According to Pew Research, 15% of American adults report using online dating sites or mobile dating apps. Online dating has jumped among adults under age 25 as well as those in their late 50s and early 60s.

Sixty-six percent of online daters report that they have gone on a date with someone they met through a dating site or dating app.  That is a substantial increase from the 43% of online daters who had actually progressed to the date stage in 2005.Hand and Flowers Coming Through Laptop Screen

Given the increased interest and involvement in online dating, it is worth expanding our understanding of its dynamics and potential. Two questions posed by researchers offer important and unexpected findings.

To what extent does Computer Mediated Communication (emails, texts, etc), used in online dating, foster intimacy as compared to face-to-face communication?

Does this intimacy carry over to the face-to-face meeting with a potential partner?

Drawing upon the extensive research and meta-analysis compiled in Matthew D. Johnson’s interesting book, Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex and Marriage, there seems ample evidence that not only does computer mediated communication (emails, texts, etc.) foster intimacy, it actually surpasses face-to-face exchanges. How? Why?

How?

  • One study assigned opposite sex participants to one of the following exchanges: a face-to-face exchange; an online exchange with the addition of a webcam; and a text-only exchange. Surprisingly, the text-only couples made more statements of affection than either of the other groups.
  • In addition, in that same study, both the text-only couples and the online with a webcam couples made more intimate self-disclosures and asked more intimate questions than the couples speaking face-to face.
  • Apparently initiating a relationship on-line seems to invite a more intimate exchange and has some positive benefits.

Why?

 Finkel and colleagues (2012) who contribute to this understanding consider the online Computer mediated communication in terms of the virtual speaker and the virtual listener.

 The Virtual Speaker

  • Researchers report that people use different and more “Hyperpersonal” strategies when using online communication compared to face-to-face communication.
  • It  may be that eye-to-eye contact, which we know can enhance a sense of “ knowing and being known,” may be more intimidating on a first meeting than an email or text exchange.
  • Consistent with this, Finkel’s research suggests that it is easier to share and even be revealing online because the virtual speaker has more control over the message.
  • Consider how often people after a first date will say, “ I wish I had said…” or “Why did I have to say…?”.
  • When writing, a person has the time to think about what to say and the opportunity to choose the way to self-disclose.
  • Adding to this, when the virtual speaker lacks “cues” as to how their message is received, research suggests there is a tendency to fill the void, that visual or affective cues would fill, by making more self-disclosures, which ultimately increase the intimacy of the online exchange.

The Virtual Listener

  • In the case of most people meeting through on-line dating sites, there is the wish to find a potential match. This fuels positive attributions.
  • This means that if the virtual listener is doubtful or unclear about the meaning of the message received, there is a tendency to see it as positive or attribute a positive meaning to it. People want to believe this virtual speaker is a potential match.
  • It was even found that virtual listeners in on-line communication exchanges gave more weight to self-disclosures than actual listeners in face-to-face exchanges.

 Answers:

With these studies and more reported, it is concluded that a couple’s use of computer mediated communication like online emails or texts for online dating prior to face to face communication does enhance intimacy and can be beneficial.

 Does this attraction carry over to face-to-face exchanges? Yes

One of the few studies that examined this question found that when men and women were assigned to two possible situations, an on-line communication connection followed by a face-to-face meeting vs. two face-to-face meetings, more of those in the situation of first having on-line communication followed by face-to-face reported liking each other.

An important factor in this finding is timing.  The positive feelings from online to face-to-face meetings only carried over to face-to-face meetings when the couple met within three weeks of the on-line communication. It may be that the relationship needs to move fairly quickly from online to face-to face to validate and build on the positive feelings that have been generated.

Take Home Messages

These findings underscore the value of and even potential benefits of online dating as a preface to in-person meeting and dating. They invite more research and generate some take-home messages.

  • Enjoy your online exchanges; but move what feels like an attractive and positive on-line connection to an in-person meeting as soon as possible. If it is real, the intimacy will not only carry over, it will continue to build. You want a wonderful, real relationship not just a virtual one.
  • There is something about online exchanges, affirming texts, self-disclosures and positive attributions that fuels intimacy. Don’t lose that loving feeling. Fifteen years and three kids later that special, funny, sexy or appreciative text is likely to keep the intimacy going!

Want to hear the best advice on dating? Listen to Ken Page LCSW discuss Deeper Dating on Psych UP Live