Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

What's More Important, Where You Meet or Who Introduces You?

New research shines a light on a key to long-lasting togetherness.

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One of the first questions people ask a new couple is, “How did you meet?”

If you're in a relationship, how do you answer this question?

Maybe you have a funny and sweet story straight out of a romantic comedy about a Chinese food delivery mix up that led to one of you calling the other, or maybe you had a much more common beginning—maybe you met at a bar, over the Internet, at work or school, or through an introduction by friends or family. Maybe you had shared acquaintances or connections when you first met; maybe others, you were true strangers with no common ties who could confirm the character of your new partner.

Now new research asks how the location of a couple’s initial meeting might be linked to relationship success. Sassler and Miller (2014) argue that the social network—the social circle—in which a couple first meets may influence their relationship’s development. Could having an established social tie when you meet, as opposed to meeting independently of any common acquaintances, be associated with a different relationship progression? The researchers investigated the question by interviewing 124 individuals (62 couples) and analyzing their responses.

First, where did these participants meet their significant others? In their sample of cohabitating couples in their mid-20s, Sassler and Miller found that the most people met their significant other through friends or family (25 percent) or through a shared, common interest (24 percent). Others made a connection at work (16 percent), while a considerable minority (11 percent) met their partners at a bar, school, or online. 

Couples who met through friends or family reported knowing each other's social circles. Friends had given the partners other character references and/or tried to set them up, showing support for a specific relationship. Such approving friends and family can help people feel secure as a relationship starts. Couples who met through activities, sports, shared hobbies or interests also seemed to garner their social network’s approval, largely because they could report a shared interest. 

Meeting at work was viewed by participants as a sticky situation: Whether one person is waitressing and the other is a regular customer, or whether two people work for the same company, such romances are often viewed as inappropriate, and their beginnings can come with many reservations or fear of sanctions. Concerns about social approval concerns may motivate such individuals to keep their relationship secret.

People also have reservations about meeting someone at a bar. Though drinking might be a social lubricant, some people worry that they won’t be suitably selective in that environment, or that they just don’t want a relationship to begin in that context. Said one participant, “I always said I never wanted to pick up a guy at a bar, but I kind of did” (Sassler & Miller, 2014, pg. 11).

Even more than at work or in a bar, people expressed hesitancy about revealing that they met a partner on the Internet. Some couples created cover stories (Oh, we met at a party) rather than reveal the truth about their relationship’s beginning. Those couples who met on the Internet, but not through a dating website, seemed particularly quick to indicate such. Those who did share how they meet are sometimes met with judgment from their network—although, in the absence of friends who could offer first-hand accounts of a potential partner’s character, people who met online often engaged in considerable online communication prior to meeting in person. In other words, they did their own screening.

How does where people meet influences relationship success?

Interestingly, where couples met did predict their relationship progression—their transition from cohabitation to marriage.

Couples who met with no overlapping social networks (i.e., over the Internet or at a bar) agreed with the most frequency that they would someday marry (Sassler & Miller, 2014). About half of those who met through friends indicated plans for marriage; and this rate was even less for people who met through work.

However, engaged couples who met via the Internet or at a bar were not as likely as engaged couples who met via friends or family to have actually set a wedding date. The difference? Social support. Those who met online or at a bar indicated less approval from friends and family, whereas those who had been introduced through their social networks reported considerable social approval of their relationship.

The take-home message

Having the support of friends and families benefits a romantic relationship. Even individuals who meet anonymously (e.g., in a bar, online) are at an advantage if they are able to integrate each other into their social networks and find the support of family. It is difficult, but not impossible, to progress in one’s relationship as an isolated unit, but in most cases, friends and family play an important role in solidifying a relationship and promoting its transition into a more permanent arrangement. 

 

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References

Sassler, S., & Miller, A. J. (2014). The ecology of relationships: Meeting locations and cohabitors’ relationship perceptions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advanced online publication.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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