We ought to be heading into a big jump in marital happiness, or perhaps it's already begun. At least in theory.

We’re all so used to the idea of online dating nowadays that we forget what an innovation it is in the way people find partners. It's a huge opportunity to create couples with great chemistry who are also compatible for the long run. 

One complaint is that you can’t pick up chemistry online. Chemistry exists, and some people literally can smell it. You can have an unusually strong attraction and great sex with certain people--not everyone--because you're reproductively a sterling match. Your match smells good to you, unless (like me) the whole thing with smell doesn't come up (I'm usually congested) .I know one couple who inscribed in their wedding rings, “I love your sniff.” They had powerful daily sex for years.

It’s true that you can’t smell each other online. But you can look at hundreds of photos and at least one study implies that you can assess chemistry from photos. Women identified the photos of men they found most attractive and also sniffed dirty T-shirts used by those same men, without knowing which shirts matched which photo. They tended to pick out the same man as a favorite, whether by T-shirt or photo, beating chance.

So yes, it's a lot better in person but photos are a reasonable starting point.  

Besides chemistry, we want compatibility. The couple who inscribed “I love your sniff” eventually divorced. “We were never really friends,” the woman said. And sex may not even be so important to you. One of my friends—call her Meg--who was highly sexual in her twenties and thirties is thoroughly content in a sexless marriage. At her wedding, she described how well their lives mesh. They are both early risers, and like to putter on the weekends, rarely going out even to the movies. They also prefer living separately, though nearby. Their partnership seems odd to other people, but they match and it’s perfect for them. They're compatible. 

On online dating sites, especially sites like Okcupid and Eharmony, daters can see tons of data on each other’s interests, opinions, and habits. You also have access to a huge number of potential partners. However odd your combination of traits someone out there, in theory, matches reasonably well. Of course, making the data useful requires some insight. You need to think about what you want and be honest about your own traits. Weed out your desires for conflicting traits—high income and modesty and lots of leisure time, for example. Decide if leisure time is the priority. You can learn from experimentation and soulsearching.

But here’s the hitch. Neither chemistry nor compatibility with matching traits lead to lasting marriages. Once you're together, what really counts is how you communicate and fight.

Chris Portman, a psychologist in Bellingham, Washington who works with couples, says “We used to give people a compatibility scale and say you’ll never make it because you two are too different in important areas like religion, politics and sex. Then the real research came out.” It turned out that with respectful listening all kinds of conflicts could be resolved. Marriages fell apart because one or both partners was contemptuous in arguments or refused to talk things out.“Accomodation is the word. If we want this to work and we want to get back to having fun, accommodation comes in every day,” says Portman.

Dating sites don’t address the core issue, as far as I know. I’ve never seen questions like

“When you’re angry at your partner, might you take a break and stop talking or seeing each other for

a) a day to two days

b) up to two weeks or a month

c) no more than an hour

d) I’m gone forever. Some things you can’t talk out.

 (Stonewalling--cutting off the conversation--is one of the predictors of divorce. The best answers here are a and c). 

Here's another one:

"In a fight, is it okay to

 a) Curse and insult; speak contemptuously; roll your eyes

b) Slam doors and throw things

c) Analyze the other’s psychology

d) Say what your friends, mother, other observers think

e) None of the above.

(A huge blowout might not be fatal. Contempt is. If c and d come off as contemptuous, steer clear.)

To sum up:

If you’re serious about finding lasting love online, my take is to limit yourself to people with acceptable photos who match you on a short list of traits you deem necessary to compatibility. And then, as soon as possible if you’re dating, try to suss out the answers to the fighting question.

If he’s still furious with his ex, that’s boring, but an opportunity to learn what that household looked like in a conflict. And, just as important, figure out if you’re a good communicator and fair fighter. If you're not, you might fall in love and screw things up. Head that off at the pass. 

For tips, the John Gottman classic Why Marriages Succeed and Fail still works.

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