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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 December 15; 335(7632): 1240.
PMCID: PMC2137091
Medicine and the Media

A remedy for lonely hearts?

Petra Boynton, lecturer in international healthcare research1

The media have been intrigued by a new service that offers to help the millions of unattached Britons infected by “dating toxins.” Petra Boynton reports

Are you single? Been on your own for six months or more? If so you could be one of the estimated “5.6 million British singles infected by dating toxins.”

Research by online dating agency PARSHIP suggests (according to its press release) this “epidemic of dating misery” is caused by “singles suffering from a build up of dating toxins.” These were identified via a survey of 5000 people as shyness, fussiness, low self esteem, lack of opportunity, and desperation.

PARSHIP in its press release states that it is offering a bespoke treatment combining cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, dating etiquette, and a matchmaking service. The press release goes on to state that some common causes of relationship problems (acute shyness, for example) are treated in a similar way as you would treat “someone with a phobia.” You may be a suitable candidate for treatment “if, amongst other criteria, you haven’t been on a date for more than six months or a relationship in more than a year.” Dr Victoria Lukats, an NHS specialist registrar in psychiatry, who is responsible for devising and running the programme, has confirmed that the therapy includes some techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy, but she specifies that it does not incorporate psychoanalysis, and that the matchmaking service is available but is only optional. The PARSHIP website,, did provide an estimate of the likely cost of the initial programme once it became commercially available of between £1000 and £2000, although that section has been removed from the site in the last few weeks. Dr Lukats specified that, “at this stage the programme has been offered completely free of charge to a small number of appropriate clients.” If PARSHIP decides to develop the service, fees will be agreed in advance with clients.

The treatment has already been covered in UK newspapers such as the Observer and Daily Mail,which have adopted a positive stance, with clients giving good reviews of the treatment. Dr Lukats has stated that for now, at least, the programme has not been developed commercially, and that one of the aims in distributing this release was to raise awareness of problems experienced by single people.

We know from sociological research that being single is a common aspect of modern Western life. We also know that many cultural factors such as the media or our families can make people feel uncomfortable or abnormal for being single. The question is whether setting up a service such as “Dating Detox” adds to this existing problem and whether it offers an escape.

If you’ve been single for a long period of time, might there really be anything wrong with you? Perhaps you’re happy to have a break from an abusive partner, are rebuilding your life after a relationship went wrong, or just enjoying some no-strings sex and independence. The key question is not whether being single, or not going on a date, is a problem, but of the underlying causes—and whether people are distressed by being on their own.

Media coverage has claimed the “dating toxins” were identified by “extensive” research; Dr Lukats confirms this and states that one of the aims was to normalise and reduce stigma associated with being single.

These are undoubtedly worthy goals, but the research concerned is not published in any peer reviewed journal but rather is based on a market research survey (by Facts International) during October 2007. Surveys of this kind are used to getting media coverage, and headlines like “The dating detox: how to turn romantic losers into dynamic daters” in the Daily Mail raise in my view the question of whether stigma really is being reduced.

Caution should be adopted when using what members of the public might understand to be medical terms—“toxins” and “epidemic”—as a means to promote a dating advice service. Arguably this is the language of press releases. There is a risk that the use of such language will have a negative effect on how single people are viewed by society, and that being single, rather than being seen as something most of us experience at some point in our lives and which can be upsetting, will morph into something vaguely medical that can be cured through treatment.

Dr Lukats states that “the term ‘toxins’ has not been used in the literal medical sense—the juxtaposition with ‘dating’ makes this evident.” She goes on: “We are not medicalising dating problems, but we are dealing in a professional, responsible, and ethical manner with real issues that people have in trying to find a partner. We make no false claims and are very realistic about what we are offering. If, following initial one-on-one assessment, we feel that an individual has problems with a medical origin, we do not admit him or her to the programme and we refer him or her to his or her GP.”

In my view, the potential problem with such treatments generally is that the premise for the services offered seems to be based at least in part on the assumption that all our problems are of our own making and we can unlearn them. Such treatments risk losing sight of the wider social, cultural, and personal factors that may make it difficult for many people to find partners. Disability, health problems, social exclusion, gender inequality, and poverty can all make it hard for you to enjoy a relationship. Dr Lukats is keen to point out that the Dating Detox treatment takes all of the above into consideration.


Competing interests: PB has completed commercially funded research in the past. She provides free dating advice for the public via science communication events and volunteers on a relationships advice programme for mental health service users.

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