How can we predict whom we fall in love with and start romantic relationships with? For many years, relationship science has produced a reliable answer: physical proximity. That is, we fall in love with, date, and marry the people who are literally around us: at work, in school, in our neighborhoods.
Recently, however, the dating landscape has changed profoundly due to the emergence of online dating. Online dating connects singles who might never have met in physical spaces, and has gained remarkable prominence. A recent Pew Report finds that 1 in 10 Americans have used an online dating site or mobile dating application, and almost a quarter of those who used online dating have met a spouse of long-term partner online. All in all, the Pew Report finds that 5% of all Americans who are currently married or in a long-term partnership, regardless of when these partnerships began, met their partners online.
Naturally, some of these relationships began long before online dating was even invented. For this reason, it is instructive to examine romantic relationships that began after online dating became available. The same Pew Report mentioned earlier finds that, of all Americans who began committed partnerships in the last 10 years or less, 11% met online. Furthermore, another study using a generalizable sample of almost 20,000 Americans who started long term romantic partnerships (including marriage) between 2005 and 2012 finds that 35% of them met their partners online. We are therefore seeing an upwards trend, with online dating slowly displacing traditional offline venues for meeting romantic partners.
Most intriguingly, research shows that online dating is not just prevalent, but that it is quite successful in producing satisfying long-term relationships for those who desire them. The previously mentioned study that tracked nearly 20,000 married or committed couples who began their relationships between 2005 and 2012 finds that those who had met online reported greater relational satisfaction, and a lower incidence of divorce than those who had met offline.
The divorce statistic is particularly interesting.7.67% of the couples who met offline divorced during the time period when the study was conducted, compared with 5.96% of the couples who met online. This difference, while relatively small, was statistically significant, even after controlling for factors that are known to increase the likelihood of divorce, such as age, educational background, ethnicity, household income, religious affiliation, and employment status.
What explains the success of online dating? This is a critical question, and one that has not yet been directly addressed by scientific research – although many dating companies attribute it to their proprietary matching algorithms. In Part 2 of this post, I will present some speculations on why relationships that began online may be more satisfying than those that began offline.
Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts! Why do you think online dating produces more satisfying long-term relationships? For those of you who have used online dating, how do your relationships that began online compare to those that began offline?