There's No Evidence Online Dating Is Threatening Commitment or Marriage

One guy's commitment issues don't mean the end of monogamy for the country. The first in a series of responses to Dan Slater's article "A Million First Dates."

madrigal_onlinedating_post.jpgLinda and Jeremy Tyson, a married couple who met on eHarmony, take a pedicab ride in New York City in 2010 (David Goldman/AP Images)

The question at hand in Dan Slater's piece in the latest Atlantic print edition, "A Million First Dates: How Online Dating is Threatening Monogamy," is whether online dating can change some basic settings in American heterosexual relationships such that monogamy and commitment are less important. 

How technology is changing love and marriage. See full coverage

Narratively, the story focuses on Jacob, an overgrown manchild jackass who can't figure out what it takes to have a real relationship. The problem, however, is not him, and his desire for a "low-maintenance" woman who is hot, young, interested in him, and doesn't mind that he is callow and doesn't care very much about her. No, the problem is online dating, which has shown Jacob that he can have a steady stream of mediocre dates, some of whom will have sex with him.

"I'm 95 percent certain," Jacob says of a long-term relationship ending, "that if I'd met Rachel offline, and I'd never done online dating, I would've married her.. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt."

This story forms the spineless spine of a larger argument about how online dating is changing the world, by which we mean yuppie romance. The argument is that online dating expands the romantic choices that people have available, somewhat like moving to a city. And more choices mean less satisfaction. For example, if you give people more chocolate bars to choose from, the story tells us, they think the one they choose tastes worse than a control group who had a smaller selection. Therefore, online dating makes people less likely to commit and less likely to be satisfied with the people to whom they do commit. 

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?

Unfortunately, neither Jacob's story nor any of the evidence offered compellingly answers the questions raised. Now, let's stipulate that there is no dataset that perfectly settles the core question: Does online dating increase or decrease commitment or its related states, like marriage? 

But I'll tell you one group that I would not trust to give me a straight answer: People who run online dating sites. While these sites may try to attract some users with the idea that they'll find everlasting love, how great is it for their marketing to suggest that they are so easy and fun that people can't even stay in committed relationships anymore? As Slater notes, "the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments." Which is exactly why they are happy to be quoted talking about how well their sites work for getting laid and moving on.

It should also be noted: There isn't a single woman's perspective in this story. Or a gay person's. Or someone who was into polyamory before online dating. Or some kind of historical look at how commitment rates have changed in the past and what factors drove those increases or decreases. Instead we get eight men from the industry that, as we put it on our cover, "works too well."

But hey, maybe these guys are right. Maybe online dating and social networking is tearing apart the fabric of society. How well does the proposition actually hold up?

First off, the heaviest users of technology--educated, wealthier people--have been using online dating and networking sites to find each other for years. And yet, divorce rates among this exact group have been declining for 30 years. Take a look at these statistics. If technology were the problem, you'd expect that people who can afford to use the technology, and who have been using the technology, would be seeing the impacts of this new lack of commitment. But that's just not the case.

Does it follow that within this wealthy, educated group, online daters are less likely to commit or stay married? No, it does not. 

Like I said, there's no data to prove that question one way or the other. But we have something close. A 2012 paper in the American Sociological Review asked, are people who have the Internet at home more or less likely to be in relationships? Here was the answer they found:

One result of the increasing importance of the Internet in meeting partners is that adults with Internet access at home are substantially more likely to have partners, even after controlling for other factors. Partnership rate has increased during the Internet era (consistent with Internet efficiency of search) for same sex couples, but the heterosexual partnership rate has been flat.

So, we have, at worst, that controlling for other factors, the Internet doesn't hurt and sometimes helps. That seems to strike right at the heart of Slater's proposition.

A 2008 paper looked at the Internet's ability to help people find partners and postulated who might benefit the most. "The Internet's potential to change matching is perhaps greatest for those facing thin markets or difficulty in meeting potential mates." This could increase marriage rates as people with smaller pools can more easily find each other. The paper also proposes that perhaps people would be *better* matched through online dating and therefore have higher-quality marriages. The available evidence, though, suggests that there was no difference between couples who met online and couples who met offline. (Surprise!)

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