As #BlackLivesMatter protests rocked the globe, dating services that had formerly endorsed racial exclusion-based dating appeared to change their tunes.
Some announced they would be removing ethnic and race filter options. Others declined, citing the longstanding motivation for preference filters: maximizing user choice. (Choice which I’ve argued is largely an illusion.)
Such changes could be taken as a mark of progress. They may have also just been virtue signaling.
When the powers-that-be make a concession to the oppressed, more often than not it is less a concession than a convergence of interests. The timing of this decision suggests as much.
The popularity of dating apps and services depends upon their promise of greater ease and convenience, but also the pleasures offered by gamification. Exclusion-based dating exists because app design reinforces this pattern.
To explain: sorting through the sheer number of prospects on dating services requires a process of elimination. Filters present themselves as the logical conclusion.
And so users are funneled into a preset selection of behaviors, responding to each candidate on a binary yes/no basis.
Sorting through an ocean of romantic/sexual options demands significant mental energy. Our brain quickly learns to conserve that energy by autonomizing the process.
A careful profile survey is refined into a reflexive swipe. Preferences shift into hard “no”s. Full sentences degrade into monosyllables.
The apps positively reinforce our continued engagement with this pattern through instant notifications. Flashy animations and sounds signal success, assuring us that whatever we are doing must be right.
We in turn interpret our behaviors as winning strategies, leaving us less prone to questioning our own biases.
Left unchallenged, biases color our perception of the world. They fledge into prejudice, promoting “isms” such as ableism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism.
The first step to overcoming biases is awareness. If you suspect you are prone to a particular bias, consider taking a free implicit bias test.
The second step is introducing information that directly conflicts with our automatic patterns of thinking about a particular group.1
Consider writing a letter to yourself, exploring the reasoning behind a specific bias or prejudice. Describe the experiences that may have given rise to it. Find possible flaws or contradictions in your biased belief system.
Weigh your dating preferences against your values. Do the two align, and if not, what then are you willing to do to address it?
Revising any attitude, belief, and response involves some mental effort. Dating apps on the other hand encourage us to suspend “intention, attention, and effort”2 for the sake of convenience and efficiency—then reward us for doing so.
Giving into automaticity results in us falling back on old habits. Like a car following grooves and ruts in the road, we will very quickly “tramline” our way back into bias.
Without self-reflection, we are at the mercy of our worst instincts. Only by developing awareness about our own thinking can we escape the toxic hold of exclusion-based dating.
Collecting our behavioral data for private profit is a now-standard business practice first pioneered by tech giants like Google and Facebook.
On this surface, this may seem to be a mutual exchange: products and services, in return for personal information and what The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus” data.
From this surplus, these companies are able to construct profiles which are then sold as a commodity to other businesses.
These profiles can also be used to “nudge, coax, tune, and herd [our] behavior” in a way that serves the interest of top bidders, such as through targeted advertising.
The people guiding this process—a mysterious, corporate-run “data priesthood”—operate from behind a one-way mirror. They might know everything about us, but we know next to nothing about them.
This priesthood’s practice of collecting, selling, and exploiting our behavioral data has since been adopted by the likes of dating and hookup app operators, at great cost to our privacy—and wellbeing.
The normalization of surveillance capitalism
Zuboff argues that every time we give in to these companies and sign their obscure, incomprehensible terms-of-service agreements, we are handing over exploitable information about ourselves.
We comply with these agreements only because by now they appear bog-standard, and because they are a necessary hurdle to accessing services upon which we depend.
Fashioning an image of themselves as heroic entrepreneurs or authorities, data collectors buy our trust by promising “social connection, access to information, time-saving convenience, and, too often, the illusion of support”.
Yet their true goal as Zuboff points out is to extract human experience as a raw material for profit.
But succumbing to the new form of power represented by these organizations shouldn’t seem so inevitable. We still have the power to opt-out.
Here’s why it’s crucial we exercise that power.
Surveillance capitalism in gay apps
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains how the social media platform Facebook uses “closed loops of obsession and compulsion” pioneered by the gaming industry to engage and captivate users.
These loops rely upon “social pressure, social comparison, modeling, subliminal priming” to generate continued usage—and even addiction.
What’s not often discussed however is how app creators use behavior data to shape app design and to enhance the “hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction”, to use Zuboff’s phrase.
For example, a cursory glance at Tinder reveals the creators have tuned the app design to generate more rewarding feedback, and thus more user engagement.
Consider the flashy animation and audio tone whenever you “match” with another user on Tinder—stimulation that’s likely to cause a release of the neurochemical dopamine, associated with the sensation of pleasure.
This is a form of positive reinforcement that ensures many of us keep on playing the swiping game, at least until we hit a paywall.
Paywalls in this case are used to create the illusion of scarcity. When free users swipe “no” on an interested candidate, the app will notify them they have missed a potential match, then suggest relieve the resulting fear of missing out (FOMO) by purchasing the right to chat with this other user.
Similarly, by offering a limited amount of free “likes”, the app levers loss aversion to coax users into buying a subscription.
App designers also nudge us to return to the app using push notifications. These notifications are also used to promote flash sale promotions or advertisements.
The examples provided here are blatant examples of the manipulation Zuboff describes. However, it’s the examples we don’t know about that I believe we should be most worried about.
The danger of manipulative app design
Zuboff cites studies that reveal the particular vulnerability of teenagers to social media addiction, owing to their development age.
If we don’t practice mindfulness, we are at risk of being caught in a toxic cycle, wherein “ego gratification and ego injury drive the chase for more external cues”.
To explain: when we are ignored or rejected on these apps, gratification is denied, and our ego is injured.
We may try to soothe that injury by pursuing still more gratification, returning over and over to the app for our fix.
The shallow, mechanical, and objectifying exchanges that often ensue are a far cry from the acknowledgment and affirmation we are seeking.
As we hover over our phones “anxiously awaiting the appearance of the little notification box as a sign” of our self-worth, we suffer a slow extinction by a thousand snubs.
For “Without the ‘others’,” Zuboff writes, “the lights go out.”
How surveillance capitalism hurts us
Enter dating and hookup apps with their endless stacks and grids of attractive faces and torsos.
In the case of gay men, this social comparison is taken to a new level: we aren’t just competing for the attention of other users, but also against them.
The competition for the best possible “match”, when combined with the illusion of scarcity, fuel FOMO regarding potential romantic or sexual interests.
Our interactions on these apps come to resemble some overwhelming game of chat whack-a-mole, in which we try desperately to catch, hold and hoard other’s attention.
It’s a game that often feels futile, as interest fluxes and users log on and off, often without explanation. Being shunned or ignored is commonplace, as is deception.
For instance, it’s not unusual to realize mid-chat that the person on the other end either isn’t who they claim to be—or is actually a chatbot.
Certainly, where dating is concerned, rejection is par for the course. But when identity and self-value come into question, as it so often does on these apps, the stakes often feel so much higher, as anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a flame war can attest.
Creating app-based addiction
To recap: surveillance capitalism allows creators to monitor users’ behavior and then use the resulting data to control us, for example through the gamification I’ve described above.
Like gamblers denying the odds, we keep coming back, even attempting to turn these odds in our favor by curating a profile we know will maximize user engagement, even to the point of trickery.
It is human nature to selectively present the best parts of ourselves, but these apps seem to actively encourage selective self-representation by providing profile fields that cater to one-dimensional hypersexuality.
Limiting as it is to be defined only by the minutia of one’s erotic interests, many users inevitably fall into line. Some do it in the name of efficiency or practicality, others in the name of achieving the success of a date, a hookup, or simply being messaged.
When taken to the extreme, users will adopt a completely different identity, knowing it will likely entice messages or photo exchanges.
Instant messaging is inherently rewarding, but add to this the ever-present possibility of sexual attraction or rejection, and users are pushed into heightened states of anxious arousal.
With enough exposure, we run the risk of developing an app-based process addiction.
Defying surveillance capitalism
Today’s tech-dependent world has arguably left us all pawns of surveillance capitalism.
Personally, as someone with a natural tendency for obsessive compulsiveness, I find app-based dating about as stressful as clothes shopping.
My visits to the mall usually begin with a single aspiration: buying a pair of jeans. I’ll usually give myself just an hour to make a decision. But this attempt at self-discipline rarely is a good idea.
What begins as a low-pressure routine trip quickly ends up becoming a race to find the best deal. Wandering from store to store, I’ll compare fit, color, and price, and how each option ranks alongside those I find online.
Before I know it, the internal timer will hit the hour mark and I’ll be forced to settle on a candidate.
Head spinning, I’ll collapse into the nearest seat, overwhelmed by the possibility that for all my research, I may very well end up making the wrong choice.
This “analysis paralysis” usually results in me returning to my car, driving home, and spending the next two hours browsing online until I’ve found an even better deal.
The tyranny of choice in app-based dating
Picking a pair of jeans is not a life-or-death type of situation, but for me it certainly feels like one. Whatever savings I may make along the way are almost always negated by the stress I accrue as a result of my exhaustive (and exhausting) search.
Worse still, when the jeans I ultimately select arrive in the mail, I’ll often discover they’re a bad fit…meaning an even longer wait for a replacement pair.
It’s a development I could almost certainly avoid if I just settled for an in-store option. So what exactly is stopping me? A little something economists refer to as “loss aversion”.
No one resents the freedom to choose, or the benefits, conveniences and privileges it affords in today’s world. But there are instances—like the one above—where choice can tyrannize, rather than liberate.
The downside of living in a consumerist society is that it often leads to a mindset governed by what author David Brooks calls a “utilitarian calculus”.
That is, we look at everything in terms of personal utility or gain. Not even interpersonal relationships are immune to such cynical assessments.
People who have fallen prey to “utilitarian calculus” are what The Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz calls maximizers. When confronted by a purchase decision, maximizers almost always pursue the “best” possible option.
Maximizers are consumed by the need to be conscious and deliberate about every choice. They are extremely averse to losses, but also regret. For that reason, they are more often than not hamstrung by their pursuit of perfection.
As in my case, shopping for the “best deal” when confronted by an endless array of choices can lead to mental overload. It can also deprive us of valuable time and energy.
As Schwartz writes:
“Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.”
The perils of ‘maximizing’
Consider this quote in light of gay app-based dating. A maximizing mindset seems baked into website and app design, with features that make screening, excluding and selecting effortless.
We are able to set filters to identify people who fall within a narrow set of idealized parameters. We swipe to dispose of undesirables, and “favorite” to build a list of prospective lovers.
But as Schwartz points out, dating app maximizers sooner or later run up against the following conundrum: “How can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible?”
The fact is, we never really can, a fact that continues to haunt maximizers well past the point of having made a decision.
This may explain why many app users avoid meeting; who ghost and flake on a whim. Barring obvious reasons—such as being on the app purely out of procrastination or a desire for validation—these individuals may feel confronted by your request for them to make a decision.
While meeting for a coffee is not exactly a marriage proposal, it does require some investment of time and energy. It is by no means a commitment, but it is a choice all the same.
That choice comes inevitably at the cost of other choices. For instance, spending facetime with one person for example means possibly missing out on facetime with someone else who happens to be available and interested at the same time.
Not a significant loss by most measures, but ask a maximizer who lives with a background anxiety of loss and regret aversion and they may disagree.
This anxiety and agonizing about supposed trade-offs however can ultimately thwart the maximizer’s search.
Ignoring those of us who use app-based dating for the thrill of instant messaging and sexting, the remainder we can safely assume are looking for some form of in-person interaction.
Monitoring our usage of these services reveals that we spend a lot of time information gathering for the “best option”—swiping, starring, filtering, blocking, chatting—time that is rarely proportional to any tangible outcome.
Sooner or later, we hit a point of diminishing returns. The “fun” offered by the often gamified app-based dating services diminishes, and we log off. (And unless we delete our account, it’s likely we’ll find ourselves hopping back on again for a quick attentional fix when boredom or desire strikes.)
Consider the ever-shifting availability of possible partners. Attention from these individuals will oscillate, peaking at certain hours, falling during others, even dying off suddenly and inexplicably.
Consider also the fact other users harbor a variety of motives. Even supposing they happen to share ours, there’s often a difference between stated motives and true motives.
A chat partner may say they are looking to date, but that may simply be a front aimed at sustaining the interaction. Or it may also be one of many conflicting and competing motives.
What this means is that in many cases one user’s stated desire to date could be abandoned the instant they are presented with an offer of immediate sexual gratification. (To quote the Nelly Furtado song “Promiscuous”: “Chivalry is dead / But you’re still kinda cute”)
Finally, while it may seem that you have total freedom to choose a romantic partner, that freedom is not exclusive to you. The other person has the right to their own choice, which will not necessarily align with yours.
Assuming your maximizing instincts don’t first paralyze you, there’s always the possibility your decision might be thwarted when the other person fails to reciprocate your interest.
Confusion, commitment phobia, and ‘gaming’
The opposite of a maximizer is the satisficer. Like the maximizer, the satisficer will be discriminating when it comes to selecting a romantic partner. They are also capable of being satisfied with excellence, as opposed to some impossible ideal of perfection.
Where maximizers are picky about finding “the best”, satisficers carefully weigh the options before accepting “good enough”.
Schwartz says the distinction is essentially a philosophical one:
“A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.”
When juggling options on Grindr, Scruff or Tinder, we exercise our rights as romantic and sexual “consumers”. But what we don’t do is reflect on what’s motivating our behavior.
Yet effective dating arguably can only happen once we have a clear and consistent understanding of what we’re seeking, and why.
What type of interaction are we interested in (hookups, dating, relationship etc.)?
When do we want this interaction to take place?
Why this interaction in particular? (To put it another way, how will this interaction contribute to our long-term goal?)
How do we intend to establish that interaction? (What methods will we use?)
Sounds obvious. And yet more often than not, our focus is confused. There are simply too many options that maximizers are forced to treat app-based dating as a game of elimination.
Our focus in this game is less identifying a suitable partner than it is removing options from the dating service pool, often for the most arbitrary reasons (“I don’t like his hairstyle”, “He seems too needy”, “He lives on the other side of town”).
Gamified app designs, such as the swipe mechanic used by Tinder, encourage users to continually “prune” options, often to the point of distraction.
Another factor is that we as a culture are commitment phobes. More often than not when dating, we become locked in a maximizing mindset, hellbent on securing an option that ticks off an often superficial, if not impossible shopping list of personal traits.
Forever scanning our grid or swipe stack, we “trade up” prospective candidates like indecisive children in the candy aisle, stricken by the possibility that the one candy we select comes at the exclusion of other, possibly better selections.
Maximizing also can lead to “gaming”. Caught up in maximizing rewards, our initial goal (“meeting someone with whom I share chemistry and/or compatibility”) becomes something more vague and insatiable (“getting as much validation as possible”).
To put it another way, we go from treating romantic attention as the means by which we achieve some kind of relationship, to attention exclusively becoming the ends.
Caught up in the fun game of projecting desirability and provoking engagement, we spend our time manipulating the attention-based economy of dating services in order to get our attention fix.
‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda’
When our focus is confused, when we shy from committing to a choice, and when we’re caught up in gaming app-based dating, we treat self-awareness as an obstacle to our purpose.
Yet so long as we’re driven by blind instinct rather than introspection, that purpose risks becoming more and more unclear.
A more effective and productive use of our time therefore would involve choosing with purpose, rather than selecting on a whim. Namely, satisfying, rather than maximizing.
If we give in to maximizing, we may find ourselves prone to bad decisions, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, and even depression, Schwartz warns.
To maximize means to be driven by a fear of loss and regret, to succumb to “shoulda, coulda, woulda”-style doubts.
Regardless of what our moment-to-moment motives on app-based dating services are, what we are all seeking as human beings, ultimately, are meaningful connections.
But where such connections are concerned, one can only maximize so far. People are by nature imperfect, so pursuing “the best” is a quest that – let’s be honest – is doomed from the outset.
Recognize that “maximizing” is driven by loss aversion.
Throughout my twenties, I stumbled from one unsuccessful gay relationship to another, thwarted by the fact my partners and I were often operating at cross-purposes.
The first time this happened, I had just confessed to my then-boyfriend Kohei* that I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to have kids of my own.
Having a vague awareness of my own dysfunction, and fearing I might unintentionally inflict it upon my children, it seemed the sensible thing to say.
I was also barely out of my teens, and in no way ready to even contemplate the possibility of parenthood.
“Gonna be honest, that really has me worried,” Kohei replied. I shook my head.
“It’s just not my thing.”
“… So you’re not even going to consider it?” Kohei said.
“Sorry,” I said. Kohei’s gaze fell to the floor.
“Well, I can’t see myself dating someone who doesn’t share my long-term goals.”
Feeling cornered, I grabbed my backpack from his couch and stood up.
“Fine,” I said. “Don’t date me.”
Stepping out onto Kohei’s front porch, I called out a polite farewell, hopped on my bike and pedaled home.
When a gay relationship just doesn’t “work”
My reaction was, in hindsight, unfair. But truth be told, Kohei’s ultimatum had given me the escape hatch I had long been looking for.
My boyfriend’s puppy-like devotion had arrived at my door, premature and unqualified – like a Christmas gift in July. It had left me with deep-seated suspicion.
Was Kohei really interested in me, or was he just afraid – as we all are, on some fundamental level – of being alone?
Up until this point, I had been seeding our conversations with prickly challenges, less out of a desire to antagonize Kohei than a wish to test whether he would stand his ground, or roll over. And time and time again, Kohei had done the latter.
When the morning after our confrontation, Kohei attempted to patch things up with me, I insisted that he was in fact right: we were not compatible.
The “don’t date me” comment was, I knew, the culmination of many attempts to test him. Kohei’s willingness to overlook my take-it-or-leave-it attitude seemed to me proof enough that the two of us were, in some inexplicable way, out of alignment.
Too needy, or too neglected?
Where I had kept Kohei at arm’s length, come the next relationship, I found myself cast in the opposite role.
Remo* was accommodating, but not in the way Kohei had been. Unlike Kohei, asserted himself where he needed to, and I respected him all the more for it.
Here was a person capable of withstanding me at my bossiest and gently putting me on notice. We were, I wanted to believe, a good match.
The day I called to reveal I had just been made redundant, I got my first hint of the growing distance between us.
“So…I’m out of a job,” I said, my voice breaking with emotion.
“Well, you know what you have to do,” Remo replied.
“What do you mean?” I replied, stung by his lack of sympathy.
“Look,” Remo said. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll text you later.”
Feeling kind of put out, I grew first apprehensive, then adversarial.
“You know, you could be a little more empathetic,” I said during a later conversation.
“I think you mean empathic,” Remo sniped back.
Sensing his withdrawal, I pressed him for emotional support. But the bullishness Remo had once excused had suddenly become a problem. He ended it not long later, claiming he no longer “had the time” to hang out.
In fighting for my boyfriend’s validation, it seemed I had unwittingly driven him away. Heartbreak and an unexplained sense of shame followed.
What is attachment?
When gauging a gay relationship for compatibility, there is perhaps one factor that trumps all, and yet is often overlooked: attachment style.
Attachment styles in short are about how we form attachments to other people. Our styles are largely the result of our first relationships with our caregivers.
When however our caregivers inflict trauma such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect, or fail to properly “attune” with us, our attachment is ruptured, and we develop an insecure attachment style.
Those suffering from insecure attachments not only struggle to maintain consistent self-worth – they are also more likely to struggle where it comes to forming healthy relationships.
Levine and Heller identify two insecure attachment styles as the most common: “anxious” and “avoidant”.
Those with anxious attachment styles typically seek closeness and intimacy in their relationships. They fear abandonment and may engage in “protest behaviors”, which include excessive attempts to reestablish contact, withdrawing, hostility, and manipulation.
Avoidants on the other hand like to keep their distance when in a relationship. They do this by engaging in “deactivating strategies”: refusing to verbally commit or say “I love you”, dodging physical or emotional closeness, nitpicking their partners, flirting with others and longing after a “phantom ex”.
Levine and Heller believe about 50 percent of the adult population has a secure attachment style, while roughly 25 percent are anxious, and the remaining 25 percent are avoidant.
Notably, relational trauma can also shift securely attached people towards insecurity. The fact that “betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and chaos” is a gay relationship rite of passage for many, according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, makes us even likely as a population to suffer from attachment issues.
Which attachment styles are compatible?
Secure + secure OR secure + anxious/avoidant: Those with secure attachment styles can form strong relationships with each other and with the insecurely attached (anxious and avoidant). “Secures” are generally able to provide a “safe base” for their insecure partners, sometimes even help “heal” their attachment problems. But not always.
Anxious + anxious OR avoidant + avoidant: Anxious-anxious and avoidant-avoidant partnerships are less likely to work by virtue of their mutual difficulty forming healthy attachments.
Anxious people seeking reassurance from other anxious people are naturally a difficult proposition. Likewise, avoidants are not likely to date avoidants because of their mutual desire for distance and independence inevitably forces them apart.
Anxious + avoidant: Avoidants’ tendency towards distance and independence is likely to unsettle their anxious partners, who thrive in an affirming, supportive environment.
When avoidants withhold intimacy from their anxious partner, the partner may confuse the resulting turmoil for passion. Attempting to re-establish relational equilibrium, the anxious partner may double down in their demands, only for the avoidant to withhold affirmation even more.
The pair thus will find themselves caught up in a spiraling push-pull dynamic that is sometimes confused for romance.
Kohei’s constant need for affirmation and intimacy might have been a non-issue for a securely attached partner. But for me, it was overwhelming, and I coped in the only way I knew how: by challenging and thereby trying to create distance.
Kohei’s anxiety about the relationship understandably grew, until at least he issued a challenge of his own: either change my future parenthood plans or kiss him goodbye.
Remo on the other hand was most certainly avoidant. I was never permitted to get too close, and the more I sought reassurance, the more he withheld. My attempts to re-establish contact were met with veiled contempt.
Until I discovered attachment theory, the mechanics of a successful gay relationship eluded me, and gauging romantic compatibility was hit-and-miss.
Levine and Heller thankfully provide detailed strategies for coping with avoidant or anxious attachment styles. Their key advice is to seek out a more balanced pairing: secure + secure, secure + anxious, or secure + avoidant.
To determine the other person’s attachment style, Levine and Heller suggest following these steps:
Determine whether your partner seeks intimacy and closeness.
Assess how preoccupied s/he is with the relationship and how sensitive s/he is to rejection.
Don’t rely on one “symptom” – look for various signs.
Use effective communication: express your needs, thoughts, and feelings. Then assess your partner’s reaction.
Listen and look for what he is not saying or doing. Trust your gut feeling.
A final word of caution to secures: helping someone with an insecure attachment shift towards more secure attachment patterns isn’t always possible. Sometimes your partner may insist on clinging to their old ways.
The question therefore is, are anxious or avoidant behaviors something you are ultimately willing to overlook in your bid to forge a gay relationship? Can you learn to be satisfied with your partner’s status quo?
For those with anxious attachment styles, remember that you’re more likely to experience an avoidant out in the wild than any other attachment style.
Avoidants after all spend more time dating than in actual relationships, on account of their struggles forming healthy attachments.
Secures are also a lot harder to come by. Why? The ease with which they form healthy attachments means they’re more likely to remain in relationships, and are less likely to ever appear in the dating pool.
Identify your attachment style: secure, anxious or avoidant.
Use the five steps to determine your partner’s style.
Seek compatible partnerships.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.
Much of the small talk that happens on gay dating apps is, in my experience, a preface to a request.
“What you up to?” someone may ask, and behind this seemingly polite question, invisible gears are turning.
Maybe this stranger will hear my response and respond authentically, or maybe they will continue with the subterfuge of trying to gauge whether I’m willing and able to sustain a fantasy – or fulfill a desire.
These boxes reinforce desired behavior by dispensing a reward such as food, or punishment in the form of a shock from an electrified floor grid.
Skinner boxes are a perfect analogy for gay dating apps. The difference here is that messages, or more specifically, the attention they represent serves as the reward, while being ignored is a form of punishment, or negative reinforcement.
As app users, we maximize reward and minimize punishment using strategic and even deceptive self-presentation and engagement. We tailor profiles and our behavior in ways that will gain and sustain attention, even if they aren’t necessarily authentic.
We may boast about our preferences or prowess, while using erotic photos as bait for our chat partners.
Some of us may go so far as to create fake profiles, or message someone exclusively with the aim of receiving a response.
Messaging purely for attention, however, may be the first signs we’re developing a process addiction. Here’s why.
Why gay dating apps are addictive
At one point during his studies, the inventor of the Skinner box – American scientist B.F. Skinner – modified his boxes to dispense food pellets according to a random number of lever presses.
His pigeon test subjects, rather than being deterred by the unpredictability of the exercise, quickly learned to press the lever at random, even when no pellet was immediately forthcoming.
What Skinner realized was that this very same unpredictability had created a tension of expectations, which was released the moment the pigeon received their reward.
Consider the unpredictable nature of “rewards” on Grindr, Scruff or Tinder: users log on and off at random, and the rate of replies can vary completely, sometimes even within the span of a single conversation.
Meeting someone off the app may begin as a tantalizing fantasy, but it’s one that ultimately can’t compete with the dopamine seeking reward-loop offered by the back-and-forth of instant messaging.
The result is an experience that could be broadly described as ineffective, at least where it comes to generating face-to-face interactions.
Of course, if you were to canvas a group of gay men at random, I’m not sure a consensus would ever be reached on what constitutes an “effective” dating app chat session.
After all, everyone’s definition of a reward will vary from interaction to interaction, day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Yes, humans are a fickle bunch.
How addiction creates dating app sociopaths
Dating apps don’t help, in that they all seem designed to facilitate any variety of interactions. Some may use the app with the intent to meet, while others are simply looking for distraction, or the thrill of erotic chat or photo exchanges.
Suppose we come to the apps with a specific goal in mind. Gamification in many cases will nudge us towards abandoning specificity, towards being open to any and all interactions, if only for the momentary gratification they promise.
Our sole purpose thus becomes the maintenance of the tension-reward loop.
Sustained use will lead many users towards a nebulous middle ground, simultaneously craving all of the above, yet never finding true satisfaction. And yet we keep coming back. Why?
Notably, Skinner found that pigeons in his experiments continued to peck a lever even once their appetite had been sated. His conclusion: the action of cranking a lever had in and of itself become “fun”.
You can see the same behavior among users. Like edgy, risk-averse stockbrokers bidding in an incredibly volatile market, we hedge our bets, messaging indiscriminately just to see who will bite.
After firing off scores of messages to multiple chat partners, we wait for the replies to trickle in.
Too much tension and frustration – not enough replies, significant delays, or “inferior” rewards – and our sense of enjoyment will diminish.
Our only recourse then is to either adjust our expectations or spread our net more widely in order to maintain the loop.
Profile grids and swipe stacks will come to resemble an ever-shifting buffet in what feels like a perpetual famine.
In the 10+ years in which I’ve used gay dating sites and apps, I’ve often caught myself logging in just to see who had messaged, less interested in the content of the communication than the sheer fact of its existence.
It became clear to me that so long as I was caught up in tension-reward loop – in the split-second objectification, relational multitasking, devaluation, and dismissal that seems baked into digital modes of interaction – I could hardly expect to form healthy relationships with other gay men.
How, when I was treating chat partners as mere levers to be pulled for personal gratification?
The single-mindedness with which we perform this action, according to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is the antithesis of empathy:
“Single-minded” attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind at the very same time… When empathy is switched off, we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too.
It is in the absence of such empathy that we adopt sociopathic behavior. And just like the sociopath, many of us – consumed by our process addiction – will go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of satisfaction.
complete inability to form lasting intimate relationships
failure to learn from punishment
absence of emotion
lack of insight into the impact of our behavior
failure to plan ahead
For those of you who have or continue to use gay dating apps, I ask you this: have you not experienced or dabbled yourself in superficial charm and unpredictability?
Or worse still: deceit, manipulation, and outright nastiness?
The system is hopelessly broken
Chances are you’re alone. Tragically, the addictive qualities of gay dating apps have created an environment where sociopathic behavior is now the status quo.
Strangers will issue demands and unsolicited erotic photos, interrogating our sexual preferences before blocking us at random.
While these tendencies are not specific to gay men, app-based reward loops positively reinforce these behaviors while failing to offer real accountability.
The result is an endless chain of victimization in which bad behavior is normalized and internalized and we all unwittingly find ourselves either in the company of, or becoming, gay dating app sociopaths.
It’s no secret that gay dating apps aren’t designed to foster genuine, heartfelt connection, or for that matter to enforce personal accountability.
Their goal, rather, is to gamify interactions with the goal of sustaining use, indefinitely. But in so doing, they train us to associate self-worth with constant affirmation.
In our pursuit of that affirmation, we will find ourselves pulling out all stops to feed it, even if it means completely disregarding and discarding others along the way.
The system may be broken, but it remains profitable for app makers, so there is little motivation for change. But as individual users, we can and must hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal conduct.
We can do this by:
Exercising self-awareness: curbing usage motivated only by the desire to get a “fix”.
Empathizing, rather thanobjectifying: treating people with kindness, consideration and courtesy. Being honest and upfront with our intentions and not stringing people along when we aren’t interested in them.
Gay dating is riddled with pitfalls, but perhaps the most significant is the rampant judgmentalism we face – and inflict – upon one another.
The irony is that we approach dating expecting chemistry while treating each other in ways that make it almost impossible.
The catch-22 is that unless we feel safe, unless we can let our guards down, we’re going to resist being vulnerable. And without vulnerability, there is no chemistry.
Judgment and gay dating
I met Bryce* one evening over boba tea. Bryce was a guitarist from the UK who had come to Los Angeles with big hopes of breaking into the music industry.
As we exchanged details about our lives, Bryce made a number of flattering remarks about my appearance, flashing flirtatious grins, while indicating he genuinely wanted to get to know me.
As our conversation rolled on, Bryce asked me about my family and we somehow got onto the subject of trust.
“I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Bryce said.
“That’s great,” I replied. “I used to be the same.”
Bryce looked at me, expectant. I smiled, explaining I had firsthand experience dealing with a relative who was a pathological liar and that this had left me somewhat wary.
Almost immediately the warmth left Bryce’s expression. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned he asked to call it a night.
Out in the car park, I offered Bryce a polite farewell hug.
“Oh, we’re going to hug, are we?” he sneered, then walked away.
I got into my car, confused. Had my comment had been mistimed? Had I overshared?
Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no time would ever have been appropriate for such an admission.
For in opening up to Bryce, I had breached an unspoken code by which many gay men live: never expose your vulnerabilities.
Gay dating and expecting perfection
Being born gay almost always guarantees an inheritance of trauma or invalidation. Having been bullied and marginalized for our differences, in particular our emotional expressivity, we learn early on to hide these, lest others brand us “feminine”.
Some of us do this by constructing a perfect exterior, or by hiding behind keen wit, brand name wardrobes, gym-fit physiques, or career success. In many cases, this is the mark of insecurity, born of an unrelenting inner critic.
Deprived of self-compassion, we, in turn, become incapable of mustering empathy for others. When a romantic interest tries to be vulnerable with us, to let their imperfections hang out, there is a strong possibility we will treat this as an infraction.
Thus, having ourselves been rejected for being our authentic selves, we come to reject others for what we perceive as their weaknesses or flaws.
I believe it’s for this reason that many of us choose hookups over dating. We’re even more likely to avoid connections if we have in the past put ourselves out there, only to be shut down.
Hookups furthermore validate. They offer us instant gratification while sparing us the emotional risks typically associated with relationships.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that we commonly associate vulnerability with “dark emotions”. But so long as we remain terrified of recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing such emotions, they continue to exert significant control over all aspects of our lives.
Imperfection is a given
Most gay men will suffer some form of trauma and a degree of neuroticism by virtue of what we have lived through. Psychology Today defines neuroticism as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings”.
Unfortunately, the popular doctrine of masculinity asks that we hide our anguish and struggles. Those who fail to do so are mocked and rejected. Social conditioning has more or less made emotional concealment a condition for acceptance as males.
But our wounds and imperfections are a fact of human existence, ones that will sooner or later be revealed in the course of dating.
While I believe this act of revealing should be treated as a generous gift and met with compassion and understanding, many of us resort instead to the scorn and rejection we ourselves have suffered.
When we do this, we don’t just perpetuate a cycle of harm – we rendergay dating an exercise in futility,
Until we have learned to be comfortable with our wounds and to reintegrate that emotional part of our identity we have split off as a matter of acceptance and survival, we will not treat vulnerability with the honor it deserves.
And so the meaningful relationships we all ultimately desire will continue to elude us.
Use discernment, not judgment
When dating, judgment may serve as a valuable defense mechanism, allowing us to screen out people who may pose a threat to our interests.
The gay dating world is, after all, rife with people who are irresponsible in their actions, inconsistent in motive, and generally lacking self-awareness.
This is especially true on gay dating apps, which cannot enforce personal accountability. People we’ve been engaging in a heartfelt chat with can, for example, decide to reject, ghost, or block us, often without an apparent cause or explanation.
It’s no wonder then our reaction is to always be protecting ourselves, yet there is a difference between preemptively attaching negative labels to someone and genuinely trying to understand and relate to them.
To this end, first dates should be treated as much as an exercise in rapport-building as one in information gathering. We should work to learn about our date’s habits and character; to build a holistic assessment in the place of making a snap judgment.
Chemistry is important, certainly, but true chemistry is a slow-burn phenomenon that can only flourish under conditions of emotional safety. So we must first create a gay dating environment in which it can flourish.
We do this by choosing discernment over judgment.
Discernment in practice
Judgment is a process of assigning values and drawing conclusions, while discernment is a process ofperceiving facts and making informed inferences.
Your date for example may tell you they find you very attractive. They may insist they are looking to date. But they may also label themselves a workaholic.
You will notice here a disparity between a stated desire and practiced action, one that seems to suggest this person may not really want to date. Dating, after all, would require that they be willing to shift gears; to consider putting people before things.
Workaholics by definition neglect their own needs. They are therefore unlikely to have the mental bandwidth to accommodate another person’s needs.
When a date defines themselves as a workaholic, they may be intentionally or unintentionally “Mirandizing” you. That is, they are reading you your rights as a romantic candidate, telling you what to expect. Namely, that their job will always come first.
Unless your date is taking proactive steps to help themselves, to be in a relationship with them may require that you be willing to accept – if not enable – their avoidance.
By making observations about the facts presented here, I have practiced discernment.
But discernment also tells me that while my date has admitted to being a workaholic, thisis a clue, not a conclusion.
Keep on gathering intel
Red flags may leave you with reservations, but it is imperative to keep an open mind, while also looking for data that may contradict or confirm the evidence at hand.
In the situation above, you may subsequently learn your date was joking about being a workaholic, or that they are in fact willing, ready, and able to break the habit.
With positive discoveries like this, we may feel tempted to abandon our assessment. Still, information gatheringis a process that cannot – and should not – be rushed when gay dating, lest we miss evidence of future problems.
After all, when meeting other gay men we tend to put our best foot forward – at least initially. Over time, our true nature seeps out through the chinks in our armor. Such glimpses of our true selves are often the most telling.
One of the perils of expediting assessment while dating is that we may overlook this true self. Or we may never even get the chance because we’ve already ruled that person out, thus missing out on the opportunity to connect with a possible kindred spirit.
For this reason, we must strive to recognize the commonality in our stories and to offer one another the compassion we are all seeking – and rightfully deserve.
Dysfunction and imperfection are universal.
By dismissing a date, we may be perpetuating harm we ourselves have suffered.
True chemistry only happens when we feel safe.
When we judge, we create a hostile environment that undermines vulnerability.
The alternative is to practice discernment, compassion, and empathy.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.
My first real contact with the gay community was not through gay dating apps, but one of their predecessors: the website Gaydar.
Aged 17, I had just left the family home and moved to a new city where I knew no one. Being not yet of legal age, I was unable to attend gay nightclubs, so Gaydar swiftly became my exclusive means of contact with other gay men.
Similar to the Scruff of today, Gaydar allowed users to set up a profile along with a private gallery.
Occasionally I’d get a notification that another had unlocked theirs for me. I’d brace myself, dreading what the invitation must inevitably hold.
And sure enough, the moment I clicked through, I’d receive a barrage of “anatomical exam” photos. For many people I’ve talked to, these nude photos swaps are more mundane than titillating.
Gay dating apps demand that we market ourselves as a commodity, as an ingredient in a fantasy that can then be mentally reconfigured at will. When we are presented as just another face or torso in a sea of countless others, we have to take any chance we can to stand out.
If you subscribe to that logic, “showing the goods” is a necessary requirement for a “sale”. I have always questioned however whether this is a tactic that results in face-to-face encounters.
In-person interactions it seems have become an increasingly pallid substitute for the heightened reality of app-based instant gratification. Exchanging sexual messages and photos with multiple dating app suitors is undeniably fun, especially given it carries none of the effort or consequences of real-life – and double the reward.
These apps by design promote self-objectification and the validation that inevitably follows. They encourage us to respond to others not merely in order to maintain a conversation, but for the inherent reward of receiving a reply.
That reply by implication is an acknowledgment of our romantic or sexual appeal. The positive neural feedback we receive when someone messages or sends us photos reinforces the desire to be objectified, which in turn keeps us coming back for more.
But if we are not mindful, we can develop a single-minded focus on “winning”, leading in some cases to a gay dating app process addiction.
In such cases, the process of dating becomes entirely divorced from its proclaimed purpose: to facilitate real-life relationships.
Gay dating apps demand we sacrifice vulnerability
Gay dating apps discourage exclusivity and encourage the fielding of multiple suitors. It’s a juggling act that necessitates efficiency. With so many options on hand, selecting a romantic or sexual partner must inevitably become a game of elimination.
We screen people, dishing out and receiving rejection over and over again. In order to protect our egos, we give up making genuine approaches. Instead of being present with the person we’re speaking with, we slip into safe automaticity: talk round and round in talk circles, replace sentences with monosyllables, prompt people for information we have demanded from countless others before them.
We list requirements and apply filters as if our tastes will maximize our gains and shield us not against failed connection, but an apparently far greater loss: suboptimal pleasure.
In effect, we trade connection for selection, and authenticity for subterfuge. In order to shield our feelings against the possibility of being hurt, we often disengage them entirely.
Why you should say no to nudes
We play it cool, we play it sexy, but we don’t play our complicated, nuanced selves. Why? Because of the inherent limitations of instant messaging, the high levels of scrutiny to which it subjects us, and the wide latitude for misunderstanding.
Our conversations consequently become the rapid informational relay of stockbrokers. Stuck in the emotional deep freeze of gay dating apps, we fall to assessing, objectifying, categorizing and rejecting, arranging and manipulating people as if they were chess pieces, rather than living and breathing beings.
We devalue both our humanness and that of others, and vulnerability dies a quiet death.
The irony is that to be naked is, in a very real, physical sense, to be vulnerable. Exchanging nude photos asks us to put ourselves on display for summary judgment by strangers.
It forces us to be mercenary in our attitudes towards our chat partners, and cavalier about exposing ourselves in a way we normally reserve for intimate occasions.
Arguably one of our primary needs as human beings is to connect with others. To connect, we need to be vulnerable. By sending nude photos, we are denying ourselves that right.
In most cases, my app-based interactions have died in the water the moment I refused to exchange nude photos. To me, others’ demands were reductive and objectifying.
It seemed to be that complying meant becoming yet another item on the app buffet menu. It also rewarded what I saw as unconscious, addictive “lever-pulling” behavior, the kind of thing you would expect of a rat trapped in a Skinner box.
I am sad to report that after such refusals, my chat partners almost always chose not to meet me “sight unseen”. Instead, they continued to linger online, hedging their bets and scoping out all the available options.
Many I suspect never intended to “choose” in the first place, preferring instead to forestall meeting anyone, often for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Consider the example of the much-maligned “pic collector”, who lurks on the app for the sole gratification of collecting sexual photos.
Be valued – on your terms
Gay dating apps only add to the pressure we face as gay men to conform to a certain ideal image of masculinity, which is often used as the basis for how we are assessed and treated by our romantic or sexual partners.
But this oft-celebrated ideal – perfect cheekbones, chiseled jaws and an athletic, muscular build – is problematic on several fronts.
First of all, this image is for, at least for a majority of gay men, simply unattainable.
Even those of us blessed with good genes would still be required to invest a significant effort and time into crafting a picture-perfect physique. This is effort and time that most of us are unwilling, or unable, to spare.
Secondly, I believe this image is part and parcel of a toxic cultural perception of masculinity. Namely one in which men are unemotional, self-reliant ubermensch, impervious to any harm.
Beyond popular representations by TV and movie stars, such men do not, and never have, existed.
Thirdly, subscribing to this ideal asks that we divorce ourselves from our inner emotional selves – the same selves for which we crave acceptance.
It follows that the more we try to displace this need in favor of objectifying ourselves on gay dating apps, the more unhappy we are likely to feel.
For this reason, it’s crucial we avoid activities that are likely to put our sense of wellbeing in harm’s way. Choosing not to expose our naked selves to total strangers before meeting them is not an act of defiance. It’s an act of self-preservation.
Nudity should be an earned privilege that should occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not summary judgment.
By refusing to send nude photos, we are reclaiming the right to be valued – on our own terms.
Gay dating apps keep us trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to maximize gains.
The positive reinforcement they offer may lead to a cycle of automatic behavior.
This cycle may cause us to lose touch with vulnerability and our desire to connect.
Nude photo exchanges allows strangers to hold our bodies up against some unattainable ideal.
By not swapping nude photos, we are safeguarding our mental health.
At the time, I proposed the following reading list to help jumpstart the journey for anyone walking a similar path.
While the worst of the pandemic is largely behind us, the lifelong quest for self-knowledge continues. The following 10 self-help books I consider mandatory reading for this quest. Here’s why.
Understanding the gay struggle – the first step towards growth and healing
“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade. Why is this so? We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival.” – Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage
Even as an out and proud gay man, I felt like I was still living a life of subterfuge. Only now it wasn’t my sexuality that I was hiding but my vulnerability.
My dating experiences revealed I wasn’t the only one struggling with an entrenched sense of self-loathing and shame. More than a few of us had been left emotionally crippled by our experiences.
Not only were we incapable of building robust relationships—we were also prone to seeking relief through substance and process (behavior) addictions.
The Velvet Rage argues however that there is cause for hope. Author Alan Downs charts the journey gay men must take from self-loathing to self-acceptance before concluding with a raft of invaluable suggestions for how we can live happier and healthier lives.
Transforming your life through vulnerability
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
When I came out as gay, I was searching for connection and a sense of belonging. I was, in a way, looking for a replacement family for the one from which I had become alienated.
Initially I looked for it at gay venues, like bars and clubs. I quickly learned that it was sex, not vulnerability, that many of the men I met were looking for.
These individuals might claim to have achieved self-acceptance, and yet their aversion to vulnerability was so total, the denial of shame so complete, that our relationships remained mired in superficiality.
Any invitation to be emotionally authentic was met with bewilderment, resistance, and even scorn. To those I encountered, being vulnerable was at best weak, at worst dangerous.
Daring Greatlyauthor Brené Brown argues that this need not be our fate. “Shame,” she writes, “derives its power from being unspeakable. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid”.
Her solution? Recognize it for what it is, understand its triggers, strive for critical awareness, and be willing to reach out to others and speak out about our shared experience of shame.
“Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control… Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.” – Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
I was 12 when my family began to fall apart. My older brother’s daily battles with my parents, his drug use, and random acts of violence, lying, and thievery reduced our household to a warzone.
My parents eventually buckled under the strain of it all, withdrawing emotionally and giving my brother free rein to bully me.
The experience left me stricken with an unrelenting sense of loneliness and worthlessness.
Trauma was a word I exclusively associated with veterans or victims of extreme abuse. But as I came to later learn, trauma can be entirely passive, like emotional neglect.
Bessel van der Kolk’s comprehensive The Body Keeps the Score is a deep dive into the manifestations and mechanics of trauma.
Readers will come away from it with new insights not only into their own experiences with trauma but possible treatments as well.
Adopting optimistic thinking
“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.” – Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism
While my family was disintegrating, I was also being bullied at school due to a then-undiagnosed disability, Asperger syndrome.
My resulting depression and anxiety led to what Learned Optimismauthor Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style”.
In moments of difficulty, I would resort to self-blame, telling myself I was unlovable and entirely deserving of my misfortune. These explanations came at great cost to my mental wellbeing.
Learned Optimism argues that we can correct this chain of thinking by identifying the adversity we’ve experienced, the existing beliefs they trigger, and their consequences. By disputing these beliefs, we can alter the impact they have on us.
“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’” – Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion
The one thing I’ve found key to my recovery as a workaholic perfectionist is the very thing I’ve denied myself: self-compassion.
When our attachment as children to our primary caregivers is disrupted (more on this below), we fail to develop critical self-soothing skills.
This may cause us to neglect our own needs during times of stress or suffering. We may even seek distraction in grandiose or self-destructive behaviors, like addiction.
Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff offers a third alternative: practicing self-soothing through mindfulness, being aware of our emotional states, and responding appropriately to them with words and acts of compassion.
Adopting a ‘growth’ mindset
“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” – Carol S. Dweck, Mindset
Those fixed in their thinking, like grandiose gay men, are stricken by a fear of failure and imperfection.
As such, they seek success in the place of growth, superiority rather than self-acceptance.
But, as in the words of Mindset author Carol S. Dweck: “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?” The fall from such heights can be devastating.
The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset, which calls for us to suspend constant judgment of ourselves and others. A growth mindset makes us more likely to seek out personal change and development.
The good news is we don’t have to be born with a growth mindset to enjoy the benefits. We learn to adopt one through practice.
Setting clear boundaries
“Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.” – Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries
Boundaries are crucial for all gay men because our right to choose how we live is one that often comes under the scrutiny and judgment of others, especially our own families.
My transition to independent adulthood was predictably rough. My mother, for reasons that were perfectly logical to her at the time, would insist on trying to control or judge aspects of my life even after I left home.
My decision to get a mini-mohawk, for example, would result in the silent treatment. Piercing my ears resulted in her nagging for me to “take them out”.
In moments of weakness, I would kowtow to her will, at the cost of mutual respect.
Renegotiating boundaries with our parents can be a particularly thorny process, yet it is critical to the longevity of your relationship as well as those that follow.
While the non-religious may struggle with Boundaries’ numerous Biblical references, Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic remains a vital guide to establishing better relations with our loved ones.
Understanding your relationship needs better
“People have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.” – Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached
Dating for me has historically been an uneven game of push-pull; a mismatch of varying needs and expectations.
It was only when a friend introduced to me the concept of attachment styles that the cause was at last brought into focus.
Our relationships with our primary caregivers from our childhood onward serve as a template for how secure we feel in the world. It also forms the basis for how we “attach” to others.
Attachment falls into three categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Anxious people seek closeness and affirmation, avoidants seek distance and independence.
Secures typically have no difficulty bonding with either type and thus serve as an ideal partner for anxious and avoidants.
While this all sounds rather formulaic, being able to recognize your own needs as well as that of your romantic partner is a guaranteed way to save both of you a lot of difficulty—and heartache—down the road.
“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of agency, control, and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacity for paying attention and on the awareness, insight, and compassion that naturally arise from paying attention in specific ways.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living
In Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that while stress may be an unavoidable feature of life, how to deal with it or not deal with it is ultimately our choice.
For example, the trauma I experienced growing up was hardcoded into the behavioral circuitry of my brain. I found that later conflicts would invariably trigger them.
The resulting fight-or-flight response was often destructive to my relationships.
It was possible however to reprogram my brain to judge and react to every stimulus. This is the essence of self-awareness.
By practicing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, we can learn to be present with our experience. Through mindfulness, we can learn to be aware of our feelings, rather than controlled by them.
Improving emotional intelligence
“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.” – Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence
The skills described above – self-awareness (knowing one’s own emotions) and self-compassion (managing those emotions), as well as self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management – are all critical to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”.
Emotional intelligence is a meta-ability that governs how successful we are in all aspects of our lives, from relationships to our wellbeing, to personal effectiveness and productivity.
My discovery of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work served in this sense as a catalyst for confronting my own trauma and seeking a fresh perspective on my struggles.
I accomplished this with the help of therapy, reading self-help and psychology books, opening up dialogues with others, and yes, undertaking meditation.
While some sections and theoretical discussions may not be relevant to all readers, Emotional Intelligenceis an essential read for all gay men on the path of self-improvement.
Rarely do they involve something as dramatic as a blow-up or a betrayal. Rather, they usually are the culmination of a thousand cuts.
Many of the people I have interacted with seem paralyzed by choice, requests for emotional availability, and the possibility of commitment. Those lacking in self-awareness will often resort to sabotaging a possible relationship, if only to avoid decision or perceived danger.
The most common form of sabotage is the mixed message: a man claiming to want one thing while indulging in behaviors that ran counter to it. “Looking for dates”, the dating app bio will read, “but open to everything else”.
Should someone make an earnest attempt at courtship, that same man would sooner skirt complications altogether by embracing the easy and “safer” alternative of casual sex.
I first met Rayan* online during college. Years after our first date, he reemerged on Tinder, enthusiastically requesting we meet again.
While I had enjoyed Rayan’s company the first time, I’d felt that our lifestyles and interests were somewhat out of sync. Still, I figured there was no harm in giving it another shot.
We spent the first few minutes of our second date bringing each other up to speed on how our lives had changed in the intervening years, talking broadly about our dating experiences. Rayan expressed frustration about the difficulty of finding someone willing to take the time to get to know him.
About an hour into our conversation, he invited me back to his place for tea. But when we got there, Rayan’s initially chivalrous interest faltered. “Tea”, as it turned out, was a euphemism.
Feeling uncomfortable, I reiterated my intention to date, then noted it was getting late and that I really needed to get home. A conciliatory Rayan offered to walk me to my bus stop and I agreed.
While stopped at a pedestrian crossing, he raised the subject of arranged marriages. In what I can only guess was an appeal to our shared Middle Eastern heritage, Rayan spoke of relatives who would serve as matchmakers to heterosexual bachelors, and lamented the absence of equivalent services for gay men.
“Sometimes I wish I had an auntie who would find me a man to marry,” Rayan told me.
“I wouldn’t have any say in it. She’d choose and that would be it. We’d just have to make it work.”
Rayan laughed at the wistful impracticality of such an arrangement. Yet it seemed to me that for all his facetiousness, part of him meant what he had said.
Rayan’s desire for the implied simplicity of an arranged marriage was understandable, and yet both of us knew this was not something most gay men would ever realistically settle for. Accustomed to the sea of options offered by gay dating apps, to sacrifice those options for many would represent a considerable loss.
The fact Rayan had floated such an alternative to modern dating while on a date struck me as evidence enough of this. What on the surface it was a throwaway joke, it also felt like an offhanded dismissal of my attempts to get to know him.
Rayan over the span of our encounter had gone from stressing he wanted to date, to propositioning me for sex, to lamenting the difficulties of dating – a series of contradictory actions I suspect most people would struggle to decipher.
Like many men I have dated, Rayan either did not know what he truly really wanted, or feared admitting it and sticking to his guns.
When confronted with the emotional danger of being authentic, Rayan had resorted to humor as a defense mechanism, trying to create distance from that perceived danger.
The problem of gay dating apps
Those of us regularly exposed to the toxic environment of gay dating apps are intimately acquainted with the push-pull of wanting more, but fearing what that might entail.
We know it not only just by our own internal experience, but by the inconsistency of our dates who are hampered by the same contrary desires.
Previously I’ve noted how these apps can create an unhealthy dependence, asking us to engage in inauthentic behavior, while keeping us locked in a perpetual search and encouraging us to trivialize both ourselves and others.
At the heart of the current gay dating app crisis is a fundamental shift in our orientation from seeking connection and being focused and purpose-driven, to seeking entertainment, distraction and being opportunistic.
The gamified reward system used by these apps tempts many of us into adopting such a stance, thus undermining our search for wholesome, meaningful relationships.
The promise that gay dating apps will economize our time and effort may lead us down a downwards spiral of risk aversion, leaving us less willing to take a chance on others, even if all that involves is the price of a coffee and an hour of our time.
Text-based communication is also designed with personal convenience in mind, enabling us to effortlessly retouch our self-presentation, while avoiding situations that necessitate vulnerability, which is crucial to forming connections.
Not that long ago, dating apps were seen as a somewhat unsavory fringe alternative to traditional dating.
Now, in an uncanny inversion of roles, they have become the new norm, with real-life for many gay men assuming the title of “alternative” – for which we can find any number of excuses.
The bar and club scene? Not quite your jam. A matchmaking service? An unnecessary expense. Gay hobby groups? Too much of a commitment.
But to end our seemingly interminable search for an ideal partner, we must be willing to abandon the ease and comfort of text-based communication and truly invest in others.
In order to forge authentic relationships, we must give up the immediate gratification of texting andallow ourselves to risk vulnerability,
What I am advocating here is not a complete flight from text-based communication. Nor am I suggesting seeking out matchmakers or arranged relationships. Neither promise a true end to the crisis of choice that is modern dating.
What this crisis calls for, rather, is a return to basics. Namely, the crucial art of making and building friendships.
Don’t date. ‘Friend’
Friendship is the foundation of any sound romantic relationship. It does not carry the same emotional risks as gay dating, nor the ambiguity of app-based interactions. It facilitates not a dropping of boundaries and headlong plunge into sexual relations, but the slow and steady building of rapport and trust.
It stands to reason, therefore, that those of us seeking to date should make it our number one priority. We must be willing to shift our outlook from the limited confines of seeking a sex partner or significant other that ticks all the boxes, to the endless horizon of friendships.
How do we form friendships? Former FBI agent Jack Schafer offers the following formula in his book The Like Switch: Friendship = proximity x frequency x duration x intensity(PFDI)
Schafer defines proximity as being close to the subject in question. Frequency is relational to the number of times you’ve been in contact. Duration is the amount of time you spend together. Intensity measures how much you are able to satisfy others’ needs through your actions.
So, what are some settings that are conducive to PFDI?
1. Hobby groups
A hobby group or sporting group is the perfect PFDI nexus. They connect you to a community of like-minded people (proximity), and they give you an excuse to regularly gather with others (frequency, duration) to participate in a shared interest (intensity).
You can find an array of options on Google, Meetup.com, or social media. If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, you could try establishing your own community. Setting up a group on Meetup.com, for example, is easy enough, although it does involve recurring fees.
2. Online communities
Online communities organized around a common interest can also provide regular relationship-building opportunities. This is presuming they are, again, gay-oriented and regularly organize in-person meetups in your town or city.
One possible place to look for these is on Reddit.
3. Meditation or spiritual groups
Shared values are a great basis for connecting with other people.
Whether you are dabbling in mindfulness, practicing yoga, or were raised with a religion that remains near and dear to your heart, chances are you’ll find there is already a gay community that shares your practices and is waiting to embrace you with open arms.
4. Talks, presentations or conferences
Find a talk or attend a conference that aligns with your interests. If it is gay-themed, all the better.
You will stand a better chance of making friends if you attend after-event drinks, networking mixers and bar crawls.
If you’re not comfortable putting yourself out there, volunteering – particularly for an LGBT-related cause – is a great way to meet other mindful individuals just like yourself.
Not only will you be doing a valuable service for your local community, but you’ll also be putting your values into practice. This is an incredibly effective way to reinforce your sense of self-worth.
People who are confident in this sense tend to be more attractive to others, thus further improving your chances of meeting someone.
Watch out for the toxic trio
Whatever you choose to do, remember to avoid gatherings that replicate the dynamic of gay dating apps.
Be on the lookout for what I call the toxic trio: objectification, judgmentalism, and competition.
These three things are to friendship what concrete is to grass, suffocating any possibility of growth.
Some sports leagues, for example, can produce an unhealthy atmosphere of competitiveness, in which you may feel compelled to constantly prove your athletic ability and in turn your personal worth. Should you fail to measure up, you may face subtle and even overt forms of exclusion and judgment. Hardly the kind of environment that is conducive to friendship.
Depending on the kind of social gathering, you may get the vibe that other attendees are less focused on connection than they are cruising. A common telltale of this is what I call the “wandering gayze”, in which the person you’re talking to looks over your shoulder, constantly scanning the room for better-looking prospects.
The wandering gayze is the scourge of many an interaction between gay men. It sends a very clear message to one’s conversation partner that their value as a person is pending review.
Besides being a covert form of judgmentalism, the wandering gayze indicates that this person has an agenda, even if that agenda is simply to keep “trading up”. No one should ever feel forced to fight for another person’s attention or respect.
Keep an open mind
Always being on the lookout for the next best thing is counterintuitive to the dating process. Should you find yourself falling prey to the wandering gayze, you should remember that your goal here is to build connections based on mutual interests and camaraderie.
For these to be possible, you should approach these groups and events with an open mind, rather than a specific motive. Of course, your end goal may be a romantic relationship, but being too fixated on the goal closes you off to possibilities.
Strict adherence to a nonnegotiable shopping list is one reason gay dating apps feel so sterile. By remaining open-minded, you will be avoiding squeezing every interaction into a predefined box.
In joining one of these groups, you may not find a life partner. But you will likely build rich, rewarding friendships that increase the possibility of further introductions.
Remember that you are playing the long game. You are investing in other people in the hopes they will in turn invest in you.
This may feel like a somewhat inefficient, if not risky process. In abandoning the pretense we employ while texting, we may say or do the wrong thing. We will likely face pressures and discomforts we might have otherwise avoided, had we remained behind our phone screen.
What we won’t do, however, is leave these encounters empty-handed. Given the right company, we’ll instead walk away with the warm glow of a fun conversation, a shared joke, or an exchanged smile.
And after so much time spent in the gay dating apps wasteland, in the company of men apt to send conflicting messages, is that so bad?
Swap gay dating apps for in-person interactions.
Aim to find friends – not dates.
Consider attending events or groups that offer proximity, frequency, duration and intensity.
Embrace vulnerability by remaining open.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.