There’s been a bit of a splash by a new study which says that meeting your spouse online could mean a longer, happier marriage, and confirms that far from being the last refuge of lonely shut-ins, online dating is now one of the top ways to meet your mate. Now, the numbers do bear this conclusion out. Out of a representative sample of 19,131 people, the researchers found that a couple that met online is 28% less likely to divorce than their offline matched counterparts, and that the happiest marriages start with a meeting in MMORPGs and on social networks. However, and you knew this was coming, the differences are statistically significant but far from huge, and there are several caveats to taking the findings too close to heart, caveats which result directly from the study’s design. Basically, they’re collecting some demographic information if a subject was married between 2005 and 2012, asking how the subject met his or her spouse, and how happy the marriage seems, then looking for any statistically notable trends to emerge.
Here’s what the data mining found. A smidgen more than a third of the subjects (35%) married a person they met online. Half of those meetings happened on a dating site, usually eHarmony or Match.com, which each claim a quarter of these dating site meetups. So if you’re looking to get into a serious relationship or get married, those sites are probably a very good bet. Likewise, a few very interesting data points jump out from the results. The more well educated and gainfully employed you are, the more likely you are to meet a serious partner online. Those who earn at least $75,000 per year and have a college education represent some 57% of relationships that started online. Oddly enough, those with graduate degrees have the lowest share of marriages to partners they met online, under 15% of the total. The data doesn’t show why, but I would be interested in figuring this out. Why is this finding so worthy of attention? Because it may have a connection to the so-called leisure inequality and tell us more about why online dating grown so much in the last decade or so. But I digress. Now, what about that marriage satisfaction?
Well, again, the numbers do show that people who married their online friends report a better marriage, especially those who met playing online games or on social networks (which could or could not include dating sites, the paper isn’t specific on this). On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the equivalent of "I’m ready to file for divorce this second" and 7 being "this marriage is perfect," these subjects reported an average satisfaction score of 5.72, which is pretty damn good. But if we consider the score of the most miserable married couples who met offline in a bar or through a blind date, they still post a very respectable 5.35 average. Yes, the online couples are happy and they’re happier than many other couples, but not by leaps and bounds. Could you really tell the difference between a 5.35 and a 5.72 happy when general contentment is 3.5? If we indulge in paraphrasing Futurama, these researchers are techncially correct, the best kind of correct in science. But practically, they just found close to 20,000 happy couples, a third of which just so happened to have met online and got married in a certain time range.
And that brings us to the biggest caveat with this study. Only 8% of these subjects are divorced which is both, a lot lower than the national average, and only shows the short term trend. If you look at marriages 10 years out rather than the seven for this survey, the odds of a divorce are about 30% or so. Get 20 years out and the odds increase to 48% on the high end. The sample here just hasn’t been married long enough and it’s probably a safe assumption that a lot were caught in their early phases of marriage. But the goal for getting married generally tends to be staying married for life, which means roughly half a century, going by the typical life expectancy figures. The researchers are, in a sense, catching people a mile or two into a marathon when a whole lot usually hasn’t happened yet and the biggest bumps in the road are still ahead, getting a general thumbs up from some 92% of the respondents, and splitting hairs about who gave the most enthusiastic thumbs up. True, this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with a marriage to someone you met online and yes, maybe these couples are happier. But it’s too soon to tell.
Likewise, we should also point out that marriage rates keep on falling and the domestic partner has been slowly becoming the new spouse. After witnessing messy divorces and confronted by general antipathy for marriage from many sides, a lot of people who would’ve already tied the knot are deciding to forgo the whole affair altogether. Now, this could mean that what the survey captured is a trend of people who get married staying together longer and being happier while more and more of their peers are opting out of married life, balancing out the high divorce rate over the next decade or so, but this is just an idea after looking at the data. Marriage as we are used to it in the modern world is changing. It’s becoming less commonplace, involves those who are more financially secure, and alternative households are becoming the new norm. So in light of all these changes, maybe the better question to ask is not what makes for a happier marriage but what makes for happy long term relationships, or at least what today’s long term relationship looks like from an academic standpoint. Work in that area is only beginning…
See: Cacioppo, J., et al. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110
[ photo illustration by Carlos Zangheri/flickr ]