Couples who meet online and get married are slightly less likely to divorce than couples who first meet face-to-face, new research finds.
The study, a generally representative look at American couples married between 2005 and 2012, found that virtual meetings are becoming more of a norm: More than a third of married couples in that time met on the Internet. These couples tended to be happier in their relationships than couples who met offline, the researchers report this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our results indicate that of the continuing marriages, those in which respondents met their spouses online were rated as more satisfying than marriages that began in an offline meeting," said study researcher John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. "Moreover, analyses of breakups indicated that marriages that began in an online meeting were less likely to end in separation or divorce than marriages that began in an offline venue." [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
The study was funded by the dating site eHarmony. Independent statisticians oversaw the data, and eHarmony agreed that the results could be published regardless of how the data reflected on the website.
In their survey of 19,131 people (just one person from each married couple participated), Cacioppo and his colleagues found 92 percent were still married in 2012, 7.44 percent were separated or divorced and about 0.5 percent were widowed.
Of the approximately one-third of married couples who met online, 45 percent met on online dating sites (the most popular were eHarmony and Match.com, which were responsible for half of the dating-site matches). Another 21 percent met on social networks, while the rest got to know each other from a mixture of blogs, gaming sites, chat rooms, discussion groups and other online communities.
Of the people who met offline, work was the most popular place to find a spouse, with 21 percent of couples reporting office romance. Meeting through friends was second, at 19 percent, and school came in third, at 11 percent. Other less-frequent meeting places included bars, churches or temples, blind dates and growing up together.
To find out whether meeting place influences the marriage in the long term, Cacioppo and his colleagues analyzed divorces, separations and marital satisfaction among their participants. They found that divorce and separation were slightly higher in those who met offline, with 7.6 percent of that group split up compared with 5.9 percent of those who met online.
Online couples also scored slightly higher on a scale of marital satisfaction than couples who met offline, though the difference was small. The small differences aren't surprising, the researchers wrote, given how much more goes into a happy marriage beyond where the partners first met.
There were differences between people who met online and those who met offline — men, 30- to 49-year-olds, Hispanics, the employed and the economically better-off were all more likely to turn to the Internet for dates. Nevertheless, the differences in marital success and satisfaction held up even after the researchers controlled for year of marriage, gender, age, education, income, ethnicity, employment and religion.
"The observed differences in marital outcomes may not simply be the result of selection biases based on demographics," Cacioppo told LiveScience.
The explanation for the differences remains a mystery. The study couldn't delve into causative factors, Cacioppo said. But the researchers did suggest a few possibilities. For instance, people who meet online may be different from people who meet offline in some way not measured, such as motivation to find a spouse or impulse control. Or perhaps the large pool of potential mates online allows people to be more selective in finding a compatible spouse, Cacioppo said.
A final possibility is that people open up more online than they do in face-to-face meetings. Experimental lab studies have found that people are more willing to engage in "self-disclosure," or authentic discussions about themselves, when they meet online first. This self-disclosure is linked to greater appeal and to firmer friendships in these studies.
Cacioppo and his colleagues also found that the location of face-to-face meetings correlated with couples’ happiness. The most-satisfied married couples who met offline got to know each other through school, church, social gatherings or by growing up together. The least-satisfied offline couples met through work, family, at bars or on blind dates.
Likewise, certain meeting spots on the Internet were more salutary than others. For example, people who met in chat rooms tended to be less satisfied than those who met vie eHarmony or Match.com.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. to include funding information for the study.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.