This Is What Relationship Initiation Looks Like Online

A new study maps the trajectory of relationships from first email to first date.

Posted Mar 22, 2019

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If you’ve ever wondered about the best approach to online dating, you’re not alone. In a recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, we wanted to know what strategies people used to initiate relationships online, and which ones led to the most successful first dates. To do this, we combed through email messages from online daters to prospective romantic partners on sites like Tinder, eHarmony, PlentyOfFish, Match, and OkCupid. We also followed up with them after they met to see how likely they would be to go on a second date. 

How Relationships Unfold in Online Dating

Our findings pointed to a diverse set of strategies that people used to initiate relationships leading up to the first date, from showing off their resources to discussing their compatibility scores, drawing topics of conversation from their partner’s profile, and confirming each other’s identities on social media. A few examples include:

  • Pickup lines — Many people used pick-up lines to capture their partner’s attention, which were sometimes over the top and flirtatious. However, the most common were low-effort, low-risk introductions, such as a simple, “How’s it going?” While not romantic, these types of innocuous greetings may be appealing, because they’re easy to send — and also less face-threatening than more direct advances if they don’t receive a response.
  • Online dating goals — Others revealed their motivations for using online dating, which ranged from wanting to find love to looking to expand their options with little intent to commit to someone long-term. There were also people who were there just to browse or pass the time, including one man whose primary motive was to see how many matches he could get.
  • Relationship alternatives — Still, others talked about their experiences with different partners online, both good and bad. Whereas some described having lots of quality alternatives to choose from, this was not the case for everyone. For example, one woman discussed a previous partner whose behavior was so inappropriate that she blocked him on her phone and hid her profile before agreeing — at the urging of her friends — to give online dating another try.  
  • Date requests — When it came to the first date, people were sometimes subtle about their interest in escalating the relationship offline. For instance, a casual request to “bring me next time!” was one way of passively signaling an interest in meeting without doing so directly. Yet, by putting the responsibility for following up on one’s partner, these kinds of indirect date requests may also make it difficult to formalize concrete plans for the first date.

Effectiveness of Strategies on the First Date

We also observed that some initiation strategies were associated with better first-date outcomes than others. For example, when the first date went well, people were more likely to have discussed their partner preferences prior to the meeting, such as the qualities they were looking for in an ideal mate. They were also less likely to have referenced their relationship alternatives, like how many matches they’d received or the number of dates they’d been on before meeting their current romantic interest. This study suggests that, overall, the key to relationship success may be found in the communication that occurs online.

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Baker, A. (2002). What makes an online relationship successful? Clues from couples who met in cyberspace. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5, 363–375. doi:10.1089/109493102760275617 

Scissors, L. E. (2010). Will u go out with me? Examining romantically-motivated emails. Proceedings of the ACM 2010 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Savannah, GA. 

Sharabi, L. L., & Dykstra-DeVette, T. A. (2019). From first email to first date: Strategies for initiating relationships in online dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0265407518822780