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Column: Is online dating keeping us from settling down?

Is settling down – whether that’s in matrimony or simply committing to someone you love – becoming another casualty of society’s increasing need for instant gratification?

Molly Garboden

THE FACT THAT marriage is in decline is widely recognised: according to the United Nations’ statistics on marriage trends, 87 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where marriage levels have fallen since the 1980s. In Ireland, the rate fell from 5.4 per 1,000 of the estimated population in 1950 to 4.6 in 2012. Not a staggering stat, sure, but hey, it’s not a subject we tend to take lightly.

What’s less widely agreed upon is the force that has driven this drop. Any number of special interest groups will spout any number of suggestions that fulfil their special interests: absent fathers, gay marriage, young people being selfish – or, well, because sometimes people do things like this and that could put anyone off marriage (and is that… Boris Johnson?)

Another suggested reason for the drop in “I dos” has recently entered the fray: according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 32 per cent of internet users agree with the statement that “online dating keeps people from settling down because they always have options for people to date.”

The impression that perfection is ‘out there’

An unsettling statement, for sure. Is settling down – whether that’s in matrimony or simply committing to someone you love – becoming another casualty of society’s increasing need for instant gratification? Is starting a relationship considered as offhanded an act as my recent purchase of a never-to-be-used madeleine tin on Amazon (note to self: sauvignon blanc and 1-Click shopping do not mix)? Or do online dating sites give the impression that perfection is out there, somewhere, and it’s simply a matter of trial and error until you find it?

During my brief foray into internet dating, I found this aspect intolerable. Instead of a vague checklist of a partner’s desirable qualities in my head, which, face to face, could be completely overruled by humour or charm (admittedly, sometimes to my detriment), I had, in front of me, an actual checklist, which put a green tick or red cross next to every aspect of life I and potential dates agreed or disagreed on. Was my all-green guy out there? Well, this guy had more ticks then that guy, but there must be someone with even more ticks than he has, so I’ll just see…

I’m not by any means saying that strong, healthy relationships can’t be found online – quite the contrary, as I know a number of happily committed couples who met via internet dating. Pew confirms this too, citing the fact that 5 per cent of Americans who are currently married or in a long-term partnership met their partner somewhere online. But for many people, dating websites can indulge the fantasy that there’s always someone else, someone who might just be that little bit better.

An obvious pitfall of this illusion is also spelled out by the research: 54 per cent of those surveyed believe someone else has “seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile”. So, after all that searching, Mr or Ms Green Ticks may well not be all that they seem.

The ugly underbelly of social networks

This fantasy-driven behaviour extends further into the ugly underbelly of social networks, to things like checking up on exes online. Nearly a quarter of Pew’s respondents said they have searched for information online about someone they dated in the past (the other three quarters obviously lied – oh shush now, you know you did). While the underlying motivation may be different, in extreme cases, this behaviour can have the same consequences as seeking perfection on dating websites: it can stop you from moving on with your life, ultimately, preventing you from committing to a new relationship that might just work if you stick with it (and that’s not just me talking bollocks: there was an academic study about it and everything).

And, also similar to dating sites, there’s always the consideration that you’re not gaining true insight into what your ex’s life is like now, but rather merely how they wish to present themselves – something of which all social network users, to varying degrees, are inevitably guilty.

So, basically, we’re as fecked as we were before all these dating and networking sites were created: no one’s perfect, some people are never satisfied, and breaking up is hard to do. Bloody hell, at least when we met in pubs and at parties, all this atrocious behaviour could be blamed on booze.

You can see how Molly wishes to present herself on Twitter: @MollyGarboden

Read: 10 distinctly Irish relationship problems

Read: Want to know your chances of finding true love in college?

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