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Log On for Love?

Several years ago I received a Facebook message from a stranger.  After exchanging a few innocuous messages with him, he invited me to lunch and—partly because I was recently single, partly because I had never gone on a formal date with someone I met online, and partly because I enjoy the excitement of a potential kidnapping—I agreed. Over the course of the meal he peppered me with a series of questions that I thought were somewhat atypical for a first date (“How many children do you want?” “How soon can I meet your family?”).  Eventually, I set my fork down and said, “Not to be rude or anything, but it feels like you’re auditioning me to be your wife.” He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Kind of, yeah.”

Despite my adventurous spirit, I had enough sense to not marry the guy. But a growing number of individuals are meeting their future spouses online. In fact, results of a recent nationally representative study suggest that over one-third of individuals who married between 2005 and 2012 originally met their partners on the Internet.1 What is particularly compelling about this study, however, is that it tackled a previously overlooked question that many dating websites (e.g., eHarmony) claim to know the answer to: Do individuals who meet their partners online or offline have more successful marriages?

To tackle this question, researchers invited nearly 500,000 (that’s half a million!) uSamp panelists to participate in a brief online survey (for the uninitiated, uSamp hosts online surveys and helps businesses and researchers recruit massive numbers of research participants); the final sample consisted of over 190,000 U.S. residents who were at least 18 years of age and who were married once between 2005 and 2012 (and who were not currently engaged to another person). In addition to completing demographic questions, participants indicated whether they met their spouse online, and if so, where they met (e.g., chat room, dating site, social networking site). Those who met their spouses offline also reported where they met their partners (e.g., at work, through friends, at a bar/club). Finally, married respondents also reported on their current level of marital satisfaction. 

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that individuals who met their partners online differed substantially from those who met their partners through more traditional means. For instance, those who met their spouses online were more likely to be employed, of a higher socioeconomic status, in their 30s and 40s, and male. (It’s worth noting that this gender difference indicates that the sample may not be perfectly representative of the U.S. population, considering that for every man that meets his spouse online, there’s a woman who also met her partner online. Further, it is unlikely that this discrepancy can be explained by same-sex marriages.) Even after statistically accounting for these demographic differences, individuals who met their partners online were less likely to have divorced or separated from their partners, and they reported higher levels of marital satisfaction compared to those who met their spouses offline.

So what should we make of these findings? Should people be turning to the Internet in hopes of ensuring a more “successful” marriage? Not necessarily. It’s possible that those who seek love online differ from those who find their partners offline in terms of their personalities, chronic levels of stress, or communication styles—none of which were assessed in the current study, and all of which are linked to later marital quality.2,3,4 It is also conceivable that those who look for their life partners online are simply more motivated to find that special someone,5 and this motivation may translate into more positive marital outcomes down the line (or at least the motivation to report more positive outcomes).

In short, the way that you meet your partner likely only plays a small role in the ultimate success of your relationship. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that we shouldn’t stigmatize individuals who wind up marrying someone they met online. Although the process of finding a partner online versus offline is dramatically different, once you meet that special someone, there’s no reason to feel self-conscious about whether you met through friends or through Facebook.

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1Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (in press). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

2Donnellan, M. B., Conger, R. D., & Bryant, C. M. (2004). The Big Five and enduring marriages. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 481–504.

3Karney, B. R., Story, L. B., & Bradbury, T. N. (2005). Marriages in context: Interactions between chronic and acute stress among newlyweds. In T. A. Revenson, K. Kayser, & G. Bodenmann (Eds.), Couples coping with stress: Emerging perspectives on dyadic coping (pp. 13−32). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

4Roberts, L. J. (2000). Fire and ice in marital communication: Hostile and distancing behaviors as predictors of marital distress. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 693–707.

5Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 3–66.

Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.

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