Modern dating only feels worse because we keep saying it is
Social media shaming and screenshots of “horror stories” seem to influence our dates more than the person we’re seeing. How did we get here?
If you type, “dating is” on TikTok, the most popular suggestions are “dating is so hard”, “dating is exhausting” and “dating isn’t worth it.” Those, or some other wearying iteration that reinforces just how painstakingly unfulfilling the romantic world is today. Whoever thought the path to love would be so, well, hateful?
Reportedly, four out of five US adults have emotional fatigue from online dating, while three-quarters of UK singles are burnt out from unrewarding interactions. It’s all a bit of a bummer and no matter how hard you try, just like Succession spoilers, there’s no real way to escape the chatter.
In fact, there are entire Facebook groups where hawk-eyed armies warn women and expose catfishers, cheaters, breadcrumbers and ghosters. Elsewhere, sending your ex an exit survey to belittle them is gaining clout. Everywhere you turn on Twitter, TikTok, even incel-infested Reddit, your group chats, exes, experts on TV, the verdict is that dating is a dumpster fire.
Now: before you groan and mumble, this isn’t another news flash about how dating sucks. We know the apps are dead. We get that finding a partner today is as tough as securing an Eras tour ticket.
What seems strange is that, in the face of all these hideous obstacles, Gen Z wants love more than ever. Studies by StoryTerrace show that a big chunk envy their parents’ pre-online romance, while casual, sticky clubfloor hookups are at an all-time low. Basically, people want serious relationships but also can’t find anyone who wants serious relationships back. Somewhere, the maths is not mathing.
Could it be – and stick with us on this – that badgering on about how romance is rare only makes it, well… rarer?
Dating expert Callisto Adams seems to think so. “As humans, we tend to be empathetic, so if you hear enough negative dating stories, it can engrave particular paths of thinking in our heads,” she says. “You’re led to believe that this is what’s happening to everyone, no matter how good-looking or kind-spirited they are, and this discourages many from even trying to do better.”
In other words: say anything enough times and it starts to ring true. This is how politicians and marketers make a living, the grand illusory truth effect, where repetition is stronger than fact. No shade to Pascal babies, but Pedro Pascal is daddy because we keep screaming that he is.
Akanksha Parulekar, 25, an illustrator and graphic designer, considers herself a gradually wavering romantic. “I’ve almost exclusively heard about bad dating experiences, so I’m expecting to be ghosted or treated badly when I talk to someone. I’m scared to invest in anything until I know it’s real,” she says, adding that she now seeks more reassurance on dates than she previously did.
For Trish*, a sales analyst, seeing “gorgeous TikTok girlies” fail at dating online has made her sceptical about things working out for her. “Why should I put myself out there only to get hurt when no one’s getting it right?” she says. The 26-year-old has created her own little tester games to check if someone is leading her on. Trish has made covert finstas to stalk her dates and, if needed, even sends them flirty texts to see if they take the bait. “I realise how this sounds,” she admits, “but I just can’t be that girl who got played by some guy online. So I indulge in mildly questionable behaviour of my own.”
But perhaps such get-it-before-it-gets-you preemption is contributing to the disenchantment around romance. Jodie Cariss, a psychotherapist and founder of Self-Space’s Slow Dating, believes the fear of rejection and humiliation only makes meaningful dating more difficult. “I feel resistant to colluding with the idea that healthy dating is rare, because that reduces our power and can keep us stuck with few options for expansion,” she says. “Relating to negative experiences too hard can also be a sign of paranoia and an avoidance of opening up to the experience fully.”
It’s not hard to see why daters might have a wall up, though. At a time when even the smallest indignity can catapult us into the digital hall of shame, people have become wary of even the most innocuous interactions. Terrified of being caught off guard by someone else, we try to balance the scales by being a little too careful and critical of our dates. Not only do we have personalised checklists of what we want from potential partners, but we continue to pad them with takeaways from others’ shady experiences, too.
Case in point: a screenshot of a Hinge conversation that recently did the social media rounds. When a guy suggested having a first date closer to his house instead of midway between their two neighbourhoods, the poster rated her date an “F for effort”, accusing him of wanting to sneak her back to his place after a low-budget date. With more than 11,000 likes, the post blew up and people shared their own horror stories and tacky dates in the comments, calling the date in question “selfish and inconsiderate”. But is wanting a date closer to your place truly a faux pas worthy of full-frontal Twitter wrath? Not really.
This Hinge whinge isn’t isolated, either. Social media is brewing with people hating on their dates for splitting (or not splitting) the bill, or trying too hard (or too little), and we rarely stop to question the legitimacy of these narratives. Of course, screenshots of bad dating stories can be valid when they warn others about abuse or harassment. But often, perceived transgressions hinge on, at best, personal preference and, at worst, a difference in expectations.
And it’s all too easy to internalise the noise. Each “dating is terrible” post leaves us more cynical about finding love, turning strangers on apps into big bad wolves. Suddenly, a hopeful first date feels questionable in hindsight; simple gestures appear to be a ploy to get into your pants.
According to Cariss, the primary drawback in the current setting is that we don’t reflect on whether the horror stories are actually deal breakers for us. Instead, we get swept up by how loud the conversation is online. “Ask yourself: why am I reading this? Is it benefiting me and how I feel? If it isn’t, let it go,” she says. “What is it feeding in you, and is that feeling useful for you? It’s important to date with an abundance, not a deficit, and you’ll have more stamina for it all.”
Perhaps the problem isn’t dating apps themselves, but how we’re using them. A few weeks ago, a rumour that Grindr – the dating app infamous in some quarters for leaked dick pics – is banning screengrabs took over Twitter. Although the app confirmed that this is untrue and examples of it online were a tech glitch, the post was abuzz with people hopeful that their feeble dating attempts could be free from public scrutiny. Indeed, other dating apps such as Raya and Badoo have already banned screenshots to allow people to be vulnerable without the fear of becoming viral on TikTok.
Because many of us, of course, would like to date discreetly. A recent study showed that 93 per cent of dating app users would be more likely to open up if screenshots were made impossible. “It makes me uncomfortable that people take screenshots of their conversations with dates and post it online to poke fun at them,” says Avani Thakkar, 24, a marketing student. “It feels unfair. I’m a lot more cautious and find it hard to take things at face value because of this trend.”
Whether it’s to stir chaos, spill some tea or for quick fame, we love sharing dating horror stories that frame someone else as the bad guy. But in reality, this shifts the focus away from wanting to meet people to wanting to tweet people. Endlessly ranting about how the dating scene is the worst only makes the whole ordeal weigh heavier. It becomes a self-fulling prophecy of bad dates and exhausted hearts.
Perhaps all the dating scene needs is a dose of optimism – and privacy. Instead of personalising a stranger’s minor inconvenience, just talk to someone you find hot and keep it between both of you. Let the sparks fly.