By Grace Cooper
Recommended reading while listening: The Blower’s Daughter by Damien Rice
INSPIRED by Mary Carpenter’s excellent article on addiction to alcohol, I’d like to point out another type of addiction that is rapidly becoming epidemic among all age groups. Match.com and all other virtual reality dating websites, as well as reality television shows about dating or mating, should come with a warning: Continued use can lead to a paradoxical inability to bond securely to a new partner. Let me explain.
Increased use of social media in the last few decades has opened a window to a virtual parallel reality, available to all. Think about Facebook, TikTok or Instagram. No one posts photos or videos of themselves, their family members or their vacations that aren’t heavily curated and staged in the best possible light. Reality of an ordinary life pales in comparison. Those unable or unwilling to participate in such false representations are often sidelined and made to feel uncomfortable to be left out of all the virtual “fun.” Good just isn’t good enough any longer.
A daily television habit often plays a part in feeding our appetites for non-immersive romantic escapism as well. We watch complete strangers forge the most intimate bonds—dating or even marriages—in competition with other contestants as the television cameras roll, recording quick and dirty courtships. Absurdity abounds, and (I hope) none but the most naïve thinks reality TV of this nature leads to sustainable relationships, yet ratings suggest that a large part of the population across all demographics is tuning in.
So why are we so fascinated/captivated by simulated love bonds?? Those that study human behavior report, “it’s because watching these shows activates the brain systems relating to sex drive, romantic love and attachment. For instance, when we watch a suitor finally tell someone he’s dating that he loves her, we might experience a surge in dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to romantic love and elation). When we see a couple make out passionately, our bodies might release testosterone (the hormone connected with sex drive). And, when a couple cuddles on the screen, our bodies likely release oxytocin (the neurotransmitter associated with attachment). They may not be true relationships, but the feelings they give us are real.”
The sad reality in this last stage of life is that anyone widowed or divorced initially feels emotionally adrift from an identity as part of a couple. Even when motivated and eager to begin dating anew, creating a new romantic reality after such a loss is difficult—to say the least. Let’s face facts, no matter how well you pull yourself together before heading out to the grocery store, you are highly unlikely to meet your future mate reaching for the same cantaloupe. That’s where dating sites promise to bridge the matchmaking gap.
Daily hits of “eye candy” is how a fellow Match friend phrased his participation in years of online dating. Neuroscientists label it dopamine central nervous system reward centers pinged. Every day a dozen or so “matches” are delivered to millions of email accounts of online dating subscribers. Most participants display their carefully curated photos, lifestyle descriptions and claims of looking for “the one.” So far, so good. However, reality can’t compete with virtual airbrushed reality, and that’s where the addictive nature of the virtual dating scene begins to derail the normal course of a sustainable romantic relationship. Instead, an addiction to the feel-good neurotransmitters takes control. As in any addiction, emotional highs are soon replaced by lows as the excitement of a new romance triggers a strong chemical reaction, called the limerence phase of the relationship. Limerence is the state of infatuated obsession with another person, driven by a subconscious desire for reciprocation, typically of a sexual nature. This dopamine-fueled high begins to ebb typically after a few months of dating but not always at the same speed for both partners. It’s a fascinating topic, but the bottom line is that those who become addicted to the highs of limerence, experience the unsettling lows as well—melancholia, fear of rejection, insecurity and unpleasant obsessive thoughts.
So, what does an honest, healthy sustainable relationship resemble? No matter what your “type” is, a relationship in which each partner feels safe to be their true selves is the ideal. Safety demands trust and building trust takes time, intention and accountability. In the best of circumstances, it takes an average of two years of sustained dating to know if a mate is trustworthy. In practical terms, how do you trust someone you meet online to reliably exit the site and commit to an exclusive relationship with you, when the siren song of daily eye candy is continuously luring him back?
Furthermore, online dating sites are rife with scammers, catfishers, dangerous wackos and those with attachment-style disorders. Here’s the synopsis of that twisted attachment tango: anxious attachers, neurologically hardwired for limerence, are drawn to avoidant types who eschew long-term commitment. Avoidants—addicted to the highs of romance, but who shun sustainable attachment—find a virtual playground in online dating sites. Anxious attachers, left high and dry by avoidants, dive right back into the pool even more recklessly, driven by insecurities and a deep need for connection. Welcome to the hell of emotional addiction. No judgment from me if you mistake fantasy for reality and limerence for the type of relationship that is healthy and sustainable. We live in a society that romanticizes limerence and repackages it as entertainment.
However, I firmly believe that forewarned is forearmed. Think of me as your online dating fairy godmother because, girlfriend, I’ve experienced it all —limerent obsession, the pain of withdrawal and ultimately recovery. Do not be afraid to dip a toe into the waters of online dating but do it intentionally and with eyes wide open, firm personal boundary enforcement, a lot of patience and a good sense of ironic humor…you will need it all.
Life is a wonderful opportunity for learning, so make “late dates” count for something other than an addiction to eye candy.
—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 67, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.