Why online dating doesn’t work … and what you should do about it
The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of online dating sites around the world, and the number of people using them. According to some estimates, there are over 8,000 online dating sites worldwide, and over 2,500 in the US alone. Yes, that’s just the number of different sites; it’s no wonder that many people find online dating overwhelming!
A bit over a decade ago, online dating was viewed by many as the last resort for those who hadn’t found a relationship the “normal” way.
These days, it is often the first option for someone looking for romance, not the last.
The industry has completely transformed a fundamental aspect of human communication, changing how we meet new people and go looking for partners. In the US, online dating is now the second most common way for heterosexual couples to meet (behind introductions through friends).
It’s crazy when you think about it.
After millions of years of human evolution, and thousands of years of the development of human society, humans had settled on the idea that in-person interactions through fun, face-to-face social activities were the best way to meet new people.
And then along came online dating to blow that idea away.
Instead of meeting people in a fun social environment first, and using all the social tools we have to figure out if you like somebody’s company, technology arrived to help you make a decision about someone without ever even needing to meet them in person.
And with such an alluring promise, it’s understandable why online dating took off so quickly.
Suddenly there was a different way to find a partner, one that promised practically infinite possibilities, where an algorithm could find you the “right” person without you needing to do the hard work of ever actually talking to them in person. And if you don’t like what you see, you can always click on to the next profile – there is always another candidate just around the corner!
Of course, online dating wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t work for so many people. According to some estimates, over a third of marriages in the US are now from couples who first met online. (Interestingly, that definition of “meeting online” includes more than just online dating sites, and includes all sorts of social networks and online communication.)
But for many people, there is a growing body of evidence that online dating simply doesn’t work.
And this is particularly true for older adults.
If you’re aged 50 or over, finding a partner online is even more complicated. You’re not looking for the same things you were when you were young: you’re not typically looking to settle down and have kids, for example! Your reasons for finding someone are often broader and more diverse; you may not even be really sure if it’s romance you’re looking for at all.
Add those complications to the fact that online dating is, for many people, a thoroughly dispiriting experience, and it’s no wonder that older adults are more likely to rate it as a negative experience than any other demographic.
But how is this possible? If some people are finding love through online dating sites, why does it fail so many others?
To answer this, let’s take a look at some of the main reasons online dating doesn’t work.
And then I’ll tell you what you can do about it!
1. Filters are your enemy
Researchers in the UK recently calculated the odds of finding a compatible partner if they used the average person’s requirements (in terms of desired age, physical requirements, location, and so on).
They found that just over 84,440 people in the UK fit the average person’s requirements, from an adult population of 47 million.
That’s the same as 1 in 562.
In other words, applying the average person’s filters when it comes to finding a compatible partner gives you less than a 1 in 500 chance of being successful.
And it gets worse the more prescriptive you are about your requirements.
Some sites take this to an extreme degree and let you go nuts specifying the attributes you want: professional background, religion, salary, ethnicity, personal habits, even pet preferences!
What they don’t ever make clear is that each filter you add diminishes your chances of finding a compatible partner even further.
Forget 1 in 562, you could literally be talking about 1 in a million.
The promise of making it easier to find your “ideal” companion by letting you add filters to hone in on specific requirements has actually had the opposite effect, diminishing your pool to the point it becomes almost impossible to find anyone!
Before online dating existed, finding a compatible fit was far less clinical; you’d meet someone in real life, and if you enjoyed their company you might decide to on another date, maybe more. You would at least talk to someone before you’d go anywhere near finding out what their pet preferences were … and you’d then use your own judgement about whether you liked them or not.
There is increasing evidence that, in face-to-face meetings, we are subconsciously picking up clues about the suitability of future partners based on a wide variety of non-verbal information.
Online dating lures us with the false promise of an “ideal” partner so much that we apply filters that ensure we never get to meet that person in the first place.
2. A profile is not a person
If you’ve ever created an online dating profile for yourself, you know that it only scratches the surface of what you’re like.
No profile, no matter how well-written, could ever hope to capture the full extent of your personality.
Unfortunately, when you’re reading the profiles of other people, it’s easy to forget that this rule applies to them, too. You know that what you’re seeing isn’t an accurate representation of them, but it doesn’t stop you from judging them on it anyway.
To make matters worse, most people suck at selling themselves, and do a terrible job of their profiles.
And, of course, the ones who are good at selling themselves generally do so by misrepresenting themselves to some extent. When you encounter one of these profiles, you haven’t met your ideal partner. You’ve just met someone who is good at telling you what you want to hear.
Nobody’s profile really represents what they’re like in real life. And as a result, you will either underestimate them – and dismiss someone who could be a good match – or else overestimate them and then be disappointed when you meet in person.
Either way, judging people by what they say about themselves is a sure-fire path to disappointment.
3. Algorithms don’t work
Did you know that there is ZERO evidence for matching algorithms actually working?
That’s right, despite all the claims made by industry leaders such as Match and eHarmony about how well their matching algorithms work, over the last 20 years the consistent finding from researchers and sociologists, most notably a large-scale 2012 study published by the Association for Psychological Science, is that matching algorithms simply do not work.
This may account for the rise of an app like Tinder, which does away with the premise of algorithms altogether and relies pretty much wholly on the ability to make a snap judgement based on looks alone. (This does of course create its own set of terrible problems, but at least Tinder isn’t promising that its algorithm is making the decisions for you, it’s up to you to make a decision based on what you see.)
4. Something better just a click away
While we’re on the topic of Tinder, it has been the poster child for a relatively new phenomenon over the last few years: free dating apps. These apps don’t charge fees (or do only for a very small percentage of their users), but rely on other ways to make money from their large user bases.
It’s not surprising that price-sensitive consumers have flocked to these apps, after years of experiencing predatory behavior and questionable business practices from all of the major paid dating sites.
But it unfortunately exposes them to one of the other perils of online dating: the constant suggestion that there is always something better just around the corner.
“There is a greediness involved in online dating,” says Ayesha Vardag, one of Britain’s leading divorce lawyers.
“It is, after all, a sort of digital menu full of people waiting to be chosen or disregarded. As well as the convenience factor it’s easy to get carried away with the high of instant gratification.”
But it’s not the instant gratification alone that is the problem. With no financial requirement, free sites will naturally attract a greater proportion of people who are not really committed to finding a genuine relationship.
By inviting users to explore a world of infinite choice without any consequences, is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to find someone who is interested in the hard work of an actual relationship? Anyone you meet on a free app has been trained to believe that there could always be someone better just a click away.
The moment they decide that you are not perfect enough for them, their interest in you fades and they have clicked on to the next person.
5. Nobody is the best version of themselves when they date
Picture sitting down for a drink or dinner for the first time with someone you met on an online dating site.
The anxiety beforehand.
The awareness that they’re judging you just as you judge them.
The awkward small talk.
The “get to know you” questions that are meant to provide a glimpse of whether you’ll be a fit, and the pressure of knowing that if you say the wrong thing it will derail everything.
The voice in the back of your head shouting, “get me out of here!”
Is it any wonder that you don’t present the best version of yourself when you go on a date?
By the same logic, the same holds true for everyone you date. Yet none of us seems to stop us from going out on these awkward, not-fun, misery-inducing dates in an attempt to find a compatible partner.
The best version of you is usually found when you’re a) not feeling stressed or worried about being judged, and b) doing something you actually enjoy.
For most people, meeting for a first date is neither of these things.
6. Fakes and phonies
According to some estimates, 10% of profiles on dating web sites are fake.
Considering that most fake profiles are created by scammers and criminals seeking to steal from the people they meet, that’s an astoundingly high percentage.
Would you even leave your front door if you knew that 10% of the people you’d be likely to meet was looking to steal from you?
No, neither would I.
OK, but what do we do about it?
I’m sure by now I have got you thoroughly depressed about your chances of finding success through online dating.
But it’s important not to get too disheartened.
After all, we know that a growing number of people are finding success when it comes to searching for a partner online. Online dating might be broken, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t find the person you’re looking for. You just need to use a different approach.
There is a solution to each one of the issues I’ve outlined above. If you adopt an approach that addresses each one, you’ll give yourself a great shot of finding the right companion.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
1. Filters don’t work … so stop filtering
If filters really are a curse and not a blessing, then the answer is simple: turn off your filters.
By that I don’t mean go to your favourite dating site and switch off every filter it provides.
I mean change your entire attitude about how you assess someone as a potential match.
Challenge some of the assumptions you hold about the sort of person would could be a compatible match for you.
And stop ruling someone out just because they don’t meet some of your preconceived expectations.
Do they really need to live right around the corner? Or is it enough that they’d be willing to travel to meet you?
Do they really need to have a professional background? Or is it more important that they are interesting and fun?
Do they really need to be five years younger than you? Or is the main thing that they young enough in spirit to do the things you want to do?
If you start to remove some of the filters you’ve subconsciously applied to the sort of person you are looking for, you will find you increase your chances of success from one in a million to something far more reasonable.
2. Don’t “date”
This one may sound strange, but it’s probably the most important recommendation we have.
Change your mindset away from the idea that you are “dating”.
Instead, simply get yourself out there doing the things you love. And put yourself in an environment where you meet people who love those things too.
That way, you’ll stop judging people by what they say about themselves, and judge them based on what they do.
Talk is cheap, and anyone can say they like dancing, going for long walks, or abstract art. But if you get out there and get engaged in an activity that you like, you know that anyone you meet there is going to share those interests with you too.
That’s one of the reasons we made activities, events and suggestions such a core part of meeting new companions on Stitch. If you attend a Stitch activity, or suggest something you’d like to do, you’re guaranteed to meet someone who likes it too.
You might have forgotten to mention on your profile that you like attending talks at Writer’s Festivals, for example. That’s part of your iceberg that other people don’t get to see if they just read your profile. But simply by attending a Writer’s Festival event with other Stitch members, you know you’re going to meet people looking for companionship who have similar interests to you.
The same idea holds true for any activity, whether it’s watching the football or going for a hike. And the best part is that even if you don’t meet your ultimate companion, you’ll still end up having a great time doing something you love. That’s a whole lot better than going out on a bad first date, isn’t it?
You don’t need to use Stitch for this, by the way: you can find activities you enjoy in a variety of other ways. The only difference is that Stitch brings together people who are looking for like-minded companions through the activities that they choose, so it’s built to do this all for you.
3. Forget the algorithms
If two decades’ worth of research tells you that algorithms matching you with ideal companions don’t work, then we think you should listen to it.
That goes double for expensive match-maker services that charge thousands of dollars, only to match you with the same people you’re seeing on the dating sites you are already using.
You need to trust yourself to make the decisions, by looking for the things that matter.
Enjoying each other’s company when you do activities you both enjoy.
It’s that simple!
4. Avoid the cheapskates
If someone isn’t willing to make a small financial commitment to finding the right companion, then it doesn’t send you any positive signals about how serious they are about meeting someone.
They could simply have been burned by unscrupulous dating sites in the past, and are trying to avoid being ripped off again. But unfortunately you have no way of telling if that’s the case, or if they are one of the millions of users who have created an account for all the wrong reasons.
That’s not to say you should expect anyone to spend lots of money on premium services. Some matchmakers are known to charge over $10,000 per year for their services, and that is certainly not money well spent!
But if you focus on people who have been willing to pay a reasonable membership fee, rather than just sticking with a free account, you’ll instantly weed out 95% of the people who give dating a bad name.
5. A profiles isn’t a person … so talk to the person
No matter how appealing it is to sit at home and dismiss potential companions from the comfort of your lounge chair, you know by now that it just doesn’t work. You need to engage with people to find out what they’re really like.
“But wait”, I hear you say. “I can’t go on a date with every single person on a dating site in order to figure out if I like them!”
No, but you can engage with a lot more of the profiles you see for at least an initial conversation, before writing them off completely.
Next time you think about hitting “Dismiss”, choose “Maybe” instead. And if you see someone who looks like a “Maybe”, send them a message and ask them a question or two. You will be surprised what you discover.
6. Keep yourself safe
This one is fundamentally important. It’s not going to necessarily find you a companion, but you definitely don’t want to get hurt while you look for one.
I’m very passionate about this issue, given the number of online scams targeted at older adults was one of the reasons we started Stitch in the first place. And it’s certainly why we’re the only site in the world to require identity verification from all our members.
But even if you choose to use something else, make sure you follow our guidelines for keeping yourself safe online. It’s actually pretty easy to stay safe if you follow a few simple rules, so you’ve got no excuse for not doing so.
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OK, so there you have it: our guidance for why online dating for over 50s doesn’t work, and what you can do about it. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!