The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. 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?Slater's dog-track metaphor is strikingly apt. The rabbit isn't real, it's never caught, yet the greyhound still obsessively chases it. And the multiplying "rabbits" (as provided by the proliferation of online dating services) deceive us into believing that the odds of catching one have improved exponentially. In reality, as our expectations of relational satisfaction have risen, so has the likelihood of disappointment—and with it, the chances that we will keep on compulsively chasing. Of course, this process suits the online dating companies. "[T]he profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments," Slater observes. "A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream." That's why most of the users on Match.com are return customers, coaxed back into activity by plaintive "How could you leave us?" emails, and the consumer's own relational restlessness.
Lowering the BarEvidence also suggests that even if we do finally commit to someone, the multiplicity of options makes it less likely we'll stay committed. Psychologist Barry Schwarz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that "a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one." In 2011, Mark Brooks, a consultant to online dating companies, published the results of an industry survey titled "How Has Internet Dating Changed Society?" The survey responses, from 39 executives, produced the following conclusions:
- "Internet dating may be partly responsible for a rise in the divorce rates."
- "Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there's no need to settle for a mediocre relationship."
- "Low quality, unhappy, and unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites."
- "The market is hugely more efficient. . . . People expect to—and this will be increasingly the case over time—access people anywhere, anytime, based on complex search requests. . . . Such a feeling of access affects our pursuit of love. . . . [T]he whole world (versus, say, the city we live in) will, increasingly, feel like the market for our partner(s). Our pickiness will probably increase."
- "Internet dating has made people more disposable."
Devastating ResultsThe devastating societal results are already being ruefully catalogued. The sexually graphic film Shame (2011) sees a porn-addicted Michael Fassbender sloping from one brief encounter to another. Together in a hotel room with a beautiful woman who believes in monogamy, he is unable to perform. Because his only commitment is to an endless, open-ended lack of commitment, real intimacy eludes him. And by the time the film ends, we're not sure it will ever be regained.
Or take George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009). He plays a character whose aversion to emotional commitment means that, according to his own family, he has essentially ceased to exist. Taken in by the false promises of sexual "freedom," he has withheld commitment for years. And now that he wishes to give it, he's no longer free to do so. Pointedly, The Velveteen Rabbit appears briefly in the film. It's a children's story about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes real when he is loved. At one point, the rabbit asks the wise Skin Horse how the process happens.
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."It's a mesmerizing, sad story about how real love—real commitment—inevitably unmakes us. Perhaps that's partly why we're so afraid of it. But the story also explains why that "unmaking" is such a desirable thing. It's how you become "real."