(I was excited to collaborate on this post with Daniel Rodrigues-Martin. Please check out more of his work below.)
Some forty million Americans use online dating services. To put that in perspective, the number of Americans who look for dates online is greater than the entire population of Canada. The profits earned by these sites can today be measured in billions of dollars.
Once upon a time, stigma followed those who sought romance digitally. Online daters were labeled socially awkward or desperate. Today, that stigma has largely been removed–especially in urban areas. Finding love online has gone mainstream. Pastor Jonathan Grant writes in Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age that “…Digital matchmaking will soon be the dominant way that relationships come into being.”
At the time of this writing we (the authors) have eleven years combined experience with online dating, have used six different websites, and have been on dates with more than twenty different women we met online. We clearly believe that online dating has its place. Though currently single, we have several friends who met their spouses online, and we couldn’t be happier for them. There are lots of quality people who use online dating services. It can work.
But online dating, like any technology, must be used with discernment. Though we think of it as service we use, it can just as easily use us. In this article we want to point out several pitfalls of online dating, and highlight some ways in which online dating has threatened our own hearts. We also speak with a conviction that Christians should approach online dating from a distinctly Christian framework. Knowing Jesus must fundamentally change the way we approach romantic relationships on and off line.
All About The Image
The most influential part of an online dating profile is the lead picture. This is especially true with the advent of swipe right/swipe left dating apps. Such features encourage instantaneous decisions about potential dates based on single photographs. People are considered for two seconds before judgment is issued. It is hard to describe this in any other way than intensely superficial.
Physical attraction is certainly an important aspect of romantic relationships, but online dating can sometimes make it the only aspect of romantic relationships. We would certainly not suggest that readers enter into relationships with people they find unattractive, but requiring instantaneous, overwhelming attraction to even talk to someone is also problematic. People are more than faces and bodies. We have histories, passions, and personalities. Even when extensive profiles are included, these non-physical elements are often deemphasized online.
Not all dating websites and apps are created equal. Content-light, swipe-heavy apps are likely to be less helpful to those who care about the spiritual state of their prospective dates and who are looking for something more than a fling. Scripture never ignores the power of attraction, but it does invite us to put chemistry in context. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting…” says Proverbs 31:30. Such wisdom should lead Christians to question dating services that exalt the physical and downplay the whole person.
The US is a nation defined by consumption. We want choices and we choose to purchase those things which seemingly offer the greatest fulfillment. Online dating is likewise a type of shopping experience. We scan profiles like we scan the aisles in store. We search dating sites like we search for stuff on Amazon. People become products to be selected and consumed.
Digital dating eagerly plays into the belief that relationships are all about personal fulfillment. These services allow us to “build-a-date” to our own specifications. With the help of advanced search features, we can “create” our ideal match. We can filter out people on the basis of education, ethnicity, body type, income, etc.
There is nothing wrong with knowing “what works for you,” but true love is not about creating someone we believe best suits us. True love is about loving a real person, not a mannequin. The swipe right/left mentality can bleed over into your offline interactions if you’re not careful.
Virtual “Grass Is Greener”
Many people would rather go out with someone they met online than someone they know offline. It’s easy to see why. Online dating increases our chances. Some of us are not surrounded by a multitude of eligible people. If you live in a small town or go to a church with a lot of married older people, what else is a young single to do?
Online dating also helps minimize the relational fallout if things don’t fly. It isn’t as socially risky to ask out or go on a date with someone you’ll never have to see again. No choosing between mutual friends, no avoiding places you know they’ll be. It’s a clean break.
A couple of years back I (Enoch) was on a panel at my church talking about the experience of singleness. There were more than two-hundred attending, and when I looked out over the audience, I saw a dozen women whose profiles I had seen on dating sites. It is an interesting experience to find people online you already know and ask yourself why you have not tried to date them. There may be good reasons for not dating friends and acquaintances, but it is also possible that some of us may have prematurely written off people already in our lives.
This is one of the biggest potential pitfalls of online dating: romantic nearsightedness. Ignoring the people around you out of the false notion that there’s surely someone better waiting online, or that, gasp, you spent money to gain access to the in-site messaging system, so why would you seek relationships in other ways? If you engage regularly in online dating, be aware of how you’re perceiving potential matches online. Also be aware of how online dating affects your interactions with members of the opposite sex you know personally.
Online dating forces us to date strangers, and there are negatives to this sort of arrangement. Believers in Christ should be concerned about the way in which online dating can remove romantic relationships from the realm of Christian community. Jonathan Grant writes: “Such isolation bypasses our traditional discernment filters, such as the perspectives of friends, family, and older people whom we trust. We also learn an enormous amount about a potential partner by engaging with their core communities.”
Certainly, some of these dynamics can be counteracted. We can talk with our friends about those we go on dates with, and we can, at the appropriate time, invite the person we are dating into our community. We must be intentional in taking these steps if we are to avoid the isolating effect of online dating.
Overestimating our Options
In parading before us an endless stream of candidates, dating sites create unreal expectations of relational success. Most of the profiles we see are not options. Many people have joined dating services in hopes that all their romantic woes will be cured, only to discover that the same relational dynamics hold true in the digital realm. A larger pool does not always result in a more successful fishing experience. No one has unlimited options, and many of the people we find interesting will not be interested in us. Our expectations are likely to get out of wack when a multitude of options leads to a distortion of reality.
I (Danny) am potentially interested in about 5% of the girls I see on dating sites. Of that 5%, half either haven’t used the site in months or become ineligible for other reasons like distance, lack of a clear witness to Christian faith, etc. Realistically, for every hundred profiles I view, I’ll send a message to two or three women. After all that, it’s up to her to decide if she’s interested in talking to me, and about half the time I get rejected. Then we talk, and there’s a chance one of us realizes we’re not really taken by the other. Online dating creates the false sense of a limitless supply of potential matches, but there aren’t as many fish in the sea as you might think. It took me a while to learn this.
Romance on Repeat
Though some dating portals (think eHarmony) cater to the marriage-minded, online dating is shortening relationships. The continued availability of new options is making us less likely to permanently commit to anyone. If our current relationship hits a rough patch, our dating profile is just waiting to be reactivated–if we ever deactivated it, that is.
We mustn’t forget the economic realities of online dating. Married people are not the biggest cash crop for matchmaking companies. Every dating service may not be out to ruin your current relationship, but it wouldn’t hurt their bottom line if you were back on the market.
Online dating does enable relationships to form, but these relationships tend to be shorter-lived than relationships that begin in other ways. Instead of obtaining a life partner, many online daters find themselves living in a world characterized by “A Million First Dates.” It seems that evaluating romantic partners like products leads us to more easily dispose of them when our interest wanes. We can always trade in for something new when the old model loses its sparkle.
While we may think that dating a lot of people helps us get a better idea of what we really want, going on bunches of dates may make it harder for us to really want to be in a relationship with a specific person.
Engaging in online dating for too long can warp how you perceive people of the opposite sex. Any of the pitfalls listed above can end up describing how you operate all the time. This has happened to me (Danny) in the past as I found myself viewing women as commodities and judging them primarily on physical attractiveness, even in my offline interactions with women I met in my daily life. For these reasons, my personal conviction and the advice I give to others who are considering online dating is to spend as much time without an account as much as you do with one. And never use online dating for more than three months at a time. So if you’re present online consistently from August to October, you shouldn’t get back into it until February. If August to September, stay off until November. If you don’t need to do this, cool. But I’d suggest that long-term exposure to online dating will twist pretty much everyone’s perception of potential romantic interests. Whatever you have to do to keep this from happening, do it.
Is it Worth It?
These problematic elements of online dating should cause us pause. As Jonathan Grant wisely cautions; “A corrupting dynamic does not inevitably mean that we will be corrupted by it. Yet we have perhaps overplayed the extent to which we are free to make choices over and above our formative contexts and the visions of life they promote.”
Our hearts are not as immune to distortion as we wish they were. Ironically, it may be that those who are most likely to use digital matchmaking services well are those who have used them the least. Some will choose to avoid online dating, and that isn’t a bad choice. But if we are willing to guard our minds and check our motivations, online dating can, for some people, be a helpful way for those who are seeking Christ to meet each other.