Chat Your Way To Love
Instant messaging, e-mail and the World Wide Web, to name a few of the Internet's e-missive capabilities, have catapulted romance into the cyber realm. But finding that perfect soul mate online is as easy (and hard) as it is offline.
Love sparks between a college freshman in Chicago and her online friend of four years, who lives in New York City. A year later, and still several states apart, the relationship blossoms. Elsewhere in New York, a wife discovers six computer disks containing 3,000 pages of salacious chat exchanges between her husband and an unknown Australian woman. Less than a year later, the husband and wife divorce.
Indeed, for some the Internet is a high-tech Cupid, capable of matchmaking magic. For others the Net is a tangled Web of woe, where wandering eyes lead to love gone bad. But for all, cyberspace offers a relatively new outlet for actively pursuing, or just stumbling into, romance with all its fascinating rhythms and disastrous pitfalls. Exactly what works online is as difficult to put one’s finger on as what works offline, but cyberspace does lock into that ever-important part of love: fantasy.
Online dating services, which have taken off in the past couple of years, offer listings chock-full of potential mates searchable by location, interests, age, sex, sexual preference. And while it might take a lot of time to find someone compatible and worthy of dating, these Web sites turn personal ads into an interactive pursuit.
Leslie Valdes, a 35-year-old television writer in New York, found his girlfriend through match.com. He says he went looking for love online for pragmatic reasons.
"I was tired of meeting people who, while their personalities were compatible with mine, their interests were sometimes diametrically different," he says.
A $25 fee for a three-month subscription launched Valdes into the online dating game, in which he began communicating with women whose profiles appealed to his tastes. The resulting onslaught of e-mails was staggering.
"I actually communicated with about 15 to 25 women on match.com. I wrote about 150 e-mails back and forth and I met up with two of them," he says.
He really clicked with one of them, and he's been dating his online find for seven months now. Though it took him almost three months to find the right one, he says he's happy with the results.
"I got a very accurate picture of who [the women] were and what they were like simply by the way they wrote and what they wrote about," he says.
But AOL’s expert on romance, Dr. Kate Wachs, says that a potential downside to pursuing a relationship online is the sometimes irresistible temptation to create and interact with a fantasy.
“Every age has its secret pen pal,” says Dr. Kate, who’s also the author of Dr. Kate’s Love Secrets: Solving the Mysteries of the Love Cycle. “In the '50s, it was the decoder ring. Today it’s the Internet.”
It’s a medium she describes as pliable, powerful, cheap, intense, mysterious and, like most things, something that can be used for good or bad. Just as the telephone is an essential communication tool that can be used to make dirty phone calls, the Internet can be both a boon and bomb to relationships. It can be very effective at helping people meet a wide range of people they wouldn’t have otherwise met, but the bad end of it is that, among other things, “it is splitting up a lot of marriages,” says Dr. Kate.
The quasi-anonymous part of the online experience is something to be aware of when you're seeking or finding romance online, experts say. People playing up fantasies can simply be covering up deep-seated animosities. For instance, someone posing as a bisexual or homosexual, Dr. Kate says, could actually be “rednecks out there that might want to hurt you.” Likewise, there are also sexual predators pretending to be much younger in order to lure kids online.
Kristen, a 34-year-old bisexual artist from New York who didn’t want her real name used in this article, found AOL’s PlanetOut — an online watering hole for gays, lesbians and bisexuals — a welcome change from perusing personal ads, where she had met some people who had blatantly “lied through their teeth.”
She particularly liked PlanetOut for the profiles, which break down people’s interests into informative snapshots of likes and dislikes. She says while the e-mail part of meeting potential dates online can be difficult to gauge if someone is a good writer and can thus exaggerate well, it’s better than the voice-mailbox system of the personal scene.
“First you’re writing and it’s very exciting. You get an e-mail and then you move to the phone,” says Kristen. “It’s human nature — you’re creating a fantasy until the whole picture comes together.”
On the plus side, though, there is the potential for meeting a large group of like-minded folks, as Andrea Norstad did through the Usenet news group, which put her in contact with a lot of people she could relate to sometimes better than her schoolmates.
Norstad, 20, has been dating a man she met through the Net for roughly a year. She hadn’t gone online looking for or even expecting love — it just happened, after a long virtual friendship and unspoken courtship with a fellow Usenet user with whom she had struck up a conversation about Bosnia. For four years, their relationship grew into a solid friendship but it stayed a steady, platonic course, largely because both Norstad and her friend recognized there were some hefty real-life barriers. She was just entering high school, and he was a senior in college.
Norstad says a “firm grip of reality” in cyberspace made a successful pursuit of their romance possible.
“We knew we had an incomplete picture of who we were,” says Norstad. They agreed to “enjoy this friendship of words and when it moves into a different world, we’ll see where it goes from there.”
But along the way, despite their determined romantic sobriety, they recognized the feelings that were developing between them, and a subtextual fantasy began to play itself out. Something they referred to as the “perpetual meta” became a euphemism for the relationship that couldn’t be but that was very much desired. The mere mention or even concerted avoidance of the term during their electronic communications provided a fantastical component to the budding relationship — this thing that they wanted so badly but couldn’t touch — yet.
“Sometimes we would discuss the perpetual meta, but we would not really discuss it,” says Norstad. “One of the reasons [dating has been] positive was we never had a relationship before we met.”
Out of Touch?
But the real-world perspective that Norstad was able to bring to her online relationship — which has moved pretty much offline since they’ve been dating — eludes some who reach for the fantasy element more directly.
Kathy, a 36-year-old human resource professional in New York who didn't want her real name used in this article, says it was her ex-husband’s affair with fantasy that led to his affair with a woman halfway around the globe.
“He likes to be someone he’s not, but real life doesn’t work out that way,” says Kathy. “And real life started catching up with him.”
Her husband’s world first began crashing in on him when he lost his job because he was spending too much time online. Kathy didn’t know at first why her husband Mike (not his real name) had been fired, but a box sent to their home from the office provided a lot of clues — the biggest being the online chat disks. The files saved onto the six computer disks revealed an elaborate relationship of words and experiences her husband shared long-distance with a stranger online.
Kathy opened the files and read in black and white the extent of their relationship, which ranged from writing themselves into The Wizard of Oz, where clicking their heels would bring them together, to more prurient, out-and-out cybersex. In one exchange, the woman encouraged Kathy’s husband to cut a hole in his pants pockets so he could touch himself more easily at work.
“Prior to this happening to me I thought this only happened to people on Jerry Springer,” says Kathy, who describes some of the chat excerpts as “strange.” The two would sometimes use cryptic terms for shared experiences: “let’s go to our grassy place,” for instance, was code for smoking pot together while they instant-messaged each other from their separate continents. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm” was shorthand for moaning.
The Net allowed them to share real-time communications and virtual experiences; it also overcame brought them closer together in other ways. The two used Amazon.com to send books to each other, which they would read together and discuss online. Mike's online companion used another online service to send him a single rose every day. And, they used the old technology of the phone.
Kathy says her marriage prior to the online affair was not entirely happy, but she had no idea it was this rocky. And she heartily believes the virtual, fantastical nature of the adulterous relationship made it all happen.
“Not to say I would have stayed happily married, but I don’t think this would have happened without the computer. I think it was an outlet he was comfortable doing this on.”