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Guest Editorial:
Marriages From Online Dating Sites... Enough Already!

by James Houran, Ph.D.

 

(June 2007) Recently I did interviews about online dating sites with ABCnews.com and Time magazine. Normally I’m a passionate advocate about the opportunities for singles that online dating provides, but this time I went on rants. Many services are walking along a treacherous slope – and they’re taking their customers with them.

The trend for compatibility testing and long-term relationships started in the mid-1950s by the “Father of American Marriage Counseling” Paul Popenoe and later refined and popularized in the mainstream by Dr. Glenn Wilson and Jon Cousins has only increased. eHarmony.com no longer has the exclusive on compatibility testing in the public’s eye, and a multitude of services (both paid and free) now offer testing in an effort to appeal to the long-term relationship crowd. As I’ve revealed before in several papers and presentations, these tests are often invalid and a waste of time and money. My work debunking certain compatibility tests was also the impetus for an investigative feature story entitled “Love Machines” by Jennifer Hahn in Los Angeles City Beat (February, 2005), and another feature story delving into the reality of compatibility tests appeared in the February 2007 issue of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune (“Love.com” by Josephine Marcotty). But just as the media is becoming increasingly skeptical about this all, some sites now have their own blogs to promote their “academic advisory panels and serious research studies into compatibility.” My own research team started this trend when we were working full-time at a particular online dating site, but the recent carbon copies lack credibility and authority. What we have are groups of authors, nice sounding university affiliations and academicians generally interested in relationships. Yet, nowhere do we see these teams with published, compatibility experts, and more importantly, tests and measurements experts who ground their work in the statistical gold standard of modern test theory! And yet, ignorant industry insiders with their own blogs and consulting services portray these developments as advancements that are good for online daters. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Unfortunately, online dating sites don’t stop their claims with “we are the most scientific in the industry” messaging and advertising. Unfortunately, touting marriage results is now a major part of many sites’ business strategies. To be blatant, emphasizing marriage and marriage sustenance is done largely by services to continue to expand their business. As a researcher and a clinician, I see this as an extremely sad and misleading trend. To me, it sends entirely the wrong message on many levels to online daters.

Successful marriages are wonderful institutions that should be celebrated. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of marriage, but it’s misleading to portray marriage as the best or only indicator of relationship quality or “success.” Relationship quality has two primary components: relationship satisfaction (is the couple happy) and relationship stability (has the couple been together over time). Now we all know couples who’ve been married a long time but are not necessarily happy or satisfied, and we all know newlyweds who are in bliss but haven’t yet had their relationship tested over time. Furthermore, it’s a sad fact that marriage is a statistical failure in many societies. The absolute latest annual divorce rate is 0.37 % for the “year” ending Nov. 30, 2004, given in the latest Monthly Vital Statistics Report. Since every divorce involves two people, the percentage becomes somewhat more meaningful if you double it – in this case 0.74% of the entire population gets divorced every year! The news gets even worse when you consider that this rate is only for the states that keep track of the number of divorces (California, Colorado, Indiana and Louisiana don’t).

Online courtships can lead to genuine and lasting relationships. Online courtships can also be rooted in honesty and appropriate levels of self-disclosure. But, I don’t see many (if any) online dating sites coaching or educating customers on how to develop, nurture and sustain relationships in a mature and safe way via the Internet. Eventually, couples must meet offline and take the relationship to a new, more intimate level if it is to survive and thrive. By contrast, online relationships that stay online are pretty much doomed. Communicating solely through email, instant messaging, webcams and other cyber tools misleads both people because that communication fails to take into account tone of voice, facial expressions, energy levels and even physical chemistry.

But some experts argue that online daters as a group tend to be more interested in marriage and therefore more inclined to jump the gun. So, what do you think happens when online daters seeking long-term relationships see bright and bold messaging that says things like “Twice as Many Marriages as Any Other Site in the World” or “90 People Married Every Day on our Site”? Promoting – and even implicitly promising – marriage like this can recklessly encourage online daters to seek it out blindly. To be fair, I don’t know of any statistical evidence that the break-up rate among online daters is any different from the national average, but many people from psychologists to lawyers have seen quite a bit of anecdotal evidence.

In a sobering Wall Street Journal Online article (April, 2006) called “Mismatched,” Ellen Gamerman highlighted the pitfalls of ad campaigns that focus around marriage rates as a sign of a company’s “success.” In my view, publishing success stories that showcase happy couples at all stages of relationships is a better and more socially-responsible approach. Instead, too many sites foster fantasies of easily-found marriage through their online dating services. The transgression here is promoting incredibly unrealistic expectations in people who trust these very same services to help them find a satisfying and stable partner. With at least a national divorce rate of 74%, skeptical people like me see these campaigns as actually contributing the divorce epidemic.

Online dating sites are businesses, so they likely won’t change their money-making strategies on moral grounds alone. However, I encourage all online daters to IGNORE all claims and advertisements about success rates and marriage rates. They’re misleading at best, and they’re detrimental at worst. Only approach online dating with realistic expectations! Online dating works at different paces for everyone, and people use online dating with different agendas. Finding a lasting and satisfying partner with online dating is possible – and has happened for many people – but no relationship is simply given to you. Finding potential dates takes work, getting to know people takes time and effort and developing and nurturing a serious relationship takes more work than what came before. Managing expectations is the key to relationship success. It’s entirely your responsibility to set and maintain realistic expectations, because online dating sites are seriously failing in this area.


 

 


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