, we treat these new connections as what they are - connections with strangers with some potential. We can also commit to safety precautions, setting boundaries, asking tough questions, and moderating expectations - and reminding ourselves that not everybody is going to share our values or wants the same things out of dating and friendships.
My suggestion, then, to those of us feeling collectively burnt out and frustrated by dating, is for us to change the way we think about how we approach dating and making friends online.
We can't literally turn back the clock to a time before dating apps - and I'm not so sure that I actually want to.
But what we can do is accept that there's no way to make new friends, meet the love of your life, or even deepen our existing relationships without some form of vulnerability. We can start by acknowledging that modern dating culture, with its new rules for connection, is here to stay, and that if we want to date, we'll need to learn how to navigate this new landscape. We can also reconsider our expectations about what online dating and friendships can and "should" be, and we can learn to trust new online connections slowly, at a pace that helps us feel safe. In short, we can learn to adapt in order to connect in this brave new world of cyber-relationships.