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Someone posed this question to me yesterday: Does online dating create more long-lasting relationships than the “real world” does? I pondered this for a second and decided to do some research. I found that there are many differing views. Since it is just about impossible to hold all else equal (the actual people, where they live, age, religion, personality, marriage history, etc.), it is difficult to conclude, ceteris paribus (ah, my economics degree strikes again), whether the longevity of a relationship is based at all on how the two people met, online or otherwise.
One article detailing the results of a 2013 study by researchers at University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology and Harvard University’s Department of Epidemiology found that online dating leads to higher marriage satisfaction and thereby a lower divorce rate. The researchers addressed the question of marital satisfaction in a nationally representative sample of 19,131 respondents who got married between 2005 and 2012. Results indicate that more than one-third of marriages in America now begin online. Not too shabby! In addition, the study shows that marriages that started online, when compared with those that began through traditional offline venues, were slightly less likely to result in a marital breakup (separation or divorce) and were associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction among those respondents who remained married. The lead author, John Cacioppo, says about the results, “It is possible that individuals who met their spouse online may be different in personality, motivation to form a long-term marital relationship, or some other factor,” so there may be more here than meets the eye.
One rather large caveat with this study is that it was funded by none other than online dating site eHarmony, so I can’t say whether or not any bias on that site’s part was introduced, but I’m guessing it wasn’t ignored, either. I think the best outcome of this study was to show that 35% of marriages now begin online. Boy, have we come a long way!
Aditi Paul, a PhD candidate at Michigan State, did a study this past year claiming quite the opposite, but ultimately differentiating people’s outcomes by their intentions. Her abstract says that previous studies, including the one I mentioned above, have primarily looked at marital relationships. Her study extends this investigation by including non-marital relationships in the comparison. It investigates if the breakup rate of relationships (both marital and non-marital) varies as a result of meeting online versus offline, and if other factors outside of the meeting venue predict relationship dissolution. (Please take note that neither she nor I use the word “failure” since a marriage or relationship ending can, of course, be the best and only choice for the couple.)
Data are used from a nationally representative survey of 4,002 respondents. (This to me does not sound statistically significant, but perhaps she had her reasons for keeping the sample size smaller.) Her data found that the breakup rates for both marital and non-marital romantic relationships were higher for couples who met online than couples who met offline. Obviously the actual quality and duration of the relationship turned out to also be significant factors that predicted if couples would stay together or break up.
Some conclusions in this Huffington Post piece on her study are:
- It may be easy to meet people online—but it's just as easy to break up.
- Online dating also might make you less likely to end up married.
- If you're looking for love online, try to remember that more choices aren't always a good thing.
Paul’s final comments are less scientific and more in line with the advice I would give as a dating coach. She says not to get bogged down by all of the choices and become too distracted to commit to one person, especially if you’re looking for a committed relationship. "What I'd encourage is once you find a partner, delete your profile and give it some time," she said. "Nothing can replace the old-tested principles of time and intimacy and letting things develop." Preach!
In the end, online dating is simply another way to meet new people. Whether the breakup/divorce rate is higher or lower is less relevant than the fact that there are now so many more relationships that form because of online dating, and that in itself is very significant. What it ultimately comes down to are the two people involved, the quality of their relationship, and—perhaps most importantly—their communication skills, regardless of whether they met online or not.
Erika Ettin is the author of Love at First Site and the founder of A Little Nudge. Like what you read? Join the mailing list for monthly articles, news, and dating tips.
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