Online relationships lead to better marriages

Jesse Brown considers a new study on virtual unions

Online dating has been around long enough for researchers to begin looking at its success rate over time, and compare marriages that began on the Internet to more traditional unions. University of Chicago psychologists conducted a study of more than 19,000 Americans married between 2005 and 2012, and the results appear in a paper published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers learned that more than a third of their sample group met online, providing a rich opportunity to compare outcomes. The study was commissioned by web dating site eHarmony, under the condition that it would be conducted and analyzed independently, and published regardless of the findings. Here are some of them:

“…marriages that began on-line, when compared with those that began through traditional off-line venues, were slightly less likely to result in a marital break-up (separation or divorce) and were associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction among those respondents who remained married…”

More specifically: marriages that began offline resulted in a 7.67 per cent divorce rate, while only 5.96 per cent of unions that began online have ended. Those who met their spouse online reported, on average, a marital satisfaction rate at 5.64 out of 10, while those who met “in real life” reported, on average, a slightly lower satisfaction level of 5.48. The study controlled for demographic differences between those who met online and off, and still the results came back in favour of virtual unions.

Whether this surprises you or not will depend on your disposition toward online hookups. A lot of judgmental noises have been made over the years about the supposedly soulless and impersonal mate-market of online dating. Detractors complain that these sites are at best clinical and unromantic, and at worst, an enemy to commitment, as they present participants with an endless selection of potential new partners. A nervous piece in The Atlantic recently argued that online dating may be “threatening monogamy” itself, and this publication too has worried that online, “dating becomes more like Internet shopping.”

I’ve always detected a whiff of puritanism in these cries of concern. You can claim distress over the sanctity of modern marriage, but really, you’re just looking down your nose at the way other people conduct their private lives. I always wonder if those who worry about promiscuous Grindr junkies aren’t just conjuring up a fantasy of swinging millennial escapades they wish they were indulging in themselves.

The Internet’s true impact on sex and marriage probably depends on whether you’re using it for sex or for marriage. Whichever you seek, you’ll likely find it faster, and maybe even better, if you’re doing so online. For centuries, a person’s romantic prospects were defined not by who they were and what they wanted as much as who happened to be immediately available. As for romance, the notion of finding your one true soul mate in the world was always curiously dependent on the notion that this person would somehow be among the few thousand or so folks you get to meet in a lifetime.

The constraints of people’s immediate social and familial networks have kept millions from happiness for centuries. It’s hard to be against people having more choice and freedom in their personal lives, even if it did result in fewer “successful” marriages.

It’s just nice to learn that it doesn’t.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown