Summer McWilliams and Anne Barrett from Florida State University (Tallahassee, Fla., U.S.A.) asked 18 adults, aged 53 to 74, to explain why they became involved in online dating and what dating experiences they had had as a result of online searches. Additionally, the authors interviewed two romance coaches who specialized in working with online daters.
The study found that five things shape the search for love online:
- legacy of past relationships
- limited dating options
- aspirations for intimacy
- images of ideal partner, and
- the desire to project a youthful persona.
The findings appeared online in the Journal of Family Issues on Dec. 11, 2012.
1. Past relationships
Researchers found the legacy of past relationships, whether through death or divorce, played a key role in how participants approached dating.
The experience of rejection meant that some individuals carried added "baggage" from divorce. For example, one widow dating a divorcé found him skeptical of their relationship because of his previous experience.
Both men and women experience a transition period after a divorce or the death of a spouse.
The study found the transition period for women was about four years. Moreover, widows occasionally had to delay dealing with their own feelings because of family obligations like caring for children or aging parents.
For men, the transition period was less than two years.
Divorced women also took longer to get back into the dating pool. "The first year I did not date at all, not a cup of coffee, nothing," said one 57-year-old divorcée. "I just wanted to get used to being alone, and I just wasn’t interested."
Men, on the other hand, were ready to date relatively soon after the loss of a partner. As Matthew, a 57-year-old widower explained: "After about six months I finally got over the grief and the pain and taking the medication, then I started thinking, ‘What’s my option?’ "
2. Dating options
Participants found it difficult to meet new people, especially in customary meeting places, such as bars.
According to the study, men viewed online dating as an efficient and quick way to enter the dating world. They also moved quickly to meet women in person.
As one 61-year-old participant put it:
When I see photos I like, and we exchange a couple of e-mails, and we have similar interests like running, dancing and traveling, and I can tell one phone conversation I like her voice, she likes mine – why waste any time? Let’s meet!
On the other hand, women viewed posting a profile online, as a way to explore their potential interest in new partners at a comfortable pace.
3. Aspirations for intimacy
Researchers found women were looking for intimacy and companionship. Few were interested in marriage.
In fact, one 71-year-old woman said she enjoyed her relationship with a man she met online because she did not have to live with him seven days a week.
In contrast, the study found men favoured marriage. They sought new partners for emotional support and companionship as well as assistance with household chores.
Barbara, a romance coach, confirmed that sentiment: "Men who’ve been married, whether they’re widowed or divorced, tend to like been married, and they tend to move toward getting married again real quick."
4. Ideal partner
Both men and women sought partners either their own age or younger.
For men, the ability to attract a youthful-looking and beautiful woman signaled masculine success. "I mean, looks count," John said.
Women targeted younger partners but for different reasons. They were looking for men with active lifestyles as an insurance against care giving.
In addition, women viewed intelligence and communication as important characteristics in prospective partners. And, they screened online dating profiles and e-mails for evidence of these skills. As Kathleen remarked, "I like to talk about books and films and art, and if they can’t write, it’s hard for them to express themselves."
5. Youthful personae
The study found both genders attempted to convey youthful images of themselves in their online profiles and e-mail exchanges.
For some participants, this meant adjusting birth dates on their profiles to increase their appeal. For example, Mary, 67, received few replies when she listed her correct age, but, when she knocked 10 years off her age, the number of responses jumped.
The researchers said most of the participants listed their true age, and developed profiles that matched their inner youthfulness.
Women created youthful images of themselves by stressing their physical attractiveness and sociability.
"My friends tell me that I have a lot of energy," one 67-year-old women wrote in her profile. "I am getting bored being alone and am looking for some fun in my life."
Similarly, Cindy, 53, wrote: "Most people think I was a cheerleader. I play a lot of tennis and try to stay fit. I’ve been told I have nice legs and pretty eyes, but that’s for you to decide!"
These women’s profiles included close-up photographs of their faces as well as full-body shots highlighting their attractive figures.
Men constructed youthful images of themselves by emphasizing occupational successes and financial stability.
Peter, 72, framed working past retirement age as an indication of his vitality. He wrote, "My work life compliments my busy personal life and gives me the purpose, energy, and vitality that helping others and goal setting brings."
Similarly, retired men highlighted past success at work. For example, James, 54, claimed, "I was at the top of my profession."
More importantly, the men touted retirement as an opportunity to pursue leisure interests, including travel.
Take Frank, for example. His profile featured pictures of his motorcycle and sports car, and read: "Summer time is Harley and Corvette time."