After going to college on the East Coast and spending a few years bouncing around, Jacob moved back to his native Oregon, settling in Portland. Almost immediately, he was surprised by the difficulty he had meeting women. Having lived in New York and the Boston area, he was accustomed to ready-made social scenes.
Jacob was single for two years and then, at 26, began dating a slightly older woman who soon moved in with him. She seemed independent and low-maintenance, important traits for Jacob. Past girlfriends had complained about his lifestyle, which emphasized watching sports and going to concerts and bars.
Before long, his new relationship fell into that familiar pattern. He was passive in their arguments, hoping to avoid confrontation. Whatever the flaws in their relationship, he told himself, being with her was better than being single in Portland again. Now in his early 30s, Jacob felt he had no idea how to make a relationship work. Was compatibility something that could be learned? Would permanence simply happen, or would he have to choose it?
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Around this time, he ed up for two online dating sites: Match. All of a sudden I was going out with one or two very pretty, ambitious women a week. At first I just thought it was some kind of weird lucky streak.
After six weeks, Jacob met a year-old named Rachel, whose youth and good looks he says reinvigorated him. His friends were jealous.
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Was this The One? They dated for a few months, and then she moved in. Both names have been changed for anonymity. But there were other issues. She was from a blue-collar military background; he came from doctors.
Jacob also felt pressure from his parents, who were getting anxious to see him paired off for good. His relationships tended to drag on. But something was different this time. After two years, when Rachel informed Jacob that she was moving out, he logged on to Match. His old profile was still up.
It was sleeker, faster, more efficient. And the population of online daters in Portland seemed to have tripled. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. I was eager to see what else was out there. The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship.
But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?
Of course, no one knows exactly how many partnerships are undermined by the allure of the Internet dating pool.
But most of the online-dating-company executives I interviewed while writing my new book, Love in the Time of Algorithmsagreed with what research appears to suggest: the rise of online dating will mean an overall decrease in commitment. You know what to do with women, how to treat them and talk to them. Add to that the effect of online dating. Another online-dating exec hypothesized an inverse correlation between commitment and the efficiency of technology.
The goal has always been to make it faster. The same thing will happen with meeting. You network for a job. You find a flatmate. People always said that the need for stability would keep commitment alive. But today, more people have had failed relationships, recovered, moved on, and found happiness.
They realize that that happiness, in many ways, depends on having had the failures. As we become more secure and confident in our ability to find someone else, usually someone better, monogamy and the old thinking about commitment will be challenged very harshly. Indeed, the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments.
A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream. Alex Mehr, a co-founder of the dating site Zoosk, is the only executive I interviewed who disagrees with the prevailing view. It only changes the process of discovery. Surely personality will play a role in the way anyone behaves in the realm of online dating, particularly when it comes to commitment and promiscuity.
Gender, too, may play a role.
At the same time, however, the reality that Atlantic too many options makes us less content with whatever option we choose is a well-documented phenomenon. Psychologists who meet relationships say that three ingredients generally determine the strength of commitment: overall satisfaction with the relationship; the investment one has put into it time and effort, shared experiences and emotions, etc.
Two of the three—satisfaction and quality of alternatives—could be directly affected by the larger mating pool that the Internet offers. As a result, they are more likely to make careless decisions than they would be if they had fewer options, and this potentially le to less compatible matches.
No studies in the romantic sphere have looked at precisely how the range of choices affects overall satisfaction. But research elsewhere has found that people are less satisfied when choosing from a larger group: in one study, for example, subjects who selected a chocolate from an array of six options believed it tasted better than those who selected the same chocolate from an array of Online dating is, at its core, a litany of alternatives. And evidence shows that the perception that one has appealing alternatives to a current romantic partner is a strong predictor of low commitment to that partner.
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. On the other, evidence is pretty solid that having a stable romantic partner means all kinds of health and wellness benefits.
Gilbert Feibleman, a divorce attorney and member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, argues that the phenomenon extends beyond dating sites to the Internet more generally. S ince Rachel left himJacob aged met lots of women online. Some like going to basketball games and concerts with him. Others enjoy barhopping. He women with three of them on the first or second date. His relationships with the other two are headed toward physical intimacy. He likes the pharmacist most. The problem is that she wants to take things slow on the physical side. And he thinks, Oh my God. While out with one woman, he has to silence text messages coming in from others.
People seeking commitment—particularly women—have developed strategies to detect deception and guard against it. But the pace of technology is upending these rules and assumptions. Relationships that begin online, Jacob finds, move quickly. He chalks this up to a few things. First, familiarity is established during the messaging process, which also often involves a phone call. By the time two people meet face-to-face, they already have a level of intimacy. Occasionally, he has an acquaintance in common with a woman he meets online, but by and large she comes from a different social pool.