This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
It was a Saturday night in early 2018. Meriem Abella was sitting on her couch in Lansing, Michigan, swiping through Tinder, through photo after photo of white boys flexing in gym selfies or standing on their boats holding fish. Then, she found Amine Tino’s profile.
Tinder told Meriem that Amine was less than a mile away from her. Meriem is North African and said she knew right away that Amine’s name was Arabic. She hoped they might be able to connect through shared culture. She swiped right and it was a match.
Meriem and Amine messaged back and forth for about a week. They talked about work and how much they both love to travel. Meriem is half Algerian, and Amine is Moroccan, so they also talked about North African meals and traditions they both love.
Eventually, Meriem asked, “So how did you end up in Lansing, Michigan, that’s so odd?”
“What is Lansing, I don’t know that word,” Amine replied.
“What do you mean, ‘What is Lansing?’” Meriem asked.
“I don’t understand what that word means. What does it mean?”
“Where do you live?” Meriem asked.
“I live in Casablanca,” Amine wrote back. “Don’t you?”
At that point, Meriem had never been to Morocco. And Amine had never been to the United States. Tinder had told them they were less than one mile away from each other, but the actual distance from Meriem’s home in Lansing to Amine’s home in Casablanca was more than 4,000 miles.
They were both disappointed to be so far apart, but by total coincidence, Meriem had already booked a trip to North Africa to connect with her heritage. She planned to spend a few months in Casablanca. Meriem had even found a place to stay just 20 minutes from Amine’s neighborhood, all before they had ever matched on Tinder.
Meriem’s trip was set for seven months after she and Amine had first matched. With that trip in mind, they decided to keep getting to know each other.
“I had other dates, and I canceled them,” Meriem said. She even turned off her Tinder app.
Meriem and Amine video chatted almost every day for seven months — helping each other practice Arabic and English, using lots of Google Translate and laughing often — until it was time for her to leave for Morocco. She told Amine that after she arrived she wanted to go straight to her Airbnb to shower and freshen up after her eight-hour flight, that she wanted to dress up “the same way anyone wants to get ready for a first date.”
Amine, though, had other plans.
“He was very insistent about, ‘I’m gonna be the one to pick you up, I feel so excited to see you, I wanna be the first person you see,” Meriem said.
When Meriem finally saw Amine smiling across the pickup area, her anxieties melted away.
“I kind of forgot about everything I was worried about,” she said. “I was still sweating and nervous and freaking out, but I didn’t care. And he didn’t care. We were both just so excited to see each other.”
Meriem and Amine drove to the Airbnb and sat down at the kitchen table to talk. Eventually, Amine turned to Meriem and suggested they get something to eat. “I’m not hungry,” Meriem started to say, then stopped herself. “Oh, my God, wait, it’s been five hours!”
By the end of this first date , Meriem had a hunch — a hunch that grew stronger the more time they spent together — that she wanted to be with Amine for a long time.
Meriem and Amine’s story might seem surprising. The fact that they met at all seems so improbable. A match between two people 4,000 miles apart?
When asked how this could have happened, a Tinder spokesperson wrote back that they would “prefer not to speak on any product glitches, if that’s in fact what happened in this case.”
Helen Fisher was surprised by this technological mystery, but not at all surprised Meriem and Amine were able to build such a strong connection despite the distance between them. Fisher is a biological anthropologist — she’s a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and chief science adviser to the dating site Match.com.
“I mean, when they initially discovered that one lived in Morocco and the other in Michigan, that must have given them a really good laugh,” Fisher said. “Laughter drives up the dopamine system in the brain and can give you focus, energy, optimism, and curiosity about somebody.”
Dopamine wasn’t the only thing that helped Meriem and Amine form that early connection. Most people might say they would prefer to have a partner who lives close by, but Fisher said the distance between Meriem and Amine might have taken some pressure off their relationship.
“When you go out on a first date with somebody and you don’t know them at all, it can be very awkward,” Fisher said. “I mean, `Do I hold her hand, do I give her a kiss? What do I do?’”
With Meriem in Michigan and Amine in Morocco those first seven months, an infinite number of decisions were off the table, from whether to engage in physical intimacy to how much money to spend on a date.
In this situation, Fisher said, “you don’t even have to decide, ‘Will we go to a fancy bar or a coffee shop?’ Money is off the table. So these people were in a very relaxed situation. And they had nothing to lose, you know? Rather than a long-distance issue being a problem, it ended up being a stimulus.”
Fisher also emphasized the importance of shared values, passions, and life goals in building a lasting relationship. Meriem and Amine talked through all those things together and decided they were on the same page.
Today, Meriem and Amine live together near Meriem’s family in Orlando, Florida. They got married, and love traveling together. Even in the pandemic, they’ve made small adventures out of strawberry picking and visiting Universal Studios. At Christmas, Meriem, Amine, and their two cats posed for a portrait in matching pajamas.
She can slip into the daily rhythms of their relationship, Meriem said, but those rhythms are still peppered with moments of awe.
She remembers how she felt when she and Amine moved into their first shared apartment. Exhausted after hauling furniture all day, they grabbed sandwiches from a deli across the street and laid down on their empty floor. Then they looked at each other and wondered, “Can you imagine two years ago if we told ourselves, ‘Just be patient?’ Like, ‘Soon you’re going to be living together, and, you know, you’re not going to have this distance any more.”
“We actually have these moments all the time,” Meriem said.