Features and Occasionals

Love & Imagination: The Online Lovelife

By Lee Ann McConnell

It’s all about the story.

Five weeks ago, my 30-year-old son assured me that online dating was the only way I was going to meet someone new. I’ve been single for over a year. “Mom, even if someone out in public thinks you’re hot, he’s not going to approach you. For all he knows, you’re married. And even if he did approach you, you’d think he was a freak. And we all know what a shitstorm blind dates are.” So he and my daughter set me up with a profile on Match.com so I could “cruise” the site. So began my relationship with online dating.

My good friend Josh has been online dating for years. I turned to him with questions about this curious new community. His counsel was simple: “Nothing, and I mean nothing, can substitute for face time. Your only goal when you find someone you might be interested in is to meet them. You might read something and create a whole story about that guy, but until you meet him it is just a story. And your goal is not to have a first date. No. Your goal is to have a 20-minute coffee interview at a coffee shop with easy parking in the event you need a speedy getaway. It only takes a few minutes to suck down a coffee. You’re out very little.” He used the word “cutthroat.” I gulped.

I was unprepared for the two dozen emails in my box the next morning. My daughter had already enthusiastically started to comb through them so I’d not be overwhelmed. It’s good to have a personal assistant.

So I dutifully began to set up my coffee interviews. And it was just like Josh said. What you have imagined about someone is a very different animal than the person sitting across the table. The nice person in front of you may have everything going for them with a kind and loving heart, yet there’s no juice between you. It doesn’t matter if on paper someone has everything you think you require; without electricity or chemistry, this is not going to be a match. It is startling how quickly you can know. It can take less than three seconds. I see what Josh means by “cutthroat.”

I realized early on that this matching process has little to do with reality. As I cross-referenced people’s profiles, some themes began to manifest.

When participants tell about themselves in their bios and give a little information about what they’re looking for, the currents of their history and hopes for the future are unmistakable. One gentleman petitioned the women he hoped to attract by saying, “Help! I’ve been here a long time with no success and am getting off this site soon, but am still hopeful. We all know that this dating smorgasboard is a setup for failure; that no one takes any one date very seriously because they know they can always go back to the site and select a new entree.” I recently learned about a woman who has been on­line dating for five years. She has been on hundreds of dates. When asked about why she doesn’t like this guy or that guy, her responses are vague—Jerry Seinfeld “her hands were too big” responses. “I really liked this one guy, but he didn’t smell the way I imagined someone ought to smell.” The mere volume of men she has dated seems to have diluted the potential for a real-life experience.

How could a setup like this attract so many when results so often seem to result in disappointment? Not be­cause there aren’t solid, appealing people on the site. That’s not it at all.

It is because we humans are su­perb writers of fiction and because we are so good at believing our stories. Any date that has its origins in cyberspace is going to be loaded with fantasy.

I have made it my business to ask people about their online dating experiences, and this is what I usually hear: Online dating users begin to create a story about someone they have first contacted through a wink (a way to catch someone’s attention without actually having to communicate with them), through listing them as a favorite (another way to catch someone’s attention without actually having to communicate), and with the onset of emails. It is a lot like reading a novel. We form pictures and ideas about the characters. We flesh out and fill in the blanks of the initial, limited profile that catches our interest. Then come the text messages and phone calls, if you have graduated to that level of trust.

These preliminary stages can sometimes go on for weeks, perpetuating a mythical, but powerful, idea of who someone is.

I showed my daughter what I thought was a particularly sweet text from a man I had yet to meet. She just rolled her eyes and said, “Mom. It’s like watching reruns. Like Groundhog Day. None of this is real.

One wise man said to me in his first email, echoing Josh’s admonitions, “We can talk until the cows come home, but there’s no substitute for face time.” And more often than not, when dating partners finally do come face to face, there is a kind of confusion, with at least one party swallowing the unexpressed words, “But you’re not the person I wrote into my story; you have nothing to do with what’s inside my head!”

A single friend recently confided that some of his best dates consist of a nice text messaging exchange, usually with women he’s met only briefly and who live out of state. “I can just make it up, you know? I’m good at picturing who I want these women to be.” He admitted that the problem with this is that as loose as these connections are, they provide enough of a distraction to keep him from forging a real, up-close and personal connection.

Of course, meeting someone face-to-face doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves stop. Author and teacher Byron Katie points out a common practice: “I meet you. I tell myself a story about you and I turn myself on. I meet you, tell myself a story about you and turn myself off. What does any of that have to do with you?”

Here’s the thing. That gentleman who has had no luck at all with the dating smorgasbord but still has hope can’t help himself. None of us can. Because, like it or not, to be human is to hope. Hope, in appropriate measure, is what keeps us going. How many times have we seen a friend endure a really bad breakup, only to see them climb back into the saddle way before we ever thought possible, opening their heart all over again? We might shake our heads and mutter. Or we might let ourselves glimpse the wonder of the human spirit and the relentless pull in us that urges us forward, no matter the shambles we have found ourselves in, the seductions we have awakened from or the betrayals we have endured. Regardless of the questionable packaging, online dating is yet another magnet for the part of us that says “yes” to life’s offerings. 

Lee Ann McConnell, who has written for Catalyst before, recently returned to Salt Lake City after a four year stay in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.  She is a licensed clinical social worker.

This article was originally published on February 2, 2012.