I like ice cream – a lot. There is almost no flavor I don’t like. I even found basil infused ice cream to be delicious. Put me in a room with 50 tubs of ice cream and a box of little spoons, I’d probably taste all 50 of them. I might bust a button or two on my shirt, but no one really gets hurt.

But what if instead of ice cream flavors we were dealing with people? What if Bob was single and dating, and he was put in a room with 50 women, and was told that he could date all of them? Would he have a problem committing to any of them? Would he be tempted to date many of them, and drop any one as soon as any challenges arise, knowing that he has 49 other options?

What if Bob was told he could date 500 or 5,000 different women who were all on his laptop sprinkled over a dozen different dating websites? What if Bob would get emails from all of those websites with smiling happy pictures of hundreds of “matches” even after he deactivated his profile because he was dating someone? Would that help him stay committed to his relationship after he and his girlfriend get into a serious argument? Suddenly I’m not so sure that no one gets hurt…

In an extensively researched new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms by Dan Slater, the rise of internet dating is chronicled and the myriad effects studied carefully. The consensus of the research, the polling, and the dating experts is that the rise of online dating will mean an overall decrease in commitment. Internet dating makes people more disposable.

Internet dating makes people more disposable.

The owners of dating sites are thrilled; they don’t make money off of happily married people. Dan Winchester, the owner of a British dating website muses, “I often wonder whether matching you up with great people is getting so efficient, and the process so enjoyable, that marriage will become obsolete.” Greg Blatt, the CEO of Match.com’s parent company, takes another tack, “Historically relationships have been billed as ‘hard’ because, historically, commitment has been the goal. You could say online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.”

The stats seem to agree with those opinions, only 51% of adults in the US are married today, down from 72% in 1960, and the median age of first marriage is higher than it has ever been at 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men, up from a respective 20.3 and 22.8. The number of people getting married in the US has dropped each year for the past five years, despite a growth in the overall population. (Not surprisingly, the fertility rate in the US is at its lowest since 1920, and now is at 1.9, well below the 2.1 rate which is the replacement rate.)

All the challenges to the institution of marriage might be worth it if it meant that the single people who have thousands of dating options at their fingertips were happier for all their freedom and choice. But that seems not to be the case. When there are so many alternatives, people don’t invest in their relationships and thus find much less meaning and satisfaction in them.

The expanded field of choices also creates an expanded sense of doubt.

According to Dan Slater, the expanded field of choices also creates an expanded sense of doubt; they may have made the wrong choice and the best option is still out there. In a recent study, subjects who selected a chocolate from an array of six options believed it tasted better than those who selected the same chocolate from an array of 30. Not only are people missing out on the meaningful relationships that result from hard work, they are also constantly plagued by the doubt that they are missing out on much better choices.

Slater also reports that scientist have found that when people are given an enormous subset to choose from, they become “cognitively overwhelmed,” and “deal with the overload by adopting lazy comparison strategies and examining fewer cues. As a result, they are more likely to make careless decisions than they would be if they had fewer options, and this potentially leads to less compatible matches.”

There are a number of positive dating lessons we can derive from all this.

  1. Live in the moment. When dating someone, we need to zero in on the person we are dating and not allow ourselves to compare the real person we are dating to the phantom people we could be dating. No one is perfect, but most people work hard to create a perfect looking profile. Our real human dates can’t match up to “perfect” prospects. Enjoying the person we date depends on staying away from dating sites, and opening emails containing prospective dates. (In general it’s a good idea to stay away from predatory dating websites that try to lure people that have deactivated their accounts back to the site by emailing them fresh profiles.)

  2. Love the challenge. It is inevitable that when people go from living “me” to “we” challenges will arise. But the more we work on the issues, the more we learn when to compromise and when to stand firm, the more we go through the process of working out the wrinkles that rise up in the relationship, the deeper our appreciation for the other person will be, and the greater meaning we will find in the relationships. Anyone can enjoy a relationship in the smooth sailing phase, but great relationships are built by people who welcome the bumpy roads as well.

    Our Sages teach us, “According to the effort is the reward.” This applies to dating as well, and the rewarding relationships are those that we put real effort into working on. Love the challenge because it is the road to rewarding relationships.

  3. Choose carefully. In a world where there are so many options, it is easy to enter into relationships with only a low level of compatibility based on simplistic factors and external considerations. But if we set the criteria we are looking for ahead of time, and only enter into relationships with people who meet our preset criteria, we are bound to have fewer relationships, but deeper ones.

  4. Commitment is a life value. Dating lots of people may be fun at first, but it is ultimately tiring and jading. The joys of marriage and family come from the feeling of being part of something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. No amount of choices can trump the satisfaction of choosing and building. Studies show that married people are happier, save more money, are less likely to be depressed, obese or experience frequent headaches, but all of that is just the icing on the cake. The real reason that commitment is a life value is that it is the ultimate act of giving; you are giving yourself to another person. And as we know, the more you give, the more you get.

Internet dating may have changed the dating world forever, but how it changes our lives is in our hands. As in all areas of life, we need to be savvy consumers. When we properly educate ourselves about the internet dating world, and tailor our choices carefully, we can reap the benefits of internet dating while avoiding the pitfalls. For the conscious consumer, the world wide web may just be the portal of love we are all searching for.