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These days, however, the New York Times Vows section —famous for its meet-cute stories of the blissfully betrothed—is full of couples who trumpet the love they found through Ok Cupid or Tinder.
Today an estimated one-third of marrying couples in the U. met online, and as many as 15 percent of American adults have used dating sites or apps. Locking eyes across a crowded room might make for a lovely song lyric, but when it comes to romantic potential, nothing rivals technology, according to Helen Fisher, PhD , a biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute , and chief scientific adviser to Match. Online dating is the way to go—you just have to learn to work the system.
Your eligible bachelor awaits! For guidance, O S tyle Features Director Holly Carter turned to a pro. Seven years ago, I signed up for Match. com , but I never took it seriously. But at 44, I started to realize that if I want a companion before Social Security kicks in, I have to leave the couch. Do a Google image search with his photo to see if it links to a Facebook or Instagram account.
And if he tells you he lost his wallet and needs a loan? I want you to be on the site at least three hours a week. One possible explanation, offered by Justin Lehmiller, PhD, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want , is that men tend to overestimate the sexual interest of women they casually encounter, so they may assume the "gift" will be welcome.
And if they occasionally get a positive response, they may figure it can't hurt to try again. Hoffman looks at my photos and nixes the corporate headshot and mirror selfie.
Mirror selfies often give off an air of vanity. Agreed—as a curvy girl, I want to avoid first-date surprises. I skip quirky.
The reality is Who knows? chicken fingers. As in fast food? But then—success! She struck up a correspondence with her No. For all the fun that twenty-somethings are having hooking up with their Hornivores, their Sonnets, and their Poolboys, it turns out that the fastest-growing online-dating demographic is people over fifty—a function perhaps of expanding computer literacy and diminished opportunity.
She lives outside Boston. As a single mother, in her forties, she gave up men for a while. When her son was ready to go to college, she started dating again. She was fifty-eight. Through a dating service, she met an economist, who was eight years younger than she. They lived together for a decade. And that was that. A nice guy from Vermont drove all the way down to see me.
She met a mathematician who lived in Amsterdam, and flew over to meet him but discovered within minutes that he suffered from full-blown O. They got together for coffee at Café Pamplona, in Cambridge.
He was handsome, charming, and bright. He invited her to accompany him to Norway to meet the Queen. She has gone online as a man, just to survey the terrain, and estimates that in her age range women outnumber men ten to one.
If the dating sites had a mixer, you might find OK Cupid by the bar, muttering factoids and jokes, and Match. The clean-shaven gentleman on the couch, with the excellent posture, the pastel golf shirt, and that strangely chaste yet fiery look in his eye? That would be eHarmony. EHarmony is the squarest of the sites, the one most overtly geared toward finding you a spouse.
It was launched, in , by Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist who had spent three decades treating and studying married couples and working out theories about what made their marriages succeed or fail. From his own research, and his review of the academic and clinical literature, he concluded that two people were more likely to stay together, and stay together happily, if they shared certain psychological traits.
As he has often said, opposites attract—and then they attack. He designed eHarmony to identify and align these shared traits, and to keep opposites away from each other. Warren was also a seminarian and a devout Christian, and eHarmony started out as a predominantly Christian site.
The evangelical conservative James Dobson, through his organization Focus on the Family, had published advice books that Warren had written and provided early support and publicity for eHarmony.
As it has grown into the second-biggest fee-based dating service in the world, eHarmony has expanded and shed its more orthodox orientation, and severed its connections to Dobson. In , under pressure from a slew of class-action lawsuits, it created a separate site specifically for homosexuals. The director of the lab, and the senior director of research and development at eHarmony, is a psychologist named Gian Gonzaga.
He and his staff bring in couples and observe them as they perform various tasks. Then they come to conclusions about the human condition, which they put to use in improving their matching algorithms and, perhaps just as important, in getting out the word that they are doing so. There is a touch of Potemkin in the enterprise. One night in March, Gonzaga invited me to observe a session that was part of a five-year longitudinal study he is conducting of three hundred and one married couples.
EHarmony had solicited them on its site, in churches, and from registration lists at bridal shows. Of the three hundred and one, fifty-five had met on eHarmony. Gonzaga, an affable Philadelphian, introduced me to one of his colleagues, Heather Setrakian, who was running the study. She was also his wife. To test their procedures, they needed a man and a woman to impersonate a married couple for multiple sessions. Gonzaga and Setrakian became the impersonators, and fell in love.
The eHarmony relationship lab consists of four windowless interview rooms, each of them furnished with a couch, easy chairs, silk flowers, and semi-hidden cameras. The walls were painted beige, to better frame telltale facial expressions and physical gestures on videotape.
Down the hall was the control room, with several computer screens on which Gonzaga and Setrakian and their team of researchers observe their test subjects. Each couple came for an interview three or so months before their wedding, and then periodically afterward.
They also filled out questionnaires and diaries according to a schedule. In the lab, they were asked to participate in four types of interaction, where first one spouse, and then the other, initiates a discussion.
The discussions ranged from two to ten minutes. It helps test the bond. A third interaction is conflict resolution; the husband chooses something that has been bugging him about his wife, and they spend ten minutes hashing it out.
Then the wife gets her shot. Gonzaga showed me recordings of several sessions involving some couples in the program. Their participation in the study is confidential, but they had consented to let me watch their sessions. In the conflict-resolution segment, each spouse chooses an area of grievance from a list called the Inventory of Marital Problems, developed by psychologists in Each subject rates each category on a scale of 1 to 7, ranging from Not a Problem to Major Problem.
Apparently, this behavior did not augur well. He was a third-generation Mexican-American from the San Gabriel Valley who worked for the city of Los Angeles. She was a Mexican immigrant who worked as a family therapist. They were both heavyset and inclined toward a projection of light amusement, although hers seemed more acerbic.
He had had a mostly fruitless dating career. EHarmony selected her as a compatible partner for Leon, but he put her aside at first, because her name was too much like his. Finally, they went through the stages of communication. Who asks that question? It bounced off the ceiling into my hands. After three years, they moved in together, and married a year later. They have a one-year-old son. I watched the tease. Typically, Gonzaga gives the subjects initials to choose from, and the couple uses them to come up with a moniker.
and chose the moniker Boob Dude. Back in the control room, Gonzaga explained that their teasing had a flirtatious and sympathetic tone, which was a sign that their senses of humor were aligned and that therefore they were harmonious—tease-wise, at least.
Perhaps eHarmony had chosen well. In , in response to the success of eHarmony, Match. com began developing a new site—a longer-term-relationship operation with a scientific underpinning. The white coat whom Match. com recruited for this new counter-venture was a biological anthropologist named Helen Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers and a renowned scholar of human attraction and attachment. She has used brain scans to track the activity of chemicals in the brains of people in various states of romantic agitation.
Although the proposition of four types is not new Plato, Jung , her nomenclature and their biochemical foundation represent a frontier of relationship science, albeit one that is thinly populated and open to flanking attack. The new site was christened Chemistry. To sign up, you take a personality test that Fisher designed, which asks you questions about everything from feelings about following rules to your understanding of complex machinery and the length of your ring finger, relative to your index finger.
Once you have a type, the site uses it to choose matches for you. My wife took the test, and I was among her first ten suggested matches. Fisher contends that dating online is a reversion to an ancient, even primal approach to pairing off. She conjures millions of years of human prehistory: small groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the savanna, and then congregating a few times a year at this or that watering hole. Amid the merriment and the information exchange, the adolescents develop eyes for one another, in view of their elders and peers.
The groups likely know each other, from earlier gatherings or hunting parties. She expressed happy surprise that Chemistry. Fisher told me that her current boyfriend has read the complete works of Shakespeare aloud to her in bed, as well as some Dickens and Ibsen. She identified two big social trends that have led to a greater reliance on online dating: an aging population, and women around the world entering the workforce, marrying later, divorcing more, moving from place to place.
com, in the hope of one day synching up such data with buccal-swab results. At the eHarmony relationship lab, I got to watch a couple undergo a one-year-anniversary session. They were not an eHarmony couple. They had both failed to make a Hollywood living and now held jobs that they hated while they struggled to nourish what remained of their creative aspirations. He was tall and wiry, and had served in the military.
She had a wary, melancholic air and was curled up in a chair, as though recoiling from the camera that she knew was embedded in the wall behind her husband. Their participation was halting at first. The silliness of the tease exercise made them self-conscious. But soon they were squabbling about housework, and about the apportionment of their duties in a building they managed, and about the money he was making or not making, as he tried to launch a new company.
Each was frustrated by the faltering progress of the other. She wanted stability. He wanted support. A few minutes later, it was his turn to pick a conflict topic. I resent how I get criticized for every little thing. Gonzaga and Setrakian sat side by side, staring at the monitor. There was a silence in the room and on the screen. The conceit can turn the search for someone into a search for that someone, which is fated to end in futility or compromise, whether conducted on the Internet or in a ballroom.
And yet people find each other, every which way, and often achieve something that they call happiness. One evening, I found myself in such a place with a thirty-eight-year-old elementary-school teacher who had spent more than ten years plying Match.
com and Nerve. com, as well as the analogue markets, in search of someone with whom to spend the rest of her life. Her mother felt that she was being too picky. In December, she started corresponding online with a man a couple of years older than she.
After a week and a half, they met for drinks, which turned into dinner and more. He was clever, handsome, and capable. He made the arrangements. Her mother approved. She flew down to Rio the next week, and he came to the airport with a driver to meet her. Months later, she savored the memory of that moment when he greeted her with a passionate hug, and the week and who knows what else lay before them. A swirl of anticipation, uncertainty, and desire converged into an instant of bliss.
You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match.
Altfest thought this was pretty nifty. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I. Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. Affected people. Birth control. Free love. TACT transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I. In the beginning, TACT was restricted to the Upper East Side, an early sexual-revolution testing ground.
The demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated subway line set off a building boom and a white-collar influx, most notably of young educated women who suddenly found themselves free of family, opprobrium, and, thanks to birth control, the problem of sexual consequence.
Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on. Over time, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. Ross and Altfest enjoyed a brief media blitz. They wound up in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune and in Cosmopolitan. She makes Quiche Lorraine, plays chess, and like me she loves to ski.
Some loser! One day, a woman named Patricia Lahrmer, from WINS, a local radio station, came to TACT to do an interview. She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross. The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two.
They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. Ross had hoped that TACT would help him meet someone, and, in a way, it had. After a couple of years, Ross grew bored with TACT and went into finance instead. He and Lahrmer moved to London. Looking back now, he says that he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad. Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute.
Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way. They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand. They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain. Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste.
There are those which basically allow you to browse through profiles as you would boxes of cereal on a shelf in the store. Others choose for you; they bring five boxes of cereal to your door, ask you to select one, and then return to the warehouse with the four others. Or else they leave you with all five.
Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac.
As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.
The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens. The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement.
The obvious advantage of online dating is that it provides a wider pool of possibility and choice. In some respects, for the masses of grownups seeking mates, either for a night or for life, dating is an attempt to approximate the collegiate condition—that surfeit both of supply and demand, of information and authentication. A college campus is a habitat of abundance and access, with a fluid and fairly ruthless vetting apparatus. A city also has abundance and access, especially for the young, but as people pair off, and as they corral themselves, through profession, geography, and taste, into cliques and castes, the range of available mates shrinks.
We run out of friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. You can get to thinking that the single ones are single for a reason. If your herd is larger, your top choice is likely to be better, in theory, anyway. This can cause problems. You fall prey to the tyranny of choice—the idea that people, when faced with too many options, find it harder to make a selection. If you are trying to choose a boyfriend out of a herd of thousands, you may choose none of them.
Or you see someone until someone better comes along. It can turn people into products. For some, of course, there is no end game; Internet dating can be sport, an end in itself. The Internet can arrange this for you. But if you really are eager, to say nothing of desperate, for a long-term partner you may have to contend with something else—the tyranny of unwitting compromise. Often the people who go on the sites that promise you a match are so primed to find one that they jump at the first or the second or the third who comes along.
The people who are looking may not be the people you are looking for. Some hitters swing at every first pitch, and others always strike out looking. Many sites, either because of their methods or because of their reputations, tend to attract one or the other. com, one of the first Internet dating sites, went live in It is now the biggest dating site in the world and is itself the biggest aggregator of other dating sites; under the name Match, it owns thirty in all, and accounts for about a quarter of the revenues of its parent company, I.
In , fee-based dating Web sites grossed over a billion dollars. According to a recent study commissioned by Match. com, online is now the third most common way for people to meet. For many people in their twenties, accustomed to conducting much of their social life online, it is no less natural a way to hook up than the church social or the night-club-bathroom line. There are thousands of dating sites; the big ones, such as Match.
com and eHarmony among the fee-based services and PlentyOfFish and OK Cupid among the free ones , hog most of the traffic. Free sites rely on advertising. Some sites proceed from a simple gimmick. ScientificMatch attempts to pair people according to their DNA, and claims that this approach leads to a higher rate of female orgasms. A site called Ashley Madison notoriously connects cheating spouses. Your suggestion should theoretically be a sufficient signal of your taste and imagination, and an impetus for getting off-line as soon as possible.
Apparently, a big winner has been a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. The cutting edge is in mobile and location-based technology, such as Grindr, a smartphone app for gay men that tells subscribers when there are other willing subscribers in their vicinity. Many Internet dating companies, including Grindr, are trying to devise ways to make this kind of thing work for straight people, which means making it work for straight women, who may not need an app to know that they are surrounded by willing straight men.
Most of the Internet dating sites still rely, as TACT did, on the questionnaire. The raw material, in the matching process, is a mass of stated preference: your desire or intolerance for certain traits and characteristics.
Many of the sites make do with that alone. The more sophisticated ones attempt to identify and exploit the dissonance between what you say you want and what you really appear to want, through the choices you make online.
of Match. com, told me. He is one of those guys who say they enjoy dating. After taking stock of your stated and revealed preferences, the software finds people on the site who have similar dissonances between the two, and uses their experiences to approximate what yours should be. You may have sent introductory messages to only two people, and marked a few others with a wink—a nonverbal expression of interest—but Match will have hundreds of people in its database who have done a lot more on the site, and whose behavior yours seems to resemble.
From them, depending on the degree of correlation, the software extrapolates about you. The trick is in weighting each variable. How significant is hair-color dissonance? Do political views, or fan allegiances, matter? The weightings can change over time, as nuances or tendencies emerge. The algorithms learn. And sometimes behavior changes—political opinion matters more in an election year, for example—and the algorithms scramble to keep up.
The first, as it happens, was with the eldest daughter of Robert Ross, the founder of TACT. We met at a party and took up with each other for a while. The date itself came later, on the first night of Christmas vacation. I remember John Malkovich stomping around onstage and then my date catching a train back to Scarsdale. She remembers that we went to a Chinese restaurant and this hurts that I ordered a tequila sunrise.
That night, anyway, was the end of it for us. For the next date, on the advice of a classmate from Staten Island, who claimed to have dating experience, I took a sophomore I liked to a T. On the drive there, a fuse blew, knocking out the car stereo, and so I pulled over, removed the fuse box, fashioned a fuse out of some aluminum foil from a pack of cigarettes, and got the cassette deck going again.
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