Over the past decade, we've seen an explosion of dating apps that promise to help users find the perfect match. But as anyone who has been in a relationship for more than five minutes will tell you, meeting your partner isn't exactly the hard part - staying with your partner requires a whole lot of effort. Early morning breath? Gray, worn-in sweatpants as the fashion staple around the house? Screaming, sick children? Not exactly the makings of a sexy couples commercial. And yet, it's the reality.

In our swipe-happy, hookup-friendly digital world, it's easy to forget that relationships are actually about forging and maintaining real connections, often in the throes of chaos and disappointments. As someone recently married, I think about this all the time: How can we make sure we're giving our relationship the attention it deserves when we're constantly balancing social engagements, family obligations, and work demands, while simultaneously getting distracted by buzzing phones and Alexa reminders? Isn't it possible that technology could offer a solution instead of contributing to the problem? 

When I started asking friends and colleagues if they knew about any digital tools designed to help users improve relationships, what I discovered was surprising: Tech innovators have actually been hard at work on apps that can bring partners closer together. At a time when consumers' thumbs are throbbing from overuse, some forward-looking entrepreneurs are focused on "conscious coupling" instead of endless swiping. 

A new type of relationship app

People often use the terms "dating app" and "relationship app" interchangeably, but I always thought there should be a clear distinction between the two. There's a difference between apps like Tinder and Bumble that monetize the initial meetup and apps that help existing couples build strong and lasting relationships. The latter of which is where the rubber actually meets the road (bad pun notwithstanding).

Take Relish for example: A new relationship app that provides users with personalized training and advice to help them create deeper connections with their partners. While Relish offers more than 300 relationship lessons, its machine learning algorithm customizes each training plan and adapts to changing circumstances over time. However, Relish isn't all about crunching numbers - it also provides each user with a qualified relationship coach to help them understand the lessons and work through any concerns or problems they may have. 

Other apps are similarly designed to help couples improve their relationships. Love Nudge is the official app of The Five Love Languages, and it offers tools for setting relationship goals and tracking progress toward them, the ability to connect with your partner and "nudge" one another to suggest activities, and personal reminders. The Gottman Institute has its own app: Gottman Card Decks, which offers flashcard-style questions and ideas meant to help couples communicate and show affection. The app is based on card decks used at Gottman's Art and Science of Love workshops. 

These are just a few of the relationship apps on the market, and they demonstrate that companies are increasingly recognizing the value of helping couples sustain their relationships over the long term.

Relationship apps and mindfulness

While there are around 25 million users of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, the market's growth rate has fallen over the past four years. The dating app market is still thriving, but developers need to be thinking about ways to keep consumers interested. 

Some enterprising relationship app developers have clearly taken a cue from a trend that has been rapidly gaining momentum: Self-care, which Apple recently named the "app trend of the year." And for good reason: Revenues for self-care apps (particularly those focused on meditation and mindfulness) surged from 2017 to 2018, and they're showing no sign of plateauing any time soon.  

Lesley Eccles is the founder and CEO of Relish, and she says her app is focused on teaching what she describes as "active mindfulness" in relationships. Eccles defines active mindfulness as a strategy that helps "individuals or couples become more conscious of how they approach their relationships, discovering improved communication, a deeper connection, and more intimacy." The keys to active mindfulness, according to Eccles, are a willingness to be present in every moment and empathy for your partner, which Relish is designed to cultivate. 

The developers of mindfulness apps often tout the positive impact of mindfulness on users' relationships. This is why it's no surprise that the creators of relationship apps have discovered that mindfulness can be an integral part of what they do. 

Changing the narrative 

A 2017 survey by researchers at Stanford and the University of New Mexico found that, among American adults, "meeting online has become the most popular way couples meet, eclipsing meeting through friends for the first time around 2013."

This development has been accompanied by a lot of headlines like this one in Vanity Fair: "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse.'" The subtitle reads: "As romance gets swiped from the screen, some twentysomethings aren't liking what they see." While there's no reason to demonize dating apps like Tinder - which have undoubtedly helped a whole lot of people find more than just a hookup - it's also clear that there's a growing space for apps that do more than provide users with a bunch of profiles to swipe right or left on.

The divorce rate in the United States is still around 42 percent - a stark reminder that we need to do a better job supporting and communicating with our partners. Technology can play a pivotal role in this process, both for good and ill. According to research by the Pew Research Center, "25 percent of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have felt their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together" - a proportion that unsurprisingly jumps to 42 percent for 18 to 29-year-olds. 

However, many respondents also reported feeling "closer to their partner because of online or text message conversations" - 21 percent of all respondents and 41 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds. And more than a fifth of younger respondents reported "resolving an argument using digital tools that they were having trouble resolving in person."

With an increasing number of digital tools dedicated to strengthening our relationships instead of our swiping fingers, I wouldn't be surprised if those numbers continue ticking up in the coming years. For those of us squarely in the "committed relationship" camp, this is definitely some positive news.

Published on: Oct 31, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.