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Search for love goes IRL again

Burnt out by the constant swiping and game-playing on apps, singles are looking up from their phones and seeking out real-life mixers and meet-ups arranged by friends

From one of the singles mixers organised by Sirf Coffee.
From one of the singles mixers organised by Sirf Coffee. (Courtesy Sirf Coffee)

Before getting out of the bed in the morning, Anjali P. spends at least an hour on her phone. She first opens Bumble, replies to unread messages, plans a date, and returns to swiping left and right. Ditto with her Hinge and Tinder accounts. 

She started this exercise in January, as part of her 2024 resolution: to find her “lobster” (mate for life). For the past 10 years, the 40-year-old professor at Delhi University has been on five dating apps all in the hope of finding real connection. She’s been on dates in cafés, bars, restaurants, pottery workshops, movie halls, even once at an airport. “It feels like a job that has no out-time.” Deep down, Anjali is over it all: the endless swiping, the robotic get-to-know chats, the heartbreak when a two-month textationship ends after a meeting, the self-doubt after being ghosted. Yet she can’t stop scrolling. “My therapist says I should take a break. But what if I was destined to meet him the day I didn’t open the app?” Anjali says. “Why is it so hard to find a nice person?” 

Some 2,000km away, in Coimbatore, Kartik N. asks himself the same question. He’s been on dating apps for close to seven years. Only five matches till now; zero dates. “When nobody responds to your texts, you end up asking yourself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’,” says Kartik, 28, a news analyst with a multinational company. He’s been off dating apps since November. “It’s frustrating. You put yourself out there... like you are in a store window, and not a single person is stopping to look.”

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Dating apps are undoubtedly popular in India—according to data from App Annie, a mobile data and analytics platform, Indians spent $9.9 million (around 82 crore now) in 2022 (up to December) on dating and friendship apps, more than twice compared to the same period the previous year. 

The perennial search, however, has left many, like Anjali and Kartik, with burnout—characterised by feeling depleted, frustrated and hopeless at the thought of going on another date, and a sense of despair at ever forming a deep connection with someone. Apps like Tinder and happn have done user-specific surveys related to burnout (and found cases), but there isn’t any official data to reflect the extent of the problem. As part of research for this story, I did an informal survey of 30 online dating app users in the 25-45 age group spread across Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Ahmed- abad. All respondents, who had been using dating apps for at least a year, reported feeling fatigued, frustrated and depressed at some point.

“People get fatigued and overwhelmed because they are not getting the response they desire,” says Manoj Kumar Sharma, professor of clinical psychology at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (Nimhans). He’s the coordinator of the institute’s SHUT Clinic, which helps people deal with technology-based addictions. At present, the clinic is exploring online dating burnout. “Constant mindless scrolling can cause burnout. Add feelings of self-doubt, non-positive experiences (ghosting, being stood up, unanswered messages, sex-related requests, financial scams) to the mix,” explains Sharma. “Such instances, especially after that dopamine high (from being swiped right), are bound to take a toll on mental health.”

During my survey, the majority of respondents had one ques- tion: Why, in a country of over a billion people, is it so difficult to find a suitable partner?

Spoilt for choice

Unlike previous generations when parents used to fix weddings, today’s singles enjoy much more freedom. Go to the App store, download a dating platform and within 10 minutes, the algorithm will inundate you with at least 10 potential partners.

“When you have too many options, you are constantly doing ‘what ifs’,” says  psychotherapist Mansi Poddar. In the past two years, Poddar has seen a rise in the number of patients in the 20-40 age bracket complaining of being tired of being on dating apps. “There’s a problem in expectation management today. Plus, millennials and Gen Z approach dating very differently,” she says.

Aahana Dhar, India director of communications for Tinder, explains the difference. “Gen Z doesn’t try to define a connection before they are ready,” she says. “That’s why you see terms like vibing (an emotional connection between two individuals), sneaky link (people who are secretly meeting) and situationship aligning more with how 18-25-year-olds perceive the dating process.”

It’s not just the use of the apps and the desire to find a partner that are causing burnout. Seeing people around you get married, couple-goal Reels on social media, and family and peer pressure all contribute. In a 2023 survey of 1,000 Indians in the 18-25 age range, conducted by market research company OnePoll on behalf of Tinder, 40% said the pressure to find The One left them feeling fatigued, and 38% blamed social or familial pressure.

“I want someone who will help me hide a body in the middle of the night, no questions asked,” jokes Goa’s Kamakshi, 29, a freelance photographer who uses only one name. This is her second year on dating apps. After her divorce in 2019 (she met her ex-husband on a dating app), Kamakshi “vibed” with an architect, and went out for three months. But he blocked her last year after she sought commitment.“I am over dating apps,” she says.“The expectations of my family and friends drain me as well.”

The toll is worse when you stay alone, says Karima Ben Abdelmalek, chief executive and president of happn, a French app that has close to 40 million users in India. Last year, in an India study of 1,933 users (in the 18-45 age group), 36% of singles admitted to feeling “emotionally drained frequently due to dating discrepancies”. Ben Abdelmalek elaborates: “The guilt associated with moving on or swiftly engaging with dating apps post-breakup further accentuates the complex interplay between dating and emotional well-being.”

Chandigarh’s Paramjeet Singh understands the impulse to move on quickly. “I don’t like to explain myself too much,” says Singh, 35, who works in his family’s construction business. “I don’t want to keep dragging something I know is not working.” Asked what he is looking for in a relationship, he says, “Someone who’s homely but also ambitious, but not too ambitious.”

Such responses are quite common among Indian men, according to dating coach Pratik Jain, who runs Way Of Men, a service that grooms men for the dating game—a six-month programme costs 57,000. At present, he has 30 clients in Bengaluru, 17 in Mumbai and 12 in Delhi. “This might be an unpopular opinion but from what I have seen in the past 10 years, men are looking for women who work but also would be willing to look after the house. And a good number of women want men who earn well,” says Jain. “We are still very traditional when it comes to ‘settling down’.” Dating, however, does not adhere to such strict rules, perhaps leading to mismatched expectations.

Jain says in the past decade, people have stopped looking around—in the real world. “We don’t look away from our phones. Our brains have become wired to look for things, anything—TV, shampoo, washing machine, love—online, and this has affected our ability to see a potential partner who might be standing in front of us,” says Jain. “ I think people are slowly understanding this and trying to return to the old-fashioned way of dating.”

Aka real-life meetings

For the past one-and-a-half years, Mumbai-based financial consultant Neelam G. has been trying matrimonial sites, family-arranged meet-ups and singles mixer events. It’s a way to meet people from diverse groups, says the 31-year-old, who gave up dating apps in 2022 after nine years of using them—she sought therapy to address self-image concerns. “It feels so healthy to see people’s faces while getting to know them,” she says of IRL (in real life) meetings. “The way they look at you, the things they say and laugh at, the way they hold their booze....”

That’s perhaps the biggest draw of singles meet-ups—the intimacy and variety they offer. “People are looking for personalised experiences. But beyond the metros, users are still looking for online connections since it’s a good way to make friends,” says Hyderabad-based Ravi Mittal, founder of QuackQuack, a dating app with 60% of users in Tier II and III cities.

Noticing a hunger for real-life meetings post pandemic, Sirf Coffee, a 2010-born offline dating platform that caters to the global Indian diaspora, organised its first curated mixer of 60 people in Mumbai in December 2022. In February 2023, it hosted a similar event in Delhi, attended by 40 singles, followed by three in Mumbai and one in Bengaluru. This year, they are planning to host in London and/or Dubai. “Artificial Intelligence can only help you so much, and people are realising that. It’s soon going to be the age of IRL dating,” says Naina Hiranandani, one of the co-founders of Sirf Coffee, which was featured in season 3 of the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking. “You are first meeting the person face to face and then exchanging texts, there’s some sense of familiarity. So there’s less stress of the unknown.”

Rhea Pius came up with the idea of a fee-based singles mixer in May 2023 after her roommate complained of not finding anyone on apps. This year, she’s looking at organising 24 meet-ups in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. For an event this month in Delhi, over 90 people have signed up (they charge 4,500 for men, and 3,900 for women). “It’s a hit,” says Pius, founder of TheWhiteBox.co, a platform that curates experiential events for corporates and individuals. “We promote through social media and there’s tremendous response. It’s almost funny how we are now using tech to go back to the old ways of living life.”

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