Where couples meet matters more than when

April 1, 2014 by H. Roger Segelken

That dependable conversation starter – "Tell us where the two of you first met" – can yield a surprising range of stories.

Researchers at Cornell and the University of Indianapolis heard 62 revealing, romantic, heartfelt accounts from working-class and middle-class couples they interviewed. And a few "cover stories" from those reluctant to tell how they really met.

"Our research provides tantalizing hints that diverging destinies may begin at point of meeting – and that locations where individuals meet romantic partners influence the composition and perceived extent of their network of support," wrote Cornell's Sharon Sassler and U of I's Amanda Jayne Miller in a recently published journal report.

Says Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell: "Perceptions of what others think are socially acceptable ways and places to meet have a lot to do with it. If you met at a bar or an online dating site, you might think peers and parents won't approve and be supportive of your relationship – and you might be right.

"Whereas, if you meet where there's a supportive social network," Sassler adds, citing the workplace, for example, or a college class, "you receive encouragement to continue and deepen the relationship – especially when friends or colleagues say: 'We knew you guys were right for each other.'"

Then there's "Jerry," a 27-year-old store manager who met "Natalie" in an online chat room. "We say we met at a party at Ohio State, which neither one of us went to, so it gets kind of confusing."

Confusing, indeed.

Except to the researchers, who were able to make sense of all the stories before writing their report, "The ecology of relationships: Meeting locations and cohabitors' relationship perceptions," published online in March 2014 at the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Study subjects were unmarried, , between 18 and 36 years of age, living together in and around Columbus, Ohio. Some had met through friends and family, like "Alisha," who recalled: "We would hang out, and I would talk to 'Jared' more than anybody else, regardless that my best friend told me that he was the guy I was going to end up marrying. I didn't listen."

Not quite Nora Ephron material (see sidebar) but couples who met while pursuing common interests had compelling stories. Like "Dawn," a working-class clerk who met her current cohabitant "like I meet all my boyfriends, playing basketball." Commented the researchers, "These respondents suggested that their shared interest provides insight into the kind of person their partners were."

Others had met at school or college, at work or at bars of various kinds, the researchers learned, reporting a kind of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) Effect: "The bars where the working class met were often described as 'dives,' whereas the high-end pubs where several of the college-educated couples met featured craft brews costing more than entire cases of cheap beer." Middle-class meeting venues, the researchers noted, "provide various filters – affiliation, affordability – that may signal a prospective partner's future prospects."

Among couples who met online, computer repairman "Artie" told friends and family he met "Brandi" in the workplace. "Artie's comments highlight the concern that others – especially family members – will not approve of a way of meeting devoid of social communal oversight," the researchers observed.

"Those who met through 'traditional' ways – via friends and/or – received more social support," Sassler notes. "Their relationships were, in essence, sanctioned to continue on. And more of these couples got engaged and were planning weddings (often with economic support from parents) than those who met in more anonymous settings, like via the Internet."

Paging Nora Ephron

Which of these how-we-met stories, from the Sassler-Miller "Ecology of Relationships" report, would you pitch for the next "Sleepless in Seattle"?

  • "Everyone was telling me how great Internet dating was, that it's easier to get rejected, 'cause you can just delete the email and go to whoever is next."
  • "I always said I never wanted to pick up a guy at a bar, but I kind of did."
  • "We have a very scandalous . She was actually the internship coordinator and my boss."
  • "He had a cute butt, and I said something to my mom, and she said something to my RA, and he introduced us later that night. And we just, from that night on, we never spent a day apart."

Too late, Sassler and Miller already have a film option on this one, in their words:

  • "Randy, a 35-year-old mechanic, met Ming when he came into the restaurant where she was a cashier, in search of hot soup to cure a bad cold. Because she seemed solicitous for his health, he came back when he felt better to ask her out."

Explore further: Meeting online leads to happier, more enduring marriages, study finds

More information: Sharon Sassler and Amanda Jayne Miller. "The ecology of relationships: Meeting locations and cohabitors' relationship perceptions." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 0265407514525886, first published on March 10, 2014 DOI: 10.1177/0265407514525886

Related Stories

Meeting online leads to happier, more enduring marriages, study finds

June 3, 2013
More than a third of marriages between 2005 and 2012 began online, according to new research at the University of Chicago, which also found that online couples have happier, longer marriages.

Recommended for you

Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

July 27, 2017
The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

Infants know what we like best, study finds

July 27, 2017
Behind the chubby cheeks and bright eyes of babies as young as 8 months lies the smoothly whirring mind of a social statistician, logging our every move and making odds on what a person is most likely to do next, suggests ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

Research aims to shape more precise treatments for depression in women

July 27, 2017
Among women in the United States, depression is at epidemic levels: Approximately 12 million women in the U.S. experience clinical depression each year, and more than 12 percent of women can expect to experience depression ...

Very preterm birth not associated with mood and anxiety disorders, new research finds

July 27, 2017
Do very-preterm or very-low-weight babies develop anxiety and mood disorders later in life? Julia Jaekel, assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Dieter Wolke, professor ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.