How Technology is Affecting Our Relationships

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There is no question that these days technology is inextricable from the way we date and mate. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, 38 percent of singles have used online dating or mobile dating apps, that's about 11 percent of the total population. What we're not so sure about is whether technology is making our relationships better or hindering our ability to socialize and truly connect with others. People who are pro-tech say that it gives us a much larger dating pool and that texting, chatting, and social media offer us more diverse and constant communication with partners and potential partners. Yet, there is some evidence that the matches we make online pale in comparison to the ones we make offline and that being too technology-dependent is hurting our in-person interactions.

"I think the most important thing to realize is the only way to be successful with online dating is to take your relationship from online to offline as soon as possible," says Julie Spira, online dating expert and founder of CyberDatingExpert.com. Spira created her first dating profile 20 years ago and now helps others who are looking for online dating success. She says that people who are serious about finding love in today's world need to have a strong presence both on and offline.

Spira is also adamant that people make a profile that properly represents them."Describe who you are today. Not who you were last decade," she says. There are plenty of people who intentionally lie on their profiles — women often lie about their weight and age, men are more likely to fudge on their height and income — but what Spira emphasizes is a little different. She wants to deter people from depending on descriptions of their old selves that they may not even realize are outdated. For some, this may mean admitting their favorite photo of themselves is a decade old and that those twenty pounds they gained aren't as temporary as they've been saying. This can be a difficult adjustment but it's better than skirting reality and ending up with some very disappointed dates.

Even ignoring possible deception, profile-based dating lacks the certainty of face-to-face chemistry. "The impressions [people] get from profiles tend to be largely irrelevant to how they end up initiating relationships," says Paul Eastwick, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. No one can really nail down the reason why but many experts agree that chemistry online can be completely unrelated to chemistry offline. "You could pick the perfect profile photo and the perfect profile that would match someone else's checklist but if you get on the phone, you might not even be able to have a conversation," says Spira.

Part of the problem may be that online dating doesn't do enough to shake up the way we choose our dates. "Online dating is giving us the potential to interact with people who are so different from us and yet people are selecting people who are more similar to them," says Coye Cheshire, professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. While people may say they are willing to date people who are dissimilar to themselves, Cheshire says we generally end up choosing partners we feel we have a lot in common with. This may have us missing out on more successful alternatives. "There's lots of evidence that people who are dissimilar in a lot of ways can have higher relationship satisfaction," says Coye. He even says that some dating platforms — whether out in the open or not — may soon be experimenting with matching processes that make dissimilar people more likely to find each other.

Interestingly enough, the one place people are often willing to go out of their comfort zone is in the looks department. According to Cheshire's research, people will generally reach out to others whose overall desirability is similar to their own but who they believe are more physically attractive. The outcome of this common preference is probably what you'd predict. "Essentially, the very desirable people tend to do very well in online dating formats, not too surprisingly," says Eastwick. His own work has shown that over time, the initial traits that people find attractive in others — like looks, charisma, and success — lose a lot of their value while the things that make people unique — like their favorite book or movies — become more important. So only going out of your comfort zone to hit up attractive people is not the wisest move in the long run.

For those who do successfully use tech-driven dating to find a long-term partner — 23 percent of online daters according to the Pew Research Center — technology likely continues to be a part of their love life, albeit in a different way. The Pew Research Center found that only 27 percent of adults in committed relationships said that the internet had an impact on their relationships but, of those who said it had an impact, three-quarters said the impact was positive. A survey from the University of Nevada found that technology can help relationships in all stages, specifically because it can allow greater access to partners, enhance intimacy, and gives us different options for managing conflicts. Unfortunately, the deep integration of technology into our lives can also be problematic.

That same survey also showed that the most common challenges stemming from technology in relationships were distancing issues, trust issues, and lack of clarity in messages. The Pew Research Center also revealed that there are two sides to technology's impact. They found that 21 percent of cellphone and internet users said an online or text message interaction had made them feel closer to their partner but 25 percent also said they felt their partner was distracted by their cellphone when they were together.

In particular, there is concern that the reliance we have on technology is pulling us away from other important aspects of human interaction, like paying attention to facial expressions and our need for physical touch. "There's this detachment. People aren't even looking at each other. That's what I think is typical of what's happening," says Shirley Zussman, sex therapist and former president of the American Association of Sex Educators. Granted this technology is unlikely to disappear, Zussman says we need to work on better understanding how we can use technology in ways that are truly satisfying for everyone involved. For example, she says people should try talking on the phone instead texting at the beginnings of a relationship in order to enhance feelings of connectivity.

The balance between becoming too dependent on technology versus missing out on its perks is one we have yet to figure out. Although many people use online dating, mobile dating apps, and all kinds of basic technologies in their relationships, the human love life happens to be extremely difficult to study. "It's not like the data is based on trialed experiments where we actually put people in a laboratory […] and pair them up and make them get married," says Cheshire. The studies that do come out about specific dating sites or apps are often sponsored by the companies that are featured and, all in all, most dating platforms keep their matching methods top secret. This shouldn't dissuade anyone from using technology to date but it's best to remember that, no matter how slick the technology, love continues to be complicated. Although swiping, snapping, and winking from behind a screen may seem like the simplest way to get yourself out there, most experts seem to agree that a love life lived solely online cannot compare to one lived (at least partially) in the offline world.