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Sex Education (TV still)

Why don’t people date their friends anymore?

From the end of World War II until 2013, most couples met through their social circles – today, the majority meet through online dating platforms

It’s becoming ever clearer that young people are tired of dating apps. According to youth research agency Savanta, more than 90 per cent of Gen Z feel frustrated with online dating, while separate research from Inner Circle shows that three in four single people in the UK would prefer to meet a future partner in real life. But despite wanting to meet people ‘organically’, research published as part of Stanford University’s ongoing ‘How Couples Meet and Stay Together’ project shows that the majority of couples now meet online.

The data shows that 55 per cent of heterosexual couples met online in 2022, with the number of couples introduced to each other through friends sharply declining. “From the end of World War II until 2013, the most popular way heterosexual Americans met their romantic partners was through the intermediation of friends,” the researchers wrote. “Friends, the close and the not-so-close, have been historically a crucial source of connections to others. The rise of the internet has allowed individuals in the dating market to disintermediate their friends”.

Back when online dating hit the mainstream in the early 2010s, this was framed as progress. Your dating pool was no longer limited to random acquaintances. On dating apps, you could curate your own. You could filter profiles based on gender, age, distance, religion, height, and even zodiac signs. It sounded liberating; it was supposed to make it easier for people to find the ‘right’ partner. According to sociologist Dr Jenny van Hooff, dating apps “have definitely given people more choice” over their relationships. “They’ve freed us from traditional patterns where heterosexual marriage and children is the norm,” she says.

But as most dating app users will know by now, the paradox of choice can be stultifying, especially as these apps hardly allow us to engage meaningfully with the essentially infinite number of strangers we’re presented with. “We’re living in a consumer society, where we tend to evaluate dates and relationships as consumers, which can be dehumanising,” Dr van Hooff says, adding that participants in her research often liken dating apps to “online shopping.”

The apps have accelerated the rise of what sociologist and author Dr Marie Bergström has termed “the privatisation of intimacy”. In her 2021 book The New Laws of Love, she argues that the growth of online dating has catalysed a culture where the business of finding love is increasingly separating from the public sphere and becoming an “individual practice”, particularly among young people. According to Dr van Hooff, the privatisation of intimacy is symptomatic of society’s increasing insularity. “Leisure has become much more centred on the home, and COVID exacerbated this. There are fewer spaces where people would have traditionally socialised with friends, as many pubs and bars are closing,” she explains. “It also comes in the context of #MeToo, which has increased awareness of consent, and how it might be inappropriate to approach someone who has not explicitly invited that attention.”

Essentially, as a result of the growth of dating apps, rising atomisation, and the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, norms have shifted, which has resulted in many young people feeling squeamish about dating friends or friends-of-friends despite this being common practice for older generations. In the book, one 22-year-old interviewed by Bergström explains that she would never swipe right on someone in her social circle, saying “I don’t know if it’s healthy to have so many friends in common.”

“We’re living in a consumer society, where we tend to evaluate dates and relationships as consumers, which can be dehumanising” – Dr Jenny van Hooff

21-year-old Caitlin* is also averse to dating within her social circle, having had a brief relationship with a friend at university. “I broke up with him after nine months,” she says. “I never wanted to be the person that asks someone to pick sides, so I tried to just be okay and easygoing. There is tons of pressure when dating within a friendship group.” 26-year-old Liv* had a similar experience. She was originally friends with her ex-partner, and before they got together they discussed whether their relationship could impact the dynamics in their friendship group. They decided it was worth the risk – but a year later, they broke up. “We could barely stand to be in the same room, and we never spoke again after our last breakup conversation. We just avoided each other at the same parties.” She adds that she would “definitely” be hesitant to date a friend in the future.

Break-ups are always difficult, but break-ups within a friendship group are evidently even more painful. For many Gen Z, it doesn’t even bear thinking about. But by totally writing off people within our social circles, we’re potentially missing out on happy, lengthy, and fulfilling relationships: seminal work published by influential sociologist Elizabeth Bott found that romantic relationships within the same social circles were more likely to be successful, while more recent research published in 2021 found couples who meet online are more likely to divorce within three years of marriage compared to couples who met offline.

Emma, 25, says she “hasn’t looked back” since she began dating a friend’s friend two-and-a-half years ago. “You know the person has been ‘vetted’,” she says. “But also you care more about making a good impression too.” It’s certainly harder to get away with the bad behaviour that dating apps have engendered when you have a preexisting relationship with your date: you can’t ghost someone who you see at the pub every weekend, or tell a white lie about your job when they already have you on LinkedIn, or be plain nasty when your mutual friends will hold you accountable. Dating someone you know forces us to take responsibility for our actions, whereas dating apps have allowed us to get off scot free by segregating our romantic and platonic lives. 

Caitlin is right – there is a lot of pressure when dating a friend. But maybe that can be a good thing, if both parties respond to this pressure by being especially communicative, kind, and honest with one another. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But it’s surely preferable to being treated like dirt on the apps. “I feel stuck,” Liv says, explaining that while she is reluctant to date a friend again, she can’t bear “the swiping culture” on the apps. “I’m so burned by my experience that I can’t see myself [dating a friend] again, but I also think that’s my best chance of truly connecting with someone who would turn out to be a life partner.”

Plus, as Bergström says, growing social insularity is a sign of an unhealthy society. “We need to think about what it means to be in a society that has moved inside and closed down.” It tracks that society is tending towards individualism in this way and that young people are particularly taken in by these false narratives which prize total self-sufficiency, privacy, and control, given the rapid erosion of the welfare state, relentless economic turmoil, and the isolating impact of the pandemic. But we should still try and fight against the urge to close ourselves off to the world, and perhaps being brave enough to date a friend is one way of resisting.

*Name has been changed

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