Anxious and Online Dating – Psychology Today

If you’re single, you’re probably using an online dating app. But many people continue to struggle and in many cases suffer more psychologically from their online dating endeavors.

Anxious attachment styles

People with anxious attachment styles, in particular, struggle to get their needs met in a way that is psychologically protective of them in online dating. Attachment styles are stable personality dispositions that dictate how people process emotions, perceive the social world, and interact with others. The secure attachment style is most representative of healthy development and is characterized by people believing that the world is safe and predictable, that they deserve to be loved, and that other people are trustworthy. They have a strong ability to maintain emotional balance and know when to ask for reassurance, when to feel better, and when to walk away in dating contexts.

People with one of the three insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, may be unbalanced in the way they perceive others, deal with stress, and behave in dating situations. Those with dismissive attachment styles see the world as indifferent, themselves as independent and strong, and other people as weak and needy or indifferent. Because they’ve learned they can’t trust others emotionally, they avoid getting close and opening up early in dating situations. They can seem charismatic and socially engaged until you realize that they are not actually open to being around. As avoiders, they tend to invest little in dating partners…especially those they meet online.

Compared to those with dismissive styles, people who fear being tied down can be a bit more unpredictable. They have an anxious side that leads them to open up interpersonally. But they learned early in life that those you connect with are the very people who can hurt you the most. They tend to see the world as scary and unpredictable, themselves as somehow damaged and unlovable, and others as interpersonally unreliable and dangerous. So when a fearful person warms up on a date, you might think they’re interested, but that doesn’t mean they won’t freak out and ghost you the next day.

However, when it comes to online dating, those with preoccupied/anxious attachment styles have some of the worst experiences. They want love and relationships and can feel especially lonely when they don’t have them. Worried people were usually raised by parents who were unpredictable in how they responded to them as children. There was enough love to make them return to their parents for more, but the threat of estrangement and rejection was always there. As adults, they see the world as unpredictable, themselves wanting in some way and others as having love available but for some reason withholding it. Because of these perceptions and relationship histories, they become hypervigilant for rejection signals (somewhat paranoid) and struggle to cope with the uncertainty of online dating.

Dating apps

Dating apps use algorithms that are not designed to generate long-lasting relationships (Narr and Luong, 2023). If everyone found love on their first match, all apps would go out of business. Most online apps are designed to reward you on a variable (unpredictable) ratio reinforcement schedule. They literally hook you using a combination of rewards and attempts to avoid rejection and anxiety. If you knew what you’re going to get every time you enter the app, it wouldn’t be so exciting, would it?

Individuals with preoccupied styles are likely to be particularly susceptible to social rewards and sensitive to punishment. It should come as no surprise that they are some of the most voracious users of dating apps (Coffey et al., 2022; Chin, Edelstein, & Vernon, 2019). But what happens once they access the apps and start logging out? Because they engage in excessive displacement, research by Thomas et al. (2023) indicate that they are likely to compare themselves to others who they believe are doing better than them, have a greater fear of being single, and feel overwhelmed by too many partner options.

Consistent with this research, a survey published on this blog in 2019 indicated that of all attachment styles, those who were concerned were the most frequent weekly users of the apps and the most likely to seek relationships in long term. At the same time, they don’t like using apps any more than those with the other attachment styles and are most annoyed if they ghost them during text exchanges or other correspondence. In short, they seem to want more but get less.

The research of Coffey et al. (2022) also revealed that people with preoccupied styles used more dating apps and had more negative experiences after having sex with dating partners they met online compared to those with avoidant styles. Avoidant individuals, on the other hand, did not have more negative experiences after having sex with partners they met online.

Given these findings, those with preoccupied/anxious attachment styles may want to reconsider whether online dating apps are the best way to meet people. Here are some other things to consider:

Don’t take it so seriously. See people you met online as real practice.
Realize that if an online dating match doesn’t work out, you have nothing to lose because you didn’t really know this person and had nothing to lose in the first place.
Know the difference between your dream of who someone could be and who they really are.
Learn to have relationships with people in general. Don’t interact differently based on whether someone is male or female.
Find a good self-help group so you can learn how to have healthy relationships with people without the pressure to date.
Get out of apps and meet real people: Join a co-ed training or sports group. Find a group of singles for dinner, a bike ride, a hike… or whatever! Make yourself available by frequenting the same places (like a coffee shop) so people get used to seeing you (and know where you can be found).
Get busy living your life regardless of who shows up romantically. That way, when someone comes along, you’ll have an interesting life to share with them.

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