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How Do Most of Us Find Love Today?

Research reveals major shifts in how we seek partners.


“How did you meet?”

The stories of how couples met are often told and retold as family folklore, passed down through generations. My father loves to recount his first meeting with my mother, romanticizing the tale in each retelling. As couples increasingly meet online, these stories are rapidly changing, but does the change in venue from “real” to “virtual” have broader social significance?

Throughout the 20th century, traditional means of meeting romantic partners—particularly through family, churches, schools, and neighborhoods—declined (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). These traditional forms of meeting have been replaced in large part by the Internet. How might this alter partner selection? And is the Internet really the best way to find love today?

Data collected on married, cohabiting, and dating couples in 2009 for the How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST) survey highlights the rapid change in partnering patterns over the last century (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). In the early 20th century, most couples met through their families, but by the 1940s friends overtook family members as the primary social intermediaries brokering new matches. However, after rising from about 20 percent in 1940 to 40 percent in 1990, the proportion of couples introduced by friends fell to 30 percent in 2009, primarily displaced by the Internet. In fact, the Internet was the third-most common means of meeting a partner among heterosexual couples who met in 2009.

The Internet serves as an even more prominent intermediary for homosexual couples—more than 60 percent of such couples that met after 2000 met online (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). Gays and lesbians can face a thin partner market, even in major metropolitan areas, where there is a reasonably large population of singles looking for same-sex partners. In this context, the Internet serves as a valuable tool, increasing search efficiency. Other groups facing a thin partner market, such as middle-aged and older singles and religious minorities, may also be more likely to find partners online. The difficulties of finding a partner in a thin market may explain the popularity of niche online dating services, such as JDate (for Jewish singles), OurTime (for older singles), and VeggieConnection (for vegetarians).

In addition to attracting populations such as singles facing thin dating markets, might the Internet also causally alter couple composition? Most obviously, traditional forms of meeting, especially through family and church, tend to promote “traditional” couples—heterosexual couples of the same race, age, religion, and socioeconomic background (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012; Rosenfeld and Kim 2005). By bypassing these intermediaries, the Internet could facilitate growth in couples that cross conventional social divisions. Indeed, interracial, interreligious, and especially same-sex couples are unlikely to have met through family, and same-sex and interreligious couples—but not interracial couples—are more likely to have met online. The Internet may weaken some social boundaries but strengthen others—the efficiency of online partner search makes it easier for partners with exacting criteria to search and to exclude partners outside their parameters.

What does this mean for singles?

Those with rich dating pools in the “real” world likely benefit least by looking for love online—this may be why young adults, who are usually surrounded by other young singles, are relatively unlikely to meet partners online. Ultimately, compatibility and “chemistry” are best gauged in face-to-face interaction, although some online dating companies are attempting to quantify these qualities (The Economist, 2010). But singles faced with thin partner pools and those looking for traits that are not immediately visible—such as a passionate love for Star Trek may have better odds of finding love online. (At least four online dating sites cater to Trekkies: DateATrekkie, StarTrekDating, TrekPassions, and TrekDating.) Moreover, preliminary data suggest that those who met online have similar levels of satisfaction and stability as other couples (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). The stigma associated with meeting online has largely vanished—and for good reason.

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Rosenfeld, Michael J. and Reuben J. Thomas. 2012. "Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary." American Sociological Review 77(4): 523-547.

Rosenfeld, Michael J., Reuben J. Thomas, and Maja Falcon. 2011 and 2014. How Couples Meet and Stay Together, Waves 1, 2, and 3: Public version 3.04, plus wave 4 supplement version 1.02 [Computer files]. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries.

Rosenfeld, Michael J. and Byung-Soo Kim. 2005 "The Independence of Young Adults and the Rise of Interracial and Same Sex Unions.” American Sociological Review 70 (4):541-562

The Economist. 2010. “Love at First Byte.” desired…

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