August 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Looking for love on the web

By Michael Currie
Many online daters are trapped in a pornographic shopping mall

Jeff, a patient who had come to see me for psychotherapy, had problems with love. The night before our session, Jeff had been on his fifth date in a fortnight. Each had been with a different woman.

“She was very nice, good job, caring, interested in me, good looking, a nice girl. She’d probably sleep with me if we went out again. I could have a relationship with her. But my heart just isn’t in it …  I want to love her, but I can’t.”

Dating sites purport to be a solution for those looking for love. Whether you are anxious, shy or sad, or have been through a messy break-up or divorce, or it has just “never happened”, the dating site is pitched as the way to find your perfect partner. “With the help of a team of PhDs, we’ve created the world’s most advanced matching system,” the website Plenty of Fish claims. Cupid has been transformed into a number-crunching pseudo-scientist.

As Jeff had grown familiar with these sites, his serial dating became frenetic. He filled his treatment sessions with descriptions of his dates. Beforehand he was filled with hope, tantalised by the woman’s image and the tidbits she listed on her profile. After the date, he was disappointed. He felt very little for the women he met. They didn’t live up to the idealised picture of them he had formed.

I have listened to many patients who struggle with the vicissitudes of dating sites. Face-to-face, the characteristics that had been the attraction – disassembled information about likes, dislikes, work, kind of relationship wanted, and body type – may not fit together as they imagined. He doesn’t really seem the same as when we were emailing. She doesn’t look as pretty as her profile picture. Not only this, but an idealised online self-representation, carefully constructed and controlled, may shatter when challenged by real-life interactions. When something jars, the user can just go home and find someone else.

Even as dating sites promote a fantasy of matched perfection, there’s an endless sea of other possible matches (“a new love is just a click away”). The user sits in front of the screen, clicking on profiles while thoughts about the possibilities grow. The list of other potential candidates will be waiting online after every date, designed to sow doubt. Users can imagine having everyone they want, or being the object of everyone’s desire.

Often this is at the cost of having any relationship at all.

This was the trap that Jeff was caught in. It’s a situation that fans the desire for love but may hinder its development. Many sites proclaim that you will know when you meet “the one”, but such certainty can be difficult to find with a mobile app like Tinder in your pocket.

Jeff’s problems with connection were not entirely new. He recalled a time when he was in his 20s and going to the nightclub meat markets looking for sex: “It was great … going for the best-looking girl and getting her to come home with you. Thing is, when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t wait to get rid of her.”

Jeff’s anxiety about love came in the move from hunting for flesh to forging a connection. He had eventually met his (now ex-) wife through his work. When he began looking for a partner again, the old difficulties with intimacy and trust had returned, and they seemed to worsen with his online dating.

Dating sites can bring people together successfully. Everyone has heard a story or knows a couple who found each other online. With each new generation of lovers, online methods become more popular. While the dating site remains simply a means of meeting someone, partnerships proceed just as they would have pre-internet. The danger comes when internet daters get trapped in a pornographic shopping mall.

There’s a peculiar methodology at work in dating sites. They create a continual, circular search, a clash of love-seeking and capitalism, fed by loneliness. Websites promote, via testimonials, a toiling logic of love: “If you persevere, you will find the one!” The user pays to contact or meet anyone they like the look of. A recent estimate has users spending more than $200 per year on average. Sites also collect revenue from selling advertising based on the detailed data provided by their users. Dating sites are big business, but love and capitalism pursue different ends. Capitalism is founded on an ideology of limitless desire fuelling limitless growth. Love, on the other hand, requires, if only for a brief moment, a limit: desire directed towards one person. The investment must be directed towards an individual, not a website. In the end, love cannot be consumed, though dating sites have succeeded in creating a new class of consumer.

Online, it is possible just to play out the fantasy. What starts as a search for human interaction can be reduced to a self-enclosed game, where the only act is a click and any consequences end with logging off. Users can just stay home sifting through profiles, rather than going out to meet someone.

Jeff had taken up the challenge “to persevere” with gusto. He worked hard. He didn’t give up. He sent messages and exchanged emails. He had coffees, dinners and one-night stands. His despair mounted.

The behaviours of a person trapped in dating-site culture – negotiating an endless list of potential love objects – can begin to read like a paediatrician’s checklist for diagnosis in a struggling child: impaired social interaction in avoidance or misreading of social cues; stunted emotional expression; avoidance of interpersonal contact; avoidance of intimacy; repetitive ordering of objects; and checking and clicking behaviour.

The move from internet user to lover requires resistance to capitalism’s oldest, most reliable and profitable trick: telling us that what we have is not as good as what we might have.

Many of Jeff’s online encounters never even proceeded to a date. “I’m on a site where you can see who has been checking your profile,” he told me. “There was one woman who checked my profile every morning and every evening. After two weeks … I checked her out and thought, She looks alright. I sent her an ‘I like you’ message. She sent me a ‘No thanks’.”

Michael Currie

Michael Currie is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist. He is the author of Doing Anger Differently.

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