Why monogamy is probably safe, even in the face of appealing new technology
In his thoughtful Atlantic article, Dan Slater speculates that the rise of online dating has begun to foster a decline in commitment. After all, why put up with the quirks, foibles, and demands of a less-than-ideal partner when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of alluring alternatives are readily available, waiting only for the click of a mouse to initiate what seems likely to be a far more enjoyable, perhaps even deeply fulfilling, relationship?
Well, maybe. Relationship researchers know that the fabric of romantic relationships is complex, resisting simple generalizations. Online dating has been with us since 1995, when Match.com launched the first major dating site, and has quickly become one of the major ways in which people meet their mates—according to one National Science Foundation study, by 2006, more than 20 percent of Americans entering a new relationship had met online. No scholars have noted much of a change in the breakup or divorce rate during that period, and although it is true that people are waiting longer to marry these days, they still appear to be marrying at roughly the same rate as pre-1995. As a relationship researcher, I'd like to see hard data before concluding that rates of commitment are any lower than they were when the Internet was nothing more than a way of getting news and sending email.
Slater is right when he points to the quality of perceived alternatives as one of three major predictors of commitment. It's not hard to see how online dating sites promote the impression that attractive alternatives can be met with a minimum of effort. Advertisements routinely feature images and descriptions of numerous highly desirable partners, while promising that a user can, as one site puts it, "find your soulmate in 20 minutes or less."
What's more, online dating sites sometimes undermine satisfaction, another major predictor of commitment, when they insist that users should not settle until they find their "perfect match:" someone who is completely and ideally suited to oneself. Small wonder, then, that some users report giving up on a good relationship in search of an ideal one.
Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt whether the impact of online dating is as straightforward as Slater asserts. For one, even in the pre-Internet era, people entertaining the thought of leaving a relationship had lots of alternatives—the Internet did not invent breakups or infidelity. A second reason is that, as Slater notes, most users are repeat customers. I have a friend—I will call him Mack—who estimates having initial contacts with about 350 women in a four-year span, of which only a handful progressed beyond superficial meetings. This was not distressing to him. Mack is all too aware that clicking on a web profile and establishing a mutually enjoyable relationship are entirely different matters. Unlike Slater's Jacob, Mack views online dating less as a cornucopia of spectacular opportunities and more as one of several low-probability sources of access to other singles, which might, if he is lucky, pay off.
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People adjust their expectations on the basis of experience. Few beer-drinkers expect that Coors Light will fill their social calendar with fun outings involving lively, attractive friends, no matter what the commercials suggest. Nor do car buyers anticipate that the purchase of a particular vehicle will improve their dating prospects, whatever marketers might want them to believe. Neophytes are rare and becoming rarer in online dating. Ironically, most users of online dating sites have experienced failure—either they have yet to connect with a partner or their attempted relationships have fizzled out. The success stories have no reason to return to the site. Thus, there is little reason for lofty expectations, except perhaps if one is perpetually optimistic. Online dating is one of the few industries in which companies have a vested interest in their clients' failure.
There is another reason why the easy accessibility of online dating might not impair commitment as easily as Slater suggests. People in satisfying relationships often deal with the availability of tempting alternatives by mentally derogating those alternatives while simultaneously perceiving their own relationships more favorably. One might, for example, bring to mind a friend's online dating horror stories or one might emphasize a current partner's virtues. As the social psychologist Caryl Rusbult and others have shown, these mental adjustments protect our relationships by making potential alternatives seem less enticing. In fact, studies demonstrate that when such temptations are made salient, people who feel committed to their relationships tend more strongly to derogate the alternatives and enhance their existing relationships. It is only when a relationship has already gone sour that alternatives begin to appear more desirable. Perhaps this happens sooner in the age of online dating; if so, this is a trade-off that users might willingly incur, given the vast improvement in opportunities that online dating provides.
There is little doubt that in a comparatively short span of time, online dating has changed the landscape of mating and dating. There is also little reason to doubt that these changes will continue to evolve as technological advances provide evermore compelling ways of putting potential partners into contact with each other. On the other hand, the impact of these changes is unlikely to be simple or straight-forward and we will need the serious science of well-controlled empirical studies to understand them. So far, the online dating industry has resisted calls to conduct or even participate in such research. Until that happens, when you read one or another claim about the impact of online dating, "show me the evidence" is the most appropriate conclusion.