Many of us coming out of marriage are both appalled by and attracted to the notion of online dating. On the one hand—unlimited options! On the other hand, there can be a niggling discomfort when going out with people unconnected to our social or vocational circle. And also, why aren't we meeting more people naturally? Why do we need to look online? The bigger question for many of us: does it really work?
Social psychologists Eli Finkle and Paul Eastwick offer some answers. They led a recent study investigating whether online dating is fundamentally different than meeting someone in real life—and if it works better.
Does uploading your most flattering photos and a polished, aspirational description of yourself clue a potential mate to your ultimate compatibility and vice-versa?
The answers? Yes and no. As the researchers note, the Internet has fundamentally altered the process of meeting. While we all know that technology plays a huge part in the lives of kids and young adults, Finkel and Eastwick found that online dating is “especially prevalent” among older people who aren’t meeting potential dates in-person for a variety of reasons—such as being super busy at work or as a single parent, having recently relocated, or having divorced. The fact that the Internet generates dates for the otherwise romantically isolated doesn’t mean those evenings will go well.
As this study and others show, we can't always predict compatibility from an online profile. Nor do we know which characteristics will appeal to us in person.
“Chemistry,” that catch-all term for the elusive nature of attraction, is nearly impossible to gauge onscreen. For some, the very fact of an endless supply of potential partners makes it hard to settle on just one. For others, extensive emailing and texting may lead to unrealistic expectations; that Cyrano of cyberspace may be a dud in real life.
Or, as Finkel and Eastwick write, “What people say they are attracted to imperfectly represents what they are actually attracted to, and what attracts people to a written profile differs from what attracts them to an individual in person.”
The big takeaway? The Internet is a huge boon in terms of generating something to do on a Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to see that person again on Sunday.
Still, a lack of a love connection does not equal a total waste of time. Despite my own fear and loathing of online dating, I’ve actually found it a positive experience—in terms of generally expanding who I know.
I recently had coffee in Los Angeles with a singer/songwriter I’d met on OKCupid in New Jersey three years earlier. He was in town for work, and while we hadn't clicked as a couple, we'd had many similar interests and much to talk about. I was glad for the visit. I'm still new to Los Angeles, and his dropping by was a welcome shot of society in my week.
Many of us are seeking new friends after divorce, too, not just romance. Even a near-miss can be a good reminder that there are many other people out there, and we never know who or how we might meet.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is involved in the family law reform movement in the United States. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.