Session 7: Dating and Relationships in a Digital Age
This is the seventh part of an eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:
Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
In 2010 a relationship that I thought would last suddenly ended. I had been married for thirteen years, had two kids and suddenly I found myself a single dad and for the first time since my early twenties having to enter the world of dating and relationships again. When I reentered this world, I found that it had changed dramatically and one of the big portions of this change was the introduction of dating platforms like Match, eHarmony and many more. I would find the right person several years later and I have been happily remarried for the last couple of years but as I was thinking about the scope of this class, I thought it was important to revisit this time and think about how the digital age has changed the way we think about relationships and connection. How do we find friends, date and build the connections we need to have a good life?
In the past we met most of our friends and relationships in life through the communities we were a part of: school, church, neighborhoods, hobbies and groups of people who shared either a common goal or beliefs. Occasionally a friend or a relation would play matchmaker and connect you with someone who they felt would be a good possibility for a partner or you would meet someone at a bar or dancehall or other common gathering place, but even there you had some context for the person you were meeting. Our social networks were the places where we met people. If you lived in a smaller community you may have known everyone who was a possibility to date or to be friends with, it was a smaller pool but you knew all the fish swimming in it. In a city like the one I currently live in, Frisco a suburb or Dallas, where not only is the population larger but people also come home, close their garages and may not interact with their neighbors it can be difficult to form connections. Many people spend longer at work and retreat to home and may not feel like they have time to be connected with a larger group where they can be in a relationship with.
As we discuss dating platforms, I’m going to draw an analogy from social media and its world of connection: there is a difference in the level of connection I have from someone who I interact with on a daily basis and a friend who may know me predominantly through social media. I may have several hundred Facebook friends from the places I’ve lived, schools I’ve attended, congregations I’ve served, my time in the military and frequently people who I’ve interacted with once or twice. The pool of connections is broader but it is also not as deep: I have more contacts but many of those contacts are fairly weak connections. As we look into relationships that begin on a dating platform you are beginning with a broader pool of candidates who may be possible connections but the initial connection with any of them is much weaker than even a person you meet one time in another way. One of the differences of beginning that first meeting is that you have less shared connection and investment as the relationship begins.
With online dating you do have a broader pool and that can be a positive thing, especially if you are a person who is for various reasons forbidden from forming relationships in the places you spend most of your time. As a pastor, for example, I spend most of my time working with the congregation I serve but for many ethical reasons I am not allowed to date people who are a part of the congregation I serve. There is the possibility that you will meet people who you would never meet otherwise. The other reality is that many people feel permission to be more vulnerable interacting through a dating site and initially conversing through messages and texts rather than the awkward interactions face to face that we may have. We are all seeking connection with another person, we all want to be loved and valued and desired and sometimes it is easier to take a risk when you are interacting with people who seem to be in the same position of seeking a relationship or a connection.
With the larger pool you will encounter rejection and you will be ignored sometimes. There are times where you will send a message to someone or several people and wonder if any of them are still on the site or whether their profiles are just remnants leftover from people who once were seekers. I know that I can be a little naïve, but I ended up in one situation where I was chatting with someone and then they invited me to another site which I quickly realized was an adult site and I let them know that wasn’t what I was looking for but there is always the possibility that we can go looking for love and find something different, people who are using the site for commercial reasons. People can find and stumble into things they wouldn’t otherwise.
As we discussed in our discussion of email, we employ sorting methods because we are overwhelmed with information and we do the same thing with the broader pool in online dating. We frequently evaluate people very quickly to see if they might be a possible connection and the most common method of sorting is based on photographs and the person’s physical looks. Some sites, like Tinder, are almost exclusively based on looks. Yet one of the things that came out of my discussions with my congregation about what they valued about the person they were in a relationship with was that looks were not the primary thing: it was an action, a kindness, something in the person’s character, something that took a little longer to see that made them the person they wanted to spend their life with. I’m not saying that looks are unimportant, but they are not the only or even the main thing that will make a relationship last.
When people put a profile up on a dating site it is also helpful to remember it is a representation of the person, it is not the actual person. As we discussed in our last two discussions when building a virtual identity, we place out on the internet what we want others to see. Sometimes people will talk about themselves in ways that may not be accurate and there are times when even a person’s pictures may not be a good representation of who they are. We often see pictures taken at the best angle and in the best lighting and they may not be recent pictures. There is always the possibility that the person we are corresponding with is not entirely who they seem to be.
While the broader pool can be a good thing, I think it is helpful to bring up the paradox of choice when we think about dating online. Most people believe that more choices will make them happier but psychologists when studying choice actually find the reverse: more choices make us less satisfied with the decision we eventually make. For a popular culture reference I’m going to turn to shows like the Bachelor or the Bachelorette where a man or woman is surrounded by approximately twenty attractive and successful potential partners and through a series of experiences and dates they are expected to pick their eventual spouse. You would think with a capable and attractive set of choices that the person would ultimately end up with a partner they would be happy with but these relationships rarely last. Part of the dynamic of choice is when we are presented with several attractive choices, we often think about the choice we didn’t make when we are engaging the choice we did, so on a first date you might be evaluating the person you are sitting with at the same time you consider others you interacted with before meeting this person. It can cheapen the engagement we are in if we are continually wondering how this person compares with others who may be possibilities. One of the other dynamics I experienced was that often people were dating multiple people at the same time attempting to see who would be the best fit for a relationship (or they may not have been seeking a single relationship). Ultimately, we all have to set boundaries of what we are willing to do based on what we are looking for but it is helpful to realize that not everyone is seeking the same thing.
One of the things in society that has changed dramatically is the age when people enter into permanent relationships. For women the average age of a first marriage is now 27.4 and for a man it is 29.5 years old, which is a long time for people to spend dating and seeking. One of the struggles this introduces in a religious and ethical realm is that most religions expected people to wait to have sex until after people married which was easier when the age of marriage was closer to the age when people become sexually interested. When societal pressures of education and career have postponed the age of marriage it makes this a struggle for a lot of people.
I have found that people often enter into relationships with unrealistic expectations. Part of my work as a pastor is counseling couples who are getting married and then also helping couples who are struggling in a relationship and it has caused me to continue to look at what makes relationships work. Sometimes the language we use around relationships gives us this expectation: we look for a soulmate or someone who completes me and if we expect another person to complete us, they will let us down. They will let us down not because they are bad people or because they do anything wrong, but if there is something that you are expecting another person to fill up in you, if they continually have to fill up your sense of worthiness, they will be unable to always do so. The initial emotions of a relationship can make us feel whole but nobody can sustain that level of feeling throughout a long and healthy relationship. It will be exhausting for the partner of a person who has to make a person feel worthy and loved and whole all the time.
I’ve also seen lots of times where the internet can interfere with relationships that have existed for a long time. When you enter into a relationship with someone you build trust and you put a lot of energy into the relationship, but our partner cannot fill all of our needs-we still need connections with friends, family, and people we work and interact with. Yet, there need to be boundaries for trust to remain intact. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many relationships broken because someone began seeking something that should’ve been kept within the relationship with another person. Sometimes this happens in the digital world, where a person in a relationship stays connected on a dating platform or reconnects with an ‘old flame’ on Facebook or another social media platform. Another struggle I’ve seen couples have is with the availability of sexual material online and couple encounter this differently. For some couples this may be viewed as a breaking of trust and others it is not, but it is something that can cause struggles in relationships and can make a partner feel unattractive and unloved.
Trust is something that can easily be broken. Trust is really the currency in any relationship and to use Brené Brown’s metaphor of trust being a jar of marbles that we slowly fill up different things impact that trust that we have. Something like an affair shatters the jar and the marbles are lost and that is why it is so difficult to rebuild a relationship after an affair, because trust is lost and it takes a long time to rebuild that trust. Other times trust is lost is lost in little moments where the person feels ignored, not valued, and feel that we are distant from them. Trust is built in those moments when we notice and pay attention to what is important to the other person.
We are all people who are formed for connection. We are all people who have value and worth but want that value and worth affirmed by others. Relationships can be both wonderful and challenging and the digital age presents both opportunities and challenges for relationships. It is easy to judge others on their relationship, but this is an area where people struggle throughout their lives. We want to be in a relationship but most of us have not been trained in how to make relationships work. It is hard work to build a relationship that will last.
- If you’ve had a relationship that lasted for a long period of time, what was it about that person that made you think they might be a good partner? Was there something they did or something about who they were that made them attractive to you?
- What is great about being in a relationship? What are challenges of being in a relationship?
- Have you ever had a time where having lots of choices seemed overwhelming or when you second guessed a choice you made? Have you ever experienced this in a relationship?
- How did someone earn your trust? Can you think of things that people did that made it hard to trust them?
- What interferes with relationships? What struggles do you think cause relationships to fail?
- Is there some wisdom about relationships that you would impart to your younger self based on your experiences?