Silent Partner

Dating apps rationalize the process of finding love. Relationship apps aim to do the same for keeping it

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In 2019, a married couple went on Shark Tank to pitch something later referred to online as “the sex button.” Actually called LoveSync, the project aimed at reinvigorating the sex lives of long-term couples: It would take the fear of rejection out of initiating sex with a pair of buttons, one for each nightstand, which would light up if both partners tapped theirs within a given window of time (as with Tinder or Hinge, nothing happened when only one partner hit the button). The project was rejected outright by the Shark Tank panel, and widely ridiculed on the internet. Jokes largely hit on the idea that replacing verbal communication with the push of a button was desirable, and the assumption that the “anonymity” promised by the button was necessary in a relationship well past the honeymoon phase. It became one of those memes through which the internet collectively designates a boundary: How far can tech intervene in our love lives before it goes too far? Dating apps were okay, but a sex button for couples was off the cards.

Unbeknownst at the time, the sex button was at the unfortunate vanguard of a whole range of technologies that targeted not singles, but couples. As the pandemic subjected relationships to countless fresh perils, many of these apps gained a solid user base. There’s Paired (2019), a tracking app that allows couples to “discover relationship strength and growth areas” and offers question packs, games, quizzes and tips. Swedish app Coupleness (2019) provides a “shared micro-journal for couples,” generating a rating out of 10 for each partner’s day and sharing it with the other. Love Nudge (2019), based on the “five love languages,” encourages users to fill up their partner’s “love tank” by completing tasks generated from an in-app quiz. There’s also Emi (late 2018), which prompts users to give their partner compliments, offering “bite-sized exercises for busy schedules” and Facebook’s app Tuned (2020), a private messaging app for couples with scrapbook-like features.

You can select the prompt that says “touch arm,” set a “goal” of completing this task once a week, and check it off when complete

While there are apps on the market that bill themselves more explicitly as couples therapy apps (for example, Lasting, also founded in 2019), the majority of these apps position themselves as facilitating maintenance rather than repair, hygiene rather than cure. They capitalize on a contemporary understanding of love as a processtaken from psychotherapy, cultural studies and feminist theory — but distort this understanding of processual love (love as a verb, not a noun) by offering to take over the business of doing love with just a few minutes a day spent on the app. Operating in the anxious space between notions of health and toxicity, relationship apps teach us ways of loving that privilege efficiency over depth, quantifiability over knowledge, and success over joy. They sanctify the institution of the “couple,” while also shrinking down the experience of love until it conforms to neoliberal rhythms, blunting its transformative power.

Eli Finkel, psychology professor and author of The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, writes that the dominant model of love in the West has undergone two main shifts. The first, around the mid-19th century, occurred when marriage for love became the norm, replacing ideas that one married in order to secure or improve one’s social standing and economic prospects. The second shift occurred around the 1960s, when old-fashioned aspirations of finding “the one” were replaced by what Finkel calls the “self-expressive” partnership. This idea of love is tied to self-actualization and self-improvement. In an interview with the Atlantic, Finkel summarizes: “The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, is the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.”

David Shumway, a professor of English and Cultural Studies, narrates a similar series of shifts in his 2003 book, Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and the Marriage Crisis. First, from necessity to romance; and second, from romance to what Shumway calls “the intimacy discourse.” This second shift is tied to the increasing popularity of self-help literature and a new psychoanalytic attention to love. Shumway argues that whereas the old ideal of romance offers “adventure, intense emotion, and the possibility of finding the perfect mate,” the new ideal of intimacy, founded on verbal openness, promises “deep communication, friendship, and sharing that will last beyond the passion of new love.” He goes on to say that the new desire for intimacy “has its roots in alienation caused by social fragmentation under capitalism”: The erosion of wider networks of support has meant that people increasingly seek a stable source of care, emotional fulfillment and validation in their partner. Unfortunately, such a model is doomed to fail. “It is a purely private refuge,” Shumway writes, “and thus no solution to the degradation of society.”

Because repair is not a sustainable business model, the majority of relationship apps evoke the notion of relationship hygiene or fitness

Shumway’s concept of “intimacy discourse” and Finkel’s notion of “the self-expressive marriage” are variations on a theme: the idea that our approach to love has become more about precision, honing, and active work. The idea of wild, romantic love — love as a whirlwind, a disruptive force, or even a kind of insanity — just isn’t as appealing in a society where precarity, instability and unpredictability are the norm. Love is no longer about fate, but instead a partnership that one enters consciously and then builds. Online trends like #couplegoals and #relationshipgoals emphasize an idea of love that is not only processual but goal-oriented. TikTok is saturated with couples accounts (@elliotandjess, @belle.and.george, @cooleyandsarah, @mollyandjordy) in which a distinctly realist picture of love is performed, with creators riffing on themes like jealousy, neediness, and the dissipation of sexual desire over time. Ideal love, now, looks like recognizing problems and working on them. Although in many ways this approach to love is much more conducive to happiness and longevity, these principles can quickly become coopted by the language and logic of optimization and self-improvement.

Within the world of the relationship app, “accountability” to one’s partner often takes the form of competition. The app Paired, for example — which argues that its success comes from consistent, daily usage — features what is essentially a scoreboard, tracking each partner’s number of “conversations” answered (meaning how many questions they’ve answered from the “question pack”), current streak (in days) of usage, and longest streak. Some of the app’s “question packs” are generic, similar to those featured in Arthur Aron’s 1997 36 questions to fall in love (“how would you spend the perfect day?” “What’s something new you’ve learned about yourself recently?”), while others are more specific (“How can your partner help you practice more self-care this year? How did Covid impact your relationship this year?”). The app also offers actual games — for example, answering five questions based on answers your partner has given about themselves, and having them answer five questions based on your own answers. This, in turn, invites competition across couples: “Compare your scores and challenge your friends, if you wish!”

The idea of quantifying love is a longstanding cliche in courtship, often cheekily echoing the cliche of love’s unquantifiability: The Proclaimers would walk 500 miles, and 500 more; Vanessa Carlton would walk 1,000 miles in one go. Helen of Troy had the face that launched 1,000 ships. Which of you shall we say doth love us most, King Lear asks of his three daughters, and he goes mad before he concludes that only Cordelia — in her refusal to assign her love a quantity — has spoken truthfully. The preoccupation with what it means to assign love value is not a new phenomenon, nor is the conflation of the language of love with the language of business. What is new is the idea that tracking love and love’s expression is important “internally” to the couple over the course of a relationship. “We know that people are relying on technology to find love,” says Paired co-founder Kevin Shanahan. “I believe we’ll soon see a shift towards people using technology to help them stay in love too.”

“How loved do you feel today?” asks the homepage of Love Nudge, letting you move the cursor along a scale from zero to 100 percent. It then logs your entry in a little graph labeled “your average love tank.” This measurement is supposed to increase with help from prompts that the app sends your partner, each one falling into the category of a specific love language (physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, gift-giving, quality time). You can select the prompt that says “touch arm,” set a “goal” of completing this task once a week, and check it off once it is complete. The app feeds into the other ways love is already quantified and gamified through technology: one of the prompts is “compliment on social media.” A scorecard reveals how many completions you have accomplished in a week, as well as your current streak, your longest streak, and the total number of times you have ever touched your partner’s arm. Love Nudge makes the Sex Button look erotic by comparison; at least the latter doesn’t keep score.

While these apps may be useful for couples with very different communication styles (relationships involving both neurodiverse and neurotypical people, for example), these apps do not encourage a diversity of ways of expressing love, but rather gamify a one-size-fits-all experience of love and loving. As Drew Austin writes for Real Life, the gamification of everyday experience happens when “formerly unquantified practices […] enter a framework of metrics, KPIs, and measurable goals, which we tackle with a business-like enthusiasm for progress and improvement.” Relationship apps sell us quantified love at its most granular: Depth of feeling revealed in a weekly number of arm touches, a total number of compliments and online likes, a running tally of how often one partner has emptied the dishwasher. Their modes and metrics and key performance indicators encourage a very specific vision of love, one designed to generate profitable data and reinforce behaviors compatible with the schedules of a busy worker.

Because repair is not a sustainable business model, the majority of relationship apps on the market advertise themselves as necessary everyday practices, evoking the notion of relationship hygiene or relationship fitness. Love Nudge markets itself as a “fitness app for your relationship,” while Emi states that it has the goal of making “relationship fitness more mainstream.” Shanahan, the Paired co-founder, explains: “you probably wouldn’t say success when you’re fit is to stop going to the gym, or when your teeth are healthy to stop brushing your teeth.”

The hygiene metaphor — like the fitness metaphor — is employed frequently by tech companies, because it positions the product as a vital mediator of daily life. It also reaches a wider audience than those explicitly looking for help. Shanahan says that Paired isn’t trying to replace in-person couples therapy: “If couples therapy is a dentist for your relationship, then we would be a toothbrush.” This metaphor is a textbook example of false humility: The toothbrush is an object so lowly, so ubiquitous, and so necessary that we do not even think of it as a consumer object. Some apps do try to move closer to actual couples therapy — Lasting, for example — and despite coming with their own perils, some users have claimed to benefit from them. The hygiene– or fitness–oriented app, by contrast, is not required to do very much at all. If it’s invisible, it’s working.

Relationship apps encourage a very specific vision of love, one designed to generate profitable data and reinforce behaviors compatible with a busy worker’s schedule

The specter of the “toxic relationship” — the “rotting tooth” haunting the aims of relationship hygiene — is supported by the popularity of cherry-picked psychoanalytic concepts that translate well into infographics and do well on the feed. The “Five Love Languages” model, for example, originally conceived in the early ’90s by Baptist Pastor and marriage counselor Gary Chapman, has been popular since it was first published. But the internet has propelled its popularity to new heights: As this 2019 piece in the Atlantic argues, the model travels on the internet in a way that places more emphasis on “identifying” with a certain love language than on being attentive to the needs of another. More recently, the five love languages were joined by the notion of the “three attachment styles” — anxious-attached, avoidant-attached, or secure — with #attachmenttheory content on Tiktok amassing 83 million views. As an article in Stylist pointed out, attachment theory was to 2021 what horoscopes were to 2019.

These models continue the tendency toward deterministic understandings of “individual” identity (such as the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test) and apply it to conceptions of the “couple” as a unit. They obscure just as much as they reveal, and perhaps do more to fuel love-anxiety than actually improve experiences of love, by increasing the desire to track the ways we give and receive it. “The practice of love takes time,” bell hooks writes in All About Love, warning that many of us may “never know fulfilling love,” and instead be willing “to settle for strategies that help ease the pain and increase the peace, pleasure and playfulness in existing relationships.” Relationship apps may offer such strategies, and may well succeed in doing so. But it is worth asking what we lose by making love practices compatible with the quantified logic of the app’s game-space; and what companies have to gain from positioning themselves as mediators of our most intimate moments.

Like period-trackers, step-counters, sleep apps and the world of health tech more widely, relationship apps operate on the premise that self-knowledge looks like a data portrait. They position intimacy as something that can be “hacked,” gamifying the experience of building closeness and promising a certainty that rarely maps onto the way that lives actually unfold. It is a tempting fallacy; app-collected data formulated into a sleek online graph can feel more legitimate than the little feeling in your gut. The idea that market-driven technologies always know best is a dangerous one because it privileges only the metrics that are measurable by these technologies. An independent piece of research by the Open University, which received “in-kind” contributions from Paired, concluded that “couples who use Paired for three months see a 36 percent increase in the quality of their relationship,” a value determined to a metric called the “Quality of Relationship Index,” or QRI, that the researchers themselves developed. Researchers from the University of Southern California reported that AI was more skilled at predicting the “outcome” of couples undergoing therapy than trained psychotherapists. But the purpose of couples therapy is not just staying together; it’s about paying detailed attention to the strange and unpredictable space that emerges between two people and their respective experiences of the world.

Cut off from wider networks of care, relationship work looks like the solution for alienation. Changing our love practices will never be compatible with the market

The idea of relationship health, as evoked by Paired and other relationship apps, is compatible with neoliberal models of self-improvement, within which health — as Ava Kofman writes — is “framed as a product of personal responsibility, while economic and environmental etiologies are ignored.” Cut off from wider networks of care, relationship work begins to look like the solution for all the alienation we may feel under capitalism. Belgian celebrity psychotherapist Esther Perel — whose podcast Where Do We Begin shot to popularity over lockdown — talks and writes a lot about how partners in contemporary monogamous relationships are expected to fulfill every function held previously by the community. “We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability,” she writes, “and we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk.”

In All About Love, bell hooks asks us to look at the structural circumstances that contribute to what we call “toxicity” in our interpersonal relationships: racism, sexism, the ruthlessness of capitalism itself. She invites us to think about love as not only a practice for self-actualization, but a way to build community, transcend individuality, and end domination and oppression. In the book’s most mysterious and (to me) engaging chapter, entitled “Spirituality: Divine Love,” she writes: “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community. Packaged as a commodity, spirituality becomes no different from an exercise program.”

The idea of spirituality is crucial to hooks’ politicization of love. “When I speak of the spiritual,” she writes, “I refer to the recognition within everyone that there is a place of mystery in our lives where forces that are beyond human desire will alter circumstances and/or guide and direct us.” Spirituality — broadly understood — is what connects both the “individual” and the “couple” to the surrounding world — to its natural, social, economic and political processes. This wider outlook, as well as the idea of mystery as something to be embraced rather than designed away, is what distinguishes hooks’ project of defining love — subjecting it to deep inquiry and research — from the type of demystification that relationship apps engineer. The experience of being in love is not, after all, an experience of smallness, of narrowing down or zoning in. At its most transformative, it is one of transcendence, in which, as hooks explains, the mundane becomes sacred.

When the sensation of being touched on the arm is elicited by and logged on an app that will later sell that data for profit, it doesn’t only lose its eroticism; it also loses its sacredness (Walter Benjamin might say it loses its aura). Actually changing our love practices will never be compatible with the needs of the market. If love is a threat to oppression and domination, then love, ultimately, is a threat to capitalism. It is no wonder, then, that tech has such an interest in it.

Lauren Collee is a London-based writer and PhD student. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Another Gaze, Uneven Earth, Eyot Magazine and others.