Internet dating - who's Zoomin' who?

We’ve been wondering about what psychological needs these dating apps seem to meet and whether we actually need to be reasonably mentally well to use them safely.


The stated purpose of any dating app is to enable people wanting to get into a relationship to connect online. Their business purpose is to make a profit by doing so. But is it possible that dating apps are also serving some hidden purpose for some users?

At RSFTherapy, we are psychodynamic psychotherapists, which means we are super-interested in what our clients can’t or won’t put into words. We are interested in how our clients might communicate something hidden from their own awareness by the things they say or do. 

We’ve recently had two cases where clients have used a dating app for some reason other than meeting a partner. We explore these below - the details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

R was a middle-aged married man. He had signed up to a dating app and created a profile for himself. He simply enjoyed complimenting women on their photos, and the frisson of receiving a reply. He said (believably) that he had absolutely no intention of meeting or hooking up with anyone. He had used the home PC and hadn’t used the dating site incognito, so his wife could see his history. As a result, he had to move out and was in therapy to explore his situation.

R was struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and loneliness. When he got matches on the app, it made him feel wanted. The downside of this distraction strategy was that the use of the dating site was actually making him feel worse.

Research into people’s experience of dating apps is interesting. Firstly, many people on these apps experience rejection. There is a user mentality, perhaps, that the apps provide so much choice, that a lot of people can be ignored; and they are. Not unsurprisingly, being rejected feeds feelings of low self-esteem, as we can feel unwanted, unloved, and embarrassed or ashamed of our (unmet) needs.

Secondly, using a dating app when we are lonely can keep us isolated. Lonely people can become addicted to dating apps because they contribute to a fantasy of being in a relationship. Why test out whether there is someone out there in the real world when we can keep checking for matches? 

We explored how his use of the dating app had been perhaps an ‘acted out’ communication about what he needed in his marriage. We also explored how he had (unconsciously) created a situation where he would continue to feel worthless. What shift did he need to bring about in his own sense of himself, to take more responsibility for his own happiness in an effective way? 

In our second case, we think about how the use of a dating app keeps someone stuck in a fantasy of a different sort.

K was a single woman in her early-20’s. She checked her dating app every hour. She went on a date three to four times a week and was always in charge. In therapy, the question came up:

“How would you feel if you were sitting in a coffee shop and a guy chatted you up?” 

Her reply was interesting: “Oh no! I’d be terrified. That is just too real.”

Psychoanalytical research has explored the meaning of a dating app for a sample of users. Here are three points to think about. 

Firstly dating apps provide us with a sense of endless supply. 'There are so many potential partners that I can just swipe past them!' This inoculates us against the dreadful feelings of neglect and deprivation

Secondly, dating apps are a shared phenomenon, in particular for the 18-29 age group, where nearly 60% of dates take place using a dating app. This can lead us to use process measures to judge our success at finding a partner (number of dates, number of matches, etc.), rather than the outcome measure of actually meeting someone.  

In a way, the dating app becomes the object with which we are having a relationship and the weirdness of this is lessened by the fact that ‘everyone is doing it.’ The evidence for this lies in what happened during lockdown. There was (technically) little opportunity to meet people outside of our bubble, yet the use of dating apps went through the roof. We were hooked by the siren call of the seductive dating apps! 

Thirdly, dating apps lead us to fantasise about ‘disembodied’ relationships. Perhaps photos and profiles, swiping, texting and blocking are all preferable to the burden of a real relationship? Our client’s reply to our query about meeting someone in person perhaps illustrates how dating apps enable us to avoid the normal anxieties of looking for a partner.

Dating sites exist to make a profit. In 2023, the most popular dating site (Tinder) grossed $808 million USD. These platforms are designed to be really good at drawing us in and being addictive. 

This thought piece invites us to think more deeply about a phenomenon that has now become a normal part of life for many people looking for a relationship. Our psychotherapy perspective is always to wonder about the shadow – how does using a dating app serve you?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, W1T 5HG
Written by Sarah Hanchet, Psychodynamic Psychotherapist and Group Therapist
London, Greater London, W1T 5HG

Written by Sarah Hanchet, Psychodynamic Psychotherapist and Group Therapist.

Sarah is the co-founder of RSFTherapy. We are registered psychotherapists with a wide range of expertise in helping with relational, psychosexual and fertility difficulties.

contact sarah@rsftherapy.

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