Hello, and welcome to the dating apocalypse.
Perhaps you have been in this crazy Thunderdome for some time, harried and jaded from one too many dates that looked good on paper but were anything but, trying to avoid the Bad People and not always succeeding, until you simultaneously yearn for human connection and are terrified of it, feeling sort of like Will Smith toward the end of I Am Legend when he got mad about his bacon.
You spend your evenings bleary-eyed, swiping through actual people like they’re products on Amazon and realize that, yes, this is just like that episode of Black Mirror; and no, this doesn’t make you feel any less like a cliché.
Perhaps you’re just getting reacquainted with the sexual marketplace after some time spent in the comforting embrace of a long-term relationship. Maybe this relationship had grown constrictive toward the end, and you were actually looking forward to this return to dating life, what with all the doodads and apps and DMs that seemed to promise a bevy of options.
Here’s the good news: The current dating landscape isn’t 100 percent dystopian.
If you understand the data, heed the advice of experts and—gasp—make yourself vulnerable in constructive ways, you can avoid the psychological landmines that plague the current dating terrain and markedly increase your chances of finding someone who makes you feel good. We asked professionals in human behavior how best to navigate the dating trenches to emerge victorious. Here’s what we found.
We’re only now starting to understand how dating apps rewire our brains and affect our sense of self.
In a 2016 study presented to the annual American Psychological Association conference, Tinder users reported less satisfaction with their bodies and looks, compared with non-users. For this study, 1,044 women and 273 men participated, and the results were a little depressing: Body dissatisfaction, body shame and body monitoring were higher among people who actively used Tinder. Male users were more susceptible to these feelings and reported lower self-esteem as opposed to before using the app. All users of dating apps were susceptible to feeling “depersonalized and disposable in their social interactions” and believing “that there is always something better around the corner,” according to the study.
A high volume of consistent rejection can become a theme with dating apps, especially for heterosexual men. One study pinned the match rate for straight male profiles at 0.6 percent (for women, it was a little over 10 percent).
Regardless of gender, the odds of finding a good match on dating apps seem to be stacked against you. Worse yet, dating apps can make you feel bad about yourself if you’re not careful. It’s important to remember this, because when you’re tantalized by the slot machine of potential mates a dating app seems to promise, your brain starts doing weird things to you.
“Dating apps are creating a paradox effect, giving off the illusion of many choices while making it harder to find viable options,” says behavioral scientist Clarissa Silva. According to Silva, self-esteem starts to erode when users have one too many boring (or boorish) conversations with other users. This impairs their decision-making ability, causing them to lower the bar.
“The end result is not making you pickier,” says Silva. “It’s making you choose based on lowered expectations.”
The sheer number of profiles—and the fact that any one match is statistically unlikely to lead to something worthwhile—can create a breeding ground for negative thoughts, says clinical psychologist Suzana Flores, Psy.D.
“If something isn’t working out, inevitably your self-esteem takes a hit because you think that it’s you,” she says. “Inevitably you’re left with ‘There’s no one out there for me.’”
Dating app culture has made finding people more convenient, but it doesn’t come without trade-offs.
“It has hindered the natural process of dating,” says Flores.
Some dating app users are making split-second decisions about other people based on one photograph, says Flores. They’re taking many intangible elements of humanity—the tone and inflection of someone’s voice, how much eye contact they’re giving you—out of the equation. This inevitably leads to situations that are less likely to work out.
But going back to the sheer number of profiles the average user sees, it often feels like a failure when things don’t work out. It can even feel like a failure if you’re the one ending things.
“It feels like rejection even if you’re the one doing the rejecting,” says Flores. “It’s a very strange phenomenon.”
If you arm yourself with this knowledge—that the real magic happens IRL and that an overload of options will actually make you feel bad about yourself—you can start to use dating apps in a way that’s more useful: as a way to conveniently find people and give those people a fair shot. Because of the way our brains are wired, we often don’t do that second part.
When her clients come to her for advice, Flores tells them the following:
- Pretend you’re telling someone about yourself and record it on audio. Then put some of that in your dating app’s profile. Once you start talking and turn off the digital part of things, Flores says, you become more real. When you’re more real, you’re more likely to find an authentic match.
- Talk to someone on the phone or FaceTime them before going on a date. You can message them in the app for about a week, but after that, move on to actually hearing the sound of their voice.
- Don’t communicate digitally for two months. “This is where I get the deer-in-the-headlights look from clients,” says Flores. After you’ve spoken on the phone and made plans to meet (assuming you both feel chemistry on the call), don’t text each other or message through the app. The only exception is if a logistical issue comes up: You need to reschedule the time of the date or you’re lost and need directions. That can be done through text. But any other communication should be done on the phone. “You can hear the inflection of a voice, you can hear tone, you can gather so much more,” says Flores. “And it avoids the miscommunication that can occur because of digital communication.”
- Don’t talk to more than two people at once. Remember that thing about having too many choices? If you carry on more than two conversations, says Flores, you’re seriously hindering the chances that any one conversation will lead somewhere.
- According to Silva, you should approach online and IRL dating like it’s a social experiment. “It really is,” she says. “Treat dating like you are collecting data on what you want and don’t want.”
In other words: Take some of the pressure off yourself and use apps as a supplement to your dating life, not the be-all and end-all.
If you choose to use dating apps, pay attention to how you feel. If you find yourself comparing your body to others or generally feeling more down about yourself, it could be a sign that you need to take a break.
In a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, addictive smartphone behavior was linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety. Although we shouldn’t be scared of people using their phones, says Alejandro Lleras, Ph.D., the University of Illinois psychology professor who conducted the study, we should be mindful of certain things. If you find yourself avoiding friends or find that smartphone use is interfering with your productivity at work, you should reach out to a friend or a mental health professional.
“When you see some of these trademark behaviors, then it’s time to have some kind of talk,” says Lleras.
In the end, you can’t over-rely on the conveniences of dating apps. Use them how they were meant to be used: to find people and to start a (short) conversation. Then meet people in real life and give them a fair shot.
So pretend it’s 1996. Make plans on the phone. Meet at the time and place you said you would. Be present, emotionally and physically.
“You have to allow yourself to be as vulnerable as possible, even if it breaks your heart,” adds Flores, “That’s what’s necessary to fall in love.”