More than one-third of American marriages today get their start online — and those marriages are more satisfying and are less likely to end in divorce, according to a new study.
The research, which was funded by the online-dating site eHarmony, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Meeting online is no longer an anomaly, and the prospects are good,” says lead author John Cacioppo, a professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago. “That was surprising to me. I didn’t expect that.”
The research involved a Harris Poll of nearly 20,000 Americans who got married between 2005 and 2012. It found that 35% of people met online. But while 8% of those who met off-line got separated or divorced, the percentage for those who met online was just 6%. Although these differences narrowed after controlling for factors that affect divorce rates such as income, education and number of years married, they remained significant, Cacioppo says.
Income, however, was a big factor: According to the study, just 3% of people making less than $15,000 annually met online, while a whopping 41% of those making $100,000 or more met partners online. Since greater income is linked with happier marriages and less divorce, controlling for income reduced the differences seen between those who met online and off.
The study also found increased marital satisfaction among people meeting online, compared with off-line venues like at college or in bars.
Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University who has published research critical of the online-dating industry, said in e-mail to several journalists that the research is “impressive” with a “large sample” and “fascinating findings.” However, Finkel thinks that the conclusion that online marriages are better is premature.
“The study is a good one,” he says. “It suggests that one can meet a serious romantic partner online. That’s a big deal. But any conclusions that online meeting is better than off-line meeting overstep the evidence.” Finkel explains that the differences between the two venues overall are not large enough to support this claim.
(MORE: Stand by Your Man: Physical Proximity May Help Oxytocin to Keep Men in Relationships Faithful)
The study does not suggest that meeting online in and of itself actually improves matchmaking or somehow causes marriages to be better. In fact, both online and off, different types of meeting places were linked with different marital prospects.
Not surprisingly, for example, growing up together or meeting at school, through friends or through a religious group were linked with more satisfying marriages than meeting at a bar or club or on a blind date. Oddly, however, meeting at work was just as bad as finding a spouse at a bar or nightclub.
In terms of online venues, marriages begun in chat rooms or online communities were less satisfying than those initiated via online-dating sites, although dating sites themselves varied in terms of the marital satisfaction reported.
“In chat rooms and off-line, you meet only the people who are around and not large numbers of people,” Cacioppo says as a possible explanation for this finding. “If you do online dating, all of sudden, there’s a world of possibilities.”
Another potential explanation for differences between online and off-line marital success has to do with personality. “If you have good impulse control, you may be more likely to meet your spouse [deliberately] online rather than impulsively at a bar,” he says.
Of dating sites, eHarmony fared particularly well — a finding that may raise suspicion because of the funding source. However, the study could not determine whether or not this has anything to do with how it matches people or anything else specific to the site. Because it advertises itself to those who are seeking a spouse, eHarmony may simply attract more people who are ready to settle down. A marriage-focused website, Cacioppo says, “is not appealing if you are just looking for a hookup.”
Cacioppo notes one additional reason why the online world might be conducive to matchmaking — an explanation that might surprise many online daters who have met people whose bodies didn’t exactly match their pictures. “There is some experimental work going back more than 30 years now, which [shows that] meeting [via computer or text] leads people on average to be a little more honest and self-disclosing,” he says.
“When you are face to face, there is face-saving,” he explains. “When you don’t [see each other], you can be more comfortable being yourself.” Being more open, the same studies found, led people to like each other more — something that could obviously influence romantic connections.
When it comes to playing Cupid, it’s still not clear whether online dating ultimately makes better matches. But given the large number of people who meet their mates this way, the good news is that at least it doesn’t seem to make matters any worse.
MORE: Q&A: How the New Science of Adult Attachment Can Improve Your Love Life