Love in the time of layoffs

Sites like eHarmony and OK Cupid are flourishing as recession-era singles seek companionship


Judy Berman
July 6, 2009 4:07PM (UTC)

In yet another recession-era "misery loves company" piece, the Associated Press reports that dating is on the rise in these troubled economic times. Since last September, membership on  eHarmony (a Christian values-backed, marriage-oriented dating site) has risen 20 percent, while OK Cupid (which resembles a social networking site and caters to a younger, more casual crowd) has attracted a whopping 50 percent more customers. Quirky singles events, such as Chicago's Nerds at Heart, which invites participants to throw down $25 for a night of drinking, trivia and board games, are also flourishing.

The AP argues that we can chalk these developments up to two major factors: The economic crisis has left people with less money and more anxiety. While paying up to $60 a month to maintain an eHarmony account may seem unwise as retirement savings evaporate and unemployment looms large, OK Cupid's founder and CEO Sam Yagan explains why this might actually be a reasonable expenditure:

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The way he figures it, a man can spend $100 buying drinks at a bar trying to pick up a stranger and leave with little more than a cold shoulder. But, when he's in a relationship, a Saturday evening can be as simple as Thai noodle takeout, Netflix and some fun under the covers. All in all, Yagan said, that's "more bang for your buck."

Isn't that romantic? University of Richmond neurologist Craig Kinsley corroborates Yagan's point: "Really, dating, rather than being considered as expensive, can be a thrilling and inexpensive distraction," he tells the AP. "Like getting drunk without the wallet-hit or hangover." (Still unconvinced that serial dating can be cheap? Just ask Ron James, the JDater who finally found his soul mate after carpet-bombing the site's female users with messages and meeting as many as three women per Saturday at various midtown-Manhattan Starbucks.)

As for the anxiety aspect, Kinsley suggests that "stomach-fluttering first dates also release brain chemicals that can temporarily erase worries, even about 401(k)s and layoffs and falling portfolios and upside-down mortgages." And other researchers have found that activity on dating sites surges after all kinds of traumatic world events, from stock market crashes to 2007's Virginia Tech massacre. "It ends up being a reminder that you need to look for the important things in life," Gian Gonzaga, eHarmony's senior research scientist (yes, such a position exists), tells the AP. "It isn't that surprising when you see people gravitating toward the most fundamental human relations."

I can imagine that money and anxiety may have something to do with the uptick in dating, but I also have a few other hypotheses. For one thing, online dating was increasing in popularity before the recession, as the stigma surrounding it continued to evaporate to next-to-nothing. And the downturn has left Americans with a lot of free time to fill. Obviously, the unemployed have about 40-60 extra hours a week at their disposal. And if those of us who are trying to cut back on bar tabs and entertainment costs are spending more nights at home, then it makes sense that we would also have more time to browse online dating sites.

Finally, if you'll allow me to put on my "amateur psychologist" hat, it seems reasonable that workers facing unemployment or, at best, career stasis, need a new place to focus their derailed ambitions. Our outsize American egos are hungry for achievement -- and if we can't find it at work, we may as well look for it in our personal lives.


Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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