Like most singles in the modern age, I have now met far more dating prospects online than anywhere else. But despite the swarms of matches over the years, I’ve never had an app date turn into an actual relationship. I’m not the only one feeling frustrated. Many other singles I’ve spoken to have declared a “love-hate relationship” with dating apps.
It’s great that you can swipe on an app and find new dates quickly. What’s less great is how few of those dates seem to stick, and how chaotic the landscape can seem. In fact, last summer’s app dates became so tangled up, I started a spreadsheet to keep track. Not one blossomed into an a relationship.
I started to develop a theory that all that work of matching and meeting up is actually counterproductive. Let’s be clear: There are benefits to dating online. Michael Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University, notes that you can filter more effectively by learning a bit about your partner before you ever say hello, as well as “disqualify” an inappropriate match for bad behavior with a few taps to unmatch. Also important in the search, “a larger choice set means people have a greater chance of finding a match, especially if they are looking for something hard to find — like a same-sex partner, or a partner who is a vegetarian mountain climbing Catholic,” Rosenfeld explains.
Online dating can work if the chips fall into place just right. There’s evidence that “relationship quality and duration do not depend on how couples meet,” Rosenfeld says, citing research that has long given me hope for the apps, and that “couples who meet through friends or through family are no happier and no more likely to stay together.”
But there’s also research from Michigan State University suggesting that couples who meet online are 28 percent more likely to split up within one year. Study author Aditi Paul explained that when you meet someone swiping among so many other options, you’re probably more aware that there are other potential relationships on the horizon at any given time. You also don’t share a social network, so it takes more time to make a true judgment call on a romantic prospect.
My single friends and I talk a lot about where we meet our matches, and how we engage with that person as a result. If it’s through our social network, we are more likely to know the basics about their life and whether that person is also dating around. If it’s on an app such as Bumble or Tinder, we’re more likely to assume that our date is also dating others and that it’ll take longer to commit even if we click. “A lot of this relates to what we know about social networks,” says Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Information flows freely among people who are strongly connected to each other; it does not tend to flow that freely from one group of people who are tightly connected to another group that shares few connections to it.”
Context matters, because it sets stakes for the relationship, Markman says. “Meeting someone at a bar sets different expectations for the seriousness of the relationship compared to meeting someone at work or in another social setting,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that a long-term bond can’t form when you meet someone on Tinder, but the context sets expectations. If you meet someone at work, you are going to want a deeper social connection before you consider a romantic attachment to them, because you know you are going to encounter them again at work. So, you don’t want to do something that will make your work life uncomfortable.”
When stakes are higher, you may be more likely to stick around in a relationship through thick or thin — and less likely to engage in modern dating behaviors people have come to loathe, such as ghosting. “You can’t really ghost someone who is tied into your social network, but you can disappear on someone who is part of a different group,” Markman says. “That is why a breakup of two people within a social network can be hard; the various members of that network feel like they have to choose sides, because they encounter a lot of information about both members of the group. That is why a serious breakup often leads to one person leaving a tightknit group altogether.”
There’s not a ton of evidence to predict which relationships will be long-term or short-term, says Paul Eastwick, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, but friends can provide glue. “Knowing people in common, and having those people approve of your relationship, definitely matters for relationship outcomes,” he explains. “For this reason, meeting through friends of friends often has an advantage over the more serendipitous ways of meeting a partner, online or otherwise.”
Eastwick says this is why people often bring a new dating prospect around friends early on, as jibing well with an established social group can certainly help things along romantically. If you already share friends, you typically know this crucial piece of information before you even go on a date — which might be why meeting though friends is still the most common way people couple up.
Finding a serious relationship online may also feel harder because of the expectation of ease and subsequent disillusionment when a date doesn’t turn out to be as compatible as you hoped. “People can spend a very long time browsing profiles and forming strong impressions of partners that end up being wrong once you meet face to face,” Eastwick explains.
Daters talk a ton about how hard it is to meet quality prospects online; Eastwick thinks this is probably because it’s such a time-consuming search. “And if you don’t have common acquaintances, that does make the odds a little tougher at the outset,” he says. “But it’s the volume that makes up for it; before online dating, it was really easy to feel like you had exhausted all the options in your social network.”
The sheer volume has its pros and cons. The effect of the paradox of choice is a frequently discussed downside; although some choice is good, too much choice may lead to less-than-ideal dating decisions. On a more positive note, you can meet single people quickly. And although the apps can certainly be hectic, who hasn’t felt better about a breakup by firing back up Tinder or Bumble?
Rosenfeld says to remember that it has always been hard to find a long-term partner. “I think Internet dating is difficult for the same reason that dating has always been difficult,” he says. “In order to go out on a date with someone new, you have to make arrangements, you have to primp, you have to get your hopes up, and then you find most of the time that the other person is not your type at all. … To use the Disney metaphor, one has to kiss a lot of frogs before they meet the prince or princess. No one ever said that kissing frogs would be easy.”
It’s not easy. But knowing we’re all in the same boat, meeting more frogs than princes or princesses, makes the process a little easier. When my single roommate comes back from a Bumble date with a mansplainer, like she did the other night, we proceed to laugh it off together, open a bottle of Cabernet and watch “Bachelor in Paradise.” Call it an unintended side effect of the long and arduous search.