Dating apps have altered the dynamics of relationships completely. Despite being terminally disappointing most of the time, they have also done us a favour by getting rid of some of the older dating rules and red tape. You can’t fudge it by calling it a “drinks thing” anymore – you met on a platform with the word “Cupid” in the title, so this is definitely a date.
The fact that you signed up in the first place forces you to be honest about what you’re doing: you’re looking for a relationship, or at least a 4/10 shag – because being on Tinder “just to look” isn’t a thing, sorry. Nobody goes to Urban Outfitters to browse. You’re taking home that £35 PVC bucket hat, whether you like it or not.
Even if you’ve got your routine down, lining up three new strangers a week from Tinder (or Happn, OkCupid, Her, Grindr – pick your poison) with military efficiency, finding chemistry is as elusive as ever. The good news is your ability to increase your odds of finding someone you like, simply by speeding up the process, has never been greater. However, this acceleration has also given us new rules.
Speaking to a handful of 30-somethings in the UK, we identified five new defining features of dating in a time when it can all start with a swipe to the right.
1. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A FOURTH DATE
Tom and I were on our third date when I informed him that, if we saw each other again, we’d be in a relationship. “Those are the rules, as there are no fourth dates in Britain,” I said, matter-of-factly as we walked through Chinatown. Luckily he thought it was funny and agreed to my backhanded request to be my boyfriend.
You may think this “no fourth date” rule has far too many exceptions, but the point isn’t that you have to make a serious commitment on date four. It’s simply a recognition that, by then, you know if you’re into the person you’re seeing and want to keep going. This can either be for a series of hookups, or as that elusive unicorn, or as someone who you might want to introduce to your parents one day. Yes, you can break up if it doesn’t work out! You can see other people if you’re both into that! Just admit it: this thing with this person, who you see naked every weekend, is a relationship.
“I originally said there’s no such thing as a third date, but I've revised that in this new Tinder age,” Ross tells me. Ross and his girlfriend named it on the fourth date too, after asking her “Just checking, but we’re exclusive now right?” Rules or not, you should never assume. She later told him she was surprised at his directness, but liked knowing what he was thinking. “It stopped her wondering if this was just a hook-up.”
2. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PLAYING HARD TO GET, EITHER
This might still work if you fancy someone at uni or the office, when your crush is trapped in a building with you every single day and you are therefore able to cultivate an air of erotic mystery by wearing your sexiest jumpers to completely ignore them in. But on the internet it just comes across as disinterest. For all their flaws, dating apps have blessed us with clarity: you’re here, you’re thirsty, and this stranger ordering a drink in front of you has passed the “could I see myself getting underneath this person” test.
3. THE AMOUNT OF TALKING AND HANGING OUT YOU DO HAS NO BEARING ON WHAT “THIS” IS
Years ago, after I’d been seeing a guy once or twice a week for about five months, I dared suggest that maybe he was my boyfriend now? As I was told in no uncertain terms that he was not, it left me feeling confused. If this isn’t a relationship, then what is? I initiated sex to diffuse the awkwardness and never mentioned it again. (When I reached out to the guy to ask him about this recently, he said: “Yeah, that was a relationship, I don’t know why I was so funny about it. Sorry about that.” I’m adding this here not because it adds any insight, but because I was right.)
The “relationship in all but name” is a common story. Martha* assumed it was a relationship when they both deleted Tinder, but quickly realised that it wasn’t. “He was always telling girls they were hot and he had all these back-up plans,” she tells me.
Much like my own situation, this was confusing. They talked every day and helped each other with problems, but she didn’t dare leave stuff at his place. They eventually named it after Martha put down an ultimatum after a whopping three and a half years of dancing around it. Incredibly, like a real life Carrie and Big, it seems to have worked out. “We were both terrified, I think,” she says. “Me of picking the wrong guy again, him of the fact I had kids. I think he knew we'd be serious.”
As tricky as it can be to talk frankly about feelings, sex has never been easier – to the point where sex can also become a talking tool. Jane and her now-boyfriend had been hinting at the question of definitions for a while, always over text, never in person. “It was only when we started having sex that he opened up the conversation,” she says. “He was still inside me when he asked, ‘So are you my girlfriend now?’”
4. “NO BREXITERS, NO TERFS, NO TORIES”
Asking a prospective date about their voting habits was once considered as rude as asking a stranger if they’ve considered “doing something” about their neck mole, but the climate apocalypse is coming and we’re simply too tired to fuck about. Few people these days want to risk wasting a perfectly good Tuesday night on someone who thinks abortion rights is a “fun debate”. This is also why I, a European in the UK, checked for Brexit-leanings when dating just after the referendum. However, as I was eating a pad kee mao in Soho with an Englishman who was “absolutely not a Leaver”, I discovered that screening is an imperfect art. After he musingly informed me he’d spoiled his Brexit ballot “in protest of how the EU is handling the situation in Greece”, I quietly put some money on the table and left.
The fact is, the news is exhausting and devastating and I want to spend my leisure time with someone who gets it – not having an egg account argument in my own home. Hayley agrees that screening for political views is vital: “I've never been able to connect with someone who is heavily right-leaning, because we just value different things.” For Hayley, it’s about saving time down the line: “I [don’t want to have to] argue with them over feminism, gay rights, or equal role distribution when raising a family.”
That said, if you’re just after a one night stand then all bets are off – unless they’re a white supremacist or a vlogger, obviously.
5. THE “GOLDILOCKS ZONE” OF TEXTING
“Fancy a drink?” is a terrible first message. Even if you do, you need to have at least a few minutes of chat first in order to do a preliminary screening. I have literally said to people in dating apps: “We’re all busy people, so let’s swap deal breakers before leaving the house.” Some people think that’s weird, which is fine by me as we wouldn’t have got on anyway.
Everyone’s screening process is different. Maybe it’s politics or distance (when your profile says London but your message says St Albans), or seeing a red flag when they talk shit about their ex. Or maybe they use a phrase you can’t stand, like “I don’t take myself too seriously,” which is usually code for “I don’t like to talk about my feelings.”
Ed’s* screening questions include sexual compatibility: “I know what I like,” he says, shrugging. “I think attitudes towards sex indicates a personality type. It's just sex, right? Let's fuck and see if we’re compatible. Otherwise you might have five dates and develop feelings before you realise the sex will never work.”
Once you’re reasonably sure this person going to be decent company for one drink, it’s increasingly acceptable to shut down the texting until you meet. There’s nothing more upsetting than having reached the “steamy” stage of texting with someone who has less charisma than a brick in person.
“It’s too easy to edit yourself over texting,” says Kav, who’s found herself in an “intense texting relationship” with someone she didn’t really get on with when they finally met. Emma* agrees: “They can be great over message but then there’s no spark in real life. It’s such a shame when that happens, so I don’t like to get too excited,” she says. “Now I always tell them I’d prefer to chat further on the date.”
So, in conclusion: we can do pretty much anything we like now. Hooray! But whether you’re looking for a hookup or for someone to have that awkward fourth date conversation with, one thing is still true: if you’re not on the same page then it’s definitely not going to work. You might as well work that out right away so you can move on and find someone who wants the same things you do, whether it’s political solidarity or foot stuff.
* Names have been changed.