1 in 10 Serious Relationships That Began in the Last Decade Got Started Online

According to a new major study, sites such as Match.com, OK Cupid, and eHarmony are playing a significant role in American romance.
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Results from a phone survey conducted between April 17 and May 19 of this year, of a sample of 2,252 people age 18 or older (Pew Research Center)

It's been eight years since the Pew Research Center produced a major report on online dating, and in those eight years, Pew says, Americans have become much more comfortable with looking for romance in the space we call the Internet.

Compared with 2005, those who are looking for love online are much more likely to have actually gone out on a date with someone they met there (66 percent for 2013, versus 43 percent in 2005); 59 percent of people, up from 44, believe that the Internet is a good way to meet people; and the percent who believe that online dating is for the desperate has fallen, from 29 to 21 percent.

The 2013 and 2005 Pew surveys in comparison. The fourth question was not asked in 2005. (Pew Research Center)

Additionally, many more people say they know people who date online, or who have met their partners there.

Altogether, 9 percent of American adults have used an online dating site such as Match.com or eHarmony. That is up from just 3 percent in 2008 and 6 percent in 2009. (Pew did not ask this exact question in its 2005 survey.)

And yet, one thing hasn't changed: It's still damn hard to find love online (or anywhere else, for that matter).

With the promise of algorithmic matching and big pools of single people, the Internet should be a serious-committed-relationships machine. And that should only improve as those algorithms are refined and that pool grows bigger. But alas. Compared with 2005, the rate of online matches that evolve into marriages or other long-term partnerships remains about the same (23 percent today, versus 17 percent in 2005—"statistically similar" numbers, according to Pew). There's no way to gauge whether this number is low or high compared with other venues for meeting people, but it's interesting that it hasn't budged more as online dating has become more popular and more accepted.

But don't despair. Many people have found love online. According to Pew, 5 percent of all current American marriages or other long-term partnerships began online. For such pairings that are a decade old or younger, that figure is 11 percent. One percent of America's serious relationships began online in the olden days, more than 10 years ago.

It's no surprise that as Americans live more of their lives online, some of that time will lead to romance, and the Internet will gain prominence as a site of matchmaking, just as college campuses, bars, coffee shops, offices, and gyms have before it. And so it's natural ask, is this ruining society?

Yes was the answer provided by an Atlantic piece earlier this year, "A Million First Dates." In it, the author, Dan Slater, argues that the prospect of just so many prospects put his protagonist, Jacob, off ever settling down. "But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new?" Slater asked. "What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high?" Pew's data shows that a third of people share his concern.

Yet Alexis found reason to be skeptical of this claim. In a response essay, he wrote:

First off, the heaviest users of technology--educated, wealthier people--have been using online dating and networking sites to find each other for years. And yet, divorce rates among this exact group have been declining for 30 years.Take a look at these statistics. If technology were the problem, you'd expect that people who can afford to use the technology, and who have been using the technology, would be seeing the impacts of this new lack of commitment. But that's just not the case.

Perhaps, Alexis suggested, we might want to look around at the bigger context in which the Internet has emerged. What of changing gender norms as described by Hanna Rosin in her book The End of MenWhat is the the effect of the increasingly co-ed workplace, where Americans spend so much time with potential partners? What of changing religious norms or shifting economic conditions? What of shifting geographic patterns, as wealthier Americans move into denser areas, and the suburbs become poorer?

These macro trends do more than merely shape how and where people meet. They also shape the challenges that those people will face as a family in the years and decades ahead, and the sorts of societal and personal support those families will have to draw on in meeting those challenges. The Internet is facilitating the formation of more American families with every passing year, and that matters. But what will determine how those families fare is something much greater and deeper than the detail of where they began. 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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