Features

Love at first byte

Culture | Online dating gains a cultural foothold, and a Christian following

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

"Hi, I'm 350 pounds and 6' 8", but if you want to talk, you can write me back," Janis Carson wrote as a joke on an internet dating site. But Terry VanVeldhuizen, who had also posted an ad on OneandOnly.com for "a sweet Christian girl who's not afraid to go to church," e-mailed Janis back anyway. Eight months later, they wed.

The VanVeldhuizens are just two of the 40 million Americans who have explored the world of online dating-a world where (so the advertising says) "Mr. or Ms. Right" may be just a mouse click away.

Internet dating has grown into a billion-dollar industry, creating endless options for those looking for love in what they hope is the right place. Others looking for just a casual date can also sort through prospects by visiting sites that fit their preferences.

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For the politically driven, Conservativematch.com and Democraticsingles.com provide opportunities to meet like-minded suitors. Websites such as Christiansingles.com and Emuslimsingles.com enable seekers to find someone who shares their religious convictions. FitnessSingles.com aims at matching individuals based on athletic interests.

More recently, the craze has even hit network television and Hollywood. Hooking Up, one of ABC's reality TV shows, tracked the yearlong online romances of 11 women. And in Napoleon Dynamite, even Napoleon's nerdy brother Kip finds his "soul mate" in a chat room.

"Singles today have a difficult time meeting others because, so often, they have moved away from the communities in which they were raised or known," said Marylyn Warren, senior vice president of eHarmony.com. "Their families and friends who would normally be around to introduce them to potential dates live far away."

One example: Although Gina Imori lived over 1,000 miles from Darren Christensen, internet dating allowed them to meet. Mr. Christensen, a Colorado resident, had tried several internet dating sites but finally settled on eHarmony.com because of its "structured screening process." The couple gradually progressed from communicating through eHarmony to independent e-mails to phone calls. They finally met in person and were married a little over a month later. The Christensens, both 36, are now expecting their first child.

Amy Owens, who helps single adults in the Indianapolis area and is known professionally as "The Singles Coach," says there is "no one right way to meet that right person" but asserts that internet dating is a primary way singles meet each other today. Mrs. Owens says about 85 percent of her students have put a personal ad on an internet dating site, even though many people in their 50s and 60s see the process as sleazy.

Some pastors are pro-internet dating. Chad Langdon of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Mo., who has recently given marital counseling to a dozen couples who met through the internet, says such couples are easier to counsel than those who found each other in traditional ways: On the internet "people who are looking for a lifelong commitment can indicate that; I think people who go online are more intentional about it."

And yet, even those who have had the most positive experiences meeting someone online are the first to admit its dangers. Mr. Christensen said some internet dating sites "seemed shallow . . . focused on externals . . . they were all about your favorite color." Candice Watters, editor of Boundless.org, a webzine for Christian singles, says that online dating can encourage premature intimacy in conversations.

Online dating also enables people to lie about their marital status. Jupiter Research discovered that 12 percent of the 40 million online daters are already married. Websites like Datedetectives.com provide background checks, and eHarmony.com encourages its clients to create a separate, anonymous e-mail account to use for dating correspondence. Clients also should plan to meet online interests in a public place in the middle of the day, and to inform friends or family members of initial meetings.

Mr. Langdon has learned from those he counsels that individuals need to approach online dating with caution: "People who do it need to be safe, because you can get into trouble. Don't reveal too much."

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