For more than a decade, the online dating site eHarmony has pitched itself as a company that matches singles with romantic partners who are looking for lifelong relationships. Now a study funded by the Santa Monica-based firm offers scientific evidence that husbands and wives who met online are more satisfied with their marriages than couples that met the old-fashioned way.
In a nationally representative survey of 19,131 people, researchers found slightly less marital contentment and slightly higher separation rates among people who met their spouse at work, on a blind date, in a bar or at a club. Even the happiest couples brought together offline — people who met their husbands and wives while growing up, during school, at social gatherings or at places of worship — reported marital satisfaction levels a little short of those who met their mate through an online dating site.
The findings were published online Monday by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study was led by John Cacioppo, a respected social psychologist at the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and scientific advisor to eHarmony. One of his coauthors is his wife, Stephanie Cacioppo, who directs the center’s High Performance Electrical NeuroImaging Laboratory. (The couple met at scientific conference in Shanghai, not online.) Another coauthor, Gian C. Gonzaga, used to be director of eHarmony Laboratories, which the company describes as a “relationship research facility.”
Relationship researchers who were not involved with the study greeted it with caution.
UCLA social psychologist Benjamin Karney said the study appears to have been well designed and conducted. But its suggestion that match-making websites produce more successful marriages is misleading, he said.
“The authors allude to the possibility that the Internet is changing relationships and making them better,” said Karney, who has studied the dynamics of long-term relationships extensively. “These data cannot support those conclusions.”
Imagine a study that said couples who first met at the theater had better marriages than couples who met at a rodeo.
“Would you then conclude that meeting at the theater leads to better marriages? I think not,” Karney said. “You might conclude that couples who go to the theater are different from couples who go to the rodeo in ways that also happen to be associated with marital success.”
If you learned that the local theater company had paid for the study, “you might be even less excited about the results,” he added.
Since their emergence in the 1990s, dating websites have grown from an online novelty to a modern-day version of a singles bar. Some sites focus on matching people based on their race or religion; others suggest potential partners based on their taste in music or answers to questions like “How messy are you?” and “Have you ever cheated in a relationship?” (EHarmony’s ads say the company can lay the foundation for long-term relationships by matching people on 29 “dimensions of compatibility.”)
In a sign of just how ubiquitous online dating has become, Cacioppo and his colleagues found that more than a third of the couples in their survey who got married since 2005 met on the Internet.
On the whole, couples introduced online were very much like couples that first met face-to-face. But the differences between the two groups were large enough that they were unlikely to be due to chance or a statistical error, the research team reported.
Among those who were married between 2005 and 2012, some 5.96% of respondents who met their spouse online said they had separated or divorced. Among those who met their spouse offline, 7.67% had separated or divorced.
On a scale of marital quality ranging from one (extremely unhappy) to seven (perfect), those who remained with a spouse first met online averaged contentment levels of 5.64 — just a little higher than the average 5.48 attained by still-married respondents who met offline.
The results held true even after the researchers adjusted their findings to take account of demographic factors — including age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status — that are known to influence a couple’s prospects for marital stability, John Cacioppo said.
The honeymoon effect of having met online was particularly powerful for men, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and for people married recently, the researchers said.
The study is one of the first to evaluate marital quality as a function of the circumstances in which a couple meets, but John Cacioppo cautioned that it was not designed to capture a cause-and-effect relationship between online dating and marital fulfillment.
Nevertheless, he and his colleagues hypothesized that several factors may tip the scales slightly in favor of those who meet on online dating sites.
For starters, Cacioppo said, those who turn to the Internet to find a mate may be more committed to finding a long-term relationship than those who don’t. People open to online dating may have other strengths, including certain cognitive skills such as empathy, persistence or impulse-control, that help foster happiness in committed relationships.
Compared to those looking for love in their immediate physical surroundings, online daters may also be hunting for a mate from a larger and more diverse pool of prospects, he said. As a result, they may be more likely to find a compatible long-term match.
Finally, online dating sites may give potentially compatible partners more opportunities to reveal themselves to one another before meeting face-to-face — a practice that some studies have shown improves the odds of mutual attraction, Cacioppo said.
Other researchers, including Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said the study will help dispel lingering notions that those who turn to the Internet to find love will fare poorly. But he said the report failed to convince him that meeting online gives couples “a big leg up” when it comes to marriage.
Karney called Cacioppo a “brilliant, award-winning researcher of impeccable reputation.” But in writing up the study’s results, his team “may have overreached a bit,” he said.
In return for its investment, Karney said, eHarmony now has evidence that it is attracting the customers it hoped to capture. People who want lasting love are not only more likely to find it, he noted; they are more likely to work to keep it going.
“But it doesn’t mean that the Internet is improving the quality of relationships” that start there, he said.