Unpacking the Online Dating Effect

6 min read
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

Source: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

This post was co-authored by Dr. Elizabeth Dorrance-Hall, Associate Professor of Communication, Michigan State University and author of Conscious Communication.

If you decide to get married (or if you already are), your choice of a spouse is one of the most important decisions you ever make. Increasingly people are turning to online dating for help with finding “the one.” Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center issued a report revealing that 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. (and 1 in 5 under the age of 30) who are in a serious relationship (i.e., married, cohabiting, or committed) met through online dating. However, until now, not much was known about online dating’s long-term effects on relationships.

In a new study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, we conducted a survey comparing the marriages of 923 people who met their spouse either in online dating or offline. We stratified our sample to ensure equal representation of online and offline daters and matched our participants’ demographics to U.S. Census Bureau data to enhance representativeness.

The people who met online were introduced through a variety of websites and apps. Those who met offline were introduced through friends, work, and school, to name a few of the most popular venues. We asked participants questions about themselves: their demographics, their dating histories, and their personal characteristics. We also asked about two markers of marital quality: satisfaction and stability. We were interested in whether those who met online versus offline felt satisfied in their marriage, whether they felt that their spouse met their needs, and whether they had ever seriously thought about getting a divorce.

Selection Biases in Online Dating

We started by taking a closer look at the people who met online and are getting married. Do those who meet a spouse online have certain characteristics in common? Our data pointed to a selection bias in the types of people who find love online. Compared to those who met a spouse offline, online daters were younger, had more dating experience, were more recently married, and were more likely to be in a same-sex or an interracial marriage. Given the sheer popularity of online dating in the U.S. and the recency of the relationships in our sample, we suspect that we could see even more marriages that start from online dating in the coming years.

The Online Dating Effect

We were also interested in the quality of these relationships. Are there differences in the marriages of couples who meet through online dating and those who meet offline? We refer to differences in the long-term prospects of these relationships as the online dating effect. Ten years ago, the direction of this effect leaned slightly positive, with people who met through online dating reporting more satisfying and stable marriages. Today, it is reversed: Online daters in our study reported less satisfying and stable marriage than those who met their spouse the old-fashioned way. However, this does not mean that you should delete your apps: Even though online daters reported different outcomes than offline daters, their relationships were still of high quality, on average.

From the beginning, there has been a stigma surrounding online dating, with dating apps in particular gaining reputations for being nonserious and hookup-oriented. This stigma can put added stress on a relationship due to marginalization, or the perception that society disapproves of how the couple met. We found that online daters experience more societal marginalization than offline daters, which led to feeling less supported by friends and family. In another recent study, several people described how this affected their marriage in their own words. According to one person:

I did not tell my parents that that’s how we met. I feel like there’s such a stigma around it, that hookup culture and, “Oh why were you on there? Were you just trying to hook up with guys?” That’s not what I was doing, but I didn’t want to have to defend it.

A different person said:

It still doesn’t get the same respect or oohs and awws as people who will be like, “I met my husband when I was in college, and we’ve been together ever since.” It just seems like a lesser relationship.

Considering the many differences between online and offline dating, there could be other explanations for the online dating effect that require closer inspection. For instance, it could be something about the people who gravitate to these platforms, the algorithms used to match them, or even the size of the dating pool that leads to differences in long-term relationship outcomes. As one example, when options seem abundant, people may be less willing to remain in a relationship when times get tough, which could mean less stability down the road.

For now, our study suggests that meeting online can and does lead to satisfying and stable relationships, but there is evidence of a current trend of online daters reporting less satisfying and stable marriages than those who met in person. We recommend normalizing meeting online as one way to reduce the stigma around online dating, which may lead to more support for these relationships. According to another person:

I think a lot of people don’t know how to react to it yet, right? Because before it was kind of like meeting at a bar was like: “Oh no, you never marry someone you met at a bar,” you know? So I think in many ways people are just kind of not really sure what that means. Like maybe they haven’t heard enough success stories, or failures yet, to have an opinion one way or the other.

The way people talk about their relationship can also help normalize this type of dating. Some partners who met online tell an alternative story about how they met or may avoid sharing with friends and family. “Meet cutes” are not just for people who meet in person – in fact, people who meet online often have two stories to tell: the online meeting and the eventual in-person meeting. Educating the public about online dating could go a long way toward encouraging greater acceptance of these relationships. The better people understand online dating, the more likely they will be to embrace it as a legitimate way of finding love.

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