Relationships that begin online are less stable – I've seen it time and time again | Nancy Jo Sales

As someone who has written about online dating, I often receive emails from people with stories to tell. While these run the gamut – from hilarious accounts of bad dates to woeful laments about the havoc technology has wreaked on modern love – the overwhelming majority come from married people who have found out their spouses are cheating on them with the use of dating apps. These people are usually really upset, and want to vent. At length. Sometimes, they have actually met their spouses online. “We said we were deleting [insert name of dating app of choice],” they say, outraged and hurt.

I couldn’t help but think about this when I read a recent study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, which found that people who meet on dating apps have less stable marriages. Researchers surveyed 923 American adults, who filled out questionnaires about the state of their unions. “Online daters reported less satisfying and stable marriages than those who met their spouse offline,” said Liesel Sharabi, the study’s leader.

This “online dating effect” felt significant, Sharabi said, in light of the increasing number of relationships that start online, particularly when the marketing departments of online dating platforms like to promise users that they’ll find great, long-lasting relationships through their services.

First, let’s be clear: only about 10% of people in committed relationships or marriages met their partner on a dating site or app, according to the Pew Research Center in 2023. Online dating companies don’t release data on how many people find relationships through their services, presumably because such data would not reflect favourably on their success rate.

But when it comes to the question of why marriages that begin online are “less satisfying and stable,” is it really any great mystery? The Arizona State University study posits that one possible explanation is the “stigma” that still surrounds online dating. Which sounds to me like a stretch.

A more likely, even obvious answer, in my view, is that people who meet on dating apps meet in an atmosphere of endless choice. They’ve looked at hundreds or thousands of pictures of people before settling on a certain someone, but they never stop knowing that the parade of other possible someones marches on. When their marriages get tough – which they inevitably will, because that’s how marriage works – when they have a fight with their spouse, or they experience a dip in sexual intimacy, or children come into the picture, stealing all the attention, there’s always a dating app to escape to, with its dopamine rush of matches to reassure them that they’re still attractive and desirable.

Marriages that start on dating apps are probably also less satisfying because dating apps are designed to be addictive. Who can stay focused on one person when the indelible itch of the dating app is always waiting to be scratched? A long time ago, when I was an idiot, I used to smoke. Though I quit cigarettes almost two decades ago, I still get the urge for a smoke whenever I’m feeling really stressed. In the same way, dating app users experience the desire to go back on the app long after they have come off it. Who among them hasn’t experienced the familiar process of using an app, then deleting it, and then re-downloading it?

Dating apps also facilitate cheating in a way that was just never possible before. Once upon a time, a married person had to put some thought into how to be unfaithful. Cheating required some machinations. “Honey, I’m taking Spot for a walk,” was followed by a furtive dash to a telephone booth in which to catch a few moments of hot exchanges and the arranging of dates. But now, you can be sitting next to your spouse in the car – even in bed – and not know if they’re typing sweet nothings or sexts to some rando.

The study did emphasise that “online daters still reported relatively high-quality marriages, on average. They were just lower relative to offline daters”.

But perhaps those marriages that start on dating apps are lower quality overall because people in these relationships never feel they know for sure if they can trust their spouse. I’ll never forget an email I got from a woman who found out her husband was cheating with a woman he met on Hinge. “I should have known this would happen,” she wrote. “He was married when I met him on Tinder.”

Nancy Jo Sales is the author, most recently, of Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno


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