HHow do couples meet and fall in love in the 21st century? It is a question that sociologist Dr Marie Bergström has spent a long time pondering. “Online dating is changing the way we think about love,” she says. “One idea that has been really strong in the past – certainly in Hollywood movies – is that love is something you can bump into, unexpectedly, during a random encounter.” Another strong narrative is the idea that “love is blind, that a princess can fall in love with a peasant and love can cross social boundaries. But that is seriously challenged when you’re online dating, because it’s so obvious to everyone that you have search criteria. You’re not bumping into love – you’re searching for it.”
Falling in love today tracks a different trajectory. “There is a third narrative about love – this idea that there’s someone out there for you, someone made for you, a soulmate,” says Bergström. “And you just need to find that person.” That idea is very compatible with online dating. “It pushes you to be proactive – to go and search for this person. You shouldn’t just sit at home and wait for this person.”
As a result, the way we think about love – the way we depict it in films and books, the way we imagine that love works – is changing. “There is much more focus on the idea of a soulmate. And other ideas of love are fading away,” says Bergström, whose controversial French book on the subject, The New Laws of Lovehas recently been published in English for the first time.
Instead of meeting a partner through friends, colleagues or acquaintances, dating is often now a private, compartmentalized activity that is deliberately carried out away from prying eyes in an entirely disconnected, separate social sphere, she says.
“Online dating makes it much more private. It’s a fundamental change and a key element that explains why people go on online dating platforms and what they do there – what kind of relationships come out of it.”
Take Lucie, 22, a student who is interviewed in the book. “There are people I could have matched with but when I saw we had so many mutual acquaintances, I said no. It immediately deters me, because I know that whatever happens between us might not stay between us. And even at the relationship level, I don’t know if it’s healthy to have so many friends in common.”
It’s stories like these about the separation of dating from other parts of life that Bergström increasingly uncovered in exploring themes for her book. A researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris, she spent 13 years between 2007 and 2020 researching European and North American online dating platforms and conducting interviews with their users and founders. Unusually, she also managed to gain access to the anonymised user data collected by the platforms themselves.
She argues that the nature of dating has been fundamentally transformed by online platforms. “In the western world, courtship has always been tied up and very closely associated with ordinary social activities, like leisure, work, school or parties. There has never been a specifically dedicated place for dating.”
In the past, using, for example, a personal ad to find a partner was a marginal practice that was stigmatized, precisely because it turned dating into a specialized, insular activity. But online dating is now so popular that studies suggest it is the third most common way to meet a partner in Germany and the US. “We went from this situation where it was considered to be weird, stigmatized and taboo to being a very normal way to meet people.”
Having popular spaces that are specifically created for privately meeting partners is “a really radical historical break” with courtship traditions. For the first time, it is easy to constantly meet partners who are outside your social circle. Plus, you can compartmentalize dating in “its own space and time”, separating it from the rest of your social and family life.
Dating is also now – in the early stages, at least – a “domestic activity”. Instead of meeting people in public spaces, users of online dating platforms meet partners and start chatting to them from the privacy of their homes. This was especially true during the pandemic, when the use of platforms increased. “Dating, flirting and interacting with partners didn’t stop because of the pandemic. On the contrary, it just took place online. You have direct and individual access to partners. So you can keep your sexual life outside your social life and ensure people in your environment don’t know about it.”
Alix, 21, another student in the book, says: “I’m not going to date a guy from my university because I don’t want to see him every day if it doesn’t work out. I don’t want to see him with another girl either. I just don’t want complications. That’s why I prefer it to be outside all that.” The first and most obvious consequence of this is that it has made access to casual sex much easier. Studies show that relationships formed on online dating platforms tend to become sexual much faster than other relationships. A French survey found that 56% of couples start having sex less than a month after they meet online, and a third first have sex when they have known each other less than a week. By comparison, 8% of couples who meet at work become sexual partners within a week – most wait several months.
“On online dating platforms, you see people meeting a lot of sexual partners,” says Bergström. It is easier to have a short-term relationship, not just because it’s easier to engage with partners – but because it’s easier to disengage, too. “These are people who you do not know from elsewhere, that you do not need to see again.” This can be sexually liberating for some users. “You have a lot of sexual experimentation going on.”
Bergström thinks this is particularly significant because of the double standards still applied to women who “sleep around”, pointing out that “women’s sexual behavior is still judged differently and more severely than men’s”.
By using online dating platforms, women can engage in sexual behavior that would be considered “deviant” and simultaneously maintain a “respectable” image in front of their friends, colleagues and relations. “They can separate their social image from their sexual behaviour.” This is equally true for anyone who enjoys socially stigmatized sexual practices. “They have easier access to partners and sex.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, even though people from a wide range of different backgrounds use online dating platforms, Bergström found users usually seek partners from their own social class and ethnicity. “In general, online dating platforms do not break down barriers or frontiers. They tend to reproduce them.”
In the future, she predicts these platforms will play an even bigger and more important role in the way couples meet, which will reinforce the view that you should separate your sex life from the rest of your life. “Now, we’re in a situation where a lot of people meet their casual partners online. I think that it could very easily turn into the norm. And it’s considered not very appropriate to interact and approach partners at a friend’s place, at a party. There are platforms for that. You should do that elsewhere. I think we’re going to see a kind of confinement of sex.”
Overall, for Bergström, the privatization of dating is part of a wider movement towards social insularity, which has been exacerbated by lockdown and the Covid crisis. “I believe this tendency, this evolution, is negative for social mixing and for being confronted and surprised by other people who are different to you, whose views are different to your own.” People are less exposed, socially, to people they haven’t specifically chosen to meet – and that has broader consequences for the way people in society interact and reach out to each other. “We need to think about what it means to be in a society that has moved inside and closed down,” she says.
As Penelope, 47, a divorced working mother who no longer uses online dating platforms, puts it: “It’s helpful when you see someone with their friends, how they are with them, or if their friends tease them about something you’ve noticed, too, so you know it’s not just you. When it’s only you and that person, how do you get a sense of what they’re like in the world?”
Some names have been changed