By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff writer
Friday, April 24, 2009
OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS, psychologist Gian Gonzaga has spent his days dissecting love as the lead researcher inside eHarmony Labs, the online dating service's think tank, where Gonzaga and his colleagues observe and analyze romantic relationships.
EHarmony operates on the theory that partners need to share certain key characteristics to better their chances of a successful long-term relationship. We caught up with Gonzaga to talk about that theory and what he has learned about love during his tenure at eHarmony.
Q So what are the core qualities partners should share if they want their love to last?
A The big ones -- some of the most powerful ones -- are personality traits. Things like how agreeable of a person you are, how open you are to experience. So do you inherently look for new experiences, or do you like to have the same thing day to day -- you like continuity in your life? Are you someone who kind of focuses on other people, or do you focus on self-interest? Are you extroverted? So are you looking for a lot of interactions in the social world? Or are you introverted?
And why does it matter so much that couples share these traits?
Because if you are similar to someone, it's a lot easier to understand what it is they're thinking. . . . They like to believe that what they think is true, and one of the ways that we do that is to look to other people who have the same interests and beliefs and values. So when we see that in a partner, we feel validated in our sense of self, which makes us feel better and makes us like that person. We've actually found in some of the studies we've been doing in the lab that people who are more similar to each other in their personalities are better able to discern their partner's emotional states.
What about the old adage "Opposites attract"?
The literature says that doesn't really hold up. We like to say that opposites attract but then they attack, that in the short haul you might be attracted to someone who's different from you because they're exciting or different. . . . But over the long haul if somebody's really radically different and they see the world in a different way it's going to be difficult to negotiate those things again and again and again.
Why do some people get rejected by eHarmony?
There are three primary reasons why we're not able to offer people service. We get kind of a remarkable number of people who are still married, which has always baffled me. Like every other service out there we think it would be highly unethical for us to match them. For a while we didn't offer the service to people under 20, and now it's under 18, so that's another big chunk of people. The last one -- and this is the one that becomes the most difficult one to explain to people -- there is a set of people out there who have a very complicated view of themselves. They will think of themselves as very situationally driven. Someone will say, "Well, I'm extroverted sometimes, and I'm introverted sometimes." And when they answer those questions inconsistently, it makes it very difficult for our system to say, "Okay, so who should we match you up with? Someone who's extroverted or someone who's introverted?"
You just launched Compatible Partners, which focuses on gay and lesbian relationships. Do the same requirements for shared characteristics apply?
We think so. The existing literature on same-sex couples indicates that a lot of the same theoretical basis of sharing the same deep values is going to predict better relationships over the long haul. So right now we're moving on the assumption that the same kinds of models are going to apply well, and then over time we'll work on that model to tailor it as best as possible.
Any surprises in your four years at the love lab?
In 2005 we found that there were 90 people a day who got married off of eHarmony. That was a great number; we were happy about it. And two years later, it turns out 236 people a day got married after meeting on the service, or like 44,000 couples a year. I just remember hearing that number the first time and thinking that can't possibly be right. We checked the numbers again and again and again. The idea that about 2 percent of all the marriages in the United States come out of our system? Really cool.