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Online Dating and Modern Day “RelationShopping”

Online Dating and Modern Day “RelationShopping”

Online dating is now the most popular way US couples meet. While many argue that dating apps have made finding a compatible partner much easier than ever before, others worry that an increasingly popularized and commercialized dating culture is making people less committed, more insecure, and highly replaceable in a never-ending cycle of swipes.

Online Dating and Modern Day “RelationShopping”

Online dating is now the most popular way US couples meet. While many argue that dating apps have made finding a compatible partner much easier than ever before, others worry that an increasingly popularized and commercialized dating culture is making people less committed, more insecure, and highly replaceable in a never-ending cycle of swipes.

Writer: Sara Salimi | Copy Editor: Zainabrights | Design: Fatima El-Zein

Quick stats: Dating Apps in the US

Three in 10 US adults report having used a dating site or app in their life, according to Pew Research Center [5]. Men are somewhat more likely than women to have tried online dating (34% vs. 27%). Online dating is especially popular among people under 30, considering that apps like Tinder and Bumble speak to a younger audience by glamorizing dating through an interactive online experience [2].

About 45% of dating site or app users say a major reason they turned to online dating was to meet a long-term partner and around 40% reported joining to date casually. Smaller shares said a major reason was to have casual sex (24%) or make new friends (22%). Furthermore, men who used a dating platform in the past year are much more likely than women to say casual sex was a major reason for online dating (31% vs. 13%) [5].

Matchmaking in the current age is now done primarily with algorithms, according to research by Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld [1]. In fact, couples are more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal connections. Rosenfeld explains that the previously held stigma surrounding online dating has worn off, as more and more people have come to trust new dating technology as a primary source for pursuing romantic interests. He attributes the exponential increase in online dating to two main technological innovations: the birth of the World Wide Web around 1995 and the rise of the smartphone in the 2010s. 

Online dating: Success or Failure?

The Stanford study also found that the success of relationships did not depend on whether couples met online or in person. In fact, Rosenfeld believes that online dating technology is a positive development that is helping people from all over the world connect with potential matches. “It’s a basic human need to find someone else to partner with and if technology is helping with that, then it’s doing something useful,” he says.

Liesel Sharabi, director of the “Relationships and Technology” lab at Arizona State University, echoes similar findings. She explains that one of the advantages of online dating is that it introduces people to a larger pool of potential partners, especially those who have limited opportunities to meet others in their day-to-day routines [2]. Sharabi did find, however, that there are serious downsides to online dating as well. “My research has shown that people sometimes struggle with knowing when to quit online dating and leave the single life behind. With so many options available, it starts to seem like there’s always someone better out there if you just keep swiping,” she says.

Statistics from dating app users reflect this duality in perspective. Online dating users are divided on whether their experiences on these platforms have been positive or negative. Among those who have used dating apps, slightly more say their personal experiences have been somewhat or very positive compared to those who reported somewhat or very negative experiences (53% vs 46%) [5]. At the same time, 90% of women and 87% of men say they are disappointed with what they have seen on dating apps.

Pew Research also reported that 54% of women say they have felt overwhelmed by the number of messages they receive on dating sites or apps, and 64% of men say they have felt insecure due to the lack of messages they receive [5].

Overall, around 42% of US adults say online dating has made the search for a long-term partner easier, but statistics show that adults under 30 are much less convinced than their older counterparts that this is the case. 

These trends are further exacerbated by the high replaceability of partners on dating platforms. Dating apps have made it easier to have short-term relationships not just because it is easier to engage with partners, but also because it is easier to disengage from them without facing negative consequences like social stigma or guilt [20].

The privatization of dating has made it easier and more convenient to enjoy the perks of a relationship without necessarily being committed to a partner. While some may consider this a success, the conditions made instantaneously available through online dating come with serious long-term implications that can affect how people treat partners in future relationships. 

The convenience of high replaceability, for example, does not provide for healthy short or long-term relationships as it can devolve into the absence of responsibility toward oneself and one’s partner. At an age when couples are frequently told that it is empowering to cut off partners at the slightest inconvenience rather than putting serious time and effort into sustaining and nurturing relationship bonds, online dating culture has only exacerbated the pervasiveness of these norms. 

“Relationshopping”: The Dating Marketplace

The idea that a dating pool can be treated as a marketplace or an economy is both modern and traditional. For generations, people have been describing single people as “on the market” and making sense of dating in terms of supply and demand [3]. Trends show that since 1940, the traditional ways of meeting partners, including through family, religious settings, and neighborhoods, have all been in decline [1].

The difference is that in the modern age, an increasingly globalized and capitalized network dominated by the internet has made matters more complex. Dating is no longer just the search for a suitable marriage partner, but has transformed into something much more ambiguous. Some even argue that the nature of dating has been fundamentally transformed by online platforms [20].

Moira Weigel, the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, argues that for most of human history, courtship was supervised and was taking place in non-commercial settings like homes or religious gatherings [4].

She notes that modern dating has always situated the process of finding love within the realm of commerce, and it is for this reason that online dating is increasingly treated as a marketplace where people engage in “relationshopping.”

Dating apps may have become the most popular way to meet partners in the age of technology, but they also make up a “multi-billion dollar industry that relies on keeping users hooked” [6]. Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz, co-host of the podcast “Land of the Giants: Dating Games,” explains that swipers get suspended in what she calls the “zone of possibility,” where they feel they will score a romantic partner. “And all the time, daters are being told this is a numbers game: the more dates you go on, the better.” 

Singh-Kurtz concluded that this has led a significant portion of dating app users to experience burnout and exhaustion, which starts with having too many options to choose from.

Hookup Culture, Open Relationships, and Dating Apps

Dating app trends also highlight the rising interest in open relationships [12]. There is no question that the mainstream online dating world is not necessarily meant to result in marriage. A plethora of research on this topic reveals that dating app users look for different types of relationships, ranging from short-term casual sex to long-term committed marriage.

While dating apps have helped people find romantic partners and spouses, they are also notorious for being sources of endless trust issues. A 2015 Global Web Index survey of 47,000 dating apps users found that a whopping 42% of participants were not single [7]. Among them, 30% were married and another 12% were already in a relationship.

In response to why that was the case, a considerable number of respondents reported that being in a conventional monogamous relationship just does not work for everyone. One anonymous user specifically explained: “I don’t believe in monogamy, I think it is just an obligation dictated by our culture and society” [7]. 

Additionally, a 2018 study that looked into why partnered people use Tinder found that the main reasons were either using the app for casual hookups, or to see what was out there in the dating market to estimate their own value as a dating partner [8]. 

These observations come at a time when hookups, or “uncommitted sexual encounters,” are becoming progressively more ingrained in popular culture. A review of the literature suggests that these encounters are normal among adolescents and young adults in North America [9]. Data from scientific literature on sexual hookup culture reveals that between 60% and 80% of college students in North America have had some type of previous hookup experience [10]. The prevalence of this culture for college students can be attributed to the ease of dating apps and the ready availability of contraceptive methods to avoid pregnancy [11].

Popular media representations of open sexuality further demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual hookup culture among emerging adults. In this conversation, it is worth noting the influential role of the entertainment industry in normalizing this culture. The themes portrayed in music, movies, books, and pop culture consistently display permissive, uncommitted sexual content, often in a positive light [9]. In these depictions, sexual freedom tends to be juxtaposed with a strong sense of identity and self confidence, despite the fact that scientific literature paints a very different image [13].

The Psychology of Open Relationships

Many make the assertion that dating apps are no different than being present on social media and the internet as a whole, and that both come with a list of pros and cons. It is true that social media and technology in general provide an outlet for insecurities that make genuine connections more difficult to foster [11]. Despite this fact, examining the role of dating apps in giving rise to personal insecurities that can affect relationships is an independent conversation that is supported by psychological and social research.

Sarah Levinson, a counselor at Creative Relating Psychology Psychotherapy, explains that the trends related to the increasing sexual open-mindedness in society are multifaceted. At its core, however, it seems to have something to do with the first world’s obsession with having an unlimited supply of options – in this case potential partners – to choose from.  This mindset has grown to not only encompass different dating partners, but even the type of dating relationship to have. “When you keep choosing monogamy and it’s not working, you start getting curious about whether there’s another way,” Levinson explained [12]. 

Unfortunately, the problematic notion of “it’s not working” has often been used by both relationship experts and psychologists as a scapegoat for avoiding responsibility. David Ludden, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, explained that “if partners can meet other psychological needs outside of marriage, they should be able to go outside of the relationship to meet their sexual needs as well” [14]. Specifically, he called it “providing oxygen to a suffocating marriage.”

Even further, many relationship experts and psychologists now hold that consensual non-monogamy, which allows partners to meet their sexual needs outside their marriage, could boost relationship satisfaction [14]. Several peer-reviewed studies that have been published in psychology journals claim that “opening up a relationship can be a healthy, viable option for some couples,” citing no differences in relationship quality between monogamous and non-monogamous couples [15].

While public and scholarly support for open relationships has ironically increased at the same pace that online dating and hookup culture has, there still remains a notable deal of pushback against it. A growing community of researchers are coming to believe that open relationships have become an unhealthy response to Americans’ loss of community [16]. Millennials and Gen-Z are feeling a lack of social support, and they are being sold the idea that a career is the most important asset they can attain.

Julie Mastrine, a writer for Evie Magazine, argues that these non-traditional relationship structures are born out of a deep, unconscious desire to replace the familial, religious, and ethnic community ties that Americans have lost. “Since it’s no longer ‘cool’ to go to church or to volunteer, and it is ‘cool’ to be non-traditional, young people are taking the only route that seems to be socially acceptable – and it’s a total disaster,” she says. 

Open relationships essentially eradicate a relationship structure necessary for the mental, physical, and spiritual health of both sides.

Online Dating and Mental Health

Over the course of Tinder’s 10-year market domination, there have been a growing number of reports showcasing how dating apps are negatively impacting people’s brain chemistry [16]. While dating apps are good at triggering dopamine releases, they are not good at helping maintain that happiness in the long-term. In fact, the dating app system is designed to trigger the brain’s reward system as its business model depends on continued swiping.

Stefanos Sifandos, a relationship coach who writes for the Toronto Star, explains this process by claiming that dating apps are turning into emotional war zones [17]. “The team of psychologists employed by these apps have created models to give you an intense high that quickly wears off,” he writes. 

Sifandos also cites a 2016 study which found that dating app users report lower self-esteem levels and reduced psychological well-being compared to non-users. The study did not prove that Tinder caused those specific issues, but co-author Trent Petrie, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas, explained that these mental health problems are a risk for users of any social media network that promotes evaluative behaviors [19].

Online dating is also often associated with poor body image and body dysmorphia, considering that an overwhelming majority of matches are made based upon physical attraction as a primary factor in finding a match [18]. “When we as human beings are represented simply by what we look like, we start to look at ourselves in a very similar way: as an object to be evaluated,” Petrie explained [19].


In a world that has commercialized virtually every aspect of human life, it should come as no surprise that even human relationships have been capitalized upon for maximum profit. While online dating has helped many connect with their ideal definition of a partner or spouse, it is a double-edged sword. While online dating has given positive outcomes to those who have used it wisely, it also comes with increased risks associated with poor mental health and greater difficulty in building long-lasting, effort-driven relationships in real life. Through online dating, people are less socially exposed to individuals they have not specifically chosen to meet. Undoubtedly, this has broader consequences for the way people interact and reach out to one another in society [20]. 

In the words of sociologist Marie Bergstrom, “we need to think about what it means to be in a society that has moved inside and closed down.”

Writer: Sara Salimi | Copy Editor: Zainabrights | Design: Fatima El-Zein


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