From Swiping to Sexting: The Enduring Gender Divide in American Dating and Relationships
February 9, 2023 |
Few topics capture our interest as completely and intensely as dating and romantic relationships. The process of finding a partner—and the struggle it frequently entails—is an omnipresent feature of the American cultural landscape, appearing in movies, literature, art, and popular music. But until the recent past, dating was an activity that occurred mostly during late adolescence and young adulthood and much more rarely thereafter.
Today, Americans spend a much greater part of their lives single. The rise of divorce and delay of marriage mean that dating occurs later in life and our dating lives last much longer than they once did. Not only are Americans spending more time dating, but the goals for dating, which at one point primarily served as an avenue to marriage, are less clear than they once were.
The January 2023 American Perspectives Survey sheds some light on dating preferences, experiences, and perspectives. The national survey of more than 5,000 adults age 18 and older, including nearly 800 single adults, finds that Americans have strong dating preferences when it comes to living at home, being unemployed, and smoking. These are especially salient considerations for women. Politics is another important consideration for many Americans, especially committed partisans. Most Republicans and Democrats say they would be much less interested in dating those of the opposite political persuasion.
Dating practices that frequently grab headlines, such as ghosting and sexting, are not all that widespread, and, in the case of sexting, it may occur less frequently today. Generation Z is significantly less likely than millennials are to report sending sexually explicit images of themselves to someone they are dating.
The survey also finds that infidelity is a disquietingly common experience, especially for women. Nearly half of women say that a partner or spouse has been unfaithful, including more than six in 10 black women.
The new survey also reveals that, despite the growing popularity of online dating sites and apps, many users feel ambivalent about what they have to offer. Among the roughly one in four Americans who have ever used an online dating platform, experiences are mixed. Roughly as many users report a positive experience as a negative one. Women are especially critical of online dating, reporting significantly more negative experiences than men.
Even as online dating has made it easier than ever to become romantically involved with a complete stranger, younger Americans appear increasingly interested in dating people they already know. Young adults are more than twice as likely as seniors to report that they were friends with their partner or spouse before they started dating. Most older Americans say their spouse or partner was once a stranger.
The Rise of Single America
No social change has altered the fabric of American life so profoundly as the decline of marriage. In 2021, only about half of Americans, with slightly more men than women, report being married. The US Census Bureau reports a steady decline in marriage rates going back 50 years.
Reasons for marriage’s decline abound. As professional opportunities for women grew over the past few decades, they became more financially independent, reducing the immediate economic necessity of marriage. Shifting views about gender roles and legal changes to divorce law also contributed. National economic disruptions that disproportionately affected working-class men have also been cited as a factor. Additionally, growing suspicion of—and in some cases outright opposition to—traditional social arrangements among young adults may reduce interest in marriage. A rising number of young people raised by divorced parents may have contributed an overall feelings of skepticism about marriage as well.
Marriage is also facing increasing competition from other types of social arrangements such as cohabitation. The number of Americans cohabitating with their romantic partner has more than doubled over the past three decades. It has become a widely accepted practice, particularly among younger Americans. Nearly six in 10 younger Americans report having cohabitated with a romantic partner.
Nowhere is the decline of marriage more evident than in the lives of young adults. Overall, more than one in three Americans have never been married. Only 25 percent of younger adults (age 18 to 34) are currently married, a dramatic decline over the past few decades. In 1978, younger adults were almost twice as likely to be married (59 percent).
Although more Americans today have never been married, many do not describe their relationship status as single. More than three in 10 (35 percent) Americans have never married, but only about one in five (21 percent) are currently single. What’s more, many Americans who have never married have been in committed relationships for years. Over half (53 percent) of Americans who have never been married and are currently living with their partner have been in the relationship for at least five years. Nearly one in three (32 percent) Americans living with their partner have been together for at least 10 years.
Did the Pandemic Stall Relationship Formation?
For the past couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated social interactions of all types—limiting social gatherings and diminishing opportunities to forge new relationships. Most Americans trying to date during the pandemic found the experience challenging. A Pew Research Center study found that 63 percent of “daters” said the pandemic made the experience more difficult. Despite the evident complications of dating at a time of a contagious viral pandemic, there is not much evidence to suggest that it substantially affected relationship formation among young adults in the long term.
In the early months of the pandemic, about half (49 percent) of young adults (age 18 to 29) reported that they were single, defined as not being married, living with a partner, or being in a “committed relationship.” Relationship status varied considerably between young men and women at this time. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) young men, compared to 38 percent of young women, reported being single. At the end of 2022, male relationship status was largely the same as it was more than two years earlier. Today, a majority (57 percent) of young men are single. However, young women appear to have experienced a modest increase in single status; close to half (45 percent) of young women now report being single.
Interest in Dating
Most Americans who are single report that they are not currently dating, and, while many are open to dating, a significant number report that they are not currently looking to date anyone. Only about one in 10 single Americans report that they are currently dating one person (11 percent) or more than one person (2 percent). Forty-two percent report that they are not currently dating anyone but remain open to the possibility. Nearly as many single Americans (41 percent) report that they are not interested in dating anyone at the moment.
There is a significant disparity in dating interest between single men and women. Nearly half (47 percent) of single men report being open to dating, compared to only 36 percent of single women. The gender gap in dating is even wider among young singles. More than half (52 percent) of young single men say they are open to dating, compared to only 36 percent of young single women.
Reasons Americans Are Single
Americans who are single cite numerous different reasons they are not interested in dating or are not currently dating someone. The two most commonly cited reasons single Americans give include having more important priorities in their life and finding it difficult to meet people. Thirty-six percent of single adults say that having more important priorities is a major reason they are not currently dating. Single women are much more likely than single men to say this is a major reason they are not dating (45 percent vs. 29 percent, respectively). An identical number (36 percent) of single Americans say that difficulty meeting people is a major reason they are not dating. Roughly equal numbers of single men (35 percent) and single women (38 percent) say this is a major factor.
Not being able to find someone who measures up is another important reason many single Americans cite. Of single Americans, 30 percent say that not being able to find someone who meets their expectations is a major reason they are not dating. Women cite this as a factor more often than men do. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) single women, compared to less than one-quarter (23 percent) of single men, say an inability to find someone who meets their expectations is a major reason they are not dating.
This is an especially salient issue for college-educated women. Close to half (45 percent) of college-educated women say not being able to find someone who meets their expectations is a major factor, while only 28 percent of women without a college education feel the same. This education gap is slightly smaller among men. One-third (33 percent) of college-educated men claim not finding someone who meets their standards is a major factor for them, compared to 19 percent of noncollege-educated men.
Fewer single Americans cite a preference for being single, lack of interest, or not being ready after ending a relationship as major reasons they are not dating. More than one in four (27 percent) single Americans say a major reason they are not dating is that they simply enjoy being single. One in five (20 percent) single Americans who are not currently dating or interested in doing so say that people not being interested in them is a major factor. Only 8 percent of single Americans say that not being ready after ending a previous relationship is a major reason they are not dating, with women citing this as a major reason three times more often than men (12 percent vs. 4 percent, respectively).
In Their Voice: Dating Expectations
Women more than men report having a greater number of potential deal breakers when it comes to dating. They are also more likely to report having difficulty finding someone who meets their expectations. But for many young women, dating expectations refer less to a laundry list of must-have qualities and more to basic standards of how they wish to be treated.
One 19-year-old women says that she’s looking for mutual respect in a relationship and someone who approaches issues with an open mind.
I don’t want to be in a relationship where somebody’s not open-minded about things that I want to do. Like if they have their point of view on something and I have a different point of view, I would like to have like a conversation about it.
Another young woman, a 22-year-old college student, echoes this sentiment. For her, feeling respected and being with someone who is kind and considerate is paramount.
Pretty much my biggest thing is respect. . . . If we’re in a relationship, you shouldn’t have any dating apps on your phone at all. Like, I don’t care if we met on one or anything like that. We are in a relationship. I don’t need you going and looking at what’s on the market.
She says she is mostly looking for affirmation that her partner is invested in their relationship.
We ask for simple things, you know, remembering things that we talked about in conversations. You know, flowers occasionally. Date nights. Every once in a while, just to have that reassurance that our relationship is worthwhile and feeling like we can spend really great quality time together and share special moments.
But these were not the only perspectives. A 27-year-old married woman believes that many young women are not being realistic about what they can expect from their partner.
A lot of women I have met, a lot of my own peers who are the same age and still are unmarried . . . they’re out there looking for Mr. Perfect. He’s got to be over 6 feet. . . . He’s got to make so much money each year. His family has to be perfect. He has to agree with all of my own personal beliefs. And you know, I mean men are human too. They’re not going to meet all of those expectations.
At the same time, this woman said she believes what many men are looking for is not realistic either.
I think men are still looking for a type of woman that doesn’t really exist anymore. . . . They’re looking for that 1950s housewife-type woman. And that’s just not the type of girls that I think are out there today. A lot of girls . . . want to go to college. They want to have a career. They want to make a name for themselves in the world. And then they want to settle.
A 27-year-old divorced man suggested that women may express more definite dating criteria simply because they have spent more time thinking about it: “[It] depends on the person, I feel like a lot of times women seem to have a better idea of what they want.”
Most young adults who were interviewed acknowledged that priorities in dating vary widely, even within couples. Most interviewees also agreed that communicating expectations was important in dating and that a lack of open and honest dialogue could be a serious problem. For most interviewees, dating expectations reflected more basic needs of feeling valued, appreciated, and respected by their partner.
Dating Priorities, Preferences, and Experiences
Americans do not necessarily approach dating decisions with set criteria or formal checklists, but Americans do find certain qualities more or less compelling in a potential romantic partner. Dating apps have made it easier than ever to prioritize certain characteristics and backgrounds in prospective partners, increasing the salience of certain attributes, such as political beliefs. But what Americans care about varies widely. Men’s and women’s dating priorities are quite different, and college-educated Americans appear much more critical than those without a degree. Still, a few attributes, such as smoking, being unemployed, and living with parents, are widely viewed as negative qualities in a romantic partner.
Dating preferences vary widely among Americans and reflect divergent interests, backgrounds, and life priorities. However, a few qualities stand out as being important. Notably, Americans are generally better able to clearly articulate what they do not want in a potential partner rather than what they do want.
One important dating consideration for Americans is proximity. Americans want to date someone who lives relatively close to them. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans say they would be somewhat or a lot less likely to date someone who lives in another state. Although men and women have many different priorities when it comes to dating, they agree about the importance of dating someone who lives relatively close to them.
Education and Employment
Employment status is another important consideration for many Americans when it comes to making dating decisions. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who is unemployed. This matters much more to women than men. Eighty-one percent of women, compared to 56 percent of men, say they would be less likely to date someone who did not have a job.
Educational attainment plays a significant role in whether Americans would be willing to date someone who is unemployed. College-educated Americans are more likely to say employment status is an important dating consideration than are those without a degree. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates say they would be less inclined to date someone without a job, while more than six in 10 (62 percent) Americans with a high school education or less say the same.
The gender divide cuts across educational background and is most pronounced among Americans without a college education. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of women without a college degree say they would be less likely to date someone who is jobless. Less than half (47 percent) of men without a college education claim this would be an impediment. Among college graduates, the gender divide still looms large, but both men and women say this is an issue. Nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) college-educated women and 66 percent of men with a college education say they would be less likely to date someone unemployed.
Americans care significantly less about the educational background of a prospective romantic partner than they do about employment. Only 25 percent of Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who did not go to college. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans say this does not matter to them.
However, educational background is more of a dating consideration for Americans with college degrees. Americans with a four-year college degree are still far more likely to prioritize a college education when it comes to potential partners. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans with a college degree say they would be less likely to date someone without one. This matters somewhat more for women than men. A majority (54 percent) of college-educated women and less than half (44 percent) of college-educated men say they would be less inclined to date someone who did not attend college. Notably, an even larger share of women with a postgraduate education (67 percent) say they would be less likely to date someone without a college education.
Rising divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births have increased the number of parents who have young children and are now dating. Having children is not a liability for most Americans, although it is an issue for a significant number. Forty-three percent of Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who had children from a previous relationship. More than half (52 percent) say this does not matter to them, and 3 percent say this would be an argument in their favor. Men and women have similar views when it comes to dating someone who is already a parent, but there are stark educational divides. A majority (54 percent) of Americans with a college degree say they would be less likely to date someone who already has children, compared to 35 percent of those with a high school degree or less.
The question of whether to have children is a major decision many couples will face. However, when it comes to dating, most Americans say someone not wanting children is not a major stumbling block. Roughly four in 10 (39 percent) Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who does not want children, 44 percent say this would not matter to them, and 14 percent say this would make them more likely to date them.
There is an ideological divide when it comes to children. For conservatives, not wanting children is a strike against, but less so for liberals, especially liberal men. Close to half (46 percent) of conservatives say they would be less likely to date someone who didn’t want to start a family, including roughly equal numbers of conservative men (45 percent) and women (47 percent). Among liberals, there is a stark gender divide. More than four in 10 (43 percent) liberal women say they would be less inclined to date someone who did not want children, compared to 34 percent of liberal men.
Despite being a relatively religious country, more Americans say a potential partner being “very religious” is negative than say it is positive. More than four in 10 (42 percent) Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who is very religious. Twenty percent say this would make them more interested in potentially dating someone, and 36 percent say it would not make a difference to them.
At the same time, not believing in God appears to be a greater liability in dating. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who does not believe in God. Only 12 percent say not believing in God would make them more inclined to date someone. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say it would not matter to them one way or the other.
There are striking political differences when it comes to views about the religiosity and religious beliefs of potential dating partners. Sixty-nine percent of liberals say they would be less inclined to date a very religious person, compared to 24 percent of conservatives. Conservative women feel especially strongly about a potential partner’s religious beliefs. Three-quarters of conservative women (75 percent) say they would be less likely to date someone who does not believe in God, with 61 percent reporting they would be very unlikely to do this.
Most religious Americans report having significant reservations about dating an atheist, but they are not comparably enthusiastic about dating someone who is very religious. For instance, 84 percent of white evangelical Christians say they would be less likely to date someone who does not believe in God, including more than two-thirds (68 percent) who say they would be “very” unlikely to do this. At the same time, more than half (56 percent) of white evangelical Christians say they would be more likely to date someone who is very religious. Conversely, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans would be less likely to date someone who is very religious, but only 31 percent report that they would be more inclined to date an atheist.
Politics: Democrats, Republicans, Trump, and Feminism
Republicans and Democrats report being similarly averse to dating across the political aisle. Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats say they would be less likely to date a Republican, and more than six in 10 (62 percent) self-identified Republicans report that they would be less likely to date a Democrat. Despite the salience of politics in dating, partisans appear to place less importance on dating someone who exactly shares their affiliation. About half of Republicans (51 percent) and Democrats (54 percent) say they would be more likely to date someone who identifies with their respective party.
For Democrats, supporting Donald Trump is far more polarizing. Eighty-four percent of Democrats say they would be less likely to date a Trump supporter, including nearly three-quarters (74 percent) who say this would make them a lot less likely to consider dating someone. Being a Trump supporter does not appear to be much of an advantage for those with more conservative politics either. Only about one in three (35 percent) Republicans say they would be more likely to date someone who supported Trump. Additionally, 14 percent of Republicans are less likely to date a Trump supporter.
Stark educational differences emerge in views about dating a Trump supporter. Americans with a college degree express far greater reservations about dating a Trump supporter than those with a high school degree or less. Sixty-five percent of college graduates say they would be less likely to date a Trump supporter, including nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of college-educated women. Four in 10 (41 percent) Americans without a college education say they would be less inclined to date someone who supports Trump.
Women overall view Trump support more negatively than positively in a potential partner, but black women are especially averse to dating someone who supports the former president. Three-quarters of black women (75 percent), compared to half of white (50 percent) and Hispanic (56 percent) women, say they would be less inclined to date a Trump supporter.
No group of women expresses greater objections to dating a Trump supporter than liberal women do. More than nine in 10 (91 percent) claim they would be less likely to date a Trump supporter, including 84 percent who say they would be “a lot” less likely to do this.
If being a Trump supporter is a liability for liberals, being a feminist is more problematic for those on the right. Being a feminist is more of a liability than an advantage in dating. More than four in 10 (42 percent) Americans report they would be less likely to date someone who is a feminist. Only 15 percent say they would be more likely to date someone who identifies as a feminist; 40 percent say this would not influence them one way or the other.
Men and women differ somewhat in their preferences for dating someone who is a feminist, but even women view it more negatively than positively. Thirty-nine percent of women, compared to 55 percent of men, would be less likely to date a feminist, while 21 percent say they would be more likely to date someone who identifies this way. Conservative men express the greatest objection to dating feminists, with 70 percent reporting they would be less inclined.
There is a stark political divide in views about dating someone who is a feminist. Two-thirds of conservatives (67 percent) would be less likely to date someone who is a feminist, compared to 18 percent of liberals. Thirty-seven percent of liberals say they would be more likely to date someone who identifies as a feminist. Notably, there is a significant gender gap among liberals: Nearly half (48 percent) of liberal women would be more inclined to date a feminist, compared to 22 percent of liberal men.
Lifestyle: Smoking, Vaccines, and Veganism
Americans generally regard smoking as an unattractive feature in a prospective partner. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say they would be less likely to date a smoker, including 58 percent who say they would be much less likely to do this. Men and women generally feel similarly about dating someone who smokes.
Objections to smoking are much more strongly held among Americans with a college degree. Nine in 10 Americans with a college degree say they would be less likely to date a smoker, compared to 66 percent of those with a high school education or less.
Many Americans harbor reservations about dating someone who is skeptical of vaccines as well. Almost half (49 percent) of Americans say they would be less inclined to date someone who is skeptical of vaccines. Ten percent say they would be more likely to date this type of person, and about four in 10 (39 percent) say it would not matter to them.
Educational differences, again, loom large. Two-thirds (67 percent) of college graduates would be less likely to date someone skeptical of vaccines, while only one-third (33 percent) of those without a degree express the same concern.
The partisan divisions are notable as well, with 70 percent of Democrats being less likely to date someone who is skeptical of vaccines and only 27 percent of Republicans being less likely to do so.
Americans are generally more likely to view being a vegan as negative than positive, but most Americans report that they do not care about this in a prospective partner. Forty percent say they would be less likely to date someone who is vegan, while 3 percent say they would be more likely. The majority (54 percent) of Americans report that this would not matter to them. Conservatives report having more reservations about dating a vegan than liberals do (51 percent vs. 39 percent, respectively).
Height: Too Tall or Too Short?
Height is an issue for many Americans in the dating market, but it matters much more for women than men. Overall, about one in three (34 percent) Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who is shorter, and 20 percent say they would be less likely to date someone taller than they are.
There is a considerable gender gap. A majority (56 percent) of women say they would be less likely to date someone who is “much shorter” than they are, but only 11 percent of men say the same. Men are more likely than women to object to dating someone much taller than them, but not to the same degree. About one-third (32 percent) of men say they would be less likely to date someone who is taller. Eight percent of women say the same. Notably, despite strong dating preferences when it comes to height, only about one in four (24 percent) women say they would be more likely to date someone taller than them.
Both liberals and conservatives report being partial to dating someone whose political views align with their own, but their preferences differ significantly in a couple of important ways. First, self-identified conservatives are significantly less likely than liberals to report willingness to date someone with moderate political views. Nearly half of liberals (47 percent) and about one in three (35 percent) conservatives say they would be willing to date someone who describes their political views as moderate. Conservatives also express greater hesitation in dating someone with “extreme” views, even if they are on the same side of the political spectrum. Forty-five percent of liberals say they would be willing to date someone who was “extremely liberal,” while only 26 percent of conservatives would date someone who was “extremely conservative.”
Disagreement over Abortion: A Dating Deal Breaker?
In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion has become much more salient for many Americans, especially young women. A survey conducted in the fall of 2022 found that 61 percent of young women said abortion was a crucial concern, citing it more often than any other issue. But when it comes to dating, abortion does not appear to be a deal breaker for most.
Only 14 percent of Americans overall say that it would be impossible to date someone who does not share their views on abortion. Nineteen percent of Americans say this would be very difficult for them, and about one in three (32 percent) say it would be somewhat difficult. One-third (33 percent) of Americans say it would not be difficult to date someone they disagree with over abortion.
Young women are somewhat more likely than older women to have a problem dating someone whose view on abortion does not align with their own. Nearly half say it would be impossible (24 percent) or very difficult (22 percent) for them to do.
For liberal women, abortion is an especially salient dating consideration. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) liberal women say it would be impossible or very difficult for them to date someone who has a different view on abortion. Only about four in 10 (41 percent) conservative women say it would be impossible or very difficult. One-third of liberal men (33 percent), and just under one-third of conservative men (31 percent), would have a major problem dating someone who disagreed with them on abortion.
Online dating has become widespread, even as it has its fair share of detractors. Yet despite the rapidly expanding number of online dating platforms available, most Americans (76 percent) report never using them. Only about one in four (23 percent) Americans report ever having used a dating website or app.
In general, online dating is more common among younger Americans, but the age gap is not entirely linear. Young adults (age 18 to 29) are far more likely to have used an online dating service than are seniors (33 percent vs. 9 percent, respectively). But Gen Zers are actually less likely to have used online dating apps or sites than millennials are.
Gay and lesbian Americans are among the most frequent users of online dating apps and sites. A majority (58 percent) of gay and lesbian Americans and nearly half (48 percent) of those who identify as bisexual say they have used online dating platforms. In contrast, only 21 percent of Americans who are heterosexual or straight have ever participated in online dating.
Online dating is also more common among divorced Americans. Forty-one percent of divorced men and 31 percent of divorced women report having dated online.
As a way to meet potential romantic partners, online dating apps are quite effective. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Americans who have used a dating app or site report having gone on a date with someone they met online. Young adults (69 percent) are somewhat less likely to have ever gone out on a date with someone they met through an online dating platform.
Still, public views of online dating are decidedly mixed. Fifty-three percent of Americans who have ever used an online dating site or app report having a positive experience, and few report that it was “very positive.” Close to half (46 percent) of online dating users say their experience was negative. But experiences with online dating vary widely. Men are more likely than women to report positive experiences dating online (57 percent vs. 49 percent, respectively).
Americans with more years of formal education also report having more positive experiences dating online. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) college-educated Americans say they have had a positive experience dating online, compared to less than half (47 percent) of those without a degree. College-educated men report being the most upbeat about online dating; nearly two-thirds (64 percent) report somewhat or very positive experiences dating online.
In Their Voice: Ambivalence About Online Dating
Even if many young people are not regularly using dating apps or websites, the influence of online dating sites, such as Tinder, is impossible to ignore. To better understand the complexities of dating and relationships, in-depth interviews were conducted with 21 young adults (age 18 to 29) about their experiences.
Most interviewees expressed considerable ambivalence about dating online. For many interviewees, online dating offered convenience, but they felt interactions online could be difficult to calibrate, and many expressed concerns about the authenticity or accuracy of dating profiles. Another issue expressed by interviewees was that online dating could feel transactional and the illusion of nearly limitless dating partners might lead to greater relationship dissatisfaction or discourage some people from committing to a partner.
“I think the impact is like obvious,” said a 26-year-old woman.
People think that they just have a million options. It’s like when you want to watch a show and you put on Netflix and like, you literally find yourself not being able to decide for like an hour and then you wind up not watching anything.
This feeling was shared widely. Men and women both expressed concerns about an overabundance of dating options. A 28-year-old single man said the plentiful alternatives provided by online dating sites lead people to become less satisfied with their current partner or relationship.
Anytime a person, man or woman, has limitless options all the time, there is this perception, and most of the time it’s a false perception, that who they’re with now isn’t good enough. That’s why no one has patience with each other anymore, because they could get something better.
A 26-year-old married man expressed a similar concern.
I think it’s a lot easier to churn and burn, so to speak. I just I think it’s easier to advance very quickly and then just kind of move on to the next person very easily compared to trying to make things work out.
And a young woman said that the illusion of endless choices discouraged people from settling down in the first place. “I think it makes people kind of a little bit more tempted to stay outside the bounds of what a lot of people consider like a traditional monogamous relationship.”
Another common complaint with online dating is the difficulty of judging the authenticity of dating profiles or the challenge of first meeting someone online. A 22-year-old college student said she did not always trust the information posted in online profiles.
It’s just hard to know like how the person truly is through the internet. You don’t see their reactions. You don’t see the way that they react to situations because you start talking online and you see the pictures online and you’re like, oh, she’s really pretty. But that could be like a filtered photo.
A 26-year-old single woman said that while online dating can be convenient for people with busy schedules, the experience was ultimately less rewarding than traditional dating: “It’s a little inorganic because like, you sort of see stuff about someone before they get the opportunity to tell you, so that kind of like takes some of the mystery out of it.” Another interviewee used even stronger language, describing the experience of online dating as “odd” and “dehumanizing.”
Perceptions of Dating Difficulties: The Gender Gap
Many Americans believe that dating has become more difficult than it once was, but men and women disagree somewhat about whether dating is more difficult for men or women. The majority of Americans—including most Americans who are single—do not believe that dating is any more difficult for men or women. More than six in 10 (62 percent) Americans say that when it comes to dating, neither men nor women have a more difficult experience. Roughly equal numbers of Americans believe that dating is more difficult for men (17 percent) as say it is more difficult for women (19 percent).
There are predictable differences between men and women. Women are more likely to believe that dating presents greater challenges to women (27 percent), while men are more likely believe that men (28 percent) face greater challenges when it comes to dating.
Gender differences are most pronounced among young adults. Thirty percent of young men believe that men have a harder time when it comes to dating, while more than one in three (34 percent) women believe they face greater difficulties in dating.
Dating Experiences: Open Relationships, Sexting, Ghosting, and Cheating
Ghosting, sexting, and open relationships have entered mainstream dating discussions, but these experiences are far from ubiquitous and vary considerably across generations. Far more common is the experience of partner infidelity, especially for women. Nearly half of women report that they have been in a relationship in which a partner or spouse has been unfaithful.
The concept of sexting, sending sexually explicit images or messages, has become a familiar part of the dating landscape, with magazines now offering suggestions on how best to incorporate this activity in one’s dating life. However, few Americans report having sent or received sexually explicit images without their consent. Only about one in five (19 percent) Americans, including roughly equal numbers of men (18 percent) and women (20 percent), report having ever sent an explicit image of themselves to someone they were dating. There is a somewhat larger gender gap among young adults. One-third (33 percent) of young women compared to one-quarter (25 percent) of young men report sending a partner or someone they were dating an explicit image of themselves.
More Americans, especially women, report receiving unsolicited explicit images than sending them. Twenty-nine percent of women report having been sent an explicit image they did not ask for, compared to 21 percent of men. Young women are most likely to receive unsolicited sexual images. More than four in 10 (43 percent) young women report having received sexually explicit images that they did not request.
There is a distinctive generational pattern in sexting experiences. The experience of sending explicit images to a partner is much more common among millennials than Gen Zers. Thirty-seven percent of millennials—including 43 percent of millennial women—report having sent explicit photos of themselves to someone they were dating. Only 20 percent of Gen Zers report ever having done this.
The experience of being ghosted, which describes when someone, usually a romantic interest, suddenly stops talking to you without an explanation or reason for cutting off contact, has become a fairly common dating experience. Roughly one in four (24 percent) Americans and 29 percent of Americans who are currently single report having been ghosted by someone they were dating.
Men and women are about equally likely to have been ghosted at some point in their dating life. Twenty-six percent of women and 23 percent of men report having had this experience.
The experience of being ghosted is uniquely common among the millennial generation. More than one in three (34 percent) millennials report having been ghosted at some point in their dating life. Only about one in five (21 percent) Gen Zers report having this experience.
While ghosting and sexting are less typical dating or relationship experiences, being cheated on by a partner or spouse is much more prevalent. Forty percent of Americans report that a partner or spouse was unfaithful.
Women are far more likely than men to report a partner or spouse has cheated on them. Nearly half (46 percent) of women report having been cheated on at some point in their life, compared to 34 percent of men. While men’s experiences with infidelity vary little by race, there are dramatic racial differences in women’s experiences with infidelity. Sixty-one percent of black women report having a partner or spouse who was unfaithful, compared to 45 percent of white women and 41 percent of Hispanic women.
For the vast majority of Americans, romantic relationships are exclusive affairs between only two people. Only 7 percent of Americans have ever been in an “open relationship,” in which both people agree to the possibility of having more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time. Younger Americans are not any more likely than older Americans to have participated in an open relationship, and there are no significant differences by gender either.
Americans who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are much more likely to have been in an open relationship than Americans who identify as heterosexual or straight. Twenty-eight percent of gay or lesbian people and 22 percent of Americans who identify as bisexual report having participated in an open relationship. In contrast, only 5 percent of Americans who identify as heterosexual or straight report ever having been in an open relationship.
Marriage and Relationships
Despite the ongoing decline in marriage rates, few Americans believe that marriage has become obsolete. In fact, relationship satisfaction is somewhat higher among married couples than among those in other types of relationships. But marital status is far from the only thing that predicts feeling satisfied with one’s relationship. Relationship satisfaction is influenced by numerous different factors including perception of partner attractiveness and politics.
Relationship Formation: Strangers, Friends, and Politics
Even as more Americans are meeting their partners and spouses online, a growing number of young adults report that their dating lives are centered more on friends. Young adults, especially young women, report that they met their current significant other or partner before they started dating, a stark change from the past.
Where Do Couples Meet?
Despite the rising popularity of dating apps and websites, online still trails many more traditional ways that couples meet. One in four (26 percent) Americans say they met their partner, significant other, or spouse through mutual friends or family members. Seventeen percent say they met at school, and an identical number (17 percent) report meeting their partner at work or a work-related function. Roughly one in 10 (11 percent) report having met their partner through an online dating site or app. Ten percent met in their community or neighborhood, and 8 percent met at a bar, nightclub, or party. Only 5 percent of Americans met their spouse or partner at church or a place of worship.
Young men are most likely to report meeting their current partner through an online dating app or site. Twenty-eight percent of young men report meeting their partner this way. Young women are half as likely (14 percent) to say they met their partner online. Conversely, young men are the least likely to rely on their network of friends and family; only 13 percent say they have met their partner this way.
How Many Americans Have Dated Their Friends?
Many marriages in the US are relationships between onetime strangers. Nearly half (46 percent) of married Americans report that they did not know their partner or spouse before they started dating. One in four (25 percent) report that they were casual acquaintances before dating, and fewer than three in 10 say they were friends (15 percent) or close friends (14 percent).
Increasingly, Americans report that they were friends with their spouse, partner, or significant other before they began dating. More than four in 10 (44 percent) young adults say they were close friends or friends with their partner before they became romantically involved. Half as many seniors (21 percent) say the same. More than half (52 percent) of seniors say they did not know their spouse or partner at all before they started dating. Only about one in three (35 percent) young adults say the same.
Young women much more than young men report a tendency to date people with whom they were first friends. Half of young women report that they were close friends (29 percent) or friends who were not that close (21 percent) before becoming romantically involved with their current partner. However, only about one in three (34 percent) young men report being friends with their current partner or significant other before getting together. Young women are also less likely to date people they do not know. Only 30 percent of young women say they did not know the person they are now in a relationship with, compared to 43 percent of young men.
Aware of Partner’s Politics?
Politics is generally more salient in dating than it was a generation ago. Young Americans who are married or in committed relationships are significantly more likely to know their partner’s politics before they started dating. Twenty-eight percent of young adults say they knew their partner’s political views before they started dating. In contrast, only about half as many (15 percent) seniors say they were aware of their partner’s politics.
The rise of online dating has made it easier to learn about someone’s political views before agreeing to go on a date. In fact, some apps allow users to prescreen based on certain criteria, such as politics, while sites were specifically developed to be exclusively for people with certain political views.
Another reason young Americans may be more aware of their partner’s politics before becoming involved is that they are far more likely to date people they already know. Americans who were close friends with their current partner or spouse before they got together are far more likely to know their political views. Forty-four percent of Americans who were close friends with their partner or spouse say they were first aware of their political views before they started dating, more than three times greater than Americans who did not know their partner at all (12 percent).
How Satisfied Are Americans with Their Spouse or Partner?
Overall, most Americans report being satisfied with their current relationship. More than three-quarters of Americans in a relationship report being completely satisfied (38 percent) or very satisfied (38 percent) with their partner, significant other, or spouse.
However, there is great deal of variability in relationship satisfaction among couples. Married couples generally report greater feelings of satisfaction with their spouse than Americans in other types of relationships. Forty percent of married Americans report being “completely” satisfied with their relationship with their spouse, compared to 33 percent of cohabitating couples and only 24 percent of those in committed relationships but who are not living together. Regardless of the relationship type, men and women report similar levels of satisfaction with their partner, significant other, or spouse.
There is a substantial political gap in relationship satisfaction. Republican men report being most satisfied in their relationships, while Democratic women report being the least. Nearly half (48 percent) of Republican married men say they are completely satisfied with their relationship with their spouse. Forty-two percent of Republican married women also say they are completely satisfied. In contrast, 36 percent of Democratic married men and only 29 percent of Democratic married women report being completely satisfied with their relationship. The Republican advantage in relationship satisfaction holds even after accounting for differences in educational attainment, race and ethnicity, age, and religious affiliation.
For men, being close friends with your partner or spouse before getting together is associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Close to half (46 percent) of men who were close friends with their partner or spouse before they started dating say they are completely satisfied with their current relationship, compared to 37 percent of men who did not know their partner before getting together. This pattern is not evident among women (40 percent vs. 38 percent).
Partner Physical Attractiveness and Relationship Satisfaction
Most Americans in committed relationships believe their partner or spouse is as physically attractive as they are. Fifty-five percent of Americans rate the attractiveness of their partner about the same as themselves. About one in four (26 percent) Americans believe they are the more attractive person, while 17 percent believe their partner is more attractive.
Men are generally more likely than women to rate their partner as more attractive. Roughly one in four (24 percent) women report they are more attractive than their partner, an opinion shared by only 10 percent of men. In contrast, 40 percent of men say their partner is more attractive, compared to 13 percent of women. Six in 10 (60 percent) women and about half (48 percent) of men rate their partner and themselves about equally. These disparities may be driven by the fact that in heterosexual relationships, women tend to be younger than men or because men tend to prioritize physical attractiveness in their partners more than women do.
Perceptions of partner attractiveness are strongly associated with relationship satisfaction, but somewhat differently for men than women. Men who report being more attractive than their partner are far less satisfied with their relationships than are those who say their partner is more attractive or equally as attractive. Only 23 percent of men who claim to have less attractive partners report being completely satisfied with their relationship. At least four in 10 men who say their partner is more attractive (42 percent) or equally attractive (40 percent) are completely satisfied.
For women, relationship satisfaction is highest among those who perceive parity in physical attractiveness. More than four in 10 (42 percent) women with partners whom they perceive as being roughly as attractive as they are report being completely satisfied. Fewer women who say they are more attractive (24 percent) or less attractive (34 percent) than their partners report feeling completely satisfied.
Is Marriage Obsolete?
Even as more young adults are choosing to marry later or not at all, there is widespread agreement that marriage is still relevant in modern society. Only 31 percent of Americans agree that “marriage has become old fashioned and out of date,” while two-thirds (67 percent) of the public disagree.
What’s more, the views of younger and older Americans differ only modestly. Approximately one-third (34 percent) of young adults and 27 percent of seniors agree that marriage has become an outmoded institution. However, young women are more likely to agree; 39 percent say marriage is old-fashioned and out-of-date.
Despite general agreement among the public on marriage, there is a widespread perception that young people are not interested in getting married. More than six in 10 Americans believe that single men (61 percent) are no longer interested in getting married, while roughly as many say the same about single women (64 percent). Notably, the perceptions that young men and young women have of their peers are similar.
Americans’ dating lives will continue to arouse interest, even among—and perhaps especially among—those who are not single. The January 2023 American Perspectives Survey offers a glimpse into the challenges and changes defining romance and relationships. Dating experiences are vastly different between men and women, as are their priorities when it comes to partner selection. Single women express less interest in actively dating and report greater difficulty meeting someone who meets their expectations. Perhaps relatedly, women are far more likely to have been in a relationship with someone who was unfaithful, to have had negative experiences dating online, and to be on the receiving end of unsolicited explicit images.
In some ways, single Americans face similar obstacles and may be responding in similar ways. The arrival of social media, smartphones, and dating apps upended the American dating scene, changing how young adults approach dating and relationships. One crucial shift has been in who young people choose to date: someone they already know. In the past, most Americans dated strangers. Even in the age of social medial and limitless options, young adults are increasingly dating people who were friends first.
About the Author
Daniel A. Cox is a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Survey Center on American Life.
Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 5,055 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between December 9 and December 18, 2022. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.
Initially, participants were chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households were then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agreed to participate but did not already have internet access, Ipsos provided a laptop and internet service provider connection for free. People who already had computers and internet service were permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then received unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then were sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.
The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.
The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/- 1.5 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.7.
This survey report also features selections from 21 in-depth interviews focused on attitudes toward dating and relationships, gender roles, and the current political landscape. These interviews were conducted by Ipsos among Americans between the age of 18 and 29 between November 28, 2022, and January 11, 2023. All interview participants were recruited through Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, having completed the August 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the Survey Center on American Life. At the time of completing the survey, respondents consented to be recontacted for a follow-up interview. Ten men, 10 women, and one nonbinary respondent (whose profile information identifies them as female) were recruited and completed a roughly 30 minute one-on-one interview; no other quotas were put in place during recruitment.
 US Census Bureau, “Unmarried and Single Americans Week: September 18–24, 2022,” press release, September 18, 2022, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/stories/unmarried-single-americans-week.html.
 Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “The Marriage Gap: The Impact of Economic and Technological Change on Marriage Rates,” Brookings Institutions, February 3, 2012, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/jobs/2012/02/03/the-marriage-gap-the-impact-of-economic-and-technological-change-on-marriage-rates.
 The Pew Research Center’s analysis was based on Americans age 25 to 54. Richard Fry and Kim Parker, “Rising Share of U.S. Adults Are Living Without a Spouse or Partner,” Pew Research Center, October 5, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2021/10/05/rising-share-of-u-s-adults-are-living-without-a-spouse-or-partner.
 Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Nikki Graf, and Gretchen Livingston, “Marriage and Cohabitation in the US,” Pew Research Center, November 6, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s.
 Benjamin Gurrentz, “Living with an Unmarried Partner Now Common for Young Adults,” US Census Bureau, November 15, 2018, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/11/cohabitation-is-up-marriage-is-down-for-young-adults.html.
 Anna Brown, “Most Americans Who Are ‘Single and Looking’ Say Dating Has Been Harder During the Pandemic,” Pew Research Center, April 6, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/04/06/most-americans-who-are-single-and-looking-say-dating-has-been-harder-during-the-pandemic.
 Daniel A. Cox et al., Socially Distant: How Our Divided Social Networks Explain Our Politics, AEI Survey Center on American Life, September 30, 2020, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/socially-distant-how-our-divided-social-networks-explain-our-politics.
 The following interviews were conducted by qualitative researchers at Ipsos from November 28, 2022, to January 11, 2023. Participants were recruited from the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, having completed the August 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the Survey Center on Americans Life. At the time of completing the survey, respondents consented to be recontacted for a follow-up interview. Of the 21 participants between age 18 and 29, 10 participants identified as male, 10 identified as female, and one participant identified as gender nonbinary. They completed a roughly 30 minute one-on-one interview; no other quotas were put in place during the recruitment.
 Karlyn Bowman and Daniel A. Cox, “Gender, Generation and Abortion: Shifting Politics and Perspectives After Roe,” AEI Survey Center on American Life, October 14, 2022, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/gender-generation-and-abortion-shifting-politics-and-perspectives-after-roe.
 See endnote 8.
 Lisa Portolan, “The Right Stuff: The New Conservative Dating App Which Has Unsurprisingly, Failed to Attract Women,” Conversation, October 13, 2022, https://theconversation.com/the-right-stuff-the-new-conservative-dating-app-which-has-unsurprisingly-failed-to-attract-women-192012.
 Raymond Fisman et al., “Gender Differences in Mate Selection: Evidence from a Speed Dating Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 121, no. 2 (May 2006): 673–97, https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/121/2/673/1884033?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
 According to the US Census Current Population Survey, in nearly one-third of married heterosexual couples, the husband is at least four years older than the wife. US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement,“Table FG3. Married Couple Family Groups, by Presence of Own Children Under 18, and Age, Earnings, Education, and Race and Hispanic Origin of Both Spouses: 2017,”https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/demo/tables/families/2017/cps-2017/tabfg3-all.xls.
January 2023 American Perspectives Survey – Topline Questionnaire