Are online or offline relationships more successful? The Jury’s Still Out

scientific_method_2Over the last year and a half, there have been two frequently-cited studies that compare relationship success between those that started offline vs. online.  The first is titled “Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues” and was published in the June 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, and the other is titled “Is Online Better Than Offline for Meeting Partners?  Depends:  Are You Looking to Marry or Date?” and was published in the October 2014 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

The results from these studies have been widely discussed in the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, to name a few.

The conclusions of the two studies are contradictory.  The 2013 study proclaims that married people who met online have a higher marital satisfaction rate, as well as a lower divorce rate.  But the 2014 study says that couples who meet online are 3 times more likely to divorce.

What gives?

If you examine these studies a little more closely, it’s not so clear-cut.  Each one has flaws.

Problems With the 2013 Study

The 2013 study–the one that says online relationships are more successful–has come under fire because of the fact it was commissioned by eHarmony, and the lead author, John Cacioppo, was a paid advisor for them.  This doesn’t mean that the is study invalid, but it certainly calls it into question.

In addition, the results are not as noteworthy as the headlines make them out to be.  Marital breakup rates for those who met their spouses online (which could be anywhere, not just online dating sites) was 5.96%; for those who met offline, it was 7.67%.  That’s less than a 2% difference.  It is technically statistically significant, but as Professor Eli Finkel states, “Nobody’s surprised when a minuscule effect reaches statistical significance with a sample of 20,000 people, but it’s important that we don’t misunderstand ‘statistical significance’ to mean ‘practical significance.'”

Problems With the 2014 Study

As for the other study, which came out in the fall of 2014, graduate student Aditi Paul analyzed data collected from Stanford’s “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” to reach her conclusions.  Stanford collected data about how couples met, starting in 2009.  In 2010 and 2011, they followed up with couples to see if they were still together.

Sociologist Jessica Carbino says the methodology is “deeply flawed,” based on the fact the author uses only two demographic variables to explain relationship stability.

When I examined the study more closely, I was surprised by the small sample size.  The original data set, from 2009, had 2,923 people who identified as being in relationships:  of those, only 280 had met online (90 of those were married).  In 2010, in the first followup, none of the people who were married had broken up; in the second followup, conducted in 2011, 8% of the married people who had met online were divorced or separated, compared to 2% of those who’d met offline.  A compelling finding, but given there were only 90 people who fit the criteria of being married and meeting online, that means about 7 people were divorced.  I’d take that result with a giant grain of salt.

Another result is that after the first year, 32% of people in non-married relationships who met online had broken up, compared to 23% of those who had met offline.  However, after two years, there was no statistically significant difference in breakups between the two.

It is important to examine the differences between people who use online dating to find a long-term relationship and those who do not.  It’s quite possible that those who choose online dating are younger and less interested in a serious long-term relationship.  Although breaking up is not generally a desired outcome for most people, it is the natural result of wanting to be in a relationship, yet not being ready to settle down.

The results of the second study are being portrayed as though choosing to date online lessens your chance for a serious relationship.  But it does not take into account people who want to date a lot, and use online dating to do just that.  There are many possible reasons people might break up, but not all of them should be viewed as failures.

Don’t Give Up On Online Dating

Don’t get caught up in the hype the media is making of these studies.   They are a good start, but it’s too soon to make any major conclusions.  We still don’t know exactly why the two studies had different results.  We need more data.  In addition, the 2014 study looks at couples who were together in 2009–not very long ago in terms of human history, but a lifetime in terms of online dating.  Tinder was not available until August of 2012.  Mobile app dating had not taken off yet.  Perception of online dating was more negative.  Other factors include changing attitudes towards marriage: fewer people are marrying, people are marrying much later, and the divorce rate is declining.

Some estimates say 70% of couples will meet online by 2040.  In the not too-distant future, meeting your spouse somewhere other than online will seem strange.

Put a bunch of people together–in a school, a workplace, an online community, heck, even the grocery store–and relationships will be formed.  Breakups will happen.  Some marriages will flourish; others will crash.  Meeting people online is just one more place the complex world of relationships takes place.


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