Where Might You Meet the Love of Your Life?

Locking eyes across a crowded room vs. encountering each other's avatars.

Posted Jan 09, 2016

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

We constantly meet new people, in a myriad of places. Which of these people become our romantic partners, and what difference does it make where we met? In the course of an average day, it’s safe to guess that most of us meet someone we’ve never met before. Whether it’s bumping into a fellow shopper at the grocery store or introducing yourself through a mutual friend, we constantly interact with strangers. We will never see most of these people again, but some of those strangers will become our friends or even our romantic partners.

The search for a partner, on the other hand, is a quest that many people embark on deliberately. Online dating sites capitalize on the fact that you can’t rely on random encounters with strangers to produce a potential partner. If you’re lucky, systematic searching in the virtual world can produce a real-life romantic counterpart who is also looking to find someone just like you.

Which approach to finding a relationship leads to your desired outcome? There’s surprisingly little data on the subject, perhaps because researchers are only now able to track matches that began online with long-term outcomes. The old theories contrasted similarity with the "opposites attract" theory about what best produces relationship stability. Both considered proximity a plus: People who live near each other often share other important connections due to the factors that lead to neighborhood formation and stability. In other words, someone from down the street is likely to share your social status, family income, and perhaps your race or ethnicity. These factors can bring people together on purely sociological grounds, but sometimes also lead people to share similar psychological qualities.

That was then, however. We can now explore virtual proximity in ways that have never been possible. The question is whether the rewritten rules of meeting partners are changing the way we play the relationship game. Various recent studies investigating relationship formation look at factors such as “relational orientation”—the desire to have a relationship at all (DeCouto & Hennig, 2015)—and altruism, or one's willingness to give of oneself to help others (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2015). In one fascinating study of online relationship formation, Kotlyar and Ariely (2013) managed to study nonverbal cues on an online dating site through the use of avatars.

There may be no data at present to examine the question of which type of relationship formation best puts a couple on the road to long-term satisfaction stability. But we can find some tantalizing hints in a survey published in the UK Daily Mail that used an online ticketing service, Eventbrite. We might assume that since the users were not specifically seeking a mate, as on an online dating site, the results would span the range from real to virtual ways of meeting. The study was obviously not peer-reviewed, but it might provide the impetus for a future scholarly investigation.

Let’s take a look at the results: Among the 1,000 Everbrite users who answered the question of where they met their mate, the largest chosen category was “Other” (27%). But adding up the other smaller categories, only 4% stated that they met their partner online. Face-to-face interaction proved to be the best predictor of who would make a long-term commitment to a relationship.

It’s true that Everbrite users are people who were booking tickets for live events, so the finding that sports (12%) and music festivals (11%) ranked so high in this survey comes as no surprise. The other major categories included:

  • Educational, alumni, and charity events, which added up to 15%. This makes sense, because people who attend the same school or support the same causes are likely to share similar outlooks and values.
  • Meeting someone through work, whether directly in business together or via networking, also ranked fairly high (18%).
  • A small but hardy 1% who met at a race.

The next question is what people do when they encounter each other. The most common activity among the newly-introduced in this group was sharing phone numbers (35%). Slightly less frequent were kissing (32%) or holding hands (25%). Some admitted to sleeping with someone they'd just met (16%), and the truly romantic (10%) said they fell in love right there and then. (However, the largest number of survey respondents stated that they had done none of the above.)

How reliable are these results? After all, in an online survey, people can say whatever they want. They may prefer not to admit that they met their partner online, perhaps needlessly feeling embarrassed that they couldn’t "find" someone in real life. On the other hand, an anonymous survey is precisely the place where people should feel comfortable admitting almost anything. There’s no incentive to lie as there might be with a face-to-face interviewer you might be trying to impress.

The upshot

Real life trumps the virtual world as a way to find a mate. As stated in the article, “The vast majority of people (92 per cent) would rather introduce their new lover to their parents than change their relationship status on Facebook...[and] they’d rather lock eyes with someone across a room for the first time than receive a friend request on Facebook.”

Apparently, the South Pacific song, “Some Enchanted Evening” (with the lyric,"...you might meet a stranger, across a crowded room”) still holds sway among today’s budding romantics, just as it did in the 1950s.  

If you’re looking for a new and more fulfilling relationship, your best bet may be to keep your eyes open to those around you rather than scrolling through a dating app. You never know who you might see.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

References

  • Do Couto, L., & Hennig, K. H. (2015). Multiple facets of women’s relational orientation and their role in the relationship formation process. Personality And Individual Differences, 77137-142. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.12.052
  • Kotlyar, I., & Ariely, D. (2013). The effect of nonverbal cues on relationship formation. Computers In Human Behavior, 29(3), 544-551. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.11.020
  • Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A longitudinal analysis of romantic relationship formation: The effect of prosocial behavior. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 6(5), 521-527. doi:10.1177/1948550614568867

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016