My date sat across from me, dressed cleanly in a dress shirt and slacks. He fidgeted with his cold beer, paused and asked me what I like to do on the weekends. I pushed my glass of beer slightly, decided this date was going nowhere and answered his question.
I prepared myself to excuse myself and cut the date short when he said, “you’re my first date”.
“First date on the app?” I clarified, pushing my phone into my purse.
“No, my first date. Ever,” he answered.
I stopped and looked at him again.
I was this twenty nine year old’s first date. I was the first person he’s going on a date with, I replayed over and over. I was incredulous. I have to make this a good experience for him, I quickly decided and sat back down.
I found a unicorn in New York City.
He asked me how online dating was in the city. What a question.
If I could have visually shown him what online dating looked like in one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world, it would be me standing in front of him with battle scars and a Vietnam-esque war zone in the background. It’s a fucking warzone out here, with feelings as hostages, ghosting and freezing as weapons.
“It’s fine,” I flatly stated.
I wasn’t sure where to begin so I let the question ruminate for days and weeks after this date. I wasn’t sure how to describe online dating. The more I discussed it with my friends and dates, the more it seemed like no one else knew what the fuck we were doing either.
Beginning with the earlier online dating websites in the 1990s with the classic E-harmony dating bill board ads, online dating has picked up and transformed the entire landscape of dating. Kickstarted with the now infamous Tinder app, free dating apps provide the ease and convenience of connecting with individuals. Online dating is now a permanent part of our culture and generation — it’s what we do now. Social acceptance of online apps has gone up in recent years and couples tying the knot after meeting online has doubled; all of us singles are on some app when it comes dating now. Otherwise, we’re not serious about settling down, right?
Given its recent popularity with our generation, the effects of these free dating apps on our generation, relationships and dating habits are still to be determined with little research providing concrete conclusions on what impact it has on all of us. A brief literature review showed nothing on the effects of online dating on individuals, instead focusing on representations, perceptions and strategies of end users.
Meeting this man a few weeks ago forced me to look at this cultural phenomenon objectively. I began taking notes, interviewing friends and discussing this with dates. I compiled a list of suggestions (or conclusions at the very least) of what online dating meant and consisted of. I ended up giving my date a few basic, generic suggestions (don’t agree to both dinner and drinks on the first date, be yourself, don’t have expectations…etc) but decided that it wasn’t my place really to tell him how dating would be for him.
I was his first date.
He was my probably my 100th first date.
Here is what I have learned after dating online in major metropolitan cities across the United Sates.
First and foremost, online dating is lawless territory. There are no rules here. Someone can bring up marriage with you on the first date. Someone else will ghost you after months of talking. Another person might not even look like his pictures or have the job he claims or even be the race you specified on the dating app. It is very different from dating someone you met through friends or “normally” (i.e. running into each other at a coffee shop or meeting through work/school).
A friend of mine commented that meeting someone online instantly adds certain pressures and expectations that are not associated normally with organically meeting someone. When you bump into someone on the street, you let them naturally reveal himself/herself to you; there are no expectations. When I met my ex-fiance outside of surgery at an inner city Philly hospital we both worked at, for example, I thought of him as charming and sweet. At no point, did I expect him to be my husband or boyfriend. It happened naturally and organically, without any forced interactions or awkwardness. Interestingly enough, a psychology research article also found that there was a difference in dating between individuals who met online and offline.
Online dating is different from “offline” dating.
Online dating, with its abundance in matches and convenience in scheduling dates, operates from an innate, fundamental principal that people are disposable, that relationships are temporary and the next date could be an even better date.
It’s like running after a mirage of a relationship and never grasping it.
Honestly, t-shirts last longer than relationships in NYC.
The biggest strength and drawback to online dating is the number of matches these apps provide. One research study asked an interesting question: “do relatively large choice sets cause people to make mating decisions that are less closely aligned with their idealized mating preferences, perhaps undermining their likelihood of experiencing positive romantic outcomes with potential partners they have met through the dating site?” In other words, is having too many dating options fucking us over?
The same research article presented a metaphor on online dating and picking dessert: Individuals who chose chocolate from a selection of six choices, for example, thought the chocolate tasted better than people who chose chocolate from a selection of an array of thirty. Perhaps having so many dates isn’t doing us any service. Perhaps, that is the problem.
This brings me back to several conversations with “veterans” of online dating who say, “it’s a numbers game”. The philosophy is that you should go on as many dates as you can until you “find someone”. I met women who go on dates like appointments. They suggest, “Mannie, you should be going on at least three dates a week or else you’re not really trying”. Does that really work?
Ironically, last night, my brother in law suggested the opposite. He commented how arranged marriages in India were the polar opposite of our Westernized culture of online dating and limitless options. When a young couple was set up together, they didn’t know of any other “options”. They didn’t know what else was out there. In an ideal situation, they settled into a relationship together and grew to care for one another.
Love wasn’t about chasing perfection. It was about loving someone despite their imperfections.
It worked for my parents and for several older generations of Indian couples.
My brother in law continued on and suggested picking a guy and learning to invest in him. He cautioned, like a premonition in a movie [insert dramatic music here] that if I continued to date, I’d be forever searching for “Mr. Right”, going on endless dates, creating more and more checklists, refining my search to the point of impossibility. I’d be chasing an idea forever.
Furthermore having so many options are creating interesting behaviors within our generation including phenomenons of “freezing” or “ghosting”. Instead of having adult face to face conversations of when relationships won’t work, we pull back or completely disappear, swiping instead to the next person. What impact does that have on our generation?
I have had full conversations with men, for example, who tell me outright how special I am, how they want to bring me home to their parents and settle down, never to be seen again. Guilty of serial dating as well, I go on date after date (at times two a day) and also lose sight of “the big picture”. There are so many (perhaps too many?) options and dating becomes a marathon of interactions, rather than a means to an end to a lasting, healthy relationship, marriage and family at the finish line. These repeated intimate interactions of connecting and disconnecting with strangers leads to dating fatigue and mistrust, ultimately resulting in a hardened individual. As a byproduct from being told, “you’re special” repeatedly, I don’t react when someone says something genuinely kind or flattering. It’s as if they said something about Cardi B. I am completely and utterly disinterested.
Consequently, it is easy to gauge how long someone has been in the dating game. Like puppies, the fresh rookies are always so green, open and happy. They are vulnerable, present and trusting. Some will go on a dating spree, scheduling date after date.
A few weeks ago, a young charming lawyer from Australia moved to NYC and began the dating game. He met me, vowing that he never met quite a woman who had everything he was looking for. Until now, of course. When I opened his phone later that night to call him an Uber home as he was inebriated, multiple dating apps revealed back-to-back notifications along with several unread messages from women blinked back. I knew I wouldn’t see him again. Even if he meant everything he had said to me, the prospect of dating and meeting a seemingly endless supply of attractive women is too seductively attractive to pass up for most men.
Some will come out of it, exhausted and some of them will continue as serial daters for years. Eventually, those who’ve dated and attempted relationships, will become hardened, open up less and invest less and less into dates and relationships. A select few (roughly five percent of online daters according to one study) will meet and marry someone they met online.
This begs the question, again, what effects does online dating have on our generation?
Are we becoming less trusting, less invested and less interested in creating and fostering relationships as a generation, considering this type of dating as a standardized norm? Do we know how to have full on conversations about feelings, emotions and closure or are we passive aggressively swiping, ghosting and freezing when it’s inconvenient? What impact does it have on our other relationships, on divorce rates, on parenting and quality of life? Are we becoming a generation of swipes and ghosts?
I’m honestly not sure.
Dating sites are notorious for fabricating facts and data to sell their own platforms. I’d love to see formal research studies (not funded by dating sites) track mental health, dating “success” and psychological well being for those involved in online dating.
What if we did a simple cross sectional study of individuals currently dating to correlate their dating experience to their “dating well-being”? With an independent variable of number of first dates and a dependent variable of well-being as defined by feelings of hopefulness, willingness to trust and positive outlooks on relationships, we can begin looking at any correlations between dating frequencies and well being. A prospective study can also track a cohort of new daters, periodically monitoring their dating progress and emotional well-being. In real time, we can track what’s going on with this cohort. We can start understanding what the fuck is happening with us.
I hypothesize that the more dates an individual goes on, the lower their “dating well-being” would be.
From my personal experience, I’ve found that most men I meet have limited experiences with positive romantic relationships — they don’t know how to maintain healthy relationships, what unconditional love feels like, what trust, stability and security feel like in a healthy relationship. They’re accustomed to quick, superficial hookups and the prospect of being vulnerable, open and committed frightens them.
I’ll give you an example. Last Friday, for example, I met a successful psychiatrist on a date at a local brewery in Long Island City. After a few generic topics of conversation (i.e. hobbies, jobs, friends, common interests…), I dug deeper, past the superficial questions and into more uncharted territory. He disclosed that he’s never been in a relationship before. A day later, after a few failed attempts at sexting from him, exasperated, he confessed that he didn’t think we were a good fit.
He was so accustomed to online dating, superficial conversations and casual dating, that he wasn’t comfortable with anything that circumvented from the classic online dating timeline of drinks, dates and hookups. He didn’t know anything different. Online dating is all he knows. He could sext me, tell me, “you’re easy to talk to, and you’ve got big tits and a great smile ;)”, but he wasn’t comfortable with me telling him I was homesick or asking him, “how do you feel about your life?” The irony in that this man’s profession, training and education is all about understanding the brain and human behavior wasn’t lost on me.
Let’s throw some neuroscience into this discussion for some possible explanation. We can compare dating online and offline to interactions we have in person and through social media. Online dating would be a parallel to text driven communication and offline dating would be correlated to in-person conversations. Prior research has found that text-driven communication over text, email and most social media lack seven components (eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gestures, timing and intensity). The way the brain processes these interactions is mind-blowing (pun intended).
The in-person interaction mainly operate in the right higher hemisphere that activate the lower regions of the brain responsible for generating emotion. The text driven communication, in contrast, is located in the left hemisphere, which is mainly involved in logistics, fostering a more superficial, distant type of interaction. Additionally, social display rules, such as how many people like you or care about you, is actually a left brain function.
Online dating, in this respect, based off of this correlation with text and in person communication, with its two dimensional matches and text driven facilitation of interactions, creates surface level experiences.
Ultimately, this poses great consequences on social well being, mental health and productivity. We’ve created two dimensional views of humans with small blurbs and pictures as accurate representations of his/her worth. We’ve created formulas and algorithms to find love. We’re measuring the worth of matches with swipes and levels of attractiveness and education, ranking dates on looks and one or two lines of wittiness. We’ve created countless software applications on human interaction and connection, a perfectly Utopian, Black Mirror, scenario of both connecting and disconnecting with individuals at the same time.
We’ve quantified, cheapened and polluted perhaps the most valuable, timeless and sacred parts of our lives — the human connection between two individuals.
If I could tell the man I met a few weeks how online dating was, then it simple is this: Online dating is both a blessing and a curse. Find someone you like enough and settle down. Get the fuck out as soon as you can. If you keep chasing the next best date, you’ll be forever dating, chasing after something that doesn’t exist, destroying your own sanity and vulnerability throughout the entire process.
Love isn’t found through numbers and mindless swipes.