Online dating is here to stay, no doubt. But is meeting someone online the most promising way to meet a mate? Just how well do relationships started online stick?  Analyses of nationally-representative data from the 2011 “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” (HCMST) survey reveal that, once you peel apart other influences, relationships that start online are no more likely to end within two years than ones that start in more traditional social settings.

The HCMST, overseen by Stanford University demographer Michael Rosenfeld, interviewed over 4,000 respondents three times, with each wave of data collection separated by roughly one year.  The survey was nationally representative, meaning it included relationships ranging from just weeks old to couples who had spent over 50 years together.

2 year breakup ratesUpon first glance, the breakup numbers paint a grim picture of rampant instability among relationships begun online (see Figure I).  Church, school and work are the social settings predicting the lowest breakup rates at 6%, 8% and 10%, respectively, while nearly one-quarter of those who had met their current romantic partner or spouse online broke up within two years.  Thus those who met through Internet dating sites or through personal ads were nearly 4 times more likely to breakup than were those who had met at church and roughly 3 times as likely as those who had met at school.

Are relationships that begin online really this unstable, or is there something else that explains their more dismal performance? It turns out that most of the variation in breakup rates is due to the fact that relationships commenced in more traditional social settings commonly have had more time to stick and are thus more likely to last. When limiting the sample to respondents who report having been together less than 5 years at the time of the first survey reveals a breakup rate of 32% for relationships that started online and 30% for relationships started in more traditional social settings, a much more modest difference.

So why care that online dating reveals higher breakup rates, if the difference can be accounted for by the prior length of the relationship? While relationships commenced online may be no less stable than relationships begun in more traditional social settings, the dramatic increase in popularity of online dating may be responsible for a general decline in overall relationship stability. How could online dating affect relationships that did not begin online? Simple: the diffusion of heightened expectations. Ubiquitous knowledge of the sizable dating pools available online—and the efficiency and ease of meeting online—may well contribute to the high bar for relationship quality witnessed today, even if respondents didn’t use the Internet to meet their current partner. This trend is in step with the rising age-at-first-marriage, reflecting heightened concern that any given relationship may not last, as well as fostering concern that people are “settling,” a product of online dating’s efficiency and low “search costs” alongside an awareness (among many) of a large pool of possible mates.  With the bar set so high couples may be less willing to work through relationship problems, preferring to treat relationships as consumer items, to be discarded rather than fixed should problems arise.