dating in the dark: opting out of the app revolution

What happens to your romantic life if you don’t use dating apps?

by Josh Baines
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29 May 2018, 8:07am

For years, I’ve been slowly sculpting a fantasy. On a near nightly basis I dig out a chisel begin tapping away. The scenario begins with me sitting on a train or outside a pub or next to a branch of Itsu in a shopping centre. In this dream, this vision, I am gripped by a kind of sadness that I cannot name, an implacable loss that won’t fully reveal itself to me. To stem this unbearable sensation I dig out a copy of the London Review of Books from my tote bag. It is linty and worn. The staples have loosened. A double page spread that I cannot read – a review of a translation of The Iliad, perhaps, or an Andrew O’Hagan essay about refuse management in Glasgow – falls to my feet. I bend down to pick it up, to stuff it back inside the covers, and as I do so, I stumble and fall and my landing is cushioned by the page that displays the personal adverts.

I make out the following words:

Warm, witty literate feminist, 51, seeks companionable single male, lefty with London ties. Politically engaged professor, of relatively sound mind and body. I read, cook, sing, garden, walk, laugh.

I realise I want to speak to this person. I want to let them know that I have seen their advert and that it touched me and that I too read, cook, sing, garden, walk, laugh and that I don’t just do those things but am actively seeking a partner who also laughs and walks and gardens and sings and cooks and reads. But there are no contact details. This is where I down tools and accept that reality always lurks around the corner of any dream, that sleep’s cocoon is built to shatter.

The reason why even my fantasies – if we can apply a word that implies a level of lust and illicitness to something so sappingly suburban – are boring failures is simple: I am single, and have been for a relatively long time, considering I am a city-dwelling 28-year-old.

My last relationship came into being in April 2014, and ended in January of last year. Since then I have not been on a date, met anyone for a drink or sat in the giddy near-silence that often falls over the back seats of Ubers as Toyota Prius’ hurtle through the Rotherhithe tunnel on early Sunday mornings.

To be an unswiping singleton in 2018 is to accept voluntary excommunication from the world of dating.

There have been no afternoons in galleries, or evenings at the cinema. I haven’t sat patiently smiling as a potential partner takes a photo of their josperised sea bass at Palomar. The reason for that, I think, is simple: I have never used a dating app.

Which means, effectively, every day on Earth is an extension on an act of supreme self-sabotage. To be an unswiping singleton in 2018 is to accept voluntary excommunication from the world of dating.

Hannah is 29. She lives in London, works in PR, and has been single for the past six months. Her previous relationship began in a salon nearly a decade ago. In dating terms, this marks her out as an almost prehistoric relic of the analogue dating age. “The last time I was single it was still considered super weird and creepy to meet people online and I think that’s where my brain is still stuck,” she tells me when I ask why she’s reticent to download an app and swipe her way to coupledom.

A friend showed her how Tinder worked, which Hannah found “pretty gross”. For people like Hannah and I, mingled in with the fear of rejection, and the comfort that comes with telling yourself that there is a solid, definable, and undeniable reason as to why you’re single, there is something distinctly uneasy about the mechanical, binary aspect of the swipe experience.

She tells me she thinks there’s something “desperate” about “going on 100 dates with 100 strangers,” adding that, “if you want to bang 100 people you’re probably in the right place.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with that: even relative dinosaurs like Hannah and I have to accept that the sexual marketplace has changed at an alarming rate since we last took our wicker baskets out.

“I think some people are utterly afraid of being alone,” she says. “and that’s how this mass dating culture has developed. There’s always a ‘next one’.”

People want the perfect relationship, the Instagrammable life, without realising that keeping a relationship alive is hard work.

One of the lesser mentioned aspects of existing in a Tinderfied world is the anxiety that such platforms can instill – even for those of us who don’t have a portal of potentiality tucked away somewhere in our pockets.

“I always wonder,” says Otto, a 24-year-old video editor from Munich, “how people are able to turn an online chat into a one night stand, or a series of dates, or a stable relationship. I can’t even order pizza over the phone.”

He tells me that his only experience with dating apps came around five or six years ago. “I didn’t know how to start those kind of conversations,” he says. “It also made me feel like I wasn’t good looking, or buff enough to really get anything going.”

A recent, and very brief, excursion into the world of Instagram DMing proved to be so stressful that I abandoned a conversation mid-stream. The excitement that friends of mine have around romancing a virtual stone, of sharing Shrek GIFs and on-the-nose memes about nihilism is not something I can process, let alone participate in.

Hannah believes that the “right people” have a habit of arriving in our life if you step back and wait. This is either very sound advice or yet another excuse I can pilfer for the next time a friend of a friend asks why I’m still a sad and sorry singleton.

Perhaps that sense of exhaustion, of throat-grabbing panic, of wanting to chuck my phone into the murkiest bend of the Thames and never see the prodding probe of an unread message again is more widely held than it seems. Hannah hypothesizes that "while the offer of constant communication means we’ve never been so connected to each other, it has also resulted in us being a lonely generation, craving the kind of quick hit that Bumble or Grindr offer." It is instant response as instant validation. It is understandable.

It is terrifying, too. For those of us who’re yet to succumb to that night bus home download, dating has never been so hard. Otto tells me he has “no idea at all” as to where people find partners out there in reality these days.

Hannah, on the other hand, is a bit more optimistic. “The best way to meet someone new? By not looking at all.” She believes that the “right people” have a habit of arriving in our life if you step back and wait. This is either very sound advice or yet another excuse I can pilfer for the next time a friend of a friend asks why I’m still a sad and sorry singleton.

Both Otto and Hannah think, with good reason, the dating has changed radically, and irreversibly. There’s an instantaneousness that didn’t exist in the not-too-distant past, and a sense of disposability that goes hand in hand with this. This, really, is what keeps me away from dipping my toe into the app world. As Otto puts it, “it seems like now people tend to switch their partners far more often than they did before. Physicality, looks, these things are becoming more important than affection and character and actual love.”

Hannah echoes his thoughts, noting that “it’s like we seem to forgo the most crucial part of relationships, which is a deep connection to another person, for a more ‘on the surface’ relationship.” She adds that “people want the perfect relationship, the Instagrammable life, without realising that keeping a relationship alive is hard work. Dating apps have made it too easy to just bail and go find someone else.”

There’s an argument to be made that people like myself are using an affected sense of archaism as a flimsy defence mechanism. It is easier to reject Tinder than try it and fail. Delving into detailed daydreams about personal ads involves less rejection than selecting a photo and a strapline that sells you the way you want to be bought.

But it leaves you lost, confused, feeling like a man out of time, wondering where the world went. Wondering where everyone else went. Even that, though, isn’t enough to get me starting to swipe right. Not yet, anyway.