Winning the Game of Online Dating

Finding love in cyberspace may be easier than you think.

Posted Aug 17, 2018

A recent article in The Atlantic details a study by Elizabeth Bruch, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. In it, she details the online dating phenomena of “outkicking your coverage”- that is, seeking partners who are significantly more desirable than you are. She finds that most online daters seek partners that are at least 25% more desirable based on individuals’ messaging and response rates, a strategy that has an abysmal success rate. Among other depressing findings, at least for many of us, are that women’s online desirability peaks at age 18 (compared to age 50 for men!,) that white men and Asian American women are viewed as most desirable, and that, for women, education has diminishing returns as those who have post-graduate degrees are seen as less attractive than those with less education. Such findings make it seem like our chances of finding love in cyberspace are impossible, especially for highly educated women.  This trope – that highly educated women are unlucky in love, or that men are unwilling to partner with smart, highly educated women – while constant, is not supported by the evidence.

In fact, in recent years, it is those with a college degree – women as well as men – who are most likely to get married and stay married.  In the past, more studious women were less likely to tie the knot.  In 1950, only 67% of women with a college degree had ever married by age 55, compared with 93% of women with less than a college degree; there was no such gap between more and less educated men. But in the ensuing decades, a woman with an education became not only more common, but more desirable.  Men increasingly view a partner’s ability to contribute economically imperative, and women with a college degree are best able to bring home the bacon, sometimes more than their male counterparts  – even if the couple won’t admit it.  For today’s young adults, economic attractiveness of women as well as men are important attributes for prospective mates. 

So what to make of studies showing that women fare less well on internet dating sites than do men?  While the internet clearly has become more popular as a venue for meeting partners, not all who are exploring dating apps are focused on forming relationships.  Nancy Jo Sales, in a popular Vanity Fair article, described dating apps as “The Dating Apocalypse,” enabling men in cities with unequal sex ratios to call the terms of interaction, which generally resulted in sex without strings.  Many couples do, however, meet via dating apps and go on to engage in relationships – but there is a great deal of variation in who searches on-line for love.

BruceMars /Pexels
Finding love online
Source: BruceMars /Pexels

So, for those seeking love in cyberspace, what advice can we take away from the research? First, be clear about what you’re looking for in the relationship. For about a third of the couples we interviewed who met online, their initial purpose was to find a sexual partner, not a romantic one. For the couples we talked to, these unions, which were initially casual, blossomed into something more. While this is not unusual and can be a step in relationship progression, others intentionally went looking for love. As long as partners are on the same page about their expectations, each individual is likely to be more satisfied with how the union unfolds.

Next, look for partners with whom you already share an interest. Specialty dating sites such as those for Jewish singles, those seeking a rural partner, or ones that cater to older adults can provide some of this initial filtering. However, the absence of a shared social network means that couples who meet online enter their relationships with less in common. Still, by seeking out people who have similar interests (be it sports, music, politics, or any number of topics) it is easier to facilitate conversation.

Finally, build trust, but be wary of over-disclosure, especially in the early stages of the relationship. The relative anonymity of cyberspace facilitated deeper discussions than, say, sitting across from one another at a restaurant table on a first or second date might have. Whether emailing, chatting online, or texting, it seemed to be easier for some couples to get close quickly because they talked about things they might not otherwise have if they had met in person. But, just as this strategy pushes some relationships along, it can also make “ghosting”, when one partner simply cuts off all communication, easier. Getting too close, too quickly while never having met face-to-face makes ending the relationship an appealing prospect for some. If the relationship seems to have potential, go ahead and meet in person, sooner rather than later.

While dating can be intimidating, and studies like the one profiled above can make it seem rigged, it is important to remember that people find love every day. Online dating can be a pathway to successful unions, particularly if individuals are clear about their initial expectations for the relationship, seek out others with shared interests, and transition the union offline relatively quickly. And, importantly, seeking out partners who have similar characteristics as you do rather than being overly prescriptive or consistently trying to “punch above your weight” can be a key to winning the game of love in cyberspace.