A Defense of Online Dating

Way back in February, a friend sent me this article from a Christian website, warning about the problems ‘inherent’ in online dating. As I had been encouraging a different friend to move in that direction, I was of course interested in hearing objections.

What I found was a narrative of ‘Biblical’ dating/courtship/whatever that is distressingly common among conservative Christians, and, what seems to me, a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the community v. individual before, during, and after looking for a spouse.

While most of this post is a response to that specific article and written about six months ago, I have only seen more and more evidence that people make these assumptions and that they have harmful effects.

Far too often, Christian communities start out praising ‘the way things used to be done’ because of current problems. Ever since the Joshua Harris craze in the 90’s, this seems to take the form of glorifying arranged marriages and striving to use examples of marriage in the Old Testament as patterns of how things should be done today.

In order to glorify this method of finding a spouse, several assumptions are made, all of which have serious faults. First, the author assumes marriages were happier and lasted longer because the matches were better with something close to an arranged marriage model.

Instead, I think there were major incentives to stay married, regardless of happy the match was, and major disincentives to either being single (as a woman) or ending a marriage. Marriages lasted longer because, in the West, except in extreme cases, you were in serious financial trouble if you divorced, or you took your vows seriously, or it just wasn’t socially acceptable. For some, perhaps it was simply more convenient to remain married.

Second, the author assumes that arranged marriages operated under three main principles:

  • Marriages were arranged by people who knew the bride and the groom and loved them.
  • Marriages were arranged based on someone’s longstanding character, or said otherwise, their reputation.
  • Marriages were arranged by families who had the couple’s best interests in mind.

As a contrast, online dating is described as potentially misleading, since it’s a new person able to create a profile at will…although any sort of dating could be described as problematic in that sense. Yes, people put their best foot forward when dating, but I’m fairly certain you also do that with your best friend’s parents, and certainly prospective in-laws, regardless of whether it’s dating or arranged.

How many times do parents look shocked and confused when they pick their kid up from a play-date and the friend’s mom exclaims at how well-behaved they are! Not their little monster, surely? That is where knowing the families, friends, and taking one’s time comes in. Playing pretend with someone for months takes an awful lot of effort. Seeing them interact with people who probably do know the worst sides of them, family and close friends, is very, very illuminating.

So, maybe there is a problem in how we date; in that it often is mostly individual effort, without much interest in the family or close friends…if they even have close friends or family. (Which touches on a whole other topic of how a lack of close friends and family put extreme pressure on a marriage, where you are relying on one person for the majority of your emotional and physical needs, day in and day out.)

Attached to the issue of individuality is the fact we likely think about ourselves differently than those of Biblical times, or indeed, those in different cultures. For example, I worked with a number of Karen refugees (a tribe from South East Asia), and if someone committed to an activity, they might not show up but instead send another member of their family with no warning whatsoever.

The Karens consider themselves, in effect, interchangeable parts, and they don’t understand why Americans gets so worked up if the precise individual doesn’t show up. They are all representatives of the whole family, so it shouldn’t matter. This is similar to other instances of family-based cultures such as one finds all over the globe.

Yes, marriages were ideally arranged by people who knew and loved the bride and groom, but I don’t think that they weren’t concerned about individual compatibility. Frankly, it probably didn’t matter overly, as men and women didn’t spend all that much time together anyway. The women getting along with the bride was likely far more important, for everyone involved, than the bride liking her husband particularly.

While longstanding character and reputation was likely important in that culture (and remains so in similar cultures today) certain advantages could offset that. Further, that only works in a communal setting (which, shocker, we don’t have any more.) Jacob certainly doesn’t fit the model for it, as a stranger coming in. Nor does Isaac (although that’s a bit more unusual of a situation).

If my experience with the Karen serves as any sort of model, marriages were arranged by families who had the family’s best interests in mind, because people didn’t think about the individual….including the individuals.

So, the points listed above do outline a nice ideal for arranged marriage, but I’ve never seen any historical evidence for these particular motivations, and you certainly don’t see any Biblical evidence for this whatsoever. It’s a nice assumption, but it is an assumption, and not a very accurate one, judging from any of the couples I know of who have been in arranged marriages or my experience with cultures that generally practice it.

The article also claims that: “The principles there are that you don’t make these decisions in isolation; that wise people who know you very well and care about you very much are in favor of it; and that decisions are based on who the person really is, as evidenced by how they act even before meeting you.”

Well, on some level it will always be an individual action, as it should be (your parents and friends aren’t potentially becoming one flesh with this person. You are.) Further, most families and even friends aren’t in a position to give a reasoned opinion on whether or not two people should date (as opposed to continue dating) even if they meet in person.

Unless, again, we’re only supposed to marry within our group of childhood peers that our parents know (hoping they haven’t all moved away)? In which case I’d bet most folks are in real trouble. And then there’s the fact that sometimes parents don’t give good input on decisions like these.

Another complaint:

“No one puts their strange idiosyncrasies or sin struggles in their profile; they present their most positive resume. Why? Because we all want to be loved, liked, swiped, chosen, asked out, etc. You’re not swiping a real person; you are swiping a veneer. They might end up being the biggest pain of your existence, and they might be really good at keeping that from you until they choose to let you know.

Of course people don’t put those things up. But I doubt my parents are super aware of my individual sin struggles. They know my idiosyncrasies, but they’re also going to present a positive image of me. You have to be pretty worried about someone before you actively warn another good person away from them.

As for actually dealing with the idiosyncrasies and sinful tendencies, well, that’s part of what dating is all about, and why we take our time doing it. That remains the same, whether you are finding someone to date online, meeting a friend of a friend, or connecting with someone you knew from childhood. Removing the online element doesn’t change the risk involved.

The author ends up giving two ‘simple’ rules for online dating (which, presumable, will convince you not to date online.):

  1. Remember that profiles lie.
  2. Don’t go on a date with a stranger.

Well, yes profiles either lie or (more likely) aren’t very good at conveying the nuances of a person. Which means you’re just as likely to overlook a good person because they don’t seem to stand out as you are to pick a bad match to go on a date with.

As for the ‘don’t go on a date with a stranger’…well, when is someone not a stranger? And how do you let someone be not a stranger? This basically puts us back with the (very) limited pool of childhood friends, friends of friends, church, or work. Again, we live in a society where close community has broken down, a lot of those areas aren’t really viable.

Long and the short of it, most of the Christians I know who are doing online dating or have thought about it aren’t in that position because “guys aren’t asking ‘who are the good girls'” or taking initiative (although that is a problem…just not a main factor leading to online dating, I think).

They are doing it because there isn’t a high enough population density of like-minded people they have immediate access to and who they are interest in and are likewise interested in them. Once upon a time, if you were born in a small village that you likely wouldn’t leave your entire life, you married one of the other kids who were born within a few years of you, and that was that, because there wasn’t anyone else, and marriage was necessary.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of marriage. But I’m glad I’m not stuck marrying Hugh the butcher’s boy, just because we happened to be born around the same time and place.

Perhaps online dating isn’t the ideal way to find a spouse, but I don’t think, frankly, that anyone is saying it is. It is a solution to an otherwise very intimidating problem:

How do you find a like-minded person when there’s been a systematic breakdown of community, everyone is expected to work and be independent (and therefore has less time to devote to creating community), and there are very few geographic enclaves with a high enough population of like worldviews to make finding someone to marry very easy at all?

People find local spouses from time to time, but we’re seeing more and more of those young, small church, courtship marriages end in divorce too. Even worse, those sorts of marriages are touted as being ‘Biblical’ with the inference that people doing it different are ‘un-Biblical’ (also known as sinning?). We’ve got a serious problem when people start adding to scripture, or equating historical human customs with inspired directions of how to live.

We live in a world where there are usually many, many churches in one area, and you likely won’t be able to know everyone in all of them. There could be a great fellow Christian guy or girl three blocks away, but without an online platform, your paths will never cross.

Online dating provides a low-risk and reasonably low cost way for people who are interested in marriage and have a similar worldview to meet. It solves a major information problem and widens the pool of acceptable potentials dramatically.

Instead of settling for someone, or despairing, it can potentially provide a way to connect with other Christians who desire the same thing. Online dating isn’t a problem for Christians in our modern society: it is, for many people, a solution.

Author: Virginia Phillips

Virginia Phillips has a M.A. in Religious Studies and an enduring interest in history and politics. In her spare time she writes opinion pieces on current events and theology. She enjoys speculative fiction, martial arts, dancing, and both consuming and preparing food and beverage pairings.

One Reply to “A Defense of Online Dating”

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective Virginia.

    This article was fairly well written, but perhaps could have been shortened a bit.
    Also, you may consider fortifying your points with more objective experiences, like you did with the real-world first-hand experience with the Karen (spelling?) tribe. Some parts sounded like: “The article I read said this, but I think this and that instead.” — Because there weren’t external examples following the point being made.

    In summary:
    – It may be helpful to pick only the strongest points for defending your view.
    – Try to be a bit more concise.
    – Defend your points with back-up information/outside sources

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