Like magic, getting married requires the suspension of disbelief. For it all to work out, it’s important to believe that you’ve found your soulmate, the one in seven billion person that you’re meant to buy neighbouring cemetery plots with. When I was 25, I believed in that fairytale. At 31, filing divorce papers, I could no longer say that I believed that to be true.
When I was last single, in 2007, online dating was a secret shame, something that “other” people did. In 2014, not so much. But one tearful night on the white wine, a friend set me up with a Tinder account. Initially it was just to see what was out there, and to retrain my eye – after seven years in a relationship, I had stopped seeing men as romantic prospects.
Starting again turned out to be surprisingly easy, once I accepted that there was nothing else I could have done to change the course of events. The unravelling of my marriage had been so sad and brutal that everything new that unfolded felt like a gift, an adventure. I was strangely euphoric, almost Pollyanna-esque, in my outlook – every day was a second chance and an opportunity to begin again.
With each new match, I slowly shrugged off the image of myself as someone’s shrewish, soon to be ex-wife, the tearful divorcee, and stepped into something new: the single girl about town, always game for a laugh. I told myself that when I hit 100 matches, I would say yes to the next person that asked me out on a date.
The first date led to a drunken snog and dash at a bus stop on Oxford Street, the second was a handsome civil servant who swept me off my feet and then sent me crashing back down again four months later. Then there was an American music producer, who would send charming WhatsApps from recording studios around the world.
For a while, I seemed to be his 'girl', until I realised I was just his 'girl in London'.
Each one of these relationships were special, in their way, and I doubt I would have encountered any of them on my merry-go-round of 30-something brunches and baby showers.
The problem of the illusion of unlimited choice is that it makes us more aware of the possibility that we’re making the wrong choice
For someone who had believed in soulmates, the seemingly infinite potential for a new love affair at the end of my mobile was liberating. But the choice soon became paralysing. How could I be sure that I was getting the best bang for my swipe?
Research bears out this sense of choice-paralysis. Stanford University researchers set up a sampling booth in a grocery store that offered 300 different types of jam. They first set up a sampling booth with 24 jams; on the next Saturday they did the same, but with six. The study found that people liked the idea of having more choices, with more customers approaching the booth with 24 kinds of jam than the six-jam one. But when it came to actually buying, people in the 24-jam condition shut down, with only three per cent buying jam, while 30 per cent of people in the six-jam booth bought a jar.
The same researchers conducted a further study with chocolate, where people were asked to choose one chocolate from either 30 choices or six. They found that people in the 30 chocolate group were more likely to experience regret about the choice they made.
The point? These studies show that the problem with the illusion of unlimited choice is that it makes us more aware of the possibility that we’re making the wrong choice. We create checklists to consider how each potential date or hook up matches with our romantic checklist. Then, if a relationship isn’t perfect, who cares, there are hundreds more. But, when you chase perfection, you miss out on the best bits.
Long-term relationships require us to weather storms together, to invest, be vulnerable and to choose to bumble along together, whatever the outcome. Part of our willingness to make those choices comes down to the magical notion that we have found our one in seven billion.
Tinder robbed me of that moment, where something that was nothing suddenly becomes everything. My swiping fingers are tired. I’m bored. I no longer want infinite possibilities, but rather one real person instead.
I feel like it's time to give up on Tinder. But, if I do, will I miss out on someone brilliant? Maybe it’s my own fault, I’ve been out of the game for far too long. Instead, I wait for a smile on the street but see only the foreheads of people staring down at their phones.