Money Can't Buy You Love: Are Internet Dating Sites Ripping Us Off?

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Back in the '90s, dating websites were reserved for the kind of window-licking whackadoodles who lived in their parents’ garage and spent a lot of time leafing through sci-fi porn in the garden shed. These days, that’s all changed. Now, every millennial worth their weight in avocados has been accosted by an unsolicited scrotum on Tinder.
If you’re looking for a casual romp with a man who specifies a preference for Netflix marathons and anal sex in flower beds, these swipe-right apps are the stuff romantic dreams are made of. For anyone searching for a more solid connection, it can feel like trying to navigate your way around a foreign city when the GPS breaks down. One minute you’re chatting to a cute guy about London’s trendy brunch options, the next he’s offering to lick oxtail soup off your feet.
Websites like Match, Guardian Soulmates and e-Harmony promise more long-lasting results, with couples brought together by shared interests, algorithms and carefully cropped holiday snaps deleting all evidence of the ex. While these sites might sell themselves as the Cher Horowitz of the internet set-up, as well as uniting hapless singles in the bosom of everlasting joy, their prerogative is making cash. In a world where you can’t have a train-station wee without paying 30p for the privilege, it appears love won’t come easy or cheap. And although these websites generate a healthy profit for their owners, I’m not convinced they’re the answer to finding a good match.
Despite dating more than 40 men from at least four different dating sites, I’ve never developed a long-term relationship with someone I’ve met online. I do know some people who’ve married after an internet romance, but I know many more who struggle with the casual hook-up culture, false intimacy and bad manners associated with the process. Giving us free rein to be shitheads without consequence, ghosting, benching and last-minute cancellations have become the norm in online dating, and social niceties have been relegated to the history books. Recently a man cancelled a first date with me an hour before we were meant to meet, as I hadn’t displayed enough enthusiasm for outdoor water sports. Another guy sung my praises from the ceiling before disappearing to the island of lost men, never to be seen again. I’ve also had my share of nice dates, with fancy cocktails and perfectly pleasant conversations about the British climate and a shared penchant for cheese. But the process still feels artificial, more like a business transaction at a conference than the path to happiness. All my meaningful relationships have come from friendships or real-life encounters, making the whole ‘getting to know you’ process less pressured and fraught with rejection anxiety or awkward coffee dates.
According to therapist and relationships expert Graham Landi, I’m not alone. He says one of the biggest issues with dating sites is that they advertise love based on the idea of algorithm, which he says isn’t scientifically possible. “Dating sites aim to match you with people based on your personalities but the truth is, you can’t manufacture a connection. The whole process fast-forwards the 'getting to know you' phase so by the time you arrive on a first date you both know you’re there to see if you want to start a relationship. Dating sites make their money by peddling the myth of that ‘one perfect person,’ which everyone wants to keep looking for.”
With a seemingly endless list of options available, it makes it easier for us to dismiss people for arbitrary reasons, and any flaws are perceived as immediate deal-breakers. I’m just as guilty of this trait, scrolling past anyone who punctuates with emoji, uses the expression ‘lol’ or professes to be a diehard fan of a healthy lifestyle. (Dude, feed me wine.)
By contrast, couples who meet in real life are likely to be more forgiving of each other’s Star Wars DVD collection, food fads or cotton wool phobia, knowing it’s a fraction of the person they’ve made a connection with. They’re also more accepting of illnesses, disabilities and mental health problems, because they’ve had the chance to see the real person without preconceptions of what they might be like. “Online daters want instant gratification and perfection because that’s what is being sold,” says Graham. “You’re meeting someone with a fixed idea about what it should be like and where it should go, and it makes people vulnerable to that FOMO feeling – the idea that you might be missing out on something better. It's not surprising that people end up feeling like they're not getting what they've paid for.”
While there’s no doubt that dating sites feed off human vulnerability like limpets, we’re also guilty of keeping the cycle going by continuing our pursuit of ‘The One’. “Dating sites can help you meet more people but they can’t do everything they promise. It’s impossible to put a timeline on finding the right person – there’s lots of factors at play,” says Graham. “Couples who meet online are very lucky but they’re also realistic. They recognise that there’s no such thing as perfection and work hard at their relationships.”
Online dating can definitely lead to success for some, but it requires a tough skin and a pragmatic attitude – especially in big cities where there’s lots of competition. With my very untough skin and lofty romantic goals of true love and unicorn ownership, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the game. So instead I plan to hang up my subscription for a few months and spend more time meeting people in the real world. And if all else fails, there’s always puppies.

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