'These Dating Apps Are Crushing Me!'
It's okay to feel like you're allergic to everything and everyone sometimes.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV (1930) by Georgia O’Keeffe
This letter is written in a near-total state of despair, so I apologize ahead of time for all the drama. But here it is. I’m almost 30 years old, and I’ve been single for the past four years. Some of this time passed by choice. My last longterm boyfriend really fucked me up, but I did move on eventually, and I've been trying to meet someone for a couple years.
"Trying” may be generous. What actually happens is I convince myself to join (or rejoin) a dating app, and then I manage to fall apart in spectacular fashion within 72 hours. The apps bother me so much I have a hard time forming the sentences to explain why, especially because I can’t find anyone who feels the same way, with the same amount of passion I do.
All I can tell you is as soon as I’m on an app, it feels like my soul is being slowly sucked out of my body. Nothing feels more crushing to me than trying to find love on one of these things. They’re inexplicably triggering to me, like everything that bothers me most about the world wrapped up in one neat package on my phone. And then the kicker: This is how you must find the thing you want most.
Everyone and everything feels superficial and stupid on the apps, as if there’s NO originality left on planet earth. When you make a profile, you have to choose from these weird prompts (A random fact I love is! The award I should be nominated for is! If loving this is wrong I don’t want to be right!), which means there’s no way to learn any real information about anyone. It's all about being funny or almost psychotically positive.
And we haven't even talked about pictures! Everyone is going on five-mile hikes. Everyone has at some point booked a spontaneous trip to Europe with nowhere to stay. Everyone is looking for someone to join them at the gym. It makes me feel like an alien life form.
Logically I know there must be people like me on the apps, and that we’re all being forced to fit into these boxes. But Polly, I just can’t identify these people through a screen. It’s like I lose a crucial sense, a knowingness, that I seem to possess in person. It’s the ability to read someone and just FEEL that there’s chemistry or attraction or SOMETHING I CAN’T DESCRIBE between us. I’ve always been able to do that. Any boyfriend I’ve had (okay, so three), I’ve known there was something there long before it came together, sometimes long before we even spoke. Is that magical thinking? Is that just an over-romanticized notion left over from my teenage years? The older I get, the more that part of me feels ridiculous.
Given these challenges, I never meet 99% of people who “like” me on the apps, just because I am flying FUCKING BLIND and am risk-averse in general. But my friends can do this, no problem. They genuinely find the epically wrong fits and the disrespectful assholes and the bad sex hilarious! Or at least not soul-crushing. They have no problem sleeping with guys they barely know. I’m happy for them, but what the actual fuck?
I couldn’t be more different, and it makes me feel so alone. Meeting up with these guys and sleeping with them after a couple dates sounds terrible and even scary to me, and yet the amount of shame I feel when my best friend jokes that I’m basically re-virginized at this point makes me want to crawl in a hole and die.
I have succeeded exactly ONE time in moving from the apps to real life. This guy was nice and smart and we had some things in common, so we met for coffee. Overall it was fine, but there came this moment toward the end where I felt like I could show myself a bit more and so I said, “Aren’t the apps kind of the worst?” and I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about. If anything, he seemed turned off by my negativity (and also maybe my cussing). The date shifted after that. He never texted me, and though I know it wasn’t a match, it just reinforced this belief that maybe my days of love and sex are over.
I can practically hear you screaming GET OFF THE APPS at this point (at least I hope so, because you feel like the only one who could ever understand this part of me), but Polly, how will I ever ever ever meet someone if I’m not on them? I’m an introvert, and though that does not mean I never leave my house, it is true that I’m not meeting a ton of new people every week. I enjoy staying in. I enjoy being with people who get me. I enjoy writing about my feelings and reading and going for long walks and wearing sweatpants and eating pizza.
I just wish I could find my person to do this stuff with. Sometimes I feel like if I could bottle this yearning, it would be a weapon capable of destroying entire towns. It is excruciating.
Occasionally I have this thought of, “Okay, just decide it’s absolutely going to happen. There is a date on the calendar when everything will change, you just don’t know it. So go live the best life you can, and the universe will deliver.” And I’ll feel such a deep sense of relief and spaciousness and joyfulness for a few days. I can breathe. The world feels kind of magical. But it never lasts long. The doubt always creeps back in. It feels delusional, like saying, “You will lose 20 pounds just by willing it to be so!” Like if I really surrender in that way, I will go another four years without so much as kissing a guy (god I want to kiss a guy!), and then I will be so ashamed of who I am and my ineptitude and the fact that I haven’t had sex in so long, I won’t even be able to try anymore.
Polly, I just feel like I'm walking around like an open wound. Will I always be this lonely? Is it over for me? How do I even manage this?
Four Years Lonely
I get it. You’re allergic to the sound of the herd. The second you hear the same sound from two different animals, you feel dirty inside and want to run away. You’re intuitive, so you know how to feel connection in person. But on the apps, people seem boring because they mimic the herd.
Even the good ones do this sometimes. If I asked my husband — who unlike me, is a highly professional mature adult who knows how to play nicely with others — he’d say something like, “At first, people just want to make sure you’re not a total nightmare.”
See, I have an aversion to that, too — the idea that if I show the slightest whiff of a personality, I’ll be misinterpreted as a needy nut job. I mean, it’s hard to figure out if someone is interesting when they’re just trying to stay in their comfort zone! You’re paranoid that they’re just mimicking everyone else and they’re paranoid that you’re not stable enough to mimic everyone else!
You have to remember that most people want to feel safe and not afraid at first. It’s kind of like at a job interview. Even if you’re a world-renowned sculptor, you don’t walk into a meeting with a new benefactor wearing flip flops and talking about shaping god with the palms of your hands and feeling god’s glory inside your cells. You say things like So nice to finally meet you and I’m really looking forward to finding out more about your vision. When you say those things, you’re just signaling that you’re not going to smoke some good weed and then take all of the faucets in their bathroom apart because a voice told you that reengineering small spaces is the path of divinity.
So get out of your own head and apply your intuition to other people’s needs. Straight men are jumpy little bitches. There is nothing they like less than an intense woman who looks poised to overinvest in them. That’s just a fact to carry around in your hip pocket.
I think dating apps also make you feel vulnerable, and you hate feeling vulnerable, don’t you? As long as you’re in a state of defensive self-protection, though, these dates aren’t going to go that well. I’m not saying slink in and act coy and surrender. I’m saying look more closely at your aversion to vulnerability, and ask yourself if it’s blocking your ability to connect with other people in general.
But it’s rational to have a lot of allergies. You live in a country where tons of people still think the last election was ripped out of the hands of a repetitive racist lounge act. It’s hard to feel relaxed or safe when you’re clear-eyed about the world. It’s hard to make yourself vulnerable to an indifferent mob of men, a big percentage of whom are just grabbing a quick side of ass before their next pressing engagement.
On the other hand, does it help to look at the world through grim-colored glasses? Is it good for your heart to avoid vulnerability at all costs? I don’t think so. You need to find some balance. You have to recognize that 95% of the people you meet won’t be your type. They won’t like you at all because you’re anxious about dating and you blurt out ‘negative’ (see also: honest) observations because your truest desire is to slouch around the house in soft pants eating pizza with another grouchy, highly allergic softie like yourself.
It’s not delusional to believe that you’ll find that guy, though. I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life slouching around the house in soft pants with another grouch in soft pants, griping about all the stuff we hate. It made us love the world much more, to know that one person hated all of the same stuff. It made us more forgiving of ourselves and more tolerant of other people.
You haven’t dated that much. If you were my daughter, I would tell you that you have to be more protective of your feelings when you’re out in the world, but more vulnerable with yourself when you’re alone. You shouldn’t tell yourself that it’s somehow more carefree and fun-loving to fuck random guys if that’s not how you are. Lose that judgment forever! Be more respectful of your feelings. Tell your friend not to refer to you as re-virginized because it makes you feel sad. Embrace who you are and build up your belief in what you want. Because right now, you’re so goddamn anxious about how this story ends that you’re in danger of either falling in love with someone random who’s not right for you or hiding because interacting with men makes you feel like shit about yourself.
Personally, I think it might help to integrate the apps into your process of exploring your own vulnerability. Use them and notice how they make you feel. Write down the stories you tell yourself about what it *means* that this guy went to Europe on a whim or that guy loves to hike five miles a day.
In fact, write a novel about dating apps. Treat the apps as research. Go on as many dates as possible and write down the details immediately after. Get obsessed with capturing the exact flavor of torment that these apps incite in you. I mean, you’re passionate about this, aren’t you? You have all of this pent up anxiety that needs an outlet. Make something from it.
Our culture tells us that we can only be passionate about so-called positive things. But some of the best art is just a strong allergic reaction to some dimension of society or culture that the artist couldn’t abide. So make some art out of the passion of this moment. If you throw yourself into it, you’ll turn this aversion into an obsession that’s actually rewarding and productive. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your fears, because you’ll have to describe your thoughts and feelings and fantasies around what love will do for you, how it will change you, how it will make you whole.
And look, it’s nice to have a fellow grouch in my house. But that’s not what makes me feel whole. I feel whole when I create something and polish it until it feels valuable to me. I feel whole when I trust that I’ll continue to find weird ways of making art out of my allergies and aversions and passions.
Maybe at the end of your story, your protagonist will realize that what she hates the most is the feeling that this mediocre world will judge her badly no matter what she does. She can’t be vulnerable and trust someone new because no one has ever really shown up for her before.
Or that was her story, anyway. Before she learned to trust herself. Before she stopped making the moral of every story “I’m too fucked up to do this like normal people do it.” Before she learned to take a big leap, to put faith in herself above all of the chaos around her, to invest in the wild delights of her own imagination.
Once you shift your belief system from “I’m too fucked up to do this” to “I’m exactly the right kind of fucked up to do this,” you won’t feel nearly as lonely. Your belief system is a practice, though, not a feeling that passes in a few days. You have to engage in the practice, remind yourself of your guiding philosophy, cultivate good habits, and then your belief grows. Once you do that, you’ll start to treat these dates as a fun sideshow that brings you material for your favorite hobby. And when you meet the normal-seeming dude who’s secretly waiting to blossom into a grouch in soft pants (ha ha, the dream!), you’ll be relaxed enough to tell him the truth about who you are.
People who are as angry and confused and intense as you are (THAT’S PASSION) who feel as vulnerable as you do (THAT’S HEART) often struggle like crazy right around your age, and then they find their joy. It’s not delusional at all to believe that, because I’ve seen it a million times. So stop living inside your shame and build a religion around who you already are. Build using what you already have. Build something that makes you proud.
I know that your mind is going back to the apps: THEY’RE SO BAD. DOES THIS MEAN I HAVE TO USE THEM? When it comes to the disappointments of the outside world, you need to remember one thing: Most people don’t know what’s working on them. A lot of them are afraid to find out, so they just mimic the herd instead. That’s common and it’s irritating, but you need to try to tolerate it, because it’s reality.
You’re a misfit simply because you notice what’s working on you. You know what’s eating you alive at all times. You re-litigate everything every day. You change your mind. You have a lot going on in your head. But you’re also very loyal and kind. So you make sounds that other people might encounter as harsh or negative, but you’re just a dramatic person who feels things deeply and also who doesn’t feel understood unless you’re free to exaggerate a little. There are entire communities of gay men who operate this way and they’re very happy together and honestly, these are some of the only good communities on the face of the planet as far as I’m concerned. The tragedy here is that you, like me, are a straight woman living in a boring sexist heterosexual world where people are avoidant and get flinchy over small things because they over-interpret your allergies as major character flaws.
Delight in the stupidity of that instead of turning it into a verdict on how unworthy you are. Embrace your conflicted soul and embrace this complex, fucked up, beautiful world. Stop telling this story that four years alone means forty years alone. Live in this moment and be who you are. It’s simple. Forgive yourself for being different, at long last. I am also different. But mostly you and I are just animals who don’t want to disappear into most herds, even if that means our braying sounds a little wrong to the other animals. We like to judge and we like to get some space for ourselves, so we can feel safe, so we can enjoy our twisted minds, so we can return to the dance party and really dance without thinking, so we can join the pack and howl at the moon. We like being alone, and maybe we even like feeling lonely sometimes. It’s romantic.
Enjoy this romance: You and the moon. It’s not as lonely as you think.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! I’m exactly the right kind of fucked up to do this, and I appreciate your support.
As someone who has embraced being “exactly the right kind of fucked up to do this” let me tell you: I’ve treated dating apps as an experiment for the past…6, 7, maybe 8 years. To the point of literally having spreadsheets of every date, downloading & analyzing the data from every conversation, testing opening lines, making infographics about which app has the best swipe-to-date conversion, etc. I don’t disagree with any of the advice in this response but I can provide some real-world numbers to set your standards to, because (at least for me) it makes the apps better when you have some sort of basis for these things…
First, fuck Bumble. I know, I know… it seems like the most feminist of the apps, but the men who use it only switch over to it after they’re tired of women not responding to their messages and therefore they decide not to reply. Bumble has the lowest match-to-conversation rate of any app I’ve tried.
Second, expect to swipe left on 90% of people and maybe half of the 10% of the people you swipe right on will also swipe right with you. So for every 100, you’ll match with 5. Imagine going into a bar packed with people. How many will you want to go on a date with? That’s just statistics.
Third - and this is the most important - I’ve downloaded years’ worth of conversations and the biggest thing I learned is that **30 messages** (combined) is the ideal number before going on/asking for a date. Fewer than that, you don’t really know if you vibe. More than that, one of you is probably not actually interested in meeting up.
(I have more tips, but the fire alarm just started going off in my apartment building so I guess I should evacuate 🙄)
Look, I am also close to 30 (27 3/4) and I have also been single for years, and I also used to dread going on the apps. Why? Because they take this storybook idea of how you're "supposed" to meet the person you love and turn it into a rote, robotic, algorithm-based nightmare. And all the things this person says are true: It *is* hard to figure out someone's vibe through an app, it *is* hard to go through page after page of the same photos and answers, it *does* feel endless and pointless and often soul-sucking. But it feels even worse when you do all that from the point of view that you're looking for the love of your life. It's too much pressure! It's too hopeless! So here's what I'll say, just from my own experiences:
Dating through apps is just an adventure of your own choosing. It is one of the best ways to explore a city, and humanity in general. Have the apps led me to the love of my life? Obviously not! But I've been to a dozen awesome restaurants and bars that I would never have heard of before. I've explored new neighborhoods, and heard about peoples' lives that are wildly different from my own. I've gone on a date with a self-obsessed art dealer and an incredibly sweet musician and a very passionate human rights lawyer and a very boring architect. I learned things, whether they were things I was interested in or not! People will recommend books or movies or hobbies or places to you, they will tell you good jokes or at least show you a point of view you've never seen before. And once in a while, one of them (usually the one you never expected) will magically light a spark in you, and for a few weeks you'll walk around feeling glowy and hot and excited and alive. And that person may not end up being the love of your life—they probably *won't* actually. But you'll get out of this space of feeling like no one will ever get you. You'll get out of this space of feeling like you're unlovable. You are!
When you log into the apps, you can't look for the profile that looks like *the love of your life.* Again, it's just too much pressure. None of us expect a profile to portray how good a person smells, or the gorgeous timbre of their laugh, or their perfectly snarky sense of humor that makes you cackle like a deranged witch. They're a badly drawn finger painting of a single star—they're not meant to illustrate the whole galaxy. Likewise, you need to look for small things that might indicate someone is cool. Does a guy have a mildly funny or snarky thing in his profile that you smiled at? Swipe right! Does he have a job you think is pretty cool? Swipe! Is he just fuckin hot? Swipe right! Who cares! Put something a little weird in your profile, and watch how many guys like it. Your fellow weirdos are out there, and they are looking for the smoke signal of a fellow weirdo!
And lastly, just take a deep breath and remember that you're in control here. Does opening an app feel like Hell? Then there is no need to open it! I have deleted and re-downloaded the apps so many times. I've binged and then burned out. And then one day I feel a little frisky, and I start over again. But only when I'm in a place where I feel ready for an adventure.
I am sending you so much love and empathy. It's a roller coaster. But once you realize that the flying and the falling are part of the ride and not the end of the world, roller coasters can be pretty fucking fun (: