Couples who meet online tend to have better marriages

A new study has revealed that more than a third of new marriages start online. What’s more, couples who meet on the Internet tend to have happier and more enduring marriages.

When online dating first emerged, many people considered it creepy, or even a kind of desperate measure. But owing to the popularity of such sites as OkCupid, Match, and eHarmony, it's pretty obvious that fewer and fewer people consider it strange or something to be embarrassed about. In fact, the idea that we'll just randomly meet our perfect soulmate at a bar or party now seems like an overly romantic notion — if not something completely archaic.

Indeed, much of the appeal and power of online dating resides in the ability to perform targeted searches. Intuitively, we know that we stand a better chance of finding a good match online than through conventional offline channels. Moreover, a person who’s willing to put their profile online, and even pay a bit of money to do so, is probably more committed to getting into a relationship than, say, someone we happened to meet at the gym.

And now we finally have some data to back up these suspicions.

Changing the Dynamics of Marriage

In a study conducted by psychologist John Cacioppo — eHarmony’s scientific advisor — it was found that marriages which begin online, as compared to those which start offline, are less likely to result in a marital break-up (either through separation or divorce). What’s more, these marriages are also associated with higher relationship satisfaction. The differences were slight, but measurable.

“These data suggest that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself,” writes Cacioppo in the study, which now appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, Cacioppo and his colleagues surveyed 19,131 Americans who got married between 2005 and 2012. To assess marital satisfaction, participants were asked specific questions like, "Please indicate the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your marriage." They were also asked about the level of “chemistry” that still exists, their degree of affection, and whether or not they are still able to “understand each other’s feelings.”

Interestingly, the researchers learned that a third of all marriages now begin online. Of those, half started through online dating sites, with the rest beginning through other channels like chat rooms, online games, or other virtual worlds (as an aside, couples who met via social networking and multiplayer games reported the highest marital satisfaction scores). Those who met online also tended to be older, were more likely to have a job, and earn more than those who met offline.

As noted, the difference in break-up rate wasn’t huge. The data indicated that 5.96% of those who had met online had divorced by the time they took the survey in 2012, compared to 7.67% of those who had met in real life.

In terms of the marital satisfaction score, respondents who met online had an average score of 5.64, which compares to 5.48 for those who met offline.

Potential Issues

All this said, there have been some criticisms of the study. Writing in Science Now, John Bohannon reports:

Harry Reis, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York, is mixed on the findings. "They did control for demographic factors, and that is good," he says. "But they did not control for personality, mental health status, drug and alcohol use, history of domestic violence, and motivation to form a relationship." All are all known to affect marital outcomes, and people who tend to date online may differ in one or more of these factors, he says. "It is entirely possible that when these factors are taken into account, online meeting may have worse outcomes than offline meeting," Reis says. He adds that the only way to prove that online dating has an effect on marital outcomes—positive or negative—is to do a controlled trial in which people are randomly assigned to meet people online or in the real world. "It would be relatively easy to do," Reis says, "but none of the online dating firms are interested."

Some concerns I have include the fact that, out of the 191,329 people who initially responded to the survey, only 10% were deemed eligible for the study. The various reasons for ineligibility included people who had been married three times between 2006 and 2012, or those who fell into categories that were too small to produce meaningful data. Thus, the sample group chosen is likely subject to significant selection effects. What’s more, the study only included survey respondents (again, a selectional bias) and Americans; data from other parts of the world may have produced different results.

Read the entire study at PNAS: “Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues.”

Image: Pat Cotillo, Jr/Shutterstock.