Are Online Dating Sites Coming of Age?
“The advent of the Internet, social networking and online dating has affected how people meet future spouses,” a study published in June affirms. I’m proud to say I already knew that – or perhaps I should say, I’ve been discovering it firsthand.
A couple whose wedding I attended this spring met via an online dating site. But these happy newlyweds hardly represent the first of the young wives and husbands I know who met online.
No longer am I surprised to learn that children of close friends are meeting future mates online, but I do remain somewhat amazed by it. No doubt I was among those most skeptical years ago that online dating sites could succeed at helping men or women find that “someone special.”
The new study found that more than one-third of U.S. marriages between 2005 and 2012 began online. Some 45 percent of them had roots in online dating sites. The study’s lead author, John Cacioppo, is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. The study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Couples who meet online have slightly “happier, longer marriages” than couples who meet in other customary ways, according to the study. While the reasons for this are not understood fully, many commentators note that online dating sites, with their many members, allow individuals to be quite selective.
“It is possible,” Cacioppo said, “that individuals who met their spouse online may be different in personality, motivation to form a long-term marital relationship or some other factor.” But, he added, “meeting online also may provide a larger pool of prospective marriage partners, along with advance screening in the case of dating services.”
Jason King, a theologian at Benedictine-run St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., discussed strengths and weaknesses of online dating sites in two past articles for this website. He reviewed various Catholic sites such as Catholicmatch, Catholicmingle and AveMariaSingles, and general dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com.
“Dating websites help not by finding the perfect match for you but by expanding the number of people you can meet,” King wrote. Such sites, he said, “help you draw from a large pool of individuals to find those who might be of interest to you.”
Meeting Online, Offline
“Traditionally, people met their spouse in offline settings: work, school, social gatherings and so forth,” the Cacioppo study explained. “The majority of Americans,” it said, “still meet their spouse offline, and among the offline venues associated with high marital satisfaction are schools, growing up together, social gatherings and places of worship.”
But some venues for meeting a future spouse, like bars and clubs, work and blind dates, are “associated with relatively low levels of marital satisfaction.”
Neither are all the ways men and women meet online of equal value, the study found. It said that “meeting online has become an increasingly common way to find a partner, with opportunities arising through social networks, exchanges of email, instant messages, multiplayer games and virtual worlds.”
The study pointed out that “of those who met their spouse online, nearly half met through online dating sites, whose number of users has increased dramatically just over the past decade.” But “currently married respondents who met their spouse through an online community or chat room expressed lower levels of marital satisfaction than those who met their spouse through other online venues.”
In light of the finding that couples who met online have slightly “happier, longer marriages,” Cacioppo commented that “the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself.”
Still, the psychologist said that “marital outcomes are influenced by a variety of factors. Where one meets their spouse is only one contributing factor, and the effects of where one meets one’s spouse are understandably quite small and do not hold for everyone.”
The impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on how people live and relate to each other continues to expand. The Cacioppo study said:
“The rise in the Internet has transformed how Americans work, play, search, shop, study and communicate. … The 2011 American Time Use Survey indicates that, on average, men now spend 9.65 percent and women spend 6.81 percent of their leisure time online”
The study stressed, of course, that the Internet has “changed how Americans meet their spouse.” It said, “Meeting a marital partner in traditional offline venues has declined over the past several decades, but meeting online has grown dramatically.”
The Cacioppo-led study was commissioned by eHarmony, a major online dating site. In addition, Cacioppo is a paid scientific adviser for eHarmony. A number of reporters called attention to this, while nonetheless seeming to take the study seriously.
The University of Chicago said a prior agreement with eHarmony “ensured the company would not affect publication of the study.”In addition, the university said the research team followed procedures that “included oversight by independent statisticians.”
The researchers judged their study results “encouraging” and suggested that a “paradigm shift” is being witnessed in “how Americans are meeting their spouse.”
The researchers concluded that “what is clear” from their work “is that a surprising number of Americans now meet their spouse online,” and “meeting a spouse online is on average associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital breakup.”
But in a final cautionary note, the study asserted that “online venues are not as homogeneous as thought in terms of marital outcomes. Indeed, the present study shows that the tendency in past studies to treat all online venues as the same is no longer empirically justified.”