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Does online dating undermine marriage?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 9, 2013 02:36 PM

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The Atlantic has stirred the pot again, this time with an article in its January/February issue titled "A Million First Dates," propounding that the rise of online dating threatens monogamy. It’s framed with the story of “Jacob,” a 30-something serial online dater who says the ease with which he can find women on sites like Match.com makes him less likely to settle down—because he’s always got his eye out for something better to come along:

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?

The article’s author, journalist Dan Slater, also flicks towards social psychology research which has shown consistently that the more options people are given, the less satisfied they end up being with the one they ultimately choose.

It’s a fun bone to chew on, but there are a number of big issues with Slater’s presentation. For one, the experts he leans on to support his thesis aren’t the group you’d choose if you really wanted to get to the bottom of the issue: 7 people in the online dating business, 1 respected social psychologist whose sole quote is ambivalent about the article’s underlying point, and 1 divorce attorney whose authority is meant to be burnished by the fact that he’s a card-carrying member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

But the more serious problem with the article is that it never acknowledges the raft of well-known, rock solid statistics about marriage trends in America: Marriage is up and divorce is down among well-educated Americans; and while marriage rates are plummeting among less-educated Americans, there are a host of powerful socio-cultural forces that can explain what’s going on.

That is the point Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer makes in a pointed response at the Boston Review.

For the past 50 years, Americans have been marrying later and later. But as e-dating has grown, the trend has actually decelerated. In 1980 the average American woman married for the first time at the age of 22. Between 1980 and 1990, that average rose 1.9 years; between 1990 and 2000 it rose more by 1.2 years, and between 2000 and 2010 it rose by only one year. The data don’t suggest that online dating is causing marriage rates to decline.

And, while online dating was booming, divorce rates were falling. American couples who married in the era of e-dating were a bit less likely to divorce than couples who married before.

University of Maryland sociologist and Brainiac favorite Philip Cohen poses two more challenges to Slater’s article in a measured response on TheAtlantic.com. Cohen disputes the idea that online dating is actually game-changingly efficient, citing statistics about the bounty of dates enjoyed by college-enrolled women in the 1950s (12 per month- though those dates ended in sex less frequently than today's do, which provided extra incentive to tie the knot). Cohen also makes the provocative point that online dating has the potential to exacerbate structural inequalities: White upper-middle class cyber players like Jacob suddenly find themselves with a way to waste the time of a lot more women.

There is no denying that it’s an interesting time for marriage in America. There are big changes going on, many of them boosting satisfaction in long-term relationships, some of them not, and it will ultimately take a keen eye to tell whether online dating is driving the train or just along for the ride.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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