One of the strangest parts of being single in the 21st century? The idea that tens, hundreds, even thousands of potential dates sit at the edge of your fingertips every moment of the day; you can order up a date like you order an Uber or takeout. If that weren’t weird enough, there’s a newly added layer to this modern dating culture.
Apps have now been mainstream long enough that people are starting to recognize the other singles in their dating cohort — long-lost visual acquaintances. “As I wade through the seemingly endless parade of Internet people in search of a partner, perhaps the most eerie, dehumanizing recurring aspect (besides garbage messages from sexist men) is seeing the same faces over and over on various apps for years,” writes Kari Paul for Vice. “The phenomenon serves as a subtle reminder that we are all still single, breeding a strange familiarity whether we match or not.”
I don’t remember exactly when I downloaded my first dating app, but it was at least several years ago. These days, I’ve got a running joke with several of the guys with whom I’ve matched many times on many apps. I call one my “text boyfriend.” We’ve kept in on/off touch for two years, during various periods of singleness, without ever meeting up. I lost hope after a few called-off dates in the beginning of our interactions; I’m sure he did the same.
I also match with another guy, every single time I re-download a dating app. He always seems to be one of the first to pop up in my feed. We almost met up once, but he lost my number (*tear*), and I jokingly refused to lob it back over to him. Sometimes, we tease about our virtual relationship. “Catch you next time at our regular match?”
Who are all these people, with stories and life histories of their own? I’m not sure. Why are we encountering the same people over and over again? I have a few ideas. Here are some thoughts on why we’re matching with the same people over and over and over again, and how to turn that phenomenon around.
Reason No. 1: You’ve all fallen victim to too many choices.
The moment you decide to scroll through apps for potential partners, there’s this illusion of options upon options. The imagination is a crippling beast and usually a bit outlandish in its expectations: One date, no matter how good, can hardly live up to all the awesome fun you could be having with a “potentially perfect” match that still awaits you. As if that person even exists.
This is the Paradox of Choice in action; more is not always better, especially not when it hinders your ability to choose at all. “It’s easy to find and get the best, so why not do it?” writes Aziz Ansari, in a Time story adapted from his book Modern Romance. “If you are in a big city or on an online-dating site, you are now comparing your potential partners not just to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person to whom no one could measure up.”
The workaround strategy: It’s not uncommon to find men and women who are on the hunt for better and better — or to see how good they can get. How do you know? They are loath to commit to regular time with you. Aim for one date per week in the beginning. If a person can’t find that sort of time in their schedule, they’re not in any rush to commit. On top of that, less than one date a week and you will lose momentum with a person you don’t know well, and feel as if you’re reliving the first date over and over again. Does this sound like them? Does it sound like you?
No. 2: You aren’t being active enough.
Apps seem heaven-sent for some. In the past, you really had to step up your in-person confidence if you wanted to meet a stranger and potentially get a date. Now the dance has changed. “If you’re single, struggling to reconcile the distance that the Internet somehow both creates and closes between potential partners, how better to avoid the social awkwardness of face-to-face interactions and assuage the fear of rejection than by sliding into some hot girl’s DMs, comfortable in the illusion of a personal conversation without actually having one?” writes Elisabeth Sherman for Rolling Stone.
We’ve grown so used to this “sliding” and “avoidance” that lots of people are phoning it in when it comes to love and romance. They’re window shopping on apps instead of using them to actually set up dates. They’re so used to digitally dating (which isn’t dating at all) that the idea of a real, live date is daunting.
The workaround strategy: Like anything in life, you need to set firm goals for yourself. I think it’s nice to mix up the kinds of people you’re interacting with at any one time. I typically aim for two people —one who reached out to me first, and one who I reached out to first. This way, you make sure you’re active in the process. (Ladies, if you tend to sit on your hands and wait for messages to roll in, download Bumble and force yourself to get more engaged.)
No. 3: You aren’t setting up actual dates.
Just like me, there are plenty of people out there with “text boyfriends” (or text girlfriends), perpetual matches, or people who they message with sporadically … for quite a long time. Tinder is actually sending a pair of Kent State University seniors on their first-ever date after they jokingly messaged each other for three years via the app.
It’s easy to fall into this trap: swipe, match, move on with your life. But there are ways to avoid this trap too.
The workaround strategy: You need to start weeding out phantom prospects by either messaging them or refusing to match with them. Give them the benefit of the doubt at first; if you’ve seen a person on an app platform before, you are both guilty of matching without interaction.
The next time you see that familiar profile, do another serious look. Ask yourself, “Am I excited enough about this match that I am willing to reach out now and break the silence?” If the answer is no, left swipe; the profile is just cluttering up your feed, distracting you from profiles with more potential. If the answer is yes, right swipe and reach out immediately (or as soon as you match again).
No. 4: You’re an “avoidant attacher.”
If you have not read Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, consider doing so. It’s an eye-opening book that explains a lot of common relationship cycles. In Attached, authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller highlight three common attachment styles. There are secure attachers, roughly 50 percent of the population, who typically form healthy relationships with significant others. There are anxious attachers, around 20 percent, who worry about their relationships and their partner’s availability and desire to meet their needs. Finally, roughly 30 percent of the population is avoidant, meaning they see intimacy and attachment as a weakness and loss of personal independence.
Although they’re just 30 percent of the general population, avoidant attachers are more abundant in the dating pool for a reason that’s obvious in their namesake: They avoid commitment and intimacy, typically end relationships more frequently, and wind up in the dating pool for longer periods of time than secure or anxious attachers. People you see repeatedly, and match with regularly, might be this type.
Of course, the people you see over and over again could also just be coincidentally unattached at the same times that you are. Relationships end for everyone, and then you turn back to the dating pool. But it’s good to know what you’re dealing with, as avoidant attachers are not naturally inclined toward commitment.
The workaround strategy: It’s wise to figure out attachment styles no matter how you meet someone. However, if you meet online in this dating culture, it’s perhaps even more important to know if a person is avoidant. Susan Walsh of the blog Hooking Up Smart identifies some great filtering strategies for avoidant attachers that you can look for early on and later on while dating someone; including mixed messages, ignoring things you say that inconvenience them, maintaining their distance, and selectively responding to you.
If you encounter a person like this in the early days of dating, you may want to tread lightly until you know this person can be emotionally available in a way that’s mutually agreeable. That said, watch out for daters who issue a blatant red flag, or someone who “uses Miranda Rights in dating,” writes Walsh. “[He] warns you up front that he is a ‘bad boyfriend’ or not ready for commitment to absolve himself of emotional responsibility … but doesn’t walk away; ‘If you get hurt, it’s your own fault.’”
Later on in relationships, you can use some of Walsh’s other strategies to determine an avoidant tendency, like disregarding your emotional well-being, suggesting that you are needy, having an inability to consider feelings in their assessments, maintaining a defensive argument style, or seeming to separate sex from emotional intimacy.
In cases of relationships where you have an established investment in someone, I’d gently make the person aware of his or her insecure attachment style (there are lots of online quizzes), so that individual can take active steps to work on these behaviors that keep others at a distance. (Therapy can sometimes be helpful.) If that person can’t own up to the issues and be more available to meet your needs, the individual will never have a healthy relationship — with you or anyone else.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, a dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to email@example.com with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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