Couples Who Meet Online Have Better Marriages

(Photo: Don Hankins)

A new study by the University of Chicago’s John Cacioppo finds that couples who met online went on to have more fulfilling marriages than those who met offline. They also divorced at a lower percentage:

“These data suggest that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself,” said the study’s lead author, John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

The results were published in the paper, “Marital Satisfaction and Breakups Differ Across Online and Offline Meeting Venues,” in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meeting online has become an increasingly common way to find a partner, with opportunities arising through social networks, exchanges of email, instant messages, multi-player games and virtual worlds, in which people “live” on the site through avatars. The research shows that couples who met online were more likely to have higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital breakups than relationships that began in face-to-face meetings.

Marriage breakups were reported in about 6 percent of the people who met online, compared with 7.6 percent of the people who met offline. Marriages for people who met online reported a mean score of 5.64 on a satisfaction survey, compared with a score of 5.48 for people who met offline. The survey was based on questions about their happiness with their marriage and degree of affection, communication and love for each other.

For the study, Cacioppo led a team that examined the results of a representative sample of 19,131 people who responded to a survey by Harris Interactive about their marriages and satisfaction.

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COMMENTS: 26


  1. Chad Clayton says:

    Reading this reminds me of the adverse selection problem. One party in an agreement has access to information that the other party does not. Uninformed parties have to make the best guess based on the information they have access to. Online dating would theoretically introduce some degree of transparency and allow both parties to screen for certain factors first, getting rid of the adverse selection problem.

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    • anonymous says:

      yes, you at least get a heads-up and some screening…back in the 70′s before the internet, I signed up with an old-fashioned dating service. After filling out a long questionnaire they would send each party a slip of paper with names and phone numbers. I must have gotten over a hundred of those slips of paper! Finally met the man I would eventually marry (over 20 years now), a bargain for $200! If there had been online dating back then, I would do the same thing.

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  2. Tatiana says:

    There are a lot of other factors that could have weighted the data here and other factors that could have made a huge difference.

    I’m disappointed with they way you’ve just repeated the report here without delving deeper. Freakonomics was about not looking at the obvious and traditional interpretations but going beyond that.

    It may well be that people who meet via online dating are happier, but this study doesn’t give enough evidence to affirm that.

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    • rachel says:

      There’s a link to the study within the article. Forgive me if this seems pretentious, but do you need them to do all of the thinking for you?

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      • DevH says:

        I agree with Tatiana, there is much to delve into. Research shows you tend to pair up with who is available. This works well for college students but not so much for middle-age divorcées. The pickings are slim if you’re a man working in a mining camp; but maybe not so bad for a gal working in Manhattan. If you attend church or hangout at bars, that’s where you will likely find a mate. But the single mom in your Sunday school singles class may be share your interests. The transactions cost of meeting potential mates makes selectivity expensive — especially if you don’t get out much.

        Online dating allows couples to peruse a database of interests, attributes, personal characteristics, hobbies, etc. If anything, I’m surprised the difference in marital satisfaction isn’t greater between random (offline) couples versus online dating. I met my wife online. Before her, I met other women who were highly educated, ambitious and had similar interests – and single. Online dating is much easier than meeting compatible women offline.

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    • tmeier says:

      It looks (from the link to the study) they didn’t control for seriousness of intention. I’d be surprised if people who use online dating aren’t more serious about finding a permanent partner than people who do not use that method. What they needed to do was compare people who say they were deliberately looking for marriage and not using online services to those deliberately looking for a marriage partner and using them.

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  3. YX says:

    I think it might possibly be because the hurdle between meeting online to getting married is greater than offline, also alternatives are more abundant, which could result in less impulse marriages.

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    • Pseudonym says:

      Speaking only for myself (my wife and I met online int he early 90s, long before it was cool), I suspect that one big factor is that when you meet someone in person, the first thing that you notice is their physical appearance, but when you meet someone online, the first thing that you notice is their thoughts and personality. Being attracted to someone’s brain makes for a better and longer-lasting relationship than being attracted to their appearance.

      One statistic which I’ve always found interesting is that arranged marriages (in cultures where that is common) tend to do just about as well on the usual metrics as non-arranged marriages. There may of course be cultural factors at play (cultures with arranged marriages may also have disincentives to divorce). However, it suggests to me that initial physical attraction (which is how people traditionally find a partner) may be no better a predictor of marriage success than chance.

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      • DevH says:

        My mother jokingly told me that when I got a divorce. But I suspect that societies where arranged marriage is common are male-dominated such that women are property and divorce isn’t an option.

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  4. Jason says:

    I’d be curious how and if they controlled for variables on this. I’m sure the demographics of the group that doesn’t date online are quite different than the group that does.

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    • Joe J says:

      It sounds to me that they are taking married couples and asking if you met this person on line or not. Which is an entirely different thing than have you ever done on line dating.

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  5. It's because they're desperate says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Kay says:

      Sounds like you haven’t had much luck online. I think it’s fantastic that people are finding new ways to connect and find lasting love. Love is the end-all-be-all!

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  6. justme says:

    or maybe people that date online are less picky and are more content with what they.

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    • DevH says:

      I would argue the opposite is true. The internet allowed me to be more picky and find a range of educated, accomplished people who were more compatible with what I wanted.

      However, one potential problem with online dating is that it in some ways it’s too efficient. When you are only able to meet a few potential mates a year dating offline, you settle for who meet. When you can meet thousands of potential mates on a dating website, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming the perfect mate exists if only you keep looking. Of course, the perfect mate doesn’t exist.

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  7. Read Carefully says:

    Just to point this out, since some people seem to be confused– this article isn’t referring to people who are on dating sites. It lists several different media outlets and I think a lot of people would be lying if they said they hadn’t had some form of communication with a “random” on, say Facebook for example.

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  8. Christine says:

    This makes a lot of sense to me. The internet is helping like-minded people find one another more easily. I met my husband on the internet (on Craigslist of all things!) and he is the only man I have ever met whose life philosophies work so well with mine. I dated lots of schoolmates and co-workers and friends of friends, but nobody like this guy. If we had never met, and I ended up married to someone in my small social circle, there would be no way that I would be as happy.

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  9. candy clouston says:

    Given that marriages can last 50 or more years, it’s a little too soon to be drawing this conclusion. Nothing like extrapolating beyond the data. I expect more incisive analysis from Freakonomics.

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    • Pseudonym says:

      The median length of marriage is something like 7-8 years (the famed seven year itch). It’s not too early to see if that’s changed.

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  10. Tomi says:

    I would add the issue of sunk costs. Taking time to meet physically, whether through bar hopping or an arranged date, is a significant investment. One may continue to further stages of a relationship, even when the partner is turning out less than optimal. Resulting pairings may be of lower compatibility than those where they kept looking. Sunk costs are mostly lower for online encounters.
    Related hypothesis related to sense of social obligation to continue the relationship (at least a step further) when there has been a face-to-face contact. At work, I gravitate to meeting people in-person when they may be saying no to my request (of importance to me). I assume similar tendencies for marriage path relationships.

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  11. momosgarage says:

    The conclusion is weird to me. I have a gut feeling something is missing from the analysis. Are people who tend to use online dating simply more interested in getting and staying married than those who do not? Are those who are using dating sites, which then lead to successful marriages, less likely to meet potential partners “in person” due to physical or personality issues and are therefore more likely to stick with a partner they met oline, because there is simply no “greener pastures” available to them. I have a sense that those who are gravitating toward meeting online may from the start, be more likley to stay married for some unaccounted for reason. I would also say that there is a possibility that those who do not use online dating simply may have more choices and abilities to meet partners in person and have a higher chance of infidelity. Are more successful marriages that started online simply self selecting to begin with?

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    • LuLu says:

      You may have something there with the self-selecting. I ‘dated’ hordes of men from age 15 up to age 30. In 15 years, Mr. Right simply did not cross my path. All my friends were getting married, buying houses, having children, and not one of them ever so much as set up a blind date for me – they disappeared into suburbia. I wasn’t itching to get married, but I wanted someone special. I met a few ‘maybes’, a whole lot of ‘run screaming from the room’ types, and a vast swathe of ‘neither here nor there’ types. I could have settled, but I had high-ish standards, I simply was not meeting men I could even have an intelligent conversation with – much less attractive men. There were no greener pastures, just empty fields as far as the eye could see, as I plodded around my little paddock. Online dating narrowed the field considerably. Nice, ordinary guys who spend the weekend washing their cars, eating pizza and wings at the sports bar, and watch football and drink beer have NO problem attracting women and getting married. I wanted more than nice and ordinary.

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  12. two cents says:

    Didn’t see them factor in ppl who were already married and then went online to meet someone..and left their spouse. Just another factor to consider.

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  13. Voice of Reason says:

    I think that in general it’s just hard to meet people in “real life.” People are busy, people are on the move, and people just don’t take the time to introduce themselves in person. Ergo, you’re cutting yourself off to most of the possible partners at there by not exploring online interactions.

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  14. Maureen Geiger says:

    Love your podcast- always an entertaining eye-opener.

    However, I could not believe how tightly you had your eyes shut on the Game Theorist podcast. It was amazing to hear that Game Theory was alluded to as not very useful in general practice. Not only is it completely “common sense” that (by default) women must use Game Theorist Strategies in all aspects of life to be successful (as touched on)- any corporate office culture is ripe with game theorist’s playing to win corner offices. In all aspects of my working life- from McDonald’s – to Corporate – to owning my own tiny business- playing the “reaction game” has been a necessary skill. I cant imagine many people achieving success without it.

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  15. Julie says:

    I can’t speak to the science behind this study, but I do know that after 10+ years of traditional dating, online was what worked for me. We got to know each other before meeting, hammer out our differences in neutral territory, and get a feel for each other’s humor before meeting in person. Is it fool proof for all? Of course not. I met plenty of duds online too. But after 3 years together, 2 years of marriage, and a baby on he way, I’m quite satisfied with how my husband and I met! It’s worth a try– IMO people justneed to be healthy and real and honest when they try to still into relationships, no matter where they meet.

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