The Atlantic magazine has an article arguing that online dating is undermining monogamy. Further undermining it, we should say, because the sexual mores that have devastated marriage go back four or five decades. But the writer makes a good case that the online relationship “market” is speeding up the decline of commitment. The question of why commitment is declining in the first place is not addressed.
The article is framed by a case study of “Jacob” who comes back to Portland, Oregon, from the East Coast in his mid-twenties and spends two years finding a woman to date. She soon moves in with him and doesn’t seem to mind his “lifestyle” though past girlfriends have called him “lazy, aimless, and irresponsible with money”. She seems to him “independent and low-maintenance” (!) It’s not a great relationship but he tells himself it is better than being single. After five years she leaves.
Jacob, by now 31 or so, still addicted to sport, has no idea how to “make a relationship work”. But he signs up on two dating sites and suddenly he has all the dates he could want. After six weeks he teams up with good-looking Rachel. She moves in, and after two years moves out. The day she leeaves he logs onto Match.com and finds his old profile still up. Breaking up is easier this time:
“I’m about 95 percent certain,” he says, “that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn’t seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare at your wall thinking you’re destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.”
Jacob has one thing right: he wants to get married. But an online dating site executive blithely consigns marriage to the dustbin:
“The future will see better relationships but more divorce,” predicts Dan Winchester, the founder of a free dating site based in the U.K. “The older you get as a man, the more experienced you get. You know what to do with women, how to treat them and talk to them. Add to that the effect of online dating.” He continued, “I often wonder whether matching you up with great people is getting so efficient, and the process so enjoyable, that marriage will become obsolete.”
Others in the trade say:
“Internet dating has made people more disposable.”
“Internet dating may be partly responsible for a rise in the divorce rates.”
“Low quality, unhappy and unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites.”
“The market is hugely more efficient … People expect to—and this will be increasingly the case over time—access people anywhere, anytime, based on complex search requests … Such a feeling of access affects our pursuit of love … the whole world (versus, say, the city we live in) will, increasingly, feel like the market for our partner(s). Our pickiness will probably increase.”
“Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there’s no need to settle for a mediocre relationship.”
Well, if it’s only a “relationship” then to heck with it. But if it’s marriage, “settling” or walking off are obviously not the only options. What about trying to renew it? What might motivate people to do so? The real problem here is not dating sites but what people think a committed sexual relationship might be for.
I read on and am nearly two-thirds of the way through the article and still no mention of the central issue, of what might help Jacob get some focus and the wife his parents have wanted him to find for the last 10 years, and keep her. But then comes this comment from a professor:
“You can say three things,” says Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University who studies how online dating affects relationships. “First, the best marriages are probably unaffected. Happy couples won’t be hanging out on dating sites. Second, people who are in marriages that are either bad or average might be at increased risk of divorce, because of increased access to new partners. Third, it’s unknown whether that’s good or bad for society. On one hand, it’s good if fewer people feel like they’re stuck in relationships. On the other, evidence is pretty solid that having a stable romantic partner means all kinds of health and wellness benefits.” And that’s even before one takes into account the ancillary effects of such a decrease in commitment—on children, for example, or even society more broadly.
Oh, children. Of course. Why didn’t they mention that sooner? Children are not only affected by marriage and non-marriage, they also affect marriage. They give it meaning, purpose. They are, or used to be, the main point of a man and a woman committing themselves to a life together. If you take them out of the picture it makes it so much harder to find Mr or Mrs Right, doesn’t it?
But we are at the end of the story and still poor old Jacob doesn’t get it. He is worried that he might be becoming unable to love:
“Each relationship is its own little education,” Jacob says. “You learn more about what works and what doesn’t, what you really need and what you can go without. That feels like a useful process. I’m not jumping into something with the wrong person, or committing to something too early, as I’ve done in the past.” But he does wonder: When does it end? At what point does this learning curve become an excuse for not putting in the effort to make a relationship last? “Maybe I have the confidence now to go after the person I really want,” he says. “But I’m worried that I’m making it so I can’t fall in love.”
Perhaps he should start trying to think of himself as a father. It might help. He may not find the right woman on Match.com or Plenty of Fish, but the right woman might find him, offline. But if she is the right one, she won’t want to move in with him next week. Not until they are married.