The state of matrimony in the U.S. is in flux. Fewer Americans tie the knot even as gays battle state by state to be able to do so. The Census reported in 2011 that 51 percent of adult Americans were married—an all-time low and falling, while the median age for marriage hit an all-time high (29 for men and 27 for women). Still, most Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, still want to get married at some point in their lives.
But how they’re meeting their future mates is also changing, and fast. That modern-day matchmaker, the Internet—both through its traditional channels and the explosion of online dating sites—is where a third of recently-married American couples first started sparking. Dating sites, start trumpeting the news: it turns out those cyber-fueled marriages are a bit happier and more durable than those begun via less electronic means.
Those, at least, are among the findings of a team of academics led by University of Chicago psychologist John T. Cacioppo who parsed a Harris Interactive survey of more than 19,000 Americans married between 2005 and 2012. (Please note that the survey was commissioned by eHarmony; Cacioppo is an adviser to those folks and co-author Gian C. Gonzaga is the former head of eHarmony’s lab.) In a paper that appears online today at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Cacioppo and his four co-authors note that offline methods have by no means been supplanted—after all, two thirds of couples began their courtships the old-fashioned way.
Results show that for 60 years, family and grade school have been steadily declining in their influence over the dating market. In the past 15 years, the rise of the Internet has partly displaced not only family and school, but also neighborhood, friends, and the workplace as venues for meeting partners.
The rise of the machine marriage has not only been fast. It may prove decisive, with the authors of the PNAS paper suggesting “that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself.”
The most obvious place to start examining the nexus of the Web and the altar would be dating websites, whose claims—“When you’re ready to find the love of your life,” boasts e-Harmony—have fostered a growing billion-dollar industry (make a date for their tradeshow this weekend in Beverly Hills!).
I stress the word “claims.” As Cacioppo and company note in their paper, “Various online dating sites claim that their methods for pairing individuals produce more frequent, higher quality, or longer lasting marriages, but the evidence underlying the claims to date has not met conventional standards of scientific evidence.”
In the final analysis, is online dating unique from, and does it yield superior romantic outcomes to, conventional offline dating? The answer to the uniqueness question is an unqualified yes: Online dating is pervasive, and it has fundamentally altered both the romantic acquaintance process and the process of compatibility matching. The answer to the superiority question is more qualified. Online dating offers access to potential partners whom people would be unlikely to meet through other avenues, and this access yields new romantic possibilities. On the other hand, the heavy emphasis on profile browsing at most dating sites has considerable downsides, and there is little reason to believe that current compatibility algorithms are especially effective.
The new survey suggests that genuinely scientific or not, the sites are doing something right. “The vast plurality,” 45 percent, of those in the survey who met their mate online found them through a dating site. Social networks came in second, at 20 percent, and chat rooms third, at 10 percent. (Since the lonely will wonder, here’s the breakdown of the top sites cited: eHarmony, 25 percent; Match.com, 24 percent; Yahoo, seven percent; Plenty of Fish, six percent.) And the authors take pains—perhaps its those eHarmony bonds showing themselves—that not all online sites are the same, and treating them as so “no longer empirically justified.” Just looking at the wide range of dating sites increasingly siloed by race, religion, sexuality, age, and other demographics also suggests, algorithms aside, that that assumption is no longer pragmatically justified, either.
Beyond recruitment, as HR would tell us, lies retention. The rate of breakups was not significantly different across sites, and breakups in general were less common for online-initiated marriages (six percent versus 7.7 percent). But are all those newlyweds just sticking together for the statisticians? Across demographics, onliners topped offliners in self-reported marital satisfaction.
Which is not to say that Luddites who hitch can’t be happy. Offline couples who grew up together, or met in school, at a social gathering, or a place of worship, also report higher than average levels of marital satisfaction. (Woe to those who met in bars, at work, or through a blind date; their level of marital bliss is subpar.)
In a sense, these offline results match a supposition made by the academics—that transparency matters. Cacioppo cites studies that suggest online users provide more “authentic ... self disclosure” in line with face-to-face friendships, although that certainly conflicts with the popular trope of the online liar, from Manti Te’o’s faux paramour to truth shaders and even cyber Cyranos. If someone’s actually offered maximum disclosure with minimum delay, isn’t that a lot like knowing all about the foibles of the girl next-door—only faster?