Is Tinder poised to set online dating on fire?

On the rashness of criticizing the different ways that we find each other

Rain comes down like it always does
This time I’ve got seeds on ground
—TV On The Radio, “Seeds” (

“My boyfriend even calls me ‘Tinderella,'” giggled a young woman sitting with a group of similar-aged women at a Manhattan Starbucks.
This snippet was part of an overheard conversation about the young ladies’ adventures using the matchmaking geo-social application (“app”) Tinder. The app, once downloaded on a smartphone, uses global positioning technology to help users locate potential dates (or what-have-you) on the basis of location, physical desirability and a brief intro composed by the user, usually—although not always—in that order.

In the case under discussion the young women were laughing about how a joke played on Tinderella using Tinder unexpectedly turned into an actual romance. A couple of months earlier, Tinderella had left her smartphone on the table with her friends at the same Starbucks and stepped away momentarily. While she was gone, one of her buddies grabbed the phone, “swiped right” on the phone’s screen (meaning, “accepted”) for a young man living nearby (all in good fun, of course) and suddenly Tinderella had a date! When her friends told her what they had done, she hesitated only slightly, and then gathered her things and left to meet the young man, with an open mind and perhaps with some thrill of excitement. She knew that it was a crapshoot, as first dates always are, regardless of how they come about. In this case, however, the un-looked-for rendezvous unexpectedly gave way to second and third dates, and seemed to be continuing on the upswing.

“Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better,” is Tinder’s marketing slogan. According to Mark Brooks, a consultant to the internet dating industry, “Tinder’s really doing something that has been the Holy Grail for online dating. It becomes fun.”

Tinder connects with users’ Facebook profiles and pulls together pictures and user information for other users to view. With the GPS technology, users can set a specific radius, i.e., the distance they’re willing to travel to meet a match, and are then presented with a display of potential matches within the specified geographic area. Potential matches are identified based on analysis using users’ social graph, mutual friends, similar interests and other data. When the user reviews displayed potential matches, she or he can “like” (swipe right) or reject (swipe left). If two users “like” each other, Tinder introduces the two users and opens a chat. The app is available in twenty-four languages and is said to have ten million active users, generating about 850 million swipes per day (Lipowsky, 2014).

The online Urban Dictionary views Tinder as “pretty much the most shallow thing in the world.”

But, well—is it?

People who have grown up using the internet will, of course, have a different perspective on “accessibility” from those who did not. They naturally take for granted the astonishing array of information and amenities made instantly available by the worldwide web. Older people may view with suspicion the ability instantly to gratify a wide variety of interests, needs and desires. They may even level facile criticisms at the implicated age group (Millennials, i.e., those born between 1977 and 1994), seeing them as narcissistic and apt to consider themselves unduly “entitled” to instant gratification of desires.

In a culture—a world—that enables us to co-create mutual defense systems that protect us from the riskier parts of love and intimacy, we might step back a moment from criticizing  Millennials and consider the following “dictionary definitions.” Merriam-Webster defines “tinder” as:

1. A very flammable substance adaptable for use as kindling.

2. Something that serves to incite or inflame

On the other hand, the cynically savvy Urban Dictionary defines “Tinder” as:

Dating app. Tinder is the McDonalds for sex.

Attachment Theory, a sophisticated psychoanalytical theory of human bonding spanning human development “from cradle to grave” throws a monkey wrench into the way many of us understand romantic relationships.  Its theoretical perspective suggests that humans are, in reality, “proximity-seeking.” In fact, distinguished researcher Sue Johnson (2013) who is a recognized leader in the science of relationship, says:

I like the propinquity theory about the way that people choose their partner. Propinquity means nearness. The one who looks perfect is the one you are standing next to when your attachment system kicks in (p. 182).

Along those lines, Tinder might be seen as a way of bringing about the Merriam-Webster definition: a conflagration of passionate attraction!

Proximity triggers the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, just as it kicks in when mothers hold their infants during breastfeeding and during orgasm. We mammals produce it to bring about  bonding behaviors that help to ensure survival of the species. As a bonus, oxytocin also reduces fear and anxiety by holding down production of stress hormones. Clearing the way for security and trust then opens us up to closeness and intimacy. The often unmentioned—and sometimes denied—part of that is that it opens up any sexual encounter to the risk of wanting more—more of both touching and of closeness, and not necessarily in that order.

As widely discussed in psychology literature, Tinder, like other kinds of electronic applications, carries a high potential for compulsion andaddiction. A patient of one of the authors described himself as a “swipe-a-holic” who spends hours sitting on his couch at home mindlessly seeking, if not actual encounters, at least the thrill of the hunt. Others have told the authors that they see apps like Tinder as grist for the irrelationship mill, or, at least, for interactions that will protect them from intimate connection. Others are dismissive of hooking up via electronic apps on grounds that someone interested in “true love” ought to spend their time on “more legitimate” dating sites such as or eHarmony.

The authors are less sure about this critique. All three of us know of partnered gay men who met their mates on websites or apps such as Grindr or Manhunt which are explicitly marketed to men looking only forsex hook-ups: on these sites, postings often include only navel-to-knee photos. Interestingly, many gay men, long accustomed to a dating culture that unabashedly accommodated “sex-only” meetings, regard apps like Tinder as a more “serious” dating app!

Perhaps claiming that some modes of meeting are more “legit” than others operates like a placebo against the anxiety and insecurity that comes with exposing our needs and desires to another person—or even to ourselves.

Whether we meet at a church picnic, a notorious trysting place for gay men, or an electronic dating app, the possibility of finding love doesn’t stand a chance if we enter the arena with a closed mind and a shut-away heart. In the same way, those of us accustomed to the strictures of irrelationship will not find our way out of compulsively controlled connections (no matter how many “swipe-rights,” trysts or first dates we put ourselves through) until we’ve become willing to come out of our emotional lockdown by exploring our fear of getting close.

At first glance it may seem impossible, but maybe those “entitled Millenials,” blithely swiping their phones looking for dates, have a better shot at reaching each other with openness and intimacy than the many of us who have long protected ourselves from those things using our irrelationship song-and-dance routines.

The only reliable key is to be willing to show up for love with an open heart and mind, regardless of the route love takes to find us. This willingness is also the key defense against becoming lost in the quagmire of irrelationship.

After all, her openness to possibility seems to have won out even through the practical joke Tinderella’s friends played on her.

Of course, the authors offer no recommendations nor make any judgments about dating apps, church picnics or any place else one may look for love. What we do know is that the seeds of love fall on such unimaginably diverse terrain that love will sometimes seem to lose its way, becoming dry, rocky and, perhaps, depleted. Not infrequently, however, with the desire to change, it proves itself able to bloom with astonishing creativity despite apparently barren, hopeless circumstances.

Regardless of age, generation, or modality, love can find its way.

From the irrelationship perspective, finding a whisper of willingness to show up for love may very well give us a chance to become inflamed again. One swipe at a time, we just might pull a fast one on the defenses that keep us safe from those who threaten our hearts with real relationship.


Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lipowsky, I. (2014). Tinder may not be worth $5B, but it’s way more valuable than you think.



© Copyright 2015 Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D, Grant H. Brenner, MD, and Daniel Berry, RN, MHA, All rights Reserved.
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Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters. Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.