More Choices, Less Commitment

“If I lived in Iowa, I’d be married with four children by now.” Gregg Blatt is the CEO of’s parent company. He’s a 40-something bachelor living in Manhattan, and it’s not entirely clear whether his wry comment aims to slight Iowa or New York.

Either way, it’s clear that overwhelming choice can cripple commitment. Blatt himself wonders whether the glittering promise of online dating—your perfect match is only a click away—encourages us to become never-satisfied consumers of relationships, always looking to upgrade. And if we suspect we can easily find a superior choice on the Internet, how might that knowledge negatively affect the desire to invest in our current relationship, or even marriage? Assuming we one day get tired of compulsive consumption and decide to stop playing the field, will we be able to? Might the intoxication of choice lead to the death of commitment—and contentment?

Dan Slater thinks so. His recent article in The Atlantic implies that online dating, far from making marriage easier, is actually making it harder—by making commitment less likely:

The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?

Slater’s dog-track metaphor is strikingly apt. The rabbit isn’t real, it’s never caught, yet the greyhound still obsessively chases it. And the multiplying “rabbits” (as provided by the proliferation of online dating services) deceive us into believing that the odds of catching one have improved exponentially. In reality, as our expectations of relational satisfaction have risen, so has the likelihood of disappointment—and with it, the chances that we will keep on compulsively chasing. Of course, this process suits the online dating companies. “[T]he profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments,” Slater observes. ”A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream.” That’s why most of the users on are return customers, coaxed back into activity by plaintive “How could you leave us?” emails, and the consumer’s own relational restlessness. 

Lowering the Bar

Evidence also suggests that even if we do finally commit to someone, the multiplicity of options makes it less likely we’ll stay committed. Psychologist Barry Schwarz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.”

In 2011, Mark Brooks, a consultant to online dating companies, published the results of an industry survey titled “How Has Internet Dating Changed Society?” The survey responses, from 39 executives, produced the following conclusions:

  • “Internet dating may be partly responsible for a rise in the divorce rates.”
  • “Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there’s no need to settle for a mediocre relationship.”
  • “Low quality, unhappy, and unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites.”
  • “The market is hugely more efficient. . . . People expect to—and this will be increasingly the case over time—access people anywhere, anytime, based on complex search requests. . . . Such a feeling of access affects our pursuit of love. . . . [T]he whole world (versus, say, the city we live in) will, increasingly, feel like the market for our partner(s). Our pickiness will probably increase.”
  • “Internet dating has made people more disposable.”

That’s frightening. But online dating is surely not the only cause of commitment-phobia. As Slater points out, gender may also play a role, though “researchers are divided on the question of whether men pursue more ‘short-term mates’ than women do.” Certainly, with young women in the United States much more likely to graduate from college than their male peers, and college graduates much more likely to date other college graduates, men seem to have the luxury (or rather, the curse) of choice.

Then there is the pornography epidemic. It raises (or rather, lowers) the bar on what we expect of a prospective spouse because of its unremitting insistence on physical performance and cosmetic beauty, over and against mental and moral qualities. As Christian men, we may pray unctuously for the Lord to provide a wife of noble character (Proverbs 31:10-31), but our hearts are being continually conditioned to lust after the wife of maximal hotness. “Charm is deceitful,” God protests, “and beauty is vain!” But we dismiss him like one of those impertinent pop-ups that gets in the way of what we really want to see.

Devastating Results

The devastating societal results are already being ruefully catalogued. The sexually graphic film Shame (2011) sees a porn-addicted Michael Fassbender sloping from one brief encounter to another. Together in a hotel room with a beautiful woman who believes in monogamy, he is unable to perform. Because his only commitment is to an endless, open-ended lack of commitment, real intimacy eludes him. And by the time the film ends, we’re not sure it will ever be regained.

Or take George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009). He plays a character whose aversion to emotional commitment means that, according to his own family, he has essentially ceased to exist. Taken in by the false promises of sexual “freedom,” he has withheld commitment for years. And now that he wishes to give it, he’s no longer free to do so.

Pointedly, The Velveteen Rabbit appears briefly in the film. It’s a children’s story about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes real when he is loved. At one point, the rabbit asks the wise Skin Horse how the process happens.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

It’s a mesmerizing, sad story about how real love—real commitment—inevitably unmakes us. Perhaps that’s partly why we’re so afraid of it. But the story also explains why that “unmaking” is such a desirable thing.

It’s how you become “real.”

Our Undoing

Truly committing to another human being will certainly be our undoing. It requires substitutionary sacrifice: your life is subsumed in the quest for the other’s contentment. In the case of marriage it means each person forsaking all others, which to the world looks like a very shabby prospect.

But this selfless giving of oneself to another human being holds unique power to make both the lover and the beloved truly beautiful. By losing their lives, they have gained them. But we can only taste this if we commit—and allow other to commit to us.

Committing to love at great cost to ourselves is the most desirable choice we can make in God’s universe. He demonstrated this love for us on a tiny hill outside Jerusalem. He made the choice to love self-sacrificially. Forsaking all others, he committed himself to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place. Even the living God—powerful, sovereign, utterly free, whose triune nature means that he does not depend on others in order to love and be loved—nevertheless committed himself to love one bride.

Will we trade the deceptive and ever-declining thrills of choice-idolatry for the unique pleasures of commitment? We should do it, and soon. Because even if, by God’s grace, our chains fall off, even if our dungeon flames with light, we may be powerless to get up and leave, because our hearts have been crippled. We put off commitment and venerate choice, idly believing that we will commit when we are ready. But when that day finally arrives, we may realize with widening eyes that we’re no longer choosing sin. Sin is choosing us. We will have become imprisoned by choice.

And for those of us who have experienced this prison first-hand, isn’t it strange when the world describes us as “butterflies”? That is too delicate, too lovely. Brothers and sisters, let me propose a more fitting insect: the moth. Drawn to the light but finally unable to enjoy it. Dulled. Restless. All-consuming.

  • Robert

    This is an extraordinarily good pîece which is both timely and a erudite.

    Our society is headed towards moral oblivion primarily because of our obsession with ourselves and our sexually. This article does well to address one of the major issues. Millennials (of which I am one) are frighteningly moral shape-shifters. Thanks for being able to discern and address one of the true problems with us.

  • Zach Nielsen

    Great post. Great insight.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Excellent, excellent piece. I’m going to hang on to this as I talk to my millenial college and young adults at my church. I see this phenomenon increasingly–it’s basically turning everyone into Jerry Seinfeld.

  • Lisa Robinson

    While this article paints some good insights and warnings, I don’t know that it paints an entirely accurate picture. Singles explore on-line dating for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they’re looking to upgrade or easily dissatisfied. The main reason is because it hasn’t worked out in the venues they are in. I do think on-line dating makes it easy to enter into a “facaded” relationship because it gives participants the opportunity to create a persona in which much can be hid. But eventually this comes out and hopefully before a serious commitment has been made. So there’s a different dynamic to on-line dating that needs to be considered. But there are also plenty of folks who go on actually looking to enter into a committed relationship. So to caste the whole lot aside as idolatrous and commitment-challenged just seems a bit dishonest.

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  • Barry Cooper

    Lisa, I’m with you – people often join dating websites for very good reasons. I’ve no doubt that a great many (maybe even most?) join in the hope of committing to someone. The question is, do dating websites exacerbate or diminish our culture’s aversion to commitment? On balance, are they part of the cure, or part of the cancer?

  • Melody

    I can only assume you’ve never online dated, Barry.

    It isn’t this glittering array of wonderful prospects. I would say the idea of having to wade through the sludge of online dating is more of a deterrent to breaking up than an inducement. And it can’t be any better for men, I always read that there are way more men than women on those websites.

    • Barry Cooper

      Careful what you assume, Melody. I take background research *very* seriously :)

      • RealFeminist

        I met the man I’m currently dating online, and while I concede this article makes good points, one can’t make a blanket statement about every online dating site, or every online dater. I’m a single mom and live in a small town with a very small dating pool. Add the fact that I’m a committed Christian and not looking for “just a date” and that means that I didn’t have much choice. My boyfriend is a wonderful, godly single dad who lives an hour away that I never would have connected with otherwise. We are praying about what God has for our future, but I think online dating can be an amazing tool that God can use to lead us to potential husbands and wives, when used properly. Stories like this one may discourage Christians from pursuing godly relationships with someone they are actually compatible with. I know more than one Christian couple that met online and more than one pastor who believes it is one of the best ways to meet your future spouse. This is all contingent on being very honest and yes, a little picky. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to committing your life to someone.

        • Ruth Li

          Realfeminist, I understand your point totally. I think everything,including the net, can be used differently according to the user’s attitude and purpose.It is an effective tool for looking the perfect match in this big world, cause there are so many totally different people, and the difficulty of getting access to the man that God match for you might hinder people from gaining the true love and marrige bless that has been designed by God. It is just a platform, for Godly people to meet the right mate. Besides, as for those who are always undecisive, they are originally not in lack of targeted dating or even marrige mate.

  • Lisa Robinson

    Barry, yes I do see your point. Exacerbate? Yes and especially if that propensity is already there. But I don’t know if the problem rests with the concept itself or the way the sites are advertised and organized. Like any business, they are looking for the highest yield. There is an ease of accessibility that lure the ones who are commitment challenged and/or not approaching the relationship arena wisely or with maturity. I mean, listen to the way these things are advertised. Just hop and board and get what you want. But then it goes to the purpose of sits. Is the site for the one exploring more options or more venues for options? The problem is that many of these sites are designed for the latter but open up to the former (those who are frivolous in their approach to relationships) because of how the site is advertised and managed. Rigorous screening would prevent the type of activity you’re warning against but that would probably not bode well from a business perspective for the sites.

    So how does that fit in with your thesis? I think you’re right for the person of whom it is a problem. But I don’t know that the general sweep of the industry as a whole leads there. FWIW, I tried a few and swore them off. For the serious minded person, it’s a tough and time consuming process to wade through, especially given that the dishonesty factor is much higher. The dynamics just don’t work for me. But I have known this to work for others, including some of my married friends.

  • Candacia Greeman

    Barry, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article that features an analysis of Scripture, The Velveteen Rabbit, Shame, The Paradox of Choice, Up in the Air and It was a very engaging read :)! I agree with your thesis and I think that your argument might be strongly supported by our experiences of deep friendships. For instance, I’ve found that most of my best friends are not people who I would choose based on compatibility etc. Instead, these friends are people with whom I’ve shared (seemingly random) life experiences which have deepened our mutual affection.

    For those interested, The Paradox of Choice was featured in a very interesting Radiolab episode on Choice. You can access it from the link below.

    • Barry Cooper

      Candacia, thank you. I’ll definitely give that a listen.

  • Mike

    Barry, this is – I think – a dumb question, but do you think there is hope for those of us trying to move beyond this sort of behavior? I’ve never dated online but I have struggled with lust over the years and now that I’m trying to move toward a relationship with someone, that struggle gives me pause and scares me. But, by God’s grace, I don’t want to live there and I desire true commitment and relationship.

    I know it sounds silly to ask, but I think there are many folks in a similar position.

    • Barry Cooper

      Mike, it’s an excellent question. In fact, a good friend of mine suggested that I needed more gospel hope in the article!

      It’ll only be a brief sketch, but let me give two thoughts on how Christ leads us out of the prison.

      1. Meditate on God’s goodness and sovereignty. Think about the implications of texts such as Acts 4:24-29 and Genesis 50:18-21. They demonstrate that even the worst of our choices are ordained by God for our good and his glory. That should help to conquer our fear of commitment, our fear of making mistakes, and our fear of missing out.

      2. As with any idolatry we’re subject to, the only way to drive out “the god of keeping our options open” is by replacing it with love for a superior God. We need to fill our minds and hearts with love for the true God, the living God, the triune God. The God who makes choices. For me, a good way way to do that is to read books that explore and exalt the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. You can’t do any better than going to Scripture for that. Alternatively, something like J I Packer’s “Knowing God” is a wonderful way to kindle your heart for the God who commits.

      Maybe others have suggestions they’d like to add, but I hope that helps you move forward Mike. Blessings, brother.

  • Kelly

    I enjoyed this post. I’m a single person who has tried online dating and agree with your anaylisis. I’m always looking for Christian literature on dating and come across some horribly named titles–that I still buy and read.

    What to do until Love finds you.
    Sex is not the problem, lust is.
    Boundaries in Dating
    How To get a date worth keeping
    Lies Women Believe
    Jesus, Lover of My Soul
    God’s Promises for Singles

    I’ve given up relationships for lent. And have been doing a ton of reflection on my relationship patterns. One thing I do know—is that I am a very giving person and often give too much of myself too soon–and I’m not just speaking in the pysical sense.

    Look–here I am on this site, pouring out my troubles. I am a writer myself, so it seems natural for me to put it down to figure it out. So that’s what this is. I’ll put this out there and see if anyone can relate.

    Born Again Virgin

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  • Kathy

    “Dating” sites are like much else, they have the potential for good or for evil. What is one’s priority when signing up for these sites? One should exercise discernment even on Christian sites.
    I met my husband online, both of us had been in previous marriages which didn’t turn out well, part of the reason, I am certain is that we had not invited God to be in charge of the search, did it on our own understanding.
    Essentially before we were matched each of us had requested that if there was someone for us for God to choose or show us the one. In our case God certainly did! We have been married for nearly 2 years, we are realistic as the normal everyday problems crop up as they can in any marriage, it is how we choose to handle the problems that is important and keeping God as the center and head of our relationship. We are very blessed.
    It is my thought that dating sites can be useful if one keeps to Godly principles during the process. One must be careful taking the time to seek the Lord during the courtship process. Everyone’s story is different and though God never changes He many times used different methods to accomplish His purposes but never being unfaithful to Himself.
    Also would like to add to any young folk reading this that if you are not yet married of engaged, keep your focus on the Lord and approach relationships with Jesus as the center of your life. He can, in His time bring you together with the one to spend your life with, don’t settle. The Bible is absolutely right in admonishing us to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. There is also much truth to the statement “marriages are made in Heaven but must be worked out here on earth”.
    I admire Kirk Cameron for his commitment to the Lord, to his wife and family. You go Kirk! May God continue to use you as an example of what a family is intended to be is my prayer for you.

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