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Love, Virtually

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

How might we approach online dating less like the chore of assembling flat pack furniture and more like an opportunity to connect with people we were never going to meet otherwise? Let's look at the data.

When I was sixteen, around the time my brother got a TRS-80 personal computer from Radio Shack, one of the high school teachers offered students an opportunity to partake in a matchmaking experiment. We answered a few dozen questions about our likes and dislikes, religious affiliation, and future goals, and our teacher’s mysterious data processor spit out a list of the six opposite sex students with whom we were deemed to be most compatible (when it was assumed one would only ever pair up with a member of the opposite sex).

My girlfriends and I all moaned and tossed our results immediately because none of the boys on our lists, who we knew well through years of playground indignities, would A) lower themselves to go out with us or, B) were boys we’d be caught dead walking down the street with. This was my first experience with the failures of dating algorithms.

Now, forty years later, a lot of us are routinely pursuing companionship through the vagaries of computerized matchmaking. There are as many opinions on the utility of online dating as there are people using it, not to mention a universal nonverbal reaction to the question, “How’s online dating?” being the protracted eye roll followed by the downcast head shake. But there is a lot we can understand about ourselves, and the ways we now go about finding intimate partners, by taking a look at the data behind the first few decades of online dating platforms. And rather than viewing dating apps as the commodification of love, it helps to understand that this tool has simply adapted to meet the demands of the kind of people we have ourselves become.

In her book The New Laws of Love: Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy, Marie Bergström, a sociologist at the French Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris, traces the evolution of the tools we’ve used to find spouses or romantic partners. Online dating is simply the modern equivalent of what has always been a thing: people soliciting a wider audience for mate selection. Marriage brokers of the 19th Century advertised in specialized newspapers on behalf of their clients and were paid a commission on the dowry if the match resulted in betrothal. Eventually, we began to create our own personal ads, discovering that not only could we seek a companion for “pina coladas and getting caught in the rain” but for someone who might indulge a foot fetish.

Bergström, who collected her data from a variety of dating sites in the US, France and Germany between 2007 and 2020, frames online dating as the “privatization” of love, the ability to pursue a partner within a separate and hidden realm. Bergström asserts that suburbanization has drained public spaces of social life in a significant way and we’ve insulated our social circles from each other, even before a global pandemic. Now many of us work from home and spend increasingly more time in that home glued to our handheld devices. Our “social networks” are increasingly virtual, and we have redefined our tribes as those groups with whom we have mutual interests rather than the people we actually spend time with, whether they be mushroom hunters or conspiracy theorists.

We also use the private nature of online dating to circumvent the scrutiny of our social circles and their judgements. We can engage in relationships, short or long, without ever having to introduce a partner to our friends or family. There is less risk that a relationship’s demise will affect one’s workplace or wider family structures. This is especially handy during stages of growth; early in one’s life of sexual and relational experimentation and again during life resets, such as a divorce. After I left a long marriage, online dating felt to me like pitching up at a candy shop with a pocket full of money. This was good for me, though not for some of the men involved. I was able to experience men I would have never taken home to meet the family. Whimsical dating also helped me learn what I wanted for the next long run.

There’s a dating app for any predilection (farmers only, Star Trek enthusiasts, and “age gap” lovers, to name a few), but for mainstream sites the professed intent of users is to find love and get off dating sites. Long term love needs to eventually step out of a private space to mesh with our dearests. My family and I are close so I must be able to imagine any potential partner good-naturedly tolerating a Sunday football game with my brother and his friends well before I introduce them. I can’t stand football, and prefer my partner share my opinion. But I do very much enjoy a good party with my family and that often involves watching sports.

Bergström doesn’t suggest strategies for using dating apps but she presents what we’ve learned from their usage. For one thing, there are few arenas where women have the undisputed upper hand when it comes to cautiously wading into relationships. For many women, the unwanted attentions of men in public makes real life an annoyance. Bergström writes, “Heterosexual dating is regulated by female modesty. This doesn’t mean women reject casual sex but they often can refuse to be approached in an explicitly sexual manner.” So, gentlemen, understand that women who post profile photos accentuating their canyons of cleavage will most likely shut down if you tell them straight up you want to bury your face there.

However, the data confirm that online relationships become sexual before partners have decided on their nature or future, more so than relationships that form through friend groups or work. Given that only a generation ago sex usually came after the commitment to being a couple, now sex is generally a prerequisite to the commitment. I consider this especially advantageous for women who learn a lot about men by the way they act in bed. But this development might be placing too much emphasis on “great sex” as the impetus to continue seeing someone, as online dating offers us a variety of potential sex partners. Yet sex, like communication of any kind, is a skill that can improve over time.

Online dating requires explicit consent to move forward, again making it a handy tool for women. Yet the flip side is it also allows us to passively shirk from our interactions, to simply not respond. We’ve probably all been ignored by someone who initially engaged with us through a dating app. Our foremost anthropologist of love Helen Fisher says in, “In The Digital World We’re All Cavemen When it Comes to Love” we easily experience cognitive overload when presented with too much choice. A male friend who has been online dating for less than a year put it this way: “I’d always reply to an inquiry, even if I had no interest. But I’ve stopped doing so because there are quite a few inquiries which are of no interest to me and I feel I’ve become somewhat numb to them. There’s a part of me which feels bad about this because I know for some people they are dealing with rejection when met with silence. Behind each profile is a heart though, and I think we sometimes forget that.”

His comment inspired me to briefly adopt a new habit while pursuing dating profiles. I considered every photo and every word of each man who appeared in my feed. This slowing down exercise fostered a feeling of compassion towards these men who have mustered the courage to create a profile even though they may be worn out and overweight and can’t write a proper sentence but who were, nonetheless, looking for connection. I honoured them with silent words of encouragement. When I stopped scrolling I wasn’t nearly as exasperated as when I used to swipe quickly based on a first photo, grumbling about there being “no one out there” and realising that there are likely lots of men interested in dating me (and you, too) but that we impose our own criteria around who we are willing to engage with, possibly each time we open our apps.

This supports what has also emerged from the data: we are intractably attracted to those most like ourselves. Bergström writes, “Cultural affinities are the social glue of contemporary love. Mutual understanding, shared values, beliefs and interests, as well as the possibility of sharing a good laugh, are central to our modern conception of intimacy and love.” Nowhere did this become more clear to me during a date I initially thought was going nowhere, due mostly to his jitters and my impression he might have been living out of his van and never stepped outside our rural backwater. Then he broke into fluent Italian. Suddenly, the man I assumed shared none of my worldly interests became one who had attended graduate school in Milan. When we got to talking about politics, and then he made me laugh, I was hooked. As Isabel Allende has said, “The G Spot is between her ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time.”

Yet our attractions reveal our prejudices. “Class is the driving force behind mate selection. When people meet, class becomes visible in the person’s body, voice, gestures and in social environments and practices. [In online dating] spelling and grammar are bluntly linked to social rejection by people with higher levels of education.” The fact remains, over a few hundred years now, most of us continue to end up partnering with someone in our socioeconomic class, known as ‘homogamy’ or ‘assortive mating.’ My epidemiologist friend, who turned me on to evaluating a relationship as points on a graph over time (see: The Plotlines of Love), says he looks for specific dating apps that might facilitate his priorities which revolve largely around education level and a similar degree of nerdiness. He tries to determine if an app is populated with “my people” and willingly admits spelling or grammar errors in a profile are non-starters.

Based upon Bergström’s data, the early adopters of online dating tended to have more years of education, yet today represent a much lower percentage of people using these apps. I’ve had to accept that perusing the popular apps these days is like wandering around a packed football stadium looking each man in the face. Dating apps are no longer the equivalent of independent bookstores and probably not the best place to find “my people” anymore. But when dating apps become the default rather than the exception for people looking to partner, will we have the patience to keep attending that crowded venue night after night?

I was most interested in Bergström’s analysis regarding the utility of online dating for those of us over forty. She writes, “Dating platforms become an important means of re-partnering, especially at a stage in life when the shortage of singles is a demographic fact.” This is painfully clear to me when I go out for live music and the men are almost all under thirty and the ones my age are almost always with a partner. The good news is that people over 50 who use dating apps are more likely to re-partner and stay partnered than their younger counterparts. However, this applies more often to men than women. Women over 50 are least contacted on dating sites and the men seeking them, even those well over 50, dwindles. I experienced this stark fact when I turned 50 and the number of men who expressed interest in me fell by at least half, prompting the sites to suggest I change my filters, which I took to be code for, “You should consider dating men who have already qualified for Social Security.”

This may prompt a mature woman to chuck all attempts to find love online, but one need only make a comparison to the alternative to understand that online dating is still a helluva good tool for finding a date. I might lock eyes with an attractive man in his 50’s in the screw and bolt section of Home Depot but what are the chances he’s unattached? A dating app will show me the handful of men within twenty miles who are single (mostly) and seeking. It’s unnecessarily self-defeating to think, because the odds of finding love online might be higher in our thirties than in our fifties, that online dating can’t offer us a better chance of finding an interested partner than doing our grocery shopping.

What The New Laws of Love doesn’t tackle is what could be a fundamental problem with online dating: it mimics our contemporary habits as consumers. Dating apps condition us to a vast array of choice, as though partnership were simply the task of finding someone to suit us the same way we choose the features of a vehicle we want to buy, rather than seeing it as something that need continually suit two opinionated people. The idea that we need only choose the right partner from a variety of options affects our perception of what it means to be a good partner. As Harville Hendricks points out in "10 Characteristics of Conscious Partnership", if things don’t “work out” we tend to believe we just made a bad choice. But really, we’ve more likely made the decision not to work with what we’ve chosen and will likely go on to be disappointed in the same way with a new choice.

Online dating is a perfect growth medium for The Hedonic Treadmill, our tendency to keep pursuing new “highs”, whether through experiences, jobs or people. But we’ll invariably return to our baseline dissatisfaction when the prize becomes familiar. Hedonic adaptation has no doubt driven innovation and exploration, and could, arguably, be the basis of a lifestyle. Yet many become exhausted by the feeling that happiness continues to elude them even after achieving their next goal. The key, according to psychological experts? Being happy with what you have. In “Settling For Average Could be the Key to a Happy Relationship” Kelly Scott writes that, eventually, every relationship becomes average and that the chemical fireworks we often associate with falling in love can actually show up further down the road of a rather ordinary relationship when we have created a strong bond, familiarity and deep appreciation with another person. Many studies support that simply making a choice and sticking to it, whether it be a hobby, a hometown or a relationship, results in higher life satisfaction than continually chasing new shiny objects.

How might we then approach online dating less like the chore of assembling flat pack furniture and more like an opportunity to connect with people we were never going to meet otherwise? First, understand how the algorithms work. In “The Tinder Algorithm Explained” liking too many profiles will diminish returns, yet if you’re too picky you’ll find profiles you already rejected being recycled through your feed. Limit the number of people in your chat queue to avoid cognitive overload (and the possibility you will get comfortable with being a super flake). The more you use the app the better it gets to know your preferences. (Though I’m flummoxed why my feed is suddenly peppered with conservative Christians. Did I do myself a disservice by passing on all the liberal agnostics?)

And try not to get discouraged (though I’m right there with you when you get discouraged). I don’t consider my string of short relationships over seven years of online dating to be a failure of online dating, or myself for that matter. My life has been a series of shifting circumstances and I’ve learned immensely from the encounters I’ve had along the way. Many have endured as friendships, formed who I am and helped to define what I actually want from men. As I told one recently, “I’ve discovered I’m currently more conditioned to be seeking love than I am interested in its responsibilities!” Nonetheless, sometimes I put on Hans Zimmer and sob for hours into a hanky. Then I text a girlfriend to go see a movie, or curl up with Tolstoy and the cats. Add chocolate and everything is just fine. For a while.

Despite The New Laws of Love, the fact is online dating is lawless and thankless and will, perhaps more often than not, make you want to weave a tapestry of profanities over your airspace. Call me a contrarian or a Wendell Berry luddite, but I’m ditching the dating apps for a re-acquaintance with the physical world. For now. I’m no longer searching for love but trying to live the embodiment of what I find attractive and just see what life presents. I’ve spent a lot of years in service to relationships that weren’t nearly as satisfying as weeding the garden. Given that the first bulbs of spring are blooming, it’s time to shift focus. And I think we can have sexually exciting lives without falling into the binary assumption that a physical connection assumes a traditional commitment, though ask yourself it that’s what your heart really desires. I’ll be spending the planting season listening to my gut rather than working things out through words. Whether you find a great partner on a dating app or waiting at the DMV, the old rules of love should always apply: be silly, be honest, be kind. And have fun.

Love, Karin

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Lovely essay. You write substantively, beautifully.

Karin Jones
Karin Jones

Thank you! I'm so sorry it's taken this long to respond to your kind words. Stay in touch. - Karin

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