Commercial Channels for Mate Seeking

Aaron Ahuvia, Mara Adelman, Elif Izberk-Bilgin. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Reference. 2009.

Commercial channels for mate seeking and dating are one form of marriage market intermediary (MMI). Sociologists often speak of mate selection occurring in the “marriage market,” by which they mean the system of social and commercial institutions that facilitate courtship. Like all markets, the marriage market attempts to improve the efficiency of searching for information, making decisions, and conducting transactions (which researchers have called interacting in the context of social relationships). MMIs, like intermediaries in other markets, can be understood in terms of their ability to help with one or more of these functions.

Some MMIs, like singles ads, primarily help to reduce search costs by providing and organizing information about eligible others. Others such as traditional matchmakers or Web sites such as go beyond providing information and help the single choose with whom to interact. Finally, some MMIs also influence and structure the interactions themselves. For example, many traditional matchmakers provide dating advice along with the introductions. Similarly, speed dating in which clients meet a series of eligible others in rapid succession is popular in part because many clients like the way it structures the initial phases of interaction. Although overt commercial MMIs usually advertise themselves as helping singles find a long-term relationship, even when that goal is not achieved, many singles report secondary psychological benefits from meeting available others and in some cases, report positive interactions with matchmakers or other urban agents.

There is a pervasive myth that either singles use overt commercial MMIs such as dating services, or they try to find a mate on their own. This view overlooks the pervasive nature of MMIs. MMIs can be overt, such as a dating service, or semicovert, such as a nightclub where many customers pay in part for the opportunity to meet eligible others. For example, for many years there were pervasive stereotypes about women attending college to get their “Mrs. degree,” revealing that for some families, paying college tuition for their daughters was at least in part purchasing access to a semicovert MMI. Another distinction within MMIs is that they can either be commercial or noncommercial in nature, and many MMIs are run as part of broader social institutions such as with churches. Over the past 20 years, we have seen a shift toward more commercial MMIs and in some cases, toward more overt MMIs, although semicovert MMIs such as Facebook and other Internet social networking sites are thriving as well.

History of MMIs

The growth of commercial MMIs constitutes a third phase in the history of courtship in Europe and in the United States. The long first phase took place prior to the Romantic period, which began in the second half of the 18th century. In this first phase, marriage was seen primarily as a practical arrangement. For most of the population, this meant a pragmatic partnership for building a home and family, hopefully where love would also be found. For the few elites, it included issues of family prestige and occasionally politics. The choice of marriage partners was strongly influenced by the family of the bride and groom, with the individuals having more or less say depending on the local culture. This social system created inevitable conflicts since, in the words of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” and people on occasion would fall in love—Romeo- and Juliet-like—with partners of which their families did not approve. But since individuals were highly dependent on their families for economic opportunities and social legitimacy, the family usually won out in the end. During this phase, commercial MMIs in the form of matchmakers were limited to occasional use by elites and by dispersed populations such as European Jewry, where traveling scholars or full-time professional matchmakers would help families in small isolated communities find marriage partners for their children.

The second phase began in earnest in the mid-18th century as Europe grew richer and more educated. Intellectual trends such as individualism combined with growing economic independence of individuals from their families began to shift the balance of power away from families and toward singles themselves in the choice of marriage partners. A larger social and intellectual movement, called Romanticism, placed a priority on individual self-expression and saw passion in a positive light as an expression of the life force. The Romantics’ ideas about love (i.e., romantic love) slowly came to dominate European and American social discourse. By the 1920s, a new social institution, dating, was born, and courtship moved out of the parlor where it was supervised by the family and into the public space of the restaurant or movie theater and often into the private space of the car. Very gradually, in a trend that continued from the 1800s to the 1970s, marriage became redefined from a practical social arrangement reflecting both individual and family interests to the formal public recognition of a private romantic love.

Before the Romantic period, commercial MMIs were not widely popular because most people had little need for them. Romanticism increased the potential demand for commercial MMIs by insisting that marriage be based on love, and thus, people should be highly selective in whom they marry. But at the same time, the Romantic world-view made overt MMIs ideologically unattractive. Romanticism saw love as a supernatural force existing outside of conventional social institutions and cast courtship as an individual heroic quest for life meaning, personal identity, and a kind of terrestrial salvation. Hence, the use of a commercial MMI would profane love’s sacred essence and was the admission of personal failure on a heroic quest. This explains why the use of commercial MMIs was widely seen as “for losers” who were incapable of finding love on their own, whereas this stigma did not exist for other services (e.g., no one says a restaurant is for losers who cannot cook their own dinner).

The third phase began in the 1980s with the rise of commercial MMIs as a complement to more traditional semicovert MMIs. Commercial MMIs first became popular with single professionals in their late 20s through early 40s. Many of these people had moved away from the place where they had grown up, only to find themselves ready to marry, no longer involved with high school or college sweethearts, separated from earlier social networks, and working in corporate environments where dating within the company was discouraged. These demographic changes created a tremendous practical demand for MMIs of all kinds, but their growth was slow because romantic views of love still produced strong stigmas against using overt MMIs and semicovert MMIs were of limited efficiency. Commercial MMIs used two main strategies to overcome this stigma: keeping users identities highly confidential and in some cases, promoting an elite upscale image complete with user fees ranging from $2,500 to $50,000. The spread of commercial MMIs was also aided by the fact that their main target market, single young urban professionals (i.e., yuppies), had disposable income and were accustomed to purchasing professional services from house cleaning to personal athletic trainers.

It is important to note that the growth of MMIs began before the rise of the Internet due to demographic changes such as later marriage and transient single populations, but technology acted as a remarkable accelerant on their spread. The first big technological change was the development of fee-for-use 1-900 phone numbers. Prior to these 1-900 numbers, the person placing the ad paid a fee, usually $40 to $80, to place a small, unsigned, classified ad in the singles section of a newspaper or magazine. Interested others would respond in writing via the publication. In this system, the advertiser bore most of the time and all of the financial costs, which kept the number of advertisers fairly low. With the advent of 1-900 numbers, placing a singles ad became free, and the financial costs were borne by the responder who paid a fee to leave a voice message for the advertiser. This generated a dramatic increase in advertisers, which in turn led to an increase in responders, and commercial MMIs started to break through into the mainstream. Thus began a self-reinforcing cycle in which as more people used these MMIs, the stigma attached to them decreased, which in turn led to wider use, and so on, until the stigma based in a romantic worldview gradually started to crumble before the practical benefits that MMIs were able to provide a large population of singles.

The stage was well set for the arrival of the Internet, which has made commercial MMIs mainstream among postcollege singles today to the extent that a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that “most online Americans who are single and looking for dates have used the Internet to pursue their romantic interests” ( Today, the mate-seeking industry, especially online, is big business. Global revenues have been quoted as the “multibillion-dollar love story” and climbing. In China alone, such dating services produced $11.2 million in 2005 and are predicted to increase to $81 million by 2008.

Clearly, the stigma in using an overt commercialized service is greatly diminished, despite the criticism that MMIs represent a “McDonaldizing” of romance that is systematizing, rationalizing, and rendering into a calculative mate quest what is supposed to be a magical process. Notwithstanding this criticism, some researchers contest the idea of McDonaldized romance and suggest that commercial MMIs, particularly online ones, are a historical outcome of highly fragmented postmodern societies defined by growing mobility, open-access technology, and uncertainty. As such, commercial MMIs can be considered integral to social life in posttraditional cultures and are more aptly characterized by “eBayization” where the personal and the market merge into one than by a McDonaldized factory model. Interestingly, although commercial services such as or continue to do very well, by far the largest Internet MMIs are multipurpose Internet 2.0 Web sites. Commercial Web sites such as Facebook connect people for all sorts of social interactions but include information on gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, and relationship goals, specifically to augment their utility as MMIs for singles who now find commercial MMIs nonremarkable. Whereas the primary social concern about commercial MMIs used to be the romantic stigma that they were for “losers,” today the primary concerns revolve around safety and the fear that these MMIs are so widely used that young singles may display more personal information online than is in their long-run interests.

Research on MMIs

Research on MMIs falls into three broad categories. A large group of studies, rather than looking at MMIs themselves, use data from MMIs such as singles ads to understand mate-seeking preferences. Content analysis of ads, for example, provides natural data for examining mate preferences for partners. Much of this work confirms common observations that when evaluating a potential mate, men place a higher priority on physical attractiveness and women place a higher priority on professional success. A second type of research explores MMIs themselves from economic, historical, or sociological perspectives. For example, Beth Bailey provides a historical overview of dating that shows the prevalence of commercial metaphors in mate seeking long before the advent of singles ads. Finally, research in therapeutic fields sometimes explores the ability of overt MMIs to help specific populations acquire social skills or find a romantic partner. One study used interviews to explore the types of social support that clients received from matchmakers, such as having a confidant, creating realistic expectations, and increasing self-esteem.