Why I Think Online Dating Is a Failing Social Experiment

Helping the vulnerable not just survive, but thrive

online dating

We're trying to make a significant decision with too little information

My first online dating experience was nearly five years ago. I still remember the excitement I felt when writing the bio. How I sweated over which descriptors to use and whether my photos conveyed a particular image.

Then came the moment when my profile was complete. Within minutes of going live, someone expressed interest by “liking” me. My heart picked up, and we initiated chatting.

I remember how the possibilities seemed endless. Deep in my bones, I knew the man of my dreams was out there, and I would meet him in a matter of time.

Only I didn’t. After a year of sending out hundreds of short introductions and meeting lots of men, I still hadn’t met my match.

Each time I connected with someone new, I’d get my hopes up. Maybe this one is the one! After texting or calling, we’d set up our first face-to-face meeting. Within minutes of sitting down with this person, I knew that that allusive click of compatibility was missing.

The experience resulted in a rollercoaster of emotions, which left me discouraged and exhausted. It became harder and harder to muster up enough energy to try. I debated which alternative was worse — accepting my singlehood for the rest of my life or trying online dating again.

For those of you who have never done it — yes, online dating is really that bad.

We use limited data to make a significant decision.

The method of online dating is inherently flawed. It’s ridiculous to think a few-hundred-word personal description and a slew of carefully chosen photographs provide enough data for an informed decision. Sharing favorite movie genres, musical preferences, and our leisure interests and hobbies cannot convey a person’s complexities. Most of the time, profile description dealbreakers are ignored, and someone is “liked” solely on their photos.

But even the representative photos at best provide skewed information. We take dozens to hundreds across several days to find the one that presents the right look. Women’s cleavage, full-body, and duck-pout shots do not warn of our emotional stability. Men’s photos featuring their favorite activities provide no information about their hot temper, lack of empathy, or alcohol habits.

Even the profiles that try to filter candidates do so poorly. They use cryptic comments like “no drama” or “must be open,” which lack context, to convey their preferences. The expectation is that both parties will glean enough information in these short profiles to swipe right or left — an impossibility.

The process is set up for failure.

The Way We Used to Meet People

Consider how we used to meet our dates. For most of us, this occurred while attending high school or college. Nearly all single, we’d meet up and hang out at the cafeteria, study hall, or bar. We might bump into each other at a party. Through the course of these life experiences, we’d get to know one another.

We would become aware of each other’s habits, priorities, and preferences. She always arrives at class early and prepared. He’s a class clown. That person loves science fiction, like me. These essential qualities relayed information about our trustworthiness, reliability, and ambitiousness. Based on these bits of information and our experiences, we’d find that person appealing, or not.

Online dating essentially requires us to meet a potential candidate blindly. There’s no way for us to know whether this individual has changed jobs every year, keeps a messy house, or has loads of debt. We have no idea that their former love interest is still stalking them making their life a living hell. A single page of self-disclosed information, along with a few choice photos, is all the information provided for us to make our decision to contact someone or pass on by.

No wonder online dating has a bad rap.

My Two Experiences with Online Dating

I’ve tried it twice. The first time was shortly after the loss of my husband. I thought my education and experience as a psychologist would give me an edge. I read profiles with interest, trying to screen for personality and mental disorders. I combed their word choices, preferred frequency of engagement, and personal history description for clues, much the same way I would when sitting with new clients.

I soon learned the context contaminated the data. Instead of looking for help, these individuals wanted to convince me of their choosability. They were making a sale — not of a product, but of themselves.

They were withholding essential pieces of information. It was only after the fact that I learned critical data that drastically changed their suitability.

It wasn’t until our first meeting that I learned how one date had spent nearly a quarter-million dollars fighting ongoing custody issues with his ex. Another revealed over a steak dinner that he was homeless, on disability, and living with his adult son. Some men showed up heavier or older than their photos. Others disclose that they don’t own a car or were between jobs.

All my experience and education as a psychologist failed to help me select more suitable candidates.

My unrealistic emotional investment also contributes to the problem.

Then there’s the problem of when to allow oneself to become emotionally invested. Texting, calling, and emailing new matches feel authentic and real. In my mind, I begin to create an image of that person based on the tidbits I’ve gleaned.

I feel like I know this person, and then we’d officially meet. Most are nearly unrecognizable from the mental image I’ve created. The unconscious mind’s propensity to fill in the missing data has worked against me. It has used my wishes and desires to conjure a construct of someone I long to meet.

I suspect the same happens for guys. One particular date and I texted a bit and then decided to meet for drinks. After a very uncomfortable forty-five minutes of conversation, the guy looked at me and said, “Shall we call it?”

“Yep!’ I replied, knowing what he meant.

We paid the bill and left, never to contact each other again.

The older we are, the more difficult the process gets.

Middle-aged dating only compounds things further since we come with more baggage. We’ve experienced one or more failed relationships, often have complicated family situations, and are at an odd spot in our careers. Our lives are busy and full of obligations. Our interests and values are more rigid, which we try to express by posting our political views, dislike or love of cats, smoking habits, and the number of tattoos. Somehow we hope listing these will attract the right matches.

None of this is working. My two attempts at online dating have shown me what a dismal failure this system is.

No wonder most men have resorted to using online dating as a booty call. They have changed the question from, “Do I like you enough to try to have a life together?” to “Do I like you enough to want to have sex with you tonight?” The second question is a much easier one to answer.

There’s no easy solution in sight.

Looking at this problem, I don’t see an easy solution. Maybe those of us who are single later in life should bag the idea of finding a second or third love. Perhaps these days, with little opportunity to meet other single people, it’s too remote a possibility. As much as I hate that idea, I’m reluctantly coming to this conclusion.

Trying to sift through all the noise is soul-draining and exhausting. It’s uncomfortable to invest in the work of getting to know someone only to meet them in person and realize it isn’t going to work. There’s a high emotional toll that comes from having to break it off. And I’m supposed to do this over and over?

I’ve been so discouraged that I occasionally pull my online profile off to rest. It often takes several weeks before I’m ready to try dating again.

There has to be a better way. Friends suggest I pick up a mixed-gender hobby where I can meet single guys. Others tell me to attend more church functions once COVID is over.

I’m not sure either of those will work. So for now, I’ll stay positive, remain engaged in my fulfilling, busy life, and pray for supernatural intervention. I’ll let you know how well all that works out for me.



Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.

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