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If You’re In A Relationship, Is It OK To Browse Hookup Sites For “Innocent Flirting” And “Harmless” Fun?

BC submitted the following question:

Have you written much on gay hookup apps (Grindr, Scruff, etc)? I just had a lengthy discussion with my cousin on Facebook after posting my criticism of Dan Savage's latest Savage Love. In it, Savage wrote that a gay man can have a hookup app on his phone while in an exclusive relationship and just use it for chatting with friends and innocent flirting. Why would someone be active on a hookup app and, if confronted with a hot guy to hookup with, not actually hook up with them?

Dear BC;

This is a great question! Although I am not aware of any studies specifically examining how use of hookup applications impacts people’s relationships, there is plenty of research to suggest that bringing these applications into a monogamous relationship could potentially lead to trouble down the road. Thus, I don’t fully agree with Savage’s take that engaging in such behavior is completely innocent.

Before I explain why, let me clarify that my response only pertains to use of hookup applications in monogamous relationships, in which the partners have either an implicit or explicit agreement to be sexually active only with each other. In such a relationship, the potential danger of using these applications (whether just browsing profiles, chatting, or flirting) is that it can affect your perception of relationship alternatives. That is, it can remind you of all of the other people with whom you could potentially be having sexual and/or romantic relationships other than your current partner. To the extent that these alternatives look good in comparison to your partner (e.g., they are sexier, funnier, and/or smarter), it could open the door to potential infidelity and/or exiting your current relationship. There is a vast amount of research showing that perception of alternatives is one of the strongest predictors of relationship commitment,1 so if you start perceiving that you have better options, you may find that you have less reason to stick with your partner. And it is easy for those other options to look and sound very appealing when your relationship hits a rocky patch, which all relationships do from time to time.

The other way these hookup apps can be harmful is if one or both partners have self-control issues. It is a basic psychological fact that some of us are better at controlling our impulses than others, which is why some people are very good at things like dieting, whereas other people can’t stick to a diet if their lives depended on it. Believe it or not, these self-control tendencies have major implications for our relationships too. Specifically, persons with lower levels of self-control report having a harder time staying faithful to their partners.2 Thus, if you take someone with low self-control abilities and provide them with the opportunities afforded by hookup applications, they may have a very hard time resisting offers from hot guys (or girls).

Does this mean that monogamous couples in which one or both partners utilize hookup apps are necessarily doomed? No. If the partners are comfortable with one another using the application, if they already have a high level of commitment and a lot of reasons to stay in the relationship, and if they each have better than average self-control tendencies, it may be possible for them to use these applications without a problem. Thus, it really depends upon the qualities of the persons involved and the strength of the overall relationship. So I do not dispute Savage’s claim that using a hookup application can be harmless— I would simply argue that it’s not always innocent and can potentially create a pathway to infidelity and breakup for some people.

If I can make one other quick point, I know your question was specifically about gay male couples and the use of smartphone hookup applications, but my answer would apply more broadly to couples of any sexuality and to any type of hookup app or website because we’re dealing with fundamental relationship principles here.

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1Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the Investment Model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.

2Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2011). How can you resist? Executive control helps romantically involved individuals to stay faithful. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 827-837.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.

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