“My love life feels like an endless cycle of people stopping replying on dating apps, boring dates with no spark, or meeting people I actually like and then sleeping with them once or not at all because of [various] reasons,” says Caroline*, 28. One person, for example, realised they couldn’t do a casual thing and told Caroline there was no point trying a committed relationship because they wanted different things in life. “I have so much love to give that, at some point, I’d like to find someone to give it to,” Caroline explains.
Oh, how I’ve been there. I know how it feels to re-download a dating app because you’re more than ready to meet someone; only to be left, yet again, with few matches and aimless, petering conversations. I know what it’s like to arrange a date with someone who seems great, only for them to bail. Or, worse, to go on a date with someone perfectly lovely and sit there trying to summon a spark into life through sheer force of will: because you really hoped this one could be something, and you’re so, so ready for something.
Sometimes I’m just really lonely. I watch people around me meet people and end up in relationships so easily all the time and I just can’t fathom how they manage it.
I’m all too familiar with the oh-so-frustrating feeling that you’d be a wonderful romantic partner, if only you could actually be one. Or that you’d thrive in a fling or a casual situationship; but more often than not, it just…doesn’t happen. And so your unfulfilled capacity for love, for a spark, for romantic intimacy of any kind, continues; alongside a plodding sense of monotony.
These feelings are very similar to a workplace phenomenon known as ‘rust-out’; which, despite some overlaps, is not to be confused with burnout.
“While burnout can lead to stress, tiredness, feelings of overwhelm and depression, rust-out is more like apathy and boredom at work,” explains Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of career consultancy City CV. “It can be caused by things such as repetitive tasks, not enough ownership of your work, [or] a job that’s not enough of a challenge for you.”
In an article on workplace rust-out for Cosmopolitan UK, writer Harriet Hall differentiated rust-out from burnout by characterising the latter as ‘exhaustion resulting from overwork’ and the former as ‘the Groundhog Day sensation born out of a lack of personally meaningful work, or mundane and monotonous activities’.
Similarly, in the dating sphere, burnout refers mainly to exhaustion from dating apps: the neverending choice, the endless scrolling, the hundreds upon thousands of only marginally different conversations. ‘Dating rust-out’, on the other hand, refers to a sense of repetition and a lack of meaningful intimacy when it comes to prospective flings or partners, despite wanting more and having plenty of mental and emotional capacity for it.
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari is a senior relationship therapist. “Each time someone who is looking for a long-term relationship goes on a first date, there are raised hopes and a longing for meaningful connection,” she says. “Yet, many of those first dates [...] lack the compatibility for meaningful connection. The repeated gap between the hope, anticipation and longing to the reality of basic repeated conversations can lead to a rust-out.”
One of the main feelings you get from rust-out is general ‘can’t be bothered-ness’. A feeling of, ‘what is the point?’
Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of career consultancy City CV
Twenty-six-year-old Sarah has been single since the end of 2019 and goes on dates once or twice a month, mainly through dating apps. “I’m looking for a relationship – I want companionship, I’m ready, I have a lot to give; but I think actively seeking it [through dating apps] and then [dating] feeling very repetitive makes it feel more like a rust-out,” she tells me. “I’m definitely experiencing the monotony of [dating – it just feels] very pointless and frustrating.”
This makes sense. “[Workplace] rust-out leaves you feeling less motivated, less productive and less caring about the quality of your work,” says McLean. “One of the main feelings you get from rust-out is general ‘can’t be bothered-ness’. A feeling of, ‘what is the point?’.”
“The dates are all so similar, and they don’t go anywhere,” says Sarah. “You put in all this effort, and then most people you meet are not the right fit. And it just feels…disappointing.”
The reasons for workplace rust-out are mostly clear: the employee isn’t being challenged or valued enough by their employers. But the reasons for dating rust-out are far harder to isolate; so I asked Ben-Ari why someone might go through it. Could it be circumstantial, in that they’re just not meeting the right person? Is it (consciously or unsubconsciously) deliberate – in that they’re withholding their heart, placing expectations on each date that are far too high, or simply not going on enough dates?
“There is no simple way to answer this,” Ben-Ari replied. “It is complex; it can be all [your] suggested reasons. There are a number of unconscious processes that are involved in partner selection. [Then, there’s] the challenging [belief] that a better partner is [a] swap away [and] that we need to find ‘the soul mate’.”
There’s something to be said for this. In her book, Dear Dolly: On Love, Life and Friendship, writer Dolly Alderton writes about our collective equation of a successful relationship with an eternal one. ‘If we meet someone who feels right for us, we have been told it means we should be with them until the day we die,’ she writes. ‘If this is how we view relationships, how is anyone ever going to commit to anyone in their twenties?’ Cue: people experiencing dating rust-out because either we, or the people sitting opposite us on dates, are equating a spark with meeting someone we can see ourselves living out our days with.
But Ben-Ari concluded by telling me that she tries to avoid giving people ‘Why’ labels – and I think she’s right. Ultimately, we’re all too unique to slap any universal ‘It’s because of this’ stickers on dating rust-out. It would often be a futile exercise anyway, because dating rust-out isn’t always 100% in our control. It might be a commitment- or expectations-related issue on our end, sure; but not necessarily. We can’t control (or even truly know) how other people feel about us romantically.
A more helpful exercise could be to look inwardly: to assess whether there are any repeating patterns you can observe. In doing so, you might even find your own personal ‘why’; and we can also try to learn how to manage the difficult feelings associated with dating rust-out.
“Reflect on what you find challenging,” Ben-Ari posits. “Where do you find your strengths, and where are your challenges in the dating world? Can you find a theme for your challenges? Finding yourself in dating rust-out might be an opportunity to shift something in you – a perception, a thought, a limited belief, behaviour – in order for you to grow.”
Ben-Ari also suggests changing the way you look for a partner. “First, be clear to yourself what it is that you are looking for,” she says. “Then, maybe change your method. Join communities and groups based on your interests or passions. [You’ll] increase your chance [of finding] a partner who shares your passion; and as you’ll be doing something you like, it won’t feel like a waste of time if you don’t meet someone.” Plus, mixing it up a little could help dispel those dating rust-out feelings of monotony and ennui.
Finally, Ben-Ari encourages finding the pleasure in being single – “Yes, you might prefer to be in a meaningful relationship, but you can also find the pleasure in being with yourself in the meantime” – and exploring options for further introspection. “Reach out for therapy to grow and heal, to work through limiting belief systems and sabotaging behaviours, and in turn to open yourself [up to] new possibilities,” she concludes.
Most of all: know that it’s normal to crave a fling or a relationship, and to feel bewildered or low because it’s not happening for you. “Sometimes I’m just really lonely,” says Caroline. “I watch people around me meet people and end up in relationships so easily all the time and I just can’t fathom how they manage it.” It’s common. It’s dating rust-out. But, like so many feelings, it can pass.
*Name changed to protect identity