Online dating, finding love in all the site places

BY MARIANNE MCDONOUGH

America in the Fast Lane

When the information highway intersected the 20th century, American culture shifted into a fast lane with no speed limits, roadmaps, or foreseeable exits. No one, not even the inventors, could have imagined the social revolution that accelerated into the next millennium.

In 2012, a digital-savvy populace navigates more than 1,000 dating sites as well as a myriad of smart phone dating apps, such as “Picksie,” a GPS-based link for nearby date spots, and “Date Escape,” a fake call and message application that can be self-triggered for a fast exit. There are even dating sites that provide virtual dating experiences, such as lunch at a French café. Others arrange short webcam interviews for their matches, and online ghostwriters have a whole new clientele who need help building membership profiles.

As technology transitions into the role of matchmaking, critics decry the lack of regulation and the danger of sexual predators, e-mail fraud, and fake profiles disguising true marital status, as well as marketing ploys or prostitution. In response, various online services conduct background and marital status checks, and two states, New York and New Jersey, have Internet dating sites legislation. Currently, similar bills are being considered in Michigan, California, Florida, Ohio, and Texas. In March, 2011, True.com sued a convicted felon and sex offender for misrepresenting himself and attempting to gain access to True’s members.

So, is online dating a positive tool in a busy world? Or is it a social nightmare fraught with danger? And how, especially, is it working for women?

A “Mixed Bag”

Licensed psychologist Linda Lehmann, from Lakeville-based Inner Light Counseling Services, says that online dating is a “mixed bag.” She advises people to “go into it with their eyes wide open and realize that a dating site is really a microcosm of a larger world. What that means is that there are some people just like you who are interested in trying to meet someone, and others who are not. There’s a whole range of people, and you need to understand what you’re entering into.”

On the positive side, from personal experience, Lehmann met her husband online. Widowed in her first marriage, and later divorced, she said, “I’ll never get married again. I’m done.” But then she decided to try it out. “I distinctly remember sitting there the day I went online, yelling at the computer, ‘I don’t want to do this!’ I had no confidence in my ability to meet anyone, so I joined for a whole year, figuring that’s what it would take. Four hours later my now husband e-mailed me. Amazingly, he had been on there for three years but had been very unsatisfied, and this was his last day of membership.” They met in 2001 and married in 2004.

Lehmann acknowledges that it doesn’t always work that well, but she tells clients, “This is the world we live in now, and a lot of people are meeting online.” If you want to be successful, she suggests careful forethought and preparation:

Some experts view online dating with measured caution. In Psychology Today (online), Key Sun, PhD, writes that online dating is a “poor way to find love.” He believes that people exaggerate desirable traits in their profiles and that matching mechanisms, especially category-based selection processes, lack “the basic ingredients for developing real love.” The end result, according to Sun, is an “artificial contact” that fails to produce “meaningful interpersonal interactions.” Online dating, he says, has two major weaknesses. It lacks face-to-face interaction and doesn’t help people heal their emotional baggage and past hurts.

Therapeutic Life Coach and Co-director of Inner Light Counseling Services, Sandy Thibault, agrees that people need to re-examine and learn from past relationships. She says that dating in general “boils down to the basics—what do I need and what is it that I have to offer?” One of the pitfalls for women in particular, she says, is the need to belong. “We tend to let fear guide our thinking, fear of never finding anybody. There’s a whole list of unworthiness items that we carry around with us. And that’s how we end up in relationships that don’t work very well, because our need to belong is greater than what we really need in a relationship.”

How would Thibault coach someone to prepare for online dating? She suggests that people first make a list of the things they want, prioritize them, and not “underestimate the power of possibility. You really can have what you want. Let go of preconceived ideas.” While filling out the profile, she recommends being as honest as possible. “If you fluff it up a bit, you’re only going to find out later that the match isn’t right.”

• Take time everyday to be quiet. Disconnect with other things so you can connect with yourself.

• Stick to your priorities, no matter what.

• Always trust your gut. Even though the person in front of you looks like the most attractive person in the world, if your gut says, “something’s wrong,” pay attention.

Red Flags and Common Sense

Are there horror stories? Red flags? To answer that question, we asked Lakeville police officer and crime prevention expert, Jessica Swaner, to weigh in on online dating. To her knowledge, there have not been online dating incidents reported in Lakeville. She agrees with Thibault, saying, “Trust your instincts. If you meet somebody who is doing or saying inappropriate things you wouldn’t expect your family or friends or anybody you respect to say or do, or even if he’s just making you uncomfortable and you don’t know why, it’s probably a sign that something’s off.”

She says women should approach online meetings, and dating in general, with common sense. For example, don’t meet in a secluded place. Instead, select a familiar public place, preferably somewhere you feel comfortable and safe. Then, if you have an issue, it will be easier to handle.

Regarding alcohol intake, Swayner warns, “People get wrapped up in having a good time, having another drink, and then find themselves in situations where they might do things they wouldn’t normally do.” It’s also a good idea, she says, to keep an eye on your drink. Don’t leave it unattended. “I think there are more people who are good decent people than there are bad, but you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.”

If there’s some way to see your date’s identification, Swaner thinks it would be good to verify that he has given you his real name. Once you have that information, Swaner suggests you go online to the Bureau for Criminal Apprehension and access the link displaying criminal records. Although you may find only a portion of somebody’s history, at least you will see whether or not there’s a criminal record.

It’s possible, Swaner says, for people “to get misguided on the Internet, especially if they’ve corresponded with someone for a month or two. They can get a false sense of security, let their guard down, and end up sharing and doing things they wouldn’t normally do with a stranger.”

As for positive signs about a date, Swaner recommends assessing his level of family and community involvement. “If somebody talks about his friends and family, it’s a good sign that he has people involved in his life.” Volunteering, coaching kids’ teams, and career satisfaction indicate an overall stable and balanced lifestyle.

Intimacy in “41 Characters or Less”

Wedding specialist, Kari Warwick, of Bliss Wedding and Event Planning in Lakeville, says that online dating is not as unusual now as it was just a couple of years ago. Although few in number, Warwick says the online couples she has advised found their mates rather quickly and didn’t have to date a lot of others first. She doesn’t cite that as a trend, but it’s possible, she suggests, that the profile process helps “weed out those who wouldn’t be a good fit for you.” The biggest change she notes is that perceptions toward online dating seem to be more accepting and positive than in the past.

Mary Kay Bungert, Director of Marriage Formation at All Saints Catholic Church in Lakeville, has worked with engaged couples for 12 years. She says that social media have changed the definition of what constitutes a conversation. People today routinely converse digitally, and, although there are many positive aspects to that, as in the case of military couples, she is concerned about potential negatives. “Couples have a sense of instant communication and a 24/7 accessibility that they see as increasing their connection with each other, but challenges come with that.” One inherent difficulty is that people pass on information without expecting a response. They also communicate their feelings via their choice of media as opposed to face-to-face interaction with physical contact and shared affection. One of Bungert’s mentor couples jokes that they’re looking for intimacy, but they want to do it in “41 characters or less.”

Bungert uses an inventory for couples to assess 13-15 key areas of marital issues such as money, conflict, and family of origin. She says, “What we don’t know about the Internet is how good a job it does of sorting. Whether you’re alike or different doesn’t drive the success of your marriage. What matters is how well you’ve figured out your similarities and differences, the key areas of married life, and if you have the ability to sustain a relationship with somebody.”

Other online relationship concerns, according to Bungert, involve definitions of infidelity and the accessibility of pornography. For example, when people connect with former lovers online or engage in chat rooms, what’s allowed and at what point does emotional infidelity occur? The moral lines are blurred, she says, and “we don’t know the answers yet or the impact on long-term relationships.” Similar questions apply to pornography.

Whether online or at church, in a bar, or a political campaign group, Bungert says that how people meet may not be as important as how they proceed afterward and “prepare for the grace and challenges of the relationship.” It’s important to “choose a mode for meeting people that matches your personality.” She concludes, “Ultimately, it all comes down to knowing your values and understanding the significance of your faith and spirituality in the development of your relationships.”

Tips for Daters

According to Online Dating Magazine, the key to success is to avoid a shopping list mentality. Instead of focusing on categories, examine what the person writes about himself and remember, in the final analysis, true love occurs between two people interacting face to face. The magazine also suggests moving on “fairly quickly” to the first date to avoid building false relationships with a “persona.” Take advantage of chat features, online speed dating, or webcam sessions for interactive, getting-acquainted venues. In any case, be realistic, and don’t worry about rejection. Statistics show that one in twenty inquiries result in a genuine response, and lack of response can occur for a number of reasons, including outdated profiles, lapsed memberships, or loss of interest in the site.

Interestingly enough, online dating remains controversial with enthusiastic proponents and critics. The reality is that social media applications continue to explode at a phenomenal rate, limiting reliable current data. Researchers are responding, but in the meantime, people worldwide meet and relate online in exponential numbers, and conventional wisdom hasn’t had time to assess the process.

Will long-term benefits be worth the risks? What will relationships look like in ten, twenty, thirty years and beyond? In the future, will chance meetings be as archaic as library card catalogues? Most experts agree it’s too early to know.

But love in the 21st century could be quite a ride.

Marianne McDonough is a freelance writer and contributor to Focus Magazine.