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App-based dating is here to stay. Here’s how it’s rewiring the courtship process.

The key to making dating apps work? Update your interpersonal skills.

By Jenni Gritters

Clinical therapist and sexologist Robert Weiss was in New York, at the offices of Bustle, the online women’s magazine, when he first heard about “app-free April.” For a month, every woman at the magazine who was interested in dating planned to avoid dating apps so they could meet potential matches in person.  

But after a few weeks, the woman who managed the editorial team realized that there was a problem: No one was going on dates. That was because none of the 20-something women on her team had ever met someone without a dating app; they didn’t know how.  

“Technology has moved so quickly, we’re in an era where a mother can’t teach her daughter about sex and relationships, because [the mom] has never used Tinder,” says Weiss. “As a result, some of the younger generation are missing skill sets. In my day, I had to dress up, be nice, and get to know someone if I wanted to get laid. Now you don’t need that social skill set.” 

Obviously, singles today still need to dress up and meet in person — eventually. But Weiss’s larger point stands: Dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, OKCupid, Grindr, and many others have upended every step of the age-old courtship process.  

If there’s frustration with this online dating market, which is estimated to be worth $3.2 billion by 2020, it’s likely because online dating requires new skills and new ways of thinking that we as a society have yet to master.  

Online dating apps: They work!  

Ask around about online dating, and you’re likely to get an earful. Users say maintaining a profile and swiping through options requires constant attention, and online profiles aren’t often true-to-life. In many cases, relationships stall at the texting stage, in-person meetings are awkward and disappointing, and it’s hard to know who’s in it for the long term and who’s just there for a hookup. Add in the constant hazard of “ghosting,” and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety and frustration — and that’s not even counting the looming specter of “dick pics.”  

“We’re in an era where a mother can’t teach her daughter about sex and relationships, because [the mom] has never used Tinder.” 

But early research suggests that all the pain might be worth it. For myriad reasons, online dating sites don’t disclose how often their apps actually lead to long-term relationships. But some early psychological studies and surveys indicate that online dating apps work about as well as meeting someone in person, and a surprising number of people are in favor of them. 

A Pew Research Center survey from February 2016 found that, contrary to popular opinion, more than half of Americans — 59% — think dating apps are a good way to meet someone. And last year, the most recent iteration of the Singles in America survey, conducted every February by the Match Group and the Kinsey Institute, found that 40% of respondents said they’d met someone online in the last year and had a relationship with that person. Just 24% of those people said they’d met their significant other through a friend rather than online.  

Science backs up these impressions: One recent psychological study found that people who met online were slightly more likely to stay married and have a successful relationship than couples who met in person.  

In another study, researchers found that online dating inspired more diverse dating patterns, especially encouraging interracial relationships. The same study also found higher rates of marital satisfaction within the first year of marriage for couples who met online, compared to those who didn’t. 

Given those statistics, why is there still so much upset about online dating? The issue, as Weiss discovered during his visit to New York, is likely that many of us lack the skills necessary to survive these new, technology-driven novel courting rituals. Here are some of the ways our once-set dating routines have changed with the advent of dating apps:  

Assessing initial attraction 

“If you look at human history, the biggest predictor of how people met previously was physical proximity,” says Nick Brody, a professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound. “Are you near them? Do you go to school near them? Are you in the same tribe? It’s not chemistry, it’s just about being next to them.” 

Indeed, when you lock eyes with a cute guy at the coffee shop or sit next to a vivacious woman at a business conference, you’re likely attracted to their physical looks — and you’re near enough to actually get a good look. But neurologists say you’re also taking in a host of nonverbal information, making assumptions based on their mannerisms, their interactions with others, and their clothing, grooming, and accessories. (Think: “She dresses like a banker.” or “He looks like a painter.”) 

In app-based dating, that situation is reversed. A typical online profile tells you the person’s name, age, approximate location in relation to you, and, depending on the app, some smattering of information about likes and dislikes — all before you’ve met.  

But, while one or more photos may help you gauge physical attraction, they’re often one-dimensional and typically highly curated, and you don’t get any nonverbal cues. “People can now selectively present themselves in online contexts,” Brody says. “They have control over the images they [share].”  

“There’s a lack of accountability [in online dating],” agrees Jenna Birch, author of The Love Gap, a research-based dating guide for women. “It’s kind of like the Wild Wild West — you don’t know what you’re getting.” 

Fortunately, initial research has shown that this stress of misrepresentation is typically outsized. While we’re still missing context cues when we meet someone in a moderated situation, researchers found that our fear of being duped by someone online is often greater than the chances of it actually happening. When people did intentionally deceive others in their profiles (by using a doctored photo or lying about height, for example), the magnitude of the deception was relatively small. It’s possible, according to these authors, that our instinctual desire for nonverbal cues may make us more nervous about someone’s inauthenticity than we need to be. 

Still, online daters today have to develop the skill of discernment to help them wade through thousands of profiles in search of a match. Birch says she heard this from the people she interviewed for her book. “I realized how downtrodden daters seemed,” she said. “They were exhausted!”  

In a 2016 article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck argued that this exhaustion eventually leads to ambivalence, which might actually be better for our psychological well-being. Investing less emotionally and simply leaning into the “numbers-game” aspect of swiping through potential matches could be the best way to get through the online dating process, she suggested. 

Either way, before potential daters have met a single match face-to-face, one thing is already clear: It’s a long game, not a short one. 

Playing matchmaker 

When you’re at the gym, the cute person next to you on the treadmill might be a dentist, a mail carrier, or a wilderness guide; you don’t know until you’ve spoken. But on the apps, you can sometimes know too much too soon, and there’s a temptation to indulge in what Birch calls “résumé dating” — that is, looking for people based on a checklist (only people who went to Ivy league schools, say, or only people with white-collar jobs).  

This approach can make online dating more efficient by eliminating whole swaths of candidates out of the gate. But the tactic doesn’t always work in your favor. “When you résumé date, you tend to date the same bad fit over and over again,” says Birch. 

Just ask “Kate,” an online dater who thought her ideal mate would be someone who was college-educated and ambitious, taller than she is, and into adventures and coffee. But after many mediocre dates with dudes who checked all the boxes but didn’t bring any chemistry to the table, she got frustrated and abandoned swiping altogether.  

In the end, she married a guy who she met through a friend at work. Her husband is relatively chill, not incredibly ambitious, shorter than she is, and working in a trade rather than a corporate job. But Kate says they work really well together; as it turned out, she needed someone relaxed in her life to balance out her more type A tendencies.  

Our initial reactions (on the apps and in real life) are not always telling of a future partnership. In fact, our “list” probably doesn’t even describe the person we actually need.

How do we apply this hard-won wisdom to the world of online dating? Birch says we have to remember that our initial reactions (on the apps and in real life) are not always great predictors of a future partnership. In fact, our “list” probably doesn’t even describe the person we actually need.  

“Knowing what you want is a rare psychological condition,” Birch says, alluding to a quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow. “Chemistry and connection are what we actually need.” 

To get there, app users should intentionally meet some fellow daters who might not be their typical matches, Birch recommends She also suggests using dating apps that purposefully leave out a person’s résumé details, like university and job title. Birch helped to develop a new dating app called Plum that by design contains very little résumé data and instead encourages prioritizing a person’s ethics and hobbies to inspire chemistry. 

The texting trap 

In a coffee shop or at a bar, if two interested people are going to connect, someone has to start a conversation. Online, texting is the next step once both people swipe right (or approve each other’s profiles, depending on which app is at play).  

But texting a prospective paramour can be both a blessing and a curse: While introverts and others may prefer text to talk, especially at first, experts caution that texting is a poor way to get a read on someone’s full personality and true intentions over the long term.  

“It’s easier for most people to be coherent and well-spoken in a mediated conversation because you can plan and edit [what you want to say],” says Brody, “whereas in an in-person conversation, you need to have fluency.”  

Beyond that, online matches can get caught in an endless loop of texting. Frequent, flirtatious, sometimes sexualized communication can create a false sense of intimacy that never reaches the next step of connecting in person.  

Says online dater Jackie Calder, a 29-year-old based in Seattle: “I hate it when guys want to ‘get to know you’ by messaging back and forth for ages. That leaves nothing to talk about on the first date!” 

Many online daters will say that the best way to get to know someone is to skip the whole “awkward online” chatting stage altogether. Early research is starting to confirm this: While one study noted that some (very brief) online communication can make the first meet-up feel smoother, other research noted that it’s best to meet up within 17 to 23 days of connecting online. After three weeks of chatting, the researchers found what they called “diminishing returns.” 

Taryn Hoover Strupp, also 29, met her now-husband on the apps — but it took awhile to find him because of other, long-winded text conversations that eventually died out. “[At first], I had a hard time having deep conversations with men, and there were a lot of guys who would start conversations with me but never move beyond the basic, surface-level questions,” she says. “I remember one guy in particular, I talked to him for over a month and he never asked me for my phone number or to meet up in person. I think that’s what I hated the most: talking with so many people that clearly never had any intention of going deeper than sporadic text conversations.” 

With the man who became her husband, things moved much more quickly. “Nathan and I chatted for a few days, and then he asked for my phone number. After texting me for a couple days, he asked me out for a drink. This was so refreshing to me, since that whole progression was over the course of about a week.” 

Many online daters will say that the best way to get to know someone is to skip the whole “awkward online” chatting stage altogether.

Diminishing returns can also include ghosting, when someone stops talking to you suddenly, with no explanation; or, as in Strupp’s case, it can be a simple mutual agreement that the excitement has left the building. For some of us, a delayed in-person meetup can actually increase our nervousness around a person’s authenticity, too: Are they really who they say they are? Either way, you’re best off meeting up somewhere in that three-week span after you’ve started a conversation, experts advise. 

When wires get crossed 

The lack of nonverbal cues on dating apps also leads to less savory communication. Without context clues about someone’s likes, dislikes, or intentions, signals can easily get crossed. This has led to the rise of the online-only phenomenon of the dick pic. 

Weiss laughingly says that this is one of the most common online dating issues he hears from his clients. Some people, often men, decide to send pictures of their nether regions to the person they’re chatting with, mostly in hopes of promoting a sexual interaction. Weiss says men are typically turned on by visuals, so they assume a potential partner will be attracted to an image of their body. But in many cases, especially with women, this isn’t true at all. Online anonymity can make brash behavior feel more permitted — but that doesn’t mean that it works for creating relationships in most cases. “Don’t assume that a woman is going to be turned on by what turns you on,” Weiss teaches his clients. “Women want to see that you’re healthy, engaged in community, and self-supporting.” 

In other words, the same rules apply as in face-to-face interactions: Don’t take your pants off in public.  

The paradox of choice 

By the time they connect in person, Brody says couples who meet via apps have often already skipped the typical “first date” conversation. After several weeks of talking or online reconnaissance, they generally know quite a bit about one another. Brody notes that because of this, it’s important to acknowledge what you know about the other person rather than pretending; starting a relationship without transparency doesn’t bode well.  

This may also mean you can move faster than you would if this were your first-ever interaction, according to Weiss. 

But couples who pass the first date and decide to see each other again may be undercut by another psychological phenomenon: “the paradox of choice.” Essentially, if you feel like your opportunities are endless, you’re less apt to actually make a choice.  

The paradox of choice can mean that one or both parties might continue looking for matches online after meeting, or hold off on becoming exclusive. This phenomenon can lead to ghosting, as the daters get bored and continue swiping in search of someone new. 

“There’s this idea that the next best thing is always just a swipe away,” online dater Calder says. “It’s all very superficial.” 

Birch explains that having limited choices can actually help people make better dating decisions; too many choices can be overwhelming. Some apps already use this method to combat the paradox of choice: On Coffee Meets Bagel, for example, daters receive a finite number of “bagels” (or potential matches) each morning. This is designed to make the process feel like less of a game — there’s no swiping — and more like a matchmaking service. “Swiping makes us judge a profile too quickly,” Birch says.

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustrations by Heidi Berton


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