What Happened When I Deleted My Dating Apps and Opened My DMs

Let's call this a different kind of online dating.

Maria Del Russo DMs
Photo: mariadelrusso/Instagram

I have what I like to call compound dating-app anxiety. The apps in general stress me out: The waiting for a message back, the profile tweaking to make sure I sound cool enough for a swipe right, and the compulsion to constantly be checking for new guys all give me sinking, dread-like feelings. But trying to meet someone IRL hadn't worked and I'd brainwashed myself into believing apps are the only way I would ever find love — so the thought of letting them go makes me anxiety-spiral, too.

But at the end of last year, I had a series of dates that seriously had me considering deleting my apps forever. I'd been out with a guy three times before realizing that he was the culmination of every terrible man I'd ever met online — he was condescending, non-committal, and he liked to insult my intelligence. He was also spectacular at gaslighting me. The last time we hung out, he spent an entire day at my apartment, and then told me that it was crazy that we spent so much time together so early on. (He must not have realized he was an autonomous adult who could leave at any time.) I went into the holidays feeling pretty defeated. When I returned to my dating apps post-New Year's, the lackluster selection of men only made things worse.

So right then, three days into 2019, I decided to take drastic action: Not only was I going to delete all the of the dating apps I was so hooked on, I was going to exclusively flirt via DM. I x'd out of Tinder, Bumble, and Raya, which I'd been using multiple times a day for the better part of five years, and went another route. I put out a call for DM slides on my Instagram and Twitter, let my friends know that I was open to being set up, and waited.

As for the results of this experiment, well, there's what I had hoped would happen, and then what actually happened.

I have a decent following on Instagram and am super-active there and on Twitter. I hear from women and men, alike, about my sex and relationships writing — and so I hoped that, if I told men I was open to the DM slide, they'd go ahead and slide on into my DMs. I thought at least some of the men who are so quick to jump into my mentions with a "well, actually" would also shimmy into the DMs with a "sup." (Whether I wanted to date another "well, actually" man was a different question, but this was all in the name of science.) It seemed like a very of-the-moment way to meet people. And considering the fact that my prolific dating-app use had resulted in nothing but a string of disappointments, I figured I had absolutely nothing to lose.

And here's what actually happened: In the three months since I removed myself from online dating, I haven't gotten a single DM slide. Like, what? It's the lowest-lift way to say hello to someone! Where is everyone?

A couple of friends actually came through with a setup, and thanks to them I now have a couple potentials lined up. But I've also experienced a truly unexpected outcome: I've met some men in the real world, and have gone on dates with said flesh-and-blood human men. Deleting my dating apps helped me turn my gaze away from my phone and onto actual dudes who cross my path daily. And guess what? Some of them are very cute and very willing to take a girl out for a cocktail.

More on that in a second. First, a note on the hard parts. The first week or so, I definitely felt a pang of fear every time I went to swipe through an app and realized it wasn't there. In my app-using days, I usually had at least one man I was speaking to who, if we hadn't already been out, was a decent prospect for a date. I'd come to rely on that hit of male attention, which is one of the more pathetic-feeling sentences that I've ever written in my life. I had to recognize that, sit with it, then learn to live without that little high of male approval I had been getting from the apps. There was an adjustment period, for sure.

Eventually, those thoughts lifted, and they were replaced by something else: contentment. You see, dating apps allowed (or maybe forced is a better word) me to be the pursuer. They made me feel like I was guaranteeing myself I wouldn't wind up alone, because I was being proactive about preventing that. But instead of lessening my anxiety, that made it worse. I wasn't finding the companionship I really wanted, and felt that there must be something wrong with me — that I was doing it wrong; then I'd rinse, repeat ad nauseam.

When I backed off, I noticed I had a lot less anxiety about when "it" would happen, because I no longer had the illusion of control anymore. Putting my fate into the hands of others — friends who may set me up, dudes who could slide into my DMs, the universe which could plop the man of my dreams in front of me on the street at literally any moment — finally alerted me to the obvious: finding love is not within my control. I don't have to behave as if it is. And I especially don't have to berate myself for "failing" at it.

This experiment also taught me to occupy the middle a little bit more. I used to think that if I wasn't the one doing the pursuing, then I had to be completely passive and just wait to be picked. But being open to meeting men in public (or in my DMs!) I started to learn the subtle art of flirtation — which, as a sex writer, I'm ashamed to have not really gotten a handle on earlier. I'm now looking men in the eyes and smiling at them when I walk down the street. I'm talking to them at bars. Since I don't have a swipe app to let someone know that I'm interested, I'm telegraphing interest in a subtle way, which satiates my need for control while also reminding me that I'm only one part of the equation. He can smile back or not. He can stop to talk, or keep on walking.

And here's the best side effect of this experiment: Being open to either possibility is by definition a more laidback approach to dating than what I was doing before, and easing up in that way has left me in a happier state of mind. (Seeya, app anxiety.) As a bonus, I've met some more laidback men in the process than the aggressive mansplainers that Tinder was dumping at my feet. It seems that the old adage "become the person you would want to date" is actually true in my case.

So even though I haven't fallen in love — or even received a single DM slide — I still haven't re-downloaded my dating apps. Some people do find love on Tinder, or even shooting their shot in a DM. But me? For now I'm swiping left on all digital dating and sticking to the real thing.

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