Are Dating Apps Creating Too Many Problems?

The psychology of dating apps might lead to commitment-phobic behavior.

Posted Jun 27, 2018

Caspar Rubin/Unsplash
Source: Caspar Rubin/Unsplash

This past week could have been nicknamed “The Week of Bad Behavior” for dating

One of my friends met a man on an app last year, and she wound up discovering post-breakup that he had a girlfriend in another city the entire time. There were no traces of it while dating. I was around; I noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

I talked to another woman who marveled at how much she had in common with a recent dating prospect. He agreed to be exclusive before bailing on a wedding he agreed to attend with her and then confessing he had actually been dating someone else the whole time. He decided to pursue the other women, he claimed, because “they had more in common.” He’s still been texting her.

Another friend told me about a guy who spent two whole months doing all the right things, totally acting like a prospective boyfriend. Something shifted from one day to the next, after a romantic date night. He suddenly tried to ghost. When confronted, he told her, “I don’t want to do this.” Actually, if I’m being totally honest, two of my friends’ stories fit this very description.

As I point out in my book, there are a ton of dating prospects who decide they are “not ready” to commit somewhere along the path to a full-fledged relationship. Sometimes, they just don't realize that until they're confronted with the commitment itself. They put on the full-court press, only to decide after several weeks or months of dating that they don’t want to proceed any further. There are just a couple of problems with that:

  1. They don't want to break it off completely. They want to keep you around on their terms, without a commitment or any specific obligations. 
  2. The short-lived relationship cycle is so oft-repeated that I cannot believe how many people in the dating pool have struggled with this. After multiple disappointments, the fear starts to set in around the two- or three-month mark in every budding relationship. Are all those positive vibes going to turn on a dime?

Oh, and in most of these stories, the pairs linked up using dating apps.

Dating today is particularly hard. Shifts in the romantic landscape have created a lot of chaos, both psychologically and in real time, and people seem to toss back relationship prospects early and often. I think a lot of modern-day relationship-building challenges boil down to how dating apps have affected behaviors toward potential mates. Let me explain.

1. The “new normal” is soul-sucking. 

If you’re single, you virtually must turn to dating apps as a way to meet people. In the past five years, I have noticed the sharp decline in the number of people willing to mix and mingle while out and about; we simply don’t have to anymore. Want to meet someone in a bar? Or at a social event? If you talk to a stranger, you’re more inclined to get funny looks than a phone number. It’s much easier to sit on your couch with a glass of wine and your swiping finger ready ... or so you think to yourself when posed with the risk of rejection. Except, of course, it’s really not.

In a 2016 study1, researchers found that 49% of people who message will never get a message back—and that’s when a message is ever sent at all. There will be plenty of people on your queue who never message, and whom you will likely never message either. Some have even confirmed the mythic folklore: They swipe right on absolutely everyone and then choose among the ones who message them. Doesn’t matter what app. They let others do the work. Doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for a promising relationship, does it?

It can feel unlikely to make a connection these days, let alone maintain one, which can lead to hopelessness—or positively reinforcing bad behaviors and bounced commitments to keep a connection alive when you should really let them go.

2. The sheer abundance of options is problematic. 

In a study2 from the University of Wisconsin, researchers found that daters who chose from a small pool of options were more satisfied with their match than those who chose from a large pool; those who chose from a larger pool were more likely to “reverse their choice” and opt for a new match instead.

Whether you met the person who ghosted, ditched or evaded you on an app or not, it’s probably irrelevant. Options have never been easier to regenerate than they are today, and just knowing you have them is the key. Think about the number of apps (or sites) you can download to replenish your dating pool, swipe and browse: Tinder, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, Hinge, The League, OK Cupid, Match, eHarmony, JDate, etc.

And none of us are happier with these illusions, really. It’s psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice3 in action: We want to feel we have some choice, but endless choice can have negative repercussions. Too much choice can make us question ourselves, feel dissatisfied and have unrealistic expectations.

3. A prospect who’s out of your social network has no accountability.

This one’s a personal theory, but there’s something about meeting through friends or acquaintances that has a bit of a buffering effect against bad behavior. Not only can you vet the person through your friends, whose good opinion you trust, there’s an added bonus on the flip side: Someone is less likely to lie or mistreat you if they know they’ll have to answer to people in your social network, end up looking bad socially, or be forced to see you again in the future.

If you meet dating prospects via an app, it’s just tougher to fully trust—and for good reason. It’s much easier to conceal lying or cheating if you don’t have any of the same connections. On top of that, lots just want to hook up. And that would be fine, but so many people aren’t upfront about those wishes. Instead, they “date” a little, hook up, ghost when bored, and repeat the cycle.

Now, what to do?

Over time, I’m hoping there will be better solutions to the problems mainstream app dating has created. However, in the meantime, I cannot emphasize how important it is to do the following:

Look for patterns of bad behavior. 

Maybe he only wanted to see you on his terms. Maybe every date revolves around what she wants to do. Maybe he never wants to go back to his place. Maybe she dodges multiple opportunities to meet your friends (or hers). Maybe he repeatedly takes a long time to text back, or tells you he’ll be MIA for a full day or more (um, where to?).

If it feels weird and it happens more than once, it’s probably something you should pay attention to. My go-to phrase is simple: Words mean nothing, actions mean something, and patterns mean everything.

Remember to look for “CARRP” prospect. 

I recently talked to the author of Attached4, psychiatrist and therapist Dr. Amir Levine. He said he preaches that his clients in the dating pool look for prospects that fulfill “CARRP.” That means they are consistent, available, reliable, responsive and predictable. Phew, did that ever ring true? PSA, jaded daters: You need to look for that.

Anxious daters, in the disappointing dating pool a long time, sometimes don’t recognize healthy relationship prospects when they see ’em. Often, you’ve lived and breathed the “highs” of dating commitment-avoidant types, who are unlikely to settle in for long. You think those sparks are chemistry when really it’s just the friction and obsession that come from wondering whether or not they're going to call you today or answer your text this time. Secure daters respond to your needs. If you tell them something isn’t okay with you, they listen and adjust. Don’t forget that.

Adapted from © 2018


Zhang, Jennie, and Taha Yasseri. “What Happens After You Both Swipe Right: A Statistical Description of Mobile Dating Communications.” 12 July 2016, doi:

D’Angelo, Jonathan D., and Catalina L. Toma. “There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners.” Media Psychology, vol. 20, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1–27., doi:10.1080/15213269.2015.1121827.

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice Why More Is Less. Ecco, 2016.

Levine, Amir, and Rachel Heller. Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find--and Keep--Love. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.