What are the Actual Chances of Finding a Relationship Online?

Posted on: May 18, 2011

This is a fun one. And believe it or not, serious journalists and researchers have studied it.

The online dating ad that sticks in my minds proclaims that “one of five relationships start on an online dating site.” As definitive as that sounds, I learned that there are no conclusive numbers. Instead there are all kinds of ways to slice and dice the numbers. So let’s dive into a top five countdown!

Number 5. Is it really one in five?

A 2011 international study showed that 14.7% of cohabiting couples met online, of which 38% met through a dating site.[i] This means that less than 6% met through an online dating service. A 2009 review of U.S. research concluded that 3%-6% of marriages or long-term relationships started online (not necessarily through an online dating service)[ii]. However, if we’re talking about new relationships, we might expect the numbers to be higher.

Number 4. Is one in five a lot?

Who knows? I tore my hair out trying to answer this one, and I’m sorry to report I gave up. The answer depends, I think, on how successful it is compared to other methods, but I really haven’t seen any good data on this.

Number 3.  What’s constitutes a “relationship?”

The ad’s implication is that those 1-in-5 relationships have some sort of lastingness. Because relationships do come and go, this gets tricky to measure. There are no good data on whether relationships formed through dating sites are more or less lasting than other relationships (although e-harmony has done a study to claim that its marriages last longer).

In 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported, “Though there is no statistical evidence that the break-up rate among online daters is any different from the national average, some divorce lawyers point to anecdotal evidence. Marriage counselors and divorce attorneys say they are often struck by how much of what brings people together online ultimately contributes to the undoing of the relationship. One of the hallmarks of online dating, for example, is the quick intimacy driven by heartfelt profiles that can go on for pages and reveal everything from a person’s favorite food to a weakness for tattoos. Focusing on these attributes, some psychologists say, makes potential suitors more likely to overlook someone’s downsides.” The WSJ story continues, “A 2004 Match study said 11% of its married couples were “in love prior to ever meeting face-to-face.[iii]

Number 2. What are the chances of finding a relationship through an online dating service?

This is a very different question from asking how many existing relationships started online. I watched the Royal Wedding a few weeks ago, so here’s my analogy: The answer to “how many queens were once commoners?” will have a vastly different ratio than the answer to “how many female commoners end up as queens?”

The U.S. study reported that 17% of those who used an online dating service said they had been in a long-term relationship with or married someone they met through a dating website. This seems not too bad. But the other end of the equation is perhaps more interesting. The international and U.S. studies report that considerably more than half of online daters (63% and 56%) meet zero people. None.

A study of younger daters (65% were 25 or younger; 86% were 35 or younger) in Los Angeles found a better result. Only 21% had no first dates; (fewer than half had three or more). About 3 in 10 of online daters found a serious relationship.[iv]

And now for the grand finale:

Number 1. How much work does it take to be a “one in five.”

27,000 emails would stack to about ten feet high...

If you happen to be looking for marriage, it can be a long road indeed. Scientific American Mind (2007) writes: “When eHarmony recommends someone as a compatible match…if you went on a date with all of them, it would take 346 dates to reach [a] 50% chance of getting married.”[v]

Or let’s take another example. A team of economists used a rigorous statistical approach to calculate that an online dater needs to send about twenty emails to find a “match.” (They defined a match as simply exchanging contact information—they had no idea whether the couples eventually formed a relationship, dated or even met).[vi] The Wall Street Journal (2009) quotes Online Dating Insider’s calculation that it would take an average of 1,369 Match.com dates to get married.”[vii] Putting the two together, you’d need to write 27,000 emails. If you write ten emails a day, it’ll take you roughly seven years to find your marriage partner.

Better get writing!


[i] Hogan, B., William H. Dutton and Nai Li. 2011. “A Global Shift in the Social Relationships of Networked Individuals: Meeting and Dating Online Comes of Age.” Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, February 14, 2011, http://blogs.oii.ox.ac.uk/couples/

[ii] Sprecher, Susan. 2009. “Relationship Initiation and Formation on the Internet.” Marriage & Family Review, 45:6, 761–782.

[iii] Gamerman, Ellen. “Mismatched.com.” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2006. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114384627003413965.html

[iv] Rosen, Larry, et al.  2008. “The Impact of Emotionality and Self-Disclosure on Online Dating Versus Traditional Dating.” Computers in Human Behavior, 24: 2124-2157.

[v] Epstein, Robert. “The Truth About Online Dating. ”Scientific American Mind; Feb/Mar2007, Vol. 18 Issue 1, p8-35, http://arun555mahara.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/sciam-mind-17-7-sex-and-the-secret-nerve.pdf

[vi] Hitsch, Gunter J., Ali Hortaçsu, and Dan Ariely.  2010. “Matching and Sorting in Online Dating.” American Economic Review, 100(1): 130–63.

[vii] Bialik, Carl. “Marriage-Maker Claims Are Tied in Knots.” Wall Street Journal,  July 29, 2009,  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124879877347487253.html

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