Online dating applications facilitate interpersonal connections between individuals, enabling them to pursue various motivations, such as seeking sexual encounters, romantic relationships, emotional intimacy, or other forms of interpersonal connections.
Many women and men feel ambiguity regarding the opportunities associated with online dating apps. They frequently do not know exactly what they hope to gain from using a dating app. They might anticipate a connection that develops into a committed monogamous relationship, but these relationships can change over time and are flexible. Users can meet for sex, become friends, or friends with benefits, and possibly form a couple before deciding to become friends again without engaging in sexual activity with one another.
Andrea Newerla, a researcher from Paris Lodron University Salzburg in Salzburg, Austria, and Jenny van Hooff, a researcher from Manchester Metropolitan University, United Kingdom, analyzed the dating app user experience in Germany and the United Kingdom.
They conducted an in-depth analysis of interviews with online app users in the United Kingdom (van Hooff, 2020) and Germany (Newerla, 2021), and their findings were quite intriguing. Researchers performed a thematic analysis on the data collected from both cultural samples.
In a previous article, I described the summary of their research findings about the ambiguities and opportunities men and women experience using dating apps.
In this article, we’ll look into the users’ perceptions of the mobility of intimate relationships.
Experiences of Mobility in Intimate Relationships
For many users, dating practices are marked by ambivalence as the potentialities and possibilities afforded by dating apps emerge as spaces for new forms of intimacy. Normativities are challenged, and spaces are opened up for forms of love and desire that cannot be subsumed under the ideal of the romantic or partnership model in their pursuit and realization of these potentials.
Friendships formed through dating apps, as previously stated, are an important experience for some of our participants. And the descriptions clearly show that these relationships, which were initially defined by sexual attraction, are malleable and can evolve into new forms of intimacy.
Matteo, a 34-year-old man, for example, began using dating apps in 2015. His main goal was to find a romantic partner:
‘I was not as sex-positive as I am now, and society was not at the point we are now. So the main goal was to find a partner’.
Matteo found himself in new cities more frequently as a result of geographical changes, and apps assisted him in meeting new people. He was open to casual sex at this point, but not to the possibility of a romantic relationship if the person was ‘right for him’. As he describes in his relationship with Beate, he developed a variety of ways to be intimate with people in Berlin, blurring the boundaries of friendship and couplehood:
‘It was only sexual, but there was a connection with Beate. She was a person that I was liking. When we started to play [sexually], I realized that I really enjoy this, the motion of playfulness and connection when it’s in consent. It’s clear what we are there for. (…) and from this moment on me and Beate started to have a sex relationship which also developed something more complex. I also developed feelings for Beate that were not immediately mutual (…) Beate was not interested in a relationship that was more romantic, but I was. But we found a common ground and we have been experimental quite a lot.’(Matteo, M 34, German study).
Beate eventually fell in love with someone else, and Matteo became friends with her. ‘We are still in a good connection,’ Matteo says of this development. It was unclear at the time of the interview whether Beate’s new relationship is open to additional sex partners. Matteo describes the possibility of him and Beate sharing this level of sexual intimacy again. However, Matteo says in the interview that it could remain a platonic friendship without sexual physicality. It’s clear that he sees this intimate relationship as a process, that he’s open to its evolution because he likes Beate and wants to see how their relationship develops in the future.
Here Is How Rob Describes his Relationships on Dating Apps
Rob, who has used dating apps on and off since Tinder debuted in 2012, explained how the connections made on apps evolve and develop based on the circumstances:
‘Being on Tinder you can have a few girls that you’re messaging or seeing or whatever, and it’s actually good because you know you’re not going to get married, because you live in different cities, or you’re too different, but you still have this connection, when you’re bored you can chat, or sext, and there’s no expectation. I don’t know how you’d define it, but I’ve had a few of those kind of relationships, and they’re good because you’re both on the same page’.(Rob, M 34, UK study).
Rob describes a liminal relationship that maintains an emotional and sexual connection but will not develop into a committed couple relationship. These relationships defy traditional heteronormative conventions, but they are meaningful to participants and are not time-limited. While these types of relationships are often portrayed negatively in popular culture as ‘breadcrumbing’ (sporadic contact with no follow-through), for Rob, they are meaningful ties that do not fit into normative understandings of relationships.
Here Is How Mona Experiences her Relationships on Dating Apps
Mona can easily organize various dates based on her immediate needs thanks to the variety of relationship forms available on dating apps. This is sometimes casual sex, but she prefers it when a relationship develops. Some dates have become friendships. There was no sexual contact in these cases, but they enjoyed each other’s company. However, these friendships are also physical: one friend, for example, comes over on a regular basis to cuddle and watch Netflix. She does not prioritize romantic relationships and emphasizes the importance of friendships throughout the interview:
‘It doesn’t have to be the romantic partner you wake up next to, it has to be a person you just get along with. (…) This realisation that I don’t have to expect a partner to fulfil all my needs, but that friendships are also a relationship that also fulfils needs like a romantic relationship, that was then for me like: bam. I communicate much more openly about this with my friends and also with the partners I am currently seeing.’(Mona, F 33, German study)
Mona was dating four people at the time, all of whom she met through dating apps. Here, the apps have assisted her in finding people who think and live similarly to her, as they are all interested in multiple relationships, identify as polyamorous, and have openly communicated their relationship status through the apps. Their experiences have allowed them to communicate more openly about their own needs.
Here Is How Alex Explains her Relationships on Dating Apps
People came up with creative ways to use dating apps. Sexual relationships turned into friendships or, in Alex’s case, a professional network. Even though he hasn’t found the long-term relationship he was looking for through dating apps, his experiences show how relationships can change:
‘A long period on Tinder would be six plus dates, usually it doesn’t go anywhere. Usually relationships are sexual. I’d always chat to multiple people at once and occasionally see multiple partners at once. Most encounters have been enjoyable and interesting, some I’m still friends with, one is now our company solicitor, but most I don’t speak to.’(Alex, M 29, UK study)
Alex is a marketer, and his professional and personal networks frequently cross and overlap. He describes it positively, saying that sexual encounters evolve as dates take on new roles in his life. The normative categorization of romantic and sexual relationships does not apply to Alex’s experience with dating apps, and the normative hierarchy of intimacy does not currently apply to his personal relationships. Alex also emphasizes the importance of transitioning into and out of different relationship forms as key moments of communication and connection in and of themselves.