By Laura Bolt
Are the apps we're using to find love actually tearing us apart? One man investigates how your phone might be killing your chance at intimacy.
We met on Tinder, awkwardly chatting about jobs and neighborhoods to get a feel for each other however we could. I was charmed by his smile, the way he beamed down at the camera, and his sleepy, sunken-in Frank Sinatra eyes.
In person, I found him distractingly awkward. His speech came out garbled, like he was talking out of the side of his mouth. But again: the eyes. We made out, slept together after another date. It was hot. I had minimum expectations.
That changed, as it so often does, on digital platforms. Though we hung out intermittently, we texted all the time. I found out he was a deep horror fan like me. I went up “several points” when he learned I also listened to the Slate Political Gabfest. He punctuated messages with endearingly old-school smiley faces and told me on a long trip that he wished I was around to cuddle. What he meant, it turned out weeks later, was that he wanted a warm body next to him, preferably one he also enjoyed talking to. But looking at the screen in that moment, in the language of today’s first-time daters, I caught feelings.
This story is as banal as it is endemic. If you regularly use dating apps or are plugged into the vast, ever-expanding networks of influencers, would-be influencers, and thirst traps on Instagram, you’re deeply familiar with the cycle: You like someone’s post—photo, quote, quip—they like yours. You both mention meeting up in person. Maybe you do. The promise is there, but hovering over it is a growing uncertainty about how solid the bond really is. Nervously and a little desperately, as they’re unresponsive, you search for another feed to like.
We have many convenient options for consumption in 2019, but perhaps the most uneasy-making is the ability to curate people. When you can slide into the DMs of millions both down the street and across the globe, how do you forge real, lasting intimacy both in apps and outside them?
It’s a relatively comfortable problem to have, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. “I hear it so much,” says Avi Klein, a psychotherapist specializing in relationships based in New York City, who estimates that at least 50 percent of his clients use dating apps, not to mention other omnipresent social networks. “One of the things that’s great and bad about apps is the never-ending surplus of people. So if there’s any kind of discomfort, you can move on to somebody else.”
The built-in features of apps don’t help. The simultaneous showcasing of one’s most appealing aspects and the low bar for giving positive feedback (who among us hasn’t swiped while waiting in line?) do a very poor job of recreating the spontaneity and ineffable chemistry of meeting someone at a bar or party and knowing immediately that you want them.
“I think one thing that gets in the way of people creating real intimacy is what it takes to get noticed on an app. It’s not really conducive to forming a real connection,” Klein adds. The carefully concocted profiles we cycle through rarely match what we get in person, from personality and looks to speech patterns and ill-timed jokes. “For a lot of people, it doesn't go anywhere [off the screen]. They just do that over and over. People get really jaded. I had one client who called the dating scene a wasteland. Everyone has gone through it and been burnt.”
There’s another factor that’s both a blessing and a crutch for men. “If you want to have casual sex with someone, it’s easier than ever to do,” Klein says. Just about every gay man has a story of ordering sex on Grindr like room service, and a number of my straight friends have done a more elaborate song-and-dance version of the same thing on Tinder, which in its latest advertising promoting “#swipelife” has all but abandoned the idea of finding love.
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of temporary satisfaction, but that’s exactly what it is. “Especially for men, it can be really seductive. I’ve definitely known several guys who can easily sleep with a different person every week, if not more, and suddenly you don’t have a sense of real excitement,” Klein notes. For those avoiding the work of maintaining a serious relationship (and it’s always work), a seemingly ideal setup can become a distraction.
Fleeting, primarily digital relationships also come with plenty of ugliness. Embry Roberts, a branded content manager at NBCUniversal, started her podcast The Lowlight Reel—interviewing social media influencers about the very real struggles their followers don’t see—after she started feeling “dread getting together with people in real life. I felt like I couldn’t live up to my own hype,” she admits. While she chalks that fear up to her own hangups, “I think social media app culture is where pre-existing self-esteem issues can thrive.”
The anxiety extended to her dating life. She had a “weird friends-with-benefits situation about a year ago with this guy I used to work with who lived across the country” that involved a lot of photo liking and sexual FaceTiming. “I was getting really interested. We weren’t at all on the same page. On his end, it was much more casual. For me, it was leading toward something, but it was really hard to gauge.”
The relationship “reached a head and we had a falling out. At that point, he went back and unliked all my photos. He deleted all the photos he had sent in my DMs so it looked like I was thirstily contacting him out of nowhere. This guy was pretty clearly a narcissist. There wouldn’t have been a platform available for him [in the same way] 10 or 20 years ago.”
That’s not reason to feel defeated, however. The same rules offline apply online, even if they’re harder to apply. I’ve had better luck finding guys with brains who are also looking for a longer-term arrangement on Hinge. Klein has seen improvement in clients who set certain boundaries. “This sounds retrograde, but maybe don’t sleep with everyone you could sleep with. You need to feel that wanting. It’s easy to become numb.”
If the rotating door of drink meetups gets exhausting, Klein recommends switching it up. He had a female client who insisted on “experiences” instead of another round of beers, such as playing a game. “You can get their essence rather than their story.”
Or, you know, move away from DMs. “I think people who have been more successful are pushing for phone calls,” he says. Klein also believes in finagling your way into time with a paramour’s friends to “give you a deeper sense of where this person fits in the world. See if you fit into that.”
I continue to see Tinder dude here and there more than a year after our breakup. We occasionally hook up. But most of our communication is limited to pinging each other with likes and news related to mutual interests. I’m still not sure I know his essence, though I have a firm outline of a story. I have no delusions about where it’s going. Mostly I’ve settled into the convenience of chatting and fucking—a reminder of a connection that almost was, never really was, yet somehow still is.