London: Anna Wilkinson has been married for seven years, has two young children, and is delighted with her lot. “I was 33, had just broken up with my boyfriend and was beginning to think I’d never have a family. I’d always been attracted to mavericks, men who — after a year or so — made it clear they had no intention of settling down.
“Although I felt a bit of a loser, I joined an online dating agency. I filled in forms about my interests, opinions and personal goals, which was having a family, something I’d been too frightened to mention to my exes for fear of scaring them off.
“One in five relationships in the UK now starts online, and almost half of all British singles have searched for love on the net.” Tweet this
“But the men I was introduced to were told what I wanted and shared those dreams. All the game-playing was skipped. It was only a matter of finding someone I also found physically attractive, and that was Mark, the third man I met.”
Wilkinson is far from alone. One in five relationships in the UK now starts online, according to recent surveys, and almost half of all British singles have searched for love on the net. Today, nine million Britons will log on looking for love. The result is that love is now big business, worth an annual $4 billion internationally and growing by 70 per cent a year. Can something as nebulous as everlasting love really be found via a computer chip?
Yes, according to psychologists at Chicago University, who last week reported that marriages that begin online stand a greater chance of success than those that begin in the “real world”.
Researchers interviewed 20,000 people who had married between 2005 and 2012. Just over a third had met their spouse online — and their marriages were 25 per cent more likely to last than those of couples who’d met in a bar, at work, or via family and friends.
Professor John Cacioppo, who led the study, said the sheer number of potential partners online could be a reason for the results. There was also the fact that dating sites were more likely to “attract people who are serious about getting married”. Paula Hall, a counsellor for Relate, agrees that the main advantage of online dating is that couples are more likely to share the same agenda.
“Any relationship that forms is more likely to be based on a shared value system, the same interests, as opposed to a relationship based on chemistry alone.”
Spoilt for choice
The cheapest sites offer a smorgasbord for customers to browse, with thousands of men and women claiming a GSOH and posting out-of-date photos. But other sites, which can cost up to £3,000 a year, offer a bespoke selection of potential partners to share their love of sushi, dachshunds or The Apprentice. There are dedicated websites for every religion, for the unhappily married, for the beautiful, the overweight, not to mention Telegraph readers (dating.telegraph.co.uk).
Many companies go further. Using slogans such as “love is no coincidence”, they test your saliva in order to make the best DNA match, claiming that these couples are more likely to have enduring relationships, satisfying sex lives and higher fertility rates.
Others employ dozens of scientists to create sophisticated algorithms to match customers with similar personality traits, ignoring the adage “opposites attract”. But do such sites really have a scientific basis?
“One suspects a lot of their claims are hype,” says Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University. “Do they really know what the criteria are that make a successful long-term relationship, when it’s not something even scientists know that much about?
These algorithms can probably pick up some key things, but you can’t predict what life is going to throw at a relationship. One of the biggest predictors of getting divorced is being made redundant, and no one knows if that is going to happen.”
He adds: “I’d hazard that your chances of finding love through one of these sites is probably about 10 to 15 percentage points greater than through traditional means.” Still, for all the claims of success, some experts warn that online dating is making monogamy more, rather than less, elusive. “I’ve found a tendency for the ‘grass is greener’ mentality to set in, where the person they’ve set their sights on seems great until they decide to check out ‘just a few more profiles’,” warns relationship expert Dr Pam Spurr.
“Some people spend hours on sites, convinced they’ll find the perfect person. No one is perfect, so this is futile.
“A secondary problem is feeling that you don’t match up to your competition — the longer you spend on sites, the more you realise you’re up against vast numbers of singles.
“Many singles I’ve met report starting out fairly confidently but then feel they’re not good enough.” Lucy Wilkinson has only one regret about her online dating adventures. “I wish I’d signed up years earlier, then Mark and I might have met sooner. Nobody’s perfect, but for me, he’s as close as it comes.”
—The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2013