Is dating dead?
Dating apps don’t work. Everyone knows everyone. And among millennials, dating is nearly extinct.
Most big cities boast a robust dating pool where singles can meet a mate. But in Sacramento, the sixth largest city in California, many locals say it’s more like a dating pond.
“Everyone knows everyone here! It’s awful. The worst,” says Meghan Vanderford, a 26-year-old project manager and Instagram model. As if on cue, a local journalist who was briefly involved with her former roommate strolls by; Vanderford bursts out laughing.
“If you grew up here, it gets kind of messy,” adds Stephen Jay Lewis, 24, who works as an administrative assistant in his family’s business. “People you date will know people you went to high school with or other people from your past, and if those people thought badly of your character, that’s going to reflect on you as you start dating. It’s happened to friends of mine and it’s unfortunate.”
Theoretically, apps such as Bumble, Tinder, or Coffee Meets Bagel are digital matchmakers connecting people to partners they would never meet otherwise. But who in Sac hasn’t swiped left multiple times on exes, coworkers, or a friend’s former spouse?
It’s not as if we don’t have enough singles in the region. About 60 percent of adults in the city of Sacramento are solo: divorced, widowed, separated or never married. In Sacramento and Yolo counties, about 50 percent of adults are single; it’s 42 percent in Placer and El Dorado counties. That’s a significant inventory of possible mates, but availability isn’t the real problem. The truth is, dating has lost its allure. And among millennials, dating is nearly extinct.
“Dating apps have ruined the concept of dating,” says Lewis, a trans man who is seeing someone he met offline. “You can put what you want on the profile. Your personality traits aren’t listed. It’s all about your age, your physical features, a hyper-focus on what your job is. Dating used to be about genuinely getting to know a person and seeing if you’re compatible. Now it’s like: Is this person attractive and do I want to sleep with them?”
More choices, fewer connections
Previous generations met significant others through family or close friends within a limited social network that revolved around church, university or work. Then in 1995, Match.com launched its internet dating site and forever changed how we search for love. OkCupid and Plenty of Fish arrived in the early 2000s. Grindr, a LGBTQ hookup app hit the marketplace in 2007, followed by Tinder, a hookup app for the cisgender population, in 2012. But it was the birth of the iPhone in 2007 that plunged digital dating into the mainstream.
Today we have an abundance of potential mates at our fingertips, each of whom might be a forever love. At least, that’s what the companies behind the apps advertise. Most adults know one or two people who met online and later married or moved in together. But everyone knows dozens of people who never find lasting love through dating apps.
A 2016 Pew Research Center poll confirmed that only 5 percent of Americans who are in a marriage or committed relationship met their partner online. According to the study: “Even among Americans who have been with their spouse or partner five years or less, fully 88 percent say that they met their partner offline—without the help of a dating site.”
Who is searching for love online? Pew Research reports that since 2013 the use of dating apps has tripled among 18-to 24-year-olds and doubled among 55- to 64-year-olds. So why doesn’t online dating result in more committed relationships?
This is your brain on Tinder
Gamified dating apps such as Tinder are the kissing cousins of casino slot machines. Both operate on what’s called a “variable schedule reward” or “unpredictable reward” system. An article in Psychology Today notes the parallels: “Players don’t know when, while pulling a lever or pressing a button, they will hit a jackpot; they play knowing that eventually, but not exactly when, someone who pulls the lever will win.
“Tinder works on the same principle: Users don’t know when, while swiping, they will match with an individual they deem attractive. And users do not know when, after engaging in a conversation, a match will reply.”
In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, gaming entrepreneur Nir Eyal writes: “Let’s admit it, we’re all in the persuasion business. We call these people users and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish each one of them would become fiendishly hooked to whatever we’re making.”
It’s happening. One study showed that a typical millennial spends 10 hours a week on Tinder, about 85 minutes a day for men and 79 minutes a day for women. That’s 520 hours a year that could otherwise be invested in finding love in real life.
But for many, the compulsive use of Tinder and other dating apps has nothing to do with wanting to find a match and everything to do with what cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll calls “a rabbit hole out of the self.”
Translation: We’re uncomfortable inhabiting our own lives.
Hobbies include texting
Joaquin Razo, a 32-year-old East Sacramento resident, is among those who have found it difficult to move app connections offline. He’s busy—Razo commutes daily to his job as the vice-president and chief strategy officer for the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce. He’s also in grad school and exercises twice a day (he’s dropped 100 pounds in the last year).
But his schedule isn’t the biggest obstacle.
“Conversations start on an app, then the girl disappears, then two days later she wants to pick it up. I’m very much like, ‘Can we just get this done?'” He snaps his fingers. “Can we have a phone conversation, meet up for a drink and decide? I don’t like the whole cat-and-mouse game. I’d rather have a phone conversation than a text conversation. A lot of girls would rather have a conversation over text just because they want to be able to talk to somebody.”
LaDonna Lee, 46, had the same trouble on Tinder.
“Messages went back and forth. The men would not ever schedule a date,” says the pro-polyamory community activist. “I have a philosophy that I don’t chase men. I firmly believe that the pursuit part of dating is a masculine trait. So I will make my interests known and hold that interest so men can pursue. But on Tinder, the men wanted to be pursued. I’d get messages like: ‘Hi Beautiful. What are you doing?’ But never: ‘Are you busy Friday?'”
The addictive quality of dating apps means more people use them for a dopamine hit than for a date. More than 44 percent of people in one national online dating survey admitted they weren’t swiping to meet a mate. Bored and feeling insecure, they were swiping for what the survey called “confidence-boosting procrastination” purposes.
There’s also the dilemma of decision overload. In 2000, Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar and Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper identified a phenomenon that has since been used to partly explain online dating’s failure to lead to love in real life. In the original experiment, shoppers at an upscale grocery store were presented with 24 different kinds of jam and couldn’t make a decision about which one to buy. When offered six choices, shoppers easily selected one and claimed to be completely satisfied with their choice. The research concluded that a glut of possibilities leads to decision paralysis and dissatisfaction.
Apply those findings to digital dating, and it’s easy to see why singles eager to meet partners are struggling. Apps present users with seemingly endless choices and just enough detail to intrigue our imaginations. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies the science of love, told the MIT Technology Review that choice overload is a genuine problem with dating apps—and the sites know it. Fisher is the chief scientific advisor to Match.com, part of the same parent company as Tinder and OkCupid.
Are 50 first dates the new normal?
Razo’s friends teasingly call him “old school” because he likes to ask women on dates.
“Dating is courtship, the time to put someone on a pedestal, spoil them, take them out for an activity, talk and learn whether you can both achieve together what you want to achieve in the future,” explains Razo, who will soon be divorced from his college sweetheart after six years of marriage.
But he’s discovering that millennial women fear courtship.
“When you court someone, they think there’s something wrong with you. They read too much into things. When you’re nice to them in the beginning, they think you’re going to become a serial killer later. Courtship isn’t allowed anymore because it’s questioned.”
Can we blame Lifetime?
The cable network’s movies mostly spin the same plot: Don’t trust men who are nice to you. Last September the network launched You, a psychological thriller about two 20-somethings whose relationship teeters between love and obsession. In season one, Joe, a bookstore clerk pursues Beck, an aspiring writer. Joe is cute, attentive and thoughtful, but just below his desire to become Beck’s bae lurks a need to murder anyone who might direct her focus away from him. Based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes, the series also deftly reveals how to scour social media for everything you want to know about someone but were afraid to ask.
Razo’s friends created dating app accounts for him when he announced that his marriage was ending. “I’ve been on 10 Bumble dates, five dates through Coffee Meets Bagel, but only one second date and no third dates.”
Second dates are increasingly rare, experts say. To find out why, Priceonomics, an online site that aggregates data into stories, conducted a survey of young professional heterosexual males in New York and San Francisco. The reason most gave for not asking for a second date? “She was boring.” Studies by other firms reveal that women often refuse second dates because the initial meeting felt too much like a therapy session.
Researchers at Harvard University found that first dates rarely lead to second dates unless both parties ask questions that show genuine interest. The key is to ask 15 questions, including a few that dive below the surface of the answers you receive. The average number of questions people ask is 10. Researchers noted that people refrain from asking questions because they don’t want to appear nosy. Or worse, they don’t know how to ask questions focused on getting to know another person. Instead, they’re firing inquiries like a drill sergeant: What do you do for a living? Do you have your own place? Any children? Why did your last relationship end?
It’s a huge turn off.
“There’s a ‘check the boxes’ mentality, and I’m guilty of it, too,” says Razo. “It’s like watching The Bachelor. I have to go through all of these women and check the boxes until I find the right one.”
Vanderford, who has a long-term boyfriend, says she has never tried a dating app. “I don’t have a problem meeting people in person,” she says. “I’m social. I’m not shy.”
She says online dating is popular among her more introverted friends. She frequently warns them not to second guess themselves if they’re ghosted.
“Don’t get so into your mind that you’re saying, ‘I shouldn’t have said that or done that on the first date.’ That’s you, though. If they don’t like it, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means you’re not compatible.”
There are a lot of people in this world, Vanderford points out. “If a man isn’t treating you right, move on. If he doesn’t text you back, on to the next. Don’t get caught up. Don’t let them hurt you.”
Sometimes the reason you haven’t heard back is because you’re interacting with a dead profile. OKCupid calculated that 96 percent of eHarmony profiles are inactive. At 93.1 percent inactive profiles, Match.com was slightly better. That means a whopping 19 out of 20 profiles on these two sites represent members who are no longer around or who can’t respond because their subscription isn’t paid.
Maybe that also helps explain Sacramento’s limited dating pool.
Why can’t we be friends?
Facebook rolled out a dating site for a test run in Colombia last year, with plans to expand to the United States soon. It’s a swipe-free app designed to connect users to people who are genuinely interested in them. You can’t just type, “Heyyyyy!” for example. You must craft a thoughtful response to a potential date’s photos, or answer questions she or he has posted. People you’ve already blocked on Facebook won’t be among your matches.
There’s significant excitement in the digital world about Facebook Dating, but Lee is ahead of the game. She’s been mining dates on the social media platform for more than a year.
She says she was tired of meet-ups with men who looked and acted nothing like their profiles. It’s a common complaint. The older people are, the more likely they are to post decades-old photos or lie about their height, weight and marital status. So she began searching among men who were friends of her Facebook friends.
“On Facebook you get real first and last names. And, depending how active a person is, you get their mom, cousins, best friends. You get to see if you share mutual interests, you get to see their intellectual expression, you get to see their wit. You see a lot about a man.”
If a man accepts her friend request, Lee takes time to get to know him online, hoping to see the kind of personality traits she admires.
“I like the mystic, the revolutionary, the activist, the ‘Rage Against the Machine’ kind of man,” she says. “I like a black man who is not afraid to fearlessly speak the truth.”
Her observation period can take months, but Lee says it’s worth it.
“By the time a man moves to liking then hearting my pictures, then commenting, then messaging me, I have a really good idea of who I’m talking to.”
It’s how she met her current partner who she says is a perfect match.
We’d rather mate than date
Between dead profiles, ghosting and jonesing for dopamine hits, it’s not unusual to believe that someone who shows a little interest is “The One.” Or maybe people just want to hookup because they can.
“I read a meme the other day about millennials that said, ‘Sex first, then if you like them go on a date, and see where it goes,'” Vanderford says.
Razo, a Catholic, has conflicted feelings about first date sex.
“I have to feel I’m emotionally connected to someone to have sex, but I’m not opposed to having sex on a first date. I won’t have a second date with someone I had sex with on the first date. This sounds judgmental but I appreciate someone who wants to wait until the second or third date to have sex.”
Vanderford’s attitude is inspired by how she feels in the moment. “I don’t believe in waiting for the third date. Sex first. It worked for me. I’m not big on playing games. You can kiss on the first date. You can kiss on the fifth date. There are no rules. Do what feels right for you.”
Hopefully, that includes insisting on a condom or dental dam to reduce the risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted illness. More than 20 million new cases of STDs occur every year in the United States, and more than half are in people under 25. But STD rates keep rising for adults over 55, too, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some reports say baby boomers are having more casual sex, but aren’t as likely to use protection as younger generations.
While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex, hookup culture is killing traditional dating. The ritual of getting to know someone slowly over time is dying, replaced by the ease of a one-night stand. We’re not courting and we’re rarely committing anymore. Instead, we’re in bed with our phones, scrolling the virtual world for byte-sized bursts of connection.
Joey Garcia writes the “Ask Joey” column for SN&R. She’s also a certified life coach who helps clients create more satisfying relationships and conquer creative goals. Joey’s book, When Your Heart Breaks, It’s Opening to Love, received a national award for promoting tolerance and forgiveness. Find her at joeygarcia.com.