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Three Myths of Online Dating

Four years ago, when I first considered signing up for an online dating site (Yahoo Personals) I had just become single again (“separated” was the box I checked off for my YP profile) after more than 20 years of marriage. Any experience that I had of dating was by then decades old and totally irrelevant to my new situation. I’m not shy, but I think I can also admit that I am not very adept at saloon repartee. And I have enough sense to know that approaching a single woman can more likely come across as threatening or pathetic, than as attractive, exciting, or seductive. But, although I knew nothing about online dating, I already assumed that I might as well have a virtual “L” tattooed across my cyber-forehead as soon as I sent my credit card info to Yahoo.

That online dating is for losers was the first of the myths that I had to let go of. Today, after four years of on-again, off-again cyber-hookups, it’s clear to me that it is not the medium of last resort for the unattractive, the inept, and the desperate. Many first time users still approach the whole process the way I did, and take for granted that they should check off a U, I, or D to indicate which of the three categories of loser they qualify for. A recent Nerve personal, under the question about your most humiliating experience, put “WRITING THIS.” It’s easy to find capsule bios that begin with some form of plea that the writer not be considered one of those people who use online personals: “I might as well try this,” “I’ve tried everything else,” “I’ve given up on the bar scene,” or something similar.

Of course, the millions of online personals users probably include a fair share of the U, I, and D types. It is much more common, though, for the medium to appeal to people who have somehow come to the conclusion (whether from reflection or experience) that a bar might be the wrong place to look for a steady partner, and that the pool of prospective partners at church, office, or school is depressingly small. Plus, let’s face it, getting turned down online means that someone doesn’t respond to an e-mail that took you five minutes to compose (or, if you send a “Wink” or some other pre-fabricated ice-breaker, it takes you zero seconds to compose). Compare that to being ignored at a bar after you’ve used one of those “can’t fail” opening lines that books like How To Succeed with Women list for you. The online medium makes flirting into something far safer for the ego than the usual casual personal encounter.

If anything still gives me pause at initiating contact with someone through one of these sites, it is not the thought, “I must really be desperate to write to her,” but “She’s out of my league.” I have regularly found profiles for women who have advanced degrees, who are physicians, writers, entrepreneurs, or who have other interesting and innovative careers. They have traveled, fallen in love, sometimes married, and for one reason or another find themselves in the prime of life without a partner. I cannot count the number of times I’ve looked at the pictures women have provided, then read that they consider their body type “Average,” and think, “Darling, there is nothing average about you.” I often wonder how these talented, beautiful women can possibly be alone. How it is that Manhattan and the adjacent boroughs are not holding lotteries or contests so that men will have the chance to meet these ladies? Well, perhaps a later Blue Monkey will deal with that enigma.

Because my mention of beauty brings me to a second myth about online dating, that is, looks don't count. Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine is quoted in this weeks Newsweek (Feb. 20, 2006): “As people get older, they definitely start dropping a lot of the look requirements they have in their mind.” This statement should fill any middle-aged retro-dater with hope and optimism, that perhaps dating has changed for the more mature, that now it will be about brains and personality and substance. Take a deep breath and enjoy the warmth of those good feelings, and then fuhgeddaboutit! The most charitable thing I can say about Joe’s statement is that he must not have tried post-40 online dating. Because for every personal that says some version of, “I don’t care what my guy looks like,” there are 50 that say, “I want a man who looks good.”

In fact, my statement above is misleading, because I’ve never seen a profile that said, “I don’t care.” All the evidence runs counter to this. Looks count! Women regularly include a requirement that a man be handsome or sexy, and while many will check off “Average” in the body type they are looking for, only a tiny minority will lower their standards to include “A Little Extra Padding.” Or, consider the height variable. On Match women give their own height and then specify the altitude they look for in their male companion. After years of research and careful statistical analysis I have concluded that women up to 5’4” will settle for a man who is four inches taller (the difference in height, or H-Delta) while beginning at 5’6” women demand men who are 5’10”. In fact, 5’10” seems to be the most popular stature for men, until women reach 5’10” themselves at which point they give up hope of finding someone with the 4+ H-Delta.

The notion that looks don’t count goes against both personal experience and scientific evidence. The best guides to the research, Ayala M. Pines, Falling in Love (1999) [my favorite] and Helen Fisher, Why We Love (2004) show that studies consistently find people attracted to and partnered with people at their same level of attractiveness. And, even though it is a mystery to me how people determine this, that finding meets the test of everyday life. When you see a couple together, it’s only the couples in which one partner looks strikingly different that really hold your attention. In fact, the only difference that doesn’t seem to hold much weight is H-Delta, though even there it’s noteworthy when you see a short/ tall couple. [Of course, we all recognize that high status and/or wealth on the part of the man can trump looks, something that social scientists refer to as the “Trump Effect.”]

Granted, many women do not list “looks” as a requirement. But, with almost cult-like regularity women will list “chemistry” as they key for them, the one sine qua non for the man who will be their soul-, bed-, and board-mate. In fact, after listing the desirable qualities in the man they seek (dignity, honesty, intelligence, success, whatever) many women will effectively abandon these virtues and say, “Above all, chemistry.”

And that brings me to the last of the myths, the one that supports the entire online dating industry. In essence, we believe in online personals because they give us access to a much wider population of potential partners, i.e. they improve the odds. If you think of the search for romance in terms of shopping (the marketplace metaphor was common, but not as pointed, pre-Marx), then an online service becomes a kind of Sears-Roebuck Catalogue, a Wal-Mart or Ikea for those looking for love. And, in a consumer-oriented culture, we take for granted that a bigger marketplace results in consumer satisfaction. Yet, in spite of the millions of people online, legitimately looking for someone more or less like you, s/he may never find you. And, even if s/he does, the two of you might not click.

Why? Because chemistry really does count. Whatever combination of physical appeal, wit, charm, quirkiness, and energy attract people to you only translates imperfectly into the online medium. Someone might find your picture and profile appealing, but not go for you in person. Or, in person you might have qualities that your online portfolio cannot convey. “This is devilishly tricky,” one woman wrote to me after we had met and she decided not to take our acquaintance any further. She was, and is, right. Even though I’ve probably contacted more than a hundred women online, and have met perhaps twenty of those in person, I’ve connected with only a few and never for very long. The very few more substantial relationships (in my case, the ones lasting at least a few months) that I’ve had in the last four years have been with women I’ve met in conventional ways, through friends or work. [Note added 6/18/06: This last statement seems no longer to be true.]

The other problem of the expanded marketplace is that the marketplace has expanded less than it seems. On Nerve, for instance, there are 1.25 million members. From my experience, however, it seems that most of female members live in New York City or a major metropolitan area on the West Coast. I’m sure there cannot be more than a few hundred in the Commonwealth of PA, and, of those, virtually all live in Philadelphia. So, it’s not only chemistry. Propinquity counts!


Comments

I don't hope to have any need of using this information anytime soon, but I'm curious... does an online dating service help you keep your dating resume up to date, so to speak, so that when you do meet someone in person, you feel more confident? Kind of like all the job ads I answered (some of which lead to in-person interviews) when I was still very far from completing my dissertation?

Very insightful.

I think this is the first time I read a blog that had actual book references in it.

V

To respond to Dennis: Yes, I think your comparison works well. Online dating can serve as a source of understanding as to how one fits with other people. It keeps you in contact with the opposite sex (or whatever gender you are seeking).

"So, it’s not only chemistry. Propinquity counts!"

I thought that you might be interested to know that my mother met my now-stepfather through an online dating service, and the fact of their "Propinquity" certainly helped. I can also attest to the reality of the "online dating is for losers" mentality. Since their divorce, both of my parents have tried the online dating scene and both initially feared appearing desperate.

Thanks for the note, David. It's true--online can work! I know several couples who met through one or another of the online services, and are still together after several years.

Having dated through personal ads extensively for several periods over the past 13 years I feel qualified to state that your basic analysis is spot on.

I would like to add some comments relevant to your observations about the distressingly transitory nature of most of the couplings that arise from the process. My sense is that the "embarassment of riches" (or perhaps more accurately: the perception of same) that these seemingly bottomless pools of potential parners appear to offer, can often seriously warp a participating individual's ability to be satisfied with any person with whom they do manage to begin to connect. It becomes like an ultimate consumerist no-win end-game: that nagging anxiety that there's always a "better" "product" out there somewhere that will be more fulfilling than the one currently in your possession.

In many instances I've met men through the personals with whom the mutual attraction, rapport and commonalities were so remarkable that, had we met under more "conventional" circumstances, they would likely have considered the encounter star-crossed and pursued a relationship (and me) with gusto. Almost without fail, these incipient hook-ups were strained and, eventually, destroyed by the guy's inability to cease actively "browsing", i.e., keeping his options open for that even prettier, more prosperous or otherwise more intriguing "soulmate" that might be out there in the "pool." I've yet to notice one of these men drop out of the "game" (I continue to come across their increasingly more desperate sounding ads on various personals sites.)

Several male friends have reported encountering the same problem with women they have tried to establish relationships with after connecting on-line.

I've yet to see any serious psycho/sociological studies of this form of serial on-line dating perfectionism, but I believe it's a real and ever more pervasive problem, sort of a virulent epidemic of terminal pickiness. Any thoughts?

Hi Kerry, Thank you for your very percpetive coment. It agres with some of my experinces and certainly contains a lot of insight. Yes, I think the consumerist bent of the online dating world has to the likelihood of disappointment. Plus, it also aggravates a tendecy for searchers to maintain the romantic belief that they will find the ¨perfect¨ partner. I don´t read men´s ads, but I always find a mountain of ads from women that contain something about searching for the soulmate or the knight in shining armor. That´s not me, so I don´t respond to those.

Well stated. I agree with so much of this. What I have learned is that in the world of online dating nice girls (not truly pretty ones) are a dime a dozen. I have found contacting and connecting with very nice and educated and accomplished women really isn't very hard. Finding the extraordinary is very very hard and the odds of that don't tend to be too good online -- or anywhere else for that matter. Of course looks not only count they are predominant and at first aruably exclusive. Also, there is a terrible predicitability to it. You know when you write who will respond and who will not.

ONLINE DATING CAN BE A WONDERFUL THING. I MET MY HUSBAND THAT WAY AND WE WILL HAVE BEEN MARRIED FOR 5 YEARS IN OCTOBER AND ACTUALLY TOGETHER FOR 8 YEARS IN MARCH. I LOVE HIM AS MUCH AS I DID WHEN WE FIRST GOT MARRIED. DO NOT GET ME WRONG, I WENT THOUGHT MY CRAZY PEOPLE I MET ONLINE TOO. YOU DO HAVE TO BE CAUTIOUS AND CAREFUL, JUST AS YOU WOULD ANYWHERE ELSE YOU MAY MEET ANOTHER PERSON. PLAY IT SAFE, TAKE IT SLOW AND HAVE FUN.

Chemistry is a big deal, and so is proximity - agree wholeheartedly with both. However, I have two fundamental differences in opinion that I think those interested in online dating might find relevant or useful.

First, the chance to get to know someone beyond physical attraction is something not to discount. Having dated men I met online since 1999, I can attest to the fact that it does create opportunities to meet people you otherwise would never meet. More importantly, I have had relationships with several men who probably would not have naturally turned my head if we had just met by chance on the street - because the chemistry isn't all there. However, the intellectual connection, among the list of intangibles beyond physical attraction, actually gave these men an edge. My last relationship lasted 19 months with a men I met online. We're both naturally reserved people, and I don't know who would have made the first move if we met by chance in the physical world.

Second - and this is the more important point - I think we need to approach what online dating offers for what it's worth. That is, it provides an opportunity to meet someone. Period. There are no other inherent promises or magical solutions to save the masses from an eternity of singledom. If someone is a commitment phobe, has a wandering eye, or doesn't know who they are, what they want, whom they seek, it doesn't matter where or how you meet them. They aren't ready, willing or able to commit to anyone, not just you. So, just because it seems so much easier to jump back online to find the next prospect doesn't automatically transform all online dating users into men and women who are constantly on the look out for a better alternative than you. The ones who are constantly browsing probably are, for one reason or another, not in the place to commit to even the best thing that could ever happen to them - because they haven't figured it out. They would have continued looking even if online dating never existed. So, don't blame the medium or the method through which you meet. It's really the rampant lack of self awareness and honesty about what one wants that ultimately creates the frustration for those of us who are genuinely serious about looking for a soul mate - and are ready and willing to commit to making it last with a like-minded and like-hearted partner.

Very interesting... Lately, I've had several people encouraging me to try out the online dating scene (guess they feel sorry for me!), I haven't taken the plunge as of yet, but I guess it could be an okay thing...

I appreciate you putting your thoughts down -- I have a few friends that should read this and open their minds to the possibility.

By the way, I've been telling all my online dating friends about www.datingtales.net. Funny stories and good advice for online daters.

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