If The New York Times is America’s newspaper of record, then the Vows column is kind of like an official record for America’s love stories.
Nestled within the paper's Weddings and Celebrations section, the column represents the pinnacle of wedding announcement glory. While every column's story begins differently, as all romances do, they all end the same—in a lovely wedding, dignified by a New York Times reporter.
With this in mind, I was curious—how has the rise of online dating been reflected in the column? And what could it tell us about dating today? After searching the column's 813 article archive, here's what I found:
- Twenty-eight couples who met online have been featured in New York Times Vows columns
- All 28 couples are heterosexual
- Half of those couples met on Match
- Two of those couples met on Tinder
- The average age at time of wedding for all couples was 58(!)
- The average age at time of wedding is 53.5 for women and 60 for men
Before we delve into these numbers, let's take a step back.
The New York Times weddings section—in which Vows columns run—has always served as “an unofficial cultural index” for the latest trends in weddings, romance, and love. For example, when the Times decided to start including gay couples in the announcements section in 2002, the decision merited a write-up in The New Yorker—the newspaper’s shift from strict heterosexuality felt monumental, perhaps indicative of bigger change to come.
And yet, while it’s meant to represent a fair cross-section of romance in America, the section is oft-critiqued for selecting couples from a very limited scope of American society—High Society. Vows, however, sets out to be different, more representative.
“The Times had been reporting on marriages since its original issue in 1851,” wrote Bob Woletz, the Times Society editor, on the event of Vows’ 20th anniversary in 2012. “But the idea behind [the Vows] column was simple: change the focus from family lineage or Junior League membership to the back story, exploring first meetings, courtships and modern dating.”
Over the course of the past 23 years, "modern dating" has taken many forms. In that same piece, Woletz writes about the '90s trend of women keeping their maiden names, and the measures taken during that decade to hide premarital cohabitation. And then, sometime around the turn of the new millennium, Vows started seeing what was then a new trend in romance: online dating.
Lois Smith Brady, the longtime lead reporter for the Vows column, recalled the emergence of online dating in Vows column couples in her own 20th anniversary piece. “A few years in, when I heard about a couple who met online, I wasn’t sure I should cover their wedding,” she wrote. “It seemed so risky and dangerous. What if other people followed?”
Of course, other people did follow. Today, it’s pretty ordinary to attend the wedding of a couple who met through a dating site. And just as online dating is no longer taboo around the country, it's also no longer taboo in the Vows column—to the point that, as Woletz writes, “the number of people being introduced online was so large, it rarely warranted more than a brief mention."
As with any good love story, though, the romance is in the details. After conducting my search, which spans Vows' entire 23-year history, I found a total of 28 couples who met online, through eight different online services. All 28 couples are heterosexual, most are comprised of people in their late 40s through early 60s, and about half are on their second or third marriages.
The average age of a woman who met her husband online in the Vows archive was 53.5—about 30 years older than the national average marrying age. The average age for the husbands was even older, at 60.
As for the dating service breakdown, Match.com—a paid membership dating site that's been around since 1995—is mentioned the most, at 14 couples. JDate—a paid membership dating site for Jewish singles that launched in 1997—came in second, at six couples. But JDate does win in one category—it was, as far as I can tell, the first online dating service mentioned in Vows. The first JDate couple in the Vows column met in 2000 and were profiled and wed almost 11 years later, in 2011.
Tinder had its Vows debut this year, in January, and will likely see more mentions as the Tinder userbase matures into marrying age, and Tinder evolves into a more serious way to meet a longterm companion. Right now, the app has a hard time shaking its reputation as a hookup app (and probably for good reason), thought the two couples profiled in Vows might beg to differ.
The older age of the couples seems counterintuitive at first—isn't it young, hapless 20-somethings who flock to Tinder for companionship? But considering what we know about Vows, and how older adults date, it makes sense.
The Vows column lives in the Sunday Times' Style section, after all—the same place where you'll find photographs of rich socialites at fancy benefits. Appearing in the section might be thrilling for people who subscribe to the Times or grew up drooling over wedding announcements during Sunday brunch, but it's more a novelty now than a marker of status. The once-glimmering hope of the Times announcement may be losing some of its luster among younger generations who may instead aspire to coin clever wedding hashtags or appear in a wedding flash mob video.
The age group also aligns with what we know about about the crowd who most commonly uses online dating seriously. Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor in the Stanford sociology department, explored the ways couples meet today in a 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review. Rosenfeld and his study partner, Reuben J. Thomas from CUNY, found that internet-facilitated dating is especially useful for single adults in "thin dating markets."
Basically, the internet, and the highly specified search ability it offers, gives people who find dating especially difficult—like people who don't have access to a hormonal college community—new ways of meeting partners. These people tend to be slightly older, they're likely divorced or widowed, and they're often looking for love.
So what should we make of these numbers? Even though Vows doesn't shy away from online couples, 28 mentions in an archive of 813 love stories feels small. Of course, it's possible that more than 28 couples met online, and this aspect of their story just wasn't mentioned in their Vows profile. In the end, the column is about great stories—like the couple who met when a woman followed a man off the C train in New York City. There's usually a bit more serendipity involved than "we both swiped right."
Yet as more and more niche apps enter the market—apps like Wingman, which hooks users up with singles on their flight, and SINGLDOUT, which uses DNA and genetic chemistry to make matches—perhaps online services will get a boost.
The more specific the app, the more serendipitous it seems for two people to have been on the same one, at the same time—almost like sharing a car on an uptown-bound C train, and feeling compelled to follow someone off.
Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.