A new study has found that online dating is now the dominant way heterosexual people find romantic partners. What else can we learn?
For future generations, the question: How did you and Grandad meet?, will be answered with: Tinder, obviously. Within eight years, the internet has become the dominant way heterosexual couples meet. The latest How Couples Meet and Stay Together study by Stanford University found that 39% of heterosexual couples met through online dating or apps, up from 22% in 2009, when the study was last conducted. Life has been disrupted by technology, and so has dating. What else can we learn about how romance has changed?
We meet strangers, not friends of friends
People meeting through friends previously the largest category has fallen from 34% in 1990 to 20% in the most recent data; other routes to relationships, such as meeting through work, family and neighbours, have also declined. At first glance of the graph, it looks as if the number of couples meeting at a bar or restaurant has gone up, but thats only because they met online first and the bar was the site of their first face-to-face meeting.
The rise of online dating has displaced every other way of meeting to a certain extent, says Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology and lead researcher of the study. When we last looked at this with data from 2009, friends were still by far the most popular way heterosexual couples met partners. I have been a little bit surprised at how much the internet has displaced friends. He thought the internet could leverage friends that is, you could meet people through Facebook, but apart from a few dating sites that make that the selling point, people are using online dating entirely separately from their social networks.
Will everyone meet this way in the future? Rosenfeld says he doesnt want to make predictions, but that it is possible online dating has reached a plateau. The accessibility of web browsers in the mid-90s, and the invention of internet-enabled smartphones just over a decade ago, have had a huge impact. I dont know if were going to see another innovation as powerful as those two in the next 20 years.
Online dating has lost its stigma
People I interviewed talked about starting online dating years ago and being really coy about it and not wanting anyone to know, says Roisin Ryan-Flood, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex, who is writing a book about online dating. And now theyre much more open about it because its become so ubiquitous. One of my participants said: Tinder made online dating cool. I think theres a perception it went mainstream.
As we live in an increasingly digital world, its not surprising, she says, that our relationships have been made digital the same way as online shopping or booking a holiday. Although online dating does involve rejection, it does also present a lot of possibilities to meet new people, she says. From my research, people would often talk about online dating as: Im really busy and this is an efficient way of meeting people. You could go on a dating app and line up a different date every night of the week.
The view that it is fuelling short-term, meaningless connections isnt quite right, says Julia Carter, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of the West of England. When you look at the data and talk to couples, those who met online tend to not say dissimilar things to people who met in more traditional ways. While the very start of relationships might be different meeting online might give those first few dates a different flavour when those relationships start to become established, then the way we do things hasnt really changed.
What matters more, says Jacqui Gabb, a professor of sociology and intimacy at the Open University, is intention. Its a commitment to making a relationship work. You could argue that if youre actively going out and looking for a relationship, youre more likely to make it work. If those who commit to relationships through internet dating are looking actively for a long-term partnership, then theyre more likely to stay together.
Childhood sweethearts are in decline
In the UK and US, people are marrying later. In Britain, the age at first marriage has been rising since the early 70s and is now 37.9 for men and 35.5 for women. People are doing a lot more dating and experimenting before settling down, says Rosenfeld. The Stanford study shows the decline of the childhood sweetheart, although for the UK it was maybe never such a big thing to begin with. I wonder how different it would be to do this study here, says Carter, adding that it seems like a very American cultural phenomenon. As weve become more globalised, those local narrow contexts and the very small community of primary school and secondary school friends dont have so much of an influence on how we can imagine our futures.
So are enduring university romances
In the past, you could meet someone at university and you accepted that and were happy, says Carter. What has happened is this dating technology has removed that stopping point, so people carry on looking. In the past [people] might have settled down with their university girlfriend or boyfriend, whereas now they have this imagined wider field of potential partners, so thats having an impact on when people settle down. We know people are getting married lots later in life, and having children later in life so that university relationship tends to fizzle out.
Workplace romances are falling out of favour
I was quite surprised about that, says Carter. It went up hugely in the 70s and peaked around the 80s I think thats because women were entering the workforce in large numbers and now its coming down. Im not sure we can say thats wholly explainable by attitudes now to workplace romances or merely a levelling out in the data over time. Rosenfeld says it has become easier to meet people online than in offices. In college, there are lots of single people around you, but if youre in the workforce, all of a sudden its not 100% clear whos single or if its appropriate to date your supervisor. Real-life problems intrude.
Have office romances become more unacceptable? There are certainly downsides to dating somebody at work, he says. Once things go sour and you have to see them every day, thats a downside. Our friends in human resources have put their nose into it a little bit and suggested the office is not a great place for romance.
It could be that, in the wake of #MeToo revelations of sexual harassment, people are keener to have professional distance at work, says Ryan-Flood. I dont think thats a bad thing if it makes people more aware about sexual harassment or boundaries, she says, adding: You dont get together with someone who sexually harasses you.
You dont love thy neighbour
Fewer people are getting together with their neighbours again related to a more mobile population, settling down at a later age. Seventy years ago, Americans were marrying when they were 19 or 20 years old, says Rosenfeld. You havent really gone anywhere, so youre talking about [marrying someone] from high school, church or the neighbourhood those were the only people you ever met. Now people are settling down later in life, so theyre travelled, theyve lived in different places and the neighbourhood of origin is not as relevant as it used to be.
It may also have something to do with the fact we dont know our neighbours any more. A study in the UK last year found 73% of people didnt know their neighbours names and 68% described them as strangers.
Our love stories are getting more boring or at least shorter
In 2009, respondents to the survey used 67 words to tell the story of how they met. By 2017, that had shrunk to 37 words, probably because it doesnt take many to say: I went on Tinder and swiped right. Is it a shame were losing those stories of sparks and spontaneity? Some people I interviewed did express a kind of nostalgia for this idea of a different way people dated as opposed to going online, and there was a sense of disposability, but most of the time people had really positive experiences, says Ryan-Flood.
Anyway, technology will change and maybe Tinder will seem really quaint and romantic, she says, with a laugh. My parents met at a dance, and that doesnt strike me as epically romantic. I dont think apps are any better or worse than any other way. What really counts is meeting someone with whom you feel a connection.