TikTok Dating Advice Is Hell On Earth
The TikTok algorithm is out for blood. Or at least, for your attachment style.
When you’re single, people love to give you advice. They offer vague platitudes that you’ll meet someone, or apologize for not knowing anyone to set you up with even if you didn’t ask, or conspiratorially share that they had “this one date that went really bad.” Trust me, they seem to say, I know how you feel. You’ll find someone, as if being single is a stop on a destination, and not one in and of itself.
It doesn’t bother me. Dating advice when doled out by your clueless, well-meaning friends may not ultimately be helpful, but it’s harmless. (It’s also fun.) What I can’t stop ranting about in my group chat or to anyone who will listen is the tsunami of paternalistic dating advice that has taken over many a For You page of anyone who dares to be single, doled by by a hoard of self-proclaimed dating experts trying to sculpt their careers as life coaches or untrained therapists, all offering the worst dating advice you’ve ever heard.
The algorithm is out for blood, or at least for your attachment style. But what you’ll get when you enter the trenches of TikTok dating advice isn’t anything that’s actually going to lead to long-lasting partnership, meaningful connections, or even more sex. Instead, what you’ll find is ruthless pressure to self-diagnose yourself out of your feelings, a pressure that is at the sticky root of the so-called self-improvement strategies that have co-opted nearly every good thing in the name of “personal growth.” (Case in point, in my inbox recently: a serum based on your attachment style.)
You can’t do anything in 2023 without it being a self-improvement project. The so-called experts pose normal dating fatigue as a personal problem: If you’re not “succeeding” at dating (whatever that means), then it’s your fault: You’re the one who needs to go to therapy or send fewer text messages or whatever.
TikTok advice tries to guarantee certainty for something that’s defined by its lack of certainty. The uncertainty is why it’s fun.
I think a lot about one such video that shows a “dating coach” acting out a breakup between two people with an ostensibly secure attachment style, which sounds like it was written by an AI. It goes like this, with both parts being acted out by the same person:
“I don’t want to be with you anymore.”
“Yeah, thank you for telling me. I want to be with someone who actually wants to be with me, so this is good information to have. By saying this, you just made it that much easier to say goodbye.”
If you’re upset about someone breaking up with you, it’s okay to just be upset about it, and I can’t believe that at a time when all anyone talks about is going to therapy, that we even have to say that.
“Having a secure attachment style is not the zenith of mental health that you ascend to, from which vantage point meer mortal failings like ‘being upset by a breakup; simply don’t happen,” my friend and writer Sarah Sharp said in a newsletter titled Self-Help in the Time of TikTok about this very video. “I too would like to unsubscribe from bad feelings. But you can’t self-improve yourself out of the conditions of being human.”
In our culture of constant self-diagnoses, of course it’s easier to think you’re the one who needs to be fixed by pop psychology than surrender to the fact that we can’t control if people hurt us, if they leave us on read, or tell us they love us and then change their mind the next day. It’s not only okay, but actually necessary to be skeptical about people who hurt us.Self-blame is the sinister through line running through this advice: because “fixing” ourselves makes us feel like we have some control.
I recently watched another TikTok where a woman said that if you’ve been obsessing about someone it’s because your own life is boring. “It’s not that you like them so much. It’s not that you want them. It’s not that you need them,” she says. “It’s that you don’t have a life that you like enough. You don’t have a life that preoccupies you enough.”
Listen, I get it: We often seek out qualities in partners that we want in ourselves. But if someone is giving me mixed signals and I’m ruminating on it, then what I need is a hobby? Sometimes the problem is me, but I also refuse to accept that if I feel sad that someone isn’t into me that it’s because I need to pick up rock climbing.
There’s another category of advice videos that try to parse out the back and forth mechanics of dating like it’s ping-pong. But dating is more like playing capture the flag; it’s less about lobbing energy back and forth, scorecard in hand, and more about continuous reassessment of the vibe.
But TikTok tries to write rules: There’s advice telling you to never text first; there’s advice telling you to text back only when you have time; there’s advice telling you to ghost in the middle of text conversations. There’s advice that says texting doesn’t matter. There are no less than a million things you should never do over text. There’s advice saying to act genuinely excited when you see someone you like. There’s advice that says to remain aloof. There’s advice that tells us that if a man touches you on the first date he’s not into you. There’s advice that says, “if he wanted to, he would” and advice that says be thankful he didn’t. I’m tired!
A late text is not an indication that someone is not into you, nor is them not being the one to plan the date. But if you spend a lot of time watching dating advice on TikTok, you’re trained to be paranoid, to always look for clues that somebody is going to ghost you. Hyper-analyzing things like text response times is only going to take the mystery out of it all. Expecting something is not going to work out based on arbitrary signifiers like the time it takes someone to text you back doesn’t give us any real control; it just takes the fun out of it. The advice I wish TikTok would give more often is actually kind of boring, which is learning to simply exist in the uncertainty of it all.
I think real growth can come from asking questions like: What does it feel like to sit with discomfort? What does it feel like to see how things play out naturally, without manifesting someone being obsessed with you? TikTok advice tries to guarantee certainty for something that’s defined by its lack of certainty. The uncertainty is why it’s fun. When you’re dating, you don’t always know what’s going to happen. You don’t always know what someone is thinking or if they’re going to show up drunk or tell you they still live with their ex. Dating is defined because of its gray areas, not in spite of them.
TikTok is great for telling you about the best clothes to buy at Target or how to get a cleaner sink. There isn’t a hack to make someone be obsessed with you. Difficult feelings, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty aren’t only unavoidable, they’re essential to a rich life —- and that’s true regardless of how many times you read Attached.