Millions of people first met their spouses through online dating. But how have those marriages fared compared with those of people who met in more traditional venues such as bars or parties? Pretty well, according to a new study. A survey of nearly 20,000 Americans reveals that marriages between people who met online are at least as stable and satisfying as those who first met in the real world—possibly more so.
When online dating started gaining widespread attention a decade ago, many people considered it creepy. But after the exponential growth of dating websites such as Match and OkCupid, online dating has become a mainstream activity. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, wondered how online dating has changed American family life. Enough time has passed that millions of Americans who first met online are now married, a population large enough for traditional psychological survey techniques.
Cacioppo is a scientific adviser to eHarmony, one of the largest online dating sites. He convinced the company to pay for an online survey of Americans. Nearly half a million people received an e-mail from uSamp, a company that pays people to take part in surveys. From the nearly 200,000 who responded, a population of 19,131 people were chosen, all of whom got married between 2005 and 2012. For participants who were still married, the questionnaire included a battery of questions that social psychologists use to assess relationships. For example, respondents were asked, "Please indicate the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your marriage." They were also asked to rate their level of agreement with statements about their spouses such as, "We have chemistry," and "We are able to understand each other's feelings."
Since eHarmony has an obvious conflict of interest, Cacioppo asked two statisticians with no connection to the company, Elizabeth Ogburn and Tyler VanderWeele of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, to analyze the answers. eHarmony also agreed that the study would be published no matter what the results revealed about online dating. The survey was conducted in the summer of 2012.
The results confirm that online dating is now one of the most common ways to meet future spouses. To ensure that the sample is representative of the U.S. population, uSamp controls for factors such as time spent online in daily life. Over one-third of the people who married between 2005 and 2012 reported meeting their spouse online. About half of all people who met their spouse online met through online dating, whereas the rest met through other online venues such as chat rooms, online games, or other virtual worlds. And online marriages were durable. In fact, people who met online were slightly less likely to divorce and scored slightly higher on marital satisfaction. After controlling for demographic differences between the online and real-world daters, those differences remained statistically significant, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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."