In 1995, local newspapers started reporting the first weddings of couples who, they revealed with breathless amazement, "ACTUALLY MET ON THE INTERNET!". It seemed freakish then. No sly glance across a crowded room, no awkward conversation steered round to that coy invitation for a first date. No setting eyes on someone before you asked them out. Instead, an online profile and maybe an email.
Today, partnerships made on the internet are not only commonplace, but fast becoming the standard way you meet your future spouse. New research shows that more and more couples are meeting online and marrying. In the US, a University of Chicago study shows that more than a third of those who married between 2005 and 2012 met online, up from 19 per cent just five years ago.
So why are more and more of Britain's 16 million singles turning to the internet? How – and why – does it work? And why do encounters fostered on-screen have a record, as they do, of making happier marriages? We spoke to married couples who'd met online, marriage counsellors, relationship experts, and the people who run dating sites to find out.
There are basically two sorts of online romantic experiences. First there are people who locate each other using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, MSN Messenger, chatrooms or virtual communities focusing on particular interests or concerns. Sheila Philips from Scotland and Kevin Stephenson from Greater Manchester met on a multiple sclerosis community board and married in 2003. Louise Wright, 29, then of Bristol, met her partner through a dating service for people interested in horses. And second there are what you might call computer-assisted relationships, where online dating sites match people after they've completed a questionnaire. Shared values and aspirations are given far more weight than liking the same kind of music or both being into, say, cycling.
Andrew G Marshall, a leading marital therapist, said that "30s and 40s are the key internet daters who end up in my office. They tend to look for similar interests. People will say 'Oh, we clicked because we both liked cage fighting,' and that's fine, but to make a successful relationship you need more than common interests."
But whether a successful relationship came via self-started online encounters or dating sites, many happily hitched people told us that it was vital that they had a lengthy "getting to know you" period of emails and phone calls before they met face to face. Arthur Ritson, 43, from Bath, and Ann Ramsay, 34, from Edinburgh, who married in 2001, met online and emailed each other for three months before meeting. And Rachel Lilley, 33, and Nigel Evans, 35, said they talked on the internet for a year before marrying in 2005.
Many couples felt that online dating took some of the "hit and miss" out of meeting a partner. Christine Northam, a counsellor working for Relate, said: "On these websites you have to give details, and I wonder whether the matching might eliminate some potential future problems before you even get going with the person, whereas when you meet naturally a powerful initial attraction might mask problems in the future."
But Mr Marshall warns of the pitfalls: "I think the problem with meeting someone online is that you don't have any context for them. If you meet someone through work, you can ask around and find out that he's already married, or find out if he's a ladies' man. Online there's no context. Sometimes a context makes it easier to relax and trust them."
But there is another powerful pull towards online dating. You are, for example, 30, 40, or 50-something, employed and single. You're never likely to be mistaken for a film star, but you're presentable, well groomed, and with no obvious anti-social habits. So where do you go to find romance? Offline, you might meet a dozen potential partners in a year. Go online, and the pool you're fishing in is immense. The latest figures show nearly six million Britons are using internet dating sites, an increase of 22 per cent over the year before.
Not all of them are honest. Many internet daters report people who lie about their weight, height, drinking or smoking. And a 2005 University of Chicago study of 23,000 users of dating sites found 75 per cent of men claimed "above-average looks" – not a percentage many women would corroborate. And then there are the serial philanderers prowling online dating sites, like the Gloucestershire management consultant who was finally confronted in a pub by the four women he'd been stringing along. Or the woman who wrote to The Sun's agony aunt in 2002: "I started talking to a man of 37 who I met online. He was married but unhappily. I visited him three months ago and we knew immediately it was love. We agreed he would divorce and I would move to the US. Back home I signed the house over to my ex and quit my job. But now my lover tells me his divorce proceedings have not even started yet …"
The early adopters of online dating tended to be the technically very savvy, who shared what one might call a certain geeky mindset. A dozen or so years ago, for example, the engagement was reported of a Midlands couple who met online and made much use of email. The critical moment in their relationship came, said the woman, when she checked her email: "Martin had set out a list of 17 conditions that it would take to keep him content. He said, if you can say yes to more than 75 per cent, I'd like you to consider being my wife." She responded with her own conditions, the lists were checked, and she accepted his proposal. And if you think that's excessive, how about the Romanian couple who met online, married, had a child, and named him Yahoo?
But it works. The new University of Chicago study found those who met their spouse online reported higher marital satisfaction than those who did not. (And, incidentally, those meeting offline at school, church, or social occasions had higher levels of satisfaction than those who met their partner through work, family, bar, club or blind date.)
Relate's Christine Northam said: "People I've met who meet online tend to be a bit older and a lot of divorced or separated people tend to go online. When you're young or in a football team or something it happens more rapidly, so you don't need to look online. The later you marry the more likely you are to stay together. You're more mature, you have more experience and you know yourself better. You are more able to have a mature, long-lasting relationship the better you know yourself."
Andrew G Marshall, as a marital therapist, agrees. He said: "If I could do one thing it would be to get rid of the myth of soul partners. We think if we find someone we click with on a deep, fundamental level all our problems will slip away, everything will be sorted and we don't need any relationship skills, like learning to compromise. But that isn't the case. The problem on the net is, because there's no context, that fantasy is alive and well and breathing. And because there are so many people online, we think we'll find our soul-mate. Whereas people who are 50-plus and have had an unfortunate marriage have learned a whole load of skills about having a good relationship. They're not expecting a perfect soul-mate."
It's likely that, soon, the majority of people will be meeting their future spouse online. The only wonder is that Google has not yet begun to extract off-shore revenue from it, or that eBay isn't offering people a chance to bid on pre-loved partners. But the relationship business is now so big, and growing so fast, it's probably only a matter of time.
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