With the breakdown of social structures that once ensured connection to others -- like families and religious affiliations -- a romantic partner is viewed as the primary way to counteract isolation. Without one, celebrations -- like the most recent Valentine's Day -- can feel like a very long 24 hours.
At times like these, some feel the Internet can prove extremely useful, not only as a way to find a potential long-term partner, but to alleviate loneliness along the way. While the latest statistics show that 17% of marriages currently result from online dating (a huge increase over the last 10 years), this figure is exponentially higher when one includes the number of people who have created relationships that don't necessarily end up at the altar. As an increasing number of people -- from teens to seniors -- get comfortable with this mode of interacting, the numerous meet-and-greet sites are serving singles in unprecedented ways.
Because they sometimes have millions of participants, online dating sites offer users a comforting sense that they are not alone. Single people are reminded that there are many others out there looking to connect and willing to try new ways of doing so. In theory, any user's profile can be potentially accessed, explored and "liked" by anyone signed in as a member. Profiles provide users with information about available partners in ways that once was impossible in real-time interactions. Whether a connection is made or a romantic relationship develops, the very possibility of one can ease a sense of isolation.
Online sites also offer a mode of communicating that until now required stepping into public arenas -- bars, parties and other settings where singles gathered -- which create anxiety and inhibition for some. From a computer or smartphone, there are now opportunities to interact privately, right from one's home and with people who span the globe. Many singles report that online dating is simply easier than face-to-face connections. It feels less personal -- and as a result, makes its users feel less vulnerable -- especially if the interactions are kept simple and brief. For example, a virtual "wink" that expresses interest in someone's profile can be less anxiety-provoking than real-life flirtation. Often, there is less emotional risk or investment involved and therefore a lower likelihood of feeling hurt or rejected.
Online daters tend to spend a great deal of time texting, messaging or having back-and-forth phone interactions before ever setting eyes on each other. For some, like Manti Te'o (the football player involved in an online dating scam), live interactions never take place. Some users move on to webcams in order to see and hear each other. But even these real-time communications create less vulnerability, since the users can exert control over their timing. Generally, all these online activities create a wide web of connections, even if no actual relationships are developed.
Many of the online sites provide a way to match one's own profile with qualities that users are told will likely result in potential partners -- what many describe as a "relationship algorithm." Rather than randomly clicking on just anyone, these sites suggest that there is a greater likelihood for long-term romance if compatibility is sought. People most often seek others with similar backgrounds, interests, likes and dislikes -- "he also loves Sushi" or "she is a Giant's fan too." Whether these algorithms work or not -- ah, if only love was as simple as basic math -- the process of creating a profile as well as investigating others' can help users feel proactive in their search for companionship. Being able to narrow or expand the pool of possibilities at will is especially empowering for women, who often prefer ruling out incompatible matches even before they begin.
Having a positive, relaxed attitude about online dating seems key to using them successfully. My patients who report having satisfying experiences often approach these sites without too much investment in the outcome. They don't necessarily set out to have a romantic relationship, a sexual encounter or even a close connection. They don't obsessively count the number of replies, nor do they get fixated on responding to the ones they receive. They accept its inherent limitations -- it's cyberspace, after all -- while taking advantage of the opportunities to connect. In the end, they view the experience as a way to enjoy easy access to hundreds of new acquaintances and then see where it goes from there.
Online dating serves as a modern day form of social exploration and interpersonal practice. If it's taken too seriously, it has the risk of fostering loneliness rather than relieving it. While "Mr./Ms. Right" may turn out to be "Mr./Ms. Writes Well," it's best to view it all as a way to play and have fun.
Do you think online dating makes people feel less -- or more -- lonely? Tell me what you think.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.