Meeting online may soon be the rule rather than the exception in dating. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 35 percent of marriages got their start online. But the real surprise, the researchers say, was that those couples were happier and less likely to get divorcedthan those who met face-to-face.
The difference wasn't huge. The study looked at a Harris Poll of nearly 20,000 people in the U.S. who got married between 2005 and 2012. Eight percent of those who met offline wound up divorced, compared to just six percent of those who met electronically. But even a slight difference is significant, says lead researcher John Cacioppo, a professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago. "Meeting online is no longer an anomaly," he says, "and the prospects are good."
Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle says it is worth noting that the study was funded by online dating site eHarmony. Nevertheless, he says, the research offers encouraging evidence that the shift in how Americans meet and pair up "is not necessarily a bad thing for marital bliss."
Cacioppo and his team chalk up the success of relationships started online to people's willingness to disclose more about themselves digitally than they tend to do in person. Cameron Scott at Social Times points out that it makes sense such openness would translate into happier and more lasting marriages. "Other research has also found that greater self-disclosure leads to more successful relationships," Scott says.
There are some caveats. Only three percent of the poll's respondents making less than $15,000 annually met online, compared with 41 percent of those making $100,000 or more. Higher income is linked with happier marriages and less divorce, which means that part of the difference found in the study was probably due to money.
Also, not all online meeting places are equal. Just as hooking up at a bar is not as conducive to marital bliss as meeting your significant other at a school or church, chat rooms are less fruitful than dating sites. Some critics find it suspicious that eHarmony, the study's sponsor, fared particularly well in the surveys, although Cacioppo suggests that might be because people using such a service have already decided they are looking to settle down, rather than seeking a fling.
Even some skeptics say the findings are worth noting. Eli Finkel, a Northwestern University social psychology professor who has done research critical of online dating sites, calls the research impressive and the findings fascinating — up to a point. "The study is a good one," he tells TIME. "It suggests that one can meet a serious romantic partner online. That's a big deal. But any conclusions that online meeting is better than off-line meeting overstep the evidence."