Love, internet style

"Love, internet style" Continued...

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

But is the positive buzz surrounding web-based romance based on good results or good advertising? For every story like Rob and Kathy Rodarme's, there seems to be one like the young minister who asked that his name not be used in this article.

"J" is music pastor to a large congregation in a major metropolitan area. Unmarried in his early 30s, he decided to give dating sites a try. He opened accounts at both eHarmony and Match.com, taking the personality questionnaires associated with each. After dating matches from both sites, he believed he found love with a woman he met on eHarmony. Within six months, the two married. Within a year, they were divorced, even though, J says, he did everything in his power to prevent the split.

The biggest problem, from his point of view, was that his wife was nothing like the person she presented online, though it took him till after the wedding to realize this. He believed based on the website matching them up and their early correspondence that she was a family-oriented single mom looking for a quiet, settled life. Instead, a few weeks after the wedding he says he discovered he'd married a party girl who often left her 5-year-old daughter in his care to hit the club scene.

J doesn't think his ex-wife intentionally lied, but he does think she answered the questions and crafted her profile with a mind to who she thought she should be-that is, an idealized version of herself-rather than who she actually was. He says he knew his wife had no intention of working on the marriage when he booked a romantic cruise vacation as a last-ditch effort to preserve their union, and she spent most of the evenings dancing and drinking with the single people at the onboard disco rather than with him.

Of course, couples who met via the older routes have horror stories as well, but there is at least some evidence that experiences like J's may be as endemic to internet relationships as the highly-touted, fairy-tale endings in the commercials.

There aren't yet any statistics on the divorce rate among internet-forged marriages, but there is some research that demonstrates that couples who meet online behave somewhat differently than those who meet via more road-tested routes. For one thing, those who meet online tend to rush down the aisle much faster. A 2010 study conducted by sociologists at Iowa State University found that internet couples go from meeting to matrimony in less than half the time of those who meet via more traditional methods.

J believes it was the promise of a scientifically approved partner that caused him to marry more quickly than he otherwise would have. "It's like I didn't think I needed to take the time to get to know her better and make sure we were a good match because this super-detailed test already told me we were." When sparks flew during their first few meetings, he wasn't worried about going too fast; he felt the toughest part of starting a relationship-making sure the person is a good fit-had already been done for him.

Then there's research that suggests dating site customers are far pickier about who they're willing to date, typically meeting less than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they examine. Dr. Eli Finkel, a psychologist with Northwestern University's Relationships Lab, says dating site users tend to be overly specific in the kind of person they're looking for, leading them to miss out on potentially good partners in favor of those who meet a superficial list of requirements. Details like height, hair color, and profession that may not be a big deal to two people who meet by chance often become the basis of rejection.

Kathy Rodarme admits she almost fell victim to such bias. "When I saw Rob was a cop, at first I decided not to respond to him because I'd heard they take their stress home and can be difficult to be in relationships with." It was only the encouragement of the same friend who convinced her to join the site that changed her mind. And it turned out the rumors she'd heard about police officers didn't apply to her husband.

Though Rodarme is thrilled with the match she ultimately found, she also says that the personality profile wasn't especially perceptive. "I don't think it delves that deep. It connects you on enough of the basic things-like being of the same faith, having the same values-that it at least makes the introductions worthwhile. After that, you probably either just click or you don't." And it must be noted that what she describes is hardly more insightful or scientific than the way friends approach setting each other up. And that, say critics, is the problem with paid dating sites: They sell a product that is impossible to deliver.


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