Apparently at least one in five romantic relationships now start online, and over half of people in the UK have searched for love online at some point. However, what is not so certain is whether online dating really can lead to true and everlasting love. If it can, then what are the factors that determine whether relationships which begin online ultimately lead to successful and sustainable face to face romantic relationships? Successful meaning that the relationship lasts for a significant period of time. A study by Andrea Baker (2002) suggests that there are four major factors which determine whether relationships that begin online will lead to successful face to face relationships.
1 . Where you meet
The first of these is where in cyberspace people meet, or maybe even the type of dating site they use. So how can the place in cyberspace people meet have a lasting effect on any potential long term relationship?
The explanation for this is quite simply that the virtual place they meet and interact on the Internet, is quite likely indicative of their common interests. Internet sites are often dedicated to particular subject interests. For example, there are sites for various demographic groups, as well as sites for people with particular interests and people of like minds tend to use similar sites. Previous research has shown repeatedly that people are more attracted to others who are similar to themselves, and therefore in visiting dating sites catering for their common interests, people are more likely to meet others who are similar to themselves and are therefore more likely to become attracted.
2. Taking the time to get to know someone
In Baker's study, the couples who married after meeting on the Internet had interacted online for two months or longer before meeting face to face. This suggests that sustainable face-to-face relationships are contingent upon people firstly getting to know each other properly online.
This is explained by the fact that a strong permanent relationship depends upon knowing about someone well, and this can really only happen over time. Knowing someone well informs our judgements and influences whether or not we want to stay with that person. Furthermore, online interaction has the possible advantage of facilitating more meaningful communication as we may be less distracted by factors such as physical appearance and therefore we become attracted solely on personality traits. In addition, online interaction necessitates that we engage in a greater degree of self disclosure, as online as opposed to face-to-face, if the conversation stops then there is no interaction. Research suggests that being able to see others in addition to listening to them, cuts down on the degree to which we trust them, therefore text only environments should lead to a greater degree of intimacy between couples. Furthermore, we exchange about four times as much information online than we do face to face, which means that we can communicate our likes and dislikes very carefully and ensure that others understand these well before we meet them face to face.
3. Willingness to overcome barriers
A third important factor in determining whether an online relationship can translate into a successful face to face one, is the effort people who meet online make to overcome the obstacles of being together face-to-face. Even the occasional meeting between people who are geographically distant has a financial cost as well as the time sacrificed in travelling. People in online relationships have to work out who visits who, and ultimately would have to decide which of the two would relocate in order for the relationship to continue on a more permanent basis. This would obviously be an issue to those with careers and those who have children from previous relationships. Therefore the willingness to compromise is also a factor determining whether online encounters can translate into successful face to face relationships.
4. Understanding communication style
The final factor noted by Baker which predicted the degree to which online relationships developed into successful face-to-face relationships has to do with how people communicate and how they resolve conflicts or disputes online. This can sometimes be tricky as unless people understand each other completely, they may often end up second guessing what their communication partner really means. It is well accepted that good communication is necessary for a healthy relationship, whereas a lack of communication is a reason perhaps why relationships may fail. If conflicts do arise online, then the way people relate to each other is particularly important. Furthermore, in online communication the way in which people go about conflict resolution may be apparent earlier than it is in a face-to-face relationship.
These are at least four of the factors which would appear to determine and predict the sustainability and success of relationships formed online, and whether such relationships can be continued face-to-face. Maybe these factors are not always necessary, but they do help in our understanding.
Baker, A. (2002) What makes an online relationship successful? Clues from couples who met in cyberspace. Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, 5(4), 363-375.