If I were to ask you how your last date went, what would you say?
The truth is that online dating is a minefield. It doesn’t matter whether you’re seeking a long-term relationship or something casual. When it comes to online dating, nothing is certain, and navigating the pool of dating apps almost requires a degree. With the many options, desires, and wishes, online dating is obviously more complex than simply swiping right (or left) on Tinder.
And yet, we’re all on these platforms to meet someone. We are looking for someone to whom we feel connected. And this is also the crux. We’ve come at a time in history when, in principle, finding someone special has never been easier. However, just because we now have many potential candidates on our cell phone screens waiting for us to swipe doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. Aren’t we tired of the unsatisfying state of uncertainty, affairs, and dreaded non-relationships? Maybe, thanks to technology, we’ve lost sight of feeling butterflies, a sense of excitement, and possibility. Or maybe, we’re simply being realistic, not wanting to get hurt, and therefore, gloss over the constant disappointment that is online dating.
Romantic love, the brain, and the love economy
Unfortunately, restrictions on physical gatherings due to the pandemic are likely to last — at least in one form or the other. Therefore, unsurprisingly, technology will remain at the center of our search for love.
A search that is becoming increasingly important while at the same time decisively shapes our behavior how we search. On the one hand, this type of dating is insanely focused on appearances. On the other, algorithms are constantly displaying the people we have already shortlisted based on predefined criteria. These prescribed combinations of preferences are composed of what you implicitly tell the application which partners you want in your configuration and interactive and collaborative filtering.
The idea of analyzing singles as a market may be useful to sociologists or economists to some extent, but widespread adoption by singles themselves may lead to distorted views of love. Increasingly, dating has become a numbers game or a marketplace in which single people just have to keep shopping until they find “the one.” Just how we internalize this notion can be seen by describing someone newly single: “back on the market.”
This phenomenon, coined as “relationshopping,” complicates an essential point when arousing love, attraction, or desire: it must spark. However, the neurochemical attraction impact needed to feel this spark is rarely created by dating apps, according to the prominent Oxford University academic and relationship researcher Dr. Anna Machin. Quite on the contrary, the vast possibilities and pool of potential partners can lead to overstimulation, making us question and feel like we can’t seem to find a spark with anyone.
We can’t force connections.
On a neurological level, romantic love is ruled by three interlinking brain systems: lust, attraction, and attachment. These systems influence how we relate to someone and have reciprocal effects on whether and how we fall for someone.
The main characteristic of the lust system is the increase in testosterone and estrogen, which drive us to have sexual desire and, therefore, prompt us to act on these feelings. The attraction system is mainly supported by dopamine and serotonin. It then limits our attention to a partner who is genetically more suitable for us. During this obsessive phase, serotonin levels drop sharply, creating a feeling of emptiness and a strong obsession with another person. According to studies, the brain produces a surge of dopamine when exposed to a fresh stimulus, which is why dopamine is also nicknamed the “reward neurochemical.”
Finally, the attachment system (through hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin) helps us maintain connections long enough to bond and feel certain about someone. However, when we are attracted to someone, we need signals of security, according to several studies. Meaning, when we’re uncertain about the intentions of our date or feel like we’re sitting in a meeting rather than at a date, we think of our date as less sexually appealing.
And this is exactly the problem: we can’t force connections. I’ve been on dates with people who were perfect on paper, only in real life that perfectly didn’t play out. I was happy to chat for hours with a date, only to find no attraction when I got to know them in person. Because of these little mini-disappointments, I also kept taking online dating breaks.
Actually, the disappointment of a perfect candidate turning out to be less-than isn’t just painful in the moment, but according to scientists in Geneva, can have a long-lasting toxic effect on our future ability to find the spark with future potential partners because constant disappointment re-wires our brain to become more cautious and less likely to trust people.
Love is not a stock exchange nor an algorithm.
The dating market may have always existed, but today people believe strongly that they can see and describe it and control their place in it. However, there is nothing less romantic than sifting through romantic candidates, narrowing down possibilities at love, and in the process become disappointed and disillusioned.
Looking at love from an economic viewpoint makes us gloss over what we actually feel and intrigues us to assume that the chances of finding “the one” increase. By trying to categorize and speeding up the process thanks to technology, arguably, we’ve put ourselves in this emotional quandary to begin with.
People who call dating a number game sound indifferent and pragmatic, leading them to adopt more probability-based dating methods. But they can also suppress any honest expression of painful human loneliness or desire that makes them do mathematical calculations.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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