Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Meeting, mating and the Web

By Claude Fischer

Marriage is ancient and universal. But even in the short history of the United States, who, when, where, how and why we marry has varied significantly. For instance, Americans began marrying across racial lines at noteworthy rates in just the last couple of generations. Also, the typical age at which Americans  marry has fluctuated up and down and up in the last century and a half. Even where people married – at home, in churches, or in public spaces – has varied. On the other hand, the desire to marry and the expectation that we will marry has not changed that much. (Previous posts on these points are here, here, here, and here.)

Marriage proposal scence, circa 1910
Circa 1910 (source)

How we find whom to marry has also changed substantially in recent generations. Now, in the last decade or two, we have entered yet another, new era of meeting and mating: the Era of Internet Courtship. Although many people have asserted that coupling up via the Internet was the “new thing,” only now do we have a solid study that really shows us what is happening, how the Internet is becoming the new site of meeting and mating.

The back story

The traditional pattern of parents selecting spouses or at least heavily supervising that choice was breaking down as the American Revolution was breaking out. Young men and women started claiming the right to choose whom they wished to marry. (I write this history mainly of the propertied and middle classes; marriage among the poor was long irregular and often informal.) Over the 19th century, more young people became more independent, especially as jobs in the new industrial economy meant that they needn’t hang around the family farm anymore nor allow the prospect of inheriting the farm keep them under fathers’ control.

By the first half of the 20th century, “dating” was the way most young people got to know one another, checked out prospective spouses, and finally decided. There was some backtracking in the 1950s. Young people went “steady” in high school while still living at home and they married, on average, at age 20. But that was a brief interlude.

The 1960s brought a return to later marriage and new mores. People dated longer and premarital sexual experience became increasingly accepted as part of early adulthood. In the last thirty or so years, cohabitation has become a normal part of moving to marriage. Once, “living together in sin” had been unusual and shameful, but now most American couples who marry have lived together — in full view of their families — before walking down the aisle.

So, Americans have experienced a number of profound changes in the how they met and mated. Now, another major development.

The new story

Sociologists Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas report, in the most recent American Sociological Review, the results of a large, representative survey conducted in 2009 of about 4,000 English-speaking Americans, roughly 3,000 of whom were married or had a romantic partner. The key question the researchers asked the respondents was to describe how they had met their current partners.

The more recent those initial meetings, the lower the percentage of respondents who had met through their families or in elementary or high school. Such sources of mates dropped from being highly important in the 1940s and 1950s to being relatively uncommon in the 2000s. Instead, Americans increasingly met through common friends. About 20% of heterosexual couples in the 1940s met through friends, but about 40% of couples who met around 1990 did. These trends are consistent with the historical story I just told.

Then comes the Internet. Respondents who had met their partners in the 1990s almost never said that they had met on the Internet, but over 20% of heterosexual couples who met in the late 2000s had done so via the web, almost as many as had met through friends. (The authors point out that these are initial, unmediated contacts online; having a friend provide an e-mail address counted as meeting through a friend.) Today, about as many heterosexual couples meet via the Internet as meet through friends.

Met online (source)

Further details are striking: Homosexuals (who were over-sampled in the survey) reported meeting their current partners on the web more half the time — if they had met in the late 2000s. Middle-aged heterosexuals were also highly likely to have met their partners over the Internet. Both these findings underline the point that Internet meeting is especially important for those people who face a “thin market” of potential partners.

In contrast, young heterosexuals, however tech-savvy they may be, are not especially likely to meet by Internet, because they have many potential partners and other ways to meet them. Finally, other things being equal, those in the study who had Internet connections at home were more likely to be paired up in 2009 than were respondents who did not have web access.

(There are a few technical issues in this study, but the results are, in statistical lingo, “robust.”)

This is another dramatic twist in the history of American courtship. Still, a couple of features seem relatively constant. One is the general trend that Americans’ choices keep widening — from a circumscribed set of local people sifted by parents to, effectively, almost a world of free choice. The other constant is the insistent search for life partners, usually to be sanctified by marriage. Rosenfeld and Thomas project that, as Internet access expands among the elderly, there will be more meeting and more mating across the whole life course.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.