Projection and idealisation: Why dating apps affect intimate relationships

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Projection and idealisation: Why dating apps affect intimate relationships

It is well known that dating apps are more and more common in our society, especially amongst younger people. But do we really know how these apps affect us?

Dating apps mostly operate according to the same principles as gambling devices. Our brains are stimulated by dopamine when we anticipate reward – more so than the culmination of the reward itself – in a repetitive, mechanical motion. The applications even give audible alerts when you have a match or a notification. This effectively acts as operating conditioning (behavioural science): a type of associative learning process through which the impulse to perform a certain action is modified by reinforcement or punishment.

Dating apps are addictive, and this is not a secret to anyone, even Tinder's CSO, Jonathan Badeen, admitted that the app is indeed addictive like gambling devices because 'it was inspired by an experiment that turned pigeons into gamblers.'

The way dating apps are created means they work towards engaging more and more people and following the same gambling principles, the only difference is that the stake is different. Full satisfaction is impossible to fulfil and there is a constant seeking of gratification which never ends. This, combined with the paradox of choice, meaning that the diversity of our choices causes us stress and, ultimately, a sensation of being trapped and discontent, creates such a 'hook-up culture'.

While it may seem that greater choice is more exciting – and it sometimes is – it also complicates matters, making them more time-consuming and even completely obstructing what should be a simple process. Dating apps create the illusion of choice. Having plenty of potential sexual partners on a phone changes the whole game, a clear example of 'the grass is always greener on the other side.'

These apps have also offered today's people the possibility to receive constant validation from strangers by hardly doing anything. Consequently, the brain is rewired in such a way that can even become pathological. These apps create an atmosphere that psychotherapists would historically have regarded as slightly narcissistic. But the problem is that these apps are becoming increasingly common and people are normalising them, thereby justifying their existence.

'Everyone uses them', 'I don't have time to meet people in a different way', 'It is the only possibility during a global pandemic', 'I know happy couples that met each other through these dating apps', are some of the statements that can be heard to justify using these apps, to normalise them and start using them. And in a way, it is ok to use them. Sexual desire is fine up to a point. But it isn't everything, and promiscuity can lead to the idea of thinking that we like someone when in fact we are only looking to feed our egos. It is a subtle difference that can be very misleading.

One could also say that these apps promote the narcissistic traits that everyone carries within themselves. The myth of Narcissus has fascinated artists of all kinds as a symbol of unrequited love, and later Sigmund Freud adapted the myth to a certain type of dynamic. But later it was found that these feelings of grandiosity and superiority are defence mechanisms that protect a fragile and fragmented self.

Narcissism and ego

A narcissistic personality can be formed early in life when a child is deprived of sufficient attention and love from his or her parents. A narcissist does not experience enough love from parents in his or her world to fall in love with, and therefore creates an insecure attachment with his or her own idealised image. A phenomenon that can be related to the notions of projection and idealisation.

Projection and idealisation are the most destructive phenomena in intimate relationships. Their power lies in our inability to see reality. Projecting, a psychological strategy that manipulates internal or external reality to defend the subject against feelings of anxiety or depletion of our worth, is constantly happening when we encounter people.

Projection is considered a primitive defence because it distorts or ignores reality for us to function and preserve our ego. The ego senses that the subject has an internal flaw or an internal motivation that is socially unacceptable and yet is urging to go into consciousness.

This is common in jealousy and toxic dynamics, when people accuse their partners of being unfaithful, when really, the desire to be unfaithful might fall within the person accusing, but as a socially unacceptable conduct, we displace it to our partners. And this can be applied to commitment too.

To a certain degree, we might be incapable of establishing a relationship, partly because of the paradox of choice and partly because we might blame the other person for not willing to commit. You first project onto these people an idealised partner, someone that is different from who we are hanging out with. Then, once you get to know them a little bit better, you realise that they don’t live up to your vision of an ‘ideal partner’ and, unwilling to commit and aware of the alternative options, you change partner.

In conclusion, dating apps are based on dominant psychology that can be understood through behavioural science. It is rewarding because it is a platform where you can potentially contact many sexual partners. It provides a constant flow of dopamine, just like slot machines. The rewards are unpredictable but the experience ends up being unsatisfactory due to the excess of choices.

Dating apps have interfered in the normal processes that would lead someone to value an effort and an investment in a meaningful relationship. And this piece is not about poly- vs mono- relationships: both have their reasons. People promote polyamory because monoamory is the default and is often stifling and oppressive to those 'stuck' in dead-end relationships. But polyamory can also be just as destructive as it can be rewarding and exciting. Jumping from one relationship to another, investing the new energy that arises from moving on from the previous relationship, can lead to depression.

Coming back to the paradox of choice, having many options can indeed be exciting and rewarding. But this is misleading, and it ends up being an unsatisfying experience in terms of bonding and establishing a relationship.

Not unlike houses, if you could pay a daily day-to-day lease, would you pay upfront for the whole house? Are you going to make it warm and cosy? The longer you will stay, the more likely you are to invest. If you have to be with someone because it is the only option, you convince yourself that this is the person that you want to be with and learn why you love them or why you want them. If we constantly think about other options, love does not flourish as we wonder whether we are sufficiently happy with this person or not.

In the end, it is people's choice to engage in these apps. Obviously, these apps do not have a responsibility. But living in a society where narratives sell us false pictures of opportunities, driven by an economy that wants us to be insecure and spend money recklessly, it is important to understand what the real opportunities are.

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