It is surprising that anything surprises me when it comes to dating and relationships. I have twenty years of dating, relationship, and being single experience, I have written a book about being single and dating, I coach women and men about dating, communication, boundaries, sex, boundaries, self-worth, and love, and I’ve talked my friends through everything (polyamory, sexual exploration, sex while parenting young children, etc.). I find it surprising that I can still be surprised. Yet with technology making our world so incredibly new I can.
My latest discovery is the Whatsapp relationship, aka the “exclusive texting” relationship. Beware it.
Whatsapp is a “cross-platform mobile messaging app”: Think texting if you never used it. My ex and I broke up a few months ago, and since then I have been dipping back in the dating pool, mostly in Buenos Aires. In my last few months of reaching out sporadically through OkCupid or Tinder (which people do use in Argentina, Tinder more than OKCupid), I have found a pattern. We start messaging, and then, the other person asks for my Whatsapp to communicate.
This story starts with a man I met a man on Tinder. (Although Tinder has a reputation as a “hookup” application, I find it’s also possible to meet interesting people for dating and friendship. The interface is so simple, it’s a lot like real life if you quickly move to have an in-person meeting. If you are an intuitive person, you can tell a lot from a face. )
We started messaging and it was delightful. He asked beautiful questions. The kinds of questions that I dream of men asking, because really, I think all we want in a relationship is to be known. To be seen. To be cared about, yes, loved. He would send questions late into the night, and each question brought an exciting ding. So this was fun, it almost felt like we were falling in love like that famous promise that you can accelerate intimacy by asking and answering the right questions, and then, you will fall in love. But that idea presupposes eye contact. After a couple weeks, I realized I was the only one trying to make the virtual actual. Dates, we would call them. In-person meetings. Isn’t that what we are aiming for? Getting to know each other in the flesh?
Although we did meet three times and had a great time on each occasion, I was the only one initiating the dates. And it became increasingly impossible to meet in person. It was very strange. He didn’t seem to have a girlfriend or wife, which would be the obvious explanation. Gay? Just not that into me? Only into online/texting relationships at this moment of his life? I never could tell. Honestly the whole thing is a mystery to me still.
I met a new friend from Singapore for dinner and shared my bewilderment. She confessed something similar had happened to her. She met a man, an American who often traveled for work, and she saw him three times in the course of a year. For a whole year, they sent messages every day. He would text “Good morning!” every day and send photos of what he was eating. She felt they were in a relationship. A friend intervened after a year and she woke up to realize, This is not a relationship. She told him she didn’t want to carry on like this anymore and he disappeared.
My now ex-boyfriend (a real person who likes real meeetings! I need to find another man like him!) gave me a thoughtful birthday present: Modern Romance, a book by the standup comedian Aziz Ansari. Ansari, like me, likes to observe and analyze how technology is changing our dating and romance patterns. Ansari teamed with my friend Eric Klinenberg, the NYU sociologist who wrote Going Solo (and interviewed me about Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics for that book) to write a well-researched book on the agonies and ecstasies of dating in the age of technology.
My eyes were glued to the page when I read their chapter on dating in Buenos Aires. As part of their study of dating in Buenos Aires they found that men were often carrying on several text conversations with women, and women were doing the same. Everyone was hedging their bets, including people in relationships, flirting via Whatsapp to keep their options open. They also found they found that men chase, and women are trained to say no first to show that they are not “easy” to get. They call this “hysterico” behavior in Argentina, playing hot and cold. I’ve heard the word “hysterico” so many times while I have lived in Argentina.
The portrait the book paints is one of low-commitment game-playing enabled by texting. For the most part it seemed chillingly and accurately described. (I will say, in Buenos Aires’ defense, there are also sweet, sensitive Buenos Aires men who are devoted and highly therapized.)
The situation is extreme, but the situation is extreme in many places. Really, isn’t this a global problem, a symptom of our love affair with our phones?
Recently I was swiping on Tinder back in San Francisco and I noticed a man wrote in his profile, “Only if you want to meet. No text buddies please.” I suspect the texting-with-few-meetings relationship is a new kind of ephemeral relationship in the globalized world. Maybe these relationships persist over time because it’s all the attention that some individuals want to give relationships. It’s a fast-food way to flirt without risking vulnerability.
We are all spinning tops now, spinning with email, social media, phone notifications, and the world is spinning so fast, where does it all lead? When the world keeps spinning faster, what happens to our basic human needs for authentic connection, help, and love?
Will a percentage of the population just go for these false-intimacy, buzzing-dinging relationships that provide a dopamine hit of excitement but never a hug? Are these just the virtual frogs we have to kiss on the diligent search for something real, substantial, live and in the flesh, built on time and love?
It’s all far too reminiscent of the movie Her, where Joaquin Phoenix gets sucked into love with an Operating System (Scarlett Johanssen). I shared this story with a friend who is also dating, and she asked, “In the future are we all going to be trading texts with computer algorithms that know just what we need to hear? That give perfect textual satisfaction…and nothing else?”
In my recent story, I found it so bizarre that this man was texting me all the time with questions, and yet, he lived about a mile away. This was not a long-distance relationship that required texting. For about a month I found his messages thrilling, but also unhealthy to have my body get so revved up by the addictive dings, with no bodily contact to soothe, ground, connect us.
I learned something very valuable years ago: You want the people who want you. I need more from a man than Whatsapp. A lot more.
A female Argentine friend and I reached the conclusion that we need to carefully screen. We don’t waste time with people who are only interested in virtual relationships. Like the guy in his Tinder profile said, no text buddies please. While I am part of a few online communities that are important to me, and those relationships are meaningful, when it comes to my closest friendships, family relationships, and my partner, I know those relationships all take time and energy to cultivate in person, on the phone, or via Skype (somehow seeing the face does make a big difference).
We who want authentic connection should be careful to not waste the time and energy on an illusion built through addictive dings on our phones.