StoriesPart of The Loneliness Epidemic

How online dating can make us lonely

Internet dating can feel like a giant sweetshop: one where everyone takes a bite, or perhaps a few bites, and then moves on to something sweeter. After more than a decade of dating strangers, Christina Patterson learned a lot about the online world and relationships, including how endless choice can be a route into increasing loneliness.

By Christina Patterson

  • Essay
Photograph of a woman sat at a restaurant table looking at her phone. on the table is a glass of wine and a flower in a vase. Opposite her is an empty chair.
The restaurant. © Camilla Greenwell for Wellcome Collection.

I’m determined,” said the man, “to hold out for something good.” We had just had sex. Quite adventurous sex. And now the man lying naked next to me had basically told me that I didn’t cut the mustard.

It was our third date. We had met online, and the other two dates had, I thought, gone fairly well. Our first was in a wine bar, where I discovered that he was handsome and could talk. I had learned that not all that many online profiles were of men who were handsome and could talk.

Our second date involved an art gallery, a dinner and a boat. And our third date… well, our third date started with dinner cooked by him, and ended with what felt like a report. B plus. Tries hard, but could do better.

I would love to be able to say that I leapt up, grabbed my clothes and told him that he should be so lucky. I didn’t. All night I lay next to him, cheeks burning and hardly daring to breathe. The next day I was feeling so lonely and rejected that I just wanted to lie on the floor and howl.

A whole new world

Internet dating is tough: I know because I’ve done an awful lot of it. I started in my thirties after watching nearly all my friends pair off. All through my twenties I smiled at their weddings, at their babies, at stories of their toddlers’ first words and first steps. Sometimes the effort was too much. I once walked out of a friend’s book launch after he had given a speech about finding the love of his life.

I was sick of searching, sick of dating, sick of feeling that everyone else had managed to leap over a chasm I couldn’t even seem to get near. I couldn’t understand how they made it look so easy.

I once walked out of a friend’s book launch after he had given a speech about finding the love of his life.

Most of my friends met their partners at parties or through friends. They liked the look of each other, had a few drinks and fell into bed. No one ever used the word ‘dating’. That was, we thought, something that happened in America, something that made you think of high-school proms. But then it came here, a whole new world with weird rules that seemed to be a mix of 1950s small-town America and Jane Austen. A world where the woman generally waited to be asked to dance.

I started this new thing called dating because I didn’t know how else I was going to meet a man. My colleagues were mostly attached. My friends had exhausted their supplies of single men. I wanted someone to spend weekends with, and holidays, Christmases, birthdays and New Year’s Eves. I wanted someone to love, and someone to love me.

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From lonely hearts to logging on

I started with lonely-hearts ads. You didn’t even get to see a photo. There was the man who was six inches shorter than he said he was. There was the man who smelled of fish. There was the man with very unfortunate buck teeth. When I saw him, my heart sank, but I thought I had better at least stay for a coffee. When I told him I had to go, he shouted that I was “a cunt” and left me to pay the bill.

Next there was the dating agency. And then there was the internet – a whole new world of men who lived in Swindon and worked in IT. They all liked nothing more, according to their profiles, than to relax with a glass of wine by a roaring fire. What they weren’t so great at was conversation. As I’m a journalist, I’m good at asking questions, so I’d spend our so-called date asking lots of polite questions and sometimes went home wondering if they had learned a single thing about me.

When I started internet dating, it felt like a shameful thing to do. Couples who made it beyond a few dates lied about how they met. I would log on – log on! Even the language now seems prehistoric – after a day at work and find another bunch of peculiar men lurking in my inbox. This was before smartphones, and you couldn’t just swipe left.

I tried. I really, really tried. One man wooed me with chocolates and flowers and then ran away. Some months later, he did the whole thing all over again. But really, we were all doing the same thing all the time. We were looking for love and failing to find it.

We had joined a giant sweetshop, one where everyone takes a bite, or perhaps a few bites, and then moves on to something sweeter.

The illusion of choice

Choice, as any psychologist will tell you, does interesting things to the brain. Suddenly, you’re catapulted from meeting the odd single man at the odd party to a world where you could literally click on options all day. The cycle is set up: the search. The surge of hope. The disappointment. It’s exciting and exhausting.

It’s like going on an endless round of job interviews, but one where no one’s clear if there’s actually a job. And it can make you feel even more lonely. A packed diary is not the same as a lovely time. All that effort, but you’re still waking up on Sunday morning alone.

I did internet dating on and off, but mostly off, for nearly 13 years. In that time, the process changed. For a start, the stigma has gone. We’re nearly at the point where it’s the most common way for couples to meet. The algorithms have got so much better that a new study has shown that couples who meet and marry through internet dating are slightly happier than those who don’t. The robots, in other words, might give us a better chance of happiness in a relationship than locked eyes across a crowded room.

Most of us look for love because we don’t want to be on our own. Britain, according to a survey conducted by BBC Radio 4 in collaboration with Wellcome Collection, is one of the loneliest countries in the world. We have a bigger pool of people to meet and engage with than ever before, but that huge pool isn’t making us feel less alone.

What I learned from internet dating

Is internet dating the answer? Well, no. Friends are the answer, or part of it. Real friends you see in real life. Communities where you give and you get are also part of it. And work too, feeling that you’re contributing something to the world – as well, of course, as paying your bills. One relationship can’t be the answer to everything.

Internet dating may have given us more options, but it hasn’t taught us how to have relationships. It has set us free to state what we want, but not to think about what we might give. It has brought the most intimate relationships of our lives into a marketplace, but one that can leave us feeling that nothing is quite good enough.

In my years of internet dating, I learned to recognise the warning signs on profiles. If someone has a giant shopping list, you’re probably not going to have a very relaxing time. I learned that there’s no point in long email exchanges before you meet. You know nothing until you meet. I learned to keep first dates short. And I learned that you need to keep hopeful, keep trying, keep listening and keep learning, but that it also helps if you can turn your biggest disasters into a good story with a close friend over a nice glass of wine.

Finally, I learned that it’s sometimes worth giving someone a second chance. Reader, I did, and he has just moved in.

About the author

Photograph of Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson is a British journalist who has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Times, Spectator and many other publications. Her book ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’ includes stories about people she’s interviewed as well as about her own life, and was published in 2018.