Are Dating Apps Changing Marriage As We Know It?

Experts say apps like Tinder and Hinge make it easier than ever to meet your match—but it's also easier than ever to cheat. What's a married couple to do?

A few weeks ago, Vanity Fair's article on "Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse" came out and almost shut the Internet down with gems like, "It's like ordering Seamless. But you're ordering a person." Married people were feeling all smug and relieved until they got to the part about how many people on Tinder are not actually single: GlobalWebIndex found that a full 30 percent of Tinder users are married, 12 percent are in a relationship, and the majority of those dishonest users are men. Tinder disputes the statistics, telling they did their own study and found that just 1.7 percent of users were married. However, they wouldn't detail how they conducted the survey, and GlobalWebIndex stands behind its research, saying their firm talked to 47,622 Internet users around the world.

Even if Tinder's numbers are correct, we're still talking about tens of thousands of potential cheaters out there. (And that's not counting the millions of users who had their information leaked recently.) Yes, people have been cheating since the dawn of time, but some experts think dating apps are changing the landscape more quickly and in a much more troubling way than any pre-Internet tryst ever could. "Exploring online is a known gateway to experimentation," says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, love and relationship expert for AARP and Life Reimagined. "It's like going down the street looking in windows. Once you look, you might buy."

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That seemed to be the goal of a guy named Ray.* Nicole*, 29, says she tried Tinder since everyone was talking about it, and came across Ray, who seemed cool and well-educated. They matched, got to chatting, and eventually exchanged phone numbers. At first, he kept asking her to come over to his house during the day, telling her he rents out his house, but all his tenants were away on vacation. She (smartly) said she'd rather meet in public, but the two hadn't yet met in person. Then, one morning, she woke up to this text message:

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"I was thoroughly offended and disgusted," Nicole says. Since she didn't get the text message until a few hours later, she figured it was too late to call Ray's wife and tell her he was trying to cheat. But now, she says she's learned a lot from the experience. "I assume that everyone on Tinder is single," she says. "Now I actually have to ask people on dating sites whether they're married or attached!" 

If women don't check, they may run into men like Steve*, a married father of two young kids, who says he initially tried Tinder after hearing it was meant for casual hook-ups. "As a married guy, I only want casual encounters, I don't have the time or energy to devote to a serious relationship outside of my marriage," he said. "With Tinder there was no profiles, no need to disclose personal information, just a picture and the potential for sexual attraction." 

Steve says he started to cheat when his wife lost interest in sex after giving birth. "I craved physical intimacy and ideally it would be with my wife, but since she wasn't interested then I'd have to settle for getting it elsewhere," he says. If they didn't have kids, he might have considered divorce, but he decided to stay with his wife and hide his infidelity because, as he says, he didn't have a better option. "It's tough, but it's better than being miserable over the lack of physical intimacy in my marriage, and the misery of having broken up the family just so I can go get laid."

Steve says he didn't consider checking out Tinder alone to be cheating, and that's a common sentiment among those in Reddit's horrifying Dead Bedrooms thread, where sexually frustrated people vent about how their partners' libidos dried up, and many of them say they're checking out their options online. "[I] have resorted to Tinder just to get into an interesting conversation," one user writes. "I am disgusted with myself for this but I can't live with these cravings suppressed. I want to feel wanted and sometimes I want to have naughty conversations."

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Dr. Tammy Nelson, a psychotherapist, says that the Internet has caused us to compartmentalize our lives. Some men may want to explore other sides of themselves, and possibly even alternative sexual lifestyles like BDSM or multiple partners, and assume their spouse wouldn't be into it. And since many dating apps encourage a quick hookup with people nearby, married people might be tempted to what she calls "impulse cheat," which may not feel meaningful enough to a guy to be wrong. 

On top of that, our happiness-at-all-costs culture isn't helping. In a TED talk about infidelity, sex therapist Esther Perel said it's a sign of the times. "We have never been more inclined to stray," she said. "We live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where 'I deserve to be happy.' And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier." Going on Tinder, or any online dating site, can show you scenario after scenario that maybe, possibly, could vastly improve your life.

As tempting as these apps might be, reps from Tinder deny that this is going on on their site. "You can't really use Tinder for cheating, because we show you common connections and people you know. You have to use a Facebook profile [to sign up]," says Rosette Pambakian, head of communications at Tinder. "It's probably the fastest way you can find a cheater. Logically, it's not the right app for that." Yes, logic. So commonly used among cheaters.

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The key to navigating this new world is through a new kind of communication. "I find that people talk the least about sex with the person they're having sex with," Nelson says. "What is your monogamy agreement?" Does checking out singles online count as cheating? Figure that out before it happens. And if it's too late for that and you catch your spouse on Tinder, take it as an opportunity to redefine, and even reinvigorate, your marriage. "Not everyone is convinced that an affair has to be the end of their relationship," she says. "For some people it's a wake-up call. For a lot of couples it can mean a brand-new beginning." 

And remember: This may not really be about an app at all, says Jessica Tom, novelist and former community director at dating site HowAboutWe. "Dating sites are tools. They don't invent desire. If my husband went on Tinder, it's not Tinder's fault. It's my husband's fault. The relationship may be flawed." 

Tinder is thinking even more positively, claiming these apps might even be "disrupting" marriage in a good way. "I actually think it's making marriage better," Tinder's Pambakian says. "I think people are choosing their mates more wisely. They're encountering more people, they're making smarter choices, and they're choosing more compatible partners." Here's hoping being more compatible from the start fends off the desire to stray. Until then, we'll be keeping this tab open. 

*Some names have been changed.

Megan Friedman

Megan Friedman is the former managing editor of the Newsroom at Hearst. She's worked at NBC and Time, and is a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.