The Swipe Culture and the Ideal of Choice – How does it shape modern romance?

In our quest for relationship in the modern era, how does the swipe culture influence and shape our choices? And does it get us what we think we want?

In the West, once we women acquired more agency over our own choices, lives, and bodies through the right to vote, to use contraception, the right to pursue an education and a career of one’s own outside of homemaking and child rearing, the ability to work and keep our own earnings, the ability to divorce when in an unhappy marriage, and the ability to protest and use the Law to stop most forms of physical abuse from a spouse, societies took on the
template of romantic love as the idealised version of what it takes to form a lasting bond.

Once we women had agency over our own lives, we were no longer goods and chattels as we had been for thousands of years. This freedom to choose our own path is still denied to millions of women the world over. In the West, however, we are now free to choose partners of our own liking. No longer are men the primary agents of choice in partner selection. This was assumed to make life much more satisfying for all concerned and likely to make for better relationships. This freedom to choose, particularly on the part of women, was at the core of the Romantic ideal.

Unfortunately, the divorce rates everywhere seem to challenge this assumption.

It pays to reflect a little on the origins of the Romance ideal.

Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

When we think of romantic stories, most of us think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, two of the most well known lovers. Our models here were fourteen years old when their eyes met across a crowded room, at a masked ball. They spent one night together, had sex, then went their separate ways. Then, through miscommunication, ended up losing everything, including their lives. In the Middle Ages among the privileged classes, we had courtly love, where a knight devoted himself to a Lady – endlessly pining for her, writing her love sonnets and songs extolling her virtues and professing his undying love for her, entering duels and performing feats of courage and daring in her honour. Both parties remained very clear that their love would never be consummated. The Arthurian tale of Guinevere and Lancelot stands as a stern reminder of how dangerous it was to attempt to build a relationship from such a foundation. In those days, the parameters that made it safe for both parties to engage in courtly love were founded on the clear understanding and condition that both remain forever unattainable to one another.

It’s hard for me not to see a pattern right there. I am struck by how, at the core of both of these stories so foundational to our concept of romance, lies themes of an idealised perfect Other, a theme of unattainability of the desired Other, a theme of longing destined to remain unfulfilled, a theme of an idealised view of the Other that is never put to the test of reality, and neither couple learning about the reality of what it’s like to live in close quarters to one another, day in, day out.

Like any teen who idealises a rock star or celebrity from afar, it’s easy to see/imagine the best in someone if you don’t actually have to see them in their ordinariness, or even, at their worst in their off-stage, ordinary life. It’s easy to dream about how such a union ‘could’ work if one isn’t actually put to the test oneself by the banal challenges of the everyday. Just as one can idealise the other, a normal part of the early part of falling in love, it is also easy to remain
stuck in that mode when not tested by the stark reality of what it takes to live in close proximity and intense reliance on another human being through what it takes to conduct an adult life.

With the arrival of dating apps, the ‘swipe’ culture has introduced an unprecedented level of commoditisation to the business of finding a mate, be that for a night or longer. Listening to my clients, friends and colleagues, reading social media accounts and research literature, it seems to me that the line between acquiring a toy to play with for a little while and the process of scoping, creating, establishing, and nurturing a relationship for a longer term have
become confused.

Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash

A woman described her recent experience on a dating app – apparently, “one that gives women more control over the process”. A man contacted her through the app and she found him attractive. His next communication was to ask her where they might go to have ‘a shag’. She looked wistful as she asked me, “Where has old fashioned romance gone?”. He had not asked her a single question about herself, had not offered to meet up for a coffee or a drink –
it seems the mutual swipe on one another’s photo was all that was required. She tells me she “unmatched’ him. Onwards.

Hers is one of many hundreds of stories I hear. In that woman’s situation, the man wasted no time on social niceties – perhaps in a bid to be efficient, he asked about logistics for sex. Many other women tell me about unsolicited ‘dick pics’ they receive as their first ‘introduction’ to a potential date, often followed by requests for nude pics of their own.

Perhaps the swipe culture has changed the requirements of choice to a hierarchy of priorities: first, needing to like one another’s general appearance (with or without a face shot); then, having to like one another’s appearance nude; and finally, finding out if one’s tastes and preferences in sex are a match, before one might consider whether one needs to know anything more about the other party.

I hear a lot of dejection from many women – more often from women than from men. It seems to me that many women bring the same sort of hopes and dreams to their dating apps when they swipe and agree to go out on dates as I used to hear when dating began with a face to face encounter of some sort. I suggest that this is a recipe for hurt and disappointment.

Photo by on Unsplash

When I am in ‘browsing mode’ on the internet, idly scrolling through websites and scanning through page after page of images, I am not personally engaged in the same way as I am in person. While I might be in search for a particular something – an object to buy, an experience – I am in a consumer mode rather than actively present and engaged in the way I am in a face to face in person encounter. The swipe culture invites, indeed brings out, this detached, depersonalised mode in us. This then translates into making us into consumers and other people commodities we then assess the way we might assess any other object we are investigating in the marketplace. It also makes us relate to ourselves as commodities we need to present and promote as advantageously as possible to attract the consumption of other consumers. In other words, we stop relating to ourselves and the other as persons as we
commodify ourselves and the other in this way. This has disturbing echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s and Michel Foucault’s panopticon. We relate to ourselves in an endless regress as simultaneously the ones being watched, and the ones doing the surveillance. In the process, we remove ourselves from being fully present to our experience.
The process invites a focus on the ‘packaging’ and a focus on a utilitarian value based on a market-place set of metrics we hold and generalise – how things (aka people) look; what their image suggests about their status/ use value (aka what they/we, as functions, might do for us/them), what a profile suggests about how what they’re seeking might or might not fit in with our own search requirements (aka their compatibility with us based on their functional match to our requirements).

None of this relates to who they or we are as persons, what they/ we are interested in beyond the surface, how they/we relate to others in their/our lives; what gives meaning to their/our lives.

While I hear a lot of my searchers use the word ‘play’ in referring to their explorations in the dating world in the age of the app, I don’t hear much play. Instead, I hear a rather grim cynical seriousness in most people as I hear them go about the business of trying to find a someone – whether they’re looking for that night’s shag, or hoping to find something that might last longer.

There is a lot at stake as people set out to display their wares in the most advantageous way they think might net them some interest. Profiles are tinkered with, tips are shared about the ‘best’ kinds of profile pics, what to say and what not to say to stand out from the pack and secure a swipe to the right . When I ask if they are having any luck, I hear a lot more nos than yeses. I hear a lot of painful stories, which either end on an oddly contradictory wistful note
about how they know ‘lots’ of other people who have found their life partner on an app, or else I hear the sad echo of despair and cynicism about ‘everybody on there seems to only be after one thing’.

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

Sadly, it seems that whatever that one thing might be, it’s often not the person I’m speaking with. It seems the whole notion of getting a better deal (FOMO) that I have written about elsewhere also plays a role in this constant restless search. In the search for the perfect One (aka the perfect deal in consumer speak), every encounter is seen as only one possible choice among many others, leading the searcher to consider their momentary choice relative to the
imagined better match whoever/ whatever else might be on the market.

The illusion of “I can do better” can dampen the willingness to extend grace a little further and find out whether this One might be worth getting to know a little more past the first date. The quest becomes one for the already perfect match (according to the parameters listed earlier). Such a match is assumed to mean we will glide into an easy, instantaneously compatible relationship, free of effort and conflict. We will have our ‘happily ever after’ from the fairy tales straight from the marketplace, as promised. As long as Cinderella’s foot fit the glass slipper, then she ‘must’ be the One. The uniqueness of each person is lost in the pile of profiles to choose from.

Contrary to what we revere in the West, more choice is not better. Social psychology has shown us that having lots of choices itself reduces our capacity to make good choices – our discrimination strategies seem inadequate to the task beyond a certain point. We are more likely to walk away without choosing at all. So it is with the swipe culture: we don’t choose One to explore further, but continuously re-enter the assembly line of profiles on the dating apps.

Swipe left. Swipe right.

If I’m to believe that apart from securing a one-night stand, there is a fair portion of the population using dating apps that want to be chosen for themselves with a view to seeing if they might be able to build a relationship with a future beyond the awkward morning after, what might that require? What if, once in a relationship, there might also be a fair portion of the population that want to continue to feel chosen by the person they have selected and who
chose them? In other words, for that sense of being special to continue long after the first initial dates –what might it take?

This is where we might need to step outside of the consumer mindset. This is where, rather than focus on whether someone has a six pack, or large breasts, whether they are into anal sex or BSDM, what size they are, how young they look, and how conveniently close they are to us in the moment, we might have to change the approach we take to our quest for a relationship.

This is where we need to be willing to approach each person with what the Buddhists call Beginner’s Mind. In this place, each person is truly unknown, a mystery, and therefore unique. We can’t assume we know anything about them just because their profile has listed a few things about their likes and preferences. Starting this way, we drop the notion that the other is a product to be consumed. Instead, we open ourselves to the possibility that the Other
will reveal themselves to us according to circumstances, whatever alchemy develops between us over time, and our respective willingness to ask, answer, and listen to searching questions from one another. Similarly, we need drop the idea that we (or anyone else) could possibly be ‘known’ based on whatever it was that was written about ourselves in our bio and in the pics we uploaded to the site. Instead, let’s open ourselves up to finding out what aspects of ourselves will reveal themselves once in the company of the Other.

I have heard many happily partnered people tell me that they would never have chosen or been matched with their life partner had they used dating apps. This illustrates my point that there is a certain amount of mystery that happens in terms of whether we fit with a potential mate or not. That mystery only reveals itself over time, after both parties take a chance to discover what might e unique and interesting about the Other.

To make this possible, we need to slow down and stop. We need to create time for things to emerge and reveal themselves, something that most people I speak with tell me they are very short on. In the scarcity mentality of perceiving oneself as ‘time poor’ and the assumed necessity of multi-tasking, searchers need to be willing to make time so they can show up and also notice whether the Other is showing up. Presence – we know it when we get it from someone(and when we don’t) , and we know it when we’re present or when we don’t manage it ourselves.

Each person who hopes for more than a casual shag on a Saturday night needs to be willing to give this project the time it deserves. Needs to be willing to cultivate real presence, both to reveal what is most meaningful to us to the Other so they can sense how they match with us (or not), and to invite the Other to also reveal what is most meaningful to them. Only then, I believe, can we both sense what the alchemy of our meeting reveals about us, each other, and the kind of relationship we might create together, should we elect to stay awhile with one

We need to be willing to make space for more than a first impression to direct our thinking and decision-making. This can only happen if we make space and time to meet, and meet again, perhaps several times. To meet in different contexts, under different conditions. A meeting in a park sitting watching the ducks on a lake will not reveal the same facet as a meeting across a table in a trendy downtown restaurant, a meeting at one or the other person’s home cooking a meal together, or a meeting over an expensive concert or show.  Only repeated exposure to one another will reveal where the fit lies, and also where the cracks are likely to emerge.

Many of the more bitter disappointments and dramas I hear about could have been averted had the parties agreed to meet like this in a range of contexts, in daytime and at night, sober as well as sharing a wine or taking party drugs. Under the softer glow of a more gentle exploration that holds on to the truth that both parties are essentially unknown to one another for some time at first, there is room for both parties to take their time to explore whether or not this person in front of them might be worth a second look, a third, or a fourth. In the context of seeking out a life partner, we need to remember to give ourselves the time to not rush the process. After all, we are considering whether this Other really is someone we might enjoy building a relationship with. Given that ongoing relationship is quite a deal of work and intentional and directed effort, it’s worthwhile considering whether the person currently
auditioning to be with us is likely to be a good fit for us or not.

Beyond what looks good in a moment, and what our own fantasies tell us might be conjured out of us by us pairing with that person, we also need to be willing to consider what is interesting about them, what fits with our values about the way they conduct themselves, and whether they actually live the values they claim to hold dear. We need to consider and pay attention to whether there are early signs that suggest that trouble lies ahead – of the unsexy,
painful kind, not of t he ‘sexy/bad’ kind.

We need to consider whether they are already what we hope they are, or whether they talk a good game and our hopes and what we interpret as their potential might be blinding us to the reality of their stage of development. At the end of the day, we need to try to see the person as they are now, and not what and who they might yet become. Each person’s potential is in their own hands – they may or may not be interested in exploring and living out their so-called potential in our company. We need to consider: is what we see in front of us enough?

Similarly, we need to have the courage to represent ourselves as honestly as we possibly can without trying to fit some sort of impossible image that we cannot hope to live up to sustainably over time. If we want the incredible joy of being chosen for who we are, then we have to risk not being chosen for who we are. Only then can we make room for the One who will rejoice in exactly who we are to find us.

The swipe culture seems to sell us a dream: that, if we list our requirements and present ourselves a certain way, we can find the One who will be a perfect match for us. But a perfect match for what? We end up engaging in childish wishful thinking: behind this endless promotion of choice and the quest for ‘better’, lies an unspoken assumption that a so-called perfect match will deliver ‘a match made in heaven’. In other words, a relationship devoid of
challenges, painful differences, and dilemmas – ready made.

There is no such thing. No matter how detailed someone’s profile might be, and no matter how much it ‘matches’ ours, this is still not a guarantee that we will be compatible for a long term relationship. Many of us have had the experience of being ‘matched’ by friends according to lots of criteria on paper, only to find ourselves struggling to find anything to say over an awkward, tiresome date.

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

Intimate relationship requires time, work, presence, humility, courage, openness, and the willingness to tolerate ambiguity and frustration, to put off immediate gratification in service of a longer term goal, and the willingness to shift the focus from me to we. It requires the willingness to focus on one person at a time and give them and us the time and space to see whether, when we take the pressure of having to be The Best off both of us, we are then free
to be ourselves and be  chosen because we are who we are, and not because we ‘fit’ some sort of checklist. Only then, can we work to develop what it takes to have a real relationship that might stand the test of time.

If you’re ready to move beyond the swipe culture and want to develop an approach to
relationship that’s more suited to offering and building intimacy than to selecting a plaything
from the marketplace, call me.