Leaving online apps, dating friends
Whether it’s a meeting in a dimly lit bar, an awkward blind date, a speed date, or even responding to a classified ad in a newspaper, American dating has long been an experiment in throwing strangers together and hoping for the best. In many cases, apart from a common geography or perhaps a common acquaintance, there was not much that connected people.
For the most part, this dating formula worked. American marriages are full of people who started dating when they were complete strangers. A survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life, of which I am director, found that 46% of married Americans reported not knowing their spouse before dating.
But that’s changing: today’s young adults, especially young women, are increasingly finding romance in their circles of friends. In our survey, 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they were in a relationship with someone who used to be their boyfriend, including a staggering 50% of women in this cohort. That’s double the 21% of over-65s who reported being friends with their partner or spouse before dating. 52% of older couples said their significant other was a complete stranger before they got together, compared to only 35% of younger couples. In other words, many more older Americans created relationships from scratch.
Although the results of our survey were shocking, more and more research supports the importance of the relationship between friends and partners. A 2021 survey of college students conducted by researchers at the University of Victoria in Canada found that 68% of people were friends with their partner before becoming romantically involved, suggesting that the pipeline may be even stronger among the youngest generation of Zers In the circle of. .
This is a huge change in the way Americans meet their partners. It is also the most serious rejection yet of online dating culture, questioning the idea that young people are ignoring potential partners who are stuck in the “friend zone”. And for many women, this makes a lot of sense. In new research and interviews my team and I conducted with nearly two dozen young people, we found three main reasons why Gen Z was more attracted to friends than strangers when it came to dating.
It’s more fun
There’s no doubt that more Americans are using dating apps, but whatever their benefits, many young people we spoke with said the constant swiping took much of the fun and excitement out of the process. In a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, 46% of Americans said their overall experience with online dating was negative, compared to 42% in a 2019 Pew survey, while slightly more than half of women reported a negative experience . In the interviews conducted for our survey, young people told us that they found online dating too transactional. The almost endless choices can lead to decision fatigue and greater doubt about the person they ultimately choose.
“People think they only have a million options,” said a 26-year-old woman. “It’s like when you want to watch a show, you turn on Netflix, and you literally find yourself undecided for an hour, and then you end up not watching anything.”
Dating can be anxiety-inducing, especially if you know little about the person, their background, and their intentions. In The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker wrote that dating a friend removed the feelings of uncertainty and awkwardness that often accompany dating: “Friendship relationships start from a place of care and warmth—which can mean avoiding exhausting game. that might arise between two date-weary strangers who have been conditioned to look out for themselves.”
This was a common refrain among interviewees. Sure, it’s easier to meet someone with dating apps, but they don’t necessarily increase the chances of a meaningful relationship. “It’s much easier to meet people, but it’s not necessarily easier to find someone who matches you,” said a woman in her 20s. “So it’s easy to get into the habit of making these shallow connections and maybe not look for something deeper.”
Knowing something about a person can also increase the chances of compatibility. Chemistry isn’t easy to quantify, but most of us know when we like spending time with someone—and dating a friend increases the chances that your partner will share similar interests or values.
Trusting friends is easier than being sure of strangers
In no area of social life is trust more important than in intimate relationships. The process of building a relationship—which is what dating is all about—requires us to let our guard down. But it’s much harder to be vulnerable if you’re prepared to distrust the person sitting across from you.
Dating a friend can reduce trust concerns, which are a major issue for young people. As I’ve written before, today’s young adults are uniquely distrustful. They express lower levels of trust in almost everything: government, corporations, the media, and even other people. According to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, 60% of young adults believed that “most people cannot be trusted,” more than double the rate among older adults.
Trust is an even bigger advantage when it comes to online dating. According to a Pew survey last year, 52% of Americans reported meeting a scammer on an online dating platform. And even when people try to be honest in their dating profiles, the young people we interviewed told us they can be unwittingly misleading or misleading.
“It’s hard to find out what a person is really like through the Internet,” said one college student. “You don’t see their reactions. You don’t see how they react to situations because you start talking online and you see pictures online and you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s really pretty.’ But it could be a filtered photo.”
There’s no surefire way to prevent someone from betraying your trust, but dating someone who’s already part of your life makes it less likely.
Mutual friends provide greater accountability
It is simply safer for a young woman to date someone who shares the people or places in her life. In dating, especially online dating, women are bombarded with negative attention, harassment, or worse. According to a new Pew poll, roughly four in 10 women under 50 report being called names while using dating sites. More than one in ten had been threatened with physical violence and 56% reported being sent a sexually explicit image that they did not ask for. This type of harassment is even more prevalent among young people: In a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Toronto, 84% of college-age women reported receiving sexually inappropriate messages from a stranger online.
Much of the negative behavior women experience during the dating process is a result of a lack of accountability. While there’s no guarantee, dating someone in your social or professional circle gives you more assurance that you’re not acting like a jerk because you’re afraid of the social consequences of morally questionable behavior. And when they do wrong, they are much more likely to face consequences. Strangers may feel less hurt by people’s mistreatment because the consequences are often minimal. As I’ve written before, “The power of shared social bonds motivates people to be on their best behavior.”
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba makes a similar argument in her book “Rethinking Sex”: “In the past, meeting someone through friends and community encouraged good, or at least socially acceptable, behavior.”
However, friend dating is not without its risks. We often prioritize different qualities in a romantic partner than in a friend, making the transition from friend to romantic interest difficult. A romantic mistake can lead to hurt feelings or destroy a friendship. In certain circumstances, getting to know someone can have professional consequences. Office dating is often frowned upon, but according to a recent Washington Post story, younger workers are increasingly embracing office romances.
The good news is that there is no perfect way to find the right partner. Those who married strangers are no less satisfied with their relationships than those who married a close friend, our survey revealed. We don’t know if these relationships last longer, but given the interplay of factors that affect the quality and longevity of relationships, it’s a good bet that the encounters aren’t much more than an interesting story.
Daniel Cox is the Director of the Survey Center on American Life and a Research and Polling Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.