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Lust, attraction and attachment with dating apps

Still swiping left or right even after you may have found someone potentially special, someone who could be relationship material? Are you struggling with your ability to stop using dating apps and wondering why it is so hard? Dating websites and dating apps can provide so much choice that it can be difficult to stop the search for the ideal mate, even when you find someone suitable. One reason why you are finding it so hard to stop may lie in what neuroscientists are finding from brain scans.

To understand the psychology of what might be happening in your brain, it is worth considering the nature of the pay-off. When we enjoy food we get a rush of dopamine, so vital in reward driven behaviour and pleasure seeking. We get a bigger rush of dopamine from sex. The brain categorises things sexual 20% faster than anything else. Our brains are wired to be sexual, as sex is about survival. Mystery and intrigue elevates levels of dopamine so it is greatly intensified when we are searching for sexual partners.

The internet has greatly enriched our lives in so many ways, but like everything that is good there is also a negative aspect. With dating apps, there is little incentive to commit to one person given the vast array of choice and the immediate opportunity of hook-ups. It is extremely difficult for one person to compete with the enormous choice offered by the internet.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, has studied romantic interpersonal attraction, brain chemistry and romantic love for a number of years. She believes that there are three primary, distinct, but interrelated emotion systems that exist in the brain namely: lust, attraction and attachment. Think of these three systems acting as a form of referee in mediating matters to do with mating, reproduction as well as the rearing of the young.

Love can spark from the lust stage, that’s why so-called casual sex is not always so casual. The three brain systems are not always connected to each other. So, someone can feel lustful towards a stranger whilst simultaneously feeling attached to someone in their life. We can, in practice, fall in love with more than one person at the same time. We are animals built to reproduce rather than to be happy. However, we are also wired to make happy and committed relations with each other (the attachment stage). So, how can we sometimes appear to be stuck in that lust system?

The sex drive in the lust system is nature’s way of embedding in our brains the libido to start the mating process with a range of partners. The sex drive is characterised by the craving for sexual gratification and is associated primarily with the estrogen (produced in greater amounts in females) and androgen (higher amounts in males) hormones. When the reward centres of the brain get flooded with dopamine there is a massive high.

Food and sex can be linked as they are both sensate functions and both are linked to survival. Think of a buffet style dinner, where you can eat as much as you like and really experience a wave of blissful indulgence. But, as opposed to having one meal on one plate, the temptation in a buffet style dinner is to keep filling up your plate rather than savouring what is in front of you on one plate. With food we also have the concept of a dessert trolley. Presentation is everything with food. Likewise, the danger with dating apps is that you can stay hooked to the buzz you get from searching for the ‘perfect’ mate, given the visual stimulus and associated rush of excitement. Even when you find someone suitable, there might also be an itch that makes you think that the ‘perfect’ partner is just around the corner, if you keep on searching.

If you are single and just want to have fun then dating apps can be an exhilarating way of turbo-charging your social life. Behaviour only becomes problematical when it starts negatively impacting on the healthy functioning of your life. So, if your aim is to meet someone and have a monogamous relationship but you can’t stop searching (in spite of meeting someone special) then that could be when the adverse consequences begin to show. Anxiety is when your body is in a state of feeling ill at ease.

We know from behavioural science that the more we have of something, the less we enjoy it (the law of diminishing returns). No-one is perfect, as perfection does not exist. As you continue to search, the buzz you are seeking might become harder to satisfy. So, you may find that you need greater amounts of stimulation in order to feel gratified. This is when people can end up in disarray as they start arranging multiple dates or hook-ups since the prospect of one single date might appear less exciting. The trouble also comes when you meet someone special but continue to use dating apps as if you are single. This imbalance can lead to more intense feelings of anxiety.  

Seeing a therapist can help you to explore what it feels like to be in a relationship as well as being an active user on dating apps. Perhaps the relationship is not right for you but it will help to try to be fully engaged in feeling your feelings towards that person. The danger with continuing to use dating apps is that you can avoid what you are really feeling by the busyness of online activity. For a relationship to have a chance of developing into real intimacy (if that is what you are seeking), a period of exclusivity is essential to allow the connection to deepen. 

Dating apps make it really tempting and easy to keep looking, given that there are so many options available. The risks in overusing them are that no-one will ever be good enough.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.… Read more

Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

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