“You can say three things,” says Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University who studies how online dating affects relationships. “First, the best marriages are probably unaffected. 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. Third, it’s unknown whether that’s good or bad for society. On one hand, it’s good if fewer people feel like they’re stuck in relationships. On the other, evidence is pretty solid that having a stable romantic partner means all kinds of health and wellness benefits.” And that’s even before one takes into account the ancillary effects of such a ple, or even society more broadly.
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. “I’ve seen a dramatic increase in cases where something on the computer triggered the breakup,” he says. “People are more likely to leave relationships, because they’re emboldened by the knowledge that it’s no longer as hard as it was to meet new people. But whether it’s dating sites, social media, e?mail-it’s all related to the fact that the Internet has made it possible for people to communicate and connect, anywhere in the world, in ways that have never before been seen.”
S ince Rachel left him , Jacob has met lots of women online. Some like going to basketball games and concerts with him. Others enjoy barhopping.
Many of Jacob’s relationships become physical very early. At one point he’s seeing a paralegal and a lawyer who work at the same law firm, a naturopath, a pharmacist, and a chef. He slept with three of them on the first or second date. His relationships with the other two are headed toward physical intimacy.
Jacob’s favorite football team is the Green Bay Packers, and when I last spoke to him, he told me he’d had success using Packers fandom as a search criterion on OkCupid, another (free) dating site he’s been trying out
He likes the pharmacist most. She’s a girlfriend prospect. The problem is that she wants to take things slow on the physical side. He worries that, with so many alternatives available, he won’t be willing to wait.
One night the paralegal confides in him: her prior relationships haven’t gone well, but Jacob gives her hope; all she needs in a relationship is honesty. And he thinks, Oh my God. He wants to be a nice guy, but he knows that sooner or later he’s going to start coming across as a serious asshole. While out with one woman, he has to silence text messages coming in from others. He needs to start paring down the number of women he’s seeing.
Theoretically, his willingness to wait sends a message back: I’m interested in more than sex
People seeking commitment-particularly women-have developed strategies to detect deception and guard against it. A woman might withhold sex so she can assess a man’s intentions. Theoretically, her withholding sends a message: I’m not just going to sleep with any guy that comes along.
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. Second, if the woman is on a dating site, there’s a good chance she’s eager to connect. But for Jacob, the most crucial difference between online dating and meeting people in the “real” world is the sense of urgency. Occasionally, he has an acquaintance in common with a woman he meets online, but by and large she comes from a different social pool. “It’s not like we’re just going to run into each other again,” he says. “So you can’t afford to be too casual. It’s either ‘Let’s explore this’ or ‘See you later.’ ”