In the past decade, few cultural norms have undergone a more drastic change than dating — and we have the popularization of the dating app to thank for that. But as we all continue to digitize our day-to-day existence and become increasingly reliant on connecting through texts and DMs, it’s a trend that’s only continued to grow.
In 2013, only 5 percent of people ages 18 to 24 used dating apps. According to the Pew Research Center, the amount of users leapt to 22 percent in 2016. This once highly stigmatized social media platform has somehow become the de facto way to date, a process that has also continued to mystify many.
I’ll be the first to admit that I — as someone who’s met every single one of their long-term relationships, hookup buddies, and summer romances thanks to the swipe factory — have experienced my fair share of dating app disappointment.
But from negative experiences always come a little bit of learning, right? After literally sending thousands of messages and going on hundreds of dates, I’ve found that one thing has remained consistent: Allowing yourself to phone it in because you’re on an app is probably the worst thing you can do.That said, this wasn’t a lesson that came easy.
As someone who grew up as the odd one out in an extremely conservative, wealthy, and predominantly white town, I was a big old ball of insecurity who never really felt like I was desirable until the concept of online dating was introduced to me.
When I signed up for my first OkCupid account at 17, I was dazzled by the potential of putting my best foot forward via a carefully-crafted online persona — one that, in my delusion, was guaranteed to attract that incredible fantasy partner we’re all conditioned to believe we deserve.
Equipped with this mindset, I assumed I’d meet my soulmate on a dating app sooner rather than later, because, just so long as I kept checking profiles and hitting the “Like” button, things were bound to work out, right? Well, actually, quite the opposite.
As Dr. Jess Carbino, a relationship expert and sociologist who’s worked with Bumble in the past, put it, the problem was that I viewed these apps as less of a “tool” in my arsenal, and more of an “be-all and end-all” for finding a partner.
“Online dating is just a mechanism to connect with people,” she explains, noting that my beliefs were a common misperception. “I think people need to be mindful of that and be like, ‘What kind of relationship do I want. This is an app that introduces me to someone, but once we’re introduced, what do I want out of it?’”
In short, I didn’t realize until much later that these dating apps didn’t change me, my naivety, or my skewed expectations of what I needed from a partner. They merely expanded my reach.
No amount of “you’re pretty” could fix my inner turmoil — that was something I had to come into myself after years and years of therapy — and so I spent the first few years of my dating life allowing myself to get taken advantage of by people I instinctively knew weren’t the one, breaking my own heart, over and over again.
If I’m being an optimist though, I did learn a lot from having the opportunity to meet nearly every red flag known to existence via app (and, sadly, walking away from some really wonderful people in the process).
What wasn’t okay was using dating apps as a scapegoat for my romantic failures, when the answer — in the form of my penchant for emotionally unavailable wrecks, my habit of sabotaging promising prospects, and propensity for hurting people who were good to me — was in front of my face the entire time. I began to realize that I, personally, was not ready for a relationship.
While not being ready for a relationship is an alright state of mind, I screwed myself over by continually pursuing an idealized yet unrealistic vision of what I wanted from my partner and our romantic situation. That said, as Dr. Carbino alludes, this logical disconnect and disillusion is the same one many other frustrated dating app users feel, because unlike many other types of apps, these ones shouldn’t be about conveniently and instantaneously getting what you want.
Instead, she reiterates that the key to a successful dating app experience is identifying what exactly you want and “taking control and [taking] charge to be an agent in your own relationship.”
So you, too, have to be intensely honest about your own wants and desires at this point.
Do you actually want a relationship? What do you really need from a relationship? Do you have the time and bandwidth to give this a real, palpable shot? Or are you merely pursuing the idea of a “successful” relationship that’s informed by the media or your social circle? Have you already married a seemingly-perfect stranger in your head based on a three-sentence bio? Do they genuinely seem like they’re making an effort to get to know you? Or are they just inconsistently responding to you with one-word answers?
There are a myriad of questions to ask yourself, and though it can be overwhelming and intimidating to get this introspective, you’re ultimately saving yourself a ton of time and emotional energy in the process. Again, knowing exactly where you stand in a potential relationship is the most important (and hardest) part of this all, but with a little practice, per Dr. Carbino, you’ll be dating successfully in no time.
“Once you match, it’s incumbent upon you to make and create these relationships,” Dr. Carbino reemphasizes. “With successful relationships, it’s about what happened after they met. You have to realize that when they eventually get married, that’s not on the apps.”
But in that time, my entire dating life has changed. I’m no longer swiping for hours at a time, constantly wondering what’s wrong with me, trying to “fix” someone else to meet my expectations, or working overtime and bending over backward to keep something alive that was dead on arrival.
Instead, I’m having fun dating, having the occasional tryst, and expanding my friend circle with these people, who may not be suited for an extended romance but make damn good drinking buddies. And when I’m actually ready to settle down, I would’ve already asked myself every difficult question possible.
If used properly, a dating app can be an extremely powerful tool. But just like any other relationship, a successful one starts within you. So take stock, recalibrate, and buckle up for a difficult process that will require a lot of hard work and a vulnerable willingness to take accountability for your own role in what’s happening. It’ll be worth it.
Sandra Song is a writer who specializes in internet trends, pop culture, and sex/relationships. Follow her on Twitter.