The Internet has become a common place to meet a romantic partner – so common, in fact, that the Pew Research Center estimates that nearly one in six Americans has dated online or on a mobile device. As more and more people are finding love online, it’s worth considering how the technology that brought them together might affect the course of their marital relationships. Yet, until recently, little was known about how couples who met online fared in marriage – or whether they were any better or worse off than those who followed a more traditional path to the altar.
In a study published in PNAS, researchers surveyed 19,131 Americans about the quality and stability of their marriages, which began sometime between 2005 and 2012. Their study revealed two main findings about the marital outcomes of couples who met on and offline.
First, the Internet really has changed where people are finding a spouse. Approximately one in three of the survey’s respondents were married to someone they met online, with the most commonly reported venues being online dating (45.01%), social networking (20.87%), and chat rooms (9.51%). Meanwhile, the most popular places for meeting a spouse offline were through traditional channels like work (21.66%), friends (19.06%), and school (10.97%). Even now, it seems that the majority of marriages still get their start offline – but there are also plenty of couples who are getting married after meeting in different spaces across the Internet.
Second, where a couple meets may continue to matter even after they marry. Participants who met their spouse online reported that they were, on average, slightly more satisfied with their marriages, and slightly less likely to separate or divorce than those who met in offline venues. And although these differences were small, they’re nevertheless a compelling example of the Internet’s potential to benefit relationships even after they move offline.
So, what’s so special about meeting online, and why would it have any effect on marriage?
The study’s authors propose a number of possible explanations for these findings. It could be that people profit from the algorithms that some dating sites use to match them, the amount of choice that comes from having access to a larger dating pool, or the deep disclosures that often characterize online relationships. They also emphasize that, of course, there’s more to divorce than where a couple meets. An abundance of research indicates that divorce is predicted by a complex interplay of economic, demographic, and interpersonal factors, such as a person’s age at first marriage, approach to conflict, or even his or her parents’ marital history. But that isn’t to say that these results aren’t significant – to the contrary. As the authors write, “These data suggest that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself.”
And that’s an exciting prospect, indeed.