Sex & Dating | March 4, 2022 2:24 pm

“Disposable Dating” Culture Might Actually Be a Good Thing

Less pressure to settle down actually seems... healthy?

Online dating app in mobile phone. Like or swipe to match. Single man looking for love and relationship with smartphone. Woman with beautiful profile picture on internet site
There's nothing wrong with having options
Tero Vesalainen

I’ll admit I can be a little hard on Tinder these days. It’s not that I’m anti-dating apps in general, it’s just that I think Tinder is an embarrassing mess of a millennial-made platform that’s trying too hard to stay relevant. (Also they banned me without just cause several years ago and I’m obviously still not over it.) But if there’s one thing I’ll give Tinder credit for, it’s helping me get over my first real breakup.

Like most teens weathering their first taste of heartbreak, I was devastated, confused and also terrified I’d never find love again. Unlike most teens before me, however, I had access to an app that provided literal proof that there are, in fact, plenty of fish in the sea. Back then (circa 2014) Tinder was really one of the only mainstream dating apps people were using, and I downloaded it (in secret of course, because dating app stigma was still at its peak) in a post-breakup wave of depression during my senior year of high school. The ego boost of flirting with more strangers in one night than I had in my entire life may not have healed the heartbreak, but it did help assuage the fear that I’d never find anyone else, that my last chance at love, marriage, or at least a prom date, had just walked out the door.

While those fears may sound like unfounded adolescent catastrophizing, (and of course they were, to some extent) pressure to find a romantic partner and settle down is obviously a reality for many, many people — arguably even more so with age. Fear of not finding someone “in time” (or at all) forces people into relationships that may not be the best fit, keeps them in those relationships for fear that there’s no one better out there, and leaves single people clinging to every possible opportunity for a relationship, putting all their hopes and dreams for a romantic future on every first date, setup or random dude who asks for their number.

For me, the breadth of options for romantic and sexual partnership dating apps provide saved me from all that pressure and anxiety. Knowing I had an ever-growing pool of options literally at my fingertips at all times gave me the space and freedom to date for fun and genuinely enjoy being single throughout adolescence and early adulthood, rather than with a panicked end goal of locking down the next available man who happened to stumble into my life.

I like to think I would have eventually reached that level of security and confidence without dating apps, but I honestly can’t say I would have. Had I come of age even just a few years earlier, I probably would’ve settled down more easily, clung to failing relationships more tightly and been more devastated when they ended. Being spared all that desperation, and the major life choices it likely would have bred, has always seemed like a godsend to me. Older people I’ve spoken with who didn’t have access to such a broad digital dating pool in their formative years have told me that they probably wouldn’t have married the college girlfriend they’re now divorcing or that guy they met at the bar in their 20s if they’d had the kind of options dating apps provide.

The counterargument, however, is that this newfound breadth of romantic choices now available to anyone with a smartphone has created a toxic dating culture that devalues prospective romantic partners. A recent New York Post article decries this culture of “disposable dating,” claiming the convenience of dating apps makes today’s singles less likely to settle down than previous generations. As sociologist Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus told the Post, having more options, and having them so readily available, “has led people to think of one another as disposable,” contributing to an “‘on to the next one’ mentality” that’s made dating “more superficial.”

There’s certainly plenty of truth to this. Choice paralysis is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, one that certainly applies to dating apps and the culture they’ve bred. The more options you have, the harder it is to settle on one. And yes, inevitably, the more options you have, the less value any given one holds. It sounds perhaps a bit cold when you’re talking about actual human beings, but it’s just a matter of supply and demand. Naturally, this does make people less likely to settle down, and, as Gunsaullus told the Post, less likely “to do the hard work of working on a relationship.”

The thing is, I don’t think any of that is necessarily bad. Yes, if you’re actively looking for a relationship, then today’s dating app culture is probably pretty frustrating. But generally speaking, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to have more options and to be more hesitant about entering long-term commitments. I don’t know that marrying your college sweetheart because you’re not sure if anyone better will ever come along or settling for some guy you met at a bar because you’re going to be 30 soon and who knows when the next single person will cross your path has necessarily made for more successful relationships. It’s certainly made for more relationships (and more marriages and more monogamy) but I don’t know that racing to settle down because you don’t have any other options (or don’t think you do) is a recipe for happiness and romantic bliss. Not only do dating apps alleviate some of the pressure to turn every prospective romantic connection into “the one,” but I think they’ve also helped open the door to alternative relationship styles beyond traditional monogamy. If you’re a die-hard monogamist searching for your life partner, that may seem like bad news, but it’s certainly not for the many people for whom monogamy isn’t the romantic or sexual ideal.

I don’t even think that viewing romantic partners (or prospective romantic partners) as “disposable” is necessarily bad. I’m not saying that dating apps give us license to treat other people like garbage — anyone we interact with, especially romantically or sexually, is deserving of kindness and decency regardless of how we met them. But there is something to be said for knowing, whether you’re single or you’ve been married for 30 years, that you can stand on your own, that you’d be fine without a partner. The reality is, people are disposable. Whether romantic partners, friends, colleagues or even family, people come and go from our lives. Accepting that a romantic interest or partner is, to some extent, disposable stops you from putting them on a pedestal, from dissolving your identity and worth and hopes and dreams for the future into any one person. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value our relationships, that we shouldn’t work hard to make things work with the ones we love. But being able to say goodbye when it’s time, to not be afraid to walk away from a bad or failing relationship, and to accept when someone else says goodbye to us, is crucial.

Call it “superficial,” but dating apps helped me get there. Knowing that I had options made it easier to walk away from situations that weren’t working, and to recover from being the situation someone else walked away from. I no longer feel like every date, relationship or breakup is or was my last chance at love, happiness and fulfillment, and for that I have Tinder to thank.