Do you feel emotionally fatigued by modern dating? Stylist investigates the rise of dating burnout

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Alexandra Jones
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New research shows the majority of women feel emotionally fatigued by modern dating. So can we reignite our passion? Stylist investigates

Words: Alexandra Jones
Illustration: Chloe Sharp

How much emotion goes into a right or left swipe? How about 20 swipes? A hundred? What is the accumulated weight of a thousand tiny emotional investments? How heavy is your heart after the person you matched with, messaged with, met with – the person who got your hopes up after all those other dud dates – turns out to be another disappointment? Do you pick yourself up after yet another promising start ends up with yet another unasked for d*ck pic? Do you tell yourself it’s just a numbers game when the person who said they were looking for a relationship turns out to be in a relationship? Or do you feel that familiar crush of anger and exhaustion when you realise the one date you didn’t even like that much is ghosting you?

In short, is it any wonder that so many women who are actively using dating apps feel drained and over it? In a study for, anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher (whose three TED talks on the neuroscience of love have been watched 15 million times) found that 54% of women currently feel exhausted by modern dating. As foster agency worker Yaa Osei-Asibey, 30, explains: “I’ve been on Tinder for a while now and my general cycle is constant swiping, finally making a match, some good banter and eventually, a meet-up. They inevitably end up being an idiot so feeling crushed, I delete the app – then download it again a week later to start over.”

Burnout is characterised by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy and while we’ve become more adept at spotting and treating these symptoms in our working lives, we very rarely practise the same level of self-care when it comes to dating. And with so many apps now available, each offering a sleekly designed slip-road onto the modern dating super-highway, it’s easy to feel fatigued. From Tinder, the original and still most popular swipe-right-on- the-ones-you-like app; to Bumble, where women have to send the first message; Her, the award-winning app for lesbian, bisexual and queer women; and Hinge, which suggests people with whom you have friends in common, the choices are, if not endless, certainly overwhelming. And as we all know, more choice doesn’t necessarily make for an easier love life. Does the person you’re speaking to expect a hook-up, a date, a relationship? Are they using the same code as you with their profile pic: their bio says they want to get serious, but they’ve used a shot of them in bed... are they just after sex? While the highway may be more populated than ever, it’s also rife with collisions and disappointments because everyone is dating by a different set of rules.

“I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been messaging, agonising over whether one ‘x’ is too cold, and then the guy comes straight out and asks me for a blow job ‘because you look like the type’,” says copywriter Louise Bardly, 37. “And I never get used to it. If that happened in a bar, you’d slap them, but it’s almost like it’s accepted on certain apps as just part of the ‘banter’.”

Two years ago, Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales called the rise of Tinder “the dawn of the dating apocalypse”, lamenting the end of IRL chat-up lines and slow-grown intimacy. Now, though, many of us recognise those early days as a golden age for app dating; an age where people talked more and swiped less. “Even when you match, people don’t seem to message any more,” says 29-year-old recruitment consultant Sophie Wallis, who has been single for almost six months. “I start swiping on a Sunday night – the busiest time of week on the apps – and usually get four or five matches. But it’s so rare anything comes of them. If they talk at all, the conversation is stilted.”

And if you do make it to an actual date, new disappointments await. “Lots of guys talk relentlessly about how much they earn, which puts me off,” says Wallis. “There so rarely seems to be a genuine connection that it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve wasted an evening. I’ll just go home and feel even worse about my situation.”

The emotional dip-and-soar prompted by matching, messaging and meeting with strangers can leave even the most outgoing people feeling jaded. “I feel myself getting more cynical about everything, not just dating,” says Bardly. “It’s like all the accumulated stress of being insulted or ignored or propositioned by these guys I’m not even that interested in turns into this ball of anger. And that’s when I know it’s time to come off the apps for a bit, until I stop feeling like I want to pick a fight with everyone.”

Addicted to love

So, why do we even bother? Madeleine Mason is a psychologist and co-founder of PassionSmiths, a dating coaching company. She points out that modern dating apps do work – Tinder alone processes 1.4 billion swipes every day and facilitates 26 million matches. “They’re good tools for meeting people.” The real problem, she says, “is our mindset and the way we use dating apps”.

In the Seventies, researchers Edward L Deci and Richard Ryan conducted a ground-breaking psychological study into what motivates us, as humans, to achieve our goals. They theorised that when engaging in almost any activity, a person’s “feelings of self-worth can become hinged to their performance, such that they do [an] activity to prove to themselves that they are good at the activity.” If that activity happens to be app dating – with its relentless match-message- meet cycle that seems to yield few positive results – it’s easy to see how the hit to our sense of self-worth could leave us feeling lacklustre and burned out.

Even so, the apps can hook us. “App dating – the thumb-flick and feeling of validation when there’s a match – it’s like drugs,” says clinical psychologist Richard Sherry. Just the anticipation of a match is enough to prompt a spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine – the brain chemical responsible for, among other things, addiction. “I’ve treated gambling addiction in the past and I would say it’s a similar mechanism,” adds Mason. “We have a very well-developed reward circuitry in the brain: we can look at something, think about the possible outcome and that simple prediction is enough to prompt a rush of dopamine.”

We may hate it, it may leave us feeling hopeless, but the need to succeed can be overwhelming. We feel pressure to be our wittiest and most engaging in messages, expend way too much energy decoding cryptic texts, endure the nerve-jangling build-up to the first date and then the crashing disappointment when we archive the conversations, never to speak again. And instead of opting out, we’re compelled to continue. Burnout is just one logical conclusion.

Great expectations

“On one of my first app dates, the guy showed me how he and his friends used it,” says single mum Rajita Randhawa, 36. “He used his finger to rapidly swipe right on everyone without even looking. It didn’t seem to be about meeting someone at all – it was more about the number of matches.” Women, however, tend to be more selective, reading profiles, evaluating the pictures and making a judgment they’re more likely to stick with.

Annoyingly, a number of studies into the burnout phenomenon have found that the higher our expectations, the more prone we are to burning out. Perfectionism, it turns out, isn’t just hard on your self-esteem, it is also a passion killer. “Women often enter an ‘optimising’ phase of their lives between the ages of 29 and 35,” says Sherry. “They’re more likely to look for meaningful connections – partly due to the fact they’re thinking more seriously about their fertility and wanting to maximise the relationship time but also because they’re surer of their own identity. They are more likely to question whether a potential partner is worth the time and emotional investment.”

“A bad date makes for a good story to tell your friends, but ultimately it is a bad experience which can dent your confidence,” says teacher Laura Drinkwater, 29. She swipes left at least 300 times before she sees someone she likes. “My friends say I’m too fussy but I’ve been doing it for 18 months now, and I feel like I have enough amusing anecdotes.”

So, what’s the solution to dating burnout? First, invest time in your other relationships. Time spent with friends is a good way of reconnecting with the things you actually enjoy about other people – beyond their potential for a hook-up. It’s also a chance to revise your goals for dating, says relationship expert Mairead Molloy. “People become obsessive about the fact they don’t have a partner and they forget their own identity. They meet for the sake of meeting and they outgrow their own wishlist.”

Sadly, rejection on some scale is inevitable with dating apps when there are such large numbers involved. But you can choose how you deal with it. “It can sometimes trigger unhealthy eating habits or heavy drinking to try and get over the rejection,” observes Sherry. Find ways for coping that make you feel better, not worse, such as exercise.

And it’s not all bad news on the app front. A number of newer apps are trying to put the soul back into finding a soulmate (sorry) and offering an antidote to burnout by giving us a better idea of what our intended is actually like. Attrct – currently in its testing phase – allows you to upload ‘stories’ (short videos, text and photos) so people who match can connect over hobbies, holidays and everything in-between.

The idea, says founder Dan Monaghan, is to replicate the kind of connections you’d forge in face-to-face meetings, rather than what he calls “the current ‘now or never’, shallow attitude other dating apps promote”. Ditto new app Sapio, which also aims to break the fruitless match-message-meet-repeat cycle by marketing itself as “a dating app with depth”. It asks users to answer 300 open-ended questions from categories such as “Achievements” and “Inside My Head” so they can be matched with better-suited potential partners.

Ultimately it’s worth keeping in mind the findings of philosopher Finn Janning, who argued in his essay The Happiness Of Burnout that we all need to experience a bit of suffering in order to become more aware of what is truly important to us. Feeling unfulfilled, unexcited and exhausted by our dating lives can all be powerful agents for change, forcing us to stop sleepwalking through our lives and think more carefully about the kinds of relationships we want and the kinds of people we want to surround ourselves with. And if all else fails, we could always go old-school and try to meet someone in the pub...

Beat your dating burnout

Feel like you’ve hit the wall? Experts explain the four most common reasons for dating burnout, and how to fix them

The pressure to be always ‘on’

Problem: You’re exhausted by the constant need for ‘banter’ and making sure that your best side is on display.

Solution: “If you’re a naturally introverted person it can be very difficult – you feel like you have to put yourself out there. Don’t feel the need to banter if that’s not your style, it’ll feel forced,” says clinical psychologist Richard Sherry. He recommends being very honest from the start about the kind of relationship you’re after. Then, when you start to chat, suggest a meet-up in the first exchange. This takes the pressure off needing to impress someone through lots of messages. It might mean fewer matches, but it could lead to more meaningful meet-ups.

The build-up that leads nowhere

Problem: Your messaging might be great, but there’s never a spark when you meet face-to-face.

Solution: “Before you go on a date, hone in on three core values that are important to you,” says Madeleine Mason of PassionSmiths. “Good looks, family-oriented, ambitious, well-read, funny... whatever it is. Then when you meet that person, think ‘Do they have these qualities that I really need?’ If you liked them and feel like you had a good chat but didn’t necessarily ‘spark’, think again about these three qualities. If they have them, then it’s worth hanging in there for a couple more dates to make sure it’s not just your own insecurities putting you off.”

The time-suck

Problem: Dating is taking over your life and there’s no room for anything else.

Solution: “There’s a Japanese concept called ‘ikigai’, which means ‘what do you get out of bed for?’,” explains Mason. “Find out what your ikigai is and see dating as an addition to your life rather than the goal in itself.” Forget about what you think a date ‘should’ be like (dinner or boozy post-work drinks) and do things you actually want to do. “Make a list of things you’ve wanted to do for ages but never seem to have time for (trampolining, for example). Then when you get a date, suggest something from the list. This way, you’re checking off activities that genuinely interest you and you’re not just going along with it for the sake of the date.”

The loss of all perspective

Problem: You’re worried that the cycle of swipe-message-meet has ruined your capacity for romance.

Solution: If you’re exhausted after a spate of dating hard, relationship therapist Mairead Molloy advises going down to one date a fortnight, but really considering who this person is and whether they’re right for you. “I had one client who had been on 150 Tinder dates in the space of seven months,” says Molloy. “If you overdo it, how are you supposed to know who you fancy? How many glasses of wine can you go out for?” Instead, put your heart into your dates – find out about the other person’s childhood and dreams for the future and let them find out about yours.”


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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.