I hear so often from men and women on dating apps who are frustrated that they’ve ended up as pen pals, so I spoke with several daters and a psychologist to try get to the bottom of whether daters want to be pen pals, or if it’s just something that happens when you’re trying to meet your soul mate but you’re too tired to put on pants and go out.
1. The texting chemistry isn’t crazy strong, but it’s enough to pass the time.
In the often-lonely world of online dating, it makes sense that a bird in the hand (i.e. a match on a swiping app) is better than zero birds at all, which is what a 29-year-old woman in Nottingham, England, told me about her last Tinder pen pal. “I’m not sure if we’ll ever meet up because while I think he’s hot, I’m not sure I feel much of that sort of chemistry. But I enjoy chatting with him so I don’t view it as a waste of time.”
Though that’s extremely relatable, you’ll never really know if you have that chemistry with someone unless you meet them in person. So in an effort to get out of the pen pal loop, you have to take that leap of faith. Yes, it could be a huge waste of time, but what if it’s not?!
2. They don’t want all the wonderful chemistry they have with you online to fizzle IRL.
Cassandra, a 27-year-old now-partnered woman in New York, had a very relatable reason for having OkCupid pen pals: She worried that meeting in person wouldn’t live up to all the fun they’d had talking online. “I have a very distinct memory of messaging someone for WEEKS on OkCupid — witty, flirty, banter about our favorite books and TV shows. I felt actually exhilarated when I saw his user name pop up in my inbox,” she said in an email. We they finally met in person, she says, “it was like dead air between us. I don’t know if we wasted all of our chemistry online, or we didn’t have any chemistry to begin with.” After that letdown, she never wanted to have that online buildup and in-person letdown again.
To avoid this, try meeting up after a few texts so you get to the in-person reality sooner.
3. They’re insecure about actually meeting people.
The whole “I want people who actually want to meet up” problem is very real. But many people don’t want to meet up because of their own insecurities, a 23-year-old woman in Washington state told me. “I’m tall for a girl (5’11”) but I don’t have anything about my height in my bio and I don’t want to be one of those people who makes a ‘if you’re under 6 ft, don’t bother’ type of demand,” she said in an email. “I usually respond to all of my messages, but I almost never meet up with anyone because I’m so stressed that they’ll show up and I’ll be 6 inches taller than them, and we’ll both have to struggle through an uncomfortable date that neither of us is interested in pursuing.”
When does she take the plunge? “I’ll meet with guys who ask me out if I know they’re taller than I am,” she wrote.
4. They need an ego boost.
Sometimes you just want someone to make you feel as if you’re attractive and wanted at the click of a button, which is what Tim, a 32-year-old single man in Buffalo, told me is the reason for his Bumble pen pal. “I kept the [messages] because they’re a nice ego boost if I’m ever feeling a bit spotty about my worth. We also exchanged a lot of Spotify music, so that ended up being kind of her legacy in my life, some great music I’d not been introduced to yet.”
5. They don’t have any faith in online dating.
Understandably, many people have been burned or let down while trying to date online and may have lost the will to deeply invest in online matches. Stacy Notaras Murphy, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., said via email that many of her patients who online date admit that they’re “not 100 percent into the experience of dating any of those potential matches. They swipe and play around online from time to time, but aren’t expecting it to lead to anything. It’s incredibly frustrating for those who are really trying to make a connection.” To be fair, Murphy adds that this phenomenon can also happen when you meet people in bars or at parties and have no idea if they just like flirting or if they want something real.
So again, the irritating reality comes back to the fact that most people are often so afraid to take that leap, to hope, to care, to invest. But if we ever want to get out of Pen Pal Hell, that’s the only thing that will get us there.