What We Talk About When We Talk About Dating

Relationship stages on r/dating_advice

Several months ago, I heard about the West Elm Caleb saga, and read that women on TikTok alleged that he was love bombing them while seeing many other women.

I found this disturbing, because I had never heard the term “love bombing” and it’s important to me that I remain culturally aware for as long as I possibly can.

So I decided to look at how dating terminology has changed over the past few years. To proxy this, I used Reddit’s API to pull posts from the dating advice subreddit since 2017. This seemed like an interesting way to see how the way people talk about dating has evolved (a fun preview below):

This project also led me to look at how other aspects of dating have changed over the past 5 years. Tech platforms have waxed and waned, dating activities were impacted by the pandemic, and dating culture (at least as discussed on Reddit) has shifted.

Finding the terms most distinctive to 2017 and to 2022

To start, I took the posts from 2017 and the posts from 2022 and found the words and phrases that were used most disproportionately in each year. For example, “covid” and “pandemic” were used disproportionately on r/dating_advice in 2022, while “girl” and “facebook” were used most disproportionately in 2017.

How dating vocabulary has changed over time
I analyzed the data using this great R package

I see a few key trends here:

  • A demographic shift on the Subreddit: Girl, School, College, Prom, Semester etc. being used relatively more in 2017 than 2022 points to a demographic shift in the active users on this subreddit. My guess is the typical active user has gotten older since 2017 and so talks less often about dating people they met at school. I also know that Reddit has historically been a male-dominated platform, but as it has grown I imagine the gender balance has improved. I expect that mentions of “girls” in posts have declined relatively as r/dating_advice has become more diverse and less dominated by heterosexual males.
  • Changes in technology: The most common dating technologies have shifted fully from legacy web-based platforms like OkCupid (dating sites) to mobile-first Dating Apps like Hinge and Bumble and we can see that here. We also see Facebook’s fall in influence on the dating scene (something I predicted poorly after they released a dating product), and to a lesser extent the decline of Skype and Snapchat among r/dating_advice’s active users.
  • Effects of the pandemic on dating: Clearly the pandemic caused massive change on the way people date and we can plainly see that in this data. Covid, Pandemic, Quarantine, and Zoom are all words that closely tie to the effects of the pandemic. The relative frequency in 2022 of words related to mental health and trauma are also probably at least partially attributable to the pandemic.
  • A shift in cultural norms & vocabulary: There are broad trends outside the pandemic that we can see in this data. As society has transitioned to more gender-agnostic language you can see that Partner is a more common phrase in 2022 than in 2017. And I think the vocabulary used to describe unhealthy relationship patterns has become more popular and we see some of that with toxic, trauma, ghosted and red flag.

The Demographic Shift

The percentage of posts mentioning a “girl” has gone down precipitously over the last 5 years. Since from what I’ve seen the majority of posts are concerning heterosexual relationships, It seems likely that r/dating_advice has moved from being quite male-dominated to more gender-balanced.

Gender terms on r/dating_advice reddit

It also looks like the subreddit is getting older. Fewer posts mention college/school, and the number of posts mentioning colleagues or the office has been trending upward, pandemic shock notwithstanding:

Work or school terms on r/dating_advice reddit

The Changing Technologies used in Dating

The technologies people reference in their dating lives have changed. Dating apps have waxed and waned in popularity and social media platforms have risen and fallen (anyone posting on their date’s facebook page lately?) There is also the predictable rise in Zoom during the beginning of COVID and Skype’s inability to capitalize on it.

Mentions of Different Dating Apps on r/dating_advice Over Time

Bumble and Hinge have both increased their share of the conversation in the past 5 years, while Tinder has declined but remains very popular. The web-based platforms like OKCupid and Plenty of Fish have steadily declined as people use mobile-first apps. Grindr is mentioned infrequently, as it seems like r/dating_advice is mostly focused on heterosexual dating.

Tech platform terms on r/dating_advice reddit

Mentions of other tech platforms on r/dating_advice

Other tech platforms that are not explicitly for dating are mentioned frequently in the subreddit nonetheless. Below are mentions of some of them plotted on the same scale to show relative prevalence. You can see that Facebook has given up a ton of ground (luckily for Meta, much of it has been made up by Instagram).

Tech platform terms on r/dating_advice reddit

I was surprised to see the relative scale of TikTok still so low given its massive popularity. I guess that speaks to its being less of a social network and more of an entertainment platform, so people are less likely to communicate with romantic partners there than, say, Snapchat.

Below, I plotted the mentions of the same tech platforms on separate y-axes, so we can see the trends of the smaller platforms more clearly.

Tech platform terms on r/dating_advice reddit

Now we can see Zoom’s clear overtaking of Skype as de facto video platform during the pandemic, and TikTok’s fast growth even at relatively modest scale. We can also see an interesting pandemic-era spike and resurgence of OnlyFans (people upset that their partners are using it? People meeting dates on it? seems like both and more).

only fans on r/dating_advice reddit

The Pandemic’s Effects on Dating

I wanted to see more clearly the impact of the pandemic on dating activities people talked about on the reddit. So I filtered for the 9 activities you can do in a relationship (bar, coffee, drunk, hike, movie, restaurant, sexting, vacation, and walk) and then plotted them. You can clearly see the impact of the pandemic on several of these.

dating activity terms on r/dating_advice reddit

I find the sustained decrease in posts mentioning “drunk” to be really interesting (and encouraging)! There was less of a spike in hiking dates than I expected, but perhaps that’s because I spent 2020 in San Francisco, where hiking is the basis of most romantic relationships. It seems people in the rest of the world were mostly sexting instead.

I was also interested in the extent to which the pandemic might have caused specific relationship problems that people asked for advice about (for example, one partner refusing to wear a mask at the airport and embarrassing the other). When it comes to more specific pandemic language, it looks like masks have caused the most long-term conversation and vaccines were mentioned a lot when they first became widely available:

Covid terms on r/dating_advice reddit

New Slang*

I began this investigation because I was curious about new ways people talked about dating. The follow topics were helpful for that.

Different relationship titles & stages

The titles people use in describing significant others reflect a cultural shift towards less gendered language; there’s an increase in “partner” as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” both decrease:

Relationship title terms on r/dating_advice reddit

The shifts in relationship titles was interesting, but I had heard all of those words before. When I analyzed how people talk about different stages of a relationship I found some new-to-me words that I’ll incorporate into my vocabulary to remain relevant.

  • “Sneaky Link” is exactly what it sounds like, and is kind of a fun phrase!
  • “Friends with benefits” is still going strong but “Situationship” may be coming for it (they appear to mean the same thing but someone please correct me if I’m wrong).
  • Perhaps because of the previously mentioned nebulous relationship states, posts about “defining relationships” are increasing over time.
  • I guess people have formalized the term “Talking Stage” — I wonder if this is because of the increasing pervasiveness of dating apps, people can now be “talking” for several weeks before meeting. Perhaps more apt would be the “texting phase.”
  • “Friend Zone” is on its way out (good riddance, this one I was aware of)
Relationship stage terms on r/dating_advice reddit

Feelings about relationships

There are some fun takeaways here (people say “energy” a lot now!) but the thing I think is most fascinating is how the prevalence of “awkward” dropped after the pandemic. I guess in-person interactions are more inherently awkward. Is there a generation of people who will be stunted because they haven’t faced awkward dating situations? Time will tell.

Relationship feeling terms on r/dating_advice reddit

Toxic Relationships

I am not sure if it’s just my shifting vantage point, but it feels to me like popular culture discusses toxic relationships with a more detailed vocabulary now than 5 years ago. For example, I don’t remember hearing the term “gaslighting” before the Trump administration. It’s not as if people weren’t doing it, it was just more likely to be referred to as “being manipulative,” or something similarly broad.

Anyway, it seems like this is largely reflected in the data, at least in these phrases that I cherrypicked.

As an aside, it looks to me like there is some kind of seasonality to posts discussing “cheating” which is super fascinating to me. I haven’t had time to look into it more deeply but if anyone is interested let me know.

Toxic relationship terms on r/dating_advice reddit

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, or if you’re interested in working with this data, please reach out (on twitter or at joe @ this website.) There’s a ton more that could be done with this.

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