By Sonya Rehman
I first began using the dating app, Bumble, towards the tail-end of 2019. I had just moved to a new city with my family, was on a health kick after years of putting my physical and emotional well-being on the backburner, and felt like I had a new lease on life. Away from my birth city, Lahore, Islamabad felt like a dreamy simulation that I felt compelled to create a new avatar, a new identity in.
I was working out with a personal trainer, meditating regularly, journaling…the whole nine yards. And after years of feeling cut up over a ‘situationship,’ I was ready to look for Mr. Wonderful again.
While I did attempt to give Muzmatch and Tinder a go (hilarious really, given how both apps are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but on greater scrutiny, not so much), they just didn’t work for me. Whereas Muzmatch advertises itself as a ‘Muslim dating and marriage app,’ Tinder feels a bit ‘out there’ and daunting what with its numerous fake profiles, smutty (to put it lightly) images and catfishing hopefuls. But perhaps I’m being biased, thanks to the horror stories endured by friends at the hands of the app. On the flipside, I have also heard of people finding their spouses on Tinder.
Anyway, Bumble felt like a safer bet, until I reconnected with an acquaintance on it, only to later find out that he was married. Ouch. Quite a shocker, but a hurried ‘blocka blocka blocka’ later, I had psyched myself to forget all about it.
My second match was with someone who I shared common friends with. He came across as a thorough gentleman and it was all quite a sweet, refreshing exchange which lasted for a few weeks until I was ghosted right at the start of the pandemic. Double ouch.
No explanation, just a lukewarm, incredibly formal excuse of being “busy.” I admit, I took it quite badly. Over a year later, I know it was my ego that was bruised. Well okay, maybe my heart was a tad broken? The disappointment was visceral. Here was someone whose chivalry was just a façade. If he could lunge to open car doors for me, surely he could have had the decency to be upfront about his emotional flippancy?
Or was the onus on me? To think that I read books on human behaviour for fun, did I fail to read between the lines? How could I have gotten so swayed by a complete stranger? Was I, agony aunt/resident therapist to all and sundry, the heart-on-sleeve nincompoop?
Perhaps that’s the thing with online dating, you just don’t know the other person well enough to make a well-informed decision. But damn it, it’s not like one’s buying a gadget! The heart wants what it perceives to be right for it. The heart, to put it lightly, is a nitwit.
But with dating platforms, one gets too swept up with the carefully curated profile, the display picture, the hobbies and interests, only to find out that one little scratch on the surface may reveal glaring red flags.
Nevertheless, my two rather ephemeral and anti-climatic online dating experiences later, I’ve thought a lot about dating in the digital age and how love and intimacy are changing in the era of COVID-19. It’s alarming and I truly worry about the desire for romantic connection to be replaced by a big, bad wolf called Fear.
Think about it for a minute. For over a year we’ve been conditioned to be incredibly weary of the other. And rightly so. Wear your mask! Lather on sanitizer after you touch any surface! Keep a safe distance in public! Stay indoors! Social isolation! And the hysteria goes on and on.
Little wonder then, the magnification of the emotion of fear within us – if a door knob in a public space can get us shaking in our boots, the thought of now meeting a potential HUMAN BEING to shimmy with…whoa, whoa, whoa.
Where man needed the emotion of fear to survive in the wild, i.e. to run like a maniac from a raging saber-tooth tiger, today, in 2021, the ‘other,’ one of our own, is the saber-tooth tiger. Hence, survival mode and the constant cortisol spikes have had a deep impact on our bodies and minds. Where does that leave the pure little lamb called Love?
Do we really want intimacy and companionship amidst the mistrust of the romantic unknown?
In addition, while dating apps have already made us more picky, fearful, judgmental, and low on tolerance, love has continued to morph into a digital conveyor belt of left and right swipes, fueled by unrealistic beauty standards for men and women (here’s looking at you, Instagram).
“Even though dating apps are helpful for those who find meeting people in real life overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, an online interface reduces vulnerability,” states Jasmyn Rana, a therapist in Lahore.
“When we remove vulnerability, we also remove the humanness in an interaction – the energy, the emotion, the impact of the connection. What can be highlighted then is status, profession, looks…the worldly things that do nothing to communicate who we are on a deep, personal level. In that way, online dating can be brutal, blunt and rejecting. It has the illusion of creating intimacy. Mind you, I’m not against it in any way at all, but it does reduce intimacy. People should pay close attention to how dating apps make them feel.”
For Injeel Moti, a communications professional based in Dubai, the “quick to disregard” approach is quite prevalent on dating apps.
“Because there are a number of options on dating apps, people don’t really make too much of an effort to get to know the other individual. There’s also an element of judgment – we unknowingly judge people based on a picture, or some basic information on their profile, and immediately swipe left or right. It can all feel a bit too mechanical sometimes.”
While Injeel still considers online dating platforms to be a good avenue for meeting potentials, others find the online dating rabbit hole a peculiar experience.
Take for instance, Momina Mindeel, a Lahore-based journalist, who feels that on one hand, while navigating love and relationships in Pakistan is quite hard given the prevalent ‘haw hai’ culture of judgment (not to mention the criticism that comes from being on a dating app), on the other hand, single women using dating apps are at risk of being stalked and harassed by unmatched rejects. Quite a battleground really.
“There have been numerous instances, and I wish I was making this up, when I’ve been tracked down on social media, where someone has discovered my website and email address and contact me constantly, telling me things about myself. It’s so creepy,” Momina states with a baffled laugh. “There’s a reason why we didn’t match, why are you tailing me now? I think that’s why I keep making and deleting my Bumble profile, it feels safer somehow.”
Echoing Momina’s sentiment, multimedia journalist and radio show host, Sabah Bano Malik, wishes there were better tools in place to protect one’s identity while using dating apps.
Based in Islamabad, Sabah doesn’t think online dating is the best way to meet potential partners in Pakistan.
“It’s not the dating apps that are the problem,” she says, “It’s the culture around dating and relationships, particularly female autonomy, which society seems to have a problem with. For a woman to show any eagerness towards wanting a relationship – even consummating her marriage – labels her as a slut. Even in the most liberal, left-leaning circles, you’ll find that there is this stigma against women who actively pursue the want of a romantic relationship. It’s carried across generations – from your grandma to your friends. When you’re on a dating app, you’re declaring; hey I’m a human who’s looking for companionship, a fling, or marriage and that in itself is like oh this woman is is one to watch, she’s loose and bad of character. The men then on these apps then view you as someone who’s easy.”
Having only joined Bumble in February this year, Sabah realized that solid companionship is something she wants in her near future.
But unlike those who view online dating with trepidation, Sabah is of a different opinion. For her, people are approaching dating apps a bit more brazenly. Why? Because they know exactly what they’re looking for. Perhaps it’s the acute realization of one’s own mortality, the fleeting fragility of life that has made one grab onto life for all it’s worth. There’s clarity too, amidst the loss of life, burgeoning mental health issues, and the current loneliness epidemic that has begun to gain momentum.
“Now that I’m looking at my life post-COVID, I’m definitely seeing people being less afraid. Because after losing out on an entire year of time in social isolation and also worrying about losing one’s life, it’s going to be a more honest dating world where people are going to be upfront about their needs and not waste anyone’s time,” she says, “Establishing whether something is worth your time right away is going to be the default in online dating.”
While I continue to use Bumble quite sparingly, I now exercise extreme caution. If I ever do end up chatting with someone seemingly normal and kind, I still find myself stressed out about the possibility of interacting with a player, or worse, a serial ghoster.
Why can’t the journey to love and fulfillment be a cakewalk with a drizzle of salted caramel? But I suppose if it were that easy, love wouldn’t be a wretched state of being that has produced some of the best works of art since the dawn of time. Ugh.
“I think people have and will always continue to crave intimacy,” says Jasmyn, “No matter how much society evolves, that will remain a basic human need. We’re social creatures who require deep emotional connections and sometimes we abandon this idea ourselves. We don’t understand or recognize that we need authentic connection. And a lot of that has to do with not having had it in our childhood, and therefore, not understanding what authentic connection is. Then we don’t recognize it, we don’t know how to seek it and keep fumbling in the dark through other coping mechanisms.”
While Jasmyn is right about man’s yearning for intimacy, connection and meaning, as the world slowly crawls its way out of a pandemic that has left it hollowed out, the second virus – loneliness – needs to be addressed. Urgently.
According to research, loneliness equates to smoking as many as fifteen cigarettes a day. Hence, lonely individuals are at higher risk for chronic health conditions and even, early death. Yet we fail to take it seriously. Somehow loneliness, fuelled by depression, anguish and anxiety, isn’t considered something to worry about. Perhaps this points at a bigger issue: a lack of awareness and in turn, a lack of real empathy.
“Loneliness has definitely become something that has become highlighted during the pandemic,” states Jasmyn, “One must learn to pay attention to it and question it. Such as, where is it coming from? What is it bringing up for you? Everyone’s emotions are unique, therefore one needs to figure out what the emotions are communicating and secondly, what loneliness really means to you. Some people may find themselves in a full house with loved ones and still feel incredibly lonely…what does it mean? What kind of connectivity are you needing and craving?”
So where does that leave one vis-à-vis love and dating? If we’re grappling with our own inner demons – now magnified by the pandemic – and desperately trying to clamber over a fortress of loneliness, how does one get around to finding the one and being found?
“Dating apps are exhausting sure, but you do end up meeting people that you would otherwise have probably never met,” Momina says, “It’s important for us to keep an open mind and heart when approaching dating apps. Look, you’re bound to bump into weird people who rub you the wrong way, but at the same time, you can find interesting people at the end of the day who you will resonate with. If nothing else, at least you’ll meet a good person who you can vibe with. Just remember, you will meet someone or the other who you will hit it off with.”
As for my love life, even though I know I’m not going to write off dating apps just yet, I still dream of getting to know someone in an organic fashion. Through a friend, through work, heck even through a Zoom interview? At a festival, a gig, a stand-up show? A girl can dream.
Perhaps my yearning for meeting someone organically in real life stems from the past – a past when the world still seemed innocent and normal. When one didn’t need to reach for a mask and a bottle of sanitizer when heading out the front door. When one still had the privilege of being a tad naïve. When being open-hearted and open to love was a privilege. A golden ticket to exist. To just be.
But if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s this: I’m not the same person I was over a year ago. I know, I know, I’m making it sound like a villain origin story, but it’s true.
I’m done fumbling in the dark. Just done. And even if I have to, I’ll be damned if I don’t have the hand of a fine, bearded gentleman holding my hand.