Personal Essay

Why I’m Quitting Dating Apps (for Now)

Bumble, Hinge, Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel (yes, that's really an app)—I've tried them all. My confounding search for connection when virtual love disappoints.

Illustration by Mark Matcho

How was your date?” a close friend asked me as soon as I walked into her house one day this fall. Like me, she is divorced and had also been shopping online for men. We often supported each other through the process. Sometimes, that meant sharing the profiles of men who appeared to be promising prospects. Most of the time, though, it meant sending each other screenshots that captured some of the insanity we encountered every time we opened our apps. Once, she sent me a photo of some guy’s opening profile picture: a close-up while he was clearly experiencing a herpes outbreak. “He couldn’t wait two weeks to take his profile photo?” my friend texted me. Another time, I sent her one of a guy with a ZZ Top–style beard who wrote, “I like my women like my glasses, sitting on my face.” If there’s one thing we’ve both learned on dating apps, it’s that you have to keep a good sense of humor, because the only other option is losing your mind.

The date she asked me about that crisp autumn day was one of dozens I’d been on with men since joining the apps in late 2021. It was with a guy I’ll call Ken. When I came across his profile on Hinge, I saw a good-looking man sitting at a desk with an oversize hardcover book in front of him. In my first message to him after we matched, I asked what book he was reading in the photo. “A Shakespeare first folio,” he responded. Wow, I thought. Someone who doesn’t just read Shakespeare but cares enough to read the first folio! I agreed to meet up.

I walked into the café I’d chosen in Central Square at the appointed hour and found Ken wearing a black jacket and a broad smile. We both ordered tea, and he chatted away. It was a long time before I noticed something else he was wearing. And it provided the answer to my friend’s question about how my date went.

“Well, he was wearing an ankle bracelet,” I told her. “And not the jewelry kind.”

She laughed hysterically before saying something that pretty much epitomizes how swiftly the bar drops when you start online dating. “Well, maybe it was only for a white-collar crime,” she suggested. As if “only” committing a white-collar crime would somehow not constitute a giant, billowing red flag.

Before my friend got her hopes up too high, I explained that Ken had been candid about his situation. He told me he’d violated a stay-away order that a judge had granted his ex-wife after he left her some “really, really mean voicemails” one night when he was a little out of it due to having popped some sleeping pills. He went to jail for a while, and when he got out, he violated his probation in what he described as an innocent confusion between a seltzer and a hard seltzer that resulted in him getting an open-container violation while driving. “I was high, but I wasn’t drunk,” he said in his defense. He went back to the slammer after that and showed up to our date pretty much fresh off a nine-month stint at the jail in Billerica.

I know this sounds like a pretty bad date. And it was. But if I’m being honest, there was another reason I wouldn’t have seen Ken again, even if he wasn’t wearing an ankle bracelet issued by the state probation department: He talked 95 percent of the time we were having tea. Sure, he asked me a couple of questions and seemed interested in my answers, but what he really seemed interested in was talking about himself.

This is pretty much the same thing that had happened on a first (and last) date I went on the week before my rendezvous with Ken—but that guy was even worse. He talked for two straight hours, nonstop, without asking me a single question. Not one. My conclusion after experiencing his monologue was that he was looking for a therapist, not a girlfriend.

Overall, I enjoy dating and meeting new people. What I don’t like at all are the apps and how they’ve changed the way we date. The process forces us to make snap judgments before unceremoniously flicking human beings into the abyss off the left side of our phone screens. And as for the men who pass our judgment and get swiped right? Well, you know, sometimes you get a lover of Shakespeare who makes his ex-wife feel physically unsafe.

Another friend of mine—someone who, like me, is single and 52—once said to me without a sliver of hesitation: “I’d rather be single the rest of my life than ever go back on an app again.” At the time, I thought to myself, Well, it’s the only way to meet anyone, so clearly she’s going to be alone forever.

Still, after my date with Ken and Mr. Talks A Lot, I started to think my friend might be onto something. Is it possible that the prospect of never finding someone could be better than having to look for them this way?

Early on, I came across a guy’s profile that included just one sentence: “I’m looking for someone to do butt stuff with.” That’s it. Wow, I thought, I wonder how that’s going for him? At least he is being honest.

I didn’t always believe that apps were the only way to meet men. In fact, when I first moved back to the Boston area in 2019—after ending my 18-year marriage and having spent several years abroad—and a 26-year-old coworker told me I had to use the apps if I ever wanted to meet anyone, I thought that was preposterous. After all, before and after my marriage, I had met men in a swimming pool, at a square dance, at a personal development course, and on a bus—a bus!—to name just a few places. If I never had trouble meeting men in the wild before, I thought, why should it be different now?

The problem was, back in the United States, I was a single mom with a full-time job, and I didn’t have much time to be out and about at spots where I could meet people. I soon realized that if I was going to meet anyone organically, he was going to have to be riding on my bus to work or reaching over me at the lettuce section of Whole Foods, which, for better or worse, were the public places I frequented most at the time. Still, for a long while, I was determined to never go on a dating app, almost out of principle.

But after months of not meeting anyone on the bus or in Whole Foods, and after enduring the pandemic shutdown and its lingering aftermath, I began to wonder if my 26-year-old colleague might have been right. In late 2021, I built a profile and reluctantly dragged myself onto Bumble.

For those who have never known the misery of being on Bumble, I will explain how it tries to set itself apart from the other apps. Bumble bills itself as some kind of exercise in women’s empowerment. When matched with someone, only women can initiate direct messaging, and they have to do it within a 24-hour window, or the match disappears.

So yes, you are understanding this correctly: In the name of feminism, countless single women who work and have children have yet another task that falls solely on their shoulders. Not only that, but they’re also forced to complete it under a draconian deadline and in the face of frequent mansplaining. “Remember, ladies, you have to message first,” countless men write, using precious real estate in their allotted 300-character bio to make sure we understood the instructions clearly. (Bumble’s CEO recently said she is reconsidering this feature, which I applaud. At presstime, though, it was still in place.)

I joined Hinge after a while, hoping it would be better. At first, it seemed as though it had higher-quality profiles—but I’ve learned that all the apps seem like they have good men on them at first. Then you keep going, and it gets pretty grim. Hinge doesn’t have annoying ladies-first rules or time limits, but it does present you with far fewer profiles, at least in my age range, and I hit the bottom of the stack fast and often. It also has a higher percentage of fake profiles than I have seen on any other app, so much so that, at one point, it seemed as though fakes were all I got. They were so obvious—stock modeling photos of clean-cut guys in Euro-fashion clothing leaning against Ferraris who claim to live in towns like Uxbridge. I have spent so much time hitting the option to report fake profiles on Hinge that I honestly feel like I should be pulling a salary.

I also joined Tinder. While many people who are looking for a relationship use the app, its history as a place exclusively for sexual encounters still reverberates in its rough-around-the-edges, anything-goes vibe. This includes, among other things, shots of boners underneath jeans or sweatpants, lots of bragging about “oral skills,” and men looking to tie women up in knots but passing it off as artistic because they are into a Japanese school of bondage known to be visually pleasing.

This means, if nothing else, that Tinder is pretty damn entertaining. Early on, I came across a guy’s profile that included just one sentence: “I’m looking for someone to do butt stuff with.” That’s it. Wow, I thought, I wonder how that’s going for him? At least he is being honest. A few weeks later, the very same profile came up in my feed. This time, though, his bio read: “I enjoy hiking, lazy beach days, and Netflix binges.” So much for honesty.

At a certain point, I was spending more time screenshotting bios and sending them to my girlfriends for laughs than actually swiping right on promising suitors. It was fun but also depressing because that’s not why I was on the apps.

I tried Coffee Meets Bagel (yes, that’s truly the name of a dating app) for a month and quit because it had so few people on it. I tried eHarmony for a few days before realizing its so-called scientific system of suggesting matches for me was worse than no system at all. And I even joined Match for a spell, where I appreciated that people could write more lengthy bios. But none of it really mattered much, because they were all fundamentally the same in one important regard: they didn’t hold a candle to what it is like to meet someone in the real world.

Online dating hasn’t all been terrible. In my roughly two years on the apps, I have dated three wonderful men. I was only with the first guy I dated for a couple of months, but we’ve been close friends ever since. I had a whirlwind summer romance with the second guy I dated before he announced, after things started moving quickly, that he was emotionally unavailable. I dated another remarkable man with fashion-model good looks whose intellect was even sexier than his appearance. He didn’t seem to have the bandwidth for a relationship, and he lives in Providence, but we’re still in touch. I am very grateful for what all of these experiences have taught me about relationships and what I want out of them—to say nothing of what they’ve taught me about myself.

I will also say that dating on the apps has given me a perspective I never would have had if I were only trying to meet people in the real world. When you scroll through the apps, you can see so many people who are all searching for the same basic and beautiful thing: an intimate connection with someone. It’s a 20,000-foot perspective that you aren’t afforded anywhere else, and being able to see that has been moving.

Still, the sheer volume of people you come across on the apps is its own problem. Since reluctantly embarking on this online dating journey, I have noticed that the apps can become a vice. I have spent countless hours doom-scrolling. Yes, I want to meet someone, but I also look at profiles out of boredom, because I am procrastinating, or simply because it is one of those days where I have the mantra “There has to be someone decent in this heap of detritus” looping incessantly through my brain, and I want it to stop. I am not surprised that this winter, six dating app users sued the Match Group, which owns Match, Hinge, Tinder, and other dating apps, claiming its apps were intentionally designed to be addictive. I’m not sure about the merit of their lawsuit, but I get what they’re saying. The apps often feel like a game you are compelled to keep playing in the hopes of scoring more points (a.k.a. matches).

I also don’t love the person I become on the apps. I have made countless snap judgments about hundreds, if not thousands, of men—too fat, too short, bad speller, hideous couch in his living room, bad taste in music, ugly shirt, boring job—before swiping left on them. The filters available online just aren’t enough to handle the volume, so I’ve made up some of my own. No pilots. (They are today’s sailors.) No one without a bio. (A little effort, guys, please.) No Trumpers. (No explanation necessary.) No polyamorous folks or those with hall passes from their wives. (Not my thing.) No guys with baseball hats on backward, nor anyone with a Titleist hat on, regardless of direction. (There’s a method to my madness.)

But the truth is, what makes someone attractive in the real world doesn’t translate particularly well to the online environment. I know from experience that I can find a man more attractive after an interesting conversation, after seeing his body language, after noticing what he notices. That makes me think of comedian Will Ferrell and how the tiny changes in his facial expressions communicate a universe. If I met him in a bar, I might fall in love with him. If I saw him on an app, though, I would swipe left. My friend who’d asked me about my date with the ankle-bracelet guy recently started dating a man she met—in person—at a dinner party. I asked if she would have swiped right on him if he’d appeared on Bumble. Her answer was an unequivocal no.

If I make judgments that make me uncomfortable with the men I swipe left on, I am learning that the assumptions I make before swiping right on someone are also problematic. Usually, we see people in the real world, and there is a certain unnameable something that draws us in. We don’t pre-screen the person; we meet them and then choose them based on what transpires between us, in words and spirit. Dating apps turn this process on its head, asking us to choose people first and then meet them to see what they’re like. And in the time between matching on an app and meeting up, it’s hard not to make up stories in our minds about what we think or hope we will find.

The first man I agreed to meet for a drink after matching on the apps exuded kindness but also confidence in his photos. I could see his stocked bookcase in one shot, and he had an Ivy League education. After we matched and agreed to meet, I imagined the person he was and even what it might be like if we were an item. I imagined this based on three photos, a very short bio, and a prompt that revealed he liked sushi. When he arrived at the bar and spotted me from across the room, I saw something in his body language I never expected: He almost curled up inside himself in what looked like a fit of insecurity and shyness. He looked stocky in his photos; in real life, he just looked overweight. When we started talking, I just didn’t find him at all compelling. We had agreed on a drink. He ordered dinner. Because of a fantasy I’d told myself, I was stuck watching a man I wasn’t interested in eat bangers and mash. (Note to men: Never order bangers with a woman who doesn’t already like you.)

That was my very first online date in late 2021. I have since had my last one—at least for a while. Soon after my tea with Ken, I decided to delete my dating apps. Maybe I’ll never go back to them. Maybe I just need a breather. And maybe, just maybe, I can try to meet people the old-fashioned way. Remember my friend who I was convinced would spend her life alone because she refused to get back on the apps? Well, she met someone sailing. They got to know each other and are now a couple. So maybe there’s still hope that I can find love in the produce aisle at Whole Foods.

First published in the print edition of the May 2024 issue with the headline, “Swiping Left on Virtual Love.”