Why Does Dating Make Us Feel Vulnerable?

How Dating Affects The Brain

Dating can be a wonderful thing. It can also be pretty diabolical at times. You hear stories all the time about people finding love after just 1 date or having another nightmare experience on their 300th date with Tanya who said she was Tony or Bill who said he was Brenda. With popular dating apps like Tinder mostly relying on imagery to help you find your “perfect match” it’s no wonder that sepia filter usage is at an all-time high and dating can be an intense and overwhelming experience, with no happy guarantee at the end of it all. If there ever is an end. 

If we cast our (over 30s’) minds back to lonely hearts’ dating magazine ads – you had a mere 20 words to show the world who you were (with no imagery in sight). Take for example this lonely hearts classic: 

Your Perfect Mate

WLTM 30-50 year old with GSOH for fun and maybe more?

Call 013********

Ah those were the days where only a landline existed; no sneaky previews could be had on Whatsapp profile pics. Just those 20 words.

Now, when it comes to dating in 2019 and beyond, it can be tough, really tough. And your brain can actually go into overdrive, so much so that you enter a state of vulnerability which can leave you feeling pretty lonely, anxious and self-critical. 

This article will highlight a few reasons why you may be suffering from dating exhaustion and vulnerability, so when you next feel drained, emotional and disappointed after your umpteenth date and don’t know why, you’ll have a few reasons to fall back on. (It may also encourage you to go back to a more traditional style of dating…) 

Your Brain On Overload 

Ever heard of a dorsomedial prefrontal cortex before? It’s a part of the brain that’s located in the frontal lobes and is associated with various cognitive processes and executive functions such as memory, attention and social cognition. It’s kind of a big deal. 

And when it comes to dating, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex comes into play by making rapid evaluations about your date. And it can work in overtime. Its specific job when dating is to rapidly evaluate the potential outcome of any romantic interaction. A study by Jeffrey C. Cooper et al. explains how our brains can form a judgement about a potential romantic partner within seconds of meeting. It can have a “complex mix of evaluations about physical and psychological compatibility” which can sway us to think “yes this is the one for me” or “holy smokes I’ve gotta get outta here!” 

The study explains how, “to behave adaptively in complex social environments, humans must frequently evaluate others based on little more than a rapid glance at a face or a short conversation. Despite their speed, these rapid evaluations form the basis for real-world social decisions that can have lasting consequences, such as whether to pursue or reject a potential romantic partner.” And these decisions are controlled and made in the brain.

Their findings build on an accumulating literature implicating the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex as a key element in the machinery of human social cognition and further demonstrate that rapid computations within this area have real-world consequences for the outcome of social interactions.” So the next time you meet someone you got on tremendously well with in Tinder and then think “this is a nightmare” in person, don’t beat yourself up about it or over-analyse, just blame (or thank) your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex working devilishly hard in the background!

It’s also great to bear this in mind when your date disappears halfway through the meal or doesn’t offer a second date and leaves you feeling vulnerable and low. It’s not you, it’s not even them really, it’s their brain’s dorsomedial prefrontal cortex calling the shots. 

When Your Date Ghosts You

The term ghosting has been recently coined thanks to the wonderful (and brutal) world of social media and dating apps. Ghosting is now a way of breaking up with someone by stopping all communication. By doing this, the ghost(er) doesn’t have to face reality and removes any real responsibility.

It’s an especially easy method for those who met on a dating app, such as Bumble, as it’s likely there were very few pre-formed social connections, which would make it easier to just disappear.

Studies have found that ghosting is a form of social rejection and that it “activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical pain.” In this sense, dating someone and then being ghosted by them can cause serious psychological distress as well as emotional abuse. And unfortunately, ghosting seems to be a trend that’s not waning anytime soon.

Rebecca B. Koessler, from The University of Western Ontario said that “ghosting breakups were characterized by greater use of avoidance/withdrawal and distant/mediated communication tactics and less open confrontation and positive tone/self-blame tactics.” Ghosting is the perfect tactic to avoid talking things through and to avoid any blame. “Distinct differences between ghosting and direct conversation strategies suggest developments in technology have influenced traditional processes of relationship dissolution.” In other words, bye bye communication, hello fall off the face of the earth and avoid all human contact in the hope that guilt, blame and commitment can be avoided. Crumbs. Take me back to the 90s. 

Your Brain Not Using Its Own Software 

Humans have been meeting, hitting it off, pairing up and settling down for centuries. Since the time of cave women and men, humans have been relying on their natural instincts and the brain’s analytical skills to decipher whether or not someone could be a potential mate and/or life partner. 

The science of online dating by Giovanni Frazzetto describes “old fashioned” dating as a series of physical experiences that our brains react to and “manifest with symptoms including sweaty palms, reddened cheeks or tied tongues; but internet dating, owing to its virtual nature, is utterly disembodying.” And they’re right. Now in the digital age of 2019, times have changed and we no longer rely on our physical human instincts, instead we rely on what Eva Illouz, professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, describes as the “relationship between corporeality and emotions: in the absence of the body, emotions are supposed to flow freely between authentic aspects of the core self. Knowledge of another person therefore precedes the bodily attraction.” When conversing online with a potential date, we build up a picture of that person before we meet them and this in turn can make us more vulnerable by skewing our instinctive bodily reaction to them when we do finally meet them. Are warning signals stifled or even switched off?

Could this therefore mean that by not using our brain’s instincts we’ll lose said instincts altogether and put ourselves into a vulnerable position if the time comes when we really need to rely on them? Perhaps in a few thousand years. Or maybe sooner. What research does show us, however, is that we’re relying less on nature and more on technology to make our romantic decisions. For better or for worse? Only time will tell. 

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Sources Cited:




Krossa, E., Bermana, M., Mischelb, W., Edward E. Smith, and Wager, T. 2011. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 108 (15), p. 6270–6275, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102693108.






Williams, C., Richardson, D. Hammock, G., Janit, S. 2012. Perceptions of physical and psychological aggression in close relationships: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, (6), p. 489–494.

Maisie Bygraves

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