Falling in love with a fantasy — why online dating is so seductive
There was a time when looking for romance on the Internet was considered weird, geeky or the sure sign of a loser. No more.
Match.com, an online dating service founded in 1995, now boasts 24 international sites and millions of members. A survey the company commissioned in 2010 says that 17% of couples who married in the prior three years met online. Meeting people on the Internet has moved mainstream.
Why not? Browsing a site such as Match.com is like browsing a catalog of potential love interests. Online dating is faster, cheaper and more efficient than going out night after night, hoping Mr. or Ms. Wonderful will cross your path. And it’s fun.
What you should know about online dating
Still, online dating has its risks. Dr. Esther Gwinnell, a psychiatrist who practices in Portland, Oregon, described the pitfalls in her book, Online Seductions. * Some of the following information is drawn from her book.
It’s easy to be intimate
Because communicating via e-mail or the web is anonymous, it creates a sense of safety, Gwinnell says. Like at a masked ball, people can act in ways that they normally wouldn’t. This doesn’t mean that every e-mail is filled with sexual innuendo, although there’s plenty of that. But the anonymity of the Internet, Gwinnell says, “breaks down ordinary barriers to intimacy.”
In short, you feel like you can spill your guts in e-mails to a stranger.
Emotions, fears and dreams—you may express feelings to your e-buddy that you’re afraid to share with your family, spouse or real-world friends. “Emotional closeness and sharing of even negative emotions is one of the hallmarks of computer relationships,” Gwinnell says. “Most individuals involved in these relationships have a closeness and connectedness with their correspondent that is painfully missing from ordinary life.”
Although intimacy is usually slow to develop in face-to-face relationships, Gwinell says, it’s often the first component of an online dating relationship.
Writing is therapeutic
Writing your deepest thoughts to your e-buddy is like writing in a diary. The process of putting your feelings into words deepens introspection and increases self-awareness, Gwinnell says. It’s like therapy—without the therapist fees.
“The simple act of writing allows for greater self-exploration,” Gwinnell says, “while presenting yourself in the best possible light increases the likelihood that you will experience your e-mail relationship as positive by comparison with other relationships.”
Gwinnell points out that, unlike a real-world relationship, e-mail is not intrusive. Someone who is part of your physical world demands attention, either by being together or talking on the phone. An e-mail relationship, however, happens at your convenience. You check your e-mail when you want and reply when you want.
Rather than intruding, e-mail communication gives you a sense of control, Gwinnell says. This non-intrusiveness, she continues, is a powerful attraction to the relationship itself.
When you meet people in the real world, you notice their height, weight, grooming, voice, mannerisms—and immediately form conclusions about them. All of this information is missing in e-mail correspondence. You can’t see, smell or touch the person. You don’t even really know if you’re communicating with a man or a woman.
So what do you do? You imagine the person is what you want him or her to be.
“With computer love, you can imagine anything you want about the other person’s feelings,” Gwinnell says. “You can believe that the other person completely understands you and that you are sharing an emotional experience such as you have never had before.
“Because you have none of the usual cues to bring you back to reality,” she continues, “you may begin to attribute important qualities to the person, especially idealistic and romantic qualities.”
Gwinnell points out the most significant difference between Internet and real-world relationships: On the computer, sexual attraction is based only on fantasy.
When two people are writing back and forth to each other, Gwinnell says, they usually assume that the other is being honest.
Unfortunately, this is not always true—and deception is easy on the Internet.
Someone who claims to be single is actually married. Someone who claims to have an entertainment background really just watches a lot of movies. How would you know?
You may finally meet someone you’ve been communicating with by e-mail, and find him or her not to be what you expected. Maybe the other person didn’t lie, he or she just didn’t tell the whole truth. You’re disappointed, but no real harm is done.
There are, however, predators on the Internet. These people thoroughly understand the blind spots and opportunities of computer relationships, and use them to take advantage of others.
They engage in multiple relationships simultaneously—fishing for someone who will give them what they want, which is usually sex or money. They play the part of the smitten suitor just to make a score. They often succeed—sometimes with tragic consequences for the victim.
The Internet has become a normal channel for meeting people, like going to a club, a bookstore or a company party. But the lack of physical presence creates a vacuum which is often filled by your own imagination. Be aware, and be cautious, about the pitfalls of online dating.