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February 21, 2023

Dating Apps and Today’s Relationship Anxiety

Julia Osborne, MSW, LMSW

Marriage through matchmaking was the original form of courtship, recorded as far back as the Bible, but the concept of finding a loving partner and getting to know them through dating before marriage has only been in existence since the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. This shift from parental and community decisions about who we spend our lives with to allowing freedom and exploration has never been as apparent as it is in this current era with online dating.

Dating online has had an interesting journey from the humble beginnings of paying for matchmaking services through match. com to its current state of freedom, hype, and confusion. Back in 2001, when match. com merged with love. aol, individuals paid $24.95 per month for a membership to take a survey and be matched with other singles with similar interests and values. Now people can hop onto one of countless, free “dating” apps, which all provide different ends. Most dating apps advertise as a way to help singles meet and find a life partner, but anyone who has ever explored them discovers they often have very different purposes. Certainly, there are a few people who meet their partners through these apps, but the more prevalent experience is that the apps provide some users with false hope and others with stories of frustration and even violation. 

For many Gen X-ers, Gen Z-ers, and other millennials, it has become obvious that the transition from meeting people at school, work, clubs, and bars to meeting them on the smartphone has had deleterious effects on the way we interact with potential partners. People are not only utilizing apps more, but they are becoming more averse to the “old fashioned” way of meeting others. Many younger people talk about the great risks inherent to meeting people at public places and saying things such as, “Well, they’re a complete stranger. Who knows what they may be like? I’d rather get to know someone first [via online chatting].”  

This change has impacted our public interaction in a way that has almost encouraged social phobia. The mentality that we can only feel safe meeting a potential partner if we text them for weeks in advance has led countless people down the rabbit hole of endless conversations that never led to an actual in-person experience. Contrarily, this behavior pattern has led many others down a dangerous path of false security with individuals who are pretending to want a connection when all that is desired is a sexual experience, are presenting as one person when they’re an entirely different individual, or the all-too-friendly bot profile which tries to trick app users into sending cash. 

In addition to these hazards, dating apps have enabled those who suffer from social anxiety to fully envelop themselves in a world where they never truly need to take social risks. They can gain the minimal social interaction they desire by interacting through apps, without ever actually meeting another person. They may feel socially fulfilled, but what they are truly doing is enabling their anxiety. Those who experience social phobia fear the scrutiny of others through social interactions, like meeting unfamiliar people, being observed while eating or drinking, performing in front of others, and acting in a way that is embarrassing. Meeting unfamiliar people, eating and drinking together, and risking embarrassment through personal exposure are all key elements of early dating. As exposure therapy has evidenced, engaging in behaviors that make one nervous, over time, lessens anxiety. Therefore, engaging in dating behaviors, safely and appropriately, inherently will help a socially anxious person gain control over that aspect of life and have more fulfilling life experiences. 

This is not to say that dating apps are all bad. They have merit in connecting others in ways unimaginable to past generations. If a single person wants to date and find a partner for life, dating apps can certainly be one option. However, users can be mindful not to spend too much time chatting online. Connect with a potential partner, find a safe public place to meet, and meet them. Daters can get to know potential partners in real life and make sure to set clear expectations for what is wanted out of the relationship. In short, today we can use technology to enhance dating, not to replace it.

Other options exist besides dating apps, though. It’s still possible to use more traditional routes of meeting a partner. If meeting at bars feels scary, singles can try connecting with a classmate or coworker – someone we can take our time getting to know, flirt with, and develop something special with in a structured environment. This may lead to building social skills, such as boundary setting, empathy, and cooperating, as well as reducing social anxiety. 

Finding a significant other in the real world can boost confidence. Real-life dating partners can see us for who we really are, not merely our internet identity, and this can feel incredibly validating. On the internet, we have time to come up with clever responses and confident self-statements, but in person we may be awkward and fearful that people will not take the time to get to know the real person that we are; this is understandable. But as we worry about deficits in our competence, we likely also under-appreciate what virtues and talents we actually possesses that may be attractive to a partner. By avoiding in-person relationships, daters can make ourselves inaccessible to growth opportunities, preclude further maturation, and becomes more dependent on the apps.

As daters, whether we choose to try dating apps or to engage with the people in our everyday lives, we must put our personal boundaries and respect first. To be sure, some people will be inappropriate partner options; they just aren’t the right fit. Others may actually be manipulative, deceptive, or simply unkind. But this does not mean we are unlovable or deserve mistreatment. Dating requires that we find the qualities in ourselves that make us unique and bolster them; bring them to the surface and show them proudly to the world. If we choose, we can promote this self-expression first through dating apps and maintain it throughout the process of making a real-world connection. Dating takes courage. Finding someone we want to spend our life with can take time – but this is OK. Though social media comparisons make us feel like there is a timeline for life, there is no rush.

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Julia Osborne

Julia Osborne, MSW, LMSW

Julia Osborne, MSW, LMSW received her Masters in Social Work from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker. She has experience working with individuals, families/couples, and groups utilizing techniques from evidence-based practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and emotionally focused therapy. She is passionate about working with adolescents, adults, and elderly adults and their families on their mental health and relationships.