When I started internet dating, in December of 2006, I was embarrassed about it. Why would any self-respecting 22-year-old, after all, want to wade through a virtual pool of creeps and weirdos? I would talk about it in a jokey tone, as if I were only after the avant-garde experience. And that was part of the appeal. But thinking back on it now, my online search for love was far more earnest than I ever admitted to my friends or to myself.
The NYC bar scene (like most bar scenes, right?) is not a great place to spark a serious relationship. I’d meet someone and know immediately whether we had chemistry; I could see how a guy dressed, talked, smiled, maybe even how he danced. But I knew little about all the other things that matter, like his career goals, political ideology, religious background, or whether he could write a coherent sentence. I didn’t know, in other words, if we shared values.
Internet dating is the opposite. The click of a mouse gives you a comprehensive profile of a potential date: age, religion, political party, degrees, hobbies, profession, income (yes, really, many people post their stats); whether he smokes, drinks, or wants marriage, children, or pets. Exchange a few emails with somebody and you know pretty quickly whether they’re illiterate or funny or brooding. You don’t know if you’re going to click.
Eight months after signing up with Match.com, I had been out with 30 guys. The vast majority were awkward flops. And yet they all had seemed so great in their profiles! I was frustrated, and ready to give up on the internet. Chemistry is king, I thought, and chemistry is what online dating will never have.
Then (after ignoring several of his initial emails) I went out with a great guy. A year ago today, we left for our honeymoon.
Because it worked out for me, I often get asked about internet dating — Did I like it? Isn’t it strange? Why did it work? And I always just shrug, chalking up my (eventual) success to dumb luck. But a study out today on internet-based marriages has got me thinking more deeply about my experience. I think it’s just as difficult to meet someone online as it is offline. But if you do meet someone online and end up tying the knot, then your marriage has slightly better odds of working out than if you had met your mate offline. And that might be because of those shared values.
The study: Researchers gave an online survey about marital satisfaction to 19,131 Americans who were married once between 2005 and 2012. As published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about 35 percent or respondents met their spouse online — not only through an online dating site, but via social networks, chat rooms, blogs, and even virtual worlds — and 65 percent met IRL, at work, at church, in bars, through friends or blind dates.
People who fall under certain demographic categories — men, people aged 30-49, Hispanics, people who are wealthy, and people who are employed — are more likely to meet their spouse online than off, the study found.
But here’s the part that will make headlines today. Of the entire sample, 7.44 percent were separated or divorced, and these came disproportionately from the group who met their spouses offline. More specifically, 7.67 percent of the met-offline group were separated compared with 5.96 percent of the met-online folks, a small yet statistically significant difference. What’s more, people who met their spouse online reported higher marital satisfaction than did those who met offline. Both of these findings held after the researchers controlled for sex, age, education, ethnicity, income, religion, employment status, and year of marriage.
The researchers offer several possible explanations. The differences between online and offline meetings could be because the larger pool of eligible mates available online allowed respondents to be more selective. Or it could be “the nature of the users who are attracted to and gain access to that site,” the authors write. For example, people who sign up for online dating may carry some important personality trait, like impulsiveness, or may be more motivated to get married in the first place.
But I’m most swayed by what I’m calling the “shared values” explanation. As the researchers point out, other studies have found that people are more likely to share authentic information about themselves online than in face-to-face settings. And in the new study, people who met offline in venues related to their shared interests — such as in church, school, or social gatherings — reported higher marital satisfaction than did those who met through family, bars, or blind dates.
In the end, I guess I’m arguing a cliché. The search for a life partner is never easy, online or off. Either way, you can only be happy with somebody else if you know what makes you happy alone.
Update, 6/3/13, 3:45pm: I should have noted, as fab science writer Maia Szalavitz did over at Time.com, that the study was funded by the dating website eHarmony.