Kathy Rodarme says she might never have tried online dating were it not for the example of a friend. "The site [Match.com] was offering a free month trial and I had a friend who'd met her boyfriend there. She talked me into doing it and helped me get my profile ready because I would have been way too scared to do it otherwise." At first Rodarme's fears were confirmed. She received responses from a few "weirdos" and one man who initially seemed nice but soon began steering their conversations in ways Rodarme found inappropriate.
Then just before the month was up a police sergeant named Rob contacted her and said her personality profile had registered a 100 percent match with his. She decided to give the site one more try, and after several email exchanges and phone calls the pair discovered that not only did they live within two miles of each other, they attended the same church, though at different services. By the end of the week they agreed to meet for coffee at a nearby Starbucks.
Seven years and two kids later, both the Rodarmes are happy to sing the praises of online dating. "With my job and schedule [on an overnight shift], I met women, but not the kind of women I wanted to date," Rob laughs. "So Match.com really provided a solution for me." Kathy feels that God used the technology to bring them together, saying, "We lived practically in the same neighborhood and went to the same church, but without the website, we probably never would have met."
As we progress further into the information age, stories like the Rodarmes' are becoming more typical. According to a nationally representative survey out of Stanford, one in four people who started a serious relationship in the last two years met their significant other online. The internet is now the second most popular way for couples to meet, right behind being introduced by friends. And that only counts the millions of people who have found success with online matchmaking, not the millions more who would like to. If, as Pat Benatar once sang, love is a battlefield, almost 40 percent of singles now include dating sites in their romantic arsenal.
What has caused the explosion in online love connections? It isn't just the fact that the internet has altered our approach to most things these days-after all, there are no sites making millions off helping people find new friends. Rather, a close examination shows that it is the promise of better prospects that has singles going to their keyboards in droves.
In 2002 a Wired magazine editor wrote, "Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won't look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks because 'the right books are found only by accident.'" In saying this, he wasn't just predicting that more and more people would start looking for love online, he was predicting that the internet would offer a better, more scientific approach to love, which is exactly what dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com claim to offer.
"We try to give people what they need, rather than just what they want," eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren has said. His company operates a relationship research facility and uses a patented matching system based on "29 key dimensions of compatibility" that the company claims is responsible for generating 2 percent of all new marriages. Match.com publicizes the designer of its personality profile, a "world-renowned biological anthropologist, author and expert in the science of human attraction," and crows that 12 of its members get married or engaged every day. Never mind that a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that these so-called success rates are based at best on questionable statistical tweaking and at worst on nothing at all, the marketing seems to be working.
In 2005, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 64 percent of single internet users agree that online dating helps people find a better match than they would on their own. Only 28 percent disagree. Christians, in particular, seem to find the idea of targeted, marriage-minded web dating appealing. Talk to dozens of singles over the age of 25 at any given church service, and you'll be hard pressed to find even one who hasn't tried a service like eHarmony's or isn't planning to. Part of the appeal, they say, is the compatibility questionnaires that identify the spiritually like-minded.
But is the positive buzz surrounding web-based romance based on good results or good advertising? For every story like Rob and Kathy Rodarme's, there seems to be one like the young minister who asked that his name not be used in this article.
"J" is music pastor to a large congregation in a major metropolitan area. Unmarried in his early 30s, he decided to give dating sites a try. He opened accounts at both eHarmony and Match.com, taking the personality questionnaires associated with each. After dating matches from both sites, he believed he found love with a woman he met on eHarmony. Within six months, the two married. Within a year, they were divorced, even though, J says, he did everything in his power to prevent the split.
The biggest problem, from his point of view, was that his wife was nothing like the person she presented online, though it took him till after the wedding to realize this. He believed based on the website matching them up and their early correspondence that she was a family-oriented single mom looking for a quiet, settled life. Instead, a few weeks after the wedding he says he discovered he'd married a party girl who often left her 5-year-old daughter in his care to hit the club scene.
J doesn't think his ex-wife intentionally lied, but he does think she answered the questions and crafted her profile with a mind to who she thought she should be-that is, an idealized version of herself-rather than who she actually was. He says he knew his wife had no intention of working on the marriage when he booked a romantic cruise vacation as a last-ditch effort to preserve their union, and she spent most of the evenings dancing and drinking with the single people at the onboard disco rather than with him.
Of course, couples who met via the older routes have horror stories as well, but there is at least some evidence that experiences like J's may be as endemic to internet relationships as the highly-touted, fairy-tale endings in the commercials.
There aren't yet any statistics on the divorce rate among internet-forged marriages, but there is some research that demonstrates that couples who meet online behave somewhat differently than those who meet via more road-tested routes. For one thing, those who meet online tend to rush down the aisle much faster. A 2010 study conducted by sociologists at Iowa State University found that internet couples go from meeting to matrimony in less than half the time of those who meet via more traditional methods.
J believes it was the promise of a scientifically approved partner that caused him to marry more quickly than he otherwise would have. "It's like I didn't think I needed to take the time to get to know her better and make sure we were a good match because this super-detailed test already told me we were." When sparks flew during their first few meetings, he wasn't worried about going too fast; he felt the toughest part of starting a relationship-making sure the person is a good fit-had already been done for him.
Then there's research that suggests dating site customers are far pickier about who they're willing to date, typically meeting less than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they examine. Dr. Eli Finkel, a psychologist with Northwestern University's Relationships Lab, says dating site users tend to be overly specific in the kind of person they're looking for, leading them to miss out on potentially good partners in favor of those who meet a superficial list of requirements. Details like height, hair color, and profession that may not be a big deal to two people who meet by chance often become the basis of rejection.
Kathy Rodarme admits she almost fell victim to such bias. "When I saw Rob was a cop, at first I decided not to respond to him because I'd heard they take their stress home and can be difficult to be in relationships with." It was only the encouragement of the same friend who convinced her to join the site that changed her mind. And it turned out the rumors she'd heard about police officers didn't apply to her husband.
Though Rodarme is thrilled with the match she ultimately found, she also says that the personality profile wasn't especially perceptive. "I don't think it delves that deep. It connects you on enough of the basic things-like being of the same faith, having the same values-that it at least makes the introductions worthwhile. After that, you probably either just click or you don't." And it must be noted that what she describes is hardly more insightful or scientific than the way friends approach setting each other up. And that, say critics, is the problem with paid dating sites: They sell a product that is impossible to deliver.
Dr. Robert Epstein writes in Scientific American, "I have been a researcher for about 30 years and a test designer for nearly half those years. When I see extravagant ads for online tests that promise to find people a soul mate, I find myself asking, 'How on earth could such a test exist?' The truth is, it doesn't."
Jeffrey Lohr, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas who is studying the claims of online dating companies, agrees with Epstein, saying that they are "marketing their product far beyond the available evidence. There is none to very little effectiveness in the matching process." Even relationship psychologist James Houran, who developed algorithms for the dating site PlentyofFish.com, recently told ABC that whatever compatible characteristics two individuals may share, he guesses relationships created online are more likely to fail than those launched the old-fashioned way.
Perhaps that's why the online matchmaking business is showing signs of slowing down, indicating that some daters are returning to old-fashioned methods of meeting. Earlier this year, ComScore showed double-digit, year-over-year declines for Yahoo Personals and Match.com. And Hitwise found that eHarmony's traffic dropped 61 percent in December 2009 compared to the same month in 2008.
Single people like Kim Bloss of Magnolia, Ark., could be the cause. A professor of Counselor Education at Southern Arkansas University, she fits to a T the profile of those who use paid dating sites-educated, white, in a high-income bracket, and a regular internet user. However, her brief trial with the website PerfectMatch.com told her finding web-initiated romance is probably not for her, and she decided against meeting any of her matches in person. "My husband had died three years earlier and I was feeling lonely. I saw a special on Oprah about online dating and took the test at PerfectMatch.com. When I saw my matches, it seemed like they were based more on geography than personality."
But the experience wasn't without some benefit. Sifting through dozens of profiles and continually being drawn to the same type-men who worked with their hands-helped her discover what was really missing in her life. "I finally realized I wasn't looking for a soul mate, I was looking for a handyman."
Email Megan Basham