The Unexpected Effects Online Dating Has On Long-Term Relationships

Once considered a bit strange and even taboo, online dating has since come a long way. According to a 2023 study by Pew Research Center, 30% of U.S. adults have used a dating app or site at some point in their life and 10% of U.S. adults can thank online dating for their current relationship. And, even though dating apps — particularly Tinder — have long been associated with hook-up culture, the same study found that 44% of people use them in the hopes of finding a long-term partner. 

But because online dating services are relatively new — coming into existence in 1995 with Match.com — the effect of it on long-term relationships hasn't been examined until recently. "Online dating has become the single most common way that couples meet in the United States," associate professor and director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at Arizona State University Liesel Sharabi told PsyPost. "Yet, we know surprisingly little about how couples who meet in online dating fare in the long run. This made us curious about online dating's long-term implications for relationships."

So Sharabi did what anyone in her position would do: conducted a study about it. The findings weren't just unexpected, but quite interesting too.

It could produce a greater level of intimacy (initially)

Although there hasn't been a ton of research into the long-term happiness of those engage in online dating, what does exist is promising. Back in 2013, (shortly after the development of Tinder and Hinge) one study of more than 19,000 people in relationships found that those who met their partner online were not only less likely to divorce, but also, generally happier with their relationship than those who met IRL. Nearly a decade later, research published in The Journal of Communication and Research suggested that this may be related to how intimacy develops via internet communication. People who meet online more often than not are put in situations where geographic location plays a role in separating them, so they're more likely to talk about issues and disclose certain facts before meeting up in real life — something that those without dating apps don't do. "You don't have to worry that you're going to be six months into a relationship and just then learn something that is a deal breaker," explained the study's leader, Arizona State University professor Liesel Sharabi to ASU News. As the study confirmed, it's this level of openness that ultimately leads to more marital satisfaction, because where there's communication, happiness tends to follow. 

However, it may result in less marriage stability

However, it may be worth taking all of the positives about intimacy with a grain of salt. A separate study led by Liesel Sharabi published in a January 2024 edition of Computers in Human Behavior delivered nearly opposite results, concluding that couples who met online actually "had less satisfying and stable marriages than those who married a partner they were introduced to offline." Taking into account Liesel's previous research that suggested couples who met online had greater levels of intimacy, these newer findings suggest that may not be entirely true, or have much of an impact on long-term happiness as it once did. 

Although the reason why couples reported less satisfaction couldn't exactly be determined, it's believed that societal marginalization, meaning how some people still judge online dating, could play a role, as well as the two people in the relationship feeling like they can easily be replaced because of the accessibility that dating apps provide.

"We identified one reason, which is the stigma surrounding online dating, but there could be other explanations as well," the study's author Liesel Sharabi told PsyPost. "For instance, we know people benefit from having more options in online dating, but over time that's something that may also threaten the long-term stability of relationships by making them feel more disposable." Because 42% of people think online dating makes finding a long-term partner easier, according to the 2023 study by Pew Research Center, it's not surprising that being replaceable could be a thought these partners might have, even if they're married.

Lower divorce rates

In 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted a study that found marriages that were the product of online dating had lower divorce rates. According to the findings of over 19,000 participants published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these rates were 6% for people who had met online and 7.6% who met offline, respectively. Relationship satisfaction, too, scored higher for online couples than offline: 5.64% compared to 5.48%.

While these aren't huge differences in percentages and scores, it does say something about the possible benefits of online dating when it comes to long-term relationships. "Marital outcomes are influenced by a variety of factors," the study's lead author John Cacioppo told UChicago News. "Where one meets their spouse is only one contributing factor, and the effects of where one meets one's spouse are understandably quite small and do not hold for everyone."

Higher interest in cohabitation and having a family

According to a 2020 study published in Plus One, people who meet online are more likely to want to move in with their partner than those who meet offline. Analyzing 2018 survey data regarding the behavior and practices of Switzerland-based dating app users, researchers found that online daters had "stronger cohabiting intentions" and the women on these apps had "stronger fertility desires and intentions" compared to those who partnered offline.

"The study doesn't say whether their final intention was to live together for the long- or short-term, but given that there's no difference in the intention to marry, and that marriage is still a central institution in Switzerland, some of these couples likely see cohabitation as a trial period prior to marriage," research associate and the study's author Gina Potarca told Université de Genève. "It's a pragmatic approach in a country where the divorce rate is consistently around 40%."

Ultimately, all the studies' authors admit that there needs to be more research on the subject and, of course, no one finding is indicative of every relationship that starts online or offline. More than anything, these studies prove that there's no right way to meet someone for a long-term relationship. So, you do you when it comes to finding love. It's your journey, after all.